Sep 24, 2003 at 12:00 am

The image of a Japanese tea ceremony emerges through remains of a film and dissolves into boiling gray abstraction. As its title suggests, Decasia is about decay — or, more precisely, decaying pieces of film.

Decasia is an avant-garde film that boils away narrative, concrete images and even sound to create pure and often abstract art from the moving image onscreen.

Decay has weathered the film stock. At times its erosions create rough textures that obscure vision. Some images drown. Others decompose before our eyes, twisted and torn apart by cinematic parasites. Frames explode into negatives or find an altered, polarized state in-between. The humanity captured on the diseased celluloid clips are infected, blemished and inevitably succumb to kaleidoscopic dissolution.

The effect is intoxicating, hypnotic and soporific by turns. Sleep well if you plan to take on this artistic essay. Cinematic rot becomes an antagonist in a human drama as we watch it prey on a procession of Arabs on camels recalling the final march toward death in The Seventh Seal.

Decasia’s 70 minutes are challenging, the horrors of its nightmares sometimes too subtle. In the end, as even the sun is swallowed by darkness and the fading sky becomes a dying swarm of grain, Decasia is a film to be survived as much as experienced.

The film’s abstractions and the slow motion of its sound track could seem derivative. Both seem overshadowed by similar giants: Stan Brakhage in image and John Cage in sound.

But as shadows touch footage of a procession of schoolchildren, and as the sound of strings scrape downward in pitch, Decasia comes into its own light.

Unlike Brakhage, who manipulated his images (sometimes making an abstract painting of each frame of film), director Bill Morrison’s footage is found and distressed not by his design but by time. Composer Michael Gordon’s sound track gathers steam and becomes a symphonic train as Decasia finds its voice.

Morrison (who will introduce the screening of his film and remain on hand afterward to discuss it) states that the idea behind Decasia is the relationship between mind and body, as related to the relationship between image and media.

“The acetate and emulsion of the film stock can be thought of as the body. It enables these visions to be seen, but only for a limited time,” says Morrison. “Decasia can roughly be described as a portrait of humanity using decay, our battle with time, as its common language.”

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 29. Call 313-833-3237.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].