A Poetic Archaeology of Cinema: The Films of Bill Morrison
Skip to main content

A Poetic Archaeology of Cinema: The Films of Bill Morrison

Time is a central aspect in all cinema–the illusion of the art form is, after all, based upon fragments of seconds, thrown into rapid succession–but the constant movement of time, the inexorable march of history, is especially unavoidable in the films of Bill Morrison. In his work, the passage of time appears in different guises: as both a historical process that traces the evolution of humanity throughout history and as an autonomous, existential force to which all matter, living and otherwise, must fall prey. Whether treating the march of time as fodder for a narrative of human history or as an irreversible process of flux and decay, Morrison’s films utilize traces of found footage littered throughout our cinematic past, ambitiously attempting to grapple with the ambiguous concept of “time” itself.

First in Morrison’s work, there is history as we know it: capturing events from the past to which we no longer have firsthand access, trying to understand previous ways of life by deciphering the traces left behind. The advent of the film camera in the late 19th century revolutionized our conception of the past, as visual indexes of a particular time period could reveal a multitude of minute traces all at once, giving an impression of, say, a Parisian street or American circus in the late 1890s that no textual description could match. The very first films ever screened continue to provide such remarkable historical snapshots: the Lumière Brothers’ films of workers leaving Parisian factories, for example, offer a keyhole viewpoint of a world that now seems totally alien to us.

Some of Bill Morrison’s “documentaries,” if his work can indeed be described with this label, offer similar historical knowledge. The Film of Her (1996), though partially a fact-fiction hybrid that imbues the act of film preservation with a sense of forbidden love, also offers a fascinating account of the Library of Congress’s Paper Print Collection (in the early years of cinema, filmmakers copyrighted their work by inscribing it onto paper, concluding that movies could be considered creative property if they were tactile like books). Release (2007) details the transfer of Al Capone from Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary to Chicago in 1930 through a single panning shot, combining historical documentation with abstract formal play. Morrison’s later films The Miners’ Hymns (2010) and The Great Flood (2012) offer similarly illuminating footage of coal mining in the northeast region of Durham, England, and the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood, respectively. These films follow a methodology similar to such anthological documentaries as Chris Marker’s Grin without a Cat (1977) and Thomas Heise’s Material (2009): eschewing overt explication, they offer visual access to the rampaging torrent of history, simply bearing witness to the zeitgeist and hoping we’ll be able to decode the evidence.

Yet the passing of time also takes on a more cosmological scope in Morrison’s films: often deploying severely decayed nitrate film (which, though lethally flammable, provided the film industry with its sparkling images until a new safety acetate film was introduced in 1948), his work makes us aware of the irreversibility of time–the existential fact that everything, whether living, chemical, or plastic, dies and decays. True, films have sometimes been seen as vanquishing time, as immortalizing images (and human figures) in some kind of eternal youth. This is why André Bazin, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, wrote that cinema could finally achieve the ancient Egyptians’ goal of embalming and mummifying the dead. Yet, in such Morrison films as Decasia (2002), Light is Calling (2004, which screened at the Walker that same year), and Just Ancient Loops (2012), witnessing human figures recorded about a century ago smothered by the bubbling, oozing splotches that nitrate film decays into is to realize that time, in spite of what Bazin claimed, eventually triumphs over cinema.

The duality of time as both historical subject and existential force in Morrison’s films also provides the fulcrum for the filmmaker’s documentary and experimental tendencies. The sort of director who is not easily categorized, he is as interested in heightening his audience’s sensorial perception as he is in explicating historical time periods. These dual interests are not dichotomous; they are, instead, flipsides of the same historical coin, a way of perceiving the march of time as both dependent upon humanity and an autonomous force of nature. As the website for Morrison’s Hypnotic Pictures asserts, “His work often makes use of rare archival footage in which forgotten film imagery is reframed as part of our collective mythology.” This mythological aspect is bolstered by the fact that these historical images take on a perverse beauty that can only be wrought by the decay of celluloid.

His work as an experimental filmmaker began in the early 1990s, when he started making semi-abstract films to be incorporated into multimedia performances for New York’s Ridge Theater. Inspired by the avant-garde animator Robert Breer (who taught Morrison at Cooper Union), Morrison began experimenting with the interplay between still and moving images, using innovative processing techniques in doing so. He shot motion-picture film, printed photographs from the 16mm negatives, and developed the images using a paintbrush rather than chemical baths, giving each still image a unique, painterly look.

Morrison’s early interest in film’s simultaneous existence as a recorded image and a material entity would later form the crux of his found-footage work, as it is the deterioration of the material itself that enables such hauntingly surreal imagery. For example, Decasia: The State of Decay (2002)–his most well-known film (and the one that Errol Morris claimed is possibly the greatest movie ever made)–relies upon an optical printer to reshoot severely damaged nitrate film onto a separate print, transferring each single frame numerous times in order to prolong the movement into trippy semi-slow-motion. The imagery and its material basis are inseparable in Decasia.

Another American avant-garde filmmaker inspired the segue between Morrison’s early work and his found-footage experiments. Ken Jacobs’ landmark 1969 film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son utilized archival footage from the Library of Congress’s Paper Print Collection, inspiring Morrison to begin purchasing his own prints from the collection and incorporating them into his filmmaking as early as 1992 (with the short Footprints). Four years later, Morrison made a somewhat more overt documentary about this archival collection, The Film of Her–though in the manner of the best experimental filmmakers, even this edifying “documentary” is shrouded in mystery and obfuscation. Besides Jacobs, Morrison has a fertile lineage of found-footage filmmaking to draw from–beginning, arguably, with Joseph Cornell in the 1940s and Bruce Conner in the 1950s, long before found-footage pastiches became a postmodern pastime for YouTube browsers–yet Morrison often seems to approach this archival imagery with a more philosophical bent, questioning the existence of media imagery as living beings as well as formal compositions.

From the start, Morrison approached the historical nature of this footage in a metaphysical way, perceiving the evolution of film itself as a kind of cosmological history in miniature. Because the Library of Congress’s collection is comprised of films from the earliest years of cinema (1896 to 1912), he surmised that it “referenced a very important ‘Beginning’–the beginning of cinema, and infancy in images. Using primitive film I could talk about early man, or childhood, or the evolution of the species.” Even The Film of Her begins with found footage of cells splitting and bubbling primordial oozes, as though the Paper Print Collection provides the origins of the universe itself.

While screening The Film of Her at the first Orphaned Film Symposium at the University of South Carolina in 1999, Morrison–having already received a commission to create an avant-garde film to be screened live alongside Michael Gordon’s newest symphony–checked out the Fox Movietone archive, much of which was in an advanced period of decay. Images of boxers sparring with vertical smears of bleeding chemicals or stern nuns emerging from a hazy fog of photosensitive blotches ultimately led the filmmaker to pitch a film-symphony about “decay” to Gordon, resulting in the overwhelming sensory experience that is Decasia. Accompanied by a blistering wall of sound, the images which Morrison recycles are swirling cyclones of light and shape, both gorgeous and melancholy. This original footage is beyond restoration and, had it not been duplicated in Decasia, would not have survived much longer. The extinction of these images is immanent, but perched as they are at the brink of death, they attain an unsettling beauty. To a great extent the images depend on serendipity, as the visual decay is positioned with uncanny precision to cloak or interact with onscreen figures. The act of decomposition is thus a guiding auteur in Decasia, similar to the way in which sheer chance is a compositional principle in such innovative works as Michael Snow’s La région central (1971), in which the camera is affixed to a large gyroscope, or Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All (2006), in which an entirely automated camera relies upon computerized algorithms to create visual compositions.

Decasia has been described as an impassioned plea for film restoration and preservation, and there’s no doubt that the decay of the nitrate images on display contributes to a bleak sense of hopelessness. Yet celluloid is not the only thing deteriorating here: the images themselves are comprised of humans, animals, machines, the natural world—all of which are in a constant state of flux (with evisceration its inevitable endpoint). Decasia may be nihilistic, but its central theme–that time cannot be conquered, that all things are in a constant process of reverting to entropic origins–also yields a specific beauty. In the words of film critic André Habib, “The disappearance of film, not by technical obsolescence, but by an organic-chemical law, is as inevitable as the erosion of stones or the aging of bodies. You can slow it down, but you cannot prevent it.”

It’s not all death and dismay in Morrison’s films, though, as suggested by the remarkable short Light Is Calling. Utilizing severely damaged images from the 1927 Lionel Barrymore vehicle The Bells (also the source for Morrison’s 2003 film The Mesmerist), he concocts a dramatic rendezvous between a soldier and his star-crossed lover. Set to Gordon’s surprisingly tender score (practically the polar opposite of his music for Decasia), the two lovers emerge from foreboding swirls of nitrate decay, finally reuniting in a story of film characters conquering the material detritus that threatens to engulf them. If Decasia had a happy ending, it might have been this.

As the optical printing in Decasia slows the process of decay into a hypnotic languidness, Gordon’s shrieking score of bells and brass sounds an overpowering death knell. In fact, many of Morrison’s films began life as collaborations with renowned composers and musicians: Gordon also scored Light of Being (2004) and Who by Water (2007); Bill Frisell provided the music for The Mesmerist (2003) and The Great Flood (2012); Vijay Iyer composed the soundtrack for Release (2010), Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson for The Miners’ Hymns (2010), Michael Harrison for Just Ancient Loops (2012), and Simon Christensen for Tributes: Pulse (2011), which was originally conceived as a tribute to four American musicians (Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Trent Reznor). In other words, despite their near-total absence of dialogue, spoken narration, and sound effects, it’s absurd to think of Morrison’s films as silent: the musical scores are central to their unsettling power, as the New Yorker recognizes when it notes one sequence in Decasia in which four trombones simultaneously blare an E-flat minor–“the unofficial key of death.”

Another powerful example of the centrality of music is The Great Flood, Morrison’s documentary of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The most devastating river flood in US history, the Great Mississippi Flood broke its levees in 145 places and engulfed 27,000 square miles. It also contributed to the Great Migration of tens of thousands of black southerners to the northern states–especially to Chicago, where southern blues music became electrified and transformed into a distinctively gritty Chicago blues style and indirectly led to the rise of rock and roll. Ironically, then, despite the calamitous devastation on display in The Great Flood, it ends up being one of Morrison’s most hopeful films: the final two sequences of the movie (entitled “Migration” and “Watershed”) herald the development of a new musical art form, positing creativity as a powerful weapon to counteract tragedy and death. Whereas the power of art has little place in Decasia, it is the ultimately optimistic centerpiece of The Great Flood, which closes with a beautifully understated shot of a southern émigré wielding his electric guitar.

The Great Flood also offers uncommonly intimate visual access to a huge cast of (unknown) characters circa 1927: simply by peering into the faces of African American sharecroppers or a jovial upper-class family awaiting rescue, we might almost get a sense of the human drama that transpired when the levees broke. Morrison is often described as an abstract experimenter, but the lingering attention he pays to striking human faces also points towards his humanism: we can never forget that real people took part in these historical dramas.

The nameless characters we follow in The Miners’ Hymns are conveyed with similar respect and sensitivity. A visual document of the coal mines in Durham throughout the early 20th century, the film draws almost exclusively from archival footage originally produced by the National Coal Board’s Film Unit. What you notice immediately is the incredibly high standard to which their cinematographers held themselves: flawlessly lit, in gorgeous high contrast, these images of churning Moloch-like machinery and weary-eyed miners toiling in the wee hours of the morning are breathtakingly beautiful. Such footage allows us to become immersed in a world we would otherwise hardly know: shots of toddlers and a puppy running blissfully down a mountain of coal seem to belong to a hermetically-sealed sliver of time, so alien in look and feel that it seems impossible they took place less than a century ago. Actually, it may not be too surprising that Morrison feels a great affinity for these coal miners: as Manohla Dargis points out in her New York Times review, he is “a miner himself of a type,” excavating the archives for the fertile fragments that might be found within. What’s more, the celluloid film industry is currently facing an extinction to which the British coal mining industry has already succumbed: if the coal mines we see have since been replaced by box stores and soccer stadiums, the films that Morrison appropriates will soon be supplanted by DCP files and digital projectors.

Given the materiality of his images–the fact that they depend upon the decay of the physical strip of film–one might ask how Morrison’s method changes with the digital revolution. After all, Decasia might be about all natural decay rather than the growing obsolescence of celluloid, but over the last decade the transformation of film production and exhibition from celluloid to digital forms has steamrolled ahead, leading some to proclaim that the death of celluloid is at hand. Obviously, the deterioration of film is still the impetus and guiding principle for his work, but he’s also able to incorporate digital technologies into his practice: as he told IndieWire in 2012, “When I started with Decasia…we stayed analogue all the way through. We found film masters, and we printed optically, and I cut it on a Steenbeck…. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone now. But the last films have all been assembled digitally, so in a way that subject matter, and the close physical relationship with film stock, probably isn’t as pronounced now as it was in the earlier work.”

In a way, then, Morrison practices an ideal fusion between analogue and digital technologies, relying upon celluloid as a formal base yet editing (and often projecting) using digital technology. In retrospect, we can more clearly see that Decasia is not so much about the tragic death of celluloid as about the deterioration of all matter, whether living, organic, or manmade. He bemusedly accepts the digital revolution: “Like all of us, I now live in a digital world. So for me to insist everything remain analogue is kind of disingenuous.” As time marches on, media technologies transform along with the world around it. What remains unsaid, however, is that digital files are subject to the same law of decay that plagues all physical matter: they too will become corrupted or eviscerated over time, though the images contained within will presumably not deteriorate with the same morbid beauty as their nitrate brethren.

What distinguishes films such as Decasia and Just Ancient Loops from like-minded works–aside from their breathtaking, haunting dream imagery–may be Morrison’s metaphysical scope. Through seemingly abstract patterns, he hints at the simultaneous autonomy and flexibility of time: the impossibility of halting or bending it, yet at the same time the ability for images to reappear across history, giving rise to wildly new impressions and contexts. In doing so, he somehow seems to approach the nature of existence (human and otherwise) in a universe perpetually subject to the erosion of time. His films take place in an uncanny gray area between life and death, between survival and decay; on the brink of absence and presence, they remind us that cinematic images always exist in this nebulous zone, constantly in danger of vanishing into nothing at all.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.