Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jim Dine at the Cincinnati Art Museum: The Story of Pinocchio and Geppetto

Unveiled earlier in April, Jim Dine's twelve-foot high bronze sculpture, Pinocchio (Emotional) greets visitors to the Cincinnati Museum of Art with uplifted arms. For his hometown, Dine custom-crafted this one out of an edition of three; he traveled to Cincinnati to oversee its installation.
Pinocchio (Emotional), bronze. ca. 144," Jim Dine
Cincinnati Art Museum
Photo by the author

Dine has been working with the story and character of Pinocchio since the late 1990s. A Disney executive asked him for a work with the puppet as subject, but then declined Dine's painting for being too dark and disturbing. Dine's Pinocchio isn't the Disney character, but the one found in Italian Carlo Collodi's 1883 story. It's a troubling tale in which the blockhead who aspires to personhood constantly faces nigh-fatal consequences of his impetuosity, naivety, folly and venality.

Somehow, I wasn't too surprised to learn this. As a child I found even the Disney version hard to face. Pinocchio struck me as a good-hearted kid whose innocent investigations and unselfconscious curiosity kept getting him into situations with dire, unforeseeable moral repercussions. I found the whole Pinocchio business too discouraging for my young ethical understanding.  Maybe he should have stayed home, I timidly thought, and let it drop.

Dine, however, has always understood the reality of curiosity, desire, and the insistent, demanding ego. Even before one skims the surface of this Pinocchio work, his statement seems particularly deeply felt. Here's what he says:

"Thanks to Carlo Collodi, the real creator of Pinocchio, I have for many years been able to live thru the wooden boy. His ability to hold the metaphor in limitless ways has made my drawings, painting, and sculpture of him richer by far. His poor burned feet, his misguided judgment, his vanity about his large nose, his temporary donkey ears, all add up to the real sum of his parts. In the end it is his great heart that holds me. I have carried him on my back like landscape since I was six years old. Sixty-four years is a long time to get to know someone, yet his depth and secrets are endless."

The Cincinnati Museum has much more than Pinocchio (Emotional). Dine has explored Pinocchio in a suite of lithographs based on the thirty-six chapters of Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. The Museum has installed these on a wall in the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Gallery. These prints were published in slightly different forms as a graphic portfolio by German publisher Steidl. The images in that 2006 published portfolio also serve as illustrations to the Collodi text, translated by M. A. Murray, in a handsome, affordable book, also by Steidl. 

Lincoln Memorial, 1922, Daniel Chester French
The sculpture itself, though, is packed with meanings and emotions that arise and disappear depending, first, on where you stand. This has to do with what your size and stature may be. A twelve-foot statue is much bigger to a child than to a full-grown adult. Anyone who approaches it will be looking up, though. The impact of the lifted arms and the head, tilted back so that the face is lifted heavenwards, is exaggerated from below. The length of Pinocchio's sharp nose makes it a dramatic spear-head, a pointer leading victoriously upward and onward. The vantage point—the face seen from below, is a point of view of awe or reverence; it's how we see heroes and figures of inspiration portrayed—above us, inspiring or majestic.

Raised arms can signal victory and completion, as the performer of a magic trick raises applause and reveals his empty hands after the execution of an amazing illusion. Raised arms also indicate joy: We see Pinocchio here perhaps not as a performer who has made escape after escape from robber foxes, monstrous serpents, and those who would fry him as a fish; but we see him as one who rejoices to be alive among the flowering trees of April, in Eden Park! Pinocchio greets us joyously, as a survivor, happy to be alive.

Pinocchio, 2006, Jim Dine (b. 1935).
Cincinnati Museum of Art
The Albert P. Strietmann Collection, 2011.66.7
Pinocchio's journey (the story is both a picaresque and a Bildungsroman—a story of maturation) begins with a block of wood that shows signs of life (it speaks, mysteriously) and ends with its transformation into a real boy. In Pinocchio (Emotional), Pinocchio seems to be in intermediate form. His arms and legs are sticks and his head is modeled like a cartoon's or puppet's, with exaggerated, abstract shapes, barely any mouth, and no eyes at all.

By contrast, the color lithograph to the right (scanned from a Museum hand-out) shows the first images of Pinocchio in Dine's suite of broadside lithographs. It is in roughly this guise that the puppet goes through the story told by the prints, and again in the similar images that accompany Collodi's text as illustrations. This is a more free-wheeling, cartoonish and adolescent character than the one shaped in the sculpture. The Pinocchio of the drawings is very animated in the simple sense that he is kinetic, always moving or reacting (below). The sculpted character is planted declaratively on his big feet. There's no suggestion that he desires to abandon his pose or give any ground. His character is unlike that of the eager puppet-boy in Dine's drawings.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi and Jim Dine, 2006. Page 132.
Gottingen: Steidl.
For being so firmly planted and so four-square in its pose, Pinocchio nevertheless delivers a few quiet surprises.

Its  carefully wrought surface certainly invites the hand. Where it effectively depicts a stick figure in lederhosen with cartoonish extremities,
the hand enjoys the rough grain of the wood, the nubbly fabric of the wooly shirt, the suede of the shorts. We notice, too, the darkening of the wooden legs just above the shoes--a reminder of the early episode in the story when Pinocchio carelessly falls asleep with his feet on a brazier and burns them off, requiring his doting Geppetto to fashion new ones the next day. 

Circling Pinocchio from any distance in fact provides views that deepen interpretation of Dine's relationship to this subject. Take the extended arms, for example. Above, I suggested that it's the pose of the successful showman (Ta-da!) or of one rejoicing. Yet when I saw him from behind, one foot back and heel raised, head thrown back and facing down the driveway by which cars approach the Museum, the pose read, "Over here!"—like an attempt to flag down whomever would pass by. No longer victorious, there's a hint of angst and neediness.

In another view that emphasizes the upturned head and nose between the raised arms, there is a vivid sense of Christ on a cross that is no less real for being invisible. The arch of Pinocchio's back and the slight bend of the knee reinforce the pose, though the appeal of the upturned face is usually prevented by the mast of the real cross.

Pinocchio has parallels with stories like Candide and The Pilgrim's Progress, humanistic and Christian, similar in being works of misguided or despairing quest. Dine is clearly moved by the deep humanity of the character, whose follies and blindness not only impede his maturation but call its possibility into question. This view of the statue, which brings crucifixion to mind, does not inappropriately compare the silly to the profound. Philosophy, art, and grace begin with tiny voices in the hardest of material, I believe Dine would have us think. 

The Crucifix, wood, Jose Rafael Aragon, mid-19th century,
Brooklyn Museum
Photo by Billy Hathorn
The story of Pinocchio is at the same time the story of Geppetto, the complicated character who fashions the puppet from an impertinent piece of wood. Geppetto's dwelling is both poor and surreal, being supplied with, "a bad chair, a poor bed, and a broken-down table. At the end of the room there was fireplace with a lighted fire; but the fire was painted, and by the fire was a painted saucepan that was boiling cheerfully, and sending out a cloud of smoke that looked exactly like real smoke." (Murray translation, p.19.) The block of wood has ended up in good hands, with a maker in whose mind reality and imagination are fused to meet his needs and ends.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi and Jim Dine, 2006. Page 20.
Gottingen: Steidl.
Geppetto is depicted in the book (and in a different state in the print suite) by Dine's self-portrait,  clinching the idea that he cannot be the artist of Pinocchio without identifying equally with Geppetto. Geppetto's wish is to create a nice, normal son who will behave himself and go to school. He sells the coat he can ill afford to part with to raise the money for Pinocchio's spelling book, which the blockhead sells at the first temptation on the way to school. Is Geppetto the sacrificing martyr? Or an old fool for thinking that his child will not be wayward and have his own experience of risk and error in life?

The figure of Pinocchio is familiar to us because of his long nose (that grows longer with lies) and the donkey ears he sprouts in the Land of Boobies. But Geppetto, "first made his hair, then his forehead, and then his eyes.

"The eyes being finished, imagine his astonishment when he perceived that they moved and looked fixedly at him.

"Geppetto, seeing himself stared at by those two wooden eyes, took it almost in bad part...'Wicked wooden eyes, why do you look at me?'" (Murray translation, p.19.)

Pinocchio (Emotional) lacks eyes, one of the first features that Geppetto bestowed on his puppet son. It's disconcerting to have a visual artist leave the eyes out. Does he fear what might be reflected in the gaze of his work? Isn't there a level at which artists worry about what their productions "tell" about them? How closely do others—let alone the creators themselves—identify with completed works? How long do the ties linger?

Dine may see in Pinocchio—as anyone may—a character with whom one can associate one's lifetime of risks, mistakes, and indulgences, of juvenile and adolescent decisions made in spite of good intentions, of the awkward process of building mental and moral muscle. Hooray! Good work! We've succeeded...at what? For how long? Perhaps we're always blind to the much more we will never see coming.

But it's Pinocchio's relationship with Geppetto—Pinocchio, the wayward, inspired creation of Geppetto; and Geppetto, the flawed and inspired creator—that Dine has perhaps truly embodied in this excellent sculpture. His self-consciousness as an artist; his gift and curse of both planning, executing, and revising the work; being the father and son, the material and the soul; comprehending the story's beginning and (temporary) end—Dine's complex roles make it impossible, I think, for this single work  to embody a single character any more than A Man can be presented only as Dine, Artist, Fool, or Son.

A career in art, the relationships between artist and art, or between lover and life, lover and art, or lover and one's own output: Those could be in there, waving their arms above us with the unnamed, many emotions of miserable, absurd, soul-sapping, bedazzling life. Read the story of Pinocchio and Geppetto: It's all there. In Dine's version, there's even more.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi and Jim Dine, 2006. Page 168.
Gottingen: Steidl.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Columbus, Ohio, Where Outsiders Have a Home

Since the beginning of the year, the Ohio Arts Council has presented 100 Years of Art: Celebrating Columbus' Legacy at their Riffe Gallery downtown Columbus, opposite the Statehouse. The show closes on April 15, but I hope that even a late review will tantalize readers to consider the rich artistic heritage of our city, given ample attention in this show.

Columbus takes pride in being the home of George Bellows, Roman Johnson and Emerson Burkhart; in its associations with Roy Lichtenstein, Stanley Twardowicz, and ground-breaking ceramist and ceramic engineer, Arthur Baggs. 

Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art at the Columbus Museum of Art, who chose this show, recognizes that it's not only the famous artists, nor those successful in prized genres like landscape and portraiture that give us our rich legacy in the visual arts. At least as important in Columbus is our abundant and abiding heritage of folk and outsider artists. Wolfe has selected generously from the untrained masters in mounting this show. Their works have astonishing presence—they are visual magnets in the show. They as much as anything assure Columbus its pride of place in the national art history.

William Hawkins (1895 – 1990), The Iguana, 1978-81
Enamel on Masonite with glitter, 33 ½ x 51
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Gift of the Estate of Michael W. Bletz in memory of “Mic”
William Hawkins, above, is as famous among folk-art collectors as George Bellows is among fans of American realism. Barely educated, he was a truck driver and laborer and only painted  for the last twenty years of his life. His paintings of animals, prehistory, historical events and everyday life are full of a kind of manly grandeur and vitality. Wolfe's gallery notes quote his advice, "You have to do something wonderful, so people know who you are." Hawkins' work, whatever its size, is always big in feel. And wonderful. And unmistakable.

Grandpa Smoky Brown (1919 – 2005), Wizard of Oz, 1992
Mixed media on cardboard, 30 x 40
Private Collection
In Columbus, Smoky Brown's reputation is quite as elevated and secure as Hawkins' is. Another late starter, he gave himself over to painting when he moved to Columbus in 1976, at around sixty years old, where he entered a rehabilitation institution that helped him free himself from alcohol and drug addictions after years of struggle. He had always been involved in creative enterprises, but the last quarter of the twentieth century saw him unleash monumental creativity with anything he touched. Wizard of Oz, shown, is actually a 3-D work. The frame is rolled cardboard, and the supporting layer is too. The brilliantly-painted figures sit on top of a sheet of clear plastic or acrylic that bows out over the support, which is itself painted and  collaged upon. The foreground painted sheet is also covered with layers of translucent packing tape and has altered photographs of Brown and relatives taped to it. What came to Brown's hands became highly colored—even lurid—wildly imagined art, contemporary in feel. His work responds to popular culture with its twist of sci-fi, cartoon, and street characters.

Elijah Pierce (1892 – 1984),
Crucifixion, mid-1930s (reworked by artist in 1970s)
Carved and painted wood with glitter on wood panel, 47 ¾ x 30 ¾
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase
Columbus has been (and continues to be) the home of exceptional carvers. I have written previously about the great Elijah Pierce , and this show includes a masterwork—almost 4 feet by 3 feet—from the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Crucifixion. Most of the figures are bas-relief, cut out from the background, but the crucified figures, as one can see from the shadows in the image, are detached; they literally stand out. The magnificent work is arresting for its size, its high coloration, its contrast of hellish red and celestial blue, the two spheres overseen by the central figures of crucified Christ and, below his feet, the be-suited Devil with horns and pitchfork. The symmetrical composition and clarity of character and symbol mark Pierce's evident didactic intent. The work is a latter-day stained glass window, a scriptural narrative that both the educated and illiterate both can follow and take to heart.

Walter O. Mayo (1878 – 1970)
Ark of the Covenant, nd
Carved and painted wood, 20 ½ x 23 ¼
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Promised Gift from the Family of Helen Cobb and
Walter L. Mayo, Sr.
An extremely elegant carver whose subjects, secular and spiritual, were realized in three dimensions, was Walter A. Mayo . Mayo came to Columbus from small town central Ohio. He was a mule driver before he was a truck driver and, like Dawkins and Brown, came to art later in life. His observational work captures not only detail but affect; it represents a world of happy rural normality. His spiritual work, like this Ark of the Covenant, shows that his imagination found unseen, spiritual worlds just as detailed as the everyday, but invested with passionate belief.  Wolfe's gallery notes report the thrilling fact that, "Mayo also carved a miniature, hand-lettered scroll listing the Ten Commandments that is placed within the Ark." 

Ralph Bell (1913 – 1995)
Untitled (Man with Red Hat and Dog), 1993
Acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36 x 4 ¼
Campbell inventory #93DC
Private Collection [c/o Keny Galleries]
Art-making provided soul-saving releases for artists Ralph Bell and Mary Frances Merrill, both of whom suffered crippling disabilities. Bell was institutionalized as a child, unable to speak or write, to use his hands or arms. He was eventually diagnosed as having cerebral palsy. It wasn't until he was almost 70 that an art therapist contrived a mechanism he could place on his head to hold a paint brush. That's when he took up painting with exuberant gusto, producing works like Man with Red Hat and Dog. 

Mary Merrill (1920 – 1999), Calypso
Mixed media on linoleum, 11 ¼ x 9Private Collection
I wish I had a better image of the Mary Merrill selection in 100 Years of Art, for it is quite a disarming piece, a vivid image on a thin piece of curled-up, nondescript linoleum. Lined up like a mother duck and her ducklings, a woman has her hand lowered to gently guide her three similarly-dressed daughters before her. She carries her big load on her head; they carry tiny ones. All the figures are fashioned from little scraps of bright fabric. Calypso is created from almost nothing at all, yet minimal and humble as it is, it goes straight to the heart. Wolfe tells Merrill's as another story of an artist who started making art late in life, whose production seems to have been tied to years of agoraphobia. Confined to her house, she used anything she had at hand to work with, including according to Wolfe, "chewing gum, make up, jewelry, and coal nuggets." 

It's no coincidence, I think, that Hawkins, Brown, Mayo, Bell, and Merrill began making art late in their lives. Unlike academically trained artists, they seem to have come to art with lives full of experience and reflection, ready for some place to put it—exuberantly. Such explosions of color and invention. such confidence in instinct make their pieces in this show masterworks indeed. We are all lucky for Wolfe's insight in recognizing this art that comes directly from life unmediated by technique.

Between the world of fine art and outsider art lies another category on which Columbus can pride itself, cartoons. Ohio State educated Milton Caniff, and now houses his papers in its nonpareil Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon kept many a youthful Sunday enthralling, and I am delighted that Wolfe included him in this show of Columbus greats. This panel of Terry and the Pirates from June of 1943 is huge (two sheets of paper, probably 4 feet high). To see it at this original size is to fully appreciate the cartoonist's mastery of black and white dramatic composition, and the integration of text into each panel, while he keeps each panel its own tense, charged, pod of energy. It's wonderful story-telling in spring-coiled visuals. 

Milton Caniff (1907 – 1988), Terry and the Pirates, June 20, 1943
Ink on paper, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, OSU
Last but not least is James Thurber. The author of My Life and Hard Times, with its immortal stories ("The Night the Bed Fell," "University Days") about his youth in Columbus should be as well-known as his New Yorker cartoons. Thurber is represented in this show by two cartoons. I picked the one I did because I can assure you that the absurdity of This is George Busby is known to have caused more people to fall out of their chairs than any other work by Thurber. That's a fact. You could look it up.

"This is George Busby, darling, and he's in marvelous form!"
James Thurber (1894 – 1961)
This is George Busby, Darling and He’s in Marvellous Form
Ink on paper, 10 ½ x 8 ¼
Private Collection, courtesy of Keny Galleries
 (If you can't make 100 Years of Art, works by many of these artists can be seen locally at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Lindsay Gallery, and the Keny Galleries.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Film/Music Collaboration by Bill Morrison and Bill Frisell: "The Great Flood"

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 storythat 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.