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Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.


Bill Morrison
(American, born 1965)

2001. 35mm film (color, sound), 67 min.

Since he began making films in the 1990s, contemporary artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison has looked to the past for inspiration. Early in his career, he would make new film look old by distressing it with drain cleaner. Then he started salvaging actual decaying films from archives and piecing them together into experimental compositions in which he foregrounds the countless ways in which film shows the marks of age. As the nitro-cellulose base of much of the early film stock with which he works gradually decomposes, and as the fixing chemicals weaken, the images appear smeared, blotched, fuzzy, or otherwise distorted. Morrison capitalizes on these effects, finding them evocative, and has likened the disappearing images to memories, ghosts, or ciphers. “I became enamored of the way time could ravage film,” he has said.1

Music also fascinates the artist. “[It] was always something that really inspired me in cinema,” he has stated, “music can be your narrator and you don’t even need a plot, per se.”2 In Decasia—whose title is a merged reference to “decay” and “fantasia”—a symphonic score composed by Bang On A Can co-founder Michael Gordon gives structure, drama, and depth to ghostly images that seem to flow by like liquid. Morrison asked Gordon to develop a symphony that would evoke decay. As Gordon composed, Morrison showed him segments of the film he was simultaneously assembling from film stock in all states of decomposition that he culled from the Fox Movietone Newsfilm Library in South Carolina. This collaborative process ensured that the music would complement the images.

Decasia opens with footage of a whirling Sufi dancer and the sound of a metallic hiss, made by musicians scraping metal beaters (a standard percussion mallet) against rusted car brakes that Gordon picked up in a junkyard. This strange, rhythmic sound sets the tone for a score that he describes as “an equivalent to the look of decayed celluloid.”3 In addition to finding the sounds he was seeking in places far outside the realm of the performance hall, Gordon detuned the instruments of the orchestra with which he collaborated, the Basel Sinfonietta. He also directed the musicians to slide from one note to the next so that rather than being marked by crisp transitions, the music sounds blurred or smeared, like the images.

Bill Morrison, quoted in Kevin Crust, “Filmmaker Bill Morrison mines cinematic silver and narrative gold in the documentary ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time,’” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2017,
Bill Morrison, quoted in Kevin Crust, “Filmmaker Bill Morrison mines cinematic silver and narrative gold in the documentary ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time,’” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2017,
Michael Gordon, quoted in Decasia DVD notes.

A term describing moving-image artworks recorded onto magnetic tape or digital formats, or generated using other mechanisms such as image-processing tools, and available for immediate playback.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Film Too Shall Pass
Like most artistic mediums, film and videotape have a limited lifespan, and digital technologies become obsolete. Bill Morrison finds creative opportunity in decay, but other professionals in the field expend their creative energy on finding ways to preserve these ephemeral forms. The rate at which film and videotape degrade depends on factors ranging from the type of material used in their manufacture to how they are handled and stored. Though exact numbers are elusive, archivists and scholars estimate that at least half of the world’s pre-1950 film production has been irretrievably lost, including 80% of silent era films.