Going with the flow

SUNDAY’S opening night at the Corona Cork Film Festival will see the screening of The Great Flood, a film-music collaboration between avant garde filmmaker Bill Morrison and pioneering musician, Bill Frisell.

Going with the flow

Frisell will perform a live original soundtrack with his band at Cork Opera House to accompany the screening. The film, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, is touring Europe and the Cork Film Festival is the only Irish date for this performance.

The Great Flood is inspired by the catastrophic Mississippi river flood of 1927 and the subsequent transformation of American society. In the spring of that year, the river broke its embankments and inundated 27,000 square miles. Part of its legacy was the forced exodus of displaced sharecroppers who left plantations and migrated to northern cities. From a musical point of view, the exodus influenced the evolution of the blues and subsequent genres.

The Great Flood is the brainchild of Chicago native Morrison. “Bill and I had been looking to work together for a long time on a long-form piece. We kept our eyes and ears peeled. After Hurricane Katrina, I was showing some films in Baton Rouge in Louisiana. I was at a dinner party when the conversation turned to a book called Rising Tide by John M Barry. The book is about the 1927 flood. In the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I had heard a reference to the Mississippi Flood. I was trying to understand its significance.”

Morrison approached Frisell about his idea for a project on the flood and its influence on music. “Of course, it’s a simplification to say that the sharecroppers brought the Delta blues with them when they moved to cities like Chicago. The great migration of African Americans to industrial cities had been going on, probably since the civil war. They were bringing the blues with them.”

Around the time of the flood, jazz was already roaring in places like Chicago. Then there was the invention of the electric guitar. “You could say that the birth of rock ‘n‘ roll can be traced back to this meteorological disaster. So many of the early blues songs referenced the levee breaking and high water.”

Morrison says Frisell was the perfect person to tell this story musically. “His music tracks so many different aspects of specifically American music, whether it’s jazz or blue grass, or country or rock‘n‘roll. He can really form a hybrid of all that and it always ends up sounding like him. He doesn’t mimic any genre.”

When Morrison started working on The Great Flood, he discovered there was quite a bit of footage from 1927. “There was a real treasure trove of available material through the Fox Movietone Newsreel Archive, the national archives, the Library of Congress, several private collections and home movies too. The flood was an event that changed the landscape in such an abstract way that it lent itself to being photographed as opposed to a fire or an earthquake. You can shoot a flood when it’s happening so there was no shortage of footage. The newsreel producers knew the flood was coming. In other words, it was a surefire story.”

Morrison says there are images from the flood that are exquisitely detailed and nuanced. “Of course, some of the footage is decayed. But that enhances the experience. In some ways, it lends itself to the music as well as to the idea that the audience will be watching history.”

The film has 13 ‘chapters’. “Each one is dedicated to a different aspect of the flood. There’s flood footage; there’s a part that shows a bunch of worshippers leaving a church in Chicago; there’s another part that shows politicians. Then there’s a chapter on dynamiting the levee. It’s hard to generalise what all the footage looks like. It covers different aspects of the flood, whether it’s politically, culturally or geographically.”

Morrison’s aesthetic involves working a lot with old, disintegrating footage. “You’re aware of the passage of time on two different levels. There’s the historic level and also the passage of time on a micro-instantaneous level. Each image is different; it’s passing by you before you can really grasp it.”

The Great Flood is very much driven by Frisell's music, says Morrison. “You won’t hear the Delta blues per se but you’re aware of the fact that the Delta blues could, 80 years later, produce someone that you’re hearing now at the performance.”

The irony of Morrison creating a film about the 1927 great flood is not lost on him. Based in New York, his home was without power for four days because of Hurricane Sandy.

“I lost a lot of film. I will try to make the best of the prints that I managed to salvage. It’s ironic to be talking about the Great Flood. You could say I have a little bit more experience now.”

* www.corkfilmfest.org

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