The Unknown Known
When documentary guru Errol Morris sat down with Robert McNamara to discuss the Vietnam War, the result was the candidly confessional and Oscar-winning That film offered cathartic closure on the black mark of American history with one of the key players admitting guilt and accepting blame. Now Morris has attempted the same trick with Donald Rumsfeld, who held McNamara’s position for the Bush administration, but has far less capability for self reflection. This time the result is more of a politically spun refusal to accept responsibility that’s drenched in jargon and filled with long answers that don’t really answer anything. However, the result is just as fascinating, but also purposefully frustrating. It’s somehow appropriate given that it’s the same experience and answers Rumsfeld offered the press throughout his time in office.
Morris guides Rumsfeld through his entire career, using stock footage, vintage news reports, and gorgeous montages to make the experience cinematic (all backed by Danny Elfman once again doing his best Philip Glass impression). Rumsfeld is a prickly interview subject, but an undeniably intriguing one. By the end, it feels terrifyingly like Rumsfeld actually believes his warped facts and spun truths. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism developed over the course of an eventful career or maybe just a foggy worldview. Either way, it’s clear why the Bush/Chaney gave him his job, even if it’s unclear why Rumsfeld would ever agree to be a part of this movie beyond ego and self-delusion.
Comprised entirely of archival footage from the 1920s with no sound whatsoever and set to one of the lushest, blusiest, and jazziest musical scores in recent memory, Bill Morrison’s The Great Flood feels like a vital historical clip show made from one of the greatest natural disasters in North American history.
Extremely heavy spring rains in 1926 and 1927 caused the mighty Mississippi River to flood, causing over 145 levee breaks (some of which were manmade to avoid even more catastrophic damage) that displaced over a million people from Illinois to Louisiana. Morrison’s film is pieced together from various sources that give a first person accounting of the tragedy that not many people have seen (with room for the occasional odd fitting aside showing normal working life or shots of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue). Some of the footage is pristine enough to look like it was shot recently and converted, while other sources have deteriorated to points that give the footage an almost ghostly vibe. People await rescue with a sometimes eerily calm demeanor. Ghost towns are established as streets lined with stores have flooded up to the awnings of every building. Lengthy overhead shots can sometimes only barely show treetops or tiny strips of land peeking through.
The film follows generally the same template that Morrison established for his 2002 masterpiece Decasia, but despite that film having a more symphonic score and a tighter construction overall, this film might have the better musical score, something that accounts for more than half of the film’s success. Not all of the individual elements of The Great Flood fit nicely, but guitarist Bill Frisell’s score is constantly on point and gives the film an appropriately hypnotic quality. It straddles the line between classic blues, avant garde jazz, and post-rock beautifully, adding context and emotion to images that can’t literally speak for themselves but contain a thousand potential stories. (Andrew Parker)
Director Bill Morrison will participate in a Skype Q&A on Saturday, April 5th following the 1:30pm screening.
Also at The Bloor this week:
The Music on Film series continues on Monday, April 7th at 6:30pm with a screening of Wavemakers, filmmaker Caroline Martel’s look at one of the world’s most unusual instruments: the Ondes Martenot, which is kind of like an oscillating electronic organ kind of thing with a built in amp kind of thing. The movie can explain it better than we can, plus there’s the added bonus of an actual live demonstration of the instrument in use at the screening, courtesy of special guest musician Geneviève Grenier.