Bill Morrison deals with the physical – the feel and look of decaying nitrate film. Yet still, his admirers insist on finding the metaphysical in his work. In fairness, Morrison wryly steers viewers in that direction with titles such as Light is Calling (2004), Spark of Being (2010), The Great Flood (2013) and the two shorts considered here, Ghost trip (2000) and Just Ancient Loops (2012). The latter is even structured as a three-part hymn of salvation from Genesis to Ascension, with the original sin of curiosity committed by Adam and Eve redeemed – in old silent film footage, naturally – by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
How far we should take these religious gestures is not clear. Just Ancient Loops is considered by Morrison connoisseurs to be his masterpiece1, and takes as its theme the relationship between physics and metaphysics. It begins with images of a giant telescope and the opening roof of an observatory, and of men filming with a movie camera – both technologies developed over centuries to enable humans to better see the world around them, and the worlds surrounding them. Morrison’s films may be about the materiality of decaying film, but they are also about the watching of that film, and the historical disjunctions between a number of stages: watching at the moment of its making and original presentation, the moment of its reprocessing by Morrison, and the moment of its re-release, either at a special multi-media event, in a film theatre, or, with the release of two box set retrospectives in the last year, increasingly on DVD and Blu-ray. Their drama lies in the disjunction between the pristine nature of the films when originally made, their own contemporary reprocessing – for example, the Ferdinand Zecca Vie et Passion de N.S Jésus-Christ (1907) that forms the emotional climax of Just ancient loops was hand-coloured for its original release – and their often lamentable current condition: pocked, blotched, bubbled and scratched to near illegibility 2.
Just before the visual paean to these scientific instruments, however (their admiring shots up and down the phallic shaft of the telescope reminding us of the more sinister, military implications of watching and recording), there is a shot of a bridge leading to a church. This justifies the sequences from early Biblical films that close Just Ancient Loops. Moreover, the phenomenon that the telescope and film camera have been designed to see and record – a solar eclipse – is hardly treated as an object of scientific curiosity. Shots of awed audiences (congregations, perhaps?) looking upwards cue us to read the looping montage of suns, moons and clouds as an expression of a visual sublime more reminiscent of the paintings of Turner, who also used cutting-edge science to stare into the ineffable. So powerful are these images that they seem to overwhelm simultaneously nature (flames, storms, roiling seas, deserts, plant- and microbe- growth are agitated by Maya Beiser’s grating cellos), science (the central ‘Chorale’ section made up of scientific visualisations), and the heavens themselves. The only appropriate, ‘logical’ climax seems to be the Christian Passion narrative, fusing the human and superhuman, natural and supernatural, earthly and celestial realms in one overpowering image that at once generates, incarnates and obliterates thought.
Moving between and conflating realms is one aspect of the earlier Ghost trip, a rare Morrison exercise in live action fictional filmmaking. It is dominated by Michael Montes’ ‘soundscape’, its psycho-industrial churning deliberately echoing Angelo Badalamenti’s legendary scores for David Lynch. As in Lynch’s films, rising howls of sound indicate shifts between different realms of reality. This supernatural road movie follows the purgatorial drift of white men in cowboy hats – exiles, lost souls or revenants 3 – through highways, railways, abandoned homesteads and empty beaches, casinos, cemeteries and scrublands, guided spiritually on their way by African-American singers, preachers and musicians.
Though Ghost Trip was made before Decasia (2002) – a sustained choreography of images from decaying film prints – Morrison interpreters tend to read this early fiction in terms of his more characteristic found footage films. Ghost Trip is full of techniques, images and situations that could, with a stretch, be read as alluding to film stock and cinema itself. Black and white is emphasised in lighting (especially the use of silhouette), dissolves, times of day, and, problematically, casting. Reflections of a palm-tree-lined town in a car window allude to the perforations or soundtrack on celluloid stock. Tics of continuity (dissolves, fade-outs, time-lapse and slow motion as signals for time passing; the interplay between score, silence, direct and indirect sound; movements in space distorted by lenses and unmatched cuts) are subjected to formal play. The refrain of the mourner’s spiritual ‘And he never said a mumbling word’ may reference Morrison’s beloved silent cinema. In one scene, the driver and the hitchhiker gatecrash a funeral; might Morrison be acknowledging the death of film itself, as material artefact, artistic medium or social ritual? But such a reading is too frivolous for the serious tone and good taste that informs Morrison’s art.
The problem with making the physical metaphysical, of transcending the material, is that all the mess of the ‘real’ – sex, politics, power, violence, humour – gets transcended too. Morrison’s ostensibly or potentially political films – like The Miners’ Hymns (2011) or The Great Flood – deal with the aftermaths of struggle rather than causes. Even his most directly political film, The Mesmerist (2003), which re-edits an anti-Semitic Hollywood silent, only works as intended if you are aware of the original. One has only to look at the use of found footage in films by the likes of Joseph Cornell, Isidore Isou, or Bruce Conner to see how tame and homogenised Morrison’s appropriations are. His is an art that takes unruly subject matter and materials – death and dying stock – and literally makes them ‘safe’, fit for screening in a church. It would be tendentious to attribute this quietism to the elitist, publicly funded rituals that are the typical occasion of Morrison’s work, but there is arguably something complacent, even corporate about his raisings from the dead.
Ghost Trip (2000 USA 23 minutes)
Prod Co: Hypnotic Pictures Dir: Bill Morrison Sound des: Michael Montes
Cast: Arthur Smith, Slink Moss, Will Schwartz, Rev. Herman Dennis
Just Ancient Loops (2012 USA 26 minutes)
Prod Co: Capolavari Productions Dir: Bill Morrison Music: Bill Morrison
- Tony Rayns, ‘The movie alchemist’, Sight and sound, vol. 25 no. 8, August 2015, p. 95. ↩
- Morrison and his promoters betray some bad faith in this regard. Much of the rhetoric surrounding his work is that he retrieves badly damaged, ‘orphan’ films and breathes new life into them before their final disintegration. This is misleading. For instance, in the case of Vie et Passion and The bells (1926, James Young; the latter reworked in Morrison’s The mesmerist and Light is Falling), many prints have survived. Some of these are in poor condition or are distressed, while others are in good condition. For Just Ancient Loops, Morrison deliberately chose the poorer prints for his own aesthetic and/or ideological reasons, without letting the viewer know that better prints exist. In this sense, I would argue that to some degree his encouraging the viewer to assume that – like the footage in Decasia – these poor prints are the only ones available is misleading. ↩
- At one point the driver gestures to the camera, as if its point of view represents an off-screen figure. ↩