Monday, January 6, 2014

Bill Morrison and Bill Frisell's THE GREAT FLOOD gets U.S. premiere at IFC Center on Wednesday

Photography hounds -- particularly those who love the archival stuff -- along with history buffs and cinephiles of many stripes have a treat in store this week, as a most unusual movie opens here in New York City. THE GREAT FLOOD, a combination of archival footage found and arranged by Bill Morrison with music by Bill Frisell, takes us back to spring, 1927, when the Mississippi River rose over its banks in 145 places -- inundating 27,000 square miles (to a depth of up to 30 feet!). The flooding caused a mass exodus of displaced sharecroppers, thus adding to the migration of southern blacks to the northern United States, marking the coming of major changes in everything from population distribution and employment opportunities to culture and music.

Mr. Morrison, pictured at left, is the man responsible for the glowing, beautiful and moving documentary, The Miners' Hymns from 2010, and I would say that his love and under-standing of history, photography and justice is as equally strong in this new film. Again, there is no narration or dialog in The Great Flood. Instead, it's all visuals and accompanying music. But what visuals and music!

The latter is provided by guitarist/composer Bill Frisell, shown at right, who with other musicians and Morrison, tra-veled to the south during 2011 -- when the Mississippi again flooded to levels unseen since 1927 -- and were, one imag-ines, alternately freaked out & inspired by what they saw.

The visual footage Morrison has unearthed is remarkable in a couple of ways: that it still exists and he found it, for one thing; for another, that some of the film, having been shot on nitrate stock, has partially disintegrated. This deterioration does fit into the filmmaker's esthetic (Decasia) and, as used here, gives the finished film a kind of decaying/magisterial, glorified/sorrowful look.

In our current era of overdone special effects, this degraded film stock takes on its own odd, special-effect signature, bringing to the movie something that goes beyond even its usual (and often very special) "archival" appearance.

Musically, the movie is special, too, beginning with Frisell's use of the introduction to the great Jerome Kern song Ol' Man River, which we hear over and over, almost as a kind of vamping to help set us up for the powerful chorus. Never fear, that chorus eventually is heard in all its glory toward the film's finale. In between Frisell and his musicians (Ron Miles, trumpet; Tony Scherr, bass, guitar; and Kenny Wollesen, drums, vibes) give us all sorts of music, mostly jazz-inflected, that eventually combines to take us back to an event, in a time and place that seem both a century past and all too timely once again.

By timely I do not mean simply the new millennial flooding. It does not take much to imagine, as well, most of our country's citizens once again becoming sharecroppers of a sort, working for the wealthy and the corporations. Yet you can watch The Great Flood, I suppose, and not even dwell on any of that. Just lose yourself in the images, the music and the flow. But Morrison has divided his opus into sections, and one of these is titled, as I recall, "Politicians." Yup: There they are, and their behavior then is so like their behavior now that it is difficult not to draw conclusions.

Beginning with shots of maps of the area covered, the movie takes its time getting us to those old photos and film stock, but the wait becomes almost suspenseful, and once we see the images, both still and moving, we're hooked. By the time we get to the section in which the powers-that-be try to control the flood by blowing stuff up (below -- and uselessly, as it turns out), the incompetence and venality of certain of our governments becomes even clearer: This flood, along with the Katrina disaster, both took place under Republican administrations.

As much as I enjoyed -- reveled in -- the beauty of the film, I have to admit that the constant, uninterrupted flow of images and music did grow almost hypnotic from time to time, so a little pinch on the face or arm was necessary to snap my eyes to attention again. Otherwise, this film will be a must-see for many of us. You know who you are.

The Great Flood, from Icarus Films, in black-and-white and running just 80 minutes, opens this Wednesday, January 8, in New York City at the IFC Center, and on January 9 in Hudson, NY, at Time & Space Limited. Other engagements across the country? Hope so. And, yes: We've just learned that this film will be opening in Los Angeles this Friday, January 24, for a week-long run at the Downtown Independent. Meanwhile its NYC release at IFC Center has been extended. As is true, I believe, of most Icarus films, it will eventually be released on DVD, and maybe to digital and streaming -- though all of this can take a very long time, so see it at the theatrical venues, if possible. (How long? Well, one of the best docs of 2010, Icarus' Disco & Atomic War will be arriving on home video DVD and VOD on February 25 -- well over three years after its American theatrical debut.)

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