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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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The films of Bill Morrison

Last weekend I took a trip down to Time & Space Limited in Hudson for a mini-documentary film festival showcasing the work of Bill Morrison, an experimental director whose films are collages of found, archival footage. I initially planned on watching the first two films and then heading home, because it requires a certain amount of stamina to sit through three movies, but I was so entranced by Morrison’s work that I decided to stay for the final film. And I was glad I did.

The first film was the 2011 documentary “The Miners’ Hymns,” about the coal-mining communities of Northeast England. With the exception of two aerial shots depicting the way the landscape looks today, the wordless film is assembled from black-and-white archival footage from the BBC, the British Film Institute and other sources. We see the miners descending into the mines, and the machinery and equipment they use down there, the union-organized parties and parades for the miners and, in one of the film’s most moving passages, a procession into a church for a blessing. We also witness grim developments: strikes, the arrival of scabs, police force directed at the miners and their supporters.

“The Miners’ Hymns” is a moving elegy for a bygone way of life, and a haunting portrait of a once-vibrant community reduced to something more sterile and lifeless. Morrison isn’t arguing that mining was a great industry — in a question-and-answer session following the films he noted that mining was dirty, dangerous work — but that it was honest labor that put food in people’s mouths. I was surprised by how moving and heartbreaking “The Miners Hymns” is. I should mention the soaring, majestic score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, which is a huge asset.

“The Miners’ Hymns” was followed by the 2002 documentary “Decasia: The State of Decay,” which is assembled from decaying silent film stock, most of it culled from lost, unidentified films. The imagery is strange and abstract: The film opens and closes with grainy footage of a whirling dervish, and its highlights include nuns herding children in and out of a convent, a boxer punching at a bag, parachutes falling to earth and a magisterial sunset. There is no narrative: Morrison is more interested in showing the process of decay, and many of the film clips contain oddly beautiful blemishes that give the footage an otherworldly quality. “Decasia” is regarded as Morrison’s masterpiece, but I didn’t like it as much as “The Miners’ Hymns,” and I felt that it could have been a little shorter. But those are minor complaints. “Decasia” is a unique and unsettling experience, and also features a jarringly memorable score by Bang on a Can composer Michael Gordon.

The festival concluded with Morrison’s latest work, the just-released “The Great Flood.” This film is a sprawling study of the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, as well as the migration of displaced black sharecroppers and their families to northern cities such as Chicago. “The Great Flood” is the most accessible of the three films — it features stirring flood footage, but also numerous lighter moments and asides, such as politicians touring the damage, farm animals and pets roaming the landscape and people playing musical instruments and dancing.

“The Great Flood” is divided into sections preceded by simple titles such as “Politicians” and “Sharecroppers,” and is accompanied by a jaunty, old-timey jazz/blues score by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Given the devastation of recent floods such as Katrina, Sandy and Irene, it’s interesting to see how the flood of 1927 impacted those who lived along the river. While Katrina’s victims were herded into the Superdome, these flood victims set up tents along the river, their crops and livelihoods destroyed by the rising waters.

Unlike “Decasia” and “The Miners’ Hymns,” “The Great Flood” ends on a joyous note, focusing on black musicians playing guitars and other instruments in their new, northern cities. Rather than mourn the loss of a way of life, “The Great Flood” concludes with rebirth and new opportunity.

In their use of archival footage, all three films are of historical and cinematic interest. But they are also stunning works of art. At times, they require patience, but the rewards are great.

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