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Current Issue: #223 Agency & Affect (Winter 2014)

Canadian Literature's Issue 223 (Winter 2014), Agency & Affect, is now available. The issue features articles by Ranbir K. Banwait, Paul Huebener, Lisa Marchi, Veronica Austen, and Andrea Beverley, as well as an interview with Laurence Hill by Kerry Lappin-Fortin, along with new Canadian poetry and book reviews.

Elder's Maddening Vision

Reviewed by Peter Urquhart

Rare are scholarly works prefaced with protestations of the author’s sanity. Rarer still are works of criticism that display virtuoso application of such enormously wide-ranging scholarly traditions as these two, but that are premised on the woefully old-fashioned—and, of course, quite ridiculous—idea that narrative is the enemy of Art. Although R. Bruce Elder’s latest two books exhibit both of these eccentric features, they most certainly should not be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, the very eccentricity of Elder’s methods—coupled with his astonishing command of the history of western philosophy and aesthetics, and an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, painting, dance, experimental film and sculpture—results in two maddeningly rich reads.

In A Body of Vision, Elder considers the works of a wide variety of experimental filmmakers—including, among others, the canonized Bruce Connor, Stan Brakhage, Willard Maas and Carolee Shneemann, perhaps best known for, respectively, A Movie (1958), Dog Star Man (1961-64), The Geography of the Body (1943), and Fuses (1964-67)—alongside writings on corporeality by Antonin Artaud and Leonard Cohen. The centuries-old divisions between body and spirit and between body and mind are the central dilemma upon which Elder’s analysis of these works turns. Both his motivation for undertaking the study and his critical position are pithily outlined when he quotes an exchange from Jean-Luc Godard ’s Hélas pour moi (1993):

A woman tells a wealthy businessman that "I learned yesterday that the flesh can be sad." "Who taught you that?" he asks. "My body," the woman answers. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," he says.

The businessman, Elder explains, argues both from the vantage point of modernity and from what he calls "the hegemony of the word," which "threatens to reduce the body to just one more meta-linguistic signifier." And it is to this figure of modernity that Elder directs his critique. An intriguing and persuasive case is made that art concerned with experience and corporeality, and with the relations between the two, has so far been insufficiently theorized.

In The Films of Stan Brakhage, Elder does exactly what his subtitle promises, and situates Brakhage’s oeuvre firmly in the context of an American tradition. He offers some excellent insights into the films, and it is here—in contextualized close analysis—where both books shine. For example, in drawing a trajectory beginning with the New England transcendentalists, but especially Emerson and Thoreau, through modernists such as William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and to the fifties avant-garde of John Cage (where the birth of Brakhage’s aesthetic is usually situated), Elder’s reading of individual films benefits from the combined force of historical momentum—each step advancing the argument temporally and practically.

Another key aspect of the Brakhage aesthetic is the film-maker’s overarching concern with pure seeing. As William Wees has explained in his superb study of the aesthetics of experimental film, "the untutored eye" is a persistent and sustaining metaphor in Stan Brakhage’s visual aesthetics, and, "if poets are ‘literalists of the imagination,’ in Marianne Moore’s well-known phrase, then Brakhage is a literalist of perception, striving to make equivalents of what he sees, as he actually sees it." And as Brakhage himself explains in his Metaphors on Vision, "imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ’Green’?" Elder links this aspect of Brakhage’s philosophy to quite profound ruminations on experience and their primordial manifestations in the tradition under examination, ruminations which clearly attempt to re-introduce sensation and bodily (as opposed to simply intellectual) experience for the serious consideration of art.

These two works work as companion pieces insofar as the body book contains much commentary on Brakhage’s oeuvre, while the Brakhage book is replete with discussion of all manner of images of the body in poetry and film. Both texts draw on various philosophical traditions in their analysis—importantly Kant’s Critique of Judgement in A Body of Vision, and Schopenhauer’s distinction between two aspects of the body—while each text also wanders far afield from these overriding concerns, meandering through Gnosticism, modern dance theory, New Criticism, Romantic poetry: you name it. One result of this application of such disparate critical and theoretical tools is to render the already arcane subjects of analysis (that is, the "texts"—a very dirty word to Elder) all the more obscure to the non-specialist, since to follow the analysis of, say, Carolee Shneemann’s classic erotic experimental film Fuses, we also need to follow digressions into Leonard Cohen, Luce Irigaray, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Anton Ehrenzweig, Man Ray, Wilhelm Reich, and many, many others. Another result of Elder’s strategy is that treating everyone equally results in a degree of evaluative levelling, which seems to elevate even minor artists to Brakhage’s star status, an effect that certainly serves Elder’s modus operandi of avant-garde boosterism.

Another of the book’s minor flaws is its editorial peculiarities. For example, while a case could certainly be made for spelling the celebrated Soviet film-maker’s name "Sergej Ejzenstejn" (as Elder does) to reflect more accurately the sound of the Cyrillic characters than the ubiquitous conventional English spelling, to do so without comment is to be wilfully obscurantist. And more seriously, Elder may know something about Willard Maas’s name that I do not, but the great American experimental film-maker’s name in all the available literature on his work is "Willard" and not "Williard" as Elder spells it throughout the text. This is either a glaring error, or, like the spelling of Eisenstein, an unannounced corrective to a mistake nobody thought he or she was making.

These quibbles may sound like nit-picking, but they point to an over-riding impression left by these texts: that Elder feels attacked by a critical establishment, and his tone throughout is indeed defensive in the extreme. In fact, Elder devotes a good portion of his preface to The Films of Stan Brakhage to attacking unnamed "postmodern theorists" and for their "concern with theory and popular culture," for their "adherence to a contextual aesthetics which has had the effect of reducing art to commentary," which together result in "reducing experience to a common mode, making it less varied, less disruptive, less complex." Here, as throughout A Body of Vision, Elder promotes his own view that such theorizing, as a direct consequence of modernity’s homogenizing effects, is unable and unwilling to account for intangible, unintellectual (that is, bodily-sensational), and spiritual dimensions of artistic expression and apprehension, the dimension he considers of special interest. Elder’s devotion to Brakhage’s work, thus comes as no surprise, but, while his texts are rich in insight into the philosophy and aesthetics of the most famous avant-garde film-maker ever, they also result in wholesale celebration and praise. No feature of Brakhage’s oeuvre, which comprises many hundreds of films, is up for criticism here. In fact, the relatively common complaint—a clearly descriptive rather than necessarily evaluative one—against Brakhage’s more recent films (and one that I make myself), that they are all more or less the same, is directly dismissed not with argument or demonstration, but with this crankily asserted rebuttal: "I can’t think of any other oeuvre of comparable diversity in all the history of film."

A celebrated film-maker, teacher, and critic, Elder has elsewhere achieved a certain critical notoriety, most famously for his dogmatic manifesto "The Cinema We Need"(1985). Calling for an entirely experimental, non- or anti-narrative cinema in Canada (the kind of films Elder makes himself), this essay provoked storms of rebuttal, critique, and denunciation from many leading Canadian and non-Canadian scholars of cinema, but also engendered a meaningful debate over what is at stake in the defining of a national cinema, prescriptively or otherwise. Similarly here, with these two books, Elder makes dazzlingly strong cases for his positions on the metaphysical transformations and provocations provided by certain bodily images and by Brakhage’s films generally, while also occasionally infuriating the reader with the prescriptiveness of his evaluations.


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MLA: Urquhart, Peter. Elder's Maddening Vision. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 138 - 140)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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