“Context is still important.” An Interview with Bill Morrison

written by Maximilien Luc Proctor, edited by Martin Bremer

Wilting, bending, fraying, the edges of the frame dance. Brimming with signs of decay and the promise of a new life, the films of Bill Morrison turn remnants into relics, cultivating fragments of forgotten material to assemble pieces which both resist and celebrate death. His are films all about that ever-elusive sense of purpose many of us spend our lives pursuing. Pieces thought dead and considered unsuitable for archiving or screening suddenly find their purpose in Morrison’s hands, in which flaws are reframed as flourishes, burns as birthmarks.

I caught up with Morrison at a café in Berlin between his screenings of Decasia (at Wolf Kino) and Dawson City: Frozen Time (at Arsenal).

 MLP: I was surprised to learn you had a new short film last year, The Letter? Is that available anywhere or are there plans for it?

Bill Morrison: It showed at a couple festivals. I guess maybe it would come out as a part of a compilation eventually. I don’t believe it’s shown here in Europe yet […] so it’s still possible. I did a few films last year, The Unchanging Sea, which was released with the Seattle Symphony performing Michael Gordon’s score, and that came out on a CD/DVD package that his label (Cantaloupe Music) put out. There was another as well, Electricty, with Bill Frisell, that had been an installation, but I finished it as a single channel film and submitted it to a few festivals.

That one I hadn’t heard of.

It’s actually on view now at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. It’s kind of looping indefinitely.

That’s a different kind of venue, science and industry.

Right, this was a three-museum collaboration between the Wellcome Collection in London, MSI Manchester, and the Teylers Museum in Harlem, in the Netherlands. They commissioned three artists to respond to their collection, so from the Manchester museum I chose these educational films that they used in the early part of the 20th Century to demonstrate how electricity works: [there are] these animations with dots showing currents. That’s a common theme throughout a bunch of those films, so I could extract them and they were all in the same language.

How did you first start to decide to approach filmmaking in this way, this kind of found-footage, curatorial style?

 Hmm.

You started in painting?

Yeah. I don’t know, I like to think I was making paintings. And then from painting, animation. And from animation, a more subtractive animation. I was shooting film and distressing it or somehow destabilizing it, atomizing it, reducing it to its frames and then re-structuring it, re-animating it. I think through Ken Jacobs – and my teacher was Robert Breer, my animation teacher, who very much worked in a cellular mode – I think seeing Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969) and seeing the paper print collection of the film, the distress to those frames and how they’d actually been printed on a physical medium and then re-animated, spoke, to me, to the possibility of how this happens in nature, organically, without the hand. I became interested in when I could find ephemeral film that had somehow become part of the material world and then come back up to be made ephemeral again.

Do you consider it a form of recycling?

Sure.

When you say ‘distressing’ film, do you mean [you were treating it yourself]?

This is what I did when I was younger. I don’t do it anymore. I did something a couple years ago in Indiana where we found a print of Breaking Away. It was shot in Bloomington and we buried it in the Bloomington soil to let the Bloomington soil work on a story about Bloomington. Again I was allowing a natural process to take place rather than physically distressing it myself. There was some intentionality there.

You mentioned Brakhage at last night’s screening [of Decasia]. Ken Jacobs and Brakhage didn’t come as surprise influences at all but I am interested in your take on how much he was directly working on the celluloid himself.

With Brakhage it was more phenomenological; a film could be a painting and you weren’t necessarily trying to discover space or story or believe a world that was inside this rectangle as much as there was a film flickering before your eyes; things we take for granted now, but as an art student that was a fairly novel idea – that there was beauty in that.

I was surprised to hear you mention James Benning in that same line of thought.

The films have nothing to do with him, but it’s more about the experience: durational. I set out to make very different films than James Benning, but I was referencing that lineage of the avant-garde. You could also add Ernie Gehr to that.

You mentioned working on Decasia in Godfrey Reggio’s studio?

I was working on the third part of his Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi. I was an editor there and at that time I was still collecting footage for Decasia, so that setup helped me make the film. They had an editing suite. Also being around those guys was very much [supportive of]  the idea of making a film with found footage. At the time they felt very much a part of that process.

A still from Decasia

How did you get that job?

In the early ‘90s I made a film called The Death Train and through Philip Glass I got a hold of Godfrey and asked if he had any outtakes I could use for that film. He gave me this long flyover shot of L.A. at night, and then I gave it [back] to him to see when I was done, and he liked it a lot. Through a series of communications – I guess they were mostly done by fax back then – I came to learn that he was heading an institute in Northeast Italy where he was inviting young artists to come work with him. It was one of my first trips to Europe as an adult. I was in Lucerne for a festival – with that film actually – and I came and visited Godfrey and they invited me to join them. This was 1995 or something like that. I spent the next year in Italy, though unfortunately Godfrey had a falling out with the administration and he left. When he got back to the States he followed up and asked me to be a part of this project as an editor. I worked on that film for the year of 2001.

Were you cutting on celluloid?

No, I guess it was Avid.

Do you have any memories of a particular film early on that made something click for you?

Koyaanisqatsi did. I couldn’t conceive of a film that didn’t have characters or narrative at that point. In the absence of characters or a story, you’re led to view the frame as a composition. So seeing how the same compositional concerns I was addressing in painting also applied to film was all of a sudden very apparent, and that there was this durational element to it that was enforced by the music, which I found exciting. I saw how that would be a natural fit for me. I saw that in 1985, or ’84, a couple years after it came out. It was already on the college circuit by then. That was a real moment, because it was before I went to New York, before I went to art school. I was pretty sure that was the direction I was going.

People often like to draw these comparisons between painting and film, usually with narrative film. As someone who comes from painting, do you feel that that durational element corresponds to the process of first having to make a painting?

There is something to that. Paintings take a long time to make, in general.

And then we just kind of look at it.

Yeah, and when you think about it, if you were to put a stopwatch on it, and spend 60 seconds looking at a painting, you’d feel like you really looked at that painting, right? Like you’d spent a long time there. So there’s already a disconnect between the painter and the viewer in that way. The painting somehow happens all behind the scenes and then they produce this product that can quickly be ingested, regarded, and disposed of. Maybe if you’re a critic or someone who writes about painting you spend a long time looking at it, but for the common viewer it’s something that’s seen in the context of other paintings, and they’re going to read the caption underneath to contextualize it. It seems very distant from the painter’s process and probably their intention, too. There’s this literary mindset that wants to see a painting as a part of a narrative: somehow associated with the painter’s life or their political circumstances at the time, or their sexuality, or whatever it is, just some story that this painting makes sense as a part of. In my experience that’s almost never the experience of the painter. Their relationship is with this thing that they’re creating. And they’re trying to make it on the terms determined by the four sides of that rectangle. Film was in a way, a more exalted viewing platform. Even if a short film is seen in a program of other short films, it can often sabotage it.

Do you mean the film can sabotage the program or the other way around?

Well, both [chuckles]. It depends on the film. The film can sabotage the program or the program can sabotage the film. Context is still important. At least during those six or seven minutes or however long you have the viewer’s attention. You’re talking in a more immediate language, a language that also can reference the fact that a film is flickering in front of a light bulb behind you – which is something that you don’t have with painting. You don’t have the chance to say, ‘we’re in the same moment.’ You only have the chance to say ‘I made this before you got here.’

A still from Dawson City: Frozen Time

With regards to contextualization, do you think it’s problematic that we approach films by saying, ‘the new film by Bill Morrison’ (or Godard or whoever)? Is it problematic in any way to consistently use the artist as the context?

I’ll just use myself in this program at Unknown Pleasures as an example. I think that they’re showing two very different films of mine that were made 15 years apart – in showing Dawson City tonight and Decasia last night. There’s a clear link in my mind between those two films. But somebody who’s expecting the same kind of psychedelic abstraction that you experienced last night might be surprised to find how sober and methodical – you might even say pedantic – Dawson City’s historical process is. It really works in a chronological sense. It tells the story from older to newer. In that respect, someone might come who’s either seen or heard about Decasia and might expect a much stranger film. At the same time, they might also have never heard about me or Decasia and come to this film and say, ‘what an odd way to tell this story,’ to dispense with voice-over and pretty much talking heads, have music be so dominant, and use all these snippets of old films. My point is that context can either set up an expectation of what you’re going to see, or it can inform it. My job is to keep making a film that interests me. Of course, by the fact of my making it there is going to be a through-line. Whether it’s helpful for someone to know what my history or my filmography is going in [to the film], isn’t something I can control. It’s something that programmers and writers are concerned with. I think that I actually have a more consistent language than a lot of filmmakers. I work within somewhat narrow parameters. So if you can see an evolution in my work, it’s that whereas something like Decasia was abstraction for abstraction’s sake, the newer work is finding a context for archival footage that’s telling a story or a certain political or geographical narrative. Dawson City is meeting those two extremes in the middle: it has material and formal concerns of something like Decasia and it has the historical concerns of something like The Great Flood. It’s addressing both the story and the material at the same time.

You mentioned last night that some of the material in Decasia was originally color and you changed it to black and white.

Right. When I say color, I mean that it was monochrome, some amber or sepia.

I was really struck by the colors in Light is Calling.

Right, that’s beautiful. There was some of that in the material for Decasia.

Light is Calling (35mm, 8 min, 2004)
Film by Bill Morrison, Music by Michael Gordon

Was black and white just for the uniformity of it?

Yeah, I wanted everything to be the same language. I didn’t want it to seem like an assemblage of different clips that came from different collections. There was this film, Lyrical Nitrate, which took great pains to attribute what these films were [which films it took material from], and to be faithful to their original color and separate them with black slug. There was a museum-like quality to that, that I was getting away from with Decasia. I wanted it to be its own fever dream where you weren’t seeing it from the 20th century and looking back at these old films with a magnifying glass. You were swimming in it. Of course you know you’re looking at an assemblage of clips, but the less aware of that you were, and the less jarring the cuts were, the better.

Are you working on any features in the background at the moment? I saw that you spend a lot of time in the research phase, like the three years for Dawson?

The thing is that research and editing are essentially the same thing for me. Through research I assemble stuff, then as I edit – let’s just say the researching, editing, and writing are all indistinguishable – I find that I need to go get something else that’s going to link or could link these two things. I’m working on a piece now that came to me a few years ago. The late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote the score for The Miners’ Hymns, wrote me in the summer of 2016 because there was an Icelandic news report about how a lobster boat off the coast of Iceland had been trawling the bottom of the ocean about 20 miles off from Reykjavík and had brought up four reels of a Russian film. To them it was just four film reels, but it turned out to be a Russian film made in 1969, a popular family, crime-comedy about a detective in a small Siberian village who is brought this case that an accordion has been stolen from the local music club. He sets out to return the accordion to the club manager and along the way scolds the younger generation for drifting away from their communist roots. He’s the old crusty uncle of the town who sees 1968-1969 as drifting away from what the core values of Socialism were. The actor, Mikhail Zharov, was an enormously popular Soviet-era actor. He was in like seventy films. No one in the West has heard of him, even though he had important supporting roles in big films like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. He was always the sidekick. He was a beloved Communist-era movie actor. I found it somewhat ironic that his film ended up at the bottom of the ocean and lead to an uncovering of who he was. What were these ideals that his character clung to? It’s an unpacking of Socialism in that way.

That’s exciting.

Could be. I think the footage itself is really cool.

Was the film released? Was this just another copy?

Oh yeah, it’s not a rare film. Russians of a certain age have all seen it. It shows on television a lot, it’s not a great piece of art.

But this copy is.

[Laughs] This copy is, yeah. This copy has incredible water damage to it. As we speak, I was finally able to get the Icelandic Film Archive to release it and ship it to my lab in the States, Color Lab in College Park, Maryland. This week they actually have it up on their rank and are scanning the four reels. They sent me a test and it’s amazing, so I’m excited about getting that. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before I can finish it. These things tend to ruminate for a while.

So you’ve already been thinking about it for some time.

Yeah, it’s been kicking around for a while. Anyway, that’s how I work – I find a film or a collection of films, I either get them scanned or they arrive scanned, and then they sit on drives that I can try to organize. That means sorting through them, finding similarities between them, maybe two different ideas can exist in the same film.

And are you usually working with the celluloid or the digital scans?

The scans.

And after you finish, do you reprint to celluloid?

Yeah, I guess that’s going to be more and more of a process. I have a long relationship with the Museum of Modern Art, and they’ve made it clear that they’re not going to accept a DCP or a file.

Good for them.

Yeah. That makes sense. There’s a lab in Mexico that I worked with on Dawson City to do a film out, and I just worked with them again to make a film out of Just Ancient Loops, a 25-minute film I made in 2012. While I can, I’d like to do that with as much of my filmography as possible. Even if there’s a single copy, a direct out, there’s something I know is going to outlive me.

How did you get involved with the lab in Mexico?

I think my post house in New York had worked with them before, Lab O Digital. And they were a fraction of the price of the lab I worked with in the States, so we decided to do a test. I was really happy with what they did.

What’s left in the States? I hear so much vague talk of everything closing, but I don’t know how many labs are actually around.

Well Kodak opened a lab in Queens, so I think there is this idea that there’s some big Hollywood muscle behind keeping some celluloid alive – when I say celluloid, I mean sprocketed film. There needs to be a lab that at least does the processing and digital outs. Certainly some have shuttered, but others have opened to fill that void. I think increasingly people are starting to understand that someone needs to be open to do it. If everyone closes, there’s still a void there, and there’s a market there. I think as long as Kodak’s printing film there’s going to be a lab. I say printing film, but I mean coating film.

Did you see The Image Book?

Not yet, no. It comes out in New York on the 25th. Have you seen it?

Yeah.

Is it good?

Yeah.

I feel like I want to see it before I make another step, you know? It’s inspiring to think that Godard’s still making films. I loved Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema. He’s been watching films since his childhood. A host of films I’d never heard of at all, mostly pre-1950. I guess he’ll make a subsequent addition that brings you into the [present]. But that was really spectacular.

Is there anything else lately that you’ve particularly liked?

Oh yeah, I thought this was a good year for film. I liked Border, Shoplifters, Burning, Cold War, Roma…  I liked Hereditary, Madeline’s Madeline, Leave No Trace… I thought it was a really good year. I saw a film by those Australian siblings, that go by the name Soda_Jerk. They had a film called Terror Nullius, I thought that was pretty amazing. The Peter Jackson World War I film, that was amazing. And The Other Side of the Wind. Earlier last year I saw the Guy Maddin film, The Green Fog. Brilliant guy.

Do you think his films – apart from The Forbidden Room – could use more visual damage?

Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing well. The Forbidden Room – I just found mind-blowing. I loved it so much. Those guys are applying that damage, but I think his work with the Johnson brothers has helped them all. I think they’re a great team. And I thought the visual interference they introduced to those images was amazing. It’s a funny experience because there’s a scene in that film where a guy runs up to the camp to tell them the girl has been kidnapped by the cave people, and they all run away from the campfire. I was going through Dawson City footage and I found that exact same scene, with the same composition, but it was shot in 1914 or 1912. I sent it to Guy and it blew his mind. It was like he had somehow predicted it without having seen it, a hundred years later. But no, I wouldn’t say that they need to introduce any artifacts into those films. We did a screening of My Winnipeg with Dawson City in Boston last year, so Guy and I were invited to discuss the two films, which was fun. There’s a great correlation between the two of them, about small-town Canada. These public events are moments in history that become a part of the narrative about a place. They came from two very different voices, different points of view, but I thought that as a double-feature they complemented each other. The other thing I liked that he said – I forget who the filmmaker was but maybe it was David Lynch, somebody who really admired Guy was reading all his interviews and started realizing that in all his interviews he was saying the same thing over and over again. I certainly know that I’ve probably already said something here that I’ve said before. He was really appalled by that. He decided that he would always say something different for every interview. But he quickly ran out of things to say that were true, so he just started making stuff up [laughs]. I thought that was a great Guy-ism.

Seems like the kind of thing you’d expect from the person behind those films.

Exactly.

What about music or books, what kind of stuff are you into?

Right now I’m reading a Dashiell Hammett, which is nice for traveling, but I’m usually doing research in some way, something that’s going to inform a film I’m working on. Right now I’m reading about the American West, because I have an idea for a film about the American West. I’m reading about collective farms in the Soviet Union, because the Russian film is about collectivization on some level. And then there’s this way that we can also see this era that we’re living in as something they’re calling the Anthropocene, an ice age or geological age in which man’s impact can be seen in geological terms, natural-historical terms, so I’m reading a little bit about that. In terms of music, I find that I’ve always had the same taste in music, it hasn’t changed. I acquired different artists that I like to listen to, but I feel like there’s been the same through-line since I was a kid; I still like Rock ‘n Roll and I still like Minimalism. I love Jazz. What can I say, there’s good music and there’s bad music. I could name composers, but it hasn’t really changed. It’s very much a part of me, and the library of music that I’ve compiled over the years is immense. Now the way we access it is to turn it on, I don’t go to a library and pull out a record or CD the same way I used to. There’s places where I do that. I have a record player in a cabin in Long Island, where I actually pull out Vinyl, but those are old records. They’re almost like museums of my past.

Do you enjoy crackles and pops on old scratched records in the same way as visual noise?

I don’t know, which is something my wife and I [disagree on]. She’ll put on a record, well-loved, well-worn, and not particularly well cared-for. Whatever that music is behind those cracks and pops, that still gives her joy. To me, the cracks and pops are so annoying. I don’t find audio decay as alluring as visual decay.

What is it about visual decay that’s so alluring to you?

If you didn’t slow it down, it would be enervating. If it was a different image every frame, it has a much different effect than if it registers long enough for you to see it as a shape or a form. I don’t know if that’s something I can put words to. I think it’s cool, and interesting, and suggestive of higher forces at work. When you can find something like that that’s also visually interesting, there’s a power behind it. There’s this idea that there are greater metaphysical powers at work and they’ve left an imprint, and this is what the imprint looks like. It’s kind of like ghosts. I like that we’re looking at the clues, the traces, the footprints of that metaphysical power. If it was obliterating the frame that was there, that would have a limited interest to me. I think the fact that there are different densities of emulsion that interact with the decay or subtraction of the image in different ways is exciting. I like to see how the two things are in conversation with each other, not just that one exists on one plane and the other exists on the other plane – and obliterates or obfuscates it.

Do you think of film as a window to a collective subconscious?

I think it quite literally is a physical representation of memory. I don’t think there’s any way you could argue it isn’t. It is a series of moments that represent a sequence of time. Even the most thought-out, planned narrative film is recording seconds of a set, actors working, documenting the moments of a working day. Then it is preserved and treated in such a way that that is immediately relegated to a memory. And this is the physical manifestation of that memory. Very few things work that way. If you write something you can’t say that it’s the representation of a memory. It’s the signification of a thought or an idea. The way audio-visual media is setup is to mirror our internal monolog or subconscious; there is a moving image and a sound that accompanies it. This is the thought-box model. So what happens to that memory as it is stored and becomes part of our material world and is subjected to the same environmental conditions that our bodies are subjected to? It begs this question – are these corporeal things? Made up of these combinations of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen… Of course they’re much more than that. They house whatever thinking being is inside them. You can say that about every piece of film media as well – that it’s either a composition of celluloid or acetate or diacetate or polyester physical film material or it’s some combination of ones and zeroes on some sort of magnetic band or drive or tape. Within that it contains some sort of thought, spirit or idea that a human created or at least set in motion. So what happens to these vehicles? They contain the DNA of that thought, or that memory. I guess you could compare it to a book, but it exists in a different plane as well, it’s durational. You compare it to a painting, it’s also durational. It can be brought back to life, re-animated, like Frankenstein’s monster.

When you started talking about zeroes and ones, I started thinking about images that decay digitally. Do those hold any appeal for you?

They don’t, but that’s just me. They don’t have the same visual seduction, but I think the idea is there, and maybe it can be done in an interesting way that I can’t conceive of.

Have you seen Ken Jacobs’ Reichstag 9/11?

No.

I haven’t either, but I’ve seen a series of stills and read about it: he uses footage from 9/11, but it’s full of digital artifacts, kind of data-moshed together.

Huh. Footage that he shot or found?

I think found. It seems really interesting.

A still from Ken Jacob’s Reichstag 9/11

I bet if he did it, it is. I had a funny experience that day, because I watched the towers fall from the roof of my apartment, and I felt like I couldn’t put a lens between me and it – that it was somehow betrayal of the moment. I felt very strange about capturing it for my future library or something like that. It was something I wrestled with, that would be putting me outside the moment in a way. I also felt like, this is an image I’m going to see for the rest of my life. Therefore it’s not a unique image. But I did have this strange panic, in that, while I was sitting there – it was this gorgeous September day – huge plumes of black smoke were coming out of both towers, and I was standing there with my neighbors from my building. We weren’t really talking, we were all in our own thoughts, and I needed it contextualized somehow, I needed to understand it as more than just this silent thing that was happening: this very ugly image on this gorgeous day. So I ran downstairs and turned on CNN and it had all the talking, and text underneath it. And that would not be enough for me, I’d have to run back upstairs, I felt like some kind of hamster on a wheel running up and down… The two realities were so hard to reconcile. I think it was just panic. Not panic that something was going to happen to me, just panic that I couldn’t understand the visual in front of my eyes.

Do you think of the recorded images as more trustworthy than your memory or the other way around? Not necessarily about that day, but in general.

I was thinking about that day… I think the way our memory works, now anyway, is that we embrace the recorded image, and that becomes our memory. Our memories are formed by the pictures of it that we’ve seen.  We all have memories of photographs. I have very few memories of my maternal grandfather, who died when I was seven, or five, maybe four. Memories I have are associated with a snapshot of us together, and I can kind of remember that moment – whether I actually can or not… Or Super 8 movies. In a way we’re a people that have supplanted our memories, where we can have memories that we didn’t necessarily experience. There’s a cultural memory now. I don’t know how old you were when 9/11 happened?

Nine or Ten.

And where were you?

I was in school. I actually had no idea.

But where?

Oklahoma.

And do you remember the Oklahoma City bombing?

No, I was too young.

But do you have a memory of what that looks like from a media perspective? Is it something you’ve just heard of or do you have an idea of that building?

I’ve been to the memorial, I’ve seen images.

When you think about it, do you think of those images?

Yeah, I mostly think of that memorial. That’s all I have. I haven’t really even seen news reports.

It wasn’t the great flourish of an ongoing smoking building – 9/11 was great theater, as it was planned to be.

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