R. Bruce Elder




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Biography



Since 1975, R. Bruce Elder has been building two formidable bodies of work, as an artist working in the experimental tradition, and as an author of critical texts on art and cinema. His artistic achievements were recognized in 2007 with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Canada’s most prestigious award in those field, and was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. Jonas Mekas, founder of the New York Filmmakers Co-op and principle visionary of the American avant-garde cinema, has dubbed him “the most important North American avant-garde filmmaker to emerge during the 1980s.” Something similar could be said of Elder’s monumental works of art criticism. His role as an author has in recent years assumed the task of charting the relationship between cinema and art movements through the twentieth century, as we see in his recent book, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, his previous, Harmony & Dissent: Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century, and the forthcoming Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect. In 2009, he received the Robert Motherwell Book Award from the Dedalus Foundation for Harmony + Dissent

Raised in Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario, Elder began his critical and creative work while an undergraduate student in philosophy at McMaster University in the late 1960s. There he learned from the celebrated political philosopher George P. Grant, who introduced Heidegger’s discourse on technology to a generation of Canadian poets and thinkers and whose thoughts on nationhood, love, and technology would inform Elder’s work as an artist and writer.

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He entered McMaster’s art community during its most fertile period, and it was in his capacity as a member of that community that Elder brought American poets Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg to present their work on campus, with Ginsberg joined by Robert Creeley. As a result, Elder was able to spend one weekend talking to Rexroth, and another to Ginsberg and Creeley. Elder was at that time dedicated primarily to poetry. In 1970, he published an eponymous chapbook of poetry, a publication that speaks to an aspiration that has run through Elder’s work as a filmmaker and critic, and his work was included in anthologies. It was in this time that he became interested in film, as a means to underwrite the difficult toils of the poet. His formation as a poet is still apparent: all his film work has a poetic character, and the films in his later cycle, The Book of Praise are composed around poems Elder wrote for them. A Gathering of Crystals attempts to take this feature of is film work to the limit: it defies all modernist instruction on the cinema, to make the oral reading of the poem Elder composed for the film the film’s structuring principle.

In the mid-1970s, Elder and his wife Kathryn attended a Summer Institute in Film Studies offered by a consortium of New England universities. Stan Brakhage, the preeminent American avant-garde filmmaker, was one of several filmmakers leading workshops at the institute, alongside Ed Emshwiller, Hollis Frampton, Robert Breer, Shirley Clarke, Stan Vanderbeek, and Richard Leacock. Elder’s intentions with film changed there, as he learned that his ambition as a poet might be realized through filmmaking. He had encountered the work of the New American Cinema in university, but here he felt the full effect of such a vanguard form, understanding it to be a new form of poetry. As an admirer of the epic poems of Dante and Pound, and being newly acquainted with the poetic potential of cinema, Elder conceived of a cycle of films that would occupy the next twenty years of his life, beginning with Breath/Light/Birth (1975) and ending with the epic six-part Exultations (In Light of the Great Giving) (spanning 1990-1994). This cycle would be known as The Book of All the Dead.

Throughout the 1980s, as his magnum opus was expanding, so too was his critical vision for a Canadian avant-garde cinema. In 1985, Elder confronted the so-called ‘new narrative cinema’, and its pilfering of avant-garde technique, in his essay-manifesto “The Cinema We Need,” which at the time provoked outrage and which remains controversial today. Elder developed a potent rationale for the separate aesthetic of Canadian avant-garde filmmaking in the pages of Canadian Forum and Descant. Without hindering his output as an artist, Elder developed a manuscript on the subject of Canada’s national film and philosophy, including a substantial section on the avant-garde, and delivered it to the offices of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. It would be published jointly soon after, by the Academy along with Wilfred Laurier Press, as Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (1989). This would mark Elder’s first book-length critical publication, and since then, he has spent two decades producing a series of manuscripts on topics such as the body in art and in film, the poetic sources of Stan Brakhage, and most recently, modernist movements in early cinema. With the completion of The Book of All the Dead in the mid-90s, Elder assumed a new cycle, The Book of Praise. He identifies this cycle as a Protestant work, a shift away from a Catholic sensibility that had been primary to The Book of All the Dead, a shift away from wonder at the world created, toward the wonders of our interior being. Elder has written that The Book of Praise deals with the transformative properties of eros, image, history, montage, and self. It is through this theme of transformation that The Book of Praise takes on alchemistic qualities, meditating on symbol and colour to bring forth a higher self, in an echo of the alchemist’s project to transmute base metal into gold. To date, this body of work contains six completed feature-length films and one shorter work. Those themes that manifested in Elder’s earlier cycle – his confrontation with the exhaustion of ideas and the burden of history – persist in The Book of Praise. This is evident even in Elder’s process. The transformations of which Elder speaks when he describes his new cycle are simultaneously hopeful and melancholic. The transformations in contemporary art, in its market and audience, make it increasingly difficult for an artist such as Elder to pursue his modes of expression. But those transformations that occur in Elder’s own art, both in his working process and the mystical conversions within his work, aim toward such continuity, as if to brave the last gasps of art and history.



Full Biography [...]

Films & Projects



The Book of all the Dead



Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 6: Et Resurrectus Est- 1994

Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 5: Burying the Dead: Into the Light-1993

Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 4: Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving-1993

Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 3: Azure Serene: Mountains, Rivers, Sea and Sky-1992

Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 2: Newton and Me- 1990 (co-cinematographer Alexa-Frances Shaw)

Exultations: In Light of the Great Giving Part 1: Flesh Angels- 1990

The Book of Praise



The Young Prince (2007)

What Troubles The Peace At Brandenberg? (2011)

A Gathering of Crystals (2015)

Eros and Wonder (2002)

Crack ,Brutal, Grief (2001)

A Man Whose Life Was Full of Woe Has Been Surprised by Joy (1997)

Full Filmography [...]

Writing & Publications



Books



Elder B. (2013). DADA, Surrealism and the Cinematic Effect. : 750.
In Press, Wilfrid Laurier Press


Elder B. (2012). Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Paperback: 483.
Published, Wilfrid Laurier Press


Elder B. (2010). Harmony and Dissent: Film and Avant-Garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century. Paperback: 516.
Published, Wilfrid Laurier Press


Elder B. (1999). The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson. ebook: 572.
Published, Wilfrid Laurier Press


Elder B. (1998). A Body of Vision: Representations of the Body in Recent Film and Poetry. : 400.
Published, Wilfrid Laurier Press


Articles, Reviews, Essays



“Mon Oncle Antoine.” Descant 6 (Spring 1973): 74-79; reprinted in Feldman, Seth and Joyce Nelson, eds. Canadian Film Reader. Toronto: Peter Martin, 1977: 194-99.

Full Bibliography [...]