Monday, February 6, 2012

Bill Morrison's "The Miners' Hymns" at Film Forum

Now in Theaters

Bill Morrison's "The Miners' Hymns" at Film Forum

(from 2/6/12)

I want to alert everyone that a program of Bill Morrison's films will be showing at the Film Forum beginning February 8. It will begin with three of the experimental filmmaker's shorts, The Film of Her (1996), Outerborough (2005), and Release (2010), and end with the new 52-minuteThe Miners' Hymns, an elegiac tribute to the once thriving coal industry and community in Northeast England. As with The Artist, there is no talking, just music provided by avant-garde Icelandic composter Johann Johannsson, and marvelous and haunting black-and-white footage and images preserved by the British National Film Archives and unearthed by Morrison. I saw The Miners' Hymns at the 2011 Tribecca Film Festival and did the following interview with the acclaimed filmmaker.
Danny Peary: In the Festival's program, it is written: "Morrison's compelling narrative pays tribute in an emotionally moving and formally elegant fashion." Is that what you were going for?
Bill Morrison: I think those are both great qualities to have in a film. [Laughing} It wasn't an accident!
DP: I see the film as being formally elegant also. But when you were conceiving this film, and talking over the music, is that what you were going for?
BM: Yes. The film was conceived originally as an archival collage. There was quite a bit of back and forth between Johann Johannsson and me about what each section would contain, and the emotional feeling, and what the music would be for that section. So we talked about the arc of the film, and then I had the idea of bringing in the contemporary footage of the aerial flyover of landscape where the mines used to be as a way to frame it. We also had the idea that there are some similarities between looking through old pieces of film, which is carbon-based material, and going underground and looking for pieces of coal. So we thought of this as our own mining excavation, in a way. We were mining a piece of lost British national history, a legacy of cinema that has also been replaced.
DP: How did this unusual film come about?
BM: The origin of this project was that the Brass Festival contacted Forma, the producer of the project, to do a live performance with commissioned music and a film that would accompany the music, for lack of a better of way of saying it. So we started thinking about this project also as a film with music accompanying the film, so it would be marketed as a DVD later as well. I guess David Metcalf [the founder of Forma, who has a screenwriting credit with Morrison and Johannsson) probably started asking around about people who worked with archival footage and he came up with my name, and I know he'd been a fan of Johann Johannssons music for a while, so he asked us if we would be happy working together. We were brought in at the same time.
DP: Did you find it strange that for a British story that they brought in someone from America and someone from Iceland?
BM: Yeah, at first it seemed like a very odd choice not to have anyone British on the creative team. Well, of course this was David's idea and he's British. But I quickly understood that any British person is going to be influenced by their class and their location, and their upbringing and their political leanings, in how they would treat this project, and he wanted somebody sort of outside the game. Really, I came to it with no prior knowledge of coal-mining history in the UK. Everything I learned was on the fly. I was aware of the '84 strike, which became an international cause celebre for the miners, specifically because Billy Bragg and Sting came on board and supported the them. So it was something that permeated pop culture when I was a college student.
DP: But were all these collieries closed by that time?
BM: No, that was the thing that really crippled them. Thatcher wanted to close a few collieries; pits as they call them for not being productive. Then there was a very disjointed national strike called. Even through they were united under a national union of miners, the right to strike is specific to each colliery, so there was -
DP: So its a wildcat strike?
BM: That's what it got called, because there wasnt a national vote on whether to strike or not. The strike sort of came from some of the larger pits, and pretty soon everybody realized that they were on strike. But as it dragged on for a year, it sort of became factious, because people were of course hungry.
DP: Are there any remnants of these mines?
BM: Sure, there are remnants. There are even a few that are active. I didn't go down into any but theyre still mining coal, just like a hundred years ago.
DP: We must wonder what replaces mining.
BM: It's consumerism.
DP: Usually you spend a lot of time searching through archival footage, some even decayed. In this case, was the film provided to you?
BM: No.
DP: Nobody had it indexed?
BM: The British Film Institute has an excellent database, but the problem is that if you type in C-O-A-L, you get thousands and thousands of entries. So because we were presenting this in Durham, we tried to make it more Durham-specific, and deal with the Miners Gala, which is the genesis of the festival. It always happened during the Miners Gala. In a way that was our through-line into it, but we spent many weeks in London in a hotel room across the street from the BFI, and going there and looking at films, either on a flatbed editing table or on a computer screen. and trying to get a mass of stuff for which we could ask for masters.
DP: I imagine it's physically impossible to see everything they have in that amount of time, so did you already have an outline of what you wanted?
BM: A lot of the arc was really developed through looking at the footage: what they had, what would repeat, what we would see over the course of decades. The miners rally was such a set-up for filmmakers, going back from the teens, early twentieth century. So you have the same types of shots repeated throughout the decades. And that became an interesting way of approaching it, putting these different shots right up next to each other.
DP: So the collieries closed down, but the brass, the band, continues?
BM: Yeah, it became part of the culture. I mean, who knows how long it will continue. It's less pit-based than more community-based.
DP: The cathedral we see is Durham Cathedral?
BM: Yeah, the Durham Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in the UK, and one of the older ones in Europe.
DP: So is there a procession that goes into the Cathedral every year?
BM: Yeah, it's very dramatic--there's sort of a blessing of the new banners. One of the organizers that we spoke to, a guy named Dave Douglass, when I wrote him that the film was at TriBeCa, he said he'd like to have a copy. He said, "We're also taking up a collection for the new banner.
DP: Im always interested in a theme that applies to your film in my view--the passage of time. I'm fascinated particularly by things that existed during our lifetime and don't anymore. To find archival footage I guess is exciting and emotional for you too?
BM: Yeah. Certainly with this footage that people don't see too often, you feel somehow that you're waking up the ghosts again, with these crowds of strangers staring at you for many seconds at a time. And of course BFI gave us such great access, they also transferred their original negatives to HD. In some ways at the screenings at TriBeCa, I've seen things in the film that I've never noticed before. In one of the parade shots, for instance, a girl loses her shoe, and goes off to the side to have her shoe fixed, and then returns, and I hadn't seen that before. I don't know how many times I've seen the film, and I'm still catching little things--you know, there are certain characters in the middle of the frame who you really lock eyes on and you stop looking at the other ones. During the screenings I really had a chance to scour the periphery, and look at people who I hadn't seen as much.
DP: I love your aerial footage, just great stuff. Then you show the gathering, which is everybody shoulder-to-shoulder.
BM: A sea of humanity.
DP: The shots of the people waving in slow motion--that was phenomenal to me. It was like postcards coming to life. Is that what you were going for?
BM: Yeah, I do think of these as sort of ghosts, and they're signing to us from beyond.
DP: I've never seen anything like that. That was really moving to me.
BM: I've made some other films where there are similar images.
DP: Yeah, you've done that. But that got me because it's a whole long-ago community.
BM: And such interesting-looking people. It's funny, because in one of the British reviews they said, "Morrison might find these faces interesting, but to us it just looks like your weird Uncle Earl." Such incredible faces!
DP: They're also all dressed up, all those people.
BM: It's true, I think a big public gathering meant something different in how you carried yourself.
DP: Because you gotta realize,
these are miners who have coal dust on them all day and now they're all spiffy.
BM: And this is their one day off. So there is a lot of tradition involved in that day, and I think there's gotta be some boredom involved in those political rallies. They look pretty intense.
DP: The waving thing, what you said just a couple of seconds ago. It looked like they were waving to us and saying, "Dont forget us!". When you were working on that were you as a filmmaker detached? You have to be somewhat detached just to put this stuff together, but were you thinking of the impact?
BM: Sure, always. Those shots of people waving was the end part of a whole series of frontal shots that climaxed when they start waving at you.
DP: I just found that so touching, you were able to resurrect those people for a couple of moments. For somebody in Britain, these are relatives.
BM: What's funny about the waving in early cinema, is that people were still in the mode of being photographed by a still photographer, and the only way the thought to validate the fact that they were being shot by a motion picture camera was to wave. So in a lot of early cinema, you have waving whether it's their waving on their own or the filmmakers telling them, "Now wave, because we can actually capture you waving, which we havent been able to do before!" That is a theme. I could do a whole film about just waving.
DP: Was there a year that you found for such footage?
BM: Those images were from the '20s. And really you see that waving a lot in early cinema, pre-sound.
DP: I wonder how much exposure they had to motion-picture cameras there. Newsreels, I guess.
BM: Yeah. Mitchell & Kenyon was prominent at the turn of the century. A lot of times in a town like that people would come in and shoot workers leaving the factory, workers leaving the mine, and then show it in a cinema later. Cinema was enormously popular.
DP: I was thinking of Pare Lorentz's 1936 short,The Plow that Broke the Planes, in the way that the music is incorporated. The music helps the flow of the movie, and there's a process going on--the music is used lyrically and hauntingly, and that seemed to be in your film also.
BM: It's almost presumptuous for me to say that I'm using music here, because Johann is an equal collaborator, if anything. I'm editing to his score. We very much mapping out--like I was saying earlier--what the arc would be, what would go where, what the sections would involve and what it would feel like. But at the end of the day, he is delivering to me a finished soundtrack, and I'm cutting to it.
DP: So you wouldn't give him the footage?
BM: No, it was the other way around. I work that way with a lot of composers, but it's a very unusual way for a filmmaker to work.
DP: He's composing while when you were editing the movie--it's not like you were taking some score that somebody did in the '20s or '30s and putting it in, like was done on Fantasia.
BM: Well, the final namesake for the title of the project comes from a hymn that was related to the memory of a mine disaster, but Johann extrapolated from that and made his own piece. He's composing contemporary music, original music.
DP: Was Eisenstein an influence?
BM: I dont know to what degree Potemkin influences all filmmakers. Every one of us sees it in film school, in the first year.
DP: Even the footage of guys waking up was like Eisenstein.
BM: Yeah, I guess you're right.
DP: Because there's a daily routine, as in Potemkin. The sailors are smiling, they like working, they like work.
BM: I'm not making as overtly a socialist film, but certainly, to a degree Eisenstein has affected me as a filmmaker I hadn't thought of it as content-based inspiration.

 DP: Aren't you amazed, seeing some of that footage, that those mines aren't completely mined in about two days. They get rid of so much material in a hurry with that machine you show us.
BM: Right. You see the transfer from the guys down there with shovels and picks to the machine that's shearing off the entire side of the wall. Someone who had seen the film yesterday mentioned Frederick Wiseman's Meat.
DP: I've seen a lot of Frederick Wiseman, but I havent seen Meat.
BM: I havent either.
DP: Did you ever have a jaw-dropping moment when you found something in the archives?
BM: To the degree that I only included the most beautiful shots that I could find, each one them held a special power for me, and I knew it would work with the music and long shots and would build over time.
DP: So to you, the shots of just equipment and the shots of coal flowing on the conveyer belt, are beautiful to you?
BM: Absolutely. I mean that almost was the first thing that Johann and I discussed, industrial shots of what it actually looks like to be in a mine, the ritual-ness, and how graphic this material was.
DP: Was there a reason you didn't incorporate anything about a mining disaster?
BM: Whenever people think about mining, they think about a mining disaster. I guess we could have had a section on that; I just think that it hovers over the topic anyway, so we were trying to talk about how hard it is to be a miner even without showing the inherent dangers of mining.
DP: What was your original outline? You say you didn't have the aerial shots.
BM: I guess we came to the idea of getting the aerial shots after I started thinking, How can I make this work as just an archival piece? How do we get in and out? Otherwise I felt like we needed a way to contextualize it. There was a question of how we were going to be able to afford an aerial shot--that's an extra ten or twelve thousand dollars, something like that. So there was a question of getting that money together. But once it was clear that we had it, everybody thought it was a really good idea, so we went forward.
DP: The opening shot is a long one shot, and then how many cuts are there?
BM: In that area, there's always a lot of rain, so we were getting drops on the lens. So we had a beautiful approach coming from the North Sea in a helicopter, and it's just as the grass is blooming, so it's a yellow field. So as we approach the coastline we cut to the coastline, and from there we go past, the two fly-overs over the former collieries. Then we tilt back up and there's another cut--that would be the second cut--which is actually a reverse shot, going backwards in time, starting from the coastline and going back into the grass. You're not supposed to land a helicopter out there on the cliff, but we had to wipe the lens off from the rain, so I had this beautiful shot of the takeoff from the grass into the sea, and we ran it in reverse. That became our entry point where we hit the grass, going into the grass, and then we had the first picture of the mine, which was very effective.
DP: It's pretty stunning. We're already told that these mines don't exist anymore, we know they're closed down. So are you setting it up? [In] your previous film, you had a state of decay. You dont want a state of decay as your theme for this one, but there is a nostalgia going on. Are we supposed to lament the passage of time?
BM: I guess there is no way to avoid a somewhat wistful, mournful mood. If there's any editorializing on the images, it's through the music. So yes, there is that. But at the same time, I feel that the last film had this as well, a very matter-of-fact statement: This is what we've lost and what it has become now. In both cases: film decays, so does industry. These are certain ways of making a living. So things do change.
MinersHymnsMinerkissinglantern.jpg Miner kissing his lantern.
DP: I never know if it's a good thing that those guys don't work in mines anymore.
BM: Certainly everyone I talked to in London was like, Why would you want to glorify this? The pilot of the helicopter said, "Why would you want to glorify mining? It's a terrible way of life, and everyones better off now that were not doing it." But at the same time, in the UK still ten percent of the energy source is still coal. They are importing coal from other sources. We haven't divorced ourselves from carbon-based fuel systems yet. I think it would be great if we could, but in the meantime, it's a political decision about where you're getting your sources from that touches on a lot of different global issues. Same here with that what we're seeing when we're exporting our labor to different countries.
DP: There's still coal-mining in America.
BM: Right, and in the UK that was a political decision that Thatcher made--we're going to break with this way of life, we're going to a new free-market economy. Of course there's been incredible economic gains made, and there's been some disasters, as we've seen. It's an incredibly complicated subject. You can't say, Bring back mining. You can't say, Get rid of miners or mining communities. In a certain way, the images tell a story and it makes people think and ask questions, but I'm not taking a stance of: This is the way it should have been; or This is what we should have done.
DP: But you're always in sympathy with the miner, the worker.
BM: Absolutely.


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