In her introduction to a compilation of shorts from the BFI collection, silent film curator Bryony Dixon explained how she has long admired the Flatpack Film Festival for its strong programming of archival footage. Over its eight-year-festival history, Flatpack has revealed an unusual appreciation of rediscovered lost films and celluloid fragments, creating events around amateur cine-clubs, cans fished out of skips by ex-projectionists and highlights from local archives. Dixon added to this year’s line-up with a thoughtful selection of films focused around the theme of water. Regen, Joris Ivens’s wonderful 1929 study of a city rainstorm, and Peter Greenaway’s Water Wrackets (1975) rounded off a compilation of early 20th-century travelogues and examples from a turn-of-the-century popular genre, the wave film. Watching the simple crash of salt water against an English stone pier, caught by a static camera in Rough Sea at Dover (1896), created a primeval rush, transporting us back to the powerful ‘train effect’ days of early cinema.
Bill Morrison‘s archival footage masterwork, The Great Flood (2013), which screened as part of a mini-retrospective, was a relatively late addition to this year’s programme, but in many ways it acted as the centrepiece of the festival, bringing together various programme themes, including the festival’s preoccupation with depictions of water on film. Morrison crafts a narrative of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi River using a poetic swell of historical footage, gleaned from the archive of the University of South Carolina. The Great Flood begins with a bird’s eye sweep of the flood plain; a printed map merges into a vast, featureless landscape of water. We see the corner of an aeroplane wing – caught in shot by the news reporter’s camera – and indistinguishable rows of triangles. Social, human history gradually comes into focus over the course of eleven segments, grouped by theme: shots of sharecroppers; fragments of politicians visiting flood sites; refugees living in makeshift tents (those triangles we viewed impassively from the air). The footage is slowed down to a meditative pace and synched to Bill Frisell’s shimmering guitar, allowing Morrison’s history to unfold gradually with a reflective beauty. Punctuation comes in the form of a type of commercial break – a flipbook-style rendering of the 1927 Sears catalogue – playing out to the tsk-tsk of cymbals and bebop-infused rhythms. Clothing, pianos, pens, clocks, books, rugs, cameras, ovens, ploughs – all the material necessities and non-necessities of life – race past until the sequence ends abruptly on a page full of headstones, prices artfully arranged. This up-tempo jazz re-surfaces at various points in the film – when politicians pose for photos, or engineers use dynamite to unsuccessfully divert the course of the flood, sacrificing Poydras, Louisiana, in a bungled effort to save New Orleans – to underline the farcical aspects of political self-interest, all the more tragicomic when set against the almighty, unstoppable force of the flood.
The last segments of the film use footage showing the migration of displaced African-American communities to the north of the US and the development of the blues in places like Chicago (the Great Mississippi Flood caused a spike in an on-going exodus and, at the post-screening Q&A, Morrison was quick to emphasise the problematic oversimplification of the idea that conditions were uniformly better in the northern cities than in the south). The film’s final shot lingers over a woman dancing and twisting with urgent, vital intensity. The bewitching, soaring energy of this sequence echoes the close of Morrison’s last UK film release, The Miners’ Hymns (2010): when the miners’ march, the fluttering banners, the children skipping hand-in-hand combine in an expansive surge of visual majesty and melancholy.
Transience is an inherent quality of the type of footage preserved in archives such as the BFI and creatively used by Morrison. The everyday and forgotten emphasise the passage of history in a way that a narrative film from the early days of cinema does not. Morrison explores this quality in The Great Flood and The Miners’ Hymns, but it is most explicitly on display in his debut film, Decasia (2002), which screened on the final day of the festival. Taking nitrate celluloid that is partially eroded, Morrison celebrates the odd distortions, explosions and ripples that physically mark the march of time on film. A tangled selection of newsreels and works of cinema intertwine to create unified loops and circular patterns – a whirling dervish, a fairground carousel, a group of faded figures turning their heads to the camera, recurring visions of suns – in a progression of time that is not a linear line towards destruction, but instead hints at rebirth or unstoppable mutations that lead to new beginnings. Human figures try to escape the inevitability of decay or mortality – most directly demonstrated by the boxer who hits straight into a vertical column of celluloid distortion – and while they might fail individually, the footage continues to roll on. All the while, a strange, unnerving crescendo is created by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack, which sounds like a stretched-out, looping echo of the orchestral melange in The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’, never reaching its end.
Henry Hills, another guest filmmaker celebrated over Flatpack’s closing weekend, also takes assemblage of footage as a starting point for exploring ideas of structure and narrative. A programme of shorts brought together Hills’s films from the early 1980s with a more recent work, Arcana (2011). The latter was born when Henry Hills received an invitation from American composer John Zorn: an assortment of filing cards, each with a different image to be included in a short film. The resulting montage of strange juxtapositions – videos of domestic scenes, archival footage of a zeppelin crash, pictures of code, shots from cinematic works – creates mini-sequences of suspense and menace, cut to The Bribe, John Zorn’s tribute to the American crime fiction writer Mickey Spillane. Hills’s earlier works are dense and tightly packed. Hills talked about how he obsessively listened to 45s when young and how he wanted to make films that he could re-watch over and over in the same way. He started out making silent works in San Francisco, keen to make films that could be readily viewed by anyone across the globe, regardless of language barriers, but was influenced by a move to New York and its noisy energy. The 1980s shorts are staccato edits of film and sound, where narrative becomes fragmented in a cacophony of noise: half-finished sentences and monosyllables, spoken by Hills’s poet and musician friends; truncated experimental dance sequences; and cut-up assortments of music and radio interference. In his shorts Radio Adios (1982) and Money (1985), odd phrases ring out – ‘this generation has gone mad’, ‘a certain kind of capitalism’, ‘the man lives across the street and you can’t mess with the man’ – but they are endlessly intercepted and interrupted to create a free-jazz improvisation of language. The splicing of footage starts to point towards the difficulty of imposing meaning or reaching consensus, mirroring our often fragmented experiences in life.
Flatpack has never taken a conventional approach to the screening of film or the medium itself. By exploring the very nature of footage in inventive ways, the festival and its guests open up new perspectives in how we might view film; we can see it not just as an immersive way to tell narratives, but as a poetic form that can sometimes, at its best, throw new light on how we exist in the world.