Bill Morrison’s awe-inspiring use of archive film

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016) Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016) Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time and The Great Flood screen at the 19th British Silent Film Festival

Archive silent film is rarely perfect. Age weathers all things, but especially nitrate film stock, which decomposes and distorts in the most alarming way. Watching a damaged print, you will likely see sections of the frame swallowed up by black or grey blooms, figures twisted, pock-marks raining across the image.

Experimental film-maker Bill Morrison has made a career out of savouring the beauty in these warped and wrecked reels. His work takes archive film and turns it into not just a history lesson, but a work of art in its own right. You may already be familiar with his haunting 2002 feature, Decasia, a collage of film footage haunted by the shadows and spectres of nitrate decay. We all fervently wish the damage weren’t there, of course, but we can also be awed by it.

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