Essential Orphanistas: Bill Morrison.

by Eric Kohn
April 9, 2010 11:40 AM
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As I anticipated in an earlier post, I've been attending the Orphan Film Symposium at NYU these past few days, and will continue to do so until the gathering concludes on Saturday. (Read more about the symposium's program here.) Everything appears to be running on schedule, despite a dense lineup of presentations and screenings that have been unraveling faster than a decaying nitrate cellulose base running through an unsympathetic projector. You can tell where my mind's been.

Orphans is a neat alternative to a lot of other movie buff gatherings in that much of what shows up in the room -- even if it's quite old -- has never been seen before, at least not in the manner in which it appears. Bill Morrison's Thursday night presentation of nitrate films from the Library Congress is a good example. Morrison, an experimental filmmaker (and supporting actor in Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation) has made a name for himself by taking orphan works that have fallen into disrepair and rearranging them as newly expressive narratives (or non-narratives, depending on the nature of the material). George Willeman of the Library of Congress often brings decayed films to Morrison when their condition prevents them from getting fully restored. "If you like Bill's stuff, I'm his source," Willeman said on Thursday before Morrison introduced the new films. "If you don't, I'm his enabler."

While the films that Morrison presented at Orphans may lack the same ambition of his feature-length Decasia, they still display his unique melding of the old with the new. This year's group of silent films came from 85-year-old private collector John Maddox, a Duck Run, Tennessee native whose frayed storage room was filled with tons of old B-movie westerns (and mouse nests) when Willeman found it. At the top of this post, watch a clip from Morrison's work on With Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trailer (1926), courtesy of the filmmaker.

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