Bill Morrison has been entranced by the beauty of decaying nitrate film for decades, creating art out of unsalvageable celluloid. His 2002 film Decasia equated the fading of memory and time with the chemical dissolution of silent films, where audiences are teased with characters and maybe a hint of a story only to have the images destroyed by nitrates. He’s returned to this theme again and again, creating a filmography of melancholy and sadness.
In his latest short, Sunken Films, Morrison riffs on stories of films found at the bottom of the sea, using the sinking of the Lusitania as an entry into the ghosts of cinema past.
The RMS Lusitania was the ill-fated British luxury liner that German U-boats torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. It had left New York six days before, and the Germans claimed the commercial liner was secretly transporting munitions to Britain for the Great War, a war that America was trying not to join. (Divers never found evidence of munitions in the wreckage.)
The attack killed 1,198 passengers, and the great ship sunk in under 20 minutes, an unforgiving speed. The sinking would be one of the reasons America finally decided to fight alongside the British. Morrison edits in Winsor McCay’s animated version of the tragedy to show how the boat went down, and there’s something surreal in his rendering of all the people, only their heads above water, bobbing in the ocean.
Morrison’s film also uses footage shot at the time and captions to move the action along. The soundtrack is silent save for the nostalgic sound of a film projector. There is only one surviving film of the ship leaving New York harbor. Morrison points out the author Elbert Hubbard and his wife Alice Moore waving to the camera--Hubbard wrote eloquently a few years before about those who died on board the Titanic.
The Lusitania had a cinema on board, and Morrison meditates on the films that sunk to the ocean floor, including one that was salvaged: one reel of Colin Campbell’s The Carpet from Baghdad, now archived at the British Film Institute. It is the only existing reel of this lost feature.
If you think Morrison then shows the film, you’ll be disappointed. Instead Morrison heads off in another direction, discovering other films that have been lost at sea, and some that have been found, like footage of Vladimir Lenin speaking to the public and more importantly snuggling up with his pet cat. (This revolution-adjacent cat’s name has been lost to time unfortunately.) Caught in a fishing net, the weathered film is a mysterious object--though not necessarily a rare one, the footage is available elsewhere. Instead Morrison hopes to leave us with images of undersea cinema, reels of kelp-like film, only on view to passing fish.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.