posterIt has been almost 30 years since performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson directed a movie about herself. What a leap in perspective is Heart of a Dog, a cinematically poetic meditation on love, death, government surveillance, Buddhism and her own upbringing in a house of seven children.

Anderson recently endured some heavy losses in her life, her husband Lou Reed and her rat terrier Lolabelle. Death is a heavy thing and does not have meaning without life. Regrets, ghosts and Anderson’s upbringing as part of a large nuclear family with a mother she wasn’t sure really loved her, not to mention NSA surveillance, all thus heavily figure into this ingenious, free-associative documentary.

On her record albums, Anderson’s existential concerns have long been on display. On her 1982 avant-garde pop music debut, Big Science, song titles like, “Born, Never Asked” and lyrics like “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling,” capture the simple but rich ideas Anderson has long experimented with. It may seem as though she has devoted her career to turning the big questions of life and experience into art. Her musings have grown much more sophisticated, even wittier over time but no less embracing of the great mystery of the ominous inexorable punctuation point to life and how these two notions weave together.

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As with her thoughts, Anderson’s distinctive sing/speak voice is also present in the film with all its soothing character, kicking the film off with thoughts like, “What are the very last things that you say in your life? What are the very last things that you say before you turn into dirt?” She composed her own score whose melodies come from cello and violin but also feature samples of nature and helicopter propellers mixed with quiet, synthesized drones. The opening titles feature a minor key melody but also a bright quality, reflexive of the dichotomy of exuberance of life and the sadness of loss.

Visually, there is a similar musical quality to Heart of a Dog. The film feels like a sprightly montage of Anderson’s paintings, photos and video of Lolabelle mixed with liberal images of beautiful plays on light through the filter of decayed, damaged film stock or images of rain-speckled sepia windows. The worn still film images of Lolabelle in happier times frolicking in the meadow or home video of Anderson’s siblings on decayed 16mm home movies, slowed down to highlight blurry figures of people, also represent mortality in the decay, similar to the films of avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison.

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Anderson’s voice, soft and clear in its delivery, over these expressive images feels like guided meditation. Anderson has always sung/spoken with a relaxed, staccato, even deadpan tone, but it has grown less antsy over the years. She also has an amazing sense of humor. Early in the film, she notes the notion that rat terriers are said to understand 500 words. After Sept. 11 — when the oppressive surveillance of Manhattan inspires Anderson to escape to seaside California meadows — she decides she will spend some time figuring out exactly what those 500 words are. Another fine example of Anderson’s humor uses a series of famous quotes by Ludwig Wittgenstein, where she turns the Austrian philosopher’s thoughts that experience is limited by language, into one of the biggest jokes of the movie. This, in turn, becomes a triumph for her chosen medium of film and visuals to explore life and death.

Some viewers may find the tangents to concerns of Sept. 11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA rather oblique. But, as with anything by Anderson, everything is connected. There are inextricable links in the film’s perspective. The green and gray surveillance images are compared to how dogs see the world, linked to another sense: smell. Humans lost their acute sense of smell after learning to walk upright, notes Anderson. There is also a sense of humanity lost in the surveillance images, with their wide, all-seeing gaze on traffic. They take in so much information that is never processed as anything more than data, removed of the human experience that we filter through stories we tell, whose details, both chosen and ignored create false impressions. Both have detriments when taken on their own, but what if we were aware of both, could it make life and death easier to understand? Death matters. Images matter. Music matters. Stories matter. They are life and give death and love value.

Hans Morgenstern

Heart of a Dog runs 75 minutes and is not rated (it may have some rare cases of some salty language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Dec. 11, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema; further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. It continues its run theatrically in South Florida on Dec. 18 at O Cinema Wynwood and the Lake Worth Playhouse. On Dec. 25 it begins its run at the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton. Finally, it opens Dec. 27 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link.  All images courtesy of the film’s distributor, Abramorama. The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Courtesy Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives

Courtesy Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives

It’s been 12 years since Bill Morrison came to Miami and blew the minds of a nearly packed house with Decasia in a large screening room at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Miami as part of the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival. The 70-minute film was made up of clips from movies from the early 20th century printed on nitrate film that had succumbed to a state of decay as the nitrate began breaking down. Morrison went around the world looking for destroyed movies to bring back to life without any intention to restore them (they were beyond help) but to recontextualize them, rot intact.

With music provided by avant-garde composer Michael Gordon, Morrison strung the images together. It opens with a whirling dervish somewhere in Istanbul, spinning slowly to the metallic circular hiss of what may be a lightly scraped cymbal. The film builds from there, featuring waves crashing on rocks and globules of bubbled, corroded film seemingly overlaid on the image and a boxer jabbing at a strip of undulating celluloid. As the image itself comes apart, something new arises, as Gordon’s music pulses between a call and response of droning piano and tapped xylophones, the cymbal still hissing along. The movie builds with a pastiche of images as diverse as the patterns of decay Morrison found on the films, with Gordon’s music building repetitively, growing higher and louder as more instruments pile into the mix offering layers of harmony and counter melody.

The 2003 film has become legendary in the experimental film world and was registered at the Library of Congress in 2013 as one of the supreme examples of American cinema aesthetics, alongside Pulp Fiction and Mary Poppins. Morrison has continued to work with Gordon and has never stopped experimenting with film in decay, but he also shoots his own footage. Below you will find two fine examples of their work since Decasia, both of which were featured during a retrospective at the Miami Jewish Film Festival a few days ago (Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon to discuss and present their avant-garde films at Miami Jewish Film Festival). The first, “Light Is Calling” (2004) is a short that follows a similar construction to Decasia. Gordon first provided the music, a slow and sad violin solo to the soft pulse of a bell recorded backward as unrecognizable ambient hums pile up and melt away. Morrison culled images from a damaged print of The Bells (1926) by James Young to create an enthralling experience of sound and vision:

The next short is something completely different. Morrison handed cinematography duties to his cat in “Gene Takes a Drink” (2012), as the feline explored their garden. The perspective of grass and flowers and a fish pond via this “cat cam” is a revelation. Gordon’s playful music, though it sounds electronic, actually features cello, piano, guitar, double bass, clarinet, and percussion. The footage is sped up a bit to the music, adding another layer of new perspective, and then Morrison starts playing with filters on the image for yet another abstract layer, raising the film to another realm of transcendentalism by calling attention to the beauty of new perspective.

I point all this out to hopefully prepare you for tonight’s world premiere at the New World Symphony of El Sol Caliente, a near 30-minute “city symphony” by Morrison and Gordon dedicated to Miami Beach. As they usually work, Gordon first provided the music and Morrison cut his footage to it. “It’s typical of two other city pieces that we’ve done,” says Morrison, speaking from his home in New York. “Gotham being about New York and Dystopia being about Los Angeles, and it sort of comes from a tradition of city symphonies with Berlin: Symphony of a Great City or Manhatta.”

You can find a great overview of what a City Symphony is by reading this article (City Symphony Primer: 3 Essential Films to Watch Now), where you can stream Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand‘s Manhatta (1921) and the more epic Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) by Walter Ruttman. “We’re sort of resurrecting that for the 21st Century,” notes Morrison, “but really drawing on 20th century archival imagery and then sort of as a refrain at the end, adding original, contemporary footage.”

So you can expect images Morrison shot himself of Miami Beach as well as old footage he discovered. Though Morrison calls himself an “interloper” in Miami Beach, he has set his aim to present a version of the city outsiders would not expect. “You know, Miami Beach, at least the way it’s been portrayed throughout history, has been as a vacation land,” he says, “so it’s been a struggle to find imagery that isn’t about tourism, but it has any interesting portrait of the 20th century in that you have a lot of footage of the 1926 hurricane, you have the troops coming in and G.I.s taking over the Miami Beach hotels in the ‘40s for training, and then a lot of those guys end up coming back from the war and settling there, so it is an interesting cultural melting pot.”

He spent a lot of time in Miami and Miami Beach and offered a preview of some of the images he has assembled. “I walked through Art Basel with a GoPro on my chest,” billMorrisonhe says, referring to the Miami Beach-based international art festival that unfolds inside and around the Miami Beach Convention Center. “I got some nice scenes of people going up to a photo booth and posing.”

He also went outdoors, riding a bike with a Go-Pro camera on its handlebars and shot footage from the shore, which will provide a key element in the film. “There was a couple of full moon shots,” he notes. “I got a couple of full moonrises and sunrises over the ocean, and also I had a small drone camera, so I got some footage of the beach and the waves from a different perspective, so that footage I used to create chapters and a way in and out of the archival stuff.”

Morrison says he gathered lots of footage from various locations, including the Miami-based Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives, which happened to have been the main sponsor of the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival that brought Decasia to Miami all those years ago. “With the archival stuff,” Morrison explains, “I hit the Library of Congress for nitrate 35 millimeter to see what I could find on Miami Beach, and that was an interesting project. Then, with the new film stuff, a lot of it came from the Fox Movitone Archive at the University of South Carolina and then more locally the Louis Wolfson Archive … They are now located in a beautiful new facility at Miami Dade College, so I was working closely with them to come up with home movie footage, and some of that’s been really, really awesome.”

It is fitting that Gordon provided the glue to the images via his music for El Sol Caliente, which translates from Spanish to “the hot sun.” He has intimate knowledge of Miami Beach. michael-gordon Photo by Peter Serling“My family moved there from Central America when I was almost 8 years old,” says Gordon, speaking via phone from Amsterdam, where he was visiting for a concert, “and I went to [Miami] Beach High, so I feel like I’m from Miami Beach, and this is kind of a wild, trippy thing to be doing, actually, going back to my town, working with the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, especially on this piece.”

When asked about his memory growing up on Miami Beach, Gordon recalls an experience distinct to those who have lived a long time in the area: the weather. “I was talking to Bill and of course, he’s drawing on a lot of historical images of Miami Beach, but when I was thinking back to growing up in the area, all the time I spent there, the thing that influenced my thinking was kind of seeing this little, tiny strip of land, surrounded by this huge bay and then this large ocean and the crashing of the waves and the stillness of the waves and those sudden huge storms that happen every afternoon at 4 o’clock or something and then how it clears and how hot it becomes. It’s really more a feeling for the land and the climate and the forces of weather.”

Considering the weather, there is something even more ominous about the territory of Miami Beach, for, as with Decasia, a profound subtext arises in the juxtaposition of the film and music in El Sol Caliente. As some might be aware, scientists have warned it will not take long before sea-level rise erases Miami Beach (check out the graphic in this article). This was not lost on both the filmmaker and composer. Morrison says, “Though I don’t make an explicit reference to it, there’s also this overriding it:  it’s a very fragile barrier island on a continental peninsula, all of which is at risk with rising ocean waters, so there is this sense that none of this is permanent.”

Hans Morgenstern

On Friday, January 30, and Saturday, January 31, the New World Symphony will present the world premiere of El Sol Caliente, a tribute to Miami Beach celebrating the city’s centennial by Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison as part of its “New Works” program. Tomorrow night is already sold out, but there will be a free, live “Wallcast” on the front of the NWS building for park-goers. For more information, visit nws.com.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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When asked why a couple of collaborators in avant-garde film are discussing their works in a shorts program at a Jewish film festival, Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg responded via email, “At the very heart of the Miami Jewish Film Festival we aspire to celebrate artists who push the cinematic edge. We are thrilled to honor Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon this year, as they have explored the outer edges of film and music like few others.”

Indeed, experimental filmmaker Morrison and music composer Gordon have long been favorites of ours at Independent Ethos for the same reason. Neither I nor my wife, co-author of this blog, will forget the screening of Decasia we attended at the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival in 2003 with Morrison in attendance. The film was a revelation and has gone on to earn well-deserved preservation status in the Library of Congress.

Ahead of their visits to Miami, I had the honor to speak to both of these artists. Morrison was in New York, where he lives, and Gordon was traveling in Amsterdam for a couple of performances there. Some of my interviews with Morrison and Gordon can be read on the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo below:

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However, there was so much more we spoke about. Their work is an example of pure cinema, as far as light and sound. Narrative becomes almost subconscious with Morrison’s entrancing images and Gordon’s hypnotic music. That it often transmits a profound message speaks to the power of cinema too often overshadowed by narrative control in language and editing. The fact that the music comes first and Morrison edits mostly found footage of old decayed nitrate film to Gordon’s music, speaks to the abstract impetus of their work.

The two met in the late 1990s. Morrison was the Ridge Theater’s resident filmmaker when Gordon — then most famously known as a founding member of Bang On a Can, noticed Morrison’s work. Their collaboration has flourished ever since. Their first work together was an opera for the Ridge Theater called Chaos (1998). Their first film together was “City Walking,” but they had yet to meet, notes Morrison. “I created the film, and he created the music,” he says. “He did so without ever seeing my film. I did the film without ever hearing his music, and I don’t think we even met, so that was kind of a blind date that turned into a very long marriage. Part of the success of that marriage is that I’ve cut to his track in all the other circumstances.”

That’s right. Ever since that first film collaboration, Morrison has received Gordon’s music first and then put together the film to Gordon’s music. “I write the music first, and he builds the films to the music,” Gordon confirms. Sometimes Gordon does have a look at raw footage Morrison has either shot or found as a starting point, but the films are composed to the rhythm and flow of Gordon’s music. “The beautiful thing about working with Bill is that he’s very sensitive to the sound and very sensitive to the music,” says Gordon, “so if the music builds, he’s going to reflect that in the film and in the images, but the nice thing also is there’s an independence. I get to write the music without having to score the film, and then he gets to make the film, and he has the soundtrack to guide him through it.”

Decasia, notes Gordon, was one of those cases where he had a look at the raw material Morrison was working with, and it inspired him to some extent. It’s a 70-minute film that feels like it crescendos up from near silence for the duration of the film. The music seems to build ever so gradually to an unsettling cacophony. There’s a sense that Gordon is meticulously exploring crescendo. “Generally, a lot of the music I write is in waves and builds up and dies away,” he says.

Describing the music of Decasia, Gordon says, “It’s almost like a storm gathering or something like that, where you see the clouds and the wind starts up. In the same way that a storm gathers power and then all of a sudden you’re in the middle of it — lightning and going crazy — but that doesn’t necessarily last forever, so a lot of the things that I do have that feeling, and when you’re working with a symphony orchestra, the orchestra lends itself to having this epic sound. You’ve got 90 people or a hundred people on stage and all these instruments. You can just make this fantastic and incredibly rich and big reverberant sound that’s just gonna echo in the hall.”

Gordon, a classically trained composer, admits to having been influenced by Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Though he said he finds the music of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Godspeed You! Black Emperor interesting, he says he does not really keep up with music outside the classical world. He also said he has no interest in singing and lyrics, which speaks to his interest in communication via the abstraction of music. It’s an ethos that bonds with Morrison’s “storytelling” to profound effect, as the filmmaker also has little interest in literal expression through voice. Decasia, after all, defines itself via the reconceptualization of past images celebrated in decay. Images once filmed for narrative were given new life and meaning through the blurred, distorted images that resulted from the nitrate film’s chemical reaction to the passage of time. It resonates with impressive subtext. Many have read into the idea behind this redefinition of the images as an allusion to the fragility of life. “Yeah,” agrees Morrison. “Film works on a couple of different levels, but the thing that it’s delivering to the image is it’s plastic. It’s material. It’s of the world. Whereas the image that you receive is actually ephemeral, and it’s light. It’s shadows. It’s ghosts. There’s a dualism there between this plastic thing and this ephemeral thing, and it’s not a big leap to the same association between our bodies and our souls.”

In one film showing tomorrow night, a Florida premiere, “All Vows,” the deterioration of the image is so pronounced that it looks as if an abstract image has been overlaid the more recognizable image: a man helping a sickly woman to bed. It’s a scene from Queen Kelly (1929) by Erich von Stroheim. The appearance of random blotches distort the picture, filmed almost a hundred years ago, yet the abstract decay and the recognizable images of people are elevated in their juxtaposition to something grander.

“There isn’t any actual overlays,” notes Morrison. “What you’re seeing there between the recognizable image and the abstract images is simply organic decay, so that is the process of time at work, which I think also has a spiritual or, if you will, religious overtones to it as well.”

Morrison says he was inspired to look at decayed film nitrates worth recontextualizing like this after he saw Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut’s “Lyrical Nitrate” (1991). “I’d already been working with film in a lyrical way,” he says, “and I guess I was already splitting the image from the base already, but the idea of looking for occurrences where that had already happened, especially in nitrate deterioration, really came from seeing that film and then many years later — probably eight or nine — I came upon this trove of films at the University of North Carolina, many of which had deteriorated, and also the idea of looking at actuality footage or newsreel footage that had deteriorated rather than narratives seemed to have more potential for me.”

Alongside his name on his personal website, Morrison uses the name Hypnotic Pictures. Asked whether his aim is to lull the audience into a state of hypnosis, he says, “I think ontologically the decay does work on people’s retina in a certain way because there are some images that are more abstract and then some that you recognize. I think naturally we’re drawn towards trying to identify those images that we can recognize, seeing when they’re gonna pop out again from the morass of decay, and that creates some kind of relationship between the screen and the audience that people aren’t really accustomed to, and while you’re playing this hide and seek for a recognizable image, the decayed images seem to be working on you on a different level, so I don’t know if I’m going for hypnotism, but I do find that there is that kind of effect that works on me as well, in this kind of footage, and I think it does set up a different relationship between the viewer and the image because on some level you’re always aware that you’re watching a film going through the shutter gate or whatever it is, through a projector, rather than being engrossed in what is truly hypnotic, the suspension of all belief and entering another fantasy world. In some ways you’re hypnotized, and in some ways you’re positioned in a much more real or correct relationship to the screen.”

Asked if he is trying to achieve some sort of transcendental experience, Morrison says,Yeah, definitely, hopefully, but it would be kind of pretentious going around calling my company ‘Transcendental Pictures,'” he adds with a laugh.

Hans Morgenstern

Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon will appear at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Tuesday, January 27, at 7 p.m. in conversation with David Meyer, an author and film studies professor at the New School in New York. There will also be a live performance accompanying two of the shorts by New World Symphony members. For ticket information, visit miamijewishfilmfestival.net. On Friday, January 30, and Saturday, January 31, the New World Symphony will present the world premiere of El Sol Caliente, a tribute to Miami Beach by Gordon and Morrison. For more information, visit nws.com.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)