Film as Experience - In Conversation with R. Bruce Elder
(originally published in 2007 in FilmPrint Magazine - a very interesting discussion of film in the larger scheme of things)
“Years ago, I used to tell people, only half facetiously, that I was a film maker because I wasn't a creative artist..”
So begins R. Bruce Elder, avant garde film maker, writer and long time professor at Ryerson University, currently Program Director of the Joint Graduate Programme in Communication & Culture between Ryerson and York Universities. His films have been shown at the AGO, MOMA, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in Berlin and Italy, among many other places, and among the accolades is a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Indpendent/Experimental Film and Video in 1981. For the last two years or so, Elder has been working on The Young Prince, a new film edging towards completion in which the very form and process point to an explanation of his half joking assertion. Like much of the work in Elder's 30+ year, 26 film catalogue, The Young Prince examines notions of transformation along alchemical themes.
“I've been working with a lot of tools that leave lots of scope for chance operations in my films,” he explains. “They (contain) two kinds of 'chance events'. I've been writing programs that assign processing to the images randomly. (In addition), we've been hand processing and treating the film a little roughly, so the fluctuations in chemistry are very evident. It's a dialogue between old technology and new technology.” Physical and digital transformations of the images echo the films central concerns. “With this fluctuating chemistry, ideas of energy move very much into the centre of the work. There's a long history of thought on energies within us related to energies of the cosmos, of bringing our energies into concordance with the cosmos.”
The grounding of his work in philosophies, along with reference to other art forms, is a central proposition in much of Elder's films – and his university lectures. The Young Prince is simply the culmination of a decades long process of thought. “I didn't have any designs on nature myself. I collect things. (In the earlier years of my career) I was able to work largely without ideas, and that's a rather blissful state, a state of no mind, as much as possible, to not allow ideas, conceptions to get in the way – to have no filter between me and the world. I used to take my camera everywhere and collect the gifts that were waiting for me. But that came to an end. In the early '90's, it became apparent I could no longer do that, I had reams and reams of film... The way I'd been working became completely unaffordable. I thought about quitting film, making videos, but film really does evoke in me the feelings of being in a church. I do associate the light of film with a kind of sacred light – similar to that of gothic cathedrals, and even when videos are projected, I don't feel that same kind of sacred resonance.
It occurred to me that this interest in light as being something sacred could be connected with another longstanding interest in number and certain harmonies.. Musical patterns can be represented in mathematical terms. Pythagorean ideas interested me as well – harmony + light + number. Since I was quite young, I wondered whether light could be represented that way. Around the same time I was wondering about this came the advent of personal computers. I put together computers early on, and it occurred to me they might have aesthetic applications. I looked at other fields of mathematics that would interest me – refractive geometry, self similarity.. It really seemed to me that I'd found the solution to my crisis.”
His output as a film maker had been prodigious, ten between 1975's Breath/Light/Birth, and 1981's “1857” (Fool's Gold), including the LA Film Critics Association's nod to The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1979). Critics of his work found the earlier pieces slower and intellectually dense, in contrast to his own assessment. Since “1857” (Fool's Gold), his films have been noted as having a more visceral quality. In 1982, he began to release what would become a sprawling 42 hour cycle of 12 films, The Book of All the Dead, based on Dante's Inferno, beginning with Illuminated Texts, then following with a series of Lamentations and then Exultations.
“I began using algorithms, composed music, but I had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. I wasn't any longer simply collecting these gifts I'd encountered on my path, I was more and more a traditional artist. But, then I began to find (John) Cage's ideas interesting. His work had the advantage of suggesting how one could allow work to come forth, but not impose on it. If you begin to use repetitive chance operations, if you let your work to a certain extent be decided by them, it turns the work over to a natural process again at a different level.”
The Young Prince is fifth in a new cycle of films begun with A Man Whose Life Was Full of Woe Has Been Surprised by Joy (1997), and he's been aided in the labour intensive process by a team of assistants, with some help from the engineering department at Ryerson. The new cycle is called The Book of Praise, after the Presbyterian hymnal.
“I did talk myself into believing that film is a way of imparting energy. I became convinced that strong pieces have the effect of bringing the energies in you into some kind of harmony – I'm convinced that's how Baroque composers understood their polyphonies. The chemical and electrical processing I've been doing has been a way of reflecting on this kind of construct.
One way in which we're aware of this transmission of energies is in the erotic..we hope for that transmission of energies.” The body, and nude human forms, including the frankly erotic, are often the base subject of his work. He sees his reverent view of that aspect of humanity as standing in opposition to much of current thought. “I'm absolutely appalled at the way the body is represented. What's troubling is this idea that our flesh bodies aren't somehow adequate, flesh as being unfitted to the future, that what (we should be) is a mesh of electronics, machine and flesh.” Elder includes his holistic view of sexuality and the body in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, with respect to Hebrew thought. “The natural world was brought about from divine energy, and manifests divine energy. Because of its association with soul, the body is something we should accept, not (consider) as something available for endless transformation. The natural world possesses an order we must respect, and not impose.”
The artist as not imposing, the film maker as not creating. “It's allowing nature to bring forth works of art. We only create the conditions.”