Tag Archives: Bill Morrison


Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia



FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.


“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tadd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


Spark of Being can be watched in its entirety for free on IMDB.

Spark of Being (2010) is an example of an artist resisting an aesthetic anchor. ‘s films are often categorized as non-narrative and experimental, so the idea of this artist tackling such a perennial chestnut such as “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” leads us to wonder exactly how he is going to deconstruct such a familiar narrative. Throwing out all preconceived assumptions, Morrison pays homage to Mary Shelly and makes her Gothic creation fresh again with a startlingly literal interpretation. Indeed, Spark of Being may be one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of the book to date.

Using found footage, Morrison teams with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and his electric sextet, Keystone, to illustrate Shelly’s tale. Douglas is an eclectic trumpeter who once worked as a sideman with the John Zorn ensemble Masada. With an original score that is simultaneously mercurial and animated, it is hard to imagine a more perfect composer for Spark of Being. 

Still from Spark of Being (2010)A frequent (and sometimes justifiable) criticism in films this textured is that the style becomes so all-important the end result is a viewer deprived of a heart to identify with. In short, often, a human element is missing. Morrison has referred to this film itself as “the Creature,” and given the agonized condition of footage chosen, Morrison’s creature may be the most pathos-laden performance of the character since . One can only imagine the painstaking process it took in assembling Morrison’s creation into a cogent psyche, imbued with personality as predominant “presence.” A popular comparison might be the collaboration between  and Claude Rains in producing a personality-driven Invisible Man (1933), but Morrison’s approach is more innovative, while still being true to the author’s tenets. Douglas’ music provides an informative touch of flesh stretched over the cranium supplied by archival footage from Ernest Shackleton’s film of an Antarctic expedition. As in the novel, the film opens here in the segment titled “The Captain’s Story.” The viewer steps with the Captain in his interaction with creator and created and the unfolding tragic drama.

Through laboratory footage we meet “A Promising Student” and adopt his sense of ambition and wonder. Educational footage and decayed nitrate, which looks hauntingly like an intensely animated closeup of an Emilio Vedova canvas, bring “The Doctor’s Creation” to violent life.

In “The Creature Watches” antiquarian city crowds, desolate landscapes and achingly lonely images of a child endow the creature with a Chaplinesque essence. The psychedelic beauty of “The Creature’s Education” is extended and sublime. The heartbreaking “Observations Of Romantic Love” segues into the bitter sting of ‘The Doctor’s Wedding” and the inevitable dejection of “The Creature in Society.” In “The Creature Confronts His Creator,” the new Adam dares to accuse a negligent father, and in “The Creature’s Pursuit” it is God who is tried and condemned. A justifiable patricide is, perhaps, the greatest burden of all. It is the stuff of horror, even nearly 200 year old horror served up in our own mythological consciousness.


’s Light Is Calling (2004) opens the prestigious 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium at Indiana University, setting an avant-garde tone for the event.

Morrison’s credentials as a experimental filmmaker are considerable, having received widespread critical recognition for the feature Decasia (2002). Morrison’s collages are composed and juxtaposed to music, often by his frequent collaborator composer, Michael Gordon. This technique, combined with Morrison’s obsessive use of decaying silent film and newsreel footage, makes him one of the most startling, original homegrown artists since New Englander Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives. Comparing this twenty first century filmmaker to an early twentieth century composer is not as fanciful as might be first imagined, since inherent musicality abides in both, as does a shared aesthetic of deconstructionist Americana.

Light Is Calling will be shown Thursday night at 830 pm. It is part of an evening of film and music, which will include Just Ancient Loops (2012) and the world premiere of Morrison’s All Vows (2013). Israeli American cellist and Bang On A Can founding member Maya Beiser will supply live musical accompaniment. (Beiser’s reputation for collaborating with composers such as Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno may prove to be refreshing in a city whose symphony rarely defines progressive art-music beyond the nineteenth century).

Light is Calling, like many of Morrison’s films, follows an existential arc witnessed through layer after layer of resplendently cruel textures produced by severely decomposing nitrate film stock. Here, Morrison uses footage from The Bells (1926), focusing on stars Lola Todd and Edward Phillips. Slithering through the visceral sepia gangrene is the haunting fragility of love, life and, ultimately, meaning. Once fully fleshed, figures become as fragmented and as meaningful as the simple images of riders we find in a late Gauguin canvas. Through the cinematic milieu, accompanied by Gordon’s shimmering, haunted music, Morrison demands more than the lack of attention one might succumb to while whisking through an art gallery; he takes us deeper than the surface paint, to the very texture of the burlap canvas.

Just Ancient Loops breaks down into three sequences: Genesis, Chorale, and Ascension. It is a collaborative work between composer Michael Harrison, soloist Beiser, and Morrison. Nineteenth century symphonist Anton Bruckner described Harrison’s work as “boundlessly expansive.” The Harrison/Beiser opus, “Time Loops,” constructs a homogenous, Brucknerian cathedral. The artists’ refreshing consistency of purpose embraces the transient station of a paradisaical hour. From a solar eclipse to consummating cells, and the expulsion from paradise, the three artists dance with their putrefied avatars: hand tinted witnesses to the resurrection and ascension.


Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.

There is a breed of  minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey.  Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator.

As new opera directors rethink old chestnuts, so too does Morrison rethink Walt’s innovative concert program of film imagery wedded to music. How Morrison dances with the preexisting music is as original as that ambitious premiere in 1940. Dancing is an apt description, as Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish. Morrison’s approach to conveying that decay is as startling as ‘s humanizing “Messiah” and as relentless as Guth’s collaboration with Chaya Czernowin in Mozart’s “Zaide.” Morrison’s aesthetic point of entry manages to be paradoxically unsettling and accessible at the same time: no mean feat. Typically, in many postmodern endeavors it is mystery and spirituality that is forefront, usually (and lamentably) at the expense of expressive directness and all traces of humanity. Morrison does not make that mistake, and the unfolding of his vision is hypnotically entertaining.

Still from Decasia (2002)Using silent film footage and stock reels, Morrison’s imagery is akin to cadavers struggling with the effectiveness (or not) of embalming fluid. Nuns with schoolchildren, missionaries baptizing in a river, a boxer, crashing waves, a man reading a newspaper, a caravan of camels, landscapes, a geisha, miners, and volcanoes rise from the blemishes of  a Dorian Gray portrait, once as handsome and muscular as the square jawed  or as prettified as the coquettish . It is a circular, phantasmagoric dance-to-your-death potpourri. The assemblage of primordial imagery, conjoined with Gordon’s aural language, craft an evocative, textured  experience that is probably most effective on the big screen. The sole advantage to home viewing would be lack of interruption due to grumbling patrons walking out.

By taking this unpreserved archival footage, keeping it intact, and wedding it to the atonal composition, Morrison’s contemplative, non-linear narrative serves the nitrate deterioration like a protective skin. Decasia simultaneously celebrates decay and survival with an unbridled enthusiasm found in the most memorable cinematic experiments of the 1960s.