The Review/ Interview/
A monumental interview with Canadian avant-garde giant Bruce Elder
A 42-hour, multi-part film cycle undertaken from 1975 through 1994, Bruce Elder’s The Book of All the Dead is one of the most ambitious projects in the history of cinema — an achievement that is compounded when one considers it in a specifically Canadian context, given that our national cinema is most often lauded for small-scale dramas and non-fiction.
Modelled after and inspired in part by Dante’s Divine Comedy and Ezra Pound’s epic poetic cycle Cantos, Elder’s immense work earned admiration from the likes of avant-garde icons such as Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, the latter of whom famously declared Elder “the most important North American avant-garde filmmaker to emerge during the 1980s.” On Sunday, October 1, as part of our Canada on Screen programme, TIFF will present the entirety of Lamentations: A Monument to the Dead World, which constitutes two of the most significant chapters of the Book of All the Dead cycle — the 195-minute Part 1: The Dream of the Last Historian, and the 240-minute Part 2: The Sublime Calculation — in a special screening preceded by an introductory talk by the filmmaker.
A dense and sprawling work, part travelogue and part philosophical treatise, Lamentations largely oscillates between two stylistic modes. The first is characterized by a kinetic, handheld camera that is accompanied by music, offscreen voices, and onscreen text. Whip pans and lens flares blur and bridge disparate footage captured throughout Europe and North America, while the layered texts, laden with citations sourced from the history of Western philosophy, reflect on more matters than can be enumerated in a single paragraph, chief among them modernity, intimacy, religion, and the nature of subjectivity. These roaming, hypnotic stretches are punctuated by a rotating series of staged, largely fixed-camera episodes pitched somewhere between Masterpiece Theatre and the Theatre of the Absurd: a shaggy Franz Liszt pounds on a piano, Sir Isaac Newton debates mathematics, a nameless “man in alley” spouts oddities and beginner German, and the filmmaker himself pontificates to the camera over a text that insists “THIS FILM IS ABOUT YOU, NOT ABOUT ITS MAKER.” Lest the film appear too easily compartmentalized, other (un)related footage appears throughout: erotic sequences of bodies in close contact, robotics demonstrations, religious processions, static photo slides, and more.
The stunning new restoration of Lamentations we are presenting was undertaken by the Gatineau Preservation Centre as part of an ambitious ongoing project, coordinated by local filmmaker and scholar Stephen Broomer, to restore and preserve the entirety of The Book of All the Dead. In advance of the screening, TIFF caught up with Elder to speak about the historical context of the film and its still relevant themes of technology, modernity, and what a distinctly Canadian cinema could look like.
Was the scale of Lamentations always obvious? I might ask the same question about *The Book of All the Dead *project itself.
Film was not the first art that attracted me. Poetry was. I began publishing poems while I was still in university — Louis Dudek’s press brought out a chapbook of my poetry that George Woodcock seems to have liked — and it has remained the art which I feel I understand most deeply and to which I am most passionately committed. I saw myself as a poet, and, fundamentally, I still do. But when I was doing graduate studies (in metaphysics), I decided I absolutely didn’t want to be a professor. That meant I faced the issue that most artists and poets confront: if not as an academic, how would I make a living and support my poetry?
I got the bright idea that perhaps I could make educational film (there was a market for such films at the time), and that if I succeeded at that, I might even go on and make science documentaries. But there was a hitch: I knew nothing whatsoever about filmmaking, a practice that, at this time, was considered dauntingly arcane. So I enrolled in an experimental “advanced diploma” program that Ryerson was offering. At the end of that year, I was asked to stay on and introduce a film studies component into the curriculum. I really didn’t want to join the faculty, but I thought it would be a good idea to have a regular source of income, until I got the business established.
That spring, I realized I should acquaint myself with what other people were doing in film studies, and so, on seeing an advertisement for a “summer institute” in New England offering graduate courses in film, photography and video — one of which was “Teaching Film Studies” — my wife and I registered in courses. The second day we were at the institute, we attended an evening screening on works made by one of the faculty members. The films included Door, Western History, and Window Water Baby Moving; the faculty member, obviously, was Stan Brakhage. When I saw that work, I knew this was the new poetry. I also knew immediately that I wanted to devote my life to it. I returned to Toronto, knowing that I would have to continue to teach in order to create poems in this new (and costlier) medium.
I recognized immediately that Brakhage’s films had a deep affinity with Ezra Pound’s poetry and with Beat poetry (or more accurately, open-form poetry). I was much involved with Allen Ginsberg’s “long line,” and with Rexroth’s long-form poems. Those various influences — Pound, Rexroth, and Ginsberg — determined that I would want to undertake a long, epic project. In the first conversation I had with Brakhage, he alerted me to a new book of criticism that had just come out, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. Of course, I rushed out to buy it and read it, and that experience strengthened my resolve to create a long film that includes history. [At the time,] Brakhage was teaching a course on his Songs; after seeing that evening of films, I began sneaking into [his] classes, and he made very clear their relation to [Pound’s] Cantos. So I conceived, almost immediately, the ambitious idea of creating a cycle of films, resembling the Songs and related to the Cantos. I conceived this epic project almost simultaneously with the “conversion experience,” in which I decided that the form of poetry I would pursue would be an electric, audio-visual poetry.
That phrase, “electric poetry,” also speaks to another significant early influence, and that was the work of the Toronto School of Communications: Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Harold Innis, and Eric Havelock (I had got myself into some trouble in the philosophy department for touting Havelock’s Preface to Plato). All of these writers embraced the idea that the new poetic forms that were appearing marked a return to oral poetry. The specific energies of orality were of great interest to me at this time (and still are) — reading and hearing McLuhan and Frye had already instructed me in the importance of reading and coming to terms with the ideas of Giambattista Vico. Cinematic poetry seemed to me merely a ramification of more general ideas about a new, electric (oral) poetry.
To respond more directly to your question, I embarked on a project to create an epic work, a metatext of sorts, a work that would “include history” (to use that phrase from Pound again) and would draw upon Pound’s Cantos, Dante’s Commedia, and Homer’s Odyssey. In starting out, I first created works that grounded this history in the material of the medium: I made Permutations and Combinations and She is Away, short films that dealt, respectively, with the individual frame (and not the shot) as the basic unit of film construction (in this I was influenced by Peter Kubelka’s theory of metric film, whose Pythagoreanism I understood); with extended durations and sync events (with a correspondence between visual form and sound that was, as Kubelka again pointed out, in the fashion of a true modernist, a new experience that only came into being with the development of sound film); and (in Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness and Look! We Have Come Through!) dynamic forms that in their gestural properties and evolution parallel musical patterns of development (in this interest I was influenced by Slavko Vorkapich and Joseph Schillinger), and were related to the body but spatially and temporally independent of any gesture that an actual body can make. Having begun by grounding the epic in the material reality of the medium, I embarked on increasingly extended forms.
The film is dense with quotes and references: Dante, Spinoza, Heidegger, Nietzsche, to name only a few. How did you go about researching and assembling these references, and then determining their employment in the film?
“Research” is a word to which I have an aversion. It seems to me it is linked with mastery over nature. To be sure, the idea that humans have dominion over nature goes back at least to the time of Genesis, and, of course, even when we encounter it there, in the various forms it appears, it gives us pause. But since the time of Francis Bacon, it has had a particularly troubling role: I don’t think there is anyone who doubts that Bacon’s ideas opened the path to modern science and technology (that is, practical knowledge). And that, I insist, has caused much mischief.
I want to stress the importance I attach to the idea of open form. An open-form poem is unregulated by an external structure, and external overall shape, an imposed meter or rhythm scheme. A poet practising composition by the field is maximally open to the energies — the many energies — of the immediate moment of composition. He or she doesn’t start out to compose a poem (I’ll take a Shakespearean sonnet as an example) in 14 lines, divided up into three groups of four lines and one group of two lines, in iambic pentameter, with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. The shape of the poem, its (continually shifting) rhythms, its varying line-lengths, all involve the immediacies of the moment of composition — in the case of film poems, out of the immediate urgencies of the acts of shooting and editing. The particular discipline involved in this is to open oneself to as many energies of the circumambient field as possible (concepts, plans, schemes are the enemy of this), and to learn to forge as direct a relation as possible between those sensed energies (coming through the eye, the ear, and the whole body) and the hand.
An open-form work evolves through the process of composition. But I mentioned that I hoped to create a work that in a certain sense (as far as energies are concerned) would be a reprise of Pound’s Cantos, Dante’s Commedia, and Homer’s Odyssey. The goal was to achieve the transformation of consciousness that occurs in [Dante’s] Paradiso. This wouldn’t occur by learning: it would require a transformation of the maker’s self. The great wager of the piece was that I could commit to responding to the energies of the immediate moment and yet, over a long period of time — because my thought was steeped in their language and imagery, because that language and imagery constituted the warp and woof of my own being — the forms that evolved from my responses to [that] contemporary [moment] would be homologous with those of the Cantos and the Commedia. More particularly, I wagered that by the time I got to the end, I would have become a poet capable of composing a Paradiso. I was aware at the outset of making such a wager. It sometimes engendered a sense of terror: would it cohere, or would it collapse into shards and fragments — into a heap of rubble?
Sound and music plays a key part in the film, frequently as present as any voiceovers. I'd love to know more about your approach to music, particularly Bill Gilliam’s electronic score, which strikes me as ahead of its time for 1985.
I remarked in response to the previous question that I came rather late to film: that poetry was the art that first commanded my devotion, and that it is still the art form to which I feel closest. But there was another art which I loved before I discovered the vanguard cinema, and that was avant-garde jazz. But I really wasn’t up to scratch, though at one point I did drop out of high school in hopes of becoming a jazz musician, which I sorely wanted to do. In grade 9 and10 I had discovered the work of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra, Charlie Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders, et al. I loathed regimented learning and I longed to make a go of it as a musician, [but] I was just hopeless, and besides I was breaking my parents’ hearts dropping out of school, [so] I relented. But my experience of the beginnings of what became free jazz influenced my ideas on art fundamentally, and I continued to follow jazz avidly and in particular that which is sometimes called “spiritual jazz”: the later work of Coltrane (Sun Ship, Om, Interstellar Space, and Kulu Sé Mama, with the extraordinary piece “Welcome” that simply makes one shiver), Albert Ayler (Spiritual Unity and the stunning piece “Bells"), Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I have no doubt whatsoever that deep engagement with this music laid the foundation for what I understand art to be.
I do think Bill Gilliam did a wonderful job, and I am grateful to you for highlighting it. He is a jazz musician, with an interest in electronic forms, and a fine training in composing for film (he studied with John Williams). More significantly yet, he is generally favourable to the idea that true art evokes a sense of the wonder of the luminous particular. He was also wonderfully able to create a dialogue between more “traditional” musical forms (perfectly appropriate in a film that, towards the end of restarting history, seeks out what remains of traditional cultures) and more abstract “soundscape” forms. Finally, he studied at the Berklee College of Music, which began life as the Schillinger House, and which was for many years an institution that offered instruction in the Schillinger System of Music Composition — it had moved away from that by the time that Gilliam studied there, but I can tell you from my experiences at Ryerson that any institution is fundamentally affected by its DNA.
I’d like to make an additional comment on the sound. I had always been somewhat dissatisfied by the mix that I did for Lamentations: dozens of tracks had to be mixed down to the final aural composite, and I did not feel that I did this well. When I was informed that TIFF had selected the film for Canada on Screen and that a digital restoration would be produced, I contacted Library and Archives Canada to let them know about my unhappiness with the sound. In fact, I was simply requesting that they give priority to preparing the transfer, so that I would have the digital video in time to try to do some “sweetening” of the sound. I really didn’t hope for much, but I thought that digital tools might be able to improve it marginally. When the digital restoration arrived, I was astonished — the incredible people at LAC (Greg Boa, Paul Gordon, and Tina Harvey) had done an amazing job! I think the colour on this digital restoration is wonderful, but what stunned me most was the quality of the sound. They had obviously done a lot of work on it themselves, and it was way beyond anything I hoped for: details of the sound that had been muffled in my mix were now crystal clear.
To extend a bit from the question of electronics in terms of music, can you speak a little bit about the themes of technology that runs through the film? One of the most hypnotic images in the film for me is that of a robot in a laboratory performing a repeated, menial task.
The theme of technology — and, more specifically, the idea that technology has become an agent of oppression — is central to The Book of All of Dead, as it is to The Book of Praise, the cycle I have been working on since completing The Book of All the Dead.
I have often used garden imagery in my ruminations on technology, [since] etymologically, the garden is connected with paradise — our word “paradise” derives from the old Iranian word for a walled enclosure. An era’s gardens tell us much about the period’s mentality. It’s not surprising then, that if the conceptual edifice of the modern age was pretty much completely assembled by the 17th century, 17th-century gardens do much to reveal the character of that mindset. Starting from the 17th century, and in a development largely gingered by the famous French gardener André Le Notre, gardens became increasingly geometrically organized spaces: even plants and bushes were cut into geometrical forms (triangles, spheres, cones, pyramids). The typical French garden consisted of a geometric parterre and sculptural forms (often fountains) placed at regular, harmonic intervals (harmonic theory was especially important in French Renaissance aesthetics). French Renaissance gardens speak of humans’ will to control and regulate nature, to shape nature to force it into accord with abstract, non-organic ideals. [My essay] “The Cinema We Need” is all about the damaging effects of that will to mastery, and it offers proposals [toward] overcoming it.
Can you speak about some of the specific locations in the film? As a project that foregrounds a refusal of narrative, I wondered if the decision to film in Monument Valley was in any way intended as a response to this history of the western, arguably the most archetypal genre in American narrative cinema.
First, on the use of the imagery of Monument Valley, of course I was aware of its place in the American narrative cinema’s imaginary. (I might say that I shot that footage a few miles from Monument Valley, but that it’s rather pedantic to point that out, since I was certainly thinking how much what I was seeing resembled images from John Ford films.) But its iconic significance results from its connections with a larger mythological structure.
Like almost every Canadian poet of my generation, I soaked up the ideas of Northrop Frye. Frye instructed us how the method could be applied to the interpretation of history — essentially, he showed us how it could be extended to become a method of anagogical interpretation (and that way of thinking folds back into Dantescan ideas, if indeed Dante is, as I believe, the author of that famous letter to Can Grande). The method came to use archetypal imagery (originally the source of this imagery was understood to be Biblical, but over time the sources were enlarged until they comprised mythos as a whole) and these archetypical images, which had their roots in fundamental human longings, were used as types, allowing us to interpret literary images and even real-world events (antitypes) through their similarity with these types; further, types allow us to understand these antitypes through their relation both to history and to the life to come.
That way of understanding history and contemporary reality is central to Lamentations. It should be clear from the fact that the film includes passages from the Biblical Book of Lamentations: for example, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary” (1:1). That is the type that allows us to understand many antitypes the film includes.
In the American imaginary, the West was understood as paradise, and the trek to the West, which involved crossing the desert, as an antitype of the journey described in the Book of Exodus. The deserts of the America Southwest and the surreal, lush vegetation of California appear in just that way in both Illuminated Texts and Lamentations. Another specific type/antitype for the images resembling Monument Valley in Lamentations is the image that appears in that part of the Inferno that describes the Seventh Circle of Hell, the image of the desert of abominable sands, a scorching burning desert that is home to those who acted with violence against nature (our technological violence against nature is one of the themes of The Book of All the Dead). It is filled with the ruins of palaces and cities (like Lamentations), and crusaders appear there (think of images of military planes in Lamentations, and, for that matter, the desert sequences of Illuminated Texts), who wander aimlessly throughout the region (it is a dead world, after all). Sandstorms blow while smoldering ashes rain from the sky. A little beyond the abominable deserts we see the walking damned. That’s the sense of death-in-life that, I hope, Lamentations conveys.
I hope this serves as an example of the principle of the palimpsest applied to particular images in The Book of All the Dead: my images of Monument Valley are superimposed onto American literature and film’s images of that location, and, more generally, the desert — and those images are antitypes of the Biblical type, but also resonate with Dantescan images of the desert. Does this require participation, and knowledge, from a viewer/reader/listener? Of course it does! But don’t we just ordinarily expect that of a poem? Since we were just on the topic of the desert of abominable sands, where Geryon appears, I can legitimately ask whether Ann Carson’s Autobiography of Red doesn’t expect the same of its readers? Nobody would wonder about Ann Carson’s asking that of her readers. Why should film poets’ expectations be any different? But here we have a government-sponsored film culture which wants to tell potential viewers that film poets cannot ask that — that, essentially, acts to impoverish our experience of film by eliminating the poetic from film and making it all about identity politics.
But there is more. A phase of Western history — a phase when a certain mentality was dominant — came to a brutal, violent end with the 20th century’s two world wars; that’s the point of Illuminated Texts. Lamentations follows up on that with an effort to get back to origins, to restart history. The film starts in Europe, and, like the ironized cowboy “hero” of the fourth reel of Bruce Baillie’s Quick Billie (another text that The Book of All the Dead overwrites), travels “ever westward,” across the Atlantic, through the Maritimes, across America, and then southward, to the land of the great civilizations that were, in the era in which they flourished, outside the European orbit: the civilizations of the Aztecs and Olmecs, and the Mayans. But that journey back to “origins” is also one that Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg took. Lamentations offers a reprise of their vision quests.
Finally, I point out that, for McLuhan, Frye, Olson, and Ginsberg, this ricorso was back to a stage of oral communication — and for McLuhan and Frye, the electric media had revitalized the power of orality. Seeing Brakhage’s films that evening in New England made me realize, suddenly, how right they were.
In ways, the film’s themes seem concerned with forcing reconciliations between a series of dialectics: the sacred and the secular, the body and the soul, human and then technological. Does the film’s form — with the use of overlapping sound and text, as well as double exposures and superimpositions — play into this?
I go back to Northrop Frye’s idea of the monomyth that Western literature endlessly reworks — a myth that conveys our feelings of having been expelled from Paradise, from a place where humans felt they belonged, a realm that was fitted to their needs and their pleasures, and speaks of our longing to return to the Garden and to be reintegrated into a nature that allows them to sense the body’s belonging to nature.
A Gathering of Crystals makes explicit my views about the importance of what is sometimes referred as Adamite imagery (which plays such an important role in the poetry and illustrations of William Blake, a poet whose writings Northrop Frye so splendidly illuminated), imagery of people who engage in what are essentially sacramental acts of charitable nudism: in the Garden, Adam and Eve were naked and they were not ashamed. Paradise will be regained when we return to that Adamic state, in which we accept our incarnation as a sort of dispensation, a divine form (human beings are created in the image of the Divine). Sacramental acts are performed in imitation of this hope for what will come at the endtime — so many groups over the years (William Blake belonged to one such group) concluded that their religious rites should imitate the condition to which we will return, when we will assume again our paradisiacal bodies, naked and splendid and offered in charity to one another. It struck me that the Freikörperkultur images that provide the source images for much of that film are really acting out that imaginary: the participants may or may not have been aware of the sacramental character of the acts they engaged in (actually, a good portion of the literature published by members of the Freikörperkultur movement suggest that indeed they were), but that sense is implicit in the images, and it is that that makes them so sweet, so touching, and so profound.
But my ideas on the body and technology are connected with a transformation in radical culture that occurred in the 1960s. That change manifested itself in the writings of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, and, above all, Norman O. Brown (especially in Love’s Body). In that period, a number of thinkers — all influenced by Giambattista Vico — became disenchanted with the prescriptions for economic salvation traditionally offered by the Left. Like Marxist-Leninists, these thinkers (and they represented a change that characterized much of a generation of revolutionaries) believed that the social order, as it had developed under that impact of industrialization, and the capitalist system itself were utterly untenable. But they came to doubt that a transformation of the economic order alone would produce the conditions that would allow for widespread (or even, in the most utopian forms of this dream, nearly universal) human flourishing. Remarkably, the remedy they prescribed for the malaise of modernity was a revolution of consciousness (the Beats, too, shared this belief). Vico had suggested the connections between forms of language and forms of consciousness, and from Vico they took the idea that this revolution of consciousness would be effected by the widespread embrace of poetic language/poetic thinking.
As Heidegger did, they suggested that technocracy and its will-to-mastery had sickened thought. Thought would become vital again, by eschewing technocracy and embracing a poetic mode of thinking. It is rather difficult to remember now, since so much has changed, but in the 1960s more conventional Left thinkers had difficulties accepting this: the conventional Marxist doctrine on technology is it provides the basis for overcoming scarcity, which is a primary mechanism by which class differences are created and propagated. Left orthodoxy contended that anyone who suggested that technology might have a role in oppression was speaking against the interests of the working class. Technology would help eliminate scarcity and so overcome poverty — to raise questions about technology was to sow doubts about the mechanism that was most likely to end class opposition. To speak against technology was to speak against the proposition that workers should get their fair share.
Much of the response to the polemical tract I published almost two decades later, “The Cinema We Need,” still revealed that conviction: one key “leftist” Canadian thinker opined that to attribute any independent agency to technology (let alone a role in opposition) was simply evidence that I had gone crazy, for, it is obvious, only humans can be agents. But hippie “back-to-the-land” movements, and more generally, movements that hoped to foster an ecological consciousness, reflected the development, among at least a few, of an alternative form of dissent. And even if most, through scrupulous deliberation, came to the conclusion that a wholesale rejection of technology was an unrealistic antidote to the evils of technomachia (Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” is the best-known exception), the fantasy of a more intimate society, an organic community of non-coercive relations, that does without technology (and, sometimes, without clothes), became a key element in the new dissent’s imaginary. (That compelling fantasy is the subject of my video A Gathering of Crystals.)
Furthermore, language itself became an issue. The beginning of the 20th century gave rise to a media-saturated environment, and the clamour that emanated from that new, second nature was soon intensifying at a staggering pace, becoming ever more shrill, insistent, and deceptive. Experiencing a hallucination publicitaire became the ordinary reality of consciousness, converting ordinary life into a debased, bargain-basement surrealism that revels in the most tawdry, banal, narrowly imaginative, life-denying desires. Paradoxically, that media cacophony nullified language’s immediate corporeal effects even as it coarsened the sensibilities: news broadcasts disseminated images and sounds of the war in Vietnam (during which more bombs were dropped every year on the small country of Vietnam than were dropped by all parties during the entirety of World War II). Cold War rhetoric filled classrooms, journals, public spaces, and the media. Language lost its purchase on reality, as it became external and mechanical; language is a machine that operates thinking from outside ourselves.
The Surrealists might have lauded automatism as a route to a higher form of understanding, but by mid-century, many were questioning any form of knowledge which did not begin with searching into the self, a de-creation of the self, and a consequent identification of inner energies with the all-pervasive energy field that was beyond us, guiding the entire universe. The writing of the Toronto School of Communications (Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, and the young scholars they mentored: Donald Theall, Hugh Kenner, and Walter Ong) made abundantly clear the importance of the question of language and the costs of its losing its vital connection with the body, and so with truth. Language, it was clear, had become associated with abstract thinking — a point the Toronto School made insistently in the many allusions to Vico — and abstract thinking had become calculative, instrumental, and administrative thinking. Language could be brought back to truth only through acknowledging its potential for poiesis (making): “Verum esse ipsum factum,” wrote Vico.
For me, Rexroth was especially important in this regard. He was well-versed in East Asian religions and philosophy. Rexroth’s interest in fostering an ecological consciousness that would recognize the commonality of self and other, and of human being and nature, his commitment to the inviolability of the luminous particular which provided a key basis for his poetics, his intractable opposition to the social lie, his critique of “quantification” of nature and persons, his celebration of the erotic as an energy that brings together all beings, and his ethics of non-grasping, developed out of his interest in Chinese poetry, painting, and philosophy. He didn’t seek to dissolve the material particular into a spiritual One: for him, the particular is the ultimate. The particular is all there is — I repeat that idea in “The Cinema We Need.” Rexroth’s reverence for the being of the particular extended to the human body and to the erotic energy that fuses self and other and, ultimately, self and nature. Eros connects the ecological, political, and metaphysical themes of Rexroth’s mature poetry. Love provides the basis for Rexroth’s Anglo-Catholic personalism: it is love that instructs the completed person in his responsibility for all in a world that technology has rendered violent.
You also mention, quite perceptively, the overlapping sounds and superimposed images in Lamentations. The form I conceived from the outset for The Book of All the Dead is that of palimpsest: my cycle of films “overwrites” the Cantos, which in turn overwrites Dante’s Commedia and Homer’s Odyssey. No one seems to notice, but I announced that interest in the very first film in the cycle, Breath/Light/Birth, a work that brings one image (mostly of a baby being born) through another (mostly the mother’s form). In a palimpsest, some text from earlier tracts appears through the gaps and openings of the superimposed texts — we could say that they disrupt and bother the surface text. Across the length of The Book of All the Dead, I tried to conceive and to realize a variety of forms that would be analogous. The use of imagery, written text superimposed into the image, spoken text that occurs at the same time as the image, music — all compete for your attention. Sometimes you give your attention to one, sometimes one text “interferes” with others, as do the different layers of text in a palimpsest. I think that The Book of All the Dead as a whole can be looked at profitably as an effort to contrive and present an ever-expanding range of forms analogous to a palimpsest. (Schillinger’s interference patterns, which were so crucial in the composition of [my] Exultations (In Light of the Great Giving), I came to understand as forms related to palimpsests.) Lamentations represents one stage of that effort.
You develop many of the ideas that inform Lamentations in your essay “The Cinema We Need,” also from 1985, in which you come out quite strongly against the then-burgeoning new wave of narrative cinema in Canada. Taking this Canada on Screen series as an opportunity to look back, has your estimation of [those] works changed at all since?
The Plotinian allusion embedded in the title Alone (All Flesh Shall See It Together), the film I am working on at present, might be taken as confirmation that I still embrace the idea of a participatory state of consciousness. I began formulating these ideas in high school, as I was reading the work of the Beat poets, Rexroth (a major influence on the Beats), and Charles Olson, the great theorist of open-form poetics. A couple of weeks ago, I read The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats, which is Bill Morgan’s effort to piece together transcripts from five iterations of a course on that topic into a very convincing survey in a half-written, half-oral form. Reading the book flooded me with memories of my youth, but the principal one was that I had awakened then to a sense of break in the ordinary form of consciousness and the experience of a larger consciousness. The Beat writers and especially Kenneth Rexroth gave me guidance to understanding that. Since that time, I have been convinced that artistic form is intimately linked to exploration into the nature of consciousness, in all its varieties: a more theoretical statement I composed around the same time as “The Cinema We Need” appeared under the title “Forms of Cinema: Models of Consciousness.” The manifesto form of “The Cinema We Need” mandated a rather pithy form of writing, and I suppose I wish that these ideas about participatory consciousness were more fully developed. I think few people were aware of their centrality to that piece. But then again, they were preoccupied with proving that I was mentally ill for saying that technology had become an agent of oppression.
My views on narrative as a form of mastery — of technomachia — have changed not one iota. My views on the deleterious effects of new narrative have only sharpened and intensified over time. I think the new-narrative attack on more liberatory forms of cinema/consciousness resulted in muting the radical thrust of “vanguard” cinema. In the end, its privileging of conceptual templates turned so-called avant-garde cinema towards “good form,” with its conservative aesthetics. We’re back to the problems of Renaissance aesthetics and its ideas about imposing on nature a “good form” to make it accord with some quasi-mathematical ideal. That’s just about all we see today in “experimental” film events. Radical, “vanguard” cinema has become the solitary practice of isolated, marginalized, and scorned individuals. A radical cinema ceased to be a “cause.” I have taken to referring to the “Great Collapse” of 1989, which year witnessed the death throes of the radical cinema as a movement or a cause. Since then, the work that garnered attention seems to me formally hidebound, politically reactionary, emotionally sloppy, and spiritually suspect (at best).
But I must say, a few stalwart souls — like Oriol Sanchez, Stephen Broomer, and Tyler Tekatch, to cite three younger artists whom I invited to a conference this past summer in Sardinia on the topic of the “cinema del limite” — soldier on. But, sadly, all of them have a sense of being isolated, and long for a sense of community. I point out, too, that all of them are sustained by sense of reverence for the poetic.