The Great Flood an ir­re­sistible force

SundayXtra - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ann Hor­na­day

A MESMERZING col­lec­tion of film frag­ments taken dur­ing the Great Mis­sis­sippi Flood of 1927 — which cov­ered nearly seven mil­lion hectares, dis­plac­ing thou­sands of peo­ple — Bill Mor­ri­son’s new film hews to the same style he’s de­vel­oped with such films as De­ca­sia and The Min­ers’ Hymns, re­claim­ing lost and dam­aged ni­trate film stock and turn­ing it into po­etic es­says on his­tory, per­ma­nence and de­cay.

Ghostly black-and-white images seem to emerge from a dimly re­mem­bered col­lec­tive past, their smudges, stains and shad­ows cre­at­ing their own ab­stract vis­ual rhythm. In the case of doc­u­men­tary The Great Flood, the haunt­ing ef­fect is un­der­scored by a lilt­ing score by jazz gui­tarist Bill Fris­sell.

The Great Flood is or­ga­nized into chap­ters — “Share­crop­pers,” “Lev­ees,” “Evac­u­a­tion” — but it’s an im­pres­sion­is­tic work, its mon­u­men­tal images of mules and men load­ing cot­ton bales seam­lessly giv­ing way to the lyrical sight of a refugee play­ing a pi­ano in an evac­uees’ camp or a woman seem­ing to pluck a flower while be­ing boated to safety from her flooded home.

Beau­ti­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing and eerily rem­i­nis­cent of the bleak iconog­ra­phy that emerged from Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, The Great Flood per­forms the valu­able work of labour, en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial his­tory, but it keeps ex­plana­tory text to a min­i­mum, in­stead work­ing on an­other level of con­scious­ness al­to­gether.

Mor­ri­son none­the­less has a nar­ra­tive point in The Great Flood, which clearly traces how the nat­u­ral dis­as­ter led to the Great Mi­gra­tion of AfricanAmer­i­cans from the South to the North in the 1920s.

The Great Flood ends on a some­what am­bigu­ous, even un­set­tling note, with the film jump­ing through time to re­veal footage of mu­si­cians in the decades af­ter the flood it­self, end­ing with a tableau cen­tred on a black woman sin­u­ously danc­ing to un­heard mu­sic. The im­age, while ar­rest­ing, is dis­com­fit­ing: The filmmaker’s af­fec­tion for his sub­jects is pal­pa­ble, but so is a trou­bling ten­dency to­ward aes­theti­ciz­ing bod­ies in a way that makes them less hu­man than ex­otic ob­jects.

Still, The Great Flood ex­erts as trans­fix­ing and in­ex­orable a force as the dis­as­ter it doc­u­ments. Mor­ri­son has made a film about his nom­i­nal sub­ject but also, most sim­ply, about what he finds beau­ti­ful. His en­chant­ment is con­ta­gious.

— Wash­ing­ton Post

The Great Flood looks at cat­a­strophic events of the 1927 Great Mis­sis­sippi Flood.

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