Fighting against oblivion in Decasia.
7 and 9 p.m. Fri., Jan. 30, at Little Theatre
Beginning a weekend devoted to experimental documentaries (see film calendar, p. 79, for other titles), this short symphony of decaying celluloid is both one of the worst and best films shown in the new year. Worst in the sense of the medium's underlying quality: Director Bill Morrison selected various archival clips from the nitrate-stock, silent-film era that were most damaged and decomposed by the natural process of photochemical reversion. Best in the sense of the drama that's then created: Instead of characters in opposition within a narrative framework, here we have the very medium of film in opposition to narrative. These black-and-white snippets of story, some almost 100 years old, are disappearing right before our eyes, even as we try to make sense of whirling dervishes, dancing women, camel caravans, boxing pugilists, parachuting troops, and praying nuns. (Coincidentally, Decasia arrives Jan. 27 on DVD; $24.95 from PlexiFilm.)
Scored by Michael Gordon in borderline-atonal style somewhat reminiscent of Philip Glass, Decasia is a profoundly beautiful film for those who don't mind an image lapsing into complete mottled, bubbled, blotchy abstraction. It surges and subsides from the nickelodeon to Stan Brakhage and back; the tension, which the score reflects, is how that erosional cycle becomes an analogue for both seeing and filming. Photons of light striking the retinaor a silver-halide film stripare fundamentally impermanent; they decay and subside. Film, too, is evanescent: Just as nitrate was replaced by less flammable "safety film" in the '50s, the medium is now going digital. (Movies from all technological eras are inevitably lost in each shift.) So, to watch Decasia is to watch time, to see entropy in effect. From the early blossoming of cinema to its final senescence, each rotting frame of Decasia looks like a glorious flower. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Director-star de Van in extremis in Skin.
photo: Wellspring Media
IN MY SKIN
Runs Tues., Feb. 3-Thurs., Feb. 12, at Grand Illusion
Esther is depressed. Her modest existence is consumed by dull corporate work that spills over into her home life, further dulling her relationship with her boyfriend. She's a woman alienated from her own emotions and sensesand her own body, which she doesn't recognize until a fall at a party causes a brutal gash to her leg. Suddenly, 30-ish Esther (writer-actress-director Marina de Van) becomes obsessed with her own flesh. She traces her wound, caresses her limbs, and pinches at her loose skin quizzically. She's fascinated, as if discovering herself for the first time. Before, she seemed to possess no boundary between her private self and the outside (work) world. Now, she begins to contemplate this fragile, unfamiliar membrane for the first time. Then she begins to dissect it: Unthinkably, and without thinking, she starts cutting herself violently with sharp metal and knives.
When others become worried about her self-mutilation, Esther goes underground with her habit, renting hotel rooms and even staging a car accident to explain her wounds. What begins as cutting becomes biting, chewing, borderline auto-cannibalism. What, for filmgoers, appears to be horrifically violent seems oddly and calmly liberating for Esther, whose behavior is increasingly uncontrolled, almost erotic. At a business dinner surrounded by plates of succulent meats, she fantasizes that her arm is detached from her bodyjust another piece of flesh on the table; then she stabs at her limb with knife and fork to be sure it's a part of her.
Her compulsion is depicted graphically by an unflinching camera: The frenzied, disoriented perspectives mirror Esther's neurosis; and a split screen illustrates her already too-clear alienation. (Although, at this point, viewers will believe her estrangement from her body has progressed to a grave separation from sanity.)
Yet even for the iron-stomached filmgoer, Esther's violent episodes are agonizing and without reward. While she appears more beautiful and vivid during her gouging and carving sessions, temporarily in touch with life, you're left with the final gnawing sense that her sickness has not only not healed, but it was there all along. Her pathology has simply morphed from an office drone's apathetic routine to a different set of rituals. Esther's life is no longer dull, but this is hardly the brand of excitement one would wish for her. (NR) KATIE MILLBAUER
Lovers Tsunashima and Collette in Story.
photo: Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
Opens Fri., Jan. 30, at Metro
Toni Collette is not a glamour girl. Similarly, her native land is beautiful mainly in a rough, wind-torn sort of way. Though Story pairs Collette with popular Japanese actor Gotaro Tsunashima, her true counterpart here is the landscape of Western Australia. The film unfolds beneath the breathtaking blueness of its skies, and much of the action occurs amid the rust-colored dunes of a desert that seems to stretch into eternity. In an existential moment, Tsunashima's character observes: "There is nothing. It scares me."
What's scary about geologist Sandy (Collette) is that the terrain of her personal life is equally empty. Enter Hiromitsu (Tsunashima), the visiting scion of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, who has the eerie stillness (and fashion sense) of a department-store mannequin. His manners are worse: After mistaking Sandy for a chauffeur, the sexist Japanese dandy natters on endlessly to the folks back home on his cell phone, leaving the irked Aussie to drive him around the countryside as he surveys a huge mining project.
As it turns out, stiff Hiromitsu can pull his weight when it counts, as both he and Sandy discover on an ill-fated excursion that, yes, strands the two together (though for longer than they or the audience might be expecting). Survival naturally breeds familiarity, which duly reveals that cultural differencebelieve it or notcan't keep two lonely people from getting it on. The expected affair begins unexpectedly, with a lovely, understated sex scene: Sandy undresses before Hiromitsu, wordlessly dons his coal-black business pants (in case anyone's unclear about who's taking the initiative here), then straddles him. It's a fresh, vulnerable start to a relationship anyone seeing the poster could have predicted.
Story does provide Collette with her first starring role since Muriel's Wedding. Since then, she's nailed a series of smaller partsin The Sixth Sense, The Hours, and About a Boythat add up to the full emotional range on display in this one picture. Colette goes from tough to giddy to erotic in the first hour alone, then produces shattering displays of grief when fate conspires against her. Unfortunately, the script is conspiring against her, too. After they resolve their culture clash, Sandy and Hiromitsu's relationshipendearing as it isnever gets a chance to develop into something compelling. Story makes an outstanding showcase for its star, even if the romance never approaches the beauty or heat of its gorgeous, brutal setting. (R) NEAL SCHINDLER