The Dissolution of War in ‘Beyond Zero’

A dream or collective memory mediated by dying nitrate into a mournful musical space.

Bill Morrison assembles fading, deteriorating nitrate film footage into ethereal historical collages and combines them with commissioned music, so that they become symphonic “music videos” that are at once avant-garde yet obvious and accessible to any viewer.

His latest 40-minute work, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918, is scored by Aleksandra Vrebalov and played by Kronos Quartet in seven movements. It’s essentially a dirge in memory of World War I, with the soundtrack adding occasional garbled spoken-word passages from old recordings and finally finishing with chanting by monks, completing the sense of prayer.

As always with Morrison, who makes no attempt to “restore” the decaying images, one spends as much time looking at the textures of decay and dissolution as through them to decipher the image. It’s all surface, and the evidence of time’s passage creates its own scrim of beauty, its own spectacle beyond the intentions of the original photographers.

The resulting work of art resides in a space between documentary and fiction, indeed dissolves the difference. The package is careful not to label what we see as “documentary” footage but as “archival footage” and “footage shot during the first World War”. Most is clearly newsreel footage, such as the blindfolded President Wilson drawing America’s first draft number. Some may be battlefield footage and some looks like maneuvers staged for the newsreel camera.

A few bits are from drama, such as an arty shot of soldiers sleeping while their dreams are illustrated in superimpositions above them. A striking shot of an aerial dogfight where the planes crash into each other and burst into flame looks like model work shot from a stationary camera — thus more fiction. It doesn’t matter to this project because the whole thing is presented as a dream or a collective memory mediated by dying nitrate into this mournful musical space.

The only extra is a brief segment on the Kronos performance. They explain that Vrebalov composed in Belgrade during the war in Yugoslavia, and that as a Serbian, she’s historically connected to the events that triggered WWI when a Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

RATING 8 / 10