Filmmaker Bill Morrison: Exhuming the Forgotten

A still from "Decasia" (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)

One of my favorite filmmakers working today is Bill Morrison. There aren’t many directors whose work compels me to see every film they make, but Morrison is one of those rare artists I’ve enjoyed following closely through the years. His films are always memorable and worth seeking out.

Over the past two decades, Morrison has built a filmography of more than thirty projects that have been shown in museums, theaters, concert halls, and galleries around the world, including Sundance and the Tate Modern.

What makes Morrison’s work unique is his use of rare archival film footage. Morrison not only researches and collects this footage, but he uses it to create compelling montages with original soundtracks. He has collaborated with some of the most interesting composers working today–John Adams, Henryk Gørecki, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Steve Reich, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, among others. The end result of these artistic collaborations is mysterious, beautiful, and highly unique.


A still from "Decasia" (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)


A still from "Decasia" (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a screening of Morrison’s Decasia at The MacDowell Colony. The movie left me moved, astonished, and off-kilter. The 70-minute film is assembled from decaying, highly flammable, early nitrate footage collected from the George Eastman House and Museum of Modern Art and is nothing less than a masterpiece. It is a testament to Morrison’s skill as an editor and director that he can wrest so much emotion and meaning from this collage of archival images. Michael Gordon’s stirring soundtrack, featuring detuned pianos and an orchestra playing out of phase with itself, only adds to the surreal atmosphere.

Decasia excerpt1 HD from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.

Decasia belongs in the tradition of Stan Brakhage’s films and Michael Lessy’s memorable book Wisconsin Death Trip; it is simultaneously poetic, haunting, disturbing, and compelling. We experience not only the surreal scars, stains, and textures of decay, but also the forgotten landscapes and faces captured on film long ago. The entire piece is a meditation on ruin and the temporal nature not only of film, but of life itself. When filmmaker and writer Errol Morris saw Decasia, he said that it might be “the greatest movie ever made”.


A still from "Decasia" (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)


Morrison's film The Miners' Hymns is a wordless celebration of coal-mining culture in the northern city of Durham, England (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)

Decasia remains Morrison’s best known work, but he has been producing new projects on a regular basis for the past twenty years. Three of his most recent works, Spark of BeingThe Great Flood and The Miners’ Hymns, are still appearing in theaters and festivals around the world.

Filmmaker Bill Morrison (Courtesy image)

The Miners’ Hymns, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring, is a wordless celebration of coal-mining culture in the northern city of Durham, England. As music critic Alex Ross explains, the film centers on “the Durham Miners’ Gala, an annual summertime meeting which, from the late nineteenth century until the Thatcher era, brought thousands of celebrants into the city. The gala was famous not only for its union activism but for its carnival atmosphere, its massed choral singing, and its myriad brass bands.” The film’s soundtrack, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, was recorded in Durham Cathedral and incorporates large brass ensemble, organ, percussion, and electronic sounds. As Ross says, Jóhannsson’s score “packs a considerable punch.”

Morrison's latest project is "The Great Flood," a collaboration with jazz great Bill Frisel. (Image courtesy Bill Morrison)

Morrison’s latest project is The Great Flood, a collaboration with jazz great Bill Frisel. The work explores the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, which wreaked havoc on an entire region of the country and displaced thousands, including scores of Delta blues performers who took their music north to cities like Chicago.

The Great Flood will have its New York premiere at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall this Friday, November 4th. New Englanders can see Morrison and Frisel’s piece at a special screening and live performance at Spaulding Auditorium at Darmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Thursday, November 3rd. In the next few weeks, Morrison’s work will also be screened at the AFI Film Festival in Hollywood, and in Durham, North Carolina, and Washington state. Visit Hypnotic Pictures or Bill Morrison’s “artist” page on Facebook for more information.

Trailer – “The Great Flood” from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.


Light Is Calling from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.

For those of you who can’t make it to a screening, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch these clips of Morrison’s films. And if you haven’t seen Decasia, you owe it to yourself to watch this incredible film in its entirety. If you’d like to view more of Morrison’s work, please visit his Vimeo channel or Hypnotic Pictures. (If you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the footage).

Happy Halloween!

The Miners’ Hymns – 3 min trailer from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.


Decasia excerpt2 HD from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:58+00:00 10.30.11|Greatest Hits, Images, Sounds|1 Comment

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

One Comment

  1. jafabrit October 31, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I really enjoyed learning about Morrison’s films, particularly the Miner’s Hymns having been born in a mining village in the Northeast of England. The films are so poignant and your review fabulous.

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