“The Exquisite Cinema of Bill Morrison”
Anyone who's seen experimental moviemaking in this town is aware of the vogue for “found footage” cinema, new movies assembled from the rubble of old — advertising films, classics, schoolroom fodder, all chopped up and repasted into snazzy “new” experiences. A fragment of film removed from its original source creates a new meaning when juxtaposed with any other piece of film: That's the nature of cinema. Just add sound. The cut-and-paste surgical wonders that emerge from the editolas and optical printers of camera-free cineastes can, however, get awfully tiresome, the filmmakers' intentions either too murky or heavily ironic, unless they know exactly what they're doing and do it right. The program of Bill Morrison short films screening at Artists' Television Access this Saturday reveals a collage artist who really is an artist — Morrison's juxtapositions of Hollywood movies, documentaries about lumberjacks, Eadweard Muybridge experiments from before the dawn of time, and even some film he apparently shot himself all cohere into gently poetic works that use the editing process to tease and not to bludgeon. Morrison's masterpiece may be his latest work, The Film of Her (1996), a love lyric to cinema spun out of the true tale of a Library of Congress clerk, one Howard Walls, who in 1939 single-handedly prevented truckloads of the very earliest films from being burnt for space. In Morrison's fantasia, the clerk is reimagined as a dreamer besotted with the visage of the star of an early porno flick, motivated into archival overdrive in hopes of seeing “the film of her” again. The historical Howard Walls might not appreciate the honor Morrison confers on him, but audiences will certainly enjoy this film poem, hauntingly scored as it is with Bill Frissell and Gorecki. Of the several other Morrison works screening, The Death Train (1993) is particularly impressive, marrying as it does old railway footage, minimalist drone music, and a voice processed to sound like Popeye to induce a trance state in viewers as it retraces, a late title tells us, the route of Baron von Frankenstein. The seascapes of Nemo (1995) are equally wondrous. While some early '90s optical-printing experiments (Lost Avenues, Photo Op) are lovely but not compelling, the bulk of Morrison's work, usually commissioned for some play or another — as in The World Is Round, an appealing short that seems to have something to do with Howard Hughes — set a new standard for lyrical nitrate, and hopefully won't be burned or turned into collage films themselves for many years to come.
— Gregg Rickman
“The Films of Bill Morrison” screens Saturday, Nov. 22, at 8:30 p.m. at Artists' Television Access, 992 Valencia (at 21st Street). Tickets are $5; call 824-3890. The Film of Her is also screening Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Also, note that ATA programmer and collage-cinema dynamo Craig Baldwin's seminal found-footage feature Sonic Outlaws screens Sunday at the S.F. Cinematheque. See Reps Etc. for locations and times.