"The Great Flood," an all-archival clip documentary revisiting the events and effects of the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927, is by turns hypnotic, playful, wildly evocative and even a bit trippy. But most of all it's a unique, highly immersing audio-visual experience that would be as at home in a museum as it is in a movie theater — and that's a first-order compliment.
Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison ("Decasia," "The Miners' Hymns") has masterfully assembled a collage of silent, monochrome archival footage of this largely forgotten catastrophe — call it the Hurricane Katrina of its day — in which the Mississippi's levees broke in 145 places, engulfing 27,000 square miles of land from southern Illinois to New Orleans. It resulted in the Flood Control Act of 1928 and the widespread migration of African Americans, many of whom were sharecroppers, to Chicago and other Northern cities.
Morrison organizes his footage, much of which is decayed in ways that lend the picture a vibrant, strangely artistic glow, into mostly successive chapters: "Swollen Tributaries," "Levees," "Evacuation," "Aftermath" and so on. These clips provide a rare and riveting snapshot of a place and time — how people lived, worked, traveled, dressed (boy, were hats popular!) and, in this case, survived. Perhaps most notable is the era's clear racial divide.
Memorably enhancing the movie's time capsule vibe is a bravura sequence that whips and zips its way through an entire 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog.
Guitarist-composer Bill Frisell's wall-to-wall, bluesy-jazzy soundtrack beautifully reflects and unifies the visuals while also helping to personalize this distinct endeavor. It's a terrific achievement.
"The Great Flood." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.