Codes For North – Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film
by Stephen Broomer
Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 2017
Perhaps because the avant-garde cinema is of a highly personal and fluid nature and the slightest rigidity risks betraying its multiplicity of forms and aims, critical endeavors addressing the avant-garde cinema through the lens of national identity have not flourished to the extent of national cinema studies. While we have great tomes such as Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (P. Sitney), Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema (P. Tscherkassky, ed.), and Jeune, dure et pure! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et experimental en France (N. Brenez, ed.), more often than not, geography is taken as the point of departure instead of the point of arrival for conclusions and perspectives hinged upon cultural identity. Coming out of the intellectual tradition that gave birth to the tremendous wisdom of Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (B. Elder), Stephen Broomer shares the impulse to contemplate Canadian cinema within the framework of national history and cultural identity and in turn to locate and enunciate Canadian culture’s philosophical underpinnings through its cinematic vision. He addresses himself to this task in his recent book Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film.
To identify ancestors of Canadian avant-garde cinema, one might immediately think of Norman McLaren and his famed animation department at the National Film Board (NFB). While the NFB housed many talents, including Arthur Lipsett whose found footage collage films pushed the boundaries of experimental filmmaking in Canada at the time, neither the institutional culture of NFB nor the singular vision of Lipsett was able to foster a wider and sustained interest among filmmakers to pursue the subversive innovativeness of the avant-garde. Meanwhile, the rise of abstract painting in Québec in the ‘50s and ‘60s could have been a driving force of parallel experimentations in cinema, except the young Québecois cineastes followed the example of the French nouvelle vague and chose to pursue new modes of narrative. What is later to be called the Canadian avant-garde film would find its creator in visual artists instead.
Enter the three pairs of protagonists: Jack Chambers and The Hart of London (1970), Michael Snow and La Région Centrale (1971), and Joyce Wieland and Reason Over Passion (1969). Different from the niche subject of his first book Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board, these canonical figures demand revelations beyond existent literature. Broomer’s approach is unique in itself. He keenly recognizes that “the difficult aesthetics of the foundational, major works of the Canadian avant-garde film have been an implicit theme in the critical discourse surrounding them” and a focused study of this under-developed theme would reveal some of the underlying tenents of the Canadian avant-garde film. The aesthetics of difficulty is not unique to art of any specific form or period, and the experience of difficulty is especially not unfamiliar even to the most sophisticated aficionados of avant-garde cinema. What Codes for North aims and achieves to do, though, is capture the moment in history where Chambers, Snow and Wieland confronted the perceptual paradoxes and pursued difficult forms and philosophy in their own art which later prove to have set the stage for Canadian avant-garde filmmaking.
Before delving into the variety and depth of difficulty, Broomer is first and foremost concerned with the formation and evolution of the creative mind. The films and the filmmaking practice of the three artists are never presented as stand-alone incidents but continuation, culmination, or deviation within the context of their personal history and artistic trajectory. For example, he observes:
“Snow wrote poems and text sparingly, but one early text, ‘Title or Heading’ (1961), served as a free form statement of his ideas about art that included aphorisms, descriptive expressions and lists of influences from Gustave Flaubert to Art Blakey. It was an inventory, a mode of speech, rife with enclosures and allusions, a declaration of art as ‘Difficult Entertainment’”
“Chambers had known terror in Spain, embodied in the predators that stalked the suffering Picasso-like figures of his paintings of the late 1950s. They were the specters of illness, poverty and indifference. Such beasts gave form to the stalking menace of modern convenience and the complacency that Chambers had seen first in provincial London’s resigned imitation of life.”
Broomer’s thorough attention to the creative genesis and process ensure his interpretation of the specifics to be exact and balanced. With the exception of Snow who is still actively making art today, the works of Chambers and Wieland are rarely being exhibited or discussed, especially outside Canada, suffering from a certain parochialism resulted from the materiality of experimental films. Like Bart Testa said, they have “settled in as a classic, but in the most inert sense.” (The Films of Jack Chambers, K. Elder, ed.). Codes for North is thus a much needed revival. As it awakens film scholarship to re-examine its unfinished thoughts on the difficult aesthetics, maybe it will also rekindle the curatorial curiosity in showing these films more.
In deciphering the making of difficulty, Broomer’s solution is two-fold. On one hand, he finds measured assistance in the typology George Steiner theorized in his 1978 essay “On Difficulty,” which locates four kinds of difficulty in allusions to uncommon knowledge (contingent difficulty), disagreement between form and content (modal difficulty), textual encodement (tactical difficulty), and ultimate unknowability (ontological difficulty). The typology introduces a productive structure to our appreciation of the difficult aesthetics, and Broomer utilizes its intelligence with much precision:
“The primary difficulty is that of its modal incongruity, as a work determinedly about the scale and glory of the landscape that yet endorses vision and experience on an intimate scale. …This modal incongruity serves the purpose of communicating even converting an audience to, patriotic ideals, by turning away from picture postcard visions of the Canadian landscape, turning instead toward a representational mode that de-familiarizes, that forces the viewer into a direct perceptual relation not only to the shapes of mountains and lakes but to the experience of passing to sea and to sea. In hand with this, Wieland’s tactical difficulties encoded Reason Over Passion with patriotic sentiment, enhancing her propagandistic intent.” (p. 226)
On the other hand, he avoids overriding the films’ complexity with a theoretical framework and commits himself to painstaking research of source materials, comprehensive analysis of techniques, and eloquent reading of plastic expressions. Instead of prescribing the visceral experience of cinema to abstract terms, Broomer’s telling preserves the films in an intimacy that belongs to the artist’s hand as well as the spectator’s eye. Whether it is Chambers’ mystifying superimposition, Wieland’s encoded heterogeneity, or Snow’s mechanized choreography, Broomer’s tireless account of details can sometimes out-smart the reader’s familiarity with the films. He knows them so well I suspect he has every image memorized. This requires and almost forces the reader to revisit the films with the same vigor, which makes the text an unprecedented and invaluable reading companion to these difficult viewings.
One protagonist that Broomer faithfully returns to throughout the book is Canada. Oscillating between the British origin and American attraction, between English conditioning and French influence, Broomer’s Canada is a difficult notion that undergoes constant transformation, thus calling for endless rumination. In Chambers, Snow and Wieland, Broomer sees an unintended embodiment of Canada. They let the North fully inhabit the political, psychological, and pictorial sphere of their works, and it is in this that they bring the avant-garde cinema of Canadian identity into existence. While I wish Broomer elaborated a little more on how the films and thinking of Chambers, Snow, and Wieland influenced the artists that came after, I also wish more scholars would take on the delicate exercise of contemplating the connection between formal matters of avant-garde cinema and cultural identity, because when it is done properly, like Broomer’s Codes for North, it is truly enlightening.