Monday, February 6, 2012

Film Forum offers a quartet of Bill Morrison movies: silent films that have plenty to say

Before viewing the four films under discussion here, TrustMovies had never heard of Chicago-born Bill Morrison (shown at right). Now that he's seen the work debuting this week at Film Forum here in New York City, he won't soon forget the filmmaker. Not a huge fan of experimental movies, TM nonethe-less found this program of four films (three short and one longer) surprisingly riveting, beautiful to view, and at times nearly hypnotic.

To dispense with one point upfront -- before this venue finds itself contending with the sort of the thing that has evidently plagued U.S. theaters showing The Artist -- Morrsion's work, at least in three of the movies shown in this program, is what you could call "silent film," in that it is comprised of only visuals (mostly black-and-white) and music. There's no narration or dialog of any kind.

The visuals, however, are so striking, and the music so alternately bouncy and/or beautiful that the combination proves more than enough to challenge and entertain. The first film on the program, OUTERBOROUGH (above, 8 minutes, 2005) has us traveling by streetcar across the Brooklyn Bridge circa 1899 -- except that Morrison has split the screen so that we're simultaneously coming and going and can see where we're headed, as well as where we've been. As the camera speeds up we go a little crazy, and then we have to contend with.... I'm not sure if these are flashbacks, a double exposure, or what. But it's fun and bracing, and the perky, rhythmic traveling music by Todd Reynolds is delightful, as well.

THE FILM OF HER (above, 12 minutes, 1996) is a tale -- whether documentary or fiction, I'm not sure -- about a fellow who grew up around cinema and now works in a film archive where he makes a shocking discovery or two. He finds the original of a movie that impressed him more than any other as a child (and which appears to me to be a bit of early pornography), featuring the "her" of the title looking like she's about to go at it with a him, whom we also see. This film, the only one of the four to have a recited narrative (a voice-over by Morrison and Guy DeLancey), is also about film preservation (Martin Scorsese would heartily approve!) and how film effects our lives. Though barely hinted at, this story still pulls you in and makes its mark.

In its off-kilter way the most hypnotic and bizarre film in the program, RELEASE (above, 13 minutes, 2010) shows us a crowd of people and cameras waiting in the vicinity of a prison. Morrison appears to have taken the original film and somehow "flopped" it, so that its mirror image is also on view. He then moves the camera so that one side of the image seems to be consuming the other, making it disappear into its mirror self. This gives us the sense of an almost formal yet near-magical sci-fi effect. And because the filmmaker tells his "story" with repetition after repetition, each one going a bit farther along, we begin to ferret out a story: these people are waiting for someone. Who? If you don't finally recognize him, you certainly will from the name in the end credits. The appropriate sound design and music is by Vijay Iyer.

The longest piece of the four, THE MINERS' HYMNS (above and below, 51 minutes, 2011), offers us Mr. Morrison working in color, at least during the opening and penultimate sections, in which the camera glides over the locations of former British coal mines that are today mostly green and verdant areas. This is accompanied by music of great feeling, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose score for this film is a keeper (that's the composer, below, right, with Morrison).

After this color footage, we cut to some vintage shots of crowds composed, I am thinking, of miners and their families, from the early 20th century and the Durham Miners' Association. Slowly the footage seems to make its way toward the mid-century mark (below), and the section ends with the shot of a child holding a gun -- a toy, of course. Well, probably. But the point is made.

When we get to the scenes of the working miners (below) and the back-breaking work of pushing one of those coal cars, the sense of enclosure, of danger, is frightening. We see the coal being mined, and the dust, and we're cognizant of the miners' lungs. We want to call out to these men, "For god's sake, wear masks!"

The film offers a seashore section (is that coal being skimmed from the sea?) showing children running up a slag heap. This may remind you in its way of Margot Benacerraf's Araya -- except instead of glistening, white sea salt, the product is pitch black coal. (Probably the whitest thing we see here is the laundry hung out to dry in the photo at bottom.)

Then comes the police and the barricades and preparing for a strike. At first we might think this "British reserve" is much preferable to what went on here in the USA (see John Sayles' Matewan or Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One), but then all hell seems to break loose and we're not so sure.

The film ends with a parade and celebration of that Durham Miners' Association, ending up inside, of course, a church. Some may see beauty and divinity here; others of us, supreme hypocrisy. One thing we'll agree on: that superb Jóhannsson score, played to the hilt by a 21-piece orchestra.

Opening at New York City's Film Forum this Wednesday, February 8, for a one-week run, these four fine films (the entire program runs approximately 85 minutes), distributed by Icarus Films, will also play elsewhere around the country. Click here (then scroll up or down a bit) to see the venues scheduled so far.

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