While many civilizations and religions have had their own myths about destructive floods, I’m not sure that any of them would look quite like the disaster depicted in 2012’s THE GREAT FLOOD. Director Bill Morrison pieces together segments of archival footage — much of it derived from heavily degraded nitrate stock — to create a dizzying visual survey of the 1927 flood that devastated huge parts of the American South and Midwest. Those unfamiliar with Morrison’s previous work (2002’s DECASIA is a good primer) and expecting a seamless and artless historical journey with talking heads and authoritative narration may be disappointed. The film is deliberately segmented according to topics such as the post-flood northward migration and the controlled dynamiting of the Caernarvon levee, and the only sounds we hear are the blues-influenced compositions of guitarist Bill Frisell and his band.
Then, as in now (despite our current fixation on weather porn), life goes on. People cook food and share laughs in temporary tent cities. The camera peers through a shattered window to observe a woman getting a haircut. The moments in which the observer is noticed by his or her subjects are just as compelling. Several people standing in line for some sort of aid cast annoyed and suspicious glares towards the camera, as if to say, “QUIT STARING AT MY CHAOTIC EXISTENCE, ASSHOLE!” Yet others actively wave and smile, even as they’re being rescued from rooftops or clinging to cars bobbing in the water.
There are few named individuals beyond politicians (such as Herbert Hoover) and musicians (such as Son House), making this (probably) one of the largest assemblies of unknown on-screen subjects committed to film. That acknowledged, it is impossible to watch it without noting the obvious racial divisions that play out on-screen. The more laborious activities, such as toiling in fields or filling up sandbags to ward off the attacking waters, are carried out by black people. For the most part, those being boated to safety and saved from rooftop islands are white. It is rare to see that order flattened at all. Still, Morrison places a more significant emphasis on the experiences of the black flood victims, ending the film with scenes of groups dancing to blues music, a celebratory nod to their perseverance.
THE GREAT FLOOD (2012) Dir. Bill Morrison, 80 minutes
Saturday 6/14 (1:00PM, 3:00PM)
The Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle St.
Cambridge MA 02138