Mar 6, 2010

Bringing Silent Decay to Life: Bill Morrison at Orphans

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison is a regular at the Orphan Film Symposium, where he has generated ideas for his distinct approach to creating new works out of damaged film materials. Although Morrison is best known for his feature-length 2002 meditation on the degradation of silent film imagery, Decasia, he has produced over two dozen works since the early 1990s.

Morrison has partnered with preservation expert George Willeman at the Library of Congress's National Audio-Visual Conservation Center to curate fragments resonant with his unique cinematic vision. They come from prints of five silent feature films: Cromwell the Wicked (1926) an obscure quasi-documentary about Cromwell, Oklahoma; The Climbers (1919), a drama by prolific but little-known director Tom Terriss; Pathé's stencil-colored The Life of Christ (1908); and two independent productions, With Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trail (1926); and a jungle drama called Life's Crossroads (1928).

All of these nitrate-base prints suffered from emulsion deterioration, a phenomenon caused when off-gassing from the decaying nitrate cellulose base softens the silvery, gelatinous image layered upon it. Although this renders the original materials unprojectable, Morrison reframes the aleatory reconfiguration of the images for aesthetic possibilities.

Morrison and Willeman worked with a large collection donated to the Library of Congress by John Maddox of Duck Run, Tennessee, a private collector who used to project films for neighbors in his own outdoor cinema. However, according to Willeman, the silent films in Maddox's collection came to him from another collector. (This physical movement of the prints -- from collector one to Maddox to LOC to Morrison to the symposium screening -- neatly plays into the the Orphans 7 theme, "Moving Pictures Around the World.")

"Many of them were in amazingly good condition for the lack of proper storage, as Bill will attest," says Willeman. He adds, however, "Even the bad ones had some value."  

    -- Eric Kohn

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frame from Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trail