|Bruce Elder's Illuminated
Texts and 1857 (Fool's Gold):
A Modern Cinema
Since the decline of modernism as the dominant artistic movement of its time, and more importantly, as a governing artistic ideology, postmodern theory has sought to shift the modernist emphasis of author/work/tradition to a new triad constituted by text/discourse/culture. As Brian Wallis states, "The central purpose for art and art criticism since the early 1960s has been the dismantling of the monolithic myth of modernism and the dissolution of its oppressive progression of great ideas and great masters."1 However, while the majority of art practice and criticism in the postmodern era has sought to break away from the modernist tradition, there remains an active community of artists still committed to the pursuit and advancement of the modernist project. One such artist is the contemporary Canadian filmmaker Bruce Elder, whose films Illuminated Texts and 1857 (Fool's Gold), in particular suggest a plausible extension of the modernist tradition.
Like the American modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Bruce Elder desires to find spiritual solace in a fragmented, alienated world. In its quest for the transcendental experience, Elder's cinema can be seen as a continuation of the modernist tradition established in the work of these writers. As Eliot did in The Waste Land, Elder references the historical by involving the metaphysics of Dante and the symbolism of Baudelaire. Furthermore, Elder uses Pound's epic poem Cantos as a textual element (and driving force) for his film 1857 (Fool's Gold). By combining elements of the historical with nature and technology, the divine and the demonic, Elder conceives a cinema unlike any other, a body of work that can only be considered as the inevitable continuation of modernist ideology.
Elder's passion for poetry and philosophy, for deeper and more intuitive levels of thought, cannot be separated from his work. When Elder states that "[a] poem should be an exact 'rendering of the impulse,'"2 he may be defining his own cinematic enterprise. For this sentiment reflects itself continuously throughout his film work, an oeuvre which consistently strives to create a most heightened awareness of the self - in terms of mind, body, and intellect - on the part of the film viewer, as he or she "drifts" through the cinematic experience. In both Illuminated Texts and 1857 (Fool’s Gold), Elder challenges his audience to give themselves up to the moment as it massages the perceptual senses. His dense layering of image, text and sound in these two films creates a impression of hyper perception in which the viewer responds not merely to the actual object of experience, but also to that which sustains his or her being.
Similar to many artists and writers of the modern period, Elder is interested in integrating other art forms into the text of his filmmaking. Like the other, more established forms of art, cinema can only advance itself as a discipline when it is ready to take on the entire history of art practice and theory. Elder's concern with the (inert) state of cinema as it presently exists is unmistakable when he states that
perhaps there are film forms that can restore freedom to the viewer. I suggest that there are, and that forms that do so dispense with narrative and its latent protocols for interpretation. Such a form might for example, offer spectators an array of elements that they can freely combine and recombine.3
The cinema which Elder suggests is a cinema rooted in a different image of thought than that which dominates its age, one that moves the cinema closer to things themselves.
In Illuminated Texts, Elder presents a demanding combination of visuals, text over image, and a heavy, layered soundtrack incorporating a voice-over narration which often gets lost in the overall Gestalt of sound, light and rhythm. The film's main concern, and hence the potential for sensory overload, is the terrifying feeling of time slipping away faster than we can fully decipher its potential for infinite possibility. The viewer is thus overburdened by the monumental, the uncontrollable nature of existence, which Elder works upon with his overlapping of text and sound to create a feeling of violent forward activity. A sense of the past is always hinted at though never fully uncovered. The past is dark, too dark to navigate through. However, if we do not at least attempt to grope our way through it, we will never achieve the possibility of moving forward, a notion that Eliot himself implied in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The possibility of transcendence is buried by the need for the immediate gratification of the lived moment. In order to get us past this, Elder attempts to create new forms for heightened awareness out of the existing paradigms originally put forth by Ezra Pound, Eliot and others.
The structure of Illuminated Texts is itself almost completely random, or at least this is the intended illusion. The finished product that is Illuminated Texts is determined by an aleatory device, an algorithm, and thus contains the prospect of chance. Through this mathematical principle Elder tries to separate himself from the order of creation, a difficult mission that even Elder himself acknowledges the impossibility of. For culture demands that "there be an individual in the work of art. The tradition of creative artmaking is something too large to slip out from under easily."4
Elder's disdain for narrative structure, or at least its predetermined trajectories, is clearly implied by the chaotic, random structure that the filmmaker employs throughout Illuminated Texts. As Pound did previously with his Cantos, Elder defies the comfortable reading by hinting at the possibility for narrative and then pulling it away in alternating cycles. As Elder has stated,
We use narratives to impose order on our circumstances, and that will to impose order on reality (instead of discovering order in experience and attempting to conform oneself to that order) is characteristic of modernity.5
In other words, we must break away from our necessity for imposed order (i.e. through narrative form) if there is any real possibility for knowledge. The modernist poets realized this, and attempted to undermine the condition of narrative of fragmentation and repetition, as Elder does in his films.
The role of nature in Illuminated Texts is important to our overall understanding of Elder's work. In one sense, Elder attempts to turn the role of creation back over to its original source, nature, with his scientific approach to its construction (even though it remains an artificial ambition). However, even if Elder could conceive of a formula that would allow the artwork to become the product of nature and not man, it is towards the same purpose: to gain control and harness nature in order to reach a deeper understanding of it. Thus Elder finds himself in the problematic position of imposing technology upon nature, implicating the artist as destroyer, rather than creator. Tension is created in the pursuit of knowledge that can never be preserved, and it is this tension which charges much of Elder’s other work, in particular 1857 (Fool’s Gold).
1857 (Fool’s Gold)
In 1857 (Fool's Gold), Elder once again combines a variety of elements, including the text of Ezra Pound's Cantos, as both text over imagery and as a voice-over read by Elder himself. In doing so, Elder creates a conflict for the viewer between wanting to read the text that we see and wanting to listen to the text on the soundtrack. The viewer's desire is consistently subverted by the impossibility of possession; not only is the spectator forced outside of the text, he or she is threatened by the active, malleable viewing experience. Elder places the image and the text in conflicting positions in order to illustrate the relationship between the coherence of vision and the image as a means towards insight.
Four types of visual forms appear in Fool's Gold, including photographed scenes, written texts, mathematical formulas and numbers; the numbers function at the beginning of the film as a counter, and then slowly degenerate into hyper-randomness. The course of the film is mapped out by the transformations which these forms undergo. The film has something resembling a narrative construct, but one that is developed purely in terms of the manipulation of the images’ characteristics. It is the way Elder combines these basic cinematic elements into an intense emotional complexity that transcends the film past the whole of its parts, in fact, past the whole of contemporary cinema, and into the realms of cosmic contemplation.
We cannot make our way out of Fool's Gold if we attempt to take a straight-forward, linear (literal) approach through it. We must allow the film to take control of the senses, to inform us on a subconscious level as the image text and sound compete for our attentions. It is a work of art, much like the Cantos and The Waste Land, that cannot be understood with an initial reading; it must be returned to to be lost in, then visited and revisited again. The insight that Elder pursues is one of visceral, intellectual and spiritual involvement, all of which must occur simultaneously. When we try and separate our experiences into these categories we are theorizing our involvement in the text and we lose the point Elder is attempting to make. The reality of experience is that it is diverse, and constantly changing. There are always multitudes of layers operating under the surface of our vision, which we have to be perpetually open to if we have any chance of gaining new insights.
If we accept the literature of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot as a continuation of Dante's poetics, then I would argue that we be compelled to consider Elder's cinema as a continuation of the Pound, Eliot and the modernist tradition. Of course, without this history, Elder's cinema would have no foundation to build on, no frame of reference. Importantly though, Elder is able to move the work and tradition of Pound and Eliot forward by his ability to implicate himself in his own work. Whereas Eliot believed that poets should never write about themselves, and that the poem is an artifact which should and can be analyzed for itself, Elder completely immerses his work with his identity, and his identity with his work. His is the voice we hear on the soundtrack, his is the image we see in his films. Elder acknowledges the fact that art cannot be analyzed for itself, and that culture demands access to the artist's background. Apropos to the position Eliot took with New Criticism, today's artist cannot be separated from the aesthetic object that he or she strives to create. The work of art has deeper implications than itself, and those implications are determined by the relationship it shares with its author and its tradition. As Joseph Chiari states,
The artist is a political and social being and the result of his creativity is necessarily, if successful, an artifact which has truth and value for the society in which he lives, and if he is truly great, for historical man.6
Postmodernism has forced contemporary artists to rethink traditional forms of representation that have been forgotten since the decline of modernism. The shifting ideology that has moved the individual artist from his or her central location as autonomous creator to a working component of the creation process, has led to a number of new forms and critical models. However, while the majority of art practice and theory in the postmodern era has sought to break decisively from the modernist tradition, there remains artists such as Bruce Elder who are committed to pursuit and advancement of modernist ideals. The overwhelming sensation of Elder's films create a highly charged, emotionally rich experience for the viewer, a cinema which likely will not be fully appreciated or comprehended in its own time. But Elder may very well prove to be one of the great and lasting artists of our era. With his films Illuminated Texts and 1857 (Fool's Gold), Elder is challenging us not to forget the progress of modernism or the importance of the historical, while at the same time establishing an entirely unique aesthetic experience, one that embodies our whole being, the mind, the body and its intellect.
1. Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), xiii.
2. Bruce Elder, A Body of Vision: Representations of the Body in Recent Film and Poetry (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1997), 64.
3. Ibid., 8.
4. Ibid., 39.
5. Ibid., 6.
6. Joseph Chiari, The Aesthetics of Modernism (London: Vision Press, 1970), 157-58.
artists | venues | images