Movie review: Documentary is a riveting look at a great flood

NEW YORK TIMESJune 27, 2014 

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Bill Morrison’s beautifully realized documentary “The Great Flood” includes film stock that is degrading, giving it an eerie quality.

  • THE GREAT FLOOD ****

    Rated: Not rated. Director: Bill Morrison. Running time: 80 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

This probably isn't the kind of compliment the filmmakers want to hear, but "The Great Flood," a beautiful exploration of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, almost demands to be enjoyed using high-quality headphones.

Its soundtrack is an artwork in its own right, one worth savoring as you would a fine recording.

This wordless movie, a documentary that is more like visual poetry, is the work of Bill Morrison, created from old newsreels and other film records, like his earlier work "The Miners' Hymns."

Here his collaborator is the guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, whose score meshes with the images so evocatively that it seems as if they were born together.

The flood was devastating, especially to what remained of the Mississippi Delta's sharecropper economy, so much so that it helped change the nation's demographics, fueling the northward migration of blacks that had already been underway. With just the occasional bit of text on the screen, Morrison conveys the destruction and the aftermath, although he is sparse enough with the details that viewers might want to read at least a summary of the disaster.

The film and Frisell's music are elegiac over all, but there are sparks of humor in the mournful journey: a rapid trip through a Sears catalog of the period; a look at government officials visiting flood zones for photo ops, much as they might today.

Morrison's resume includes an entire movie about decaying film stock ("Decasia"), and his fascination with the phenomenon is evident in "The Great Flood." A number of the film fragments he employs are beginning to deteriorate, and he happily leaves the eroded images as they are. Frisell's music seems actually to be calling forth the flaws, like a modern-day digital effect. It's a sublime, eerie touch in a striking experiment in music and moviemaking.

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