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Verbi-Voco-Visual: An Interview with R. Bruce Elder

Francisco Rojas   •    28.07.2023


Not so long ago, the cinema of R. Bruce Elder seemed somewhat like a myth. Many young cinephiles became aware of his work thanks to Stan Brakhage’s 1992 list for the (now infamous) Sight and Sound poll. In his list, Brakhage included some classic names with various degrees of recognition within the canon; Cocteau, Eisenstein, Fischinger, Eggeling, and Marie Menken, as well as other directors such as Jack Chambers, Andrew Noren, Phil Solomon, and Peter Herwitz. One of the most “obscure” names (at the time, and even recently) within the list was R. Bruce Elder, who was listed along with his entire cycle of films, titled The Book of All The Dead.


Along with the near impossibility of seeing avant-garde cinema on celluloid outside the northern hemisphere, R. Bruce Elder’s films weren’t available digitally. Websites like IMDB, letterboxd, and even rateyourmusic had entries for his work but they almost had no activity at all, except for a couple of users, a few from America, and probably a very lucky somebody from Spain who was able to watch a film or two at Xcèntric in Barcelona. R Bruce Elder’s very comprehensive own website was basically the only way many of us could know for certain, or at the very least convince ourselves that the films did in fact exist in some form.


But things have changed in the last five, six years or so. Some screenings in Mexico and Spain and the (evidently not planned) digital availability of Elder’s films have, for better or worse, given him and his work notoriety that’s impossible to ignore around the globe. At least within the “experimental community”. His films are no longer a fantasy, we no longer have to imagine how they would look, now his work can be seen, read, and heard, and undoubtedly his cinema is something that isn’t made anywhere or by anybody else. We’re talking about films that deal with epics of artistic and mythological tradition and a journey through the human mind and expression in a way that can't be properly put into words.


One of his films, Illuminated Text, was recently screened at Santiago de Chile last July 4th. A film that, in the words of Seth Feldman, is an “encyclopedic” piece. Elder’s first calling, poetry, is present throughout the entire film. There are many texts and quotes over the image; from poets, writers, philosophers, and so on. Along with that, we have a ceaseless voice-over narration that makes the whole experience something that is, in Elder’s own words, impossible to “grasp”. It is a film willing to complicate itself, collapse, and be a real reflection of what it’s truly trying to represent.

Bruce Elder, very kindly conceded this interview to discuss his life and work, a few days before the Santiago de Chile screening took place. Very faithful to his own films, he exudes energy and enthusiasm towards art and has a special affection, a necessity to recognize and highlight his influence, the people who have helped him, inspired him, influenced him, and joined him throughout his career.

Francisco Rojas: You have previously mentioned to me, your interest in religious philosophy and your work as a poet. How did filmmaking come about?


Bruce Elder: It was really by accident. I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto in philosophy, which I absolutely love. I was studying Indian philosophy there with one of the top scholars of Indian Buddhism; I had already begun publishing poetry and that was the path I wanted to follow. I suppose I imagined that what my future would be was getting a job as a teacher, teaching philosophy, and writing poetry. For example, people like Francis Sparshott, a great aesthetician at the University of Toronto, was also a great lover of poetry and was also publishing poetry. He is one of the great scholars of the aesthetics of dance. That was sort of the model that I was hoping to do, but not long after we started, my cohort arrived at the graduate school. The graduate program directors convened a meeting, and the meeting was basically telling us how many people in faculty and Ivy League schools in the United States would be retiring in the next few years and how many PhD graduates there were going to be from these universities. The long and the short of it was; ''you people won’t have a chance of getting a teaching job''.

I belong to the baby boom generation. The men who came back from World War II, and wanted to start a family. They'd had enough of death and killing and all of that. They wanted to start a life and have a family and so forth, and [this led] to a huge number of births in the years following World War II. That's the group that I belong to. So this meant that when I reached and went through high school, they had to enormously expand the number of places in high schools. When I reached university, they had to expand the number too. In fact, they had been planning for this. Before I attended, the departments had been taking on new faculty members and then when this wave moved through, the number of eligible people who would be going to university was going to decline. They staffed up, they raised the staffing levels, and then the number of students [declined]. So they were even worried about how they were going to keep the faculty. So the idea of new people getting hired was just out of the question. That was basically the story that they told us. 


I'm from a very poor family, a very, very poor family. And the idea of spending many years to get a PhD in Canada, in these years it was eight, eight and a half years. To spend that long studying, making a relatively low income, and then at the end, no prospect for a job just didn't seem to make sense.


So I asked myself, what am I going to do? How am I going to support my poetry? Ah! I got an idea! Rather than being a teacher, I'll make educational movies! And so while I was still at the University of Toronto, I enrolled in night classes at the school where I taught my entire life, now called Toronto Metropolitan University. In those days, it was Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. It wasn't a university, it was a vocational training college and I enrolled in night classes to try and learn how to make films, thinking that perhaps I'll start out making films about how to work your bandsaw, or how to use a router, for example. Maybe if the business works out, I'll be able to make science movies (as Stan Brakhage had by the way). So, that's how I could make a living. Then it turned out that they were offering a three-year diploma, and then they were going to offer an advanced diploma for people who were Ryerson graduates. So I decided to become a student there for a year.

Well, it turned out that their plans were to open a four-year program that would end up with four-year degrees that would be recognized. And they knew that if they were going to offer a four-year degree program, they'd have to offer courses in film studies: film history, film theory, et cetera. There hadn't been programs in film studies in Canada, so there weren't people that they could hire who had been offering film courses. So they asked me. I'd been writing,  I'd been publishing poetry, and I'd been doing some publishing in the area of aesthetics. They asked me if I'd stay and teach, so I thought, well, until I get the business set up, I can do that. The summer before I was to begin teaching, I began thinking, what am I going to teach? I haven't studied film studies! I better figure out what I can do. I read plenty of film theory and in the meantime, I enrolled as a student at Ryerson, I began reading film studies, in fact, just as a philosophy student at McMaster I had picked up Eisenstein's Film Form and the Film Sense, which was in the philosophy section, because there weren't film studies course, so it couldn't be in the film section, so they put it in the philosophy section, Jay Leyda had translated it. Anyhow, I'd read that as a work in aesthetics and was really impressed with Eisenstein's profundity.


Okay so, again, I wonder, what am I going to teach? I had some background in the key texts, but I was anxious. Until I came across an advertisement: “Graduate Studies in Media Criticism, Theory and Production in New England ''. The list of people that were going to be there was extraordinary! Ricky Leacock would be teaching documentary film. George Bluestone was going to be teaching literature in film. William Arrowsmith, who did great work on Antonioni, would be teaching Antonioni. Stan Vanderbeek was going to be there. Ed Emshwiller would be teaching. The year before we'd been there Diane Arbus had been teaching photography for example. So, an incredible list of people and I thought, okay, one of the courses that was being offered was teaching film studies. So I thought, Kathy, my wife, can go and teach film studies and I'll go and take the course on script writing. So we went there. The coordinator, the fellow who had set up the slate of courses was Gerald O’Grady. He was my major mentor in understanding film and media. [This is] absolutely crucial. Anyway, he was teaching film studies, in a way that should be done at all art schools, universities, film studies, and filmmaking courses; all the people who were makers had an evening presenting their own work. So Ricky Leacock did an evening presenting his documentaries. Shirley Clarke was also teaching there. I took a course with Shirley and she presented her work along with Wendy Clarke, her daughter, who was a very interesting video performance artist. But the third night we were there, maybe even the second, a fellow came through and presented his work, his poetic works: Western History, The Riddle of Lumen, Thigh Line Lyre Triangular. I've forgotten the entire slate. And literally, I said to Kathy at the time: “This is the new electric poetry. This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. When I go back to Ryerson. I have no intention of leaving and setting up a business. This is going to be the new poetry that I make. This will be the electric poetry”. Stan [Brakhage] was giving a course on his Songs cycle, and the Italian word for Songs would be “canti”. So the Songs, I think, are the most Poundian moments in his career. I think Pound had an enormous influence on Brakhage. He has testified to this. He used to almost always have a work by Pound with him when he was traveling. He was deeply involved in Pound's work. I develop this further in my book The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition. Anyway, I just saw that this was what I've been aspiring toward. 


Let me connect another dot here. Gerald O'Grady was a Mccluhanite. He was deeply convinced that Marshall McLuhan was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. His primary position was at the State University of New York at Buffalo, as it was called then. It's now called University at Buffalo. Strange name, as far as I'm concerned. But it's neither here nor there. 


Okay, so O’Grady was very interested in medieval studies. He'd later joke that he just dropped the evil part of the word and became a professor of media studies. And again, he was a great student of Marshall McLuhan. And what was Marshall McLuhan's background? Medieval and Renaissance. Early Renaissance studies. He's another medievalist, if you will, a medievalist who became a media scholar.


Anyhow, Buffalo is two hours away. You can drive to Buffalo in two hours and in fact, we began attending events at Buffalo conferences that he'd have and guest lectures that he'd have in. We also continued for three years to go to his sessions in New England and study with various people in his circle. There is a great book on these events that went on at the Center for Media Studies at the Center for Media Studies in Buffalo.  I don't know if you know the fellow Peter Weibel who set up the Institute for Media Studies in Karlsruhe, Germany, himself a filmmaker, became a media maker and then the German government brought him back. He taught in Buffalo for a while. The German government brought him back and gave him a lot of money to then establish the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien ZKM. They brought out a book along with an MIT Press called Buffalo Heads. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says the Center for Media Studies Buffalo was to the 60s and 70s or 80s what Black Mountain College was to the 30s and 40s.  Innovative artists like Olson, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Joseph Albers were Black Mountain students. Anyway, a great center, a great experiment in education for art and art-making, and encouraging very exploratory and avant-garde approaches in art and dance and literature. I think that's essentially true.


This became a key center for new ideas on education, and they were ideas that O'Grady, deeply influenced by Marshall McCluhan, was working out, and they influenced me deeply in my teaching. I considered it a great good fortune that I ended up at a school that was not yet formed as a university. They were trying to evolve in that direction. A lot of the faculty were people who had been brought in. They'd been photographers for newspapers, or they'd had commercial filmmaking, industrial movies, that sort of thing. Had been cameramen, had been cinematographers or whatever. They had industrial experience, but they hadn't been to university, and they weren't particularly keen on developing a curriculum for a university program (It was going to evolve into a university program). So I was able to play a role in shaping that curriculum, and it was really a curriculum that was grounded in media studies and in the interrelationship of poetry, cinema, dance, music, art, art history, and art theory.


So all of this became part of the program that was set up. And I think that is the way to teach film. I think the idea of having people taught: “here are the rules for narrative filmmaking, here's the style, here's what you have to do if you make a narrative film, you follow these rules, or you're doing the wrong thing.” I just think there's no point in that kind of education. 


Francisco Rojas: Between the two hemispheres. I suppose you could say there are two different ways of teaching cinema. We could argue that in North America there's this Robert Mckee kind of teaching in regards to film, very narrative oriented. “This is how you have to write your script, this is what needs to happen”. “These are the rules”, like you’ve just said.. And here in South America, we have a way of teaching that’s a result of the fact that almost all film programs started in the 2000s, at least here in Chile, because there weren't any film studies during the dictatorship, obviously. So most of the film study programs are from the last 30 years at most. So that created a sense of trying to catch up to other industries and also to keep the international interest in “our” local product, because, again, once Chilean filmmakers were able to make films again, they got some attention, and now we have to maintain that attention at all costs. We have to send touristic works to the Europeans, for the Europeans. This film will get you to Cannes, this film will get you to Berlin. And that also means picking an important theme, a subject that’s in fashion. Because today is the only important time, or so it seems. We make films that run for a few minutes and then disappear. If the film is so important today, if it has to get made now, if the window of opportunity is so small,  then it certainly won’t be as important tomorrow, or the day after that. Maybe it sounds a little absurd, but if the film got no use today, maybe it will have no use tomorrow, and yet at the same time, it will have the same effect all the same. It will always remain the same thing. It will have the same power or lack thereof, at least to its maker.


Bruce Elder: The truth is that the conception of what will be attractive immediately is rolled into the whole structure of predatory consumer capitalism. That's so much of what our whole educational system is being taken over by. It's a real fight to try and say: ''look, there are other values. There are values that are uplifting, and that arouse the spirit.''


It's the same thing that we were talking about earlier. When you look at a work by Michael Snow, Ed Emshwiller, or by Stan Brakhage, it just elicits a sense of wonder, and it does this by the way in which it gathers together all of the elements and shapes form out of this gathering in which everything relates to everything else in a perfectly fitting and harmonious way.


That's exactly the way that Plato talks about art in The Symposium. To go back to that, to say how deeply George Grant influenced me.

Francisco Rojas: You’ve just mentioned Brakhage. Like him, you also came from a poor family or background. Here are filmmakers that in a way, risked their livelihood to make what they really loved making. This is what's really important.


When you mention these capitalistic ideals overtaking the art world, I can’t help but think about the way younger artists seem to value their work and their own principles. My generation for example, and even younger generations, seem to discard aesthetic and personal ideals, as if the idea of having a particular vision that doesn’t align with a particular kind of success is seen as something obsolete, that has no place nowadays.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you keep feeding the industry, and the industry, in turn, will feed you (or so they say). It’s all about physical self-preservation instead of spiritual self-preservation, Making work that can only be important to the artist expressing himself, regardless of the effect it could have on the scene or even the industry is gone.


Bruce Elder: Yes, yes. I agree. It’s here too. It's in Toronto. It's in Canada. It's in North America. This sense of the experimental filmmaker wanting the same kind of commercial success as a rock star, you know, instant interest, instant gratitude, instant recognition, instant festival success, et cetera, et cetera. And of course, the workers suffer for that ambition. I'm absolutely convinced that every work of art is a response to other earlier works of art which have attracted one's devotion and elicited a degree of anxiety in the way that they seem to just be plunked down in the middle of the field. Brakhage especially, is very much this way. He seems to have done everything that you can do with experimental film!  I mean, literally. 


Francisco Rojas: I rewatched Dog Star Man, and especially in the Prelude I was as blown away as when I watched it for the first time, almost a decade ago. It’s as if it contains the entire history of experimental film. Here's Elder, Peter Gidal, Marie Menken, Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton. Every other great filmmaker I love is there, throughout those 25 minutes.


Bruce Elder: As I say, this sense at once of absolute awe and wonder and also anxiety. What is left for me to do? I'll tell you a funny Michael Snow story: Stan and I used to see each other from time to time, I’d go down when he had a screen in Boulder, nearly every year and he'd come up to Toronto for a screening nearly every year, too. Sometimes we'd see each other but in New York. Anyway, he came up to show The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him. I don't know if you've seen this work, it's an extraordinary, extraordinary work and it's definitely an old man's work. It's like, in many ways, like late Monet. I think we can talk about a late style in art and making and this is definitely an old man's work. In some ways, you can see an anticipation of death. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him is actually a quotation from Charles Dickens. Mr. Micawber is a character from one of his works. Choosing that for the title, you know, what he's looking forward to and this is an exaggeration of the same sort of short analysis; “Wavelength is a zoom across the room”. Yeah, it's that and a hundred other things as well that make it really interesting. Well, I'm describing The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him similarly, when I say it's a shot of water. He and Marylin would go every year to holiday in Parksville on Vancouver Island. Very beautiful area and quite undeveloped. So it's like going back out into nature. Stan would sit in the water and send me pictures of him sitting there holding his camera while wearing a bathing suit and the water rushing over him. And he'd take pictures of the water fluxing and changing and varying. So this is one image of water and another and another, and this is different. It's like a theme of variations and you just can't believe the variations! Does this guy never run out of ideas?! Like, “I could do this and this and this and this and this''. And it goes on for an hour and a half. Unbelievable, right?! 


So anyway, the film ended and there was no talk afterward. Kathy and I were sitting in the auditorium at Innis College and Michael Snow was sitting right behind us. Then the lights came on and we moved to the door. Michael Snow got to the doorway at the same time we did. He leaned over, and whispered: “Psst, psst! Bruce, Bruce! Do you want to buy a Bolex?”.


How could I ever go on shooting anything after this?! He’s done it all. Like, there's no point in me going out and shooting another film. “You want to buy a Bolex?”. That's the feeling we're talking about, right? Of course, he wasn't being serious, but it's a real statement of a real feeling that work, a masterpiece like this leaves you with, like, what's left for me to do? There's just nothing! He's done everything, man!


Francisco Rojas: I think at the same time, that's kind of liberating in the sense that this guy has done it all. Whatever I make, it's already there. So I rather just do whatever I want to do, having a personal experience with your work. 


Bruce Elder: You try to make a work that is a fitting response to the strong work that you've seen. I believe that is how work comes to be. That the work that one makes answers a call, in a sense, from another work, that both opens possibilities for a person but also induces a sense of anxiety. 


I want to just step back from that comment for a moment and return to a previous idea, the crucial role that Jerry O'Grady had played in my intellectual development if you will. I mentioned that O'Grady was a student (and a great admirer) of Marshall McLuhan.


Marshall McLuhan belongs to a group of thinkers who have been crucial to me over the years, and while I never studied with either of them formally, I already carried an interest in them during my high school years, attended lectures, and avidly read the writings of people in the Toronto School, including Northrop Frye. Eric Havelock for example, whose work Preface to Plato influenced me enormously. 


That was a book that was almost forbidden to read among philosophers. Havelock was a professor at Princeton. He was English by origin and then moved to teach at Acadia in the Maritime provinces here for a while then moved briefly to Toronto and then took up a position as chair of the Classics department at Princeton. He was there for most of his life and wrote a book, Preface to Plato that argues that, and this will be really crucial to the topic that I want to raise, basically Plato was a philosopher who was basically advocating for a new kind of knowledge that followed on the development first of the alphabetic language and then alphabetic writing, and then, written language.


That a topic of many of the dialogues was the changes that occur as written language replaces oral knowledge, but that needs to be qualified. Basically, it was philosophical, abstract, and logical thinking; Derivation. First principle derivation. This follows from this. We mentioned this with mathematics. It became a model for the highest form of knowledge replacing what had been the earlier conception of the highest form of knowledge, which was through poetry. And the model, if you will, would be Homer.


Preface to Plato followed the discoveries of two thinkers; Albert Lord, who was a student of the other thinker I’m going to mention, Milman Parry. Milman Parry had traveled in the area around Bosnia Herzegovina and discovered oral poetry that was similar to the form of Homer's poetry. Poets would recite long, long epics that they had essentially memorized, or rather, whose outlines they had memorized and when they were speaking, they'd follow the basic outline pattern and then introduce slight variance according to the moment of speaking. And what allowed for this kind of memorization was the use of first of all repeated patterns and then kinds of stock ways of describing processes. 


So in Homer, you know this; there are many repeated patterns: “the swift-footed Achilles”, “the rosy-fingered dawn”, and “the wine dark sea”, and then as I say, descriptions for events; how you build a boat, how you navigate through channels, this sort of thing. How you raise the sails, what happens to the seamen in storms, and so forth. This description of processes was really following a pattern. Later, people developed this into understanding fundamental mythological patterns in this. So the “descent into the underworld”, and the “descent into the smoky throat of Hades”, these mythological patterns also obtained across the mythological universe of the Greeks sustained this kind of oral description.


One of the features that Havelock insisted on was that poetry, the kind of knowledge that was vouchsafed through the poets at the end, first of all, involved memory and a sense of time that relates to remembered events. Time is not as simply a linear development and so forth, but memory as offering a different temporal modality than that. This idea was very important to me in The Book of All the Dead, it's one of its central ideas.  But also it could engender a kind of elevated, almost intoxicated, almost mad vision. And in fact, there's one dialogue, the Ion; Ion was a reciter, a rhapsode who would recite Plato; Socrates speaking for the new knowledge making ends up trying to dismantle Ion's claim for having knowledge of the good order of society. Incorporated in the dialogue is a description of a worshipful dance. The goddess Cybele would lead a group of women in a kind of intoxicated dance, but often there would be a man present, and the man would end up slicing off his genitals in the intoxication of the dance.


You may have some remembrance of this in the film by Man Ray, The Starfish. There's this image of a woman named Cybèle (“Si belle”), the man is going to have intercourse with the woman, and he's afraid of losing his genitals. That's the source of that. That's the myth in this. Okay, Socrates ends up mocking Ion for all of this: “This the outcome of all of your beliefs, poetic knowledge, and higher form through your kind of recital and you engendered rhapsodic knowledge. Your rhapsodic knowledge can even go so far as to eventuate in castration. That's the fruit of this kind of crazy kind of drunken poetic manifestation”. 


So there we are. The sense of poetic knowledge is suspect. But when Havelock was writing about Plato, he didn't exactly end up extolling poetic knowledge or Homeric knowledge over the kind of knowledge that Plato advocates for. He was pointing out that this was a way of understanding what historical changes had motivated the dialogues, what had motivated them was exactly the coming of written language and the development of linear thinking.


What it left for many of us who read Preface to Plato and early members of the Toronto School, was a celebration of oral poetry. Oral poetry as opposed to poetry on the page. Along with this, the celebration of Beat poetry. Allen Ginsberg’s poetry is very much poetry to be read;


''I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...''


It's poetry that wants to be read! It's not poetry for the page, it's poetry to be spoken!

And indeed, even its breath structure, Ginsberg's use of the long line was to breathe in and utter a line and breathe out, and then the next line… It’s like yogic breathing practices... And Ginsberg actually wrote about the long line that way. He drew some of it, yes. He drew it from Walt Whitman, he drew from Artaud’s Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu, he drew  from Christopher Smart, a wild, mad poet. Amazing poet. So Long Line had a number of sources for Ginsberg, but among them, he also talked about the kind of chanting and recitation of the Vedas. How he'd use a harmonium and chant to that and, sometimes chanting Sanskrit chants and he speaks of the poetics behind this, which really offer a theory about the effects on consciousness of breath control.

So oral poetry becomes a key factor. Along with this is the development in this time of singers who were producing real poetry and singing to the accompaniment of bands and so forth. You had, for example, Bob Dylan, who is a good poet, and Leonard Cohen very much the same.


I can tell you just quickly a really short statement made to a young journalist, who later became the editor-in-chief of a newspaper as well as a university lecturer. He was very business oriented in his outlook on life and went to interview Northrop Frye for the student newspaper when was still a student at the University of Toronto. He says to Frye: “Don't you think it's preposterous that people are referring to Bob Dylan as a poet?” and Northrop Frye responds: “To the contrary. I think Dylan is a poet and a good poet and I think that what he is doing is very important. Poetry was dying on the page and I think the future of poetry will be with singers singing to the accompaniment of bands''. It was a remarkable moment because Frye was one of the most dour-seeming people that you could ever imagine. He was even frightfully shy when it came to small talk but then when he stood in front of the classroom to talk about poetry you'd think: I don't believe he's ever forgotten a line of poetry that he's ever read! He was like a steel trap for poetry and he could recite just swaths of poetry! When he was talking about poetry, he’d do it with such delight and animation and enthusiasm, but when he was just being interviewed or engaging in small talk he just seemed like an accountant. That was his manner of self-presentation. Of course, you knew he wasn't if you had read Fearful Symmetry, the Blake book. He opened up Blake's Prophetic books, nobody had made any sense of them before him. They just seemed wild, and extravagant, but he understood the mythology behind them, the thought processes. They were an open book to him. 


So this means that the Toronto school in a way provided a theoretical background to bolster support for Ezra Pound's idea of poetry as “melos, opsis, lexis” and what he means by that is this: melos: good sound it's involved with sound like it's the same word as melody but sound. You could say for poetry, good sound, rich sound, interesting sound. opsis: image. A poet offers image, offers sound, image and lexis: word.


So it's the amalgam of sound, image, and word, that's poetry, melos-opsis-lexis. Its good sound, strong imagery, and involvement with language, the shaping of language, was a very early inspiration for me.


When I blurred my film 1857 (Fool’s Gold), which is immediately before Illuminated Texts, I said that it was involved with melos, opsis, lexis. It had words in it, music and sound, and involvement in the image. Sound, image, and language. They are all there, and that's the origin of this idea. In a way, much of what I would do and you could understand these as layered on each other.


In a sense it's an early palimpsest, early in my oeuvre I meant a work that has the structure of a palimpsest and I tried to, across the films that comprised The Book of All The Dead, ramify and to make a layering that was more complex, but it was all understood within the framework of incorporating the previous idea; melos: I began working with simultaneous soundtracks and complex music tracks, and elaborating them, opsis: layering many images all at once that would speak to each other and lexis: I began to use complex voiceovers, and along with that, there would be texts written as superimposed titles in the film and so on. So, in a sense, my work was involved with the continual ramification of the idea of, first of all, poetic cinema. I told you I wanted to create electric poetry. Poetry is melos, opsis, lexis so then I’d find ways to electrically produce sound, image, text, and to expand the resource that I was working with. That's very much what happens across the course of The Book of All The Dead.


There’s another way. I think, in fact, it's a better way of understanding this, but the term just seems so eccentric, if you will, or so recondite, that I knew it wouldn't have much purchase, but it's an idea in the same realm, by the way, but that I took from Marshall McLuhan, who took it from James Joyce and specifically from Finnegan's Wake. Finnegan's Wake involves many, many portmanteau words. And the phrase that I have in mind is kind of like an expanded portmanteau phrase. It's a little bit of a digression from this, I might say. An early student of Marshall McLuhan, they had a bit of a falling out, but he remained on personal terms and McLuhan remained a key influence on this writer who meant a lot to me, Donald Theall who wrote on Joyce and technology, for example, James Joyce's Techno-poetics is the title of one of his works. He offers a view, a kind of encapsulated summary of the differences between Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, and says that Ulysses is cinema, Finnegan's Wake is radio. I think it's fantastic. An interesting little idea to the side, in fact, about Joyce is that Joyce, for a time, when he was a very young man, operated a movie theater in Dublin.


There have been people that feel the kind of form of description of events and the recounting of serial events, you know, the events on Bloomsday in Ulysses, and then the interiorization of this and the subjective point of view all relate to the cinema. I think it's an interesting insight and think there's a lot to it. 


But what about Finnegan's Wake?  Have you ever experienced listening to AM frequencies? Amplitude Modulated Radio. was unstable, and literally, the signals could change. I can remember, for example, when I was a little boy, lying in bed, sometimes you'd get a radio station from Toronto, and then something would happen, and you'd be hearing a few words from a radio station in Syracuse or Montreal, and then you'd get Toronto again. Literally, the stations would cross each other. You'd get one signal interfering with another. You look at the words in Finnegan's Wake and you can see that they're like words as if you could hear the beginning of one word and then another word and then another. Portmanteau words, words that are jammed together, they change from one to another to another. So you call that a portmanteau phrase. A portmanteau phrase that struck McLuhan was verbi-voco-visual: word, spoken word, and then visual, optical. So again, it's kind of like melos, opsis, lexis. The notion is important enough to Marshall McLuhan that he actually does compile a book. Not write, because there are many, many long citations. But the book itself is a mixture of texts and images and text design and so forth. He worked with a designer who was also a painter, who worked in Ontario at the Royal Ontario Museum and also Harley Parker, who designed the books. This is among the books that Harley Parker designed. A very experimental piece about experimental poetics in the age of electricity. Don't forget, my first intuition, if you will, was looking for a kind of electric poetry. So this was about new poetics, a new form of writing, in the age of electricity. It's an extraordinary book. It was first published as part of a magazine put out by McLuhan and others called Exploration, the last issue of Exploration was a verbi-voco-visual. He took that text and shopped it around, sent it to Something Else Press, which was a press that published work by experimental artists, and it declares, if you will, McLuhan's interest in being seen as an artist, not as a theorist. The work that he was producing belonged in the domain of art, and it really is an extraordinary, extraordinary book. It's one of my favorite pieces, but nobody ever cites it. Nobody even acknowledges it. I think it's just too difficult for people to figure out. It includes, by the way, sections on Plato juxtaposed with advertising. If you can read it, you can put the pieces together and understand what it has to do with Plato and the development of linearity and text as linear in the age of Gutenberg. But nobody ever cites it, nobody ever talks about verbi-voco-visual. So it was a term that meant a lot to me, but I haven't used it very much in my writing, largely because of the providence of the term; Joyce’s Finnegan's Wake itself is a challenge, it's a wonderful book, but it's a challenge for sure. Then comes McLuhan's use of it, which is a direct influence on me. I decided I should not use this term, and I've used the terms palimpsest and melos, opsis, lexis from Pound and McLuhan commented on that as well.


I hope that indicates something about the work and about Illuminated Texts. I might say that when I first saw Brakhage and came back and decided I was going to try and create electric poetry, I engaged in a feat of enormous, um, arrogance if you will. That arrogance was, in a sense, fueled not by any characteristic of the man himself or of his work, but fueled by meeting Stan Brakhage. 


Brakhage had just brought out his first book publication published by the people around the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was teaching part-time, it was The Brakhage Lectures, and he was selling copies of it. You'd line up and get the book signed and so on. He was selling copies of The Brakhage Lectures at lunchtime at this summer camp in New England that Jerry O'Grady arranged. When I asked for a copy Brakhage said: “I've noticed you in the classes. What brought you here?”, and I mentioned that I had been publishing poetry and mentioned my interest in Ezra Pound and so forth. He said to me immediately: “Have you read The Pound Era?” The Pound Era, I think is the greatest piece of literary criticism in the English language, in the 20th century. It makes Pounds central to literature in the 20th century, basically, the claim was we talk of the Elizabethan era, the age of Shakespeare or the Shakespeare era, and that our era will be known in the future, this is English language literature of course, as the Pound era. Frankly, I think this is true, but that's neither here nor there. Okay, so Brakhage asked me if I’ve read The Pound Era. Well, The Pound Era had just come out at this time and I said: “No, I don't even know about it”. To which he said: “Well, it's just an extraordinary book. Let this be my gift to you, this information that you must go and read The Pound Era. So, of course, I got back to Toronto and bought a copy of The Pound Era and was completely convinced by it. And who wrote it? Hugh Kenner. A student of Marshall McLuhan, one of the first PhDs of Marshall McLuhan. 


Reading it, I decided that in an act of colossal arrogance, I wanted to do a work that overwrote, if you will, the Cantos, and of course, the Cantos, overwrites both to some extent and to a lesser extent, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but also Homer's Odyssey.


So you see Homer's Odyssey and then in Pound's interpretation of the history, overwriting as a kind of palimpsest on Homer is The Divine Comedy, another quest story, et cetera. So Homer's Odyssey is the first layer then The Divine Comedy is the second one, and then the Cantos, and in a sense, this feat of enormous arrogance, The Book of All The Dead would overwrite the Cantos.


Francisco Rojas: So this was planned at the beginning. You already knew you wanted to create this enormous cycle. 


Bruce Elder: That’s right. When I came home. I did it with a real drive, an absolute determination, and when I say overwrite, it's important to remember that I'm using the term to suggest the palimpsest. And in no way does The Divine Comedy obliterate Odyssey. In fact, you can see parts of Odyssey shining through or coming through. That's what we mean by a palimpsest. They scrape away part of the text, and some of the old text comes through the new text. It's the same with the Cantos.


Cantos doesn't obliterate The Divine Comedy. In fact, if you want to understand the Cantos, you got to go back to The Divine Comedy, and to Homer; and The Book of All the Dead would be similar in that respect. Pound would show through it, Dante would show through it, and Homer would show through it. I assumed that as a kind of commitment, and it would take me 25 years to finish the project. 


Francisco Rojas: Did you always know in what way was the cycle to progress, from film to film? 


Bruce Elder: Yes and no. I knew that I wanted it to be a quest for vision and that it would have a three-part structure. This was conceived immediately. The Book of All the Dead would have three parts: The System of Dante’s Hell. The System of Dante’s Hell would be parallel to the Inferno, and then Consolations (Love is an Art of Time), which would be parallel to the Purgatorio, and then Exultations (In Light of The Great Giving), which would be parallel to or related to the Paradiso. So I knew that, and I knew it would be a quest for vision. 


However, I was also absolutely committed, as was Pound, by the way, that the work would also resonate with the progress of my personal life. Pound's work is full of that. Cantos is full of him talking about being in London and being in Paris and being in Trieste and being in jail, being in St. Elizabeth's, and so on. There is undoubtedly an autobiographical dimension to this, and in a sense, Pound is declaring a hope that his own pattern of his life might unfold somewhat in parallel to that of Dante, and also, in another way to Homer and the voyage home.


So I wanted the work to be open to the events of my life. And so then there was a kind of declaration of hope or faith that my life would evolve somewhat in a similar form, somewhat homologously to the Cantos, Divine Comedy, and Odyssey. Eventually love and vision would be given to me and that love would steer me toward vision. That this was just faith. 


Francisco Rojas: But that's also anticipating many difficulties in your future, like knowing that you might have to enter into this pit, into the dark to then see the light and get out and reenter the real world once again.


Bruce Elder: Yes. Of course, the hope, the faith that that could be so is also sustained by the idea of an almost universal pattern in mythology and the belief that mythology is basically truth. And here we are in Northrop Frye’s domain again, the modern myth of literature. The single myth. For him, of course, the paradigmatic statement of it is in the form of the Bible. The monomyth in literature. Most literature follows this single mythical pattern. You can see it in literature from around the world. The myth is true. The importance of faith and the belief in the powers of love to guide us toward vision and charity.


Francisco Rojas: So in that sense, Illuminated Texts finds you not exactly in the middle but…


Bruce Elder: It’s in hell.


Francisco Rojas: Exactly, and you’ve mentioned in previous interviews how others have called Illuminated Texts an apocalyptic film. I’m not sure I completely share that sentiment, but I do know for certain that the film shows the way in which humans can eventually start cannibalizing themselves. Especially towards the end. You mentioned this idea of oral poetry and this mad vision manifesting physically as self-mutilation and I immediately thought about the holocaust images at the end of Illuminated Texts. It feels like the human race has reached such a level of knowledge of intellectual and technological progress that we can’t help but enter into a rage and ultimately destroy ourselves.


Bruce Elder: That's very much so. It is very much a piece about the sense of the end of history and the collapse of history into ruin, into barbarism, into savagery, and these are the fruits of technology, by the way. You see technological implements of various sorts, but very much the end, the technology of war tanks and military vehicles.


Francisco Rojas: If you think about it, is there anything more efficient than the holocaust?


Bruce Elder: Exactly. That's exactly right. The Holocaust was planned for efficient mass death. I mean, scientifically, technologically, organized, and administered mass death, with efficiency as the utter, guiding principle for this. This is what's happened. This is how we have reached the end of history. 


The next long work is Lamentations. Lamentations is an attempt to go back, to escape from Western culture. It's like rummaging through, but it’s an attempt to go back and restart history by the vestiges of other cultures that thought differently. I mean, Azteca, and Mayas, whose symbol system even, whose writing system was not phonetic. By the way, there's an association throughout the entire cycle with the concept of efficiency. Linearity, the alphabet linearity, and efficiency. So going back to another symbol system that wasn't based on a language system, that wasn't based on sentences that had subject-predicate constructions, that led to Aristotelian logic and linear thinking. It's a hope that we can find and restart history. In other words, you're going down and then eventually a hope that we can climb out of this and then up onto Mount Purgatory.  That's the second part of the film. But that's the turning point in Lamentations. It starts again in the West, in misrepresentation and falsehood, the Oriental Music Hall, misrepresentation, untruth, and then travels across Canada. It was cobbled together from many different trips.


Across Canada, it encounters First Nations people there. In other words, people with a different relationship to the land and not controlling, shaping, and dictating the land, then down the West Coast of the United States in almost paradisiacal landscapes, I must say. Then across the American Southwest, which again is a landscape that itself seems archaic, with rough rocks as if it were the landscape for an old cowboy movie.


Crossing into Mexico and down through Mexico, from north to south, that last leg of the trip is basically the trip that Charles Olson took and described in Letters for Origin. It was about going and trying to escape the Greek subject-predicate sentence structure which eventuates Aristotelian logic and linear thinking. This trip to Mexico is to escape and to see, to explore cultures whose symbol system was pictographic. So its form of thinking should be different. 


That was a theme among the Beats, and certainly, Beats had an enormous influence on me, undoubtedly.

Francisco Rojas: Lamentations was the first film of yours I saw. I really liked it at the time, around six years ago. But at times I felt like it was a work at war with itself. But I mean this endearingly in the sense that I haven't seen a work from any other filmmaker that has that level of trying to encapsulate all the complexities and contradictions of human thought and impulse. It can't be reduced to anything. I always remember this small section with Franz Liszt. This was my introduction to your work and then enters this man with a wig over his head over a black background. It felt like something like a cheap sketch, like something out of a comedy film.


Bruce Elder: It’s supposed to be that way.


Francisco Rojas: Yes of course, and I did have great fun with it, but even with all of these different and even absurd things you’re still able to find this really beautiful and profound conclusion to that small moment. When he's playing Consolations, while this naked woman is sitting at his side, but at the same time she's out of his reach, that is essentially a testament to Liszt’s own sense of mortality. And I remember thinking I never had this experience with any other work. At first, it looked ridiculous but in the end, it turned into (maybe because of everything I’ve mentioned) a very beautiful and sincere little moment. Never falling into an artificially imposed solemnity.


Bruce Elder: That's wonderful to hear because that is just exactly what I wanted at first. It looks almost like a cheap, bad student, parody, or something like that. But then, you know, Liszt was like a rock star musician, idolized all over, and a terrific pianist. There's something else I got to say about this. And he also comes up in Consolations the guy who's playing that part. His pianistic interpretation is absolutely extraordinary. He's dressed up to look like a clown and in real life, he was really funny. This guy was a colleague of mine and both of us were kind of seen as a little bit screwy. He was just absolutely funny. He did sculpture. A kind of assemblage sculpture that was absolutely amazing. He was a wonderful sculptor and an interesting photographer. Since he got a job at a photography school, he took up photography.


He made one film, one film only. It was absolutely wonderful. He absolutely looks screwy as can be and always seemed like he was making light of everything, making a joke of everything, a bit of a buffoon, yet he was a really deep thinker, a really good artist, and a friend of mine…

I’ve mentioned Jim Tenney. He used to have salons. One time a group of people asked me if I would show some sections of quotations. Again, a palimpsest. The old work shining through the new. They're also like mosaics. That's another term that I use for the form that I've been working on. Anyhow, they asked me to present parts where Jimmy Smith was playing the piano. Bach or Liszt, and when they heard him, when I presented these to professional musicians and performers, they couldn't believe how well he played. That performance of Liszt, I mean, that's really tough. He looks really funny and there are these naked women draping themselves over him, but the performance is extraordinary. That's another aspect of it. Like Burlesque but a very sad feature in the end. He's also playing a piece called Sunt Lacrimae rerum (There are tears for Things).


Of course, these women are supposed to be fantasies of his past life presence. He's in isolation and you know what's ahead for him. The speech that he gives about that horrible man et cetera. This is all accurate to Liszt's life. So it's this strange amalgam of proper biography and historical accuracy and sadness at the same time. 


Francisco Rojas: I have one last question and it has to do with the idea of Palimpsest that you're mentioning. When these films come out on DVD or Blu-ray, people will have the chance to revisit them as much as they like. But how did you approach the role of the audience at the time when revisiting the works wasn’t really a possibility? The audience will encounter your work and… It’s human nature! We want to understand it all and know everything for certain once we leave the theater. But your films obliterate this idea because it's impossible to retain everything that we’re seeing. You have all the texts in the film as images and you also have the voice-overs. So how did you think the viewer would engage with the works?


Bruce Elder: That's an important topic, but I want to say that I conceived this work, with this kind of mosaic form with so many simultaneous elements, so many that you could not possibly take them all in in a single viewing. So my hope was that viewers, readers, listeners, whatever, because it's not viewers, it's not the right word, would develop a sense from the experience of the work over time. Most of the films using this form were long films that, through being with this form for a period of time, would develop a sense that everything that's provided does relate to everything else. That there is a justification for those elements being gathered together at this particular moment in the film. They do fit with one another and with parts earlier in the film and parts later in the film.


They would develop a belief that the parts do cohere, that they form an order of being that you can't possibly apprehend, that there was something beyond what was there to grasp and make definite and certain, a sense of a whole that you believe in, but you can't really make it definite. 


Francisco Rojas: A more spiritual experience, we make sense of the work, but abstractly. 


Bruce Elder: So, firstly, that there is this order to it that is beyond simple apprehension.


Remember the talk we had at the beginning with George Grant speaking of his experience opening the gate, and there is “an order beyond space and time”? You can't grasp it. And in fact, Kenneth Rexroth, a poet who has influenced me enormously, speaks of the afflictions of the West. The West as in, grasping it, trying to make it definite, and to own it. So, first of all, it's tilting against this idea of works of art as commodities that you own conceptually, too. As something that we own and master.


It's against this kind of view of the work of art that we were talking about yesterday and I think and I believe that you agree that so many young people now create work to be marketed. That sense of work was produced in the era of predatory commodity capitalism. So, first of all, there's an epistemology for such works. This form is very much against that. It's tilting against that entirely. Also, this sense of grasping and the belief that you are ejected from the narrative work’s effort to position the viewer in a position of mastery. That's how narrative works. Narrative works by eliciting questions and then answering them with the questions you assume to be your own. That's how it positions the spectator, and then it answers them as though to say that you are in the position of mastering, the film is answering to your desire. I mean, you can take cliched, horrible examples: A man walks into a room, and he's carrying an envelope. There's a man sitting at a desk. The man sitting at a desk rises when he comes in, and the other person takes out an envelope. He hands it to the person. The guy opens a desk, he puts this in. How does that work? Well, there's a shot, maybe the person walks into the room. You're looking at the guy who's coming in with the envelope. Who's he looking at? Who's greeting him? Who's in this room? Then it answers, here's the man sitting at the desk, and he rises up and greets him. Okay, why is he greeting him? That question is elicited. You think it's your question. It's your desire to know, right? And it's answered by the man taking an envelope out of his pocket and handing it to him. The man opens the desk drawer and puts the envelope in. You then, as though are saying to yourself, what does the envelope that's in the desk drawer that he's putting it in?  But that's how narrative works. It suggests that your desire is central to the mechanism of the film. What's happening here? What happens next? Your desire to know the next step in the plot and all of this is of course linearly arranged and this desire to know and to master also reflects the desire to grasp and know reality in the age of industrial capitalism.


Francisco Rojas: One can find many online reviews from people complaining that a particular film didn’t touch a subject that the viewers were expecting to watch unfold in a given film. And many times you see these films and those subjects and themes are there! The problem is that some audiences need the films to constantly reiterate and underline every important point. They don’t want to have any doubt. “This is what this film is about”. I think cinema has created lazy viewers or audiences in the sense that if they don't get what they want immediately, or if the allusion isn’t made painfully obvious they think it's not there. If the film isn't spoon-feeding these ideas, we simply die of hunger. And I think it’s not the audience’s fault, it’s the industry of cinema that’s creating these spectators.


Bruce Elder: I think that's true. This sense of epistemological mastery is so central to the kind of artistic form of predatory consumer capitalism, and that's what I'm tilting against for a different sense. It's also true of the temporal form of the film. You have to just abide by it and let go of your desire to know everything all at once and just let it unfold in front of you and what you experience, you’ll experience.


Francisco Rojas: What's especially wonderful about your films is that they’re so open that the experience of each and every single viewer-reader, won't be the same compared to the one from any other viewer in the same room. We won’t leave the theater and gather outside thinking the same exact thing, having the same experience. But that's what makes it interesting in the sense that it's open to the experience of the viewer-reader to engage, to try to arrange his or her presence in the theater and understand what is coming to them.


Bruce Elder: Exactly. Hopefully, the viewer is activated to put together his or her own experience and it will be different from every other viewer in the auditorium that night. I hope that happens.

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