Judge Daryl Loomis is hoping for the Great Ice Cream flood of 2014.
"Backwater blues done call me to pack my things and go
Rain started to fall in the summer of 1926 in the Mississippi River Basin and didn't really stop for months and, in April of '27, the levee that held the back above Greenville, Mississippi burst, sending a deluge of water that turned the area into an inland sea. It became known as the most destructive river flood in American history, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands.
Unlike today, where we get 24-hour coverage of every natural disaster that occurs across the country, there were few around to document what happened in the flood's aftermath. There were a few newsreels made and some amateur hobbyists who got footage, but not like there was for fall smaller events in more populated venues. Luckily, shockingly really, a fair amount of what got captured survived the decades.
In The Great Flood, much like he did with his acclaimed 2002 Decasia, director Bill Morrison took that disparate footage and edited it together into different themes to lend insight and historical perspective to an event that has started washing away with the passage of time. Individual locations aren't specified clip to clip, though we get a title card with the chapter name and some of the general things we'll see in it. Instead, we have extended scenes of the extensive damage, of African-American workers dropping sandbags to save white people's homes, of the mass migration out of the county. It's incredible footage and it's remarkable that it has survived at all.
But that's only half the story of The Great Flood. These clips are presented without commentary and, instead, legendary jazz guitar player Bill Frisell wrote an original piece to accompany the footage. For the last two decades, Frisell has steeped himself in Americana and has released album after album of his explorations of folk music, country, blues, and original American forms in general. The knowledge he has acquired and the emotion he puts into it come through very clearly when seen along with the images.
The combination is evocative and effective at delivering the heartbreak for all in this situation. The music is as different clip to clip, as well, so the film never feels repetitive or slow. Even without commentary, it never feels long. That might be, in part, a result for my love of Frisell, but I think it's mostly due to how well the music and imagery work together to make one cohesive piece of art. I don't think this one is quite as effective overall as Decasia, but it still works very well.
The Great Flood comes to DVD from Icarus Films in a bare bones release. The image, with all its archival footage from who knows how many sources, is understandably dodgy. Plenty of the stock is terribly damaged and I imagine that much of what Morrison found was totally unusable, but he made hay with what he could, and I'm sure everything was done to make it look as good as possible. The sound is next to perfect, though; Frisell's score sounds great in the two-channel mix, with nice separation and a rich, full tone. There are no extras on the disc.
This Morrison/Frisell project may not quite rise to a level of greatness, but The Great Flood is nonetheless a gorgeous piece with a ton of historical interest. Unlike most documentaries, which tells you its story directly, this makes viewers feel the story for themselves and, while that might not have a lot of popular appeal, it's still very much worth watching.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
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