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.
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 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”.
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 Being, The Great Flood and The Miners’ Hymns, are still appearing in theaters and festivals around the world.
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. 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.
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).
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