Just a few weeks before his mid-career retrospective opens at New York's Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker Bill Morrison is returning to IU Cinema, where his 2013 short film, All Vows had its world premiere.
In last year’s NUVO interview with Morrison, he said his artistic process is like doing a jigsaw puzzle — “trying to find pieces that define the edges first.” Morrison is known for mining film archives, pairing decaying nitrate film clips with original music.
The footage of 1927’s Mississippi River flood that he pieced together in his latest film, The Great Flood will surely cast a spell on audiences at IU Cinema when it plays there this Friday at 6:30 p.m. Morrison will deliver a lecture at 3.
A state-of-the-art sanctuary for cinephiles, IU Cinema mirrors Morrison’s mission of “bringing attention to the process of the moving image that the viewer is engaged in.” Morrison calls attention to that process by leaving archival film’s pock marks intact, emphasizing the fragility of film as well as the history it exposes and our ever-changing perception of it. To quote IU Cinema’s description, his films’ “distorted images suggest different planes of reality.”
Eroding just like the land the Mississippi River flooded, the footage in The Great Flood creates a surreal atmosphere. As its hazy images of American adversity flicker in and out of focus, the film makes our country’s history seem like a bad dream from which we are still trying to wake up. It shocks us back into reality with repetitive footage of sharecroppers tending to their land, emphasizing all the work that was later washed away. The most destructive flood in American history, this disaster led to the displacement of countless sharecroppers, who left plantation life and migrated to Northern cities.
Just as Morrison’s weathered film footage inspires collaboration with composers, the land eroded by the flood paved the way for several musicians. The “Great Migration” of rural southern blacks to Northern cities saw the Delta blues reinterpreted as the Chicago blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Of all its striking images, the most powerful shot in the film is that of a huddle of people dancing to this music fueled by the flood. It’s an invigorating display of vitality in the wake of wreckage. The same could be said to describe the film. Thanks to Morrison’s exuberant editing and Bill Frisell’s spirited score, this collage of corroding film clips bursts with life.
The Great Flood will be preceded on Friday by a screening of Morrison's short film, All Vows. Commissioned by IU Cinema and the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, the film had its world premiere at IU Cinema exactly one year ago on the day Morrison is returning to the theater. Its title is a translation of "Kol Nidre," the central chant of the Yom Kippur service that nullifies future vows made unintentionally. In addition to highlighting the "the fragile and corporeal nature" of ancient film stock, Morrison said the work "depicts an unknowable future as reflected through a dissolving historical document."