For Bill Morrison, the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections are a gift that keeps on giving.
For 20 years, the acclaimed documentarian — whose Dawson City: Frozen Time was named by more than a hundred critics as one of the best films of 2017 — has turned to the vast MIRC archive for a number of iconic films, both avant-garde and historic, distinguished by a unique style where old (and often decaying) images are rendered into haunting visual poetry.
“That collection has been very important to me through my whole career,” Morrison tells Free Times.
Morrison, who will be in town on Sept. 16 to screen and discuss his 2013 film The Great Flood at the Nickelodeon Theatre, began his relationship with the MIRC in 1999, when the collection was known as the News Film Library. He was visiting USC for a film symposium and, having long been interested in pursuing the artistic possibilities of decaying film, decided to check out the archive’s collection of early nitrate-based films.
“I typed into the search database ‘emulsion deterioration,’ and hundreds and hundreds of titles came back,” he recalls. “So I modified it to ‘severe emulsion deterioration,’ and that came to 155 titles, which was more manageable.”
One of the first images he found was of a boxer hitting a punching bag — except that the other side of the frame had deteriorated so badly that there was no bag. The film had become something else entirely.
“It looked like he was punching an amorphous blob — or cancer, or the unknown, and he’d be doing that continually,” Morrison says. “So that kind of started my idea of how I could make a film with deteriorated nitrate from that collection.”
MIRC Production Manager Ben Singleton, who is used to getting calls from Ken Burns and Michael Moore, was soon pressed into service by an unusual request: not the best-preserved footage, but the least.
Singleton says he and his staff would send “hundreds of hours” of footage to Morrison, who in turn would select certain images that appealed to him.
The result was Decasia (2002), a genre-defying 67-minute film where deteriorated footage takes on a life of its own, by turns hallucinogenic and apocalyptic, and which ultimately becomes an extended meditation on mortality.
The film became an immediate classic, praised by respected filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Errol Morris, and it became the first film from the 21st Century selected by the National Film Registry for preservation.
The MIRC archive would also inspire The Great Flood, which tells the story of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, showing in slow, suspenseful detail how a natural disaster uprooted lives (particularly those of sharecroppers) and changed them forever.
Morrison says that film came about partly because he had used aerial footage from the flood in another documentary. The arrival of Hurricane Katrina made those images all the more relevant
“Not only did this footage look like the black-and-white version of contemporary aerial footage I would see on the news, but also people were starting to remember the 1927 flood,” he says. “[The subject] was coming up in comparison to the way that the levees were failing.”
Like many of his films, The Great Flood lets the pictures tell the story as much as possible, with no voice-over narration and an absolute minimum of explanatory on-screen text.
For MIRC newsfilm curator Greg Wilsbacher, this is another advantage of Morrison’s use of early films; by necessity, silent films had to give viewers as much visual information as possible.
“There’s a connection between his work and the actual archival material that he uses, particularly [from] the silent newsreel era,” Wilsbacher says. “The silent newsreel journalists would have to tell the news story for the most part entirely by capturing the right images, and the editorial staff would have to make sure they are arranged properly.”
Singleton — who also helped provide footage for The Great Flood — was equally impressed by the results as he had been by Decasia.
“He took an image that I knew and found some way of framing it with other images that made it like something I’d never seen before,” he offers. “That was the talent. That was the genius.”
For Morrison, the MIRC offer endless possibilities for assessing a medium and means of expression which can seem to have its own consciousness.
“Unlike anything else,” Morrison says, film “is sort of a model of thought, vision and hearing, and when it is encased in celluloid and put into a can and given a label and number and then put on a shelf, it resembles our memories.”
The way film, like memories, can deteriorate with the passage of time stays with Morrison.
“It’s been a metaphor that I’ve relied on throughout my career,” he says, “and it’s particularly rich with the MIRC collection.”
What: The Great Flood
Where: Nickelodeon Theatre, 1607 Main St.
When: Monday, Sept. 16, 5:30 p.m.
More: 803-254-8235, nickelodeontheatre.org