Everything about Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns is ambivalent.
There is no story, but the material is organized into episodes illustrating the work and life of the mining towns in north England in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. A prologue implies that this world has been pretty much obliterated.
On the other hand, it’s unclear whether Morrison makes an argument at all. What, exactly, does he claim about the work in the mines? About life above ground? About how it ended? Nothing in particular.
The most you can say is that Morrison claims the archivist’s privilege of presenting evidence that the past was very different from the present. That once upon a time a whole way of life existed around the collieries. A banality, and yet not so simple.
An artifact becomes evidence when it is incorporated into an argument. But, again, where is the argument in Miner’ Hymns? If not an argument, there is perhaps a frame, an archival presumption—an assumption that the footage presented was made a long time ago. The assumption that the footage of the Battle of Orgreave is a document of events that happened in 1984, and not, for example, an historic reconstruction for a film, such as Jeremy Deller staged in 2001.
And yet it appears that Morrison manipulated his Orgreave footage rather freely, changing the original color video image to black and white—to maintain a distinction between present-day color images—such as the aerial images of the prologue—and the black and white archival footage.
Though implied and never explicit, the archival aspect is the least ambiguous aspect of Miners’ Hymns. At the very least, Morrison has rescued some compelling footage from neglect, bringing to a worldwide audience those wonderful banners, the crowds of people wearing hats, the faces ….
Morrison’s strategy of presenting the archival footage without narration frees the audience from the full names, precise dates, the generally accepted historical accounts that are not always welcome or helpful.
Morrison refuses to provide a moral. He offers no explanation why the culture that produced the Durham Miners’ Gala evaporated—neither the explanation of the Left nor the explanation of the Right. His reticence generates an effect like Tolstoy’s descriptions of battles: precise descriptions of noise, confusion and violence, without reference to military strategies and objectives. Adhering to the first-hand experience, and rejecting words that would reduce the experience to a formula.
In Miners’ Hymns, Morrison takes on similarly charged subject matter, and proposes that instead of using the images to cue a speech, we try to see what’s in them.
Morrison, the archivist, offers a glimpse, not a story. A glimpse rich with allusions. Not the political message of the demonstration, but the gestures, expressions, clothes, interactions of the participants. A glimpse also of the past, and the uncanny experience of long-dead world that is lively and appealing, full of ghosts who seem to be better socialized than we are, more alive, participating in a culture they fashioned for themselves.
But this reticence also gets Morrison off the hook. He doesn’t have to take a stand on any hard questions the footage evokes—Was there any way this way of life could have survived? Was it doomed by the government? the unions? global post-industrial economic restructuring?
And the refusal to offer any contextualizing words also means that every viewer is free to read into the images his or her own prejudices and clichés: the harrowing work conditions of the miners, their rough but authentic town life, their beautiful celebrations of solidarity, the brutal strikebusting that ended it all, ….
This is certainly the point at which Morrison definitively departs from the documentary tradition. My preconceptions are not challenged, but pandered to.
However Miners’ Hymns is far from open-ended or opaque. While it is sparing with explanatory words, it is lavish with passionate music. The steady pace, uniform sonority, and slowly unfolding melodies of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack unifies the disparate images by infusing them with deep, sweet melancholy. Jóhannsson’s symphonic threnody imposes a rhythm and literally sets the tone. The marriage of music and image creates tremendous moments—as at the movie’s conclusion, when the orchestra swells to images of union lodge banners begin carried in procession to the altar of Durham Cathedral. Elsewhere the music jars with the images: glimpses of light-hearted merrymaking at the Durham Gala are musically coerced into some unspecified dark end. The captured smiles and collegiality might contain premonitions of doom, but surely that isn’t all.
This presentation made it impossible for me to resist taking the material in Miners’ Hymns nostalgically. Impossible not to swoon over an authentic, indigenous, progressive, secular English working class culture based on collective bargaining and solidarity. It’s impossible, also, not to read it as a eulogy, a monument to a tremendous political disillusionment.
In short: sentimentality, which seems especially inappropriate in this context. To sigh and a shrug over one more lost thing among an endless inventory of already lost things seems disrespectful to the lives evoked here.
But, again, who or what is really being evoked? An important clue is how calm the movie is. I expected it to be shameless, it isn’t. Though mournful and coercive it is also restrained: it doesn’t howl. Tears almost come, but remain unexpressed.
This is the fine line Morrison treads. The conflict he employs in Miners’ Hymns—and other movies like Decasia, Outerborough, and Release—is the conflict between the passionate images and the dispassionate presentation.
Just as Decasia is not a documentary about the decay of old film but a meditation on how images momentarily click into intelligibility, but then shimmer away like haze, Miners’ Hymns is not a documentary about the culture in Durham that grew up around the mines, but a documentary about inexorable time estranging us from such worlds. It is not a permanent monument of remembrance, but a provisional sortie against the inevitable forgetting.