In 2016, filmmaker Bill Morrison received word of a local event from Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson: Off the coast of Iceland, four reels of 35mm film had been pulled up from the bottom of the sea in a lobster trawler’s nets. Archival material has long been the specialty of Morrison, who has put the purpose in “repurposing” through such avant-garde triumphs as Decasia, Spark of Being and Dawson City: Frozen Time, all constructed from old films in various states of decomposition.
The reels of film that had been sitting beneath the Atlantic turned out not to be the remains of a rare, lost film — Morrison’s usual raw material — but part of a print of a readily available mainstream Soviet comedy. Released in 1969, Derevenskiy Detektiv (Village Detective) stars Russian actor Mikhail Zharov at a point in his long career where he was pleasing audiences more than critics. Decades later, it still turns up on Russian broadcast schedules.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle
More prosaic than Morrison’s usual work, but still touched by mystery.
Unprotected by canisters and coated in mud, the partial print of Village Detective was water-damaged but for the most part preserved by volcanic gases around the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. With its pulsing cosmos of splotches, cracks and scratches, the ocean grit creating a sepia effect, the film itself offers Morrison the chance to explore the play of texture, light and disintegration, familiar terrain for him.
But it’s also the starting point for the director to research Zharov, whose level of fame was comparable to that of Bogart and Gable, according to a Russian film curator interviewed for The Village Detective: A Song Cycle. The crisp color footage of present-day interviews are a shock at first, and certainly a departure from Morrison’s usual mode. Zharov, we learn, was the first person to sing in Russian on film, had a steady stream of minor roles during the silent era, and went on to play many comic foils and iconoclasts.
In Derevenskiy Detektiv, Zharov portrays district police officer Aniskin, a role he’d reprise twice more, including in his final film, in 1978. The plot revolves around a crime investigation, minor in the scheme of things but major for the small-town setting: a big-city musician’s accordion has been stolen. Scenes between Zharov’s cop and the bereft accordionist (Roman Tkachuk) fade in and out of legibility; as the surface damage breaks up the imagery, it further distances the characters from each other, adding a layer of intrigue to the narrative.
Putting aside that contemporary meta-aesthetic, Derevenskiy Detektiv itself offers a bit of Soviet ideologizing. After noting that art “belongs to the people,” the musician reminds Aniskin that cinema’s “mass reach” is unrivaled, but that it’s music, above all art forms, which “helps us build and work.” Zharov’s life coincided with the temporal frame of the 20th century itself (he died in 1981 at 82) and with the reign of the Soviet Union, and Morrison offers glimpses of Stalinist-era socialist realism and the lingering effects of political orthodoxy — for a nation, a film industry and Zharov himself.
The plot of the 50-year-old feature serves as a loose hinge for the three dozen or so films that Morrison excerpts. Zharov’s movies range from the obscure to the monumental (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible). Among the most tantalizing artifacts here are surviving snippets of a lost film, the 1917 American feature The Fall of the Romanoffs, based on the accounts of Rasputin’s archrival, Iliodor, who played himself in the film. Beyond the haunting weirdness of that New Jersey-shot production, The Village Detective notes that reenactments of history can and have become part of the historical record.
The “song cycle” part of Morrison’s film is the score by David Lang, which, fittingly, features a single plaintive accordion. The melancholy drone begins to feel like an expression of grievance, a signal perhaps of a quest unsatisfied for the filmmaker and the audience.
But if the film doesn’t approach the transporting effect or profound resonance of Morrison’s previous work, its inquiry into cinematic ghosts is nonetheless distinctive. The composer who brought the Icelandic fisherman’s find to Morrison’s attention in 2016, Johannsson (Sicario, Arrival), died at 48 two years later, when Morrison was still at work on The Village Detective. In the images of Zharov’s striking actorly transformations through the decades and his merely human aging, matters of mortality course through the film.
Morrison asks us to consider a life’s work — specifically, what it means to live on, in celluloid images — but also poses questions of a wider scope: what we leave behind, what’s lost, and what might or might not be dredged up from the seabed.