Beyond Zero: 1914–1918
The First World War has been well-chronicled by a variety of different television series. In traditional documentaries of this kind, battleground footage shot at the time alternates with the (often moving) testimony of survivors and experts. Bill Morrison’s film takes a different path. There is no voice-over in Beyond Zero, no interviews with ex-combatants, no maps and no captions. What the filmmaker has done instead is to go to the archives and to find particularly rare, beautiful, never-before-seen footage and weave it all together into a single seamless sequence that seems as much beholden to dream as to reality. In slowed-down footage, mounted generals cross the screen like ghosts from an earlier age; tanks lumber towards the camera; trenches are exhaustingly cut and defended by barbed wire. In the distance, a dirigible airship can be made out; between battle sequences, some dogs find a dead soldier in a cabbage field.
In place of commentary, the filmmaker has arranged for a magnificent musical score played by the Kronos Quartet (composer: Aleksandra Vrebalov), which underlines and brings out the strangeness of these images of warfare. Often, the nitrate original has suffered damage, so there are dark mottled splodges and other areas of illegibility. This is very much part of the artistic effect. Such blemishes are like explosions or passages of machine-gun fire: they function as an “objective correlative” to the chaos of warfare and to the poignant obliteration of the fallen.
Bill Morrison (b. 1965 in Chicago, Illinois) currently lives in New York. He attended Cooper Union, where he studied painting and animation. After college, he worked with New York's Ridge Theater, making short film backdrops for their avant-garde productions. This work has been recognized with two Bessie Awards and an Obie. Morrison’s film and multimedia art has been screened at festivals, museums and concert halls worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Tate Modern, and the British Film Institute. Morrison has been commissioned to create films for numerous composers, including John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Dave Douglas, Richard Einhorn, Bill Frisell, Michael Gordon, Henryk Górecki, Vijay Iyer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, David Lang, Harry Partch, Steve Reich and Julia Wolfe. Morrison has received the Alpert Award, as well as fellowships from Creative Capital, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. His work was recently honoured with a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, from October 2014 - March 2015.