April opened in Columbus with clear skies and filmmaker Bill Morrison's The Great Flood, his new collaboration with composer/guitarist Bill Frisell. This ninety-minute film is composed largely of archival footage shot during the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, one of our country's greatest natural disasters—as ten minutes of the film will amply convince any viewer.
Sections of the footage are damaged by age and inadequate storage, yet Morrison artfully incorporates the pocks, shadowy discoloration, and fissures of these frames into his visual design. They underscore the sense of endless watery decay and destruction. They heighten the film's elegiac feel.
Morrison regularly has his silent films like The Great Flood accompanied by music composed and performed by outstanding contemporary musicians. We in Columbus recall that in February of 2011, the Jazz Arts Group brought us Morrison's Spark of Being, a deeply affecting reinterpretation of the Frankenstein story, with music by trumpeter Dave Douglas and his electric sextet, Keystone. I reviewed this performance in New Music Box . The film, organized from scraps of distressed footage gleaned from archives and assembled in chapters for the new story; the scored/improvised music, with haunting motifs that followed (or led) characters and themes through the story—every aspect was brilliant and sufficient on its own, and breathtaking all put together. It was a heartstopping experience.
So of course I leapt at the chance to see Morrison's new film, with music by the legendary Frisell. And who wouldn't? It came with every possible endorsement. It was commissioned through Meet the Composers Commissioning Music/USA (United States Artists), by a consortium composed of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the Wexner Center for the Arts of The Ohio State University; Carnegie Hall; Symphony Center Presents in Chicago, and the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Meet the Composers, moreover, is funded by the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and many eminent others. The prospective audience can be pretty sure that their ticket dollars are securely invested.
Alas, for all their combined talent, history of artistic successes, and the enthusiasm of a large audience prepared to clap loudly and confer a standing ovation, Morrison and Frisell failed to keep The Great Flood afloat.
Of the music, it's hard to know what can be fairly said. A preview clip on the page of United States Artists gives a preview of Frisell's music for a quartet: Ron Miles on trumpet; Frisell on guitar; Tony Scherr, bass and guitar; and Kenny Wollesen on drums. But in the program we received, only three instrumentalists were listed. In much smaller type—the size reserved for obligatory lists of publishers and recipients of "special thanks"—it mentioned that the trumpeter Miles had taken ill and would not appear. Because of the fine print and the lack of mention from the stage, it wouldn't have occurred to some that the music was not played as intended.
Thus, many who raved over the music apparently didn't join me in thinking that there surely was something wrong here—something even beyond the monotonous tempo, dynamics, and affect. The audio-video clip, above, from United States Artists, allows one to guess what the quartet would be reduced to a trio lacking a lead instrument.
The Great Flood as a film is so wanting a central, controlling thread that it is formally too like the event it sets out to recount. "Recount" is ironically, though, the wrong word, because there is no story, despite the characterization made in the preview publicity:
"The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in American history. In the spring of 1927, the river broke out of its earthen embankments in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles. The disaster became a major force in spurring the Great Migration of rural sharecroppers to northern industrial cities. The migrants took their music with them, triggering the evolution of acoustic country blues into urban electric blues, then R&B, rock, and jazz."
The film has no flow that connects the first statement to the last. It opens and stays exclusively with the flood for long enough that we have no reason to doubt that its title is indeed its topic.
Morrison has more than enough footage of Biblical levels of water punctuated only by roof peaks and the tops of silos, of stranded animals atop tiny hillocks, and towns eerily identified only by rooftops and gables. He could have condensed quite a bit: As with repetitious images from any calamity, we grow emotionally saturated and lose the moral impact fairly quickly. The recurring vistas of glassy lakes where fields or streets should be ultimately frame an aesthetic, dreamlike event rather than one with much effect on (absent) human beings. The plaintive, monochromatic music (what we heard of it in Columbus) reinforces the sense of psychic and emotional distance.
Morrison's material—the Mississippi River, how it left its channel to swallow the countryside and wreak havoc—invites a structure that reinforces the metaphors inherent in water: flow, channel, distance, formlessness. Instead, he chose a chapter-like structure, similar to that in Spark of Being. The Frankenstein film was ultimately based on a novel, with all the elements of literary story, including the partitioning of chapters. But does the presentation of a flood and its effects suggest such compartmentalization? What's the story?
Indeed,The Great Flood fails to deliver story despite its effort late in the film to initiate one. The titled sections interfere with several weak narrative impulses. Titled narrative units could be building blocks in a ninety-minute story Morrison might wish to tell. That story might even be about the impact of the flood on the evolution of the blues. As it is, he devotes so much time to describing the look of the flood; to the dynamiting of a levee, to the cleanup of a town after the flood that we are lulled into thinking (erroneously?) that the film is simply a loose series of events about—well, about the flood.
In Morrison's early footage we usually see white people when we see people at all. They deploy the rescue boats and man them; they are the people being rescued. We see these people individually.
Whenever we see masses of people, they are Black and laboring, a fact that it's difficult to overlook. Sandbags are filled, moved and placed by gangs of Black men; levees are rebuilt by black men; the chain gang pressed into work in one sequence is mostly Black men.
Too late in the film, we find that Morrison wishes us to connect the consequences of the '27 flood to the northward migration of Blacks, and to the musical changes consequent upon the meeting of rural and urban Blacks in northern cities.
This theme doesn't flow from the images we've seen of Black labor as the backbone of the effort to manage the flood and save the towns. Rather, another section introduces us to sharecroppers. We see fields of cotton being harvested by hundreds of Black workers, bent to their task beneath sunny skies. They load the wagons with their gleanings; we eventually see baled cotton at the shipyard where more Black men move it between freighters and warehouses, again in normal, dry weather. We watch Blacks fill boxcars and flatcars to travel the rails north. A brief final section shows us Blacks making music and dancing in various earthy styles.
The film ends with 1950s urban street scenes, wherein the people in Black neighborhoods play and dance to the newly evolved music that we don't hear, this being a silent film, accompanied by music with "elements of American roots music...refracted through [Frisell's] uniquely evocative approach that highlights essential qualities of his thematic focus." This approach doesn't document the music, though it does document the flood. The migration is portrayed poetically through condensed and elliptical footage, and is presented as a subject where all the live music has been an element of the film's structure, not its subject.
Viewers will believe that The Great Flood is a documentary because the footage appears to have been shot during the actual 1927 event. In making his story of Frankenstein, Morrison drew footage from a multitude of sources and put it together to create a world of new, interpretive images that fascinated the imagination. Here, he introduces nothing from outside the event that might encourage artistic interpretation or lead us to conclude that he is doing anything other than documenting the flood. We can only regard all the water and human responses to it with wonder. Does Morrison consider this a silent documentary? I don't know, but it doesn't "evoke" much beyond its historical self. It doesn't urge us to make an expanding circle of associations.
The decision to stick until the end with footage of the flood disaster seems to have prevented Morrison from finding a story—that river that could have continued to run through tragically burst boundaries. Even documentaries "go somewhere" but it's not until that very late introduction of the sharecroppers that a story begins. It arises from nothing that the flood footage has prepared us for, and it ends quickly, projected into the '50s at a sped-up pace.
When artists with the statures of Bill Morrison and Bill Frisell collaborate on a project, we have to pay attention; even an indifferent product like The Great Flood warrants our attention. It's instructive to find in their failures the keys to what they do so well and what high standards we expect them always to rise to, as if by nature, not by effort.
All in all, I had little sense that The Great Flood was a project that grew organically. It has the feel of having been arranged by note cards rather than by the force-field attractions between images that create a genuine flow of ideas. It appears to be an art film with the look of history but without history's promises of authority. Was the film didactic in intention? Was it proposing a thesis? Was it tossing out ideas? Throughout, I felt that the means and end never meshed—or, I never figured out what the end was.
What do Morrison and Frisell think about their project? Are they satisfied with cheers for music played without the lead instrument? Does Morrison think he'd like another six months and more film to think this one through? Does he feel that it's more diffuse than his other work? If so, does he value that? If the artists have any lingering doubts themselves about the work, how do they respond to our standing ovations?
It does all of us good to see work from good artists that just doesn't work out perfectly. We have to think harder, to enter the task of its creation as editor-collaborators. Why did this or that detail not work? What would I want in its place? What do I imagine were the decisions they had to make? Why is it less satisfying than the works by them that we cherish?
The Great Flood will never make my list of favorite films or music. But this one I'll remember for a long, long time for the attention it commanded, out there in the region we often miss, of unresolved work from great artists.