" For an educated man you repeat things a lot "
— Kevin Spacey, K-PAX

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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What is it about Bill Morrison’s films that make them so unique? I’ve now watched 16 of his films appearing in the new boxed set from Icarus Films: Bill Morrison Collected Works 1996-2013, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that there are three rings to Morrison’s visual circus: there is the actual, physical film itself, there is the frozen-in-time subject of the imagery, and there is that particular piece of captured time that the film represents. The whole work is then packaged in a big soundtrack tent.

I’ve also concluded that this five-disk set is one of the finest collections of films in one package I’ve ever seen.

Morrison's work gets the Icarus treatment
Morrison’s work gets the Icarus treatment

Icarus Films previously released Morrison’s Decasia (reviewed here) and The Great Flood (reviewed here), and now, to my delight, their new offering has both of those films as well as earlier and later works by Morrison. I’ll admit to being an admirer of Morrison’s work from the moment I first saw Decasia, his 2002 break-out film, a visionary repurposing of old, damaged footage into a wonderfully lyrical piece of art. The Great Flood (2013) seemed to be a sort of counterpoint to Decasia, but with only the two films to work from, I could learn little else about the filmmaker. With The Collected Works, I now have some context, and I can see that Morrison’s aesthetic and intent is not merely serendipitous.

Curiously, the films are not arranged chronologically, but bracketed by the Decasia and Great Flood disks and grouped in a way I’ve not figured out. Nevertheless, the body of work can now seen as a whole, which is what makes this such a great set. It reveals that Morrison has a fairly broad range to his work. For example, the seeming randomness of the footage in Decasia contrasts with The Great Flood and Miners’ Hymns which are historical documentaries without words. Release and Outerborough are studies of captured time, seen through the lens of repetition. The Story Of Her is a dramatized story of a moment when film was metamorphosing from popular entertainment to venerated art. And Ghost Trip is simply straight-up traditional filmmaking. Yet all are clearly done by the same hand.

One constant in all of Morrison’s work is an interest in people — in their faces, homes, and lives. This is most obvious in Re: Awakenings, historical clinical footage of patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica -induced comas, and the moment they regain consciousness. It can be seen in the faces boldly looking out from the crowd and into the camera in Miner’s Hymns, a study of 20th-century English coal miners, or in Porch, a home-movie portrait of an ordinary American family, taken over many years and framed in the porch of their house. It can be seen in Release where the eager faces of the crowd waiting to see Al Capone are seen again and again and again. You see them so many times over and over, you almost get to know each one. So when you then watch Outerborough, a fixed-camera view taken from the trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in 1899 and which is devoid of human faces, the machine-like busy music and flashing iron posts and girders are all the more impersonal and mechanistic. Outerborough is perhaps the exception that makes the humanist rule.

Another element in a Morrison film is the study of time. Film straddles that gap between temporal non-physical art like music, and spatial art like photography. His works take the audience outside of ordinary film and even outside time itself and let us look back at that temporal river in which we are immersed and of which we are usually unaware. The repetition in Outerborough and Release are cases in point. Morrison also looks at time in the artifact-from-another-period aspect of antique photographs and the flow-of-time in the performance arts and in particular, music. Indeed, Morrison’s films are often presented as performance works.

Enveloping all of Morrison’s visuals is the audio, for which he collaborates with musicians and composers. This is an interesting problem because the soundtrack colors whatever is on the screen. It is perhaps the single most important element of the work. To see the same visual with a different soundtrack changes everything, and that is itself an interesting comment, on all film. In the accompanying notes, Morrison says he gives some minimal art direction to the musician/composer and then edits the footage to the resulting audio. In other words, the sound track comes first. I suppose it could be argued that Morrison cannot change the sequence of events in the found footage... that he inherits them... so why not allow inheritance in the music as well? This is the kind of musing a solid piece of art can evoke. Still, I have to wonder what would happen if Morrison were to edit the audio with the same style in which he edits the visual. Indeed there is a nifty bit of audio looping in Ghost Trip, though it is simply linked to the accompanying visual loop.

Because this is such a sizable collection of work, We can see that Morrison is not tied to one pat solution for his films’ audio component and that he has a dynamic range in, if nothing else, his ability to recruit diverse musical sources. What would really make the nut here would be to have this set retitled as Bill Morrison (And Friends): The Collected Works and then include an audio CD with further samples of the various composers’ and musicians’ work. That is of course pure fantasy... herding that particular gaggle of cats would be a heroic task indeed.

All told, this is an excellent body of work by filmmaker and distributor.