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 to create a new 4k digital master of The Book of All the Dead, for release in 2017.
3 R. Bruce Elder Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness
R. Bruce Elder conceived of Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness while taking a graduate course at the University Film Studies Center at Hampshire College, in optical printing, taught by Standish Lawder and Jon Rubin. He had become interested in Heinrich Wölfflin’s distinction between linear and painterly forms, as per Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History (1915). In the linear art of the Renaissance, the boundaries of each element is definite, clear, unviolated. Each figure is evenly illuminated, and stands out boldly like a piece of sculpture. In painterly, Baroque art, the figures often overlap and, because of uneven lighting, and because the painter uses chiaroscuro, the figures merge with one another. The forms interpenetrate, irreversibly, in this rendering of light and shadow. Elder’s classicist leanings propelled him to make a work that would have some of the virtues of the Renaissance, but without making concessions to the illusionary planar recession that one would find in the work of Botticelli or Raphael. As a result, the film that he conceived would use bold outlines to achieve the defined boundary, but would also use compositional variation — and movement of camera, subject, and frame — in defiance of the illusory tableaux.
Elder could also draw on the experiences that would inform Breath/Light/Birth (1975), chiefly, the course that he did in video, taught by Ed Emshwiller at the New England Summer Institute a year earlier. There he had seen Emshwiller’s Thanatopsis, a dance film of nervous, menacing vibrations, wherein human figures appear stretched beyond their boundaries, beginning with hands which seem to jut outward in compounding, echoing gestures, and continuing to the whole figure made elastic, in the form of the vibrating form of a dancer (Becky Arnold), who moves in pixilation about a seated figure, as if a kind of nightmare, the vibrating body here both a forerunner and antidote to Toni Basil’s ecstatic, fragmented nude in Bruce Conner’s Breakaway (1966), in that it assumes the perfect forms of modern sculpture and shatters the locomotions of Muybridge. When the body vibrates its way out into the world, a cityscape which reflects its vibrations, it comes to be at one with an environment which the seated figure, in his stoicism, is so at odds with. The influence of these visions on Elder is indisputable, even as the film he set out to make would cast a distinct experience.
Emshwiller’s films not only reflected new approaches to photographic renderings of the body, but also an intermediary state between animation and live action (as per his use of pixilation). Elder recognized this same intermediary state in works made on the optical printer. Upon the printer, sequences retreated into their status as individual frames, and those individual frames were either transformed through filters, made to speed up or slow down, had their compositions transformed through selective emphasis and enlargement, or took on structured rhythms, as in step printing, where numbered sets of frames alternate to give a staggered motion. Elder’s film would emphasize this character of the instrument, working with sandwiched, high-contrast film strips, rephotographing them so as to reduce the tonal qualities to pure black and pure white, enhancing the lithographic character of the images.
The central subject of Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness is a female figure performing a modern dance, however, the subject is obscured by a form that transforms her into white and black values, an endless black canvas which energies twist against, in the form of a white outline. The figure performs, among other gestures, pirouettes. In the pirouettes, the rotation of the figure is visible only in the outline of breasts and hips, turned in a clinical, inhuman manner, as if on a lazy Susan, as if guided by an unseen hand. The figure is reduced to outline, and its outlines are often photographed in such a manner to lend itself to abstraction; her most autonomous movements, with her whole form spinning, are met by a spinning camera, often tracking in or past her form, so that her movements are fleeting, or rather, that the actions she begins are completed by the composer. Hand and arm movements, principally the symmetrical gesture of drawing inward the hands with index finger and thumb tips contacting to form circles, are rendered in thick lines that repeat over themselves, filling the screen with white echoes. This symmetry continues in full images of the figure, mirrored, which assumes the impression of a Rorschach test, in the film’s final moments, akin to the symmetrical compositions of Pat O’Neill’s 7362 (1967).
Elder shot the film in the summer of 1974, and completed the image on a J-K optical printer. He believed it would be a relatively straightforward task to make successive generations of high-contrast images, using slightly different exposures to create variety in the ways that the tones are separated. While commercial labs were unable to render this work adequately, he was able to get the results he needed through the lab at Ryerson University, managed by Geoff Bottomley, through which he was able to get images of sufficient contrast to combine positive and negative ‘sandwiches’, bi-packing in his printer. Elder presumed that the darks in the negative would fill in the clear areas in the positive, but that, with a staggered registration, he would get an outline around the figure. The sandwich instead produced a pure black frame. The only way to achieve the intended effect was to loosen the gate of the printer, hold the two strips by hand with one on top of the other, slightly offset, to get an outline, and then hitting the expose button with his jaw.
In Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness, the white lines shake and flicker; at times they are pronounced and solid, at other times, faint and erratic. This is partly because of the laborious nature of Elder’s process, an effect of the hand-feeding of his optical printer; but it is, perhaps fortuitously, indicative of one of the major and unsung qualities of optically printed film, to occupy that intermediary state between images drawn from life and those drawn from the imagination (or, literally, drawn). There are instances in the image where the figure appears rotoscoped, as if it has been meticulously recast in lead or charcoal, so dark is the black of the image, so white is the outline of the figure. The fact of its thoroughly photographic basis makes the film particularly bizarre and haunting, as if the figure has formed on the image by magnetic force.
4 R. Bruce Elder Permutations and Combinations
Elder’s Permutations and Combinations (1976) combined hand-drawn and found images, in the forms of simple geometric figures, commercial images, and photographic reproductions of art work. And like Elder’s other early films, it is a work with debts to Gerald O’Grady’s Summer Institute for the Making, Knowing and Judging of Film and Media, where Elder had studied with Ed Emshwiller, among others, and where he began his career in poetic filmmaking. It was there that he and his wife Kathryn undertook a course in animation with Robert Breer, preeminent American experimental animator active since the 1950s, then having made many of his finest works, such as Blazes (1961), Fist Fight (1964), and 69 (1969). Breer would often do his animation on file cards, which he resorted and photographed. This inspired Elder to consider the process’s potential for creating permutational structures, re-ordering images to transform their meaning or their sequential visual impact.
The film begins with the filmmaker’s finger pointing to a chalk line on black underneath a downward-cast camera. A series of images appear following a sequence. When they repeat, they repeat in double-speed. This speed increases for a third repetition. Beneath this, Elder reads, “The point of this repetition is largely mnemonic. That’s all.” The images that repeat in this section always repeat in the same order: the number 1; a photograph of an old man; a photograph of a young girl; an image of a wall; a detail from Jan Vermeer’s The Love Letter (1666); an image from a comic book; a drawing of trees reflected in water; a text on set theory, featuring reflections on Galois connections, romanticism, and Eratosthenes; a sequence of four images showing a square beam from different angles, through which it shifts from two-dimensional to three-dimensional; and a sequence of six abstract images, in which red and blue colours gradate to white. The three repetitions of this sequence, each repetition shedding a precise number of frames to speed its course, serves as an introduction to the film. Following its credits, the images repeat in new sequences, varying widely from the set given in the opening, at a consistently rapid speed. Accompanying the images is an abstract soundtrack, of electronic tones and bells, which offers the illusion that the sounds have specific image affiliations, and which is therefore made punctuative by the truncation of images. This illusion breaks down over time as the sounds oscillate even when the images remain the same. The composition changes significantly only on the text, allowing further lines to be revealed, albeit at a speed too fast for reading: “How did you come to elaborate that structure? My telling was that it might have come out of particular theory of sets. A set is just a bunch of things.” Out of these few things, Elder has built a series of sets, and when the sequence ends, it repeats in reverse, such that the film appears to be given and then withdrawn, undone.
Through each set, the bouncing square beam seems almost comically to fluctuate, the in-between frames of its movement filled by figures, text, and colour. With this beam, Permutations and Combinations bears the impact of Breer’s influence on its sleeve: in Breer’s 69, a rotating rod becomes one component of many interlocking parts, all of which have the potential to be other perspectives on the same beam, eventually taking on flashing colours and other animated digressions as the movement persists; Elder’s square beam, with its staggering ‘movements’, offers a contrary role for its materials, that animation be achieved not through the successive revelation of a movement over frames, but by leaps of perception.
Thanks to R. Bruce Elder for permission to include images of the film.