The Great Flood (Bill Morrison, 2011)
Let's talk disasters—not those films that fail so spectacularly it's a sight to behold, but those actual Acts of God (or Man) that movies, quite often these days, take as their subject. So much of our art and the discourse surrounding it aims to convince us that the sky is forever falling. At the very least it presumes the worst will always happen (how human) and either a superman will save us or we'll be left to fend—violently, in all likelihood—for ourselves.
The perpetual sense of imminent chaos is, to put it mildly, agitating. We need the complementary clarity provided by peace of mind, body and spirit in order to make sense of the senseless. In the found-footage feature The Great Flood, Chicago-born filmmaker Bill Morrison (perhaps best known for 2002's Decasia, an essay-film about silent-movie celluloid decay), marries a number of cataclysmic archival images of the 1927 Mississippi River flood to an easygoing, occasionally jaunty score by jazz guitarist Bill Frissell. It seems like a strange choice at first, these very modern-sounding instruments lulling us into a near-soporific state. Couple that with the tranquil opening shot—a slow flyover of a digital map of the affected areas—and it's easy to wonder at the aesthetic purpose and effectiveness.
It turns out this introduction is one of the few times when the music and the visuals are in literal harmony. Otherwise, they work in provocative counterpoint. This becomes clear early on when Morrison sets quick-cut still images of a Sears catalog from the period to an especially buoyant Frissell composition. Page after page of merchandise (much of it useless, all of it tempting a likely underprivileged clientele with moneyed hopes and dreams) flies by—a document of corporate obliviousness in light of the much more potent picture of fleshly havoc and ruination surrounding it.
The sights of the flood itself are staggering, in good part because of how the camera is treated by the subjects as a kind of playful interloper. Even with the waters raging, it's likely the people onscreen (whether standing atop a flooded car or rowing a group of survivors to a nearby shore) will flash a bemused smile, as if they've found a ray of light in the midst of all-encompassing gloom. Hard to imagine anyone in our media-saturated age acting with the same level of curiosity, though Morrison counteracts the wide-eyed sense of innocence in a sequence (accompanied, once again, by a sprightly Frissell arrangement) in which politicians visit several of the disaster sites and manipulatively pose for the camera—pretenders to wallowing in humanity's muck.
Morrison finds a lot of beauty in the mire, much of it from the natural water and light damage to the celluloid, which lend the images extra layers of gravity and vividness. (Knowing something is inherently nebulous gives it that much more of the pulse of life.) Yet there's plenty of ugliness, too: Telling that the first bit of archival footage isn’t of the flood at all, but of primarily African-American sharecroppers picking cotton in the fields, all while white surveyors ride by on horseback.
Morrison isn't only taking the waters that rise as his subject, but those disenfranchised people who, due to the deluge, were forced to trade one sense of displacement (in a post-Reconstruction South still in thrall to its slaveholding past) for another. The Great Flood concludes with footage of African-Americans journeying to the urbanized, ostensibly more enlightened Northern states for better lives and opportunities. Hindsight allows us to recognize the numerous challenges (some new, many as old as time) that they'd face, but this is coupled with an even more sobering epiphany: That nature, in all its indifference, is the great decider.
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)
The end is nigh in yet another J.J. Abrams production, though 10 Cloverfield Lane didn't begin life as a "spiritual sequel" to 2008's NYC hipster apocalypse Cloverfield. Director Dan Trachtenberg's feature debut was, by most accounts, a more humble three-folks-in-a-room thriller onto which Abrams and screenplay polisher Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) grafted a few blink-and-you'll-miss-'em callbacks to the earlier film, as well as an alien invasion stinger. The stitching sure shows, though as with most Abrams productions, it's easy to fall under the spell of the setup—it's "good"…until it's suddenly not.
Cloverfield's first-person, shaky-cam aesthetic is eschewed for what many of today's gatekeepers describe, with a backward-looking sense of relief, as "classical." Every shot in the first three-quarters of the film is clear and precise, though still fairly lifeless given that they never seem undergirded by any genuine perspective, human or otherwise. Each image serves to get us to the next revelatory plot point. Each character is an assemblage of traits to be called upon as the narrative machinations require. Even Bear McCreary's symphonic score is designed to accentuate the obvious. (I have to believe it's no accident that you can sing the film's title—"CLO-ver-FEE-uld LANE!"—to the five-note melody that recurs in both major and minor keys throughout.)
There are, however, worse punishments than watching actors like Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman cavort their way through competently-produced product. No surprise that Goodman gives good villain as Howard, a gun-toting, Eugene Pallette-type survivalist whose reinforced and heavily stocked underground bunker serves as the primary locale. He's certain some kind of attack has rendered the outside world uninhabitable and spends most of the film trying to convince Winstead's Michelle (who Howard's forcibly imprisoned—though, so he says, with the best of intentions) and John Gallagher Jr.'s hick of a handyman, Emmett (who's in the bunker by choice), of that fact. Howard has a soothing way of speaking that's eminently trustworthy, even as his sad-clown grimace and shifty dead eyes hint at a quick-trigger psychosis that surfaces at the most unpredictable moments. (God help us and no joke, he also proves himself a champion twerker.)
This is Winstead's show, though, and it's nice to see her captaining a vehicle that highlights her strong-willed, cherub-faced scream queeniness. Any depth in 10 Cloverfield Lane comes solely from her efforts, as in the near-wordless opening sequence in which Michelle breaks off her relationship with her boyfriend (heard only as a voice on the phone, in the dulcet tones of Bradley Cooper) and tearily drives off into the American wilderness. (Her pained looks and gestures are enough to encapsulate her life so far and to get us fully on her side.) Then Howard runs her off the road and, for a good while, a tense battle of wills ensues. I was especially enamored of an early scene in which Michelle whittles a pointed spear from a crutch, then waits for Howard to appear...and waits...and waits. Until her sense of panic momentarily evaporates into oh-c'mon-already! frustration.
Eventually, though, Howard's motivations must be revealed to be ludicrously demonic (even as his paranoid suspicions about an attack on humanity gain credence) and those bunker doors must be flung wide open. I don't know if I've seen quite as lazy a climax as what follows—a low-rent War of the Worlds rip-off with a risibly designed extraterrestrial antagonist that's basically a sentient turd with teeth. Whatever visual clarity Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter showed underground disappears in the magic-hour twilight above. And though Michelle proves herself adept at throwing improvised Molotov cocktails, her transformation into a scowling clone of Ellen Ripley (ready to do battle in the next hollowly "spiritual" sequel, perhaps?) is insultingly disingenuous in the way of so much of today's mock-progressive popular cinema.