NEW YORK — Disaster has an uncanny relationship with Bill Morrison; it’s practically the basis for each of his films. Over the past two decades, he has expanded the language of found-footage filmmaking. His work turns degraded nitrate stock culled from film archives into lyrical meditations on storytelling and the entropic nature of existence. Out of the cinematic ruins, he salvages art.
“I became a channeler,” said Morrison, 48, chatting over breakfast recently at a Greek diner in the East Village, where he lives. He recalls a scene in his 2002 film “Decasia” in which blistered emulsion changes the context of an old silent film that depicts a boxing match and morphs it into something metaphysical. “The way nature had left it included an element of chance that nobody could deny,” he said. “That boxer is boxing a blob and I didn’t do that. It’s kind of spooky and there’s a power to that.”
If “Decasia,” which was added to the National Film Registry in January, was received as an unintentional post-Sept. 11 elegy, Morrison’s latest feature is more explicit in its focus on catastrophe. “The Great Flood,” which screens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, takes up the subject of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The flood spread across 27,000 square miles and propelled the Great Migration, a turning point in American history. It also was the source of countless songs, from Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” — popularized by Led Zeppelin — to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”
Using footage from the Fox Movietone Newsfilm Library at the University of South Carolina and the National Archives, Morrison evokes a seemingly lost time and place, finding redemptive glimmer in the monochrome imagery while amplifying the emotional resonance of a national tragedy.
“I’d seen a lot of the footage and it was really beautiful footage,” said Morrison, who was partly inspired by John M. Barry’s history of the flood, “The Rising Tide,” which he discovered at a dinner party in Baton Rouge, La., in the extended wake of Hurricane Katrina. “The most sensational was flood-porn if you will: Roll after roll of 35mm nitrate negative shot in the rain, on a boat, of the surface of the water. Now that guy was an artist. The details are what makes the film work. We identify with these people, we see them as Americans. They’re clearly part of our culture even though they’re removed by this great chasm of time.”
Essential to the project is the soundtrack, an original score by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Working with a quartet that includes Ron Miles (cornet), Tony Scherr (bass, guitar) and Kenny Wollesen (percussion), Frisell casts his singular spell. The slow decay of his notes produces a drizzly tone as fitting for the subject as the deep echoes of old-time blues and ballads that bubble up in the melodies.
Much of the men’s collaboration coalesced during an unusual road trip through the Mississippi Delta in the spring of 2011, as Frisell’s combo played a series of small-town dates and workshopped the music that would become the soundtrack of “The Great Flood.” Strange coincidence: The tour ran headlong into a new flood. “It was way high,” Morrison said. “We saw a town basically evacuated.” The experience filtered into everyone’s creative conscience, lending another layer to the performances.
“It made it so much stronger than if I had just written the music and handed it to the guys,” said Frisell, whose themes for the film veer from melancholy dirges to jaunty, Thelonious Monk-inspired numbers meant to brighten the tone. “It took it to another level.”
That organic process begins with the footage Morrison sources. He can’t always know what he’s looking for until he finds it. He’s so familiar to archivists that one has even named a special shelf after him, where selected reels await his perusal before they are destroyed.
“I have some stuff sitting there right now for him,” said George Willeman, nitrate film vault manager at the Library of Congress. “I don’t think he knows about it.” Willeman, whom Morrison calls “my enabler,” sets aside footage “if chemistry has done an interesting job on it or created new images that are quite spectacular.”
Though Morrison, who was trained as a painter, has done much to cultivate the use of found footage distinct from its current association with horror movies, he takes inspiration from a long tradition of avant-gardists. Morrison would rather skip the labels, though. His work, which is often presented in concert settings with a live performance of the soundtrack, has the quality of a skeleton key. It accesses a lot of different categories, without quite being exclusive to them.
“I’m a filmmaker,” Morrison said, “and I love working with these old images.”
As years go by, he has come to recognize their potency. “You have to be careful what you show,” said Morrison, only partly in jest. “The next film I make has to be about world peace or something. It’s, like, weird. You’re making films, and then contemporary events repeat the ghosts of what we’ve seen before.”
Morrison had his own flood to contend with in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy smacked into New York. His home, at Avenue C and 10th Street, took on 12 feet of water, destroying prints of films he had stored in the basement. “It was one of the most stressful times of my life,” he said, while recalling that the loss of power brought people together as everyone suddenly had a reason to engage their neighbors.
“You subtract electricity and it’s basically 1927 again,” he said. “We we’re all running around trying to find a way to help each other, which was a hell of a lesson. There’s a thin veneer it is that keeps us in this bubble we’ve evolved.”
Dollar is a freelance writer.
Screening Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium. 78 minutes.