Home Video Hovel: The Great Flood, by West Anthony
In late April 1927, it began raining in the Mississippi Valley so much that levees broke and towns in the lowlands were flooded, with thousands of square miles submerged before it was over. According to The Pessimist’s Guide To History, raging waters in Little Rock, Arkansas made a bridge vibrate so hard that loads of coal in railroad cars on that bridge ignited due to the friction, which is bad. (Yes, I have a book called The Pessimist’s Guide To History. Don’t judge me.) Wouldn’t it be thrilling/horrifying to journey back to yesteryear and see first-hand what that tragic moment in American history was like?
Be careful what I wish for. A grimly hypnotic reminder that catastrophe is not just something Irwin Allen came up with for fun and profit, Bill Morrison’s The Great Flood is the filmmaker’s newest use of decaying and forgotten silent-era film footage, in this instance footage of the Mississippi River Flood of ‘27. Accompanied by a musical score composed and performed by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (who has also composed scores for Buster Keaton films), it is at once a disquieting look at man’s helplessness when at the mercy of nature in our past, a reflection of disaster and its responses in our present, and a sobering glimpse of our possible future should we prove unequal to the task of coping with the potential ravages of climate change.
Divided into chapters and with only a few title cards to clue viewers in to what they’re seeing, Morrison has gathered up decaying and faded nitrate film stock from the era to give us a front row seat for the devastation, with Frisell’s music as our sole aural accompaniment. At times the celluloid bubbles and the images warp and fade, which seems to add another level of damage to the proceedings; it is almost as though the film itself is buckling under the burden of what it must convey. It’s not entirely gloomy: the footage of future president/then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and other official jerkoffs surveying the damage for photo opportunities brings up bitter laughs that don’t quite get all the way out of one’s throat. It is darkly humorous to note that the political leaders of the era were pretty much the same oblivious, gladhanding schnooks we have today. And the film suddenly stops in the middle of everything for a high-speed romp through what appears to be an entire Sears Roebuck catalog of the era. Don’t blink.
The devastation of the region sent many black sharecroppers (some of whom are shown working at gunpoint to head off the floodwaters) northward, the first Great Migration of African Americans to Midwestern cities like Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, among others. And it is here that Morrison presents his stunning denouement to the story, the unexpected silver lining not just for the thousands of black Americans who found greater freedom and liberation in the North, but for American culture as a whole: Music. Footage of early blues legends such as Big Bill Broonzy (a favorite of George Harrison), Son House with his gleaming National guitar, and Sonny Boy Williamson & Robert Lockwood Jr., points the way not only to the American music that would become so celebrated in the decades to come — from the Chess Records label in Chicago, and later the immortal Motown Records in Detroit, for instance — but would eventually find its way across the ocean to be assimilated and transformed in the pale, sun-deprived hands of the seminal British Invasion bands of the 60’s. From out of such hardship and trouble in the Mississippi Valley, The Great Flood ends with a shot of black Americans somewhere in the North dancing away without a care in the world, as well they should. As should we all. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of a better cinematic example of making lemonade out of lemons, of finding hope in the seemingly hopeless. So Bill Morrison has done considerably more than give viewers a glimpse into the realities of the Great Mississippi Flood — he has provided us with a glimpse into the singularly resilient spirit of the American people, which is better than any superhero picture this summer could ever hope to do.