1 R. Bruce Elder Breath / Light / Birth
For the past four decades, R. Bruce Elder has been the preeminent theorist of Canadian avant-garde cinema, as well as that cinema’s most prolific filmmaker. At 35 hours, Elder’s epic cycle The Book of All the Dead (1975–1994) is the most voluminous work in Canadian cinema. It is dense not only by its scale, but by its vibrant, clustered images, by its collision of Elder’s philosophy and experience, and by the thousands of citations drawn out of culture and poetry that figure into its composition. It is a work that has been praised by artists such as Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, but it has also been seldom seen in its entirety, owing to the practical obstacles involved in screening the work, which exists across three regions, each of roughly twelve hours, each region to be screened over the course of a day. Since completing this cycle, Elder has continued with a second cycle of films, The Book of Praise (1997—present). Since 2014, I have been working in collaboration with Kyle Sanderson to create a new 4k digital master of The Book of All the Dead, for release in 2017.
In the years preceding Elder’s filmmaking, his activities demonstrate interests in music composition, poetry, and philosophy. An early eponymous chapbook (Bruce Elder, Montreal: Delta, 1970) testifies to his commitment toward poetry and poetic forms, a fascination which endured across his first and second film cycles, as well as his critical writings. Elder was introduced to experimental film while at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, at a time when the campus art scene was especially active in its engagement with poetry, jazz, modern art, and cinema; but Elder’s own instincts toward filmmaking were provoked at Gerald O’Grady’s Summer Institute for the Making, Knowing and Judging of Film and Media, held in the New England woods throughout the 1970s, and which Elder attended with his wife Kathryn for several consecutive summers from 1972 onward. Through this program, the Elders were exposed to a wide range of filmmakers, in particular, Stan Brakhage and Ed Emshwiller, two of America’s foremost poetic filmmakers.Elder purchased a Bolex 16mm film camera from another participant, devoting himself to the poetic avant-garde tradition in filmmaking. As a kind of commune, O’Grady’s Summer Institute attracted a wide range of hippies, communards, and fellow travellers. Out of this crowd, while taking a course in video making with Emshwiller, Elder acquired a tape that would later form the basis of his first film, Breath/Light/Birth. Thus, Elder began almost simultaneously engaging in two potentially oppositional processes, inscribing his own images to 16mm film, and integrating other media and found footage, assuming foreign visions.
Elder describes the source as “a very long half-inch tape shot on a Sony portapak (…) a non-stop record of a young woman giving birth, shot with a shaky camera, which moved relentlessly.” The tape appears to be of a natural birth, its soundtrack flooded by the labouring woman’s pained utterances and the newborn’s gasping cries. Her speech is muffled to imprecision, enough that, even in its wild, horrific vacillations, it takes on the qualities of a ritual. The image surveys the mother’s face, the birthing passage, the crowning head, viscera and other details of the event, all rendered in the soft grey forms and porous lines characteristic of the Sony portapak. This tape existed as a kind of documentary object, a record of birth as executed in the context of a religious commune. But in this era, some ‘birth films’ doubled as art and memento, principally Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961); and birth held a distinct metaphoric-spatial relation to the cosmic themes of Ed Emshwiller (as in Relativity, 1966, which features a number of sequences that suggest impossibly ‘in utero’ photography). Elder recognized in this material both primal confrontation and phenomenal mystery, and set about drawing the media into a process by which he could transform it.
With the aid of Toronto video technician David Stringer, Elder was able to migrate the half-inch portapak tape to the more professional standard of two-inch quadraplex tape. With this tape, Elder was able to use media production consoles at Ryerson University, where he had begun to teach filmmaking, to edit the material and to generate special effects. The effects that Elder applied to the image involved the simultaneous presence of two discernible layers of image, one still and one moving, with an embellishment of the moving video’s luminosity, allowing for it to glow through—or, perhaps more poignantly, to bleed through—still images that are cast against it. The liveliness of the event itself, which plays out in glimpses, appears against a series of frozen, abstract images that appear to be magnifications of the taped subjects, magnified so as to form valleys of shadows, some recalling the shape of a thigh or a clavicle, each composition reduced to light and dark. The moving image creases the dark edges of these still frames, as faces and bodies and hands trail their glowing edges against the dark. By signal gradation, the mother’s face becomes at one instant a frayed square floating freely against the still frame. The still frames suggest both the death and distance inherent in the photographic object, and yet they also serve a practical end in masking the action. Against that distance and death, such obstructions deliver this event to the present moment of our witness. The photographic record, video-born as a documentary fact, has been given fissures that strengthen its mysteries, and that allow the image to take on this simultaneity, as it bears the present with the past, the living with the dead. These aesthetic acts — bearing qualities of the elision and the palimpsest — are inherently filmic.
With his video-compositing completed at the end of summer, 1975, Elder brought his two-inch quadraplex master to a film production house for a kinescope output from video to 16mm film. Because of the content of the film, the staff demanded that he provide letters from his employers confirming that it was artistic work, and not pornography. Even after doing so, he was given a censored reel, with black in place of any birth footage, and was told, to his surprise, that the work was pornographic, that the staff had taken it upon themselves to ‘correct’ it. In order to create the necessary uncensored 16mm film elements, the tape had to be sent to a lab in Los Angeles, where the work was done without interference. Once finished to 16mm film, the transformative nature of Elder’s process was fully realized — those qualities of the tape that held strong to video—pale blacks, muddied greys—were enlivened by the light and flicker passing through the whole image, translating this document out of the emanating light of video and into the illuminating light of film. The image is without relief; and the murkiness of its vision offers only ambiguity between the spiritual dimension of creation, the physical fact of the event, and the sheer alienation that comes with bearing witness to suffering.
In its transformed state, Breath/Light/Birth would serve as the harbinger of the greater cycle. Whatever shape the cycle may have to mirroring life and the body can trace its path to this event — unromantic, unsentimental, grating, grotesque, an event that puzzles and troubles that light which casts it. Much of The Book of All the Dead deals in the body not only as a theme unto itself but as a canvas on which to develop visual and philosophic themes. Such themes developed quickly through the films that followed, as in the body reassembled by symmetry (Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness, 1976), the body as a magnet of light (Look! We Have Come Through!, 1978), and the body in memory of love and desire (Sweet Love Remembered, 1980). In Breath/Light/Birth, we are first introduced to the creative body, bearing witness to that bodily creativity which speaks most clearly to the greatest mysteries of consciousness and experience, the creation of one body from another.
Thanks to R. Bruce Elder for permission to include strips of the film, and to Kyle Sanderson, whose efforts in mastering Breath/Light/Birth have been careful and extensive.