Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Great Flood

Commissioned by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "The Great Flood" documents the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the most destructive in our nation's history, in which she broke out of her embankments in 145 places, inundating 27,000 square miles, including wide swaths of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. The flood displaced sharecroppers, who left the plantation to migrate north, bringing (among many other things) new musical sounds and styles to Memphis, Detroit, Chicago.

Director Bill Morrison has scoured the archives for photographic and film footage, the latter shot on nitrate stock now pockmarked with deterioration. Guitarist and composer Bill Frisell has collaborated intimately with Morrison to set this often jaw-dropping material to apposite jazz music. (No words are spoken in the film.) The result is an immersive 80-minute experience that's worth seeking out wherever you can (I caught it at the end of a weeklong run at the Downtown Independent's 16-seat Micro Kino). One sees the classic American virtues of optimism and determined resilience in the face of crisis, and the backbreaking work of rebuilding the affected areas (performed largely by African-Americans). There are also witty asides, including a three-minute montage of every page from the '27 Sears-Roebuck catalog, and then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover's tour of the devastation with fellow politicos.

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