Filmmaker Bill Morrison Dives Deep for Cinematic Connections



The Village Detective: a song cycle tells of a mysterious canister of 35mm movie film rescued from the ocean floor by the crew of an Icelandic fishing vessel.  The decades-submerged celluloid within proved to be four reels of a 1969 Soviet crime-comedy called The Village Detective (Derevensky detektiv).  Having been down there for years, the film itself had taken on all kinds of peculiar chemical degradations.  Although The Village Detective, directed by Ivan Lukinsky, is not considered any kind of rare or lost film, the physical damage to this print puts its discovery right in the wheelhouse of experimental documentarian Bill Morrison.

Morrison is probably best known for his particularly avant-garde interest in the decay of vintage celluloid. Whereas most film buffs recoil at the sight of such a fate claiming a part of cinema’s history, Morrison is fascinated by it.  With the particular success of his experimental feature films Decasia (2002) and Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), Morrison’s entrancing dips into the filmic past have earned elevated curiosity.  What Morrison does, whether through his myriad of shorts or his occasional full-length efforts, is indeed special.  

As great, however, as those above-cited films may be, the same glowing praise cannot be bestowed upon his latest feature, The Village Detective: a song cycle.  Having gained access to the recovered film thanks to a tip-off from his late friend, the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Morrison hurled himself into a sea of his own making.  Somewhere amid the hypnotic effect of composer David Lang’s droning accordion soundtrack and the slowed images of the exhumed Derevensky detektiv, there’s a hint of that mysterious transcendence that froze time in Dawson City.  But merely a hint.

A long study is made of the career of the film’s star, a venerable Soviet actor named Mikhail Zharov.  Zharov, we’re told, was the Bogart of his time and place, an actor with a degree of versatility, but more so, his own inherent presence.  Per the many clips provided (each with handy title and year citation), the comparison doesn’t entirely hold up, as Zharov appears, above all, an actor of diverse range.

This is all very educational and appreciated on that level.  Morrison even leans into on-camera interviews with various people involved with the nautical discovery.  The many threads, though, don’t weave together.  It goes to show that inspiration, talent, vision, and resources are still sometimes not enough.  As the canister of film is seen settled in the green murky sea, the labelled appears just such as to be grinning mockingly at the ascending camera. Is there a joke here, and is it somehow on us?

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray edition of The Village Detective: a song cycle contains the film itself in all its well-assembled glory.  Perhaps the real treasure here, though, is the bonus inclusion of three of Morrison’s recent short films.  They are Buried News (a searing argument for racial justice via horrific recorded history; 2021, 12 minutes), let me come in (a musing on a lost 1928 German film, Pawns of Passion; 2021, 11 minutes), and Sunken Films (a moving exploration of the sinking of the Lusitania, incorporating Winsor McCay’s landmark 1918 propaganda animation; 2020, 11 minutes).  

All quite true to form, these three films demonstrate that Morrison, too, is a devout film preservationist.  In fact, he may be the most obsessively devout of them all.  His approach, absolutely pure in terms of bearing witness to the ravages of the world upon our records of said world, is nothing if not wholistic.  The Village Detective: a song cycle may or may not prove to be music to your eyes, but Kino’s Blu-ray package is worth the submersion into its own bonuses.