The once-flourishing, now-vanished coal mines of northern England reappear in found-footage maestro Bill Morrison’s “Miners’ Hymns,” a paean to a vanished working-class culture. A century of striking black-and-white archival footage centered around the town of Durham, which commissioned the work, is set to a score inspired by local miners’ brass bands. Morrison sometimes slows down the imagery to a hypnotic, frame-by-frame trancelike state; one can imagine townsfolk scrutinizing the faces of long-dead relatives magically raised. “Hymns,” playing at Gotham’s Film Forum alongside shorter Morrison works, should expand the filmmaker’s already sizable coterie of admirers.
Morrison’s previous pieces cover a wide range of subjects, from 1927’s great Mississippi flood to the crowds gathered to watch Al Capone’s release from prison. His most famous film, the magisterial “Decasia,” transformed the process of celluloid disintegration into an extraordinary spectacle in itself. Here he unearths the buried world of abandoned mines lying beneath the industrial parks and featureless malls that now blanket the English coast, extensively surveyed in the film’s overlong, helicopter-shot, introductory color sequence. A field of yellow grasses then slowly morphs into a sea of black-and-white faces of miners and their families as the past overtakes the present.
A collage of footage commemorating annual gatherings and long processions behind huge union banners chronicles the slow, incremental march of history. Below ground, chiaroscuro images captured by early documentarians show men crawling through tunnels on their hands and knees, the stygian blackness irregularly broken by beams from their lamps. The 35mm footage is in mint condition, the faces of miners and gleam of coal etched in minuscule detail. Excerpts from different periods trace the evolution of mining work via ever-changing technology, as men snaking through tunnels with hand-driven picks becomes progress made by mechanized claws and finally big, spiraling drills that cause large sections of wall to crumble and slide. Laden carts are first pushed by men, later drawn by horses and then electrically propelled along tracks.
Morrison builds almost imperceptibly to the events that sounded the mines’ death knell: a strike in 1984 and its brutal suppression by police under Margaret Thatcher’s watch. The government-mandated crowd control, initially innocent-seeming as strolling Bobbies set up roadside barricades, eventually gives way to closed ranks of shield- and baton-wielding policemen.
Morrison works closely with avant-garde composers and audio mixers, counterpointing sound and image to singular effect. “Hymns” was originally presented as a live performance by Morrison and Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson at Durham Cathedral. Johannsson’s score suggestively merges triumphant martial strains with dirgelike undercurrents.