Bill Morrison is a curator of decomposed and badly damaged nitrate film stock – he arranges decaying found footage into short and feature length films. Often, there’s a documentary element to these assemblages, for example World War One, The Great Mississippi Floods of the 1920s, the early Soviet-era Jewish diaspora in the Ukraine. Over and above this documentary material, the films highlight the nitrate damage – the material decay itself becomes ‘beautiful’, both because of its transformative formal nature and because of its intervention in and links to visions of the past – that thereby become at least nostalgically tinged.
That seems to be the intention, anyway. While watching, the viewer is aware of the passage of time in several ways: the old footage, the damage, the experience of watching the damaged old footage. For me, the effect was weird and sometimes, in parts, wonderful. But the overall effect is less than the sum of these parts.
There are two problems: in a digital age, it’s hard to believe that the patterns we see are all nitrate damage – mightn’t there be some cool software involved and doesn’t that effect our perceptions of Morrison’s project? Were software to be involved, wouldn’t this turn Morrison into a film ‘designer’, the filmic equivalent of an interior designer who likes distressed wallpaper?
The second issue relates to the close relationship between images and music. Most of the films have commissioned scores by the likes of Michael Gordon, Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas and Phillip Glass. There’s also some spiritual minimalist music from Henryk Gorecki. But none of this music displays the ‘distress’ of the imagery – it’s all very well produced and sentimental in tendency, especially when sitting with ‘lost world’ footage. The effect of the music is to make the whole project appear a bit smug. Which is unfortunate.
Given the fragmented, fluctuating and repetitive nature of the techniques Morrison utilizes, narratives don’t make much of an appearance in these films, except in very short repeated sequences. The two larger exceptions are a short road movie Ghost Trip (which lacks the ‘decay effect’) and the feature-length Spark of Being, in which Morrison splices together a version of the Frankenstein story from damaged silent movie fragments – quite a feat!
- The Film of Her (1996, 12 mins)
- City Walk (1999, 6 mins)
- Ghost Trip (2000, 23 mins)
- Decasia (2002, 67 mins)
- The Mesmerist (2003, 16 mins)
- Light Is Calling (2004, 8 mins)
- Outerborough (2005, 9 mins)
- Porch (2006, 9 mins)
- Highwater Trilogy (2006, 31 mins)
- Who By Water (2007, 18 mins)
- Spark of Being (2010, 67 mins)
- Release (2010, 13 mins)
- Just Ancient Loops (2012, 26 mins)
- Re: Awakenings (2013, 18 mins)
- The Great Flood (2013, 78 mins)
- Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 (2014, 41 mins)
- Back to the Soil (2014, 18 mins)
- Presented in High Definition
- Bill Morrison: The Film Archaeologist (2013, 9 mins)
- Extensive illustrated booklet featuring essays by Lawrence Wechsler, Alex Ross, Gareth Evans, Geoffrey Himes, Sukhdev Sandhu, Steve Dollar and Matt Levine
Review by Colin Dibben
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Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 is out on Blu-ray on 04 May