The Great Flood
Runs Fri., March 21–Thurs., March 27 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 80 minutes.
This is a very specialized sort of documentary, where two narrow lines of interest cross. If you appreciate the degraded-found-footage aesthetic of director Bill Morrison (Decasia), and if you like the melancholy twang of Seattle jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, The Great Flood will impress you as a sad, sweeping chapter of American history. If on the other hand you prefer your docs personal and Ken Burns–clear, stay away.
The 1927 flooding of the Mississippi was a contributory catastrophe to the Great Depression. But forget about the politics, economics, or workings of the levees. Only a few intertitles announce the facts and themes here. One million people were displaced, many of them poor black sharecroppers who would leave the Jim Crow South. (That trend would accelerate after World War II.) Among Morrison’s fragments, we see tents and livestock like dark pixel dots on the broken levees, filmed from the air (then still a novelty). A couple clings to each other atop a house drifting with the river. Troops deploy sandbags and march with their rifles (Katrina, anyone?). A man plays a salvaged piano to entertain other refugees, but all we hear is Frisell’s score, which is arranged in movements—Sharecroppers, Politicians, Migration, etc.
Throughout, the moldering film stock encroaches on the frame like the river chewing at its banks. In a way, Morrison suggests, history and memory are no less subject to erosion. The flood has already faded from living memory, and this poetic recollection shows us the same process of decay.