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Bill Morrison '89 at the New York Film Festival

Since graduating from The Cooper Union in 1989, Bill Morrison has made a name for himself as an experimental filmmaker. His most recent film, Dawson City: Frozen in Time (2016), premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival in September, and will have its North American premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival on October 2nd and 4th. In advance of this premiere, Morrison talked to us about the project, his influences and the importance of his Cooper Union education.

1. Your films combine archival material set to more contemporary music. How did your style develop and how has it evolved?

When I was at Cooper, I was interested in disrupting the cinematographic image, either through hand developing stills I shot, various animation techniques, or directly degrading the image with chemicals. The movement toward finding similar incidents of disruption, or degradation, that were created organically, over time is one way my style has evolved over the years. I have embraced an almost theistic faith in the occurrence of random magic acting on film, waiting for me in an archive somewhere. To me this is a more compelling idea than what I could do to alter a pre-existing image. It brings in the element of history by way of the visual image.

The introduction of contemporary music developed out of my love of music and hearing it with the moving image. I first was introduced to the New York school of New Classical Music through my work with Ridge Theater in the early 1990s. Through them I was introduced to Philip Glass, and then the Bang On A Can triumvirate of Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, and through our work with them, John Adams, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich and a host of other remarkable composers and musicians. Also in the early 1990s I worked at the jazz club the Village Vanguard, and through my exposure to that world, forged relationships with future collaborators Bill Frisell and Dave Douglas. I was also very fortunate to hear and meet the last of the great jazz musicians from the 20th century night in and night out: Billy Higgins, Art Taylor, Max Roach, Cedar Walton, Clark Terry, Tommy Flanagan, Jackie MacLean, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, the list goes on and on. It was a master class in fluid time, delivered both on and off the stage.

Cutting to music has always come naturally to me and is really what led me to film in the first place. With my last film, Dawson City: Frozen Time, I worked closely with the composer Alex Somers to develop a score from a vast trove of audio clips he provided me. This was a new and challenging experience, but ultimately proved quite rewarding.

2. Can you draw influences from any teachers or courses at The Cooper Union?

Without question the great animator Robert Breer had the greatest influence on me, in terms of thinking about film as an extension of painting and of consciousness. He also had a very wry sense of humor. I took a class from Breer all eight semesters I was at Cooper. But I also learned tremendous amount about painting and art in general from Robert Storr, Irving Petlin, Robert Slutzky, Sue Gussow, Stuart Diamond and Rueben Kadish. Also from the wonderful filmmaker Jeanne Liotta, who was a life drawing model at Cooper during my time there, and who introduced me to the world of underground film happening around me. And also from my fellow students, Jenny Williams, Elliott Puckette and David Gersten, to name but a few.

3. This work requires extensive time in the archives – often finding new things you weren’t looking for. How clearly formulated are your ideas before you begin research? That is, what’s the driving force, an idea you’ve had or do you let a subject come to you as you research?

Usually if I find myself in an archive I am there to research a specific subject, and there are tools for achieving that. So my ideas are clearly formulated in the sense that I know what I would like to find. But inevitably you see things both related and unrelated to your search, and you file those away for future consideration or your project morphs in response to what you find. When I discovered the Boxer in Decasia (2002), I was just looking at deteriorated footage, not knowing how it could be thematically linked. That scene informed what I looked for going forward, and I searched primarily for instances where the subject responded to the decay on the celluloid. When I found the flood footage used in The Great Flood, I had been searching for aerials of flooded landscapes for a piece on the theme of Shelter, and was not familiar with the story of the 1927 flood. After noticing that many remarkable scenes were shot in 1926 and 1927, I researched what had happened during that flood and came to understand it as a pivotal moment in American history. I liken the process to a documentary filmmaker who is in the field to shoot one thing and ends up turning his focus on a particular subject or story uncovered during the filming. The important thing is to just get out in the field, or down in the archive, and let the story find you. You have to be in the game to play.

4. Your latest project, Dawson City: Frozen Time, tells the story of a fishing camp at the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush at the turn of the 20th century but also the story of the film footage itself. Tell us a little more about the film and what interested you in the topic.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a very important film to me. It tells many stories, but it begins with the creation of celluloid and cinema, and then tells the story of the Klondike Gold Rush, and the creation of Dawson City, Yukon out of a first nation hunting camp. As the town grew, it became the last stop for films shipped to the North, and those films accumulated and eventually were discovered buried in the permafrost in 1978. While the film is a departure for me in that it tells a fairly linear narrative story from the mid 19th century to the present, it also contains many elements of my previous work. Like The Film of Her (1996), it is the story of the unearthing of a film archive using footage from that archive and others to tell the story. Like Decasia, it relies heavily on nitrate film that has transformed over the years, and the implications that transformation has on both the film we are viewing, and us as viewers seeing it now 100 years after its intended audience. Like The Miners' Hymns (2011), it is the story of labor, reflected in a land taken away from first the indigenous population, and then from the miners as well, as corporations moved into to dredge the creeks.

5. Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I will premiere a film for Steve Reich’s 1988 composition “Different Trains” this month as part of the Liverpool Biennial. It is the first time Reich has permitted a film accompaniment to his landmark piece, and he will be on hand at the performance on 29 September 2016, only days before his 80th birthday. I am also working again on a new piece with Bill Frisell, which will premiere at the Wellcome Collection in London in February 2017.

6. You were awarded a Presidential Citation award this year. What did it mean to you to receive this recognition from your alma mater?

Cooper Union changed my life. I was put on academic probation my first semester there and very nearly thrown out. So of course it was a great honor to receive the citation personally. But the real thrill came from the singular circumstances surrounding the school at this moment. To be able to stand on The Great Hall stage and thank the graduating class for their courage in opposing tuition was the real honor. Cooper Union should be free for all, forever. It gives me great hope for the future of our school, and for our country, that we are still producing students who can stare down power. It means the ghost of Peter Cooper is strong.