The Miners' Hymns
Directed by Bill Morrison
Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison is known primarily for his excavations of the past, or the uncanny version of it cached on eroding film stock. But The Miners’ Hymns, a collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, begins with a horizon of modern-day earth tones: The flyover surveys a swath of northeast England where several coal mines once thrived (now replaced by sprawling car parks). As the helicopter touches down near the coast, Morrison transports us back into the ashen 20th century, with slowed silent footage of miners gathering with their families under union banners, trudging off to work from rows of uniform homes, and toiling underground to cart out the black rock. Later videotape bears witness to confrontations with police in riot gear.
Jóhannsson’s swelling parade march evokes the dignity of the vanished community, made immediate by the faces that Morrison unearths. One stooped rally attendee peers directly out from the corner of the frame; the pickaxes and headlamps eventually seem to double as symbols for these piercings across time, which diminish in number as the film proceeds. In its legacy curation, Miners’ differs greatly from Morrison’s best-known work, Decasia (2002), a time-ravage inferno of celluloid that’s become warped, mottled, or faded, or else has crossed over into resembling its own negative. He does find in the colliery, however, a loose parallel to the decomposing archive.
Miners’ has top billing, but three other Morrison time trips take up the first half-hour of Film Forum’s 85-minute program. The Film of Her (1996) more straightforwardly engages the topic of film preservation, centering on a Library of Congress clerk who rescues “the whole beginning of cinema”; his fantasy about the time-fixing capabilities of celluloid itself crystallizes around an early porn film.
Tracking the el over the Brooklyn Bridge and panning the crowd at Al Capone’s release from prison, respectively, Outerborough (2005) and Release (2010) are both split-screen mirrorings that prompt contemplation—through their manipulated geometries and feedback-loop structures—of the flickering images’ remove from the moment transpired. The title Outerborough’s similarity to Ouroboros is perhaps not incidental. In these films, as in much of Morrison’s work, we witness the past receding back into itself.
Opens February 8 at Film Forum