Tributes - Pulse Review
Though he’d been making films since the early nineties, Bill Morrison never really made an impact until the arrival of his feature debut Decasia in 2002. A paean to celluloid, this remarkable work combined Michael Gordon’s wall-of-sound score with excessively damaged nitrate film stock. The result was, quite literally, cinema in its death throes. Morrison’s next feature, The Miners' Hymns, came in 2010 and continued this theme of cultural death. Cinema was replaced by the British mining industry, but the method remained the same: subtly manipulated found footage plus expressive soundtrack, this time from Swedish multi-instrumentalist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Decasia was at once astonishingly beautiful and a striking call to arms for film preservation; The Miners' Hymns was altogether more concentrated: a representation of a workforce that was at once historical, sociological and personal. (Admittedly the political dimensions were undercut by having New Yorker make a film very specifically about the North East of England.) For his latest full-length work, Tributes - Pulse, Morrison takes on the 20th century and finds himself back in Decasia territory: damaged film stock and a wide-ranging subject alongside the all-important score. Here it’s a collaboration with the Danish composer Simon Christensen, albeit with an entirely American influence. As the first part of the title makes clear, tributes are the order of the day, to Charles Ives, to Conlon Nancarrow, to Steve Reich and to Trent Reznor.
Such a quartet - each drawn to the extremities of musical composition - should immediately alert the viewer that Tributes - Pulse is not an easy listening experience. The lushness of Gordon’s Decasia score and the intense swells of Jóhannsson’s combination of brass and electronica for The Miners' Hymns give way to harsher, more abrasive textures. Christensen gives the impression that he is scoring the damage to the film stock rather than the images beneath, thereby creating a soundtrack that is all about interruption and interference, disruption and disturbance. A percussionist as well as composer, he creates intense electronic rhythms accompanied by an often barely perceptible acoustic element. Constructed as four separate movements, Tributes - Pulse’s score understandably contains its quieter moments and passages, yet this intensity wins through. Indeed, some may find the film’s opening ten minutes a genuine test as we are thrown straight into an aural onslaught without any forewarning. The comforting tones of the earlier features - and the gentle accessibility they once provided - are long gone; Christensen appears to be heralding a more hardcore Morrison, stripped of the pleasant and more agreeable sides of his usual style.
Tributes - Pulse begins, without credits, on a screen occupied almost entirely with immense degradation. Only the very edges of the frame reveal any ‘image’, as it were, though the visible area is such that it’s impossible to discern any detail or maintain any ideas as to what it could be. By way of contrast both Decasia and The Miners' Hymns opened with blemish-free footage, newly filmed in the case of the latter. There was an immediate connection to be made in these instances, yet Morrison denies such a possibility here. Indeed, initial thoughts turn to just how much Morrison will be denying throughout Tributes - Pulse. Will narrative considerations go out of the window too, accompanying this sense of recognition and the grandiose scores of previous films? The early evidence would appear to point in that direction: Christensen’s compositions seemingly matching the damage as opposed to the images beneath; and Morrison’s desire to focus on this damage during these initial stages, both through his editing choices and his manipulation of the footage - loops, changes in speed, and so on.
Understandably this lack of immediate connection through standard means prompts questions as to why Morrison and Christensen are putting this emphasis on the deterioration. Its use is pointedly different from that Decasia and arguably far more aggressive. Though still in possession of a certain strange beauty, the lysergic qualities found in the earlier work feel somewhat diminished. Meanwhile the rallying cry for film preservation (the real intent behind Decasia) has been done. The temptation for Tributes - Pulse, with its look back on the twentieth century and homage to those four composers, is to view the damaged materials as the ultimate cinematic signifier of the past. The familiar devices of black and white or silent film are no longer enough, it would appear; now these historical images must be adorned and obscured by decomposition and mould so as to fully encapsulate their status as moments lost in time. Indeed, they would be on the verge of disappearing forever had Morrison not ‘preserved’ them for this particular work. Quite literally, they have become snatched glimpses.
In this respect it makes perfect sense that the imagery behind the deterioration should make itself known only gradually. It’s as though these pictures of the twentieth century could only come to life once we understood that which was taking place, hence the slow burn opening. And so, as Tributes - Pulse progresses, familiar aspects of American life come into view. Initially we are faced with ‘the land’: buffalos and cowboys sneaking in an appearance through chopped up (presumably documentary) footage. This frontier gives way to the industrial age as oil wells put in an appearance, as do paddle steamers and ocean liners, zeppelins and aeroplanes. The simple elements of livestock and landscape are replaced with neon and mechanical activity. In the meantime the cowboys are redressed as men preparing for war. And so it goes on: a trip through the progress and history that was a single century populated solely by forgotten ghosts. In conjunction Morrison inserts footage of growth so as to further this idea of a straightforward progression: the beginning of the second movement is heralded with footage of a crying baby; subsequently we move through young adulthood to eventual old age. On top of this we also hear the influences of the quartet of composers, their work having spanned the entire twentieth century (Ives’ Symphony No. 2 was composed right on the turn of the century; Reich and Reznor continue working to this day) and thus similarly provide Morrison with a very specific framework.
Yet specificity is perhaps too much of an ask for a 65-minute work intended to act as “a requiem” for those one hundred years. The subject matter is too wide-ranging and has too much potential to ever receive full justice under these circumstances. Indeed, by using only decaying nitrate film stock - and, moreover, only decaying nitrate film stock that was due for disposal by the Library of Congress - Morrison could never have hoped of encapsulating an entire century. Surely his choices were dependant wholly on what kinds of footage that stock contained. And just as significant is the fact that this footage would not have encompassed every decade but is rather cut short near the midway point. The auto-combustible nature of nitrate effectively killed it off as the main source for film production by the mid-fifties, whilst the lack of any colour footage in Tributes - Pulse similarly confirms suspicions that only the first half of the century plays a part in the film.
Nevertheless Morrison is still able to pepper his brief running time with some remarkable images. As with Decasia it is the unintentional interaction between the original footage and the damage which proves most startling: tiny planes getting lost in the clouds, except the clouds are actually blotches of mould mere millimetres in length; or the wonderfully serendipitous moment in which the entrance of a cameraman into frame provokes an intense conflagration within the image, only to cease as soon as he exits. Equally wonderful are those times when the splotches of decay appear to pulse in time with the rhythms of Christensen’s accompaniment: a lifeforce from within that momentarily goes against the ghosts onscreen and those undercurrents of death and a forgotten past.
Yet those undercurrents are strong, never more so than in the final passage of Tributes - Pulse, which abandons the dying footage for the newly recorded. As with the opening shots of The Miners' Hymns, wherein the sites of the North East’s are revealed in their present day form (one is a car park, another has become an Asda, etc.), Morrison closes his film colour aerial photography, this time focussing on the Witte Marine Scrapyard in Staten Island. There doesn’t appear to be any direct correlation between this footage and that which has preceded it, though connections between the various liners and steamboats glimpsed earlier and the obsolete vessels captured in the present day are plain to see. The past is past, whether it be the once glorious signifiers of an industrial age or the film stock which captured them - all that remains are crumbling/deteriorating remnants. The juxtaposition is strangely moving and makes for a fitting end. In this respect Morrison’s requiem can count itself a successful one.
Tributes - Pulse has been released onto Blu-ray by Danish label Dacapo. The disc is free from region coding, encoded in 1080p (not 1080i as stated on the sleeve) and is identical in whichever part of the world you happen to be: the versions on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.de, and so on are all exactly the same (despite, in some cases, the information provided there). I purchased my copy direct from Dacapo in Denmark and can confirm that it came with English-language booklet and, indeed, is English-friendly in all regards. (The fact that the film is accompanied only by music means that issues such as dubbing and/or subtitling are non-applicable.)
The first thing to say about Tributes - Pulse in its Blu-ray incarnation is that it looks and sounds absolutely terrific. Morrison’s films, especially those such as this one and Decasia which utilise damaged film stock, are incredibly beautiful works and as such fully justify the HD treatment. Similarly the reliance on the soundtrack means that when presented in DTS-HD true 7.1 surround format the effect is suitably outstanding. Of course in the case of the former it can be hard to ascertain the true qualities of the transfer given the extent of damage, although the level of detail within the decay is really quite astonishing. The concluding present day footage, shot on grainy colour 16mm stock, looks just as it should which no doubt backs up ideas that the earlier material is similarly flawless. (Freeze-framing the image, oftentimes simply to take in the beauty, reveals no signs of artefacting or other digital side-effects.) The single-layered disc clearly has no problems with the 65-minute feature and no on-disc extras, whilst the soundtrack is delivered to a similarly superb level. (An optional PCM stereo two-channel mix is also available.)
With a lack of additional features on the disc itself we instead find a 12-page booklet containing an appreciation by composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri, plus notes on Morrison, Christensen and the other musicians. The Oteri piece can be read in full on Tributes - Pulse’s official website - link - which means that ultimately the booklet is a little disappointment. With that said, for many the ability to finally see some of Morrison’s work in HD will be more than enough reason to pick up this disc. Indeed, you’ll find no major complaints on my part.