An Artist Archaeologist’s Palette: Ghostly, Decaying Film Stock is Bill Morrison’s Raw Found-Footage Doc Material

As of 2016, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which inducts 25 new titles each year “showcasing the range and diversity of American film heritage,” only lists three movies made in this century.

One is James Benning’s 2004, 16mm documentary 13 Lakes. Another, Mark Jonathan Harris’ 2000 Oscar-winning doc Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, recollects the secret smuggling of 9,300 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Germany. The third seems, at first sight, like a simple cluster of old film clips, smeared with decay, plotless. A significant segment is made up of archival footage of a whirling dervish, played multiple times in slow motion to a disquieting soundtrack by Michael Gordon.

Let Bill Morrison’s Decasia sink in, though, and you slowly realize you’re being entangled in a meticulous study on film history: a study on our relationship with the medium and how it changes (or doesn’t) in time. In Morrison’s first full-length feature, the protagonist isn’t Mary Pickford, or any of the other famous silent-era faces who emerge, grainily, here and there. Film’s very material decomposition is the lead. The scarred celluloid naturally documents time’s passage.

The Chicago-born and New York-based Morrison has redefined documentary film with his other works, as well. In 2010’s The Miners’ Hymns, for example, he again shows little more than archival footage, alongside only a couple of minutes of additional aerial shots. We hear music—composed by Sicario’s Jóhann Jóhannsson—but no words. Yet the choice and composition of the clips tell a powerful story of coal-mining communities in Northeast England. Morrison’s balancing act, between providing a commentary and omitting it completely, is astonishing.

With the exception of some of his short films (like “Ghost Trip”), Morrison rarely films any footage. Where others would repair and restore, he caters to the scratches and blisters of archival filmstrips. His collaborations with composers, from Philip Glass to leading jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, tie picture and music together exceptionally tightly. Through it all, though, the Bill Morrison touch remains distinguishable, giving forgotten footage a contemporary relevance with a trademark lyricism and meditativeness.

Now, four years after his film The Great Flood (which examined the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in American history), Morrison explores the rise and fall of Dawson City in Yukon, Canada. Supported by a score by Alex Somers, Dawson City: Frozen Time tells both Yukon’s gold-mining history and the bizarre true story of a collection of 35mm silent film prints that was hidden for 50 years.

Bill Morrison at the 20th Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, where his work was honored with a retrospective. Photograph by Dominik Hejbal

Tomáš Miklica, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Do you consider yourself to be a film archaeologist?

Bill Morrison (BM): Yeah, in a popular sense of the term. Meaning I do like to look at old stuff. But archaeologists are trained professionals and I don’t have any scientific training. There are people who do forensic work who can tell almost everything from an edge frame number. So loosely applied, I am an archaeologist, but I am an artist first.

MM: Yet you sometimes go to the places where archeological discoveries are made. For example, Dawson City, where, in 1978, a cache of 20th century film reels was found underneath a hockey rink.

BM: I went there, that’s true. But since the films are now stored elsewhere—as they are a part of the national collection—I was, rather, exhuming a story. I was an archeologist of the story. I went to Dawson City to interview the people. Most of the digging happens in an archive.

MM: From the Dawson City find, about 500 films dating from 1910s to 1920s were restored. They are part of Dawson City: Frozen Time. How often is a trove like this discovered?

BM: It’s not an unheard-of story. If you looked on a map and tried to figure out what the last town to have any money at the end of a continent would be, you would find the same thing. It’s the end of a distribution line. In New Zealand, for instance, they uncovered a lot of films that had accumulated—it had become too expensive to ship them down. In Tierra del Fuego, there was a lot of money—a cinema and films coming in from Europe—so you would find films there. There are far-flung spots that you can look at on a map and I think you would find a similar story: films in somebody’s attic or buried, because films represented such a fire hazard.

A still from Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017). Photograph by Kathy Jones Gates

MM: What is the process of making a found-footage film? 

BM: Sometimes the idea is suggested by the footage. For instance, with The Great Flood, I was looking at imagery for what was an artistic, poetic project, but I became interested by how all the footage was from the same year, and it became a different project about that flood and that specific year. I allow myself that sort of lateral movement—to be in an archive and have an idea suggested by the imagery. It’s very much a line of chance and serendipity: just going down to an archive and seeing what’s rotting and what is being thrown away.

There’s also the type of film where I am going to and from many different archives and many different films, trying to tell a story. For Dawson City I needed a shot showing somebody burying film. Where are you going to find that? So I started thinking—in time capsules, right? And people putting a film into a cornerstone underneath a building. I looked for newsreel footage until I could find that image.

Dawson City was an old idea. It was a film I very much wanted to make and circumstances arose that made me realize that this was the time to do it. I am really grateful that nobody had thought of doing it before.

MM: Found-footage films are not the most accessible entertainment as they lack obvious plot, or even meaning. Is it important for you that the audience gets the idea?

BM: This type of work is going to be lost on some people anyway. But if there are people who understand that there’s a commentary about cinema and how cinema relates to the human experience of the world, my films are going to have another layer for them. I know it doesn’t work for everyone. But I do hope to provide an incredible visual stimulation, even if you’re not understanding the film on a metaphorical level. First and foremost, a film has be visually compelling. I come out of a pictorial art tradition. I moved from painting to film because I was looking for an immersive experience where the audience is enveloped in the music and the dark room.

The use of old film has many different interpretations. It’s not just one thing; for each project I am using it in a different way. Films could be buried in the ground for 50 years and we could take them back up and they would still have the same intentions that the filmmakers had when they made them. They’d have changed just by nature of the time that passed. Whatever’s happened to them physically is an embodiment of that.

People bring their experiences and their prejudices going in. If somebody wants to read my films as strictly experimental, they’ll be appalled by the fact that I use music. If somebody wants to see my films as strictly documentary or as essays, it won’t work either, as they are a type of poetry.

A still from Bill Morrison’s Little Orphant Annie (2016). Courtesy of Bill Morrison

MM: When talking about found-footage films, would you say genres are applicable?

BM: Definitely. Mesmerist is a horror film, for example. People interpret Decasia as a horror film as well and I welcome that reading of it. There’s this horror thing where the spirit world is represented in decaying nitrate, so it lends itself to that. And the music sometimes is scary and disharmonic. As genre goes, documentary is very forgiving. Anything could be a document.

MM: How would you compare the kind of footage you usually work with to contemporary cinema?

BM: Silent cinema is not particularly sophisticated. There’re a lot of the same tropes in the narrative, the same themes; it can become very repetitive. Cinema has come a long way. One thing you notice is that back then the image was much more monumental—nitrate base held more silver, and it’s really magical to see that kind of definition. The definition is also paired with decay. It’s compelling that on one hand, you have an image that’s in a certain way much finer and more detailed than anything we can see today, and at the same time it’s being obliterated.

There’s no question that as people we’ve evolved with cinema. We tell stories differently. A hundred and twenty years ago you couldn’t tell a story with images. It always had to be either actors on stage or it had to be written or painted. Thanks to early narrative geniuses like D. W. Griffith, our brains changed so that we could understand stories being told in a series of images. We had to be taught how to do that. Also, you and I are able to understand quick cuts much better than our parents were. Every generation has taken the language in a different direction. The current generation, that has no experience with celluloid and is completely emerged in digital media, is going to take it in different directions too—directions those of us who’re rooted in 24 frames per second and celluloid film wouldn’t be able to conceive of taking it. In terms of editing and story structure, film’s a constantly evolving form. MM

Dawson City: Frozen Time opens June 9, 2017, courtesy of Kino Lorber Films. Featured image photograph by Kathy Jones Gates.

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