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“The Village Detective: A Song Cycle” studies malleable material history with a welcome neutrality

Bill Morrison’s latest essay documentary film screens at MMoCA’s Rooftop Cinema on August 25.
A witness appears in a weathered, recovered frame of Ivan Lukinsky’s 1969 mystery film "The Village Detective."
A witness appears in a weathered, recovered frame of Ivan Lukinsky’s 1969 mystery film “The Village Detective.”

Bill Morrison’s latest essay documentary film screens at MMoCA’s Rooftop Cinema on August 25.

Archival documentaries sometimes carry two contradictory impulses. On one hand, they attempt to restore or to bring new attention to original historical materials. On the other, they focus on the physical condition of the base material with a commitment to the original narrative of these materials. When the existence of an archive itself is fraught, filmmakers often lean toward the former mode—simply because the materials’ survival is enough to celebrate. Documentarian Sergei Loznitsa, for example, takes this approach in his series of archival documentaries that have set new standards for our filmic knowledge of Soviet Russian history. Bill Morrison, also a historically- and archivally-minded filmmaker, has approached a similar period with more of the latter modus operandi for his newest film The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021), screening at Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s Rooftop Cinema series on Thursday, August 25, at 8 p.m. 

As A Song Cycle’s opening section tells us, in 2016, Icelandic trawlers uncovered a case of film at the bottom of the ocean, which they returned to the Icelandic Film Centre. Archivists there confirmed it to be four reels of Ivan Lukinsky’s 1969 mystery film The Village Detective. Morrison’s personal friend and collaborator, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson alerted him to the work, which Morrison then set about transferring to create a documentary about the film’s lead actor, Mikhail Zharov. Zharov was one of the most celebrated Russian actors of his day, appearing on screen across seven decades. You wouldn’t know his chameleonic quality from workmanlike scenes in The Village Detective; thankfully, Morrison walks us through Zharov’s career between the reels, covering everything from his earliest role as one of Ivan the Terrible’s ancillary guards in Tsar Ivan The Terrible (1915) to his most internationally popular role as one of Ivan the Terrible’s central guards in Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible (1946). Given the politics of most produced films of the day, his roles often ping-ponged between polarized symbols of state power and cowardly treason. 

Morrison’s Detective is structured in an odd form; about half of its runtime is devoted to historical material about Zharov’s career in Russian cinema in the first half of the 20th century. The other half contains long stretches of unedited portions of the discovered film. It showcases scenes of Zharov’s performance out of context in the sea-damaged film, the reels warped to near-abstraction as the boilerplate mystery plays out. This focus on raw materials is common for Morrison, but the material sits uneasy next to the rest of the film’s straight-forward historical approach and iMovie-like subtitles and transitions. But to read it charitably, this digital presentation serves to further distance the viewer from the materiality. Morrison’s Village Detective is here, digital and unchanging; Lukinsky’s Village Detective is over there, and can do nothing but change. Morrison briefly compares the layers of celluloid to those of earth, where new geological structures are created as parts break and bleed through. The topographic swirls that warp the image suggest the flat ground of Lukisnky’s film made into a mountain. 

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If his previous films like The Miners’ Hymns (2010) and The Great Flood (2012) were occasionally too sentimental in their sweeping musicality, underscoring nostalgic collections of celluloid, Village Detective has a more measured approach to its subject. This is understandable given the pitfalls of sentimentalizing Soviet propaganda, and the formal modes distinguish the work. David Lang’s droning accordion score, for one, gives the film a much more meditative air than the showy melodrama of Jóhannsson’s and Bill Frisell’s scores did for their respective films. This emotional neutrality grounds Morrison’s film in considerations of his materials, separating it from his previously almost too-human explorations of history.

As any nonfiction filmmaker who’s working with the material must acknowledge, distinctions between truth and fiction are fraught in the Russian film archive. Morrison notes how staged footage from the third anniversary of 1917’s October Revolution is sometimes treated as footage of the original event; earlier, Morrison details how the 1917 American film about the death of Rasputin, The Fall Of The Romanoffs, co-starred and was guided by Rasputin’s real-life rival Iliodor. This may give a clue as to why Morrison focuses even more than usual on the imperfections of this source material, with several stretches of the film almost Brakhage-like in their splashes of rusty waves that obscure all identifiable figures for minutes on end. This is unvarnished, a more “true” presentation of a film that Morrison belatedly acknowledges exists in other, cleaner formats; history sits inescapably on the image’s surface.

Editor’s note: The original version of this review incorrectly cited “Lenin’s Alive” (1915) in the second paragraph. The title has since been changed to “Tsar Ivan The Terrible.”

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