When asked why a couple of collaborators in avant-garde film are discussing their works in a shorts program at a Jewish film festival, Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg responded via email, “At the very heart of the Miami Jewish Film Festival we aspire to celebrate artists who push the cinematic edge. We are thrilled to honor Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon this year, as they have explored the outer edges of film and music like few others.”
Indeed, experimental filmmaker Morrison and music composer Gordon have long been favorites of ours at Independent Ethos for the same reason. Neither I nor my wife, co-author of this blog, will forget the screening of Decasia we attended at the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival in 2003 with Morrison in attendance. The film was a revelation and has gone on to earn well-deserved preservation status in the Library of Congress.
Ahead of their visits to Miami, I had the honor to speak to both of these artists. Morrison was in New York, where he lives, and Gordon was traveling in Amsterdam for a couple of performances there. Some of my interviews with Morrison and Gordon can be read on the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo below:
However, there was so much more we spoke about. Their work is an example of pure cinema, as far as light and sound. Narrative becomes almost subconscious with Morrison’s entrancing images and Gordon’s hypnotic music. That it often transmits a profound message speaks to the power of cinema too often overshadowed by narrative control in language and editing. The fact that the music comes first and Morrison edits mostly found footage of old decayed nitrate film to Gordon’s music, speaks to the abstract impetus of their work.
The two met in the late 1990s. Morrison was the Ridge Theater’s resident filmmaker when Gordon — then most famously known as a founding member of Bang On a Can, noticed Morrison’s work. Their collaboration has flourished ever since. Their first work together was an opera for the Ridge Theater called Chaos (1998). Their first film together was “City Walking,” but they had yet to meet, notes Morrison. “I created the film, and he created the music,” he says. “He did so without ever seeing my film. I did the film without ever hearing his music, and I don’t think we even met, so that was kind of a blind date that turned into a very long marriage. Part of the success of that marriage is that I’ve cut to his track in all the other circumstances.”
That’s right. Ever since that first film collaboration, Morrison has received Gordon’s music first and then put together the film to Gordon’s music. “I write the music first, and he builds the films to the music,” Gordon confirms. Sometimes Gordon does have a look at raw footage Morrison has either shot or found as a starting point, but the films are composed to the rhythm and flow of Gordon’s music. “The beautiful thing about working with Bill is that he’s very sensitive to the sound and very sensitive to the music,” says Gordon, “so if the music builds, he’s going to reflect that in the film and in the images, but the nice thing also is there’s an independence. I get to write the music without having to score the film, and then he gets to make the film, and he has the soundtrack to guide him through it.”
Decasia, notes Gordon, was one of those cases where he had a look at the raw material Morrison was working with, and it inspired him to some extent. It’s a 70-minute film that feels like it crescendos up from near silence for the duration of the film. The music seems to build ever so gradually to an unsettling cacophony. There’s a sense that Gordon is meticulously exploring crescendo. “Generally, a lot of the music I write is in waves and builds up and dies away,” he says.
Describing the music of Decasia, Gordon says, “It’s almost like a storm gathering or something like that, where you see the clouds and the wind starts up. In the same way that a storm gathers power and then all of a sudden you’re in the middle of it — lightning and going crazy — but that doesn’t necessarily last forever, so a lot of the things that I do have that feeling, and when you’re working with a symphony orchestra, the orchestra lends itself to having this epic sound. You’ve got 90 people or a hundred people on stage and all these instruments. You can just make this fantastic and incredibly rich and big reverberant sound that’s just gonna echo in the hall.”
Gordon, a classically trained composer, admits to having been influenced by Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Though he said he finds the music of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Godspeed You! Black Emperor interesting, he says he does not really keep up with music outside the classical world. He also said he has no interest in singing and lyrics, which speaks to his interest in communication via the abstraction of music. It’s an ethos that bonds with Morrison’s “storytelling” to profound effect, as the filmmaker also has little interest in literal expression through voice. Decasia, after all, defines itself via the reconceptualization of past images celebrated in decay. Images once filmed for narrative were given new life and meaning through the blurred, distorted images that resulted from the nitrate film’s chemical reaction to the passage of time. It resonates with impressive subtext. Many have read into the idea behind this redefinition of the images as an allusion to the fragility of life. “Yeah,” agrees Morrison. “Film works on a couple of different levels, but the thing that it’s delivering to the image is it’s plastic. It’s material. It’s of the world. Whereas the image that you receive is actually ephemeral, and it’s light. It’s shadows. It’s ghosts. There’s a dualism there between this plastic thing and this ephemeral thing, and it’s not a big leap to the same association between our bodies and our souls.”
In one film showing tomorrow night, a Florida premiere, “All Vows,” the deterioration of the image is so pronounced that it looks as if an abstract image has been overlaid the more recognizable image: a man helping a sickly woman to bed. It’s a scene from Queen Kelly (1929) by Erich von Stroheim. The appearance of random blotches distort the picture, filmed almost a hundred years ago, yet the abstract decay and the recognizable images of people are elevated in their juxtaposition to something grander.
“There isn’t any actual overlays,” notes Morrison. “What you’re seeing there between the recognizable image and the abstract images is simply organic decay, so that is the process of time at work, which I think also has a spiritual or, if you will, religious overtones to it as well.”
Morrison says he was inspired to look at decayed film nitrates worth recontextualizing like this after he saw Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut’s “Lyrical Nitrate” (1991). “I’d already been working with film in a lyrical way,” he says, “and I guess I was already splitting the image from the base already, but the idea of looking for occurrences where that had already happened, especially in nitrate deterioration, really came from seeing that film and then many years later — probably eight or nine — I came upon this trove of films at the University of North Carolina, many of which had deteriorated, and also the idea of looking at actuality footage or newsreel footage that had deteriorated rather than narratives seemed to have more potential for me.”
Alongside his name on his personal website, Morrison uses the name Hypnotic Pictures. Asked whether his aim is to lull the audience into a state of hypnosis, he says, “I think ontologically the decay does work on people’s retina in a certain way because there are some images that are more abstract and then some that you recognize. I think naturally we’re drawn towards trying to identify those images that we can recognize, seeing when they’re gonna pop out again from the morass of decay, and that creates some kind of relationship between the screen and the audience that people aren’t really accustomed to, and while you’re playing this hide and seek for a recognizable image, the decayed images seem to be working on you on a different level, so I don’t know if I’m going for hypnotism, but I do find that there is that kind of effect that works on me as well, in this kind of footage, and I think it does set up a different relationship between the viewer and the image because on some level you’re always aware that you’re watching a film going through the shutter gate or whatever it is, through a projector, rather than being engrossed in what is truly hypnotic, the suspension of all belief and entering another fantasy world. In some ways you’re hypnotized, and in some ways you’re positioned in a much more real or correct relationship to the screen.”
Asked if he is trying to achieve some sort of transcendental experience, Morrison says, “Yeah, definitely, hopefully, but it would be kind of pretentious going around calling my company ‘Transcendental Pictures,'” he adds with a laugh.
Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon will appear at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Tuesday, January 27, at 7 p.m. in conversation with David Meyer, an author and film studies professor at the New School in New York. There will also be a live performance accompanying two of the shorts by New World Symphony members. For ticket information, visit miamijewishfilmfestival.net. On Friday, January 30, and Saturday, January 31, the New World Symphony will present the world premiere of El Sol Caliente, a tribute to Miami Beach by Gordon and Morrison. For more information, visit nws.com.