Review: THE VILLAGE DETECTIVE: A SONG CYCLE, About a Film Culled from the Depth of Ocean
Avant-garde filmmaker and artist Bill Morrison, known for his use of decaying, found films and collaborating with innovative contemporary musicians, produced some of the most unique movie/live theater going experiences (Decasia, Miner's Hymns, Dawson City: Frozen Time) over the last few decades. Using plenty of archival materials and found footage, just like with Dawson City, he concocts an intriguing film history lesson while showcasing the hypnotic, decaying celluloid images with The Village Detective: A Song Cycle. The difference here is that the old Soviet film, The Village Detective, was not dug up from the frozen tundra in Yukon Territory but netted from depth of the icy North Sea.
In 2016, an Icelandic lobster trawler hauled in a film canister along with various crustaceans at the bottom of the North Sea. It ended up in the hands of the archivists and film scholars at the Finnish Film Institute. It was the late visionary Icelandic musician and friend of Morrison, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who worked with the director in Miner's Hymns, mentioned the news to him, who took an immediate interest. It contained 4 rolls of seawater brined, muddy, degrading film prints. Many assumed that they contain a very old film. But it turns out to be a 1969 Russian film, The Village Detective, starring Mikhail Zharov as Columbo like detective, in a provincial Russian town, on the case of a missing accordion.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle submerges itself into an intriguing film history and does its own diligent history detective work. Morrison, along with producer/film scholar Maria Vinogradova, set out their own investigation, giving context to the movie reels found at the bottom of the sea. Like good detectives, they peel away layers of mud and dirt and debris the time has accumulated and connect the dots- the images on the film, its actors, the political climate, film archiving practices (or lack there of), while highlighting the beauty of the physicality of film print as an art object.
Taking advantage of Gosfilmofond, the state run Russian film archive and with the help of their archivists, the film devotes itself going through Russian film history by way of Mikhail Zharov's six-decades spanning career. Zharov, whose immense popularity in Russia was equal to that of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at his prime, played many boisterous roles and often sang with an accordion in his hands in many of his films. He was a renowned stage actor and starred in many state propaganda films. But with the country’s antisemitism in the 40s and 50s took a toll on the actor who was married to a Jewish woman from a prominent Jewish family. Even though any charges were dissolved after Stalin’s death, he would get type-casted in the 50s and 60s as he aged.
Going back and forth with old Russian archival footage, many of Zharov's film clips, interviews and the actual footage of The Village Detective found in the sea, set in original accordion soundtrack by David Lang (Requiem for a Dream, The Great Beauty, Wildlife, Youth), Morrison creates a cohesive, entertaining yarn.
Still, all the beauty is in the footage culled from the sea. Damaged and decayed in multitudes of ways, intentionally slowed down and without a dialog track, the audience can savor each passing frames- obscured by scratches, blotches, indecipherable patterns and ghost images that natural elements and time inflicted on the celluloid. With the historical and philosophical context provided by Morrison and co., the film's haunting beauty is amplified greatly.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is a celebration of cinema that reflects life and art and its resilience to the test of time both metaphorically and physically.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle opens in theaters on 9/22 at IFC Center in NYC. Please visit Kino Lorber website for details.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
The Village Detective: a song cycle
- Bill Morrison
- Bill Morrison