"Noah" is the talk of the movie industry this week, but it's not the only deluge in town. At 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday, April 3), the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will screen "The Great Flood," writer-director Bill Morrison's film about the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which covered 27,000 square miles -- from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans -- and displaced a million people.
The term "documentary" doesn't seem quite right for "The Great Flood." Rather, call it an experimental nonfiction film, or -- to borrow a phrase from the advance publicity -- "a film and music project." Unlike most documentaries, the 78-minute movie contains no narration, no talking heads, and no helpful graphics or charts. Its minimal text includes only brief bits of explanatory information ("In April 1927, the Mississippi breached its levees in 145 different locations") and chapter titles that transform the story of the flood into an urgent haiku ("Evacuation," "Aftermath," "Migration," and so on).
Eschewing words, Morrison constructs his film almost entirely from vintage black-and-white footage of the event, complemented by a jazz score composed by guitarist Bill Frisell, and performed by Frisell's quartet. (It's possible not all the footage used by Morrison originally was shot without sound, but we hear no soundtrack noises or voices here.) One might expect sinister or apocalyptic music to accompany these images of flooded streets, upended houses and refugees camping in railroad box cars, but the score is contemplative and sometimes whimsical, with frequent interpolations of "Ol' Man River." (As you watch and listen, your mind almost automatically supplies the lyrics: "Colored folks work on de Mississippi/ Colored folks work while de white folks play...")
Like the people who inhabit the frames, much of the film stock is heavily distressed. The damage gives the images an appropriately mud-spattered, post-disaster appearance; sometimes the splotchy, jumpy degradation transforms these smalltown flood scenes into abstract animated splatter paintings, like the ameobic light shows at a sixties psychedelic rock concert. Such imagery has a timeless beauty, but the movie is nothing if not timely; you'll think of Katrina, a decades-later flood that affected many of the same poor neigbhorhoods, or maybe remember back a season or two when the foot of Beale Street and other areas of Memphis were submerged.
Like the other flood movie alluded to earlier, "The Great Flood" eventually lifts its head above the waters to find hope. The film suggests the migration caused by the rising tide spread blues music and Southern culture to the North with greater speed than otherwise would have happened. The film's final chapter collects footage of musicians and dancers in Coahoma, Miss., and in the famous Maxwell Street district of Chicago. The final image, a long take of a women dancing to a mystery rhythm we can't hear, is ecstatic. (Appropriately, the movie is a production of Hypnotic Pictures.)
Admission is $8, or $6 for museum members or students. For advance tickets or more information, look here.