• Still from the film / Icarus Films

The Great Flood
(Bill Morrison, US, 2013, B&W, 80 mins., Blu-ray)

Seattle composer and guitarist Bill Frisell, who moved here from New York in the 1980s, provides the evocative score for this look back at the Mississippi River Flood, the most destructive flood in American history. As an opening credit explains, the tributaries of the river swelled in 1926 and breached their levees in 1927, displacing over one million people.

Bill Morrison, director of 2002's found-footage elegy Decasia, has edited archival footage from various collections into a hybrid documentary-art film-history lesson. At times, the black-and-white images become abstract, but only for seconds at a time, as he juxtaposes the damage to the land with the damage to the nitrate film stock with its flecks, scratches, splotches, and jagged edges.

  • The terrible beauty of a great flood / Icarus Films

Morrison eases into the scenario with aerial material that provides a distancing effect, particularly since he eschews dialogue or narration. Patterns and designs emerge, but the actual devastation remains at arm's length. People look like ants scampering around until he moves into specific chapters, like "Sharecroppers" in which African-American figures work the land as Frisell's score honors their efforts. Morrison doesn't have to cite Hurricane Katrina; the connection becomes clear of its own accord, especially since the affected cities included New Orleans.

Other chapter headings include "Evacuation," "Aftermath," and "Migration." In these sections, citizens attempt to drive down watery streets, empty out their homes, relocate livestock, and paddle boats toward dry land. "The 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalog," on the other hand, flips through the pages of the retail door stopper to the strains of a jaunty tune. These are the items people of the Jazz Age owned or wanted to own—items the waters washed away or left alone.

Not featured in the film. The flood inspired this Southern duo, who would, in turn, inspire Led Zeppelin (and later, Kristin Hersh). It's where Morrison ends the film: with the migration of jazz and blues musicians to the North—a development that would transform American music.

Throughout the film, Frisell's score, which he recorded live at The Moore Theater, ranges from playful to elegiac. Instruments include trumpet (Ron Miles), bass (Tony Scherr), drums and vibes (Kenny Wollesen), and his blurry, smeary guitar. Frisell previously scored a series of Buster Keaton films, and has an affinity for silent cinema, possibly because there's always been a nostalgic quality to his sound. He doesn't tell you what to think or what to feel, but he sets the scene.

The Great Flood offers a meditative, purposefully Brechtian examination of destruction. There are scant images of sickness or death—I only noticed one person on a stretcher—and Morrison doesn't identify any civilians by name, but loss lies within the scratches and splotches; unseen, but ever-present.

The Great Flood plays The Grand Illusion through Thurs, Mar 27. Next month, they keep the music going with the Slint documentary, Breadcrumb Trail.