Dead Alive

Nick Pinkerton on Bill Morrison at MoMA

Bill Morrison, Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, 2014. 35 mm color, sound, 39 minutes.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Bill Morrison—a man whose ability to conduct archival footage like Toscanini could a symphony orchestra was never in doubt—has emerged as one of our premier screen historians, matching his established interest in film as the fading physical representation of collective memory to single historical milieus and events. This new stature is largely based on the strength of two short features, The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), the latter of which had successful theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year.

Today Morrison’s visibility has never been higher, his films never more accessible. This September, Icarus Films released a five-disc set of his Collected Works 1996 to 2013, which includes sixteen films packaged together on DVD, and, beginning this week, the Museum of Modern Art is hosting the retrospective “Bill Morrison: Compositions.” (Morrison’s last New York stand was a weeklong run at Film Forum in February 2012.) In addition to screening the material compiled on Collected Works, MoMA’s program will include films having their domestic premieres and three live musical performances. Jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell will accompany The Great Flood live with a four-piece band, and Dave Douglas and Keystone will play along to Morrison’s 2010 Spark of Being, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein stitched together from sundry bits of archival footage, including images from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1915. (The subject matter—using dead matter to create new life—just happens to be matched to the technique.)

The live performance aspect is crucial, for Morrison’s background is in multimedia—most of his early 16-mm shorts were created for New York’s Ridge Theater group, which he joined in 1990, and were intended to play a part in a live productions. MoMA has arranged the shorts programs according to format, and so the 16-mm works of 1990–96 will screen together. In them, you can see early manifestations of what will be Morrison’s ongoing preoccupations. The Death Train (1993)—created to accompany John Moran’s opera The Death Train of Baron von Frankenstein—draws out an extended visual analogy between analog moving picture and railroad technology, rhyming spinning reels and spinning wheels in much the same manner that Morrison will match footage of film lab drying racks to whirling dervishes and Persian rug spinners in his Decasia (2002). Lost Avenues (1991) also has something of the quality of a requiem for a disappeared industry—images of harpooners at sea suggest the whaling industry as a subject, although it’s difficult to say for certain, for Morrison is already besotted with the particular textures of the film image in various states of decomposition, riddled with lacunae. This fascination with the imperiled image appears again in Morrison’s twelve-minute The Film of Her (1996), in which an unsung Library of Congress clerk recounts his having saved the library’s paper print collection from almost certain destruction. (The short is among Morrison’s most-beloved works, but it’s nearly undone by the corny voice-over performance.)

Morrison’s interest in the preservation of film history—or, conversely, with its ruination—would result in Decasia, a film comprising nitrate film images succumbing to spectacular putrefaction. Watching it flicker by, one descries all manner of patterns and textures in the riot of rot: fingerprint whorls, swirls of smoke, coral reefs, baked desert plains, networks of cracks like those on an Albert Pinkham Ryder canvas. Upon its release, Decasia was greeted with the sort of reviews that few filmmakers could hope to see in their lifetimes, let alone those working in non-narrative idioms. Morrison’s film appeared at precisely the right time for film culture, at a moment of unprecedented proliferation of archives and archivists, as an end-of-the-millennium obsession with the Death of Cinema had reared its head—both phenomena that continue to this day.

Composer Michael Gordon’s score for Decasia is a harried affair, like a sonic expression of the act of passing time chipping away at the integrity of film stock; more recently, however, Morrison has been sounding the elegiac note. The Miners’ Hymns opens with a flyover of the closed-down coal collieries of northeast Britain, while on-screen text gives their birth and death dates. (Morrison still avoids contextualizing dialogue or voice-over.) The director-editor has the help of some remarkable “collaborators” on this film—anonymous British cameramen shooting film for the National Coal Board in the 1940s and ’50s, in glistening black-and-white that gives working-class existence a luster worthy of Von Sternberg. Moreover, the film features a score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson—the most poignant that Morrison has ever featured—which is divided into distinctive movements like the film itself, and reaching a marvelous emotional climax in the reproduction of the annual processional to Durham Cathedral as part of the Miners’ Gala.

This is almost equaled for cumulative impact by the shot of dancers bumping and grinding to gutbucket blues at the close of The Great Flood. Morrison had previously harvested footage of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 for the last segment of his 2006 The Highwater Trilogy, and the historically catastrophic deluge, which sent thousands of displaced African-American sharecroppers to the cities of the north, including Morrison’s hometown of Chicago, is the subject of this, his longest film to date. The Great Flood, whose effect is appropriately submersive, is a mournful montage showing the destruction and displacement wrought by the flood—and the endemic racism which reflected in every aspect of the crisis response—and while the film ends on a mass forced migration, the shambling score always finds its way back home to “Ol’ Man River” (Morrison had twice used Frisell’s tracks on previous films, on The Film of Her and 2003’s The Mesmerist, but this was their first full collaboration.)

If Decasia, to many, announced Bill Morrison as the natural heir to Stan Brakhage, his newer work suggests that he has a dash of Ken Burns in him as well. Indeed, Morrison is among the more crossover-ready figures to emerge from the American avant-garde in recent memory—“Decasia is that rare thing,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice in the spring of 2003, “a movie with avant-garde and universal appeal.” He is more convincing when plumbing the sentimental associations of disinterred archival footage than when he employs it in schematic, formalist exercises, like the split-screen experiments in Outerborough (2005) and Release (2010), and has found a new clarity in drawing his material from a single period and place. One of the works making a stateside debut at MoMA is Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 (2014), spun together from (barely) surviving nitrate film shot during WWI. Ghostly figures move across a canvas pocked and rutted like a no-man’s-land, primitive tanks lugubriously lumber through a scrubby forest, and, in the final image, a lone parachute jumper swinging like the clapper of a bell is matched to a distant, keening knell. From the distance of a hundred years, Huns and Doughboys can be seen still scramble into their trenches, fighting a losing battle against the ravages of time.

“Bill Morrison: Compositions” runs through Friday, November 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art.