In 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed its banks. The resulting flood — deluge, really — affected 27,000 square miles, from Cairo, in southern Illinois, all the way down to New Orleans. A million people were displaced. That would translate to nearly 3 million people for today’s US population. This was the largest natural disaster in US history up to that time. Can you imagine what cable news would do with such an event? That would be a deluge of a different sort.
There wasn’t cable news back then, of course. There wasn’t television. But motion pictures had been around for three decades. Movie cameras recorded the flood; and for his elegiac, dreamlike documentary, “The Great Flood,” Bill Morrison has done prodigies of archival research, coming up with footage.
The movie opens with the camera tracking over a computer-generated map of the Mississippi Delta. The river’s loops and bends look like ribbons of DNA. Inevitably, the viewer thinks of a more recent catastrophe, Hurricane Katrina, and perhaps an emerging one, climate change. But part of what Morrison has done, in a way that’s both good and bad, is to make the flood seem to exist outside of time. The images have an Old Testament weight, one that harkens as much to the captivity in Babylon as Noah.
The synchronization of sound and image had only just come to the movies in 1927. So no voices are heard. Honoring that absence, Morrison has no narrator or ex post facto talking heads. That doesn’t mean “The Great Flood” is silent. It’s not so much documentary as duet — between the old footage and the spiky, unhurried score composed by Bill Frisell (briefly assisted by Jerome Kern, courtesy of a bit of “Ol’ Man River”), for a quartet of bass, drums, trumpet, and his own guitar. More than just accompaniment, the music is a form of narration.
Morrison divides the film into sections: on sharecroppers, cotton, levees, evacuations, blowing up levees (to protect New Orleans, downriver), an inspection tour by US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (a year later, he’d be elected president), recovery efforts, Delta blues musicians (including Big Bill Broonzy and Son House). Morrison’s one real misstep is a sped-up montage of pages from the 1927 Sears, Roebuck catalog. It provides visual and rhythmic release, yes, but it’s cheap and distracting.
Much of the footage is worn or damaged. Morrison has done nothing to conceal the deterioration. Bubbles and washes frequently show up. Black laps over the frame. This is another form of flooding, as well as a metaphor for forgetting and the loss (or ignoring) of memory. This lends a distancing effect, making the film seem almost abstracted at times. It’s more about sensibility, or even state of mind, than actual events or people. The surging waters visible after those levees are blown up feel as though they’ve wandered in from another movie. It may not be a better movie, but there’s a good chance it might be more interesting. At its best, “The Great Flood” is hypnotic — at its worst, numbing.
Odd, even unforgettable images keep cropping up. A couple sit on the roof of a drowned coupe, rowing. An evacuee stops to pluck a flower from a bush as she gets off the boat that’s rescued her. Cowboys herd cattle down a flooded street, water up to the cows’ necks. A man sits outdoors playing an upright piano at an evacuation camp. A barber cuts hair behind a broken picture window. A horse-drawn delivery truck in a Kentucky town passes by in floodwater up to its hubs, a sight as inexplicable — and unsettling — as that fireman in “Blue Velvet” waving from his truck. Having taken the flood out of time, Morrison plants it firmly in space — or as firm as any dreamscape can be. He’s made a sort of travelog, and it’s destination is inundation.