This Tuesday, the Miami Jewish Film Festival will feature a series of experimental, avant-garde films by two of contemporary movie-making's greats. Bill Morrison and his regular collaborator composer, Michael Gordon, will appear for an evening of seven short films, conversation, and live music at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.
Morrision and Gordon will discuss both their old and new works. The two are probably best known for Decasia, a 70-minute film from 2003 made from early silent films in various states of decay. The images on damaged and/or neglected, highly combustible nitrate film were altered only by their natural decay over time. The decay turned human figures ghostly by adding halos or simply rendering them abstract blotches. Morrison didn't manipulate or tamper with the images; he simply recontextualized the old film by editing it to Gordon's brooding, minimalist music. The result is a transcendental if abstract meditation on the ephemeral quality of film and, by extension, life.
Decasia premiered in Miami in June 2003 at the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival. The film went on to define Morrison's work and has even been screened with live symphonic accompaniment across the globe. In 2013, it was added to the Library of Congress to be preserved as a significant example of American achievement in cinema.
Decasia is a wonderful example of Morrison and Gordon's partnership. Gordon usually composes a piece; then Morrison takes cues from the music to provide visualization. Morrison said he edits to the music and its changes. The challenge is in finding the right footage that's an appropriate length: "We start out talking about what the piece is gonna be and what is going to be involved," Morrison said from his base of operation in New York. "I'm devoting at least half of the writing and narrative load to my collaborators, in retrospect, because it's coming from the music, and the film is both supporting the music as well as the music supporting the film."
The result is an experience of both image and sound that transcends narrative yet explores existential questions. Because of Morrison's use of old film and the constant reminder of the decaying image, the viewer is forced to consider the fleeting quality of life. Before VHS and DVDs made film affordable, film, like music, was treated as an ephemeral art. Igor Shteyrenberg, director of the MJFF, said, "Bill Morrison's films abound with strange beauty and share an experience that stirs your soul. They're a mesmerizing meditation on life, death, and cinema, an expression that is at once awe-inspiring and exquisitely sad."
Gordon's music has a complementary quality, swelling up from silence and growing to a cacophonous pummeling that gradually cranks down. If there were a musical equivalent of an extended death rattle, it might be Gordon's work.
One of the evening's films, 2006's Who by Water, is a short created from outtakes of Fox Movietone Newsreel footage. It features passengers about to sail on a cruise. The people look straight at the camera -- some pose, others smile and wave, and some look stiff and serious. Morrison explains the film's title alludes to Rosh Hashana, specifically a passage of the service that considers the end of one year and the arrival of another.
"Who shall live, and who shall die
Who in his time, and who before his time.
Who by water, and who by fire..."
Gordon noted the film has a similar sensibility to Decasia but is not as epic in length. He shied away from explaining the meaning behind his craft, much less whether his music purposefully addresses the grim inevitable. Speaking from Amsterdam, where he was visiting for a series of live performances, he explained, "When you're working with images, you can't help but have those associations. But music is much more abstract. I'm not working with images or with words. What I go for is a very general feeling. It's kind of a vibe of the whole, and I don't know that it would be as connected to the ideas in the visual images. Obviously, those are going to be really clear, and music is much more abstract."
Another film that will be featured Tuesday derives from a Jewish high holy day. All Vows is taken from the "Kol Nidre," a Yom Kippur incantation that nullifies future vows made unintentionally. Morrison credited Gordon for the idea behind the short: "The concept from Michael's standpoint was to take the 'Kol Nidre' and extrapolate from it. He created his own tune out of it, and for me it's looking at the history of lost footage and lost narratives and using those narratives to tell a story of what could have been and what might still be."
It may sound like a heavy evening, but it would be wrong to write these artists off as ponderous. Also included in the program is Gene Takes a Drink, a short shot from the perspective of Morrison's cat, Gene. Via a camera that's been attached below the feline's chin, the audience is given the cat's engrossing perspective of a garden. The landscape becomes otherworldly and beautiful despite the low-resolution image of the camera footage.
Speed is also a central motif in Morrison's films. Whereas the found, decayed silent footage is slowed down, Gene's footage is sped up as the cat dashes quickly through the garden. "It's just so delightful," Gordon noted. "I know the cat. I house-sat for the cat once, when Bill was out of town for a few weeks, so I know Gene, and I know the garden he's running through. Those images were so delightful, so then I wrote this kind of fairly playful music and gave it to Bill, and he cut his raw footage to the music."
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He composed the music on Sibelius, and though it sounds like some hyper, perky synthesizer, Gordon said that no electronics were used in the recording of the music. The instrumentation is actually cello, piano, guitar, double bass, clarinet, and percussion. "I'm interested in electronics and electronic sounds," Gordon admitted, "but I'm also interested in making instruments sound unusual and that line between not knowing exactly who's making the music, where the sound is coming from."
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.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.