There's a moment in The Great Flood, a documentary about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, when a woman being evacuated wades through knee-deep water. Her hair mussed and her clothes soaked to the waist, she pauses to pick a flower. As she turns to the camera, we can see her smile. We can almost hear her laugh.
It's one of many moments in this wordless documentary that's so lovely it's almost disconcerting. The film, by Bill Morrison, patches together archival footage and sets it to a spellbinding original score by guitarist Bill Frisell. There's plenty here that recalls Katrina or Sandy in its harrowing imagery: the near-oceanic swelling of the river, the demolished towns, the crowded tent cities. But in illustrating the magnitude of the most destructive river flood in U.S. history—it covered 27,000 square miles and displaced more than 1 million people—The Great Flood is cinematic testament not only to the sheer power of the natural world, but to the indomitability of the human spirit. That's a daunting task, yet the film achieves it not through weepy voice-over narration, image manipulation or an overwrought, disaster-porn soundtrack. Instead, we get a bluesy, slightly dissonant reverb tracking shots of wrecked streets, the sign for "ABLE HOTEL" quietly reflected in a vast puddle. At other times, the score turns jazzy and jaunty, as when a binocular-wielding Herbert Hoover swings through for photo ops with floodplain refugees, or when a trumpet yowls wistfully as uprooted Southerners—many of them former sharecroppers—decamp for the industrial North. The film stock is scorched or splotchy in places, adding an appealing, staticky glow.
Most interestingly, The Great Flood provokes questions about how we react to such calamity. As you watch a woman matter-of-factly get a haircut, deluge be damned, or a man play piano at a tent settlement, you can't help but compare them to the much more demonstrative disaster victims on 24-hour cable TV news. Just watch the faces of men stacking sandbags, looking incredulous and slightly insulted that they're being filmed. There's no wailing into the camera here, no sensationalistic melodrama.
Am I aestheticizing these survivors as paragons of resiliency belonging to a bygone time? Some have criticized the film for presenting suffering as quaint. That's misguided. This is 80 minutes of audiovisual poetry at its most sublime, and its most vital.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: The Great Flood plays April 7-11 at the Clinton Street Theater.