Interview with Bruce Elder
Governor General Award inVisual and Media Arts of Canada 2007
Written by: Susana Salinas
Web URL: http://
Personal interview about how B.Elder became a filmaker and how started his long life friendship with
My first encounter with Stan Brakhage
was a momentous occasion in my life. I had been studying philosophy to that point, but a year or so before I first met him,I decided I did not want the life of an academic -- and there is little else one can do with a Ph.D. in philosophy.
To be sure, there were several factors that convinced to abandon my efforts to obtain an academic post in philosophy and to set myself up as a philosopher. For one thing, I knew that the effort would almost certainly be futile. Just months after I arriving at the the University of Toronto
as a graduate student, the Graduate Program Director called a meeting of all the graduate students in the departments, to which he came, equipped with charts: they told the story of how many retirements there would be across North America in the next decade, how many faculty might be expected to become tired of teaching, or tired of philosophy, and decide that business career might be best after all, how many might be expected to succumb to terminal diseases, and how many North American students would graduate with Ph.D.'s in philosophy over the next decade.
The evidence was amassed to demonstrate that it would be miracle if any of us would get an academic post. That demonstration itself would have been enough to make any level-headed person decide that, if he loved philosophy, he would have to persue it as an avocation, and that he had better find some way of supporting himself outside the academic. More importantly, almost all my sisters and brothers gravitated toward academic careers, and, as I fancied myself the outsider, I wanted to do something different.
I wanted to be artist or, as I prefer, a 'maker'; specifically, I wanted to be a poet. But writing poetry rarely pays the bills, so I had to come up with some way of keeping the wolf away from the door.I decided I had two possibilities: I could apply my skills in mathematical logic, by taking up computer programming, or I could m ake educational movies -- movies on "How to blow glass"
, or "How to use your router"
or "How to make a weld"
. I had learned a little COBOL
on the job, working at the Steel Company of Canada
, but had heard that FORTRAN
was much preferable as ascientific/mathematical language, so enrolled in a night school class in Fortran at McMaster
But I am also have a bias towards towards craft practices, and even if the sorts of films I wanted to make were rather modest, I nevertheless wanted to do them skillfully. Since I had no background in photography, I began taking night school classes in filmmaking at Ryerson
while I was doing graduate work in philosophy at the Unversity of Toronto
during the day.
The person giving the course, Elvino Sauro
, was reluctant to let me into the filmmaking working, because I hadn't taken the predecessor lecture course in film technology. I offered him a challenge: let me write the examination the students in that class had written, and if I scored better than the students who were let into the workshop, he would allow me in. He agreed, I rushed back to the Unversity of Toronto
, checked the card catalogue (those were the days!) and found that the library in the Medical School had two books on film technology: Joseph Mascelli's"The Five C's of Cinematography"
and Raymond Spottiswood's"The Technique of Film"
I got them from the libary, read them through, memorized as much of them as I could in a weekend, and then went back and wrote the examination. I still recall that I gave it too him in the faculty lounge, he took it away to another table and marked it (it was a multiple choice examination), and then came back with an ever so sour look on his face. But he kept his bargain, and I was in. While I doing this night class in photography, I learned that Ryerson
was opening up what the called a "graduate diploma"
-a fourth year for graduates of their three- year program in film or photography or for people who already held a university degree. (In essence, they were getting ready to offer four-year programs.)
I decided it would be worth my while to enrol. The tenor of the time favoured "free" or "non-structured"
education. Faculty were called resource people. Essentially, they gave you a key to a film editing room,hundreds of feet of free film and sound-stock, film processing and film printing. I ended up getting thousands of feet, since a number of the students of the program couldn't be bothered using up their supply, and the program director ended up giving their allocation to me. (Not every was slothful, to be sure four out of the fifteen people in this program have gone on to significant carrers in photogaphy, film and media.)
I spent a year shooting and editing a film, getting occasional advice from the resource people. When the year was about half over, the program director asked me to stay on, to set up courses in film history and film theory for the four year program they were in the process of developing. I didn't have a lot of options, so I decided that, despite my aversion to teaching, it would be fine to take the position and to use it as a base to establish my filmmaking business.
There was one hitch: I hadn't ever taken a course in film studies, and I was supposed to set up a suite of such courses. Reading "Filmmakers' Newsletter"
I learned that a Summer Institute
in New England
was offering summer graduate courses in film, and one of them was in Teaching Film.
It was a wonderful institute, operated by a consortium of New England universities
, including Boston University
, Hampshire College
. The school was a much a summer camp as anything else, and in one of the last summers, if not the last summer, of the hippy movement, it was almost paradisical: a wonderfully communal, wonderfully open, wonderfully adverturous environment.
My parents loaned an automobile, and drove down, my family was quite poor, so I'd never really been away from Toronto
before. We stayed the night in Boston
, and ended up in a sex hotel in what was known as the Combat Zone
. The next day we travelled to New Hampshire
, to a small college in the woods. We unloaded the car and went out to survey where we would be spending the next weeks.
In no time, a voluptous, bosomey young women walked up to my wife and me, and inquired: "Is yours an open marriage".
I was enrolled in a course in literature and film,taught by George Bluestone
, and my wife was enrolled "Teaching Film Studies"
, taught by the Summer Institute's
organizer, Gerald O'Grady
, who remains a friend to this day. Richard Leacock
was teaching documentary filmmaking (my wife took his course the following summer), Ed Emshwiller
was teaching videomaking, Stan Vanderbeck
taught alternative presentation formats, it was quite a wonderful group.
Each faculty member presented his work in the course of the first work. The third evening there was presentation by a filmmaker who had written an article I read a few months earlier, but was otherwise unknown to me. He appeared, spoke in a fascinating vatic manner, offering a sort of manifesto for true cinema that included allusions to Ezra Pound
, and showed his first work. He spoke in a similar vein, then showed the next. I was seized by his work. He had done in cinema everything (and more) that I wanted to do with poetry, and it seemed all the more novel exactly because it was done with film. I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
The next day, I made sure I introduced myself to the filmmaker who, of course, was Stan Brakhage
. Within five minutes he introduced me to Hugh Kenner's "The Pound Era"
. I started attending his classes, talks on and presentations of "The Songs"
. That week I talked the school administator into floating me a loan to purchase a Bolex
camera, with a set of lenses (including an Angenieux
zoom lens), a matte box, a variable speed motor, and a 400' magazine, Brakhage
has taught at this Summer Insititute
the year before, and had inspired a high school teacher to outfit himself with a complete camera rig, but in the intervening months, the teacher. The price for this used equipment, which I use to the this day, was extremely good; nonetheless, since that day, so many years ago I have wondered what administrator would ever loan a still unemployed person the money to purchase such equipment, knowing that in a few days he would be on the other side of the border, and beyond easy reach by the law.
I returned to Ryerson
, resolved that I would have to make a go of teaching (I knew that there would be no more income from filmmaking of this sort than there is in writing poems, and the work costs a lot more to make). Of course, I have come to enjoy teaching enormously, but in truth, I entered the profession reluctantly, and would never have done so, had I not encountered Brakhage
that day. However, we didn't become friends then. Over the next decade and half, I'd see Brakhage
from time to time, likely once a year, at a film conference or a screening. A couple of times we had him up to Ryerson
, and I introduced him. He was also extremely polite and scupulous about acknowledging our acquaintance.
One time was especially memorable: he came to Toronto
to present "The Text of Light"
at the Art Gallery of Ontario
. Michael Snow
and Joyce Wieland
were in the audience. Stan
from their days in New York City
, and he also knew Kathy
and me. He suggest that we all go out for coffee and deserts, and a University of Toronto
type who was friends with his host for the trip suggested, typically for UofT
types, that we go to Courtyard Cafe
, a completely unaffordable restaurant. At the time, Joyce
was making "The Far Shore"
, and explained the tribulations she was facing, as woman, trying to make a feature film: the funders insisted that she had have male as executive producer, on the assumption that a woman couldn't handle the sum of money required to make a feature film. Michael
talked shop, about trying to rescue footage for which the negative had become lost -Stan
make a dupe negative from his workprint using a good liquid gate printer. We finished, the bill came (each paying his own share). When Michael
saw the bill for Joyce
and him, he blanched, then remarked, "Ah well, easy come, easy go"
and I offered to drive Stan
back to his hotel. He confessed to being relieved to be off the hook, at last: in this period, Stan
had become convinced that structural film was an academic practice and had taken to saying that in discussions after screenings of his films. The figure whom he had identified as the exemplar of this academic tendency in filmmaking was Michael Snow
(You can read the comments to this effect he made at Millennium Film Workshop
in New York
in Millennium Film Journal.
His explanation of his difficulties with Snow
's work provided the beginning of an interesting discussion, for I couldn't allow his views to go unchallenged. On the way back to the holel, Stan
asked me asked me what works by Canadian experimental filmmakers he should see while he was Toronto
-- he was always very curious about other filmmakers' works, as he saw the part of him seemed to felt that the small band of film artists, wherever they might be, formed a sort of guild, united by common craft and a common hope (that film could take its place as a great advanced art).
I told him about Jack Chambers
' great film, "The Hart of London"
. He did take a look at it, and, as I expected, he was extremely impressed. He got ahold of Chambers'
telephone number (from the Art Gallery of Ontario
), called him and struck up a friendship. From then on, Brakhage
championed the film, and he was very effective in getting the film known.
As courteous as Stan
was in his dealings with me, he had his reservations. He later told a class at Ryerson
that in the first years of our acquaintance he kept hearing rumours about my films and their growing length. He also confessed that he was convinced that I couldn't possibly be a film artist, for my manner was all too professorial -he imagined that I was one more academic filmmaker who made passionless, bloodless films, probably using some preconceived system that would allow me to avoid the demand that imagination be, instant by instant, engaged in setting the film's ever altering course. However, we both invited to arts event in Miami, Florida. Stan
was ever gracious, and he had a policy of turning up for other experimental filmmakers'presentations when they shared invitations, for a common time, to a festival or screening series. He confessed to appreciatitive that the event was showing my longest films to that date (four and a half hours long), but only a half hour film and one hour film on one program and a three hour long film on another. Stan
showed up for all them all, hailed me as a discovery (it was all quite marvellous) and we struck up a friendship.
A month later, he was in Toronto
, at Ryerson
, for a lecture. I had suggested he be invited, but when the organisers heard that Stan
had started saying very positive things about my filmmakers, they closed rank to exclude from all the invitation only events. I wasn't even asked to introduce him, something of a first for me. In fact, they kept me so far out of the loop that I wasn't even certain when he was going to be in Toronto
and had accepted the offer of screening at the National Gallery of Canada
on the weekend of his visit.
I was there on the first day of his visit, however, and attended his lecture/screening. I realized soon enough that Ryerson
hadn't adequately arranged to host his visit, he was staying from a Friday through to the following Tuesday, and asked a mature student, Marilyn Jull
, who was a research assistant on a book I was doing, to make certain that he wasn't abandoned, something that was quite important, inasmuch as Stan
had separated from his wife less than a year before, and he was needing company at the time.
I went off to Ottawa
, and when I got back, it was evident that Stan
had taken to each other. That was November, 1987. In July 1988 Stan
came up to Toronto
, essentially to court Marilyn
. However, he had also promised himself to look at all my films, so, he spent a good part of his 'holiday'
watching all my films in order. He was so very positive about them. On three or four evenings, after spending nearly the whole day at the Distribution Centre
looking at my films, he called me to discuss details of this films he had seen.
We also went to visit with Jim Tenney
and Udo Kasemets
, both of whom I knew professionally, but now I was meeting as a colleague and friend. I think it was then that we really became close, a closeness we never lost. Stan
knew, however, that there were issues that separated my films from his: for reasons I outlined in "Image & Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film"
, I remain committed to some for of representation in hotographic/cinematographic images, and at this point in his life, Stan
was already moving toward the abstract, painted work that occupied an increasing large portion of his later work.
When he finished looking at the last sections of "The Book of All the Dead"
that I had finished by that time, I picked him, to go out for drink. He announced he was going to embark on a monograph, to be entitled, "The Dominion of Picture"
, which would engage these differences. He hoped I might contribute. A couple of weeks later, a beautifully written poetic statement about the energetics of film arrived in the mailbox, those energetics provided the ground for an argument for repudiating 'picture'
, by which Brakhage
meant a collection of nameable things.
I wrote back questioning his assumption that meaning evolves as mental energy, at first incohate, takes form and becomes, through a process involving several stages, a first a stable image, which then becomes associated with language. He replied, revealing among other things, that he wanted had changed the title of the monograph to "The Domain of Picture"
. Soon enough, I realized Stan
was on a roll, and my place was to encourage to lay out his argument concerning the character of a prime energy/prime matter, close to erotic energy, that drives thought.
He completed the monograph, having changed its title once more to "The Domain of Aura"
, a work I think is utterly extraordinary. Some initially discouraging response caused him to file the piece away, though I understand that when he was near his end, he told Marilyn
he would like to see it published. I hope someday it is, because it is a very valuable statement of the aesthetic ideas that drove the work of his later years.