Toto, we’re not in Hollywood anymore

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By Dorin Grunwald

It’s Saturday morning and the Rogers Communications Building is all but deserted, with the exception of the Eaton Lecture Hall where a cozy group of avant-garde film enthusiasts have gathered.

They have come to honour one of the world’s greatest experimental filmmakers — and Ryerson’s own image arts professor — Bruce Elder. It’s Feb. 13, and filmmakers, writers and scholars are spending the day talking about films you’ll never see at your local Cineplex.

Elder sits quietly behind a long table at the front of the theatre, accompanied by three other panelists who are engaged in a heated debate of what sounds like psycho-babble. They are arguing with a silver-haired man in the audience sitting across the aisle to my left. He is arguing that poetry is not verbal terrorism as the Italian theorist and panelist, John Picchione, would have him believe. Oddly, the man with the silver hair is nonchalantly applying black taping to a reel of film while arguing. His artistry seems arbitrary yet contrived at the same time. Someone calls him Stan — Stan Brakhage the great American avant-garde filmmaker who is the main subject of Bruce Elder’s most recent book.

The debate continues for a while but I am at a loss. The words make little sense to someone like me who knows nothing about experimental film. “Hermetics,” “dialectic,” “deconstructionist,” “primordial” and “dadaism” is just a smattering of the vocabulary being tossed around.

I wait around to see an excerpt from Elder’s newest film Crack, Brutal Thief but the sound isn’t working so all I see is a ghostly white image floating across the screen that looks as if it is yawning in anguish. Elder’s motivation for the film came from the suicide of one of his very close friends. The images for the film were downloaded from the Internet and are set to music composed by Elder.

As the group breaks for lunch, I manage to ask Elder whether he thinks experimental film is accessible to someone like me, who knows nothing of the genre. His response is simply, “I think all people dig it.” He says it’s not about philosophical interpretation or watching with a trained eye. More that it’s about the individual experience, whatever that may be. He tells me about a student with no inclination for avant-garde film who took his course and now enjoys it very much. I appreciate his candor and his deference to my not using the philosophical terminology.

I begin a discussion with Elder’s assistant, Ilana, about the significance of avant-garde film, what it is, and why Joe-Schmo should care about it. First, she tries to define it for me. The literal translation of avant-garde is “at the forefront,” which means that this film genre is trying to do something new with an old medium. She also talks about the “individual experience” that Elder was referring to and the desire to find expression without the limitations of language. Her words are helpful, but the philosophy is making my head swim.

Now that I feel remotely educated about experimental film, I wander over to Oakham House with Ilana to hear composer and pianist Udo Kasemets play a special piece that he dedicated to Elder. He introduces the piece by saying he borrowed words from the two people who inspired the piece, Brakhage and Elder. He also says the numbers two and five are significant to the piece. I simply wait for the music to begin.

The room on the second floor is full when Kasemets takes his seat at the grand piano. His “singer” steps up to her music stand. A hush falls over the audience except for the occasional burble from a toddler. The woman begins speaking words, not in any particular grammatical or syntactical manner. Kasemets jumps in with a furious pouring of the ivories and then comes to an abrupt stop. The singer recites another verse, every so often looking at her watch — why, I know not. Kasemets jumps in again and again with splashes of frenzied sound. This continues until Kasemets stops. The audience hesitates to applaud, unsure if this is the end, until he stands up to take a bow. Ilana turns to me and says, “It’s not for everyone.” But she does say that the importance of experimental film is based on the freedom to create whatever you want “and the freedom to listen and watch.”

Of everything I listened and watched that day, I admired the idea that freedom is the ultimate tool that these artists rely on and value so deeply. Even if I don’t understand what it is experimental filmmakers do, or why exactly they do it, I learned to appreciate their raw passion for their profession.

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