Some of these children found themselves in unconventional but secure homes, but others were born into families that would be destroyed by the out-of-control energies of their parents. Chapel Hill's Amy Morrison Williams has seen all sides: She bears witness to the life, death and rebirth of a passionate family, one headed by a poet and scholar named Jean Morrison.
Williams is the fifth of Morrison's six children that he sired with his wife Joelle, herself a writer. The Morrison family was a near-casualty of madness, complete with horrific violence, grinding poverty and endemic substance abuse. But now, 20 years after leaving home in her mid-teens, Williams is presenting a cinematic account of her family, a record of the Morrison clan's calamitous disintegration and its agonizing reconstruction. The film is called, appropriately enough, The Morrison Project, and Williams will present it this Saturday afternoon at Chapel Hill's Varsity Theater in a special fundraising screening.
"We're all doing interesting things now," says Williams over a cup of tea at Whole Foods in Chapel Hill. "But we're all nuts. That's why we call it a 'project.' The film is really about love and forgiveness, about putting one foot in front of the other." The Morrison Project is Williams' first film, but it has already been accepted into the Lower East Side film festival. Williams also plans to submit the film to major North American festivals, including Sundance, Telluride and Toronto.
Made over a period of two years, with the assistance of the teaching resources at Durham's Center for Documentary Studies, the film is a wrenchingly personal exorcism of the Morrison family's demons. It's one part Angela's Ashes, one part Kids and six parts survivor narrative. The Morrison Project consists of vivid interviews with surviving family members, and wonderfully evocative photographs by Jean Morrison and his longtime friend John Rosenthal, the Chapel Hill writer and photographer.
The film traces the history of a bohemian family, similar in many ways to others in its dedication to poetry, music and poverty. As the film informs us, Jean (pronounced "Gene") and Joelle got married in the late 1950s and embarked on a bohemian literary life, with teaching gigs in Greensboro, and other Southern outposts before they landed in New York City in the mid-1960s. Williams and her siblings grew in New York's East Village, decades before that neighborhood was fashionable. While the children grew up on the streets of this largely Puerto Rican neighborhood, Joelle supported the family with odd jobs and Jean worked on his novel, a roman a clef about his childhood in Chicago, called Joseph Dog Boy.
The family patriarch was a fascinating and charismatic figure, a classic bebop rebel cut from the cloth of hot rods and hot jazz, open roads and open veins. It was the era of James Dean, Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin, and also the one of Joseph McCarthy, Bull Conner and J. Edgar Hoover. Morrison worked on translations and wrote poetry, quoted Nietzsche, played Miles and Monk, befriended and inspired younger artists, including Rosenthal. And he worked on his novel.
But there was a dark side to the brilliant white light of Morrison's creative passions. His activity was fueled by amphetamines and his sexual appetite was dangerously untrammeled. He carried on numerous affairs and on the night of Dec. 27, 1970, he was savagely beaten and left for dead by the husband of one of his girlfriends. Although Morrison survived the assault, his brain was permanently injured and his career as a writer and a provider for his six children was over. (There were only two copies of his novel and both were lost during the chaotic period that followed.)
The next few years were dreadful ones for the Morrison family and the source of much of the pain and anguish of The Morrison Project. Jean Morrison, disabled with his brain injury, became a menace to his own family. Several horrific scenes are related by his children in the film, as when the youngest, Joey, recalls how they would lie awake in terror every night, when they were left alone with their father while their mother worked a night shift. "He would call it the 'nightly beating,'" Joey says in the film. "He would go to town on us."
As wrenching and painful as The Morrison Project is, the most remarkable thing about the film is the absence of rancor. Rather, the dominant tone is one of sorrow, wounded love and a strange kind of defiant pride, one that Williams expressed in our interview. "He was the kind of person who could beat the shit out of you and then just start talking about Coltrane or Bill Evans," she says.
The dissolution of the family took a heavy toll. All of the children developed substance abuse problems and Williams reports that the younger ones suffered the most. One brother became a hoodlum who mugged people at gunpoint and Williams herself dropped out of school at 15 and left home. After some wild years, Williams eventually got her GED and lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, operating an ice cream franchise with her husband Neil.
Williams has been drug-free for eight years, a development that more or less coincided with her decision to assume the responsibility for the care of her father, who is now approaching his 70th birthday. The rapprochement between father and daughter did not come easily. "The first two years, I sometimes wanted to strangle him," Williams says. "But I realized he was brain injured. I really healed over time. We would have these incredible conversations that would leave both of us crying."
"I've had a father for eight years," Williams concludes.
Largely because of Rosenthal's presence in the community, she moved to Chapel Hill with her family three years ago. Today, she lives with her father, her husband, Neil, and their two daughters Chelsea and Coco. If our meeting at Whole Foods is any indication, she does a fair impression of being just another Chapel Hill mom with dance recitals to attend and grocery shopping to do. But most moms aren't documentary filmmakers with voluminous memories and experiences to tap.
The Morrison Project, her inaugural effort, was a shoestring effort that has nonetheless cost about $15,000. "I edited it on iMovie. I had no money for this, but I think I did pretty damn good," Williams says in her wonderfully brash New Yorker voice, an instantly recognizable patois that no amount of sweet tea, cornbread and shrimp and grits will erase.
Williams isn't stopping with The Morrison Project. She's got several other films that she plans to make, and has already done some work on them. One is a portrait of a beloved community physician in the Lower East Side--a project that may include a contribution from Luis Guzman, a friend from the hood who has carved out a successful acting career, most notably in films for Steven Soderbergh.
Although Williams concedes that some of her siblings were less supportive of the project than others, all participated with the exception of her brother Alex, who was terminally ill with cancer (yet another heavy blow to the family that is discussed in the film). Not surprisingly, Williams says that showing The Morrison Project to her family was a wrenching experience.
"The film left everyone weeping," she says.
There will be a fundraising screening of The Morrison Project this Saturday, May 31 at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill. Showtime is noon.