Thursday, 3 April 2014

THE GREAT FLOOD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - B/W footage of 1927 Mississippi River flood antidote to NOAH

The Great Flood (2012) ***1/2
Dir. Bill Morrison, Music: Bill Frisell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In the few years since the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, there is considerable merit to be found in Bill Morrison's poetic examination of the great 1927 flood along the mighty Mississippi River. From top to bottom, the river and its innumerable tributaries surged past breakwaters and covered the land with a force that must have felt like the legendary fairy tale flood Noah erected his Ark for. The Great Flood is no fairy tale, though and nor, thankfully, an overblown, unintentionally funny Biblical epic pretending not to be a Biblical epic. Morrison has painstakingly scoured the archives and retrieved a wealth of eerily beautiful, standard frame black and white footage of the flood and cut together this compelling history of a seldom paralleled destructive force.

The sheer magnitude of the flood is virtually unimaginable, but no more. In fact, the movie skillfully and artistically presents the power of such a disaster in a manner in which it symbolically represents all such disasters. We get a sense of the genuine scope of how overwhelming a force of nature can and will be. Yes, seeing such footage in bits and pieces is not without power, but the manner in which Morrison assembles his material is no mere middle of the road TV doc interspersed with gravely intoned narration and a parade of talking heads.

The movie - first and foremost - is an artistic rendering of this historical event using existing footage in a most unique fashion. The narrative arc, from beginning to end is very clear. We get a taste of the flood's scope and eventually, the film narrows in on life before the disaster, preparations for the flood, the devastation once it hits full force, the vast migration of a huge population - mostly of African Americans from the delta to points far north. However, there is no narration, no interviews, no spoken word of any kind - just the superbly wrought storytelling of silent footage, all scored by famed jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell.

There is, beyond the story of the flood itself, a subtextual tale of how the culture and music of the south was forced to physically migrate north and create movements and styles that were rooted in one place, but influenced and modified by others. Both the surface narrative and its subtext walk hand in hand beautifully and deliver yet another compelling argument as to how cinema itself is an art form like no other and is, indeed a great gift that both reflects upon our world and can, in fact, change it too.

My only annoying speed bump throughout the picture was Frisell's music. It's simply a matter of taste here. His clearly gifted ability to musically accompany the narrative is without question, but I personally did not always respond to his jazzy riffs and occasional dissonant tones and tempos. Given the subtext, I was often forced to recall feature docs like Philippe Mora's groundbreaking 1975 archival footage feature about the Great Depression, Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, which wrought its poetic tale using music from the period.

This is not to say I'd hoped Morrison would ape Mora's approach, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that at several points during The Great Flood that I'd be hearing early Mississippi Delta Blues and Chicago jazz styling from the 30s wafting in and out of my imagination, mingling, but mostly in collision with Frisell's music. I will say, though, that it was this very collision of an imaginary score drifting across my cerebellum and actual score emanating from the film's soundtrack that, in combination with the haunting images, did have me soaring in ways I'd wished could have happened throughout the picture (rather than the fits and starts I personally experienced).

This, of course, might be an unfair response, but it's one I genuinely felt while watching the film. However, in retrospect it is the very thing that makes me admire it. Go figure. Chances are good, this is what Morrison wanted exactly. If so, he delivered big time. If not, it's still a pretty cool movie and that's what ultimately really counts.

The Great Flood is currently playing theatrically at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.