Home Video Hovel: Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013), by West Anthony
There aren’t too many filmmakers around these days who really make you think about cinema like Bill Morrison. In scouring film archives for faded and crumbling imagery from the earliest years of cinema history, Morrison challenges our notions of what constitutes screen entertainment and how it is made, while asking us to examine what to some may seem distant and fusty records of bygone eras in new and gripping ways. Now, a giant trove of his creations is gathered together in one package, Bill Morrison: Collected Works 1996 To 2013, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a body of work that is at once boldly experimental and literally a hundred years old.
Several previously released discs from Icarus Films are now in one place (which is why there is one blu-ray disc and four DVDs – it would have been nice to upgrade everything into a state-of-the-art multiple blu-ray package, but we’re lucky just to have this); included are four approximately feature-length films and numerous shorts. Probably the best-known of his works, Decasia, is the blu-ray feature, and remains a mesmerizing masterpiece that at once revels in the strange beauty of moldering celluloid and serves as a rebuke to those who believe that the preservation of our cultural identity is going to take care of itself. Decasia is accompanied by a hypnotic score from composer Michael Gordon that, with its queasy, confusing rhythms, provides a fascinating companion to the melting, writhing visuals.
Spark Of Being is a curious and compelling repurposing of old newsreel and educational film footage to tell, in its own somewhat oblique manner, the tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you aren’t familiar with Shelley’s novel, as opposed to the James Whale horror classic from 1931, it may be less oblique and more outright confusing, thus making Spark Of Being one of the few films in memory that may benefit from Cliffs Notes. The Miners’ Hymns is a beautiful homage to the former mining communities of northeast England, juxtaposing footage of miners’ life there decades ago with helicopter footage over the more modern region in the present day, where the mines have all but vanished. Morrison employs the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, who recently wrote the wonderfully moody score for the 2013 film Prisoners; here his work is considerably more open-hearted and engaging, even with the limited sonic palette of brass, electronica and pipe organ.
The fourth feature is 2013’s The Great Flood, which I wrote about earlier this year. You can read that review for my thoughts about the film, although I will add that, having seen so much of his work now, this one remains my favorite. Among the dozen short films in this collection, standouts include Highwater Trilogy, which seems almost a prologue to The Great Flood with its collection of footage depicting heavy storms, icebergs and flooding, serving as yet another reminder of just how much nature can do to us whether we like it or not; Re:Awakenings, consisting of Super-8 footage taken by Dr. Oliver Sacks of L-Dopa testing on Beth Abraham Hospital patients in the late 60’s; and Release, in which Morrison takes a single panoramic newsreel shot of a crowd standing outside Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia waiting to see Al Capone being set free, and presents it in such a manner as to seem deliberately infuriating at first but gradually becomes a subtle indictment of the nature of public spectacle and idolatry of celebrities, as well as a clever tweaking of our anticipation.
One of the best of the shorts is Who By Water, a collection of portraits of ocean liner passengers that suggests a bunch of people blithely unaware that they’re frolicking on the Titanic. The ship that appears in the opening shot certainly looks like the Titanic, although no indication is given that it is; yet the association is one that many viewers are likely to make, and it gives the subsequent gallery of faces looking into the camera a sense of unwitting forboding. The musical accompaniment only reinforces the notion that these passengers are in for some Titanicky peril: instead of, say, Huey “Piano” Smith’s peppy “Sea Cruise,” Michael Gordon has crafted a score slopping over with doom so that, even if the ocean liner is not on its way to pick a losing fight with an iceberg, it still feels like it’s bad vibes ahoy. Ooo-wee baby, indeed.
In most of Morrison’s works featuring archival footage, one of their greatest strengths is the way these films force you to pay closer attention. It can be a struggle to perceive what is going on behind the bubbling, cracking distortions, and so one stares harder into the screen, trying to catch a glimpse of someone or something recognizable. At times the images look as though we are viewing them underwater, or perhaps at a psychedelic light show circa 1967. There are moments when the decay is minimal, but suddenly it is as though the images are under attack by microscopic organisms that have mutated to monstrous size, intent on absorbing our history. But it isn’t all archival material. City Walk is a brief time-lapse journey up Flatbush Avenue into Manhattan (albeit so stylized that it could be almost any street in an American city), while Ghost Trip follows an unnamed hearse driver across the country as he delivers someone to his final resting place. These films, while not as potent as his archival repurposing, are nevertheless infused with the same restless spirit that permeates Morrison’s body of work as a whole.
Morrison’s Collected Works is a beautiful and enriching survey of an important chronicler of an all-too-quickly vanishing history (the extent of the damage to our early cinematic heritage can be more fully explained here), and an important reminder that preservation of these precious images — of people, places and things that simply do not exist anymore — is an endeavor that must be taken more seriously lest even these damaged, distorted views of our collective past should disappear forever.