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'The Miners' Hymns': Labor and Poetry

Beautifully and evocatively, Bill Morrison's film traces the changes of fortune for the mines and miners, the industry and communities of Northern England.

The Miners' Hymns

Director: Bill Morrison
Rated: NR
Studio: Icarus Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2012-03-08 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-10-29 (General release)

The shoreline seems far away at first, as the camera in The Miners' Hymns approaches from over the sea. But it's not long before you're over land, green and yellow planting fields giving way to rows and rows of homes, roads and parking lots. A couple of titles note the former site of Ryhope Colliery (1857-1966) and then, the former site of Silksworth Collilery (1869-1971). These are the names of Durham coalfields, the dates marking their beginnings and ends.

Bill Morrison's film goes on to trace what happens in between these dates, the changes of fortune for the mines and miners, the industry and communities of Northern England. Opening at the Film Forum on 8 February (this show including an appearance by Morrison, as well as live violin accompaniment by Todd Reynolds), the film assembles archival footage, some dating back 100 years, images from multiple decades that reveal both patterns and variations -- as they also reveal the economies of how we see.

The miners' story might seem familiar. Men go to work in Bill Morrison's The Miners' Hymns, hard, dark work in coal mines. They also find ways to celebrate their labor, in images from the early days of the UK's coal industry: crowds cheer union candidates, placards proclaim support for miners and also, offer to insure them "on holidays." Shots of one throng from a distance dissolve into closer shots, the camera panning faces, revealing that they've dressed up, in hats and jackets and vests. Some frames show more recent crowds, women in sunglasses and a reporter with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In others, children hold balloons and bounce a bit, so excited to be out for the event. A boy turns to look at the camera as it passes. A little girl -- her short hair shockingly blond -- sits on her father's shoulder, her gaze steady and, you think, somehow self-aware.

In this and other moments, Miners' Hymns indicates its other subject, apart from and related to the history of coal mining, in Durham and as an idea and practice. Miners' Hymns is not only showing what happened, or what was recorded then, but also asking how any of us might see it. If mining is about digging and producing, struggling and surviving, the film is about how we conceive these themes, how films teach us to see. How do you understand depictions of the past, in so many contexts, alongside the present (your own present, someone else's), with knowledge of subsequent images, not to mention a certain sense of yourself, changed as you watch? How is history ever anything but what you receive, your trust or skepticism of seeming sources, a narrative reframed each moment by what you see next?

At some points, The Miners' Hymns offers particular narratives, slipping from the supportive gatherings to the work: men make their way from their homes, carrying picks and shovels, to enter the mines, dark and more mechanized with each industrial innovation. Tracks and carts, lanterns and explosives, helmets and uniforms: in each moment, men labor and sweat, their jaws set, before they can emerge, filthy and exhausted. The men's labor produces coal, revealed in repetitive and also shifting shots of black rocks, huge swarms of them moved on belts and in trucks, spit up from the earth into daylight, making money for someone -- someone who is not slamming his pick-axe at walls in the mines.

Under a propulsive, sometimes sinuous and sometimes jarring electronic score by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the story unfolds and turns back on itself, part documentary and part poetry, imagined and recollected, structured and deployed to a variety of ends.

The Miners' Hymns is accompanied at Film Forum by several of Morrison's shorts, including Release (2010), which creates a mesmerizing sort of loop of a short film shot on 17 March 1930, showing a crowd waiting outside Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary for the release of Al Capone from prison. As you watch them ready to watch, you become aware of the expectation created by celebrity, but also by recording per se, how the cameras perched near the crowd convey significance, even without an event in sight.

For Outerborough (2005), Morrison refits footage from 1899 into a split screen. The film shows a trolley making its way over the Brooklyn Bridge, shot by a photographer at American Mutoscope & Biograph who set his camera on the trolley's front. It's a study of changing perspective and the ways that movement -- of object and frame -- conjures expectation. You're going somewhere, and the story here is how you experience that journey.

And in The Film of Her (1996), a Library of Congress clerk (performed in voiceover by an actor) remembers the moment when he found a room full of paper reels, about to be destroyed. These document the earliest days of cinema, including Edison and Muybridge and a film of a woman, her naked breasts briefly glimpsed, her eyes turned to the camera, again, so self-aware and yet so remote. A meditation on the nature of desire, the need to remember, and the ways that film per se shapes both, The Film of Her is a remarkable mix of fantasy and history, pointing out how they're always a mix, how documentary can only be fantasy, in the mind's eyes of makers and viewers.


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