A few years ago, when I was leaving the Edinburgh Film Festival, a journalist asked if I had a single film that encapsulated my term there. I answered, without hesitation: "Bill Morrison’s 'Decasia.'"
There were a number of reasons for this: It was one of the first films I’d programmed in my first year as director and it spoke, eloquently and conspicuously, to a number of my own preoccupations: cinema as both a cultural artifact and a physical medium; the decline of analogue technologies and the extinction of particular crafts associated with them; the reconciliation of avant-garde aesthetics with broader narrative satisfactions. Considered on a sensory level, it was tremendously impressive, offering spectators an immersive, almost transfigurative experience. And it happened to be a masterpiece—one of the greatest American films, I think, of the last quarter-century.
Ten years on, that film’s reputation has only increased. And it can soon be seen again, as part of a showcase of Morrison’s work at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, where four of his recent, long-form features will be accompanied by live performances of their soundtracks by the Wordless Music Orchestra and the Oberlin Contemporary Music ensemble. All events are free to the public.
For Morrison, the last decade has been a fruitful one: 10 completed films, countless festivals showcases and museum presentations, and a number of lucrative commissions from arts funding bodies around the world. An archivist by inclination, "Decasia" pushed him into the spotlight, propelling him to international attention and establishing him, in many people’s minds, as the rightful heir to Stan Brakhage. He has continued to deliver remarkable, singular work ever since.
Time has also necessitated a shift in his methods: "When I started with 'Decasia,'" he said, "we stayed analogue all the way through. We found film masters, and we printed optically, and I cut it on a Steenbeck." He laughed. "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."
But does he sense any dissonance in this new approach? Using digital technology to eulogize an analogue past?
"Not really," Morrison said. "Like all of us, I now live in a digital world. So for me to insist everything remain analogue is kind of disingenuous. Archives upload their clips for me to view digitially; the music files are sent to me digitally. Often the clips that end up in the film are scanned and composited into a digital realm. And, as I say, the films are then edited and distributed digitally. So apart from anything else, I’d really have to get a lot of people on board to say, damn it, we’re going do it the old-fashioned way. And frankly, I’m not sure what it would achieve."
The season (which continues, in expanded form, in February at Film Forum) offers a welcome reminder of the importance of Morrison’s body of work: its singularity, its unusual reconciliation of sensual pleasure with formalist rigor. Indeed, for all the reams of critical exegesis they’ve inspired, these are surprisingly emotional films: freighted with melancholy, passionate in their advocacy of the significance of forgotten lives, ephemeral moments, vanished ways of being.
As such, they connect directly with an audience: I’ve seen people weeping at screenings of "The Miners' Hymns" and also the short "Film of Her" (indeed, I was one of those people); I’ve seen audiences sit as riveted by the final, shattering 10 minutes of "Decasia" as others have been by the star-gate sequence in "2001."
What is puzzling, however, is the organizers’ decision to bill the program as a collection of "silent movies." The press release from Arts Brookfield promises "a free, four-night series pairing [Morrison’s] acclaimed features with music by some of today’s most renowned composers," as if this represented some especially ingenious feat of curation.
In fact, few films are more deliberately conceived in terms of image and sound. Each one represents an equal and synchronous collaboration between Morrison and a particular composer: Michael Gordon for "Decasia," Jóhann Jóhannsson for "The Miners’ Hymns," Dave Douglas for "Spark of Being," and Bill Frisell for "The Great Flood."
“It’s kind of odd,” said Morrison. “I’m not sure why they’re saying that--especially given that, in these films, the music is always conceived along with the visuals. Usually the composer begins at the same time as I start sourcing images, and we talk constantly back and forth to develop an arc that works both musically and narratively.”
Morrison then edits the footage to the finished composition. “Ideally, the score’s meant to work on its own terms, rather simply to function as an accompaniment," he said. "It’s not just a series of cues in the background. And in the same way, the images should function independent of the soundtrack. The combination of those two things is obviously what makes the film, but each has, hopefully, its own structural integrity.”
After a number of historical testaments (notably "The Miners’ Hymns," a study of the decline of the British coal industry as elegiac as its title), "Spark of Being" signaled a shift in tactics, marking Morrison’s first foray into fictional narrative. A loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein," it was born out of a yearlong residency at Stanford University, and incorporates images drawn from Frank Hurley’s documentary footage of Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous 1915 Antarctic expedition.
“As a source text, 'Frankenstein' made a lot of sense to me," Morrison said. "The creature was itself an assemblage, something made up of many parts. But there were challenges in terms of how true or not to stay to that original text. This was all new territory to me."
But there's nothing new about Morrison's name. As one of the best known avant-garde filmmakers in America, with eight of his films now ensconced in MoMA’s permanent collection, it comes as some surprise, to say the least, when Morrison admits in passing that he still doesn’t have the support of a gallery in New York-—as, for example, Matthew Barney and Shirin Neshat have with Barbara Gladstone.
“It sounds like a great idea, but it hasn’t happened to me yet," he said. "I’m hardly short of work, but it’s mostly commissions from various institutions. I don’t quite have the independence, or the deeper resources, that gallery backing might provide."
For a filmmaker living and working in downtown Manhattan, it might seem like an incredible oversight. "I am slightly surprised, to be honest, that no one’s expressed any interest," he said. "My feeling is that the films would operate best in that environment-—more than a cinema, even."
Gallery owners of New York City, take note.
"New Sounds Live: Silent Films/Live Music," featuring the films of Bill Morrison and live music by Wordless Music Orchestra and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, runs January 31-February 3 at the World Financial Center Winter Garden. The Bill Morrison season at Film Forum runs February 8-14.
Shane Danielsen was Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival from 2002-2006. He now lives in Berlin.