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May 25, 2022

From decaying films and forgotten footage, Bill Morrison creates elegies to loss and memory

Austin Film Society, UT Visual Art Center and Texas Performing Arts collaborate to present an array of Morrison's art

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According to the Library of Congress , 70 percent of the silent features made in America are completely lost, and of the remaining 30 percent, only about half survive in their original form. Much of the loss comes from the use nitrate film, the industry norm for the cinema’s first half century. Nitrate is highly flammable and as it decays it can spontaneously combust. Fires at film storage facilities have accounted for much of the massive loss of.

Filmmaker and multi-media artist Bill Morrison mines those forgotten silent films and obscure archival footage, reworking the material to create visual elegies, collaged tributes to the ephemeral nature of film itself. Morrison embraces the blemishes, the bleached-out glare of missing bits of film, and the strange spots left by water damage.

His critically celebrated films are set to original scores and Morrison has collaborated with luminaries like Philip Glass, David Lang, Steve Reich, Kronos Quartet and Bill Frisell. The experience of a Morrison film is a visual and aural meditation on loss, decay and memory.

A tripartite collaboration between the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas Visual Art Center and Texas Performing Arts, brings Austin a host offerings to experience Morrison’s art.

Morrison himself will be on hand Jan. 20 at the Austin Film Society Cinema to introduce a screening of “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” arguably his best-known film. It’s the first of a four-part Morrison series AFS is hosting.



In  1978, more than 500 cans of nitrate reels were recovered from the permafrost of a sealed-up swimming pool in subarctic Dawson City, once the epicenter of the 1890s Klondike gold rush. In Canada’s upper Yukon territory, the Dawson City was the last stop on the film distribution circuit. Films and newsreels that made it to the remote boom town were rarely returned.

Using clips from the decaying silent films and photographic images, Morrison weaves a stories of several things: the stampede of people desperate to make fortune (including author Jack London and Frederick Trump, the former president’s grandfather), the boom and bust cycles of cut-throat capitalism, the exploited and displaced Ingenious people, and the rising importance of the film industry.

Without dialogue save for a few brief contemporary interviews, the “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” is accompanied by an evocative score by Sigur Rós collaborator and composer Alex Somers.

 

On Jan. 21, Texas Performing Arts presents the live version of Morrison’s collaboration with jazz musician Bill Frissell, “The Great Flood.”  Using newsreel footage and archival photos Morrison creates an elegy to the massive 1927 flooding of the Mississippi Delta which left 27,000 square miles of land underwater and displaced more than a million people, many of them Black sharecroppers. The flood is still considered the one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of the United States. “The Great Flood” has been recognized with the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for historical scholarship.

Frissel’s score, which he’ll perform live with his ensemble, combines American roots music, jazz and blues. (The two met when Morrisson, in his starving artist days, worked as a dishwasher at legendary New York jazz club, the Village Vanguard where Frissel gigged regularly.)

After the show on the 21st, Morrison and Frissell will host a post-performance discussion.

 

Opening Jan. 28 at the UT Visual Art Center, “Bill Morrison: Cycles and Loops” is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Texas.

Morrison will use clips from his filmography and combine them into several repetitive loops. With no beginning or end, and detached from any cinematic narrative, the looping films become poetic abstractions and invite the viewer to engage intellectually and emotionally with relics from film history, and the chaos of decay.

Bill Morrison
Bill Morrison, Still from “Decasia,” 2002. 35mm film transferred to digital video, black and white, color, sound. 67 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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