Salvaging Silent Cinema with a Brand-New Score

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Arts & Film, Film.


Fans of experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison will have plenty of opportunity to enjoy his work this winter. In addition to The Miners’ Hymns at Forum Feb. 8–14, this year’s Silent Films/Live Music series (Jan. 31–Feb. 3) at the World Financial Center Winter Garden, 220 Vesey St., will feature four Morrison films: The Miners’ Hymns, Decasia, Spark of Being and The Great Flood.

“I’d done Miners’ with Jóhann [Jóhannsson, who composed the score],” Morrison said, “and I heard of it being a live concert with film [at Winter Garden]. As I started talking to [curator] John Schaefer, he said he was thinking of a weeklong event that included my films. At the same time, Film Forum was contacting me about showing the films there, and you don’t want to have a film showing two places at once because people get proprietary. But as it worked out, both parties could work together and make a unified event—or at least a co-supported event.”

Morrison’s presence at both institutions certainly makes sense: He’s made a career out of resurrecting fading films, turning old silent film into experimental tours de force. Decasia is a compilation of decaying celluloid set to a score by Michael Gordon, called “the greatest movie ever made” by Errol Morris. When it comes to telling a story, Morrison is a firm believer in repurposing.

“With any one of these projects, you have to figure out what the skeleton is that you can hang the footage on,” he said.

“Just talking about the Winter Garden series, The Great Flood is an historical-based footage film dealing with the 1927 Mississippi flood. We used the chronology of the event to sort of frame the events of the film but also to look at the minor things that were happening that would inform life in 1927. So there’s a sequence that’s just the 1927 Sears catalog for that season. Took every page and scanned it.”

And for The Miners’ Hymns, Morrison looked to the BFI and BBC archives, where he discovered restored archival footage of what amounted to a history of coal mining in North England during the 20th century.

Perhaps even more integral to Morrison’s films than the perfect image are their scores, which makes the Winter Garden series essential viewing for fans—The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble will perform Gordon’s score to Decasia, while The Wordless Orchestra brings to life Jóhannsson’s score for The Miners’ Hymns.

“Most of these projects, the composer and I start at the same time and talk about what the project should be and then go our own ways,” Morrison said when asked about his collaborative process. “But at the end of the day, they deliver a finished score. And there’s an integrity to the score that way, where I create something that makes sense in musical terms.”

That his films rely so heavily on their scores leaves Morrison slightly stymied as to why they are so consistently referred to as “silent” films. “There’s been a lot of emphasis, promoting the Winter Garden show, on these being silent films,” he said. “But I don’t think of them that way because they come with enormous soundtracks.

“More than some narrative films, they’re edited to these soundtracks for the most part, so the sound is part and parcel with the finished product—it’s not just laid on top,” he said. “But it’s also just talking about that tradition of films with live music, where the live music is a big part of the event.”

As to how he would describe his films, Morrison pauses. “I guess the thing that bonds all these films together is that they’re using archival footage and edited to a contemporary score,” he said. “It’s almost the opposite of what the old silent filmmakers were doing.”

For more information and schedules, visit www.worldfinancialcenter.com and www.filmforum.org.

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