Q&A: 'Found footage' filmmaker Bill Morrison 

click to enlarge Bill Morrison, "Light is Calling" (2004)
  • Bill Morrison, "Light is Calling" (2004)

First a definition: the term orphan film refers to "all manner of neglected and ephemeral cinematic artifacts, ranging from home movies to outtakes to educational movies to newsreels." We take that description from the program for 2013 Orphans Midwest, a symposium coming to Bloomington's IU Cinema that's designed for experts in the field (the full rate in $150), but which will feature several programs open to the public. The opening night program happens to be the most pricy of the lot, but it's a can't-miss for anyone even mildly interested in experimental film or music.

One one side of the marquee is Bill Morrison, who obsessively pairs decaying nitrate film with original music. Best known for his found footage collage Decasia (2002), Morrison is one of our most startling artists Charles "Take your dissonance like a man" Ives. An inherent musicality abides in both men's work, as does a shared aesthetic program of deconstructing Americana.

On the other side is Maya Beiser, an Israeli-American cellist who was a founding member of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. She'll provide accompaniment to four of Morrison's films: Light is Calling (2004, with music by Beiser's Bang on a Can compatriot Michael Gordon); Cello Counterpoint (2005, with music by Steve Reich); Just Ancient Loops (2012, music by Michael Harrison); and a world premiere, All Vows (music also by Gordon).

Like many of Morrison's films, Light is Calling negotiates layer after layer of severely decomposing nitrate film stock, exploring its cruel, resplendent textures. Morrison uses archival footage of The Bells (1926) and focuses on footage of stars Lola Todd and Edward Phillips. Slithering through the visceral, sepia gangrene is the haunting fragility of love, life and, ultimately, meaning. Once fully-fleshed figures become as fragmented and as meaningful as the riders we may find in a late Gauguin canvas.

click to enlarge Bill Morrison
  • Bill Morrison

Just Ancient Loops breaks down into three sequences: Genesis, Chorale, and Ascension. It's the collaborative work of composer Harrison, Beiser, and Morrison. Nineteenth century symphonist Anton Bruckner described his work as "boundlessly expansive." Just Ancient Loops is a homogenous, Brucknerian cathedral with Morrison's eye as the hurricane within the depth of a paradisiacal hour. Make no mistake; it is only as an hour. From a solar eclipse to consummating cells, the three artists dance with their putrefied avatars: hand-tinted witnesses to the resurrection and ascension.

I recently spoke with Morrison to learn more about his philosophies and process.

NUVO: There's is a rich relationship with music in your work. Has there been a composer with whom you've felt a pronounced affinity?

Morrison: I have been very fortunate to be working in a time in New York when there was a thriving and cross-pollinating music scene, and to have had access to composers from the "new music" world in New York, as well as to those from the jazz and indie rock communities. My work with Michael Gordon has been the most celebrated of my collaborations, but recent projects with Bill Frisell, Johann Johannsson, Dave Douglas, Richard Einhorn, and Michael Harrison have been gratifying artistically. Each project brings with it a different sensibility, and part of the challenge and excitement for me is to see where my vision and the music of my collaborator can intersect.

NUVO: And are there filmmakers with whom you identify?

Morrison: Craig Baldwin, Stan Brakhage, Peter Delpeut, Gustav Deutsch, Ken Jacobs, Guy Maddin, Terrence Malick, Vincent Monnikendam, Errol Morris, Nicolas Provost, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Jurgen Reble, Phil Solomon, to name a few who have inspired and continue to inspire me.

NUVO: You have been referred to as an "avant-gardist," "surrealist," "post-modernist." Do you feel you belong to a particular movement?

Morrison: Increasingly I just do what is in front of me. I do not think about labeling myself. My work continues to evolve, and lately I think of it more as a form of documentary. As per the list above, I certainly was influenced by the American avant-garde, and by an international "found footage" community, but I've never found it particularly helpful or instructive to define myself with any of these terms or movements. I continue to be inspired by music, and the combination of the moving image with music, but "avant-garde" filmmakers generally do not embrace that practice. I search for buried treasure in the archives, things that no one has seen before. I am trying to find meaning in these relics, informed by our knowledge of the world today and our shared histories.

click to enlarge Bill Morrison, "All Vows" (2013)
  • Bill Morrison, "All Vows" (2013)

NUVO: Where do you see the state of experimental film 100 years from now? Some have said it is in a desert period. Do you see the audience expanding?

Morrison: However people share their moving image poetry in 100 years, I don't think we'll be calling it "experimental film", and that will be a welcome change. Any film work that is still done in film and references the film material itself is called "experimental film." I find this reductive, because there are still many boundaries to be broken in self-reflexive cinema - cinema that brings attention to the process of the moving image that the viewer is engaged in. We have become increasingly conditioned to seeing many more bits of de-contextualized imagery within the course of a day, and so for something to be new and different, it will need to engage us on a level that we have not already become de-sensitized to. I am excited to see how cinema is reacting to our increasingly intimate relationship with the camera, which through smaller, lighter, and cheaper devices have become so much more a part of our daily lives, and an extension of our bodies.

NUVO: Your films have garnered impassioned, mixed reactions. I agree with those who an emotional and erotic quality in your editing.

Morrison: You need to love what you are editing. Editing begins for me with the choice of subject matter, the research in the archives, the selection of clips. Usually I find one or two shots that will anchor a sequence, or an entire film, an intro to set it up, and an "out" shot to end the film. It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You are trying to find the pieces that define the edges first. Then, you are looking for pieces that rhyme with one another to interlock together. I work differently than most filmmakers in that I prefer to cut to music, so I am working within a structure that we have built together, my collaborator and myself, and then I am choosing when to cut to the beat and when to build through the beat.

NUVO: How do you fund your work?

Morrison: I typically find funding for my films as part of a live musical performance. After that performance premieres, we eventually will have a master recording of the music, I will cut to that track to finish the film to be screened on its own. There are certainly fewer grants available for filmmakers, so commissions are my primary source of funding. The performing arts venues at universities seem to be among the last bastions of funding for this type of project in this country.

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