By Mónica Delgado, Narda Liotine , José Sarmiento Hinojosa
The Decay becomes an agent in the film viewing, one that connects the image to the base that it is printed on, and therefore to the projection of the image that is happening before the viewer.
Bill Morrison (Chicago, 1965) is one of the most important experimental filmmakers today, especially in the found footage vein. His first full-length feature Decasia (2002) became a milestone in this style of experimental cinema, not only for his use of special techniques in the celluloid format, but also for becoming an inspiration for future works. Decasia dwells in exploring film decay, the decomposition of the image medium, a decayed body that has something to show still. Talking about this and other works, Bill Morrison answers some questions from our staff.
Desistfilm: Bill, you started making experimental cinema in the nineties, in a little familiar context, let’s say away from the effervescent, canonical New York scene. You’ve become well known for your work with found footage. Can you tell us about the process of finding the material that inspires and becomes part of your films?
Bill Morrison: This seems to be two different questions, or rather a curious observation followed by a question.
Like a lot of experimental filmmakers, I make films on my own, apart from any scene.
In the early 1990s I started working with a multimedia theatrical company, Ridge Theater, for whom I would produce short films that would be screened during stage productions. With their shows, I was given a small budget and the creative freedom to produce pretty much whatever I wanted. I was also introduced to the New Music scene in New York, which has continued to inspire and nurture my filmmaking.
I had begun making films in art school where I studied under Robert Breer at Copper Union. I would shoot film, and then print photographs from the 16mm negative, processing the prints with a paintbrush rather than immersing them in chemical baths. This gave each frame an individualized look. When I re-animated all these 3”x 4” prints, I found that there were two things happening at once in each frame: the image and how it was printed. This set up a relationship I found to be very powerful and one I sought out in my use of found footage.
I became interested in the Paper Print Collection from Ken Jacobs’ description of sourcing this collection for his film “Tom, Tom, The Pipers’ Son.” These films had already been printed on paper and reanimated years later, and therefore had undergone the same process I had used in art school to treat my own films. They also were the earliest films ever made, dating from 1896 – 1912, and for this reason had compelling imagery shot be people who were still astounded by the new medium of cinematography. It also 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. I started purchasing films from this collection, housed at the Library of Congress, to make early films like “Footprints” (1992). Ultimately I made “The Film of Her” (1996) which chronicled the re-discovery of the Paper Prints and their transfer back to celluloid.
Some years later (1999) I was screening “The Film of Her” at the first Orphans Film Symposium, which at that time was held on the campus of the University of South Carolina. I had recently been offered a commission to create a film for a symphony that would be written by Michael Gordon. While I was in South Carolina, I visited the Fox Movietone archive, where I glimpsed decaying newsreel footage of a boxer and a procession of nuns. After seeing these images, I returned to New York and suggested to Michael that we make our piece about decay, and call it “Decasia”.
desistfilm: Tell us about your experience as a filmmaker working with different material, from super8, digital, to your use of archive material in nitrate, 35 and 68 mm.
Bill Morrison: I would always shoot my own material on S8, and usually an original shot would find its way into my films. I would also shoot S8 off television monitor at 9fps, and then blow this up to a high contrast 16mm stock on a JK optical printer.
Today I tend to shoot my own material with a Flip camera I carry around with me.
My archival work generally involves scanning original 35mm (and on one occasion 68mm) nitrate material directly to a hard drive, where I edit it on Final Cut Pro.
desistfilm: Found footage seems to be a “regained” technique or maybe a “fashionable” (in some sort of way) way of film making nowadays. Every day more and more filmmakers seem to find in that resource a way of expression that is impossible by other means of representation. How ideal does found footage turn out to be for an experiment of reconstruction and reinterpretation of films extracted from oblivion, showing the decomposition of all the visual resources, as in Decasia (2002)?
Bill Morrison: Firstly, the use of found footage films has been around at least since Joseph Cornell in 1940s and Bruce Conner in the 1950s, and probably was used as a way to present old work in a new way by opportunistic projectionists since the beginning of cinema.
Today the term “found footage” has become associated with a type of low budget Hollywood genre where the protagonists purportedly assemble footage that is supposed to represent some home-captured “reality”, usually of the supernatural variety.
You question, phrased as it is, is somewhat leading – “how ideal does found footage turn out to be…showing the decomposition of all visual resources” Yes “Decasia” did reference the decomposition of visual resources, if not all physical things, and decomposing nitrate was an ideal medium for such an endeavor. As outlined above, the footage itself inspired the theme.
But I would not group all found footage films together as having this purpose, or even showing decomposition. In some cases, Craig Baldwin comes to mind, the very act of re-purposing footage is a political statement about having to have money in order to express yourself through cinema.
desistfilm: Decasia seems to deal with the fragility of the film material since its origins. What would represent the fragility of cinema today, at least, in the experimental side?
Bill Morrison: I think film is fragile. As a legacy, it is endangered. I think the very act of shooting on film today deals with the fragility of film. On the other side, as we put more and more faith in digital production and archiving, we are finding just how fragile a storage system that can be. Files can be corrupted and deleted, hard drives can be erased and can fail. This becomes a much more difficult loss to represent – there is no conflagration, only a non-representation. Therefore digital failure doesn’t express fragility, even though it is there. But perhaps the ready availability and disposability of the digital image is what makes it fragile. That many more hours are shot than are actually viewed, even by those who shot them. Seen in this light, the fragile digital image is perhaps then from the security camera or the handheld cellphone.
desistfilm: Is there an ideal connection between the “decay and disintegration” of the celluloid reel and the ephemeral nature of some cinema tied to the past?
Bill Morrison: Any film reel can, and will, decay. Most will appear as some obstruction to the image – a patina that lies between the image and the viewer without any connection to either.
I look for a type of decay that seeks the image out – that adheres to the contours of the figure, or mimics it in some way. In this way the Decay becomes an agent in the film viewing, one that connects the image to the base that it is printed on, and therefore to the projection of the image that is happening before the viewer.
desistfilm: In Light is Calling (2004) you take a film from 1926, James Young’s The Bells, and you turn that crime story into a love mix-up, a new telling inside the new geopolitics or land of decomposition. It seems like you were trying to show the impossibility of recovering the old style, not only on a story level but in the material in which this “fantasy” develops. Is that some sort of “anti- nostalgia”? Or were you just dwelling on the esthetic effect?
Bill Morrison: “Light Is Calling” involves two minor characters from a decaying print of “The Bells”. She is the daughter of the murderer, his hideous act driven by his desire to provide for her, and to protect her from the amorous advances of his creditor. He is the new chief of police arriving into town. They forge a romance in this scene where they meet on the road. The sequence shows the collision of a narrative told on celluloid with the dissolution of the image on celluloid. It works because it is a budding romance – from this primordial ooze a man and a woman can meet and ride off together. The story continues even as the material that makes it knowable continues to decay.
desistfilm: In The Mesmerist we see first Young’s The Bells, to then later see its decomposition through the projection. It seems that you’re interested in showing the “betrayal” of the projection artifact, the passing of time. How is it that you elaborate those intentions in the deconstruction of images in this new meaning that acquires an artistic quality?
Bill Morrison: With “The Mesmerist” we had seven reels from “The Bells”, three of which were decayed and four that were not. We see a man sleeping, his image increasingly intercepted by pockmarks of decay. The “decaying” footage continues as he walks through a fairground and observes The Mesmerist’s show. The “Clean” footage is used for the dream of his mesmeric trance, which takes place in a different plane of reality.
In the 1926 version of “The Bells”, the character played by Lionel Barrymore basically gets away with murder. He first befriends and then betrays his Jewish guest. But the most haunting scene comes when he drags his murdered corpse into an incinerator, eerily foreshadowing crimes against European Jews that were to become widespread only a few years later. The murderer feels guilty, but nothing that can’t be assuaged by a statue of the Virgin Mary. “The Bells” ends with murderer in sound financial shape, and his daughter married to the newly appointed chief of police. He falls asleep at peace with his conscience.
“The Mesmerist” begins with this final shot of the sleeping man, and re-interprets the strangely anti-Semitic tale into one more aligned with modern sensibilities. With the horrors of the Holocaust now a historical reality, the profane absolution of guilt delivered in the name of religion seems all the more obscene. And it is all the more relevant today. Just as the murderer survives to rob his victim and revise History, so does this short film steal from, and butcher, its predecessor to re-tell its story.
desistfilm: As for home movie reels, there’s the latent reality that a lot films have been already shot, so now one can deal with a huge archive (personal or institutionalized) of these films. Do you think consequently, that in the near future, experimental film making could turn into a ready- made art of handling and reprocessing work?
Bill Morrison: Some experimental filmmakers have in the past turned previously shot material into ready-made art. Some will continue to do this, and some will shoot new material. Some will do both. Others still will find a way to make films without archives, or even cameras. I don’t think any of this happens as a consequence of there being an increasing amount of available footage.
desistfilm: In your works you revise fragments of damaged, scratched ancient movies’ supports. What’s your position in connection to restoration urge and preservation of ancient and old reels in archives?
Bill Morrison: My work has benefitted from the work of archivists who have taken it upon themselves to weed through collections and determine what can and cannot be saved. It is impossible and impractical to preserve all films. It is only through careful examination of our cinematic past can we know what we have and what to preserve. Oftentimes I become a one-man reclamation project for those films deemed too far gone to save or to continue to store.
desistfilm: What are the projects you’re currently working in? We’ve seen that a musicalized version of Decasia, with live orchestra was shown a while ago. Could you comment on this project and other projects you’re involved in right now?
Bill Morrison: In February 2012 there was a mini-festival of my work at the World Financial Center, where four films of mine were presented:
“Decasia” (67 min, 2002) was screened with a live performance of Michael Gordon’s score by the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble.
Additionally, three other recent feature-length works of mine were presented. These newer films are currently on the festival circuit or in distribution:
“The Miners’ Hymns” (52 min, 2011) was screened with a live performance of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score by the Wordless Music Orchestra.
It also had a theatrical release at New York’s Film Forum along with several shorts: “The Film of Her” (12 min, 1996), “Outerborough” (9 min, 2005), and “Release” (13 min, 2010).
“Spark of Being” (67 min, 2010) was screened with soundtrack by Dave Douglas. It also was recently awarded the Los Angeles’ Film Critics Award for best independent / experimental film of 2011.
“The Great Flood” (80 min, 2012) was screened with soundtrack by Bill Frisell.
It also was recently performed at Carnegie Hall and will tour the US and Europe with the Bill Frisell Quartet in 2012.
More about Bill Morrison in: www.billmorrisonfilm.com