Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Morrison Medley: The Miners’ Hymns and Others

Are you nostalgic for black lung and militant union action? If so, Bill Morrison’s archival portrait of the Durham coal mines will strike a chord. Assembling video culled from the British Film Institute, the BBC, and other sources, Morrison mourns and bemoans that arduous way of life in The Miners’ Hymns (trailer here), the lead film in a Morrison quartet opening this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

A “colliery” is a term for a coal mine and the attendant support structure. The Durham region in Northeast England had three of them. Their relatively recent industrial past can hardly be recognized today, as Morrison illustrates with his initial aerial photography. However, as the film gives way to its black-and-white images from the past, it is clear coal mining was once central to the local citizens’ identity.

Morrison shrewdly selects clips that express the dignity of their labor, but one can also just feel the coal particles lodging in your esophageal membrane while watching them. Indeed, Morrison risks fetishizing the physical toil, so as to better lament its passing. However, Icelandic classical-new music-electronic composer Jóhann Jóhansson helps to correct for such excesses with his stately and ominous score. In fact, those who enjoy ECM’s New Series will find Hymns much more rewarding for Jóhansson’s music than for Morrison’s editorial sensibilities.

The strongest selection of the Morrison program is actually one of his greatest hits. Yet, 1996’s The Film of Her directly addresses film preservation, an arguably zeitgeisty topic given the Oscar nominations showered upon Scorses’s Hugo. Her tells the story of Howard L. Walls, a Library of Congress clerk who saved a treasure trove of film history recorded on paper prints, only to see the recognition go to his superior, Kemp Niver. Blending documentary with fictionalized narration (performed by Morrison), the short consists of film clips from every decade of cinema history, including the very paper prints now preserved through Walls’ foresight. Morrison’s craftsmanship gives it the vibe of a Guy Maddin docu-fantasy, but the intriguing tale is true enough (presumably aside from the scandalous pre-code cinematic muse of the title).

Of roughly comparable length, Outerborough and Release both make similar use of split screens, but the former more readily lends itself to Morrison’s perspective gamesmanship. Filmed in 1899 on soon to be rare 68mm stock by a trolleyman, Outerborough documents the commute to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge, as it looked over a century ago. With one side coming and the other going, Morrison creates a rather dizzying effect that seems rather more artificial and forced in Release, which loops and divides a panning shot of the throngs of reporters waiting in vain for the long gone Al Capone to saunter out of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Morrison’s work bears comparison to that of Jay Rosenblatt, but his editorial hand is often lighter, allowing the visuals of Hymns the time to unwind their story. The cuts come quicker in The Film of Her, but they serve a more pointed narrative. It is easily the highlight of the program. The anchor film Hymns has some striking moments as well, but its power is largely derived from Jóhansson’s soundtrack. On the other hand, Outerborough and Release are visually dynamic, but might be too alike in terms of style and composition for such a short retrospective. Overall, the Morrison block is quite an ambitious booking for Film Forum, sure to excite devotees of experimental cinema, but not likely to cross too far over into traditional doc audiences. Recommended only for those already comfortable with Morrison’s work (or that of Rosenblatt, Peter Hutton, and the like), it opens in New York this Wednesday (2/8) at the nationally regarded Houston Street institution.