The Great Flood: Film Review

Simple ingredients add up to an affecting elegy.

Experimentalist Bill Morrison assembles a musical testament to the Mississippi River's historic flood.

Celebrated experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison is best known for Decasia, a 2002 found-footage work that, showcasing vintage film elements that had been badly ravaged by time, lent itself to meditations on the ephemeral nature of both art and life. He turns his eye toward American history in The Great Flood, partnering with guitarist and composer Bill Frisell for a look at the most destructive river flood in our history, one whose impact on America's social and musical culture can hardly be overstated. A pure pairing of silent historical films and Frisell's music, with only a few onscreen titles and scene-establishing graphics added, the feature is a niche artistic experience unlikely to see broad art-house distribution; still, it offers a unique way of communing with the past that will be appreciated by many who see it.

Opening footage, in which an airplane surveys flooding along the Mississippi's former borders in 1927, displays some of the damage Morrison used to great effect in Decasia (much of what we see was shot on 35mm nitrate stock), but that aesthetic is not the point here: When the filmmaker has access to well-preserved film -- surprisingly often, it turns out -- he uses it. Material is organized thematically, showing, for instance, how sharecroppers labored to get crops to safety; what refugee camps looked like; and how levees were dynamited, flooding small towns in an unsuccessful attempt to spare New Orleans from massive damage.

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That last section, calling to mind the rumors that circulated about intentional levee destruction during Hurricane Katrina, is not the only moment at which the 2005 tragedy is evoked here. Scenes of politicians (including then-Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover) surveying carnage and posing with refugees while dressed in spotless suits remind viewers of others who rushed to give speeches in areas poor black populations were being forced to flee, many of them for good.

In the case of the Mississippi flood, that exodus helped create an influx of African Americans in Northern cities; there, stories of the flood would live on in blues that evolved rapidly and had an incalculable impact on popular music. Frisell's score acknowledges this legacy without aping it. In the beginning, his compositions sit somewhere between Aaron Copland grandeur and electric-era Miles Davis; in ensuing episodes he references blues, gospel, and various Americana idioms -- he even quotes Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River" at one point. But the music never milks the devastation onscreen: Often gently upbeat and usually beautiful, the music is an elegy that witnesses destruction but foresees survival, perseverance, and even great achievement to come.

Production Company: Hypnotic Pictures
Director-Editor: Bill Morrison
Producer: Phyllis Oyama
Music: Bill Frisell
No rating, 77 minutes.