It’s inevitable that the literal ebb and flow of Mother Nature’s creative process would have captured the attention of avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose body of work so far has focused on the soiled beauty to be found among the reels of improperly preserved film stock. His masterpiece, 2002’s Decasia: The State of Decay, was a giddy blitzkrieg of tarnished found footage, a closed-circuit scherzo assembled from countless moments of outsider art, with the “outsider artist” in question being time itself. His breathtaking 2004 short Light Is Calling froze a stolen interlude from the mostly forgotten silent The Bells in amber, the warped and streaked union of two simple youths in a haystack conveying something both liturgical and altogether erotically charged. Where the earlier film collapses duration into itself, the latter expands it rapturously. Both the passage of time and decay are givens; Morrison’s works examine how their partnership informs, among other things, our own fight to preserve something of value despite our own mortality.
His new documentary, The Great Flood, is a great deal less structural than all that, and scarcely as elliptical. But it doesn’t stray far from the grand thesis of how celluloid could be used to capture people in their environment, and how neither are blessed with permanence. In presenting its mass of footage taken during the devastating Mississippi River flooding of 1927, The Great Flood hews much closer to home. Quite literally so. More than 700,000 people were displaced when the river swelled its banks and spilled out over more than 27,000 square miles from Missouri on down, and Morrison’s depiction of the disaster breaks it down into clearly delineated stages that suggest both inexorability and enduring patterns.
Morrison has always been the first to credit his musical collaborators as equal partners, and in fact has indicated that he sees the degeneration that has guided his work as a composition in every sense of the word. (He told me in an interview last year that his bins of material would have pet names such as “Matisse jazz shapes.”) And The Great Flood is no exception. Historians credit the event with inciting a large northbound migration of African-Americans, who had up to that point resided in rural areas to the South, but were compelled, by act of God, to resettle in cities like Chicago. Morrison’s assemblage is held together by guitarist Bill Frisell’s light blues riffs, suggesting the birth of one of America’s most prominent native musical forms, though perhaps a bit too on-the-nose in the end (it winds up with an interpolation of “Ol’ Man River”).
Meanwhile, the decomposition of the images is simpler (one imagines historical gatekeepers would have had much more stake in preserving these frames than, say, a melodrama from 1926), but frequently as playful. A dog climbing atop the roof of a submerged shack then appears to shake off the black speckles of celluloid rot that have taken root. A young woman, having been recused from the Caernarvon area (which was deliberately flooded in a failed attempt to save New Orleans), pauses to swoop down and collect a flower from the waterline, very literally salvaging loveliness from wreckage. And, perhaps most compellingly, a processional of vehicles seeding diaspora upriver is surrounded by jagged, hazy vertical lines emphasizing their lack of housing structures. Even in comparatively conventional mode, Morrison’s work still benefits from the poetic potential of nature’s repossession of its own elements.