The Great Flood
Directed by Bill Morrison
The erosion of time, ever a timely concern, takes center stage in Morrison’s experimental practice. The archival footage he assembles has denatured during its decades in storage, its projected surface grown mottled and warped; perhaps unsurprisingly, his best-known nitrate-stock symphony, 2002’s Decasia, has already met with institutional approval, its recent induction into the National Film Registry preserving the catalogue of damage against further damage (at least for now). His new film, The Great Flood, exhibits this native-to-the-medium decay in its rolling out of deep-wading newsreels, while taking as its subject a natural catastrophe of historic proportions: the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, which washed out 27,000 square miles of Southern landscape.
The Great Flood wears its reclaimed-history mantle a little more lightly than Morrison’s previous feature-ish film, The Miners’ Hymns—a reverently haunting ode to County Durham’s once-vibrant coal-mining communities that played Film Forum two years ago—drifting as it does on the lapping tide of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s roots-procession score. But there does remain a strong current of tribute: the visual record as it’s culled together here often focuses on the black sharecroppers displaced by the Delta’s levee breaches. The film offers both an extended tour of the devastation (a paddle trip down Main Street shows the roofs of the stores sloping down directly into the water) and a sort of testament to under-duress human endurance (folks pack out what they can from their submerged homesteads; workers heap dirt and sandbags along the unruly river; in downtime, musicians pick out songs we will never be able to hear).
The material state of the drawn-upon negatives does not result in shrouded action so much as it renders each gesture more eerily poignant. Dancing ribbons darken the edges of the frame to such an extent that an exodus-by-train appears as if through a keyhole; frequently, something resembling black lichen overtakes the screen, having colonized the brightest portions of the picture plane, but through it human movements are somehow still detectible. Just as we witness the river breaking its banks and wearing away the surrounding terrain, so it becomes clear that these undulating flecks and dapples are nothing other than the furrows that humidity has worn in the filmic record. The Great Flood, plainspoken as it is, nonetheless develops an undertow of considerable force: it stands as a history lesson so vividly immediate as to resemble a ghostly conjuration—an account of what people did and where they stood and how their eyes briefly met the camera straight-on—but also a dying-light reminder of the ravages of time, of just how wide a gulf a few generations can be.
Opens January 8