The Carriage Set Upright: Stephen Broomer on Potamkin

Potamkin (2017)

Potamkin (2017)

By Brian Wilson.

Stephen Broomer’s rapid ascension on the avant-garde landscape has been, quite simply, astounding. In the span of just seven years, Broomer has completed 35 short films and videos. His work utilizes a range of formats, including super 8, 16mm, and digital video, and is constantly pushing the boundaries of where the image resides. Broomer is an outspoken advocate for the value of a digital component in editing motion picture film, and an adamant opponent of that brand of film purism that stifles creativity in the name of allegiance to format, but also a tireless motion picture archivist who has devoted his life to preserving some of the important works of our time. His own work in film represents a return to the classical avant-garde form within the framework of the new, a modernization of the ideals that characterized the work of Brakhage, Snow, and others.

Broomer’s first feature film is Potamkin (2017), shot in 16mm black-and-white. It is also the artist’s most ambitious work to date. Through abstract means, the film deals with the life and work of pioneering film critic Harry Alan Potamkin, who died of poverty-induced starvation in 1933 at the age of 33. Potamkin is composed of fragments of many of the films the critic reviewed for newspapers and magazines throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Broomer has used found footage in his work before, most notably in Championship (2013) and Wild Currents (2015), but his treatment of the imagery is vastly different here. The vivid primary colors and complex layers of superimposed imagery that have become characteristic of Broomer’s style have no place here, replaced by striking black and white visuals that bring to mind the work of Phil Solomon and Bill Morrison.

The clearest visual precedent to Potamkin within Broomer’s own body of work is his Jenny Haniver (2014). In this film, Broomer uses physical and chemical means to transform a series of ten portraits into a violent cubist vision that bears little resemblance to its original source material.

In many ways, Potamkin belongs to that tradition of avant-garde epics such as Quick Billy (1971) and Dog Star Man (1964). Broomer has told me Potamkin is his attempt to make an ultimate work, one contains an entire world in itself. It is a long-form work rarely seen these days, and a film-biography that is also, in its own way, an impressionistic retelling of the history of early cinema.

Broomer has also published a highly invaluable collection of Potamkin’s poetry, In the Embryo of All Things, through his own Sightline Editions.

I spoke with Broomer via email during the summer of 2017.

How did you become interested in the work of Harry Alan Potamkin?

Broomer 02I’m surprised now to say that I never read Harry Alan Potamkin in film school. His writings have been widely anthologized and were among the first serious critical efforts in America to establish cinema as an art form, and he’s one of the primary architects of film education, yet I never read them directly until many years after my own initial film education. I think I first heard his name later, when I was studying with R. Bruce Elder, in a line from Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, which Bruce reads in his classes, a kind of outpouring of grief over society’s ugly habit of killing poets, in which the author cites and mourns all of his lost friends, suicided by society. Later, when I read an essay by Rexroth, I gained a fuller picture of Potamkin as a poet and critic. That article, “The Function of the Poet in Society,” begins with a discussion of two poets, one unnamed, the other Potamkin, whose writing had gradually vanished from discourse. I followed that through to reading the Lewis Jacobs’ collection of Potamkin’s criticism cover to cover, and over the course of a couple of years, gathered up all of Potamkin’s poetry from various little magazines and political newspapers. I was drawn to such an exhaustive project when I happened on a poem of his that struck me as particularly powerful, “Susskind of Trimberg,” a kind of biographical summoning of the Medieval poet. “His song is a query that knows no reply, / A mist of the earth where his soul must bore, / A mist of the earth that veils his eye, / A mist of the earth that is core of his core.” That poem convinced me of the character of my inquiry, that my film would be equivalent in its treatment of Potamkin as his poem was to Susskind of Trimberg, a biographical imagining, an impression of consciousness, and one which could also absorb and react to the social and aesthetic beliefs that run through his writings.

To achieve this, you use a number of different methods to manipulate and degrade the imagery in some of the films that were the focus of Potamkin’s criticism. Can you talk a little about your creative process here?

Potamkin went through a variety of digital and chemical stages. The work started back in 2014, when I began to acquire digital copies of every available film that Potamkin had written on, regardless of the depth of his consideration and setting aside qualitative judgments. I didn’t want to make a film that reflected his taste in cinema, or that took as its sources only his ideals, but which was drawn from his total experience of cinema, and of the world as reflected in cinema. This was several hundred films – you can see the massive index at the back of Lewis Jacobs’ anthology, and only a fraction of those films are still accessible today. My next step was to isolate individual compositions or sequences that were of visual interest to me. I went through each film and narrowed down four hours worth of shots and sequences. A few scenes stood out as essential to the shape I wanted out of the film – images that could easily be repurposed as motifs – like the ghostly choir that appears throughout the film, assembled out of Dovzhenko’s Earth; the feverish, dying face of the lieutenant from Pabst’s Westfront 1918, which becomes a stand-in for Potamkin on his death bed; or the horse-drawn carriage, from René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat, which here is made to echo and loop, becoming a procession.

I wanted to use representative images from as many of these films as possible. So four hours of images were rephotographed to 16mm film, which was processed by hand, in buckets. The film was then exposed to a number of corrosive chemical processes, primarily bleach etching, or mordancage, which is the application of a strong bleach that causes emulsion to peel up in translucent, organic veils. These corroded 16mm film strips were scanned, and the digital scans were further enhanced using software to perform tasks similar to those one could traditionally performs with an optical printer, including time manipulation, retouching, and layering. This led to the generation of many more hours of material, which would be whittled down in editing.

The imagery here is astounding. There are moments in which one can identify an actor or scene, but the image is never presented at face value. Instead, it constantly shifts and unfolds and deteriorates before our eyes.

Broomer 03It’s true that the image is always clouded over in one sense or another by emulsion debris, by other images, and by shifting positive and negative tones. This is a resistance of photographic naturalism, sure, it’s a recognition of the film’s physical presence as well, but it’s also a way of fighting with the two major ideologies of film that existed in the time of its sources – the rigid, spatial mapping of Hollywood cinema, the complex grammar of the Soviets. The deterioration of the image is one act against naturalism, the frame alternations are another, but the most important of these strategies is in the layering, or superimposing, of many images together. By layering images that have emulsion debris and deterioration, they speed up considerably – for every level of image, the grain, watermarks, and debris increase, causing the image to assume new speeds and densities greater than such layers would experience if the route images were ‘clean’. In the case of Potamkin, this density, this polyphony, is the song of cinema, a flood of simultaneous compositions and experiences, set in the years that made our cinema, when it flourished as an art form, was mastered as a political weapon, and married sound to vision.

You pay particular attention to the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. What is it about this section that drew you in so deeply?

The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the primal events of cinema. There is, of course, the bizarre and, I’ve come to think, very sweet similitude of Harry Alan Potamkin’s name to the ship, Potemkin, but this is not the only reason why Eisenstein’s film must be cited in this film – Potamkin deals with a society that destroys its critics, that responds to the threat of criticism with violence, as the Russian Empire did in 1905 at Odessa, in a time of pogroms. Such acts of violence might be expanded to include to society’s indifference to the suffering and poverty of artists and intellectuals, and by the neglect of these figures we see the willful rejection of intellectualism. The Odessa Steps are the great manifestation of Eisenstein’s ideogrammatic ideas around montage: by the arrangement of images meaning is created, and because that structure forms our response to the sequence, because of its mastery and its place in the lore of cinema, the sequence itself is burned in our memory. In the first half of the film, there are little motifs of what’s coming – scenes from the mutiny, images of the faces of the mothers at the Steps. In the second half, made up almost entirely of the Odessa Steps sequence, I am unravelling its stitches. I am reordering its grammar, breaking down the passage of time by having the images run forward, then backward; reforming the Steps into a series of compositional fragments, each shot occurring for only three frames each; and adopting elastic time signatures, to mimic step printing. At the end, the whole sequence runs in reverse: the carriage is set upright, the bullets unspent regain their menacing potential, the crowds run backward up the steps, and each footstep that crosses back over the broken bones of the child resets his shattered frame. This is not a romantic gesture. It is just a wish that cinema makes possible: to undo, on the smallest scale, the horrors of the massacre. Cinematic time is elastic, even if history is not.

The film almost seems to be built around this sequence, weaving in and out in this really beautiful way.

Yes, I feel that in a sense it is. The provocation, the humanist outrage of the Odessa Steps sequence, its revolutionary spirit, is an influence on the total project from end to end. Potamkin has this tidy division of action – the wild, largely heterodox citation and riffing on cinema in the first half, the focused attenuation of Odessa through the second half. In a way the first half is a survey of film phenomena, both in the debris of the strip and the content of whatever image remains. The second half is turned squarely on this sequence, as ideology, grammar, and power.

You use bits of text within the film, lines from some of Potamkin’s poems. This is the first film of yours to do this, and it’s interesting to see such a literal expression of his art here, particularly since the focus of his critical work, the films themselves, are so intensely abstracted. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Broomer 04The intense abstraction of the image is meant to complement Potamkin’s criticism, as his vision for cinema was, in its own way, crowded and frenzied, and I think he was always seeking that rare, perfect union of formal and moral expression. But the poetry really does bring his own voice into this, and I wanted Potamkin’s voice to have that literal manifestation for two reasons – first, that he had such a distinct and remarkable voice, in both his criticism and his poetry, in fact, I’d say that there is little distinction in the grace and power of his writing whether in poetry or prose; second, because his poetry was rarely read in his own time, and though that poetry is not without its failings, it’s brave and exploratory and passionate and honest. The presence of text in a film is something I’ve thought about a lot, for years, because many of my favourite films use running texts, including almost all of Bruce Elder’s films. I’m in the process of restoring Bruce’s epic cycle, The Book of All the Dead, so the relations of image and text are really on my mind, by methods that are much more complex than anything I’ve done. Text is a strategy I’ve always resisted, not because of a distrust of language or a hostility toward language, but because my interest has been focused on visual experience as something distinct from language. In Potamkin, these three lines appear at the head of each reel and the tail of the second one, and I would argue that the texts become grandly ambiguous, especially the final text, “Dig on, dig in, comrades / there’s water!” This might be taken as a call-to-arms for revolutionaries to recognizing the liberation of the spirit in the tilling of the earth. But it also follows a scene from the perspective of a coffin lowered into the ground, a face gradually fading into darkness as dirt is shovelled down into the grave. In this film, as in his writings, as in various montage theories, there are collisions of ideas that do not reconcile to an easy meaning. The conspiracy of text and image is one such collision.

Your father, Stuart Broomer, composed the soundtrack. Can you talk a bit about the process there? Did you emphasize to him any preconceived concepts of what you wanted the film to sound like?

My parents are the primary architects of my whole experience of art, and that’s not just because they took me to a lot of galleries when I was young. In my father’s case, as I formed my own aesthetic preferences and positions, they were always in dialogue with his. That’s something that started before I can properly remember and that evolved through my encounters with experimental music and poetry and film, all areas that my father had deep roots in and for which he was my first source of instruction. Because of this bond, we work together very easily. I would say that all of my disposition to chance is inherited from him, and with that my interests in certain kinds of challenges and puzzles and harmonies or disharmonies. And so, I know that when I show him something like Potamkin, which was formed out of my subconscious impulses, and against singularity of meaning, that he’ll find a suitable way to respond, and he saw in it that very thing that I’d built into it, the singing out of Potamkin’s soul, or to put it in starker terms, the subject’s dying gasp. I had no idea what the soundtrack should be like. I didn’t want to dictate it. I guess at one point, very early on in the planning of the film, I did think that it might involve labour anthems, like “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” But “Hard-Time Killin’ Floor” is better suited to the fire and brimstone of the image. We started work on the soundtrack after the first reel was finished. It started with playing back a variety of overlapping sounds with the picture and eliminating unsuitable sounds until they reached a level of synchronization, between picture and sound, that gave mutual support — a shared sense of direction – and maintained the necessary force that the film demands.

There’s more violence in the soundtrack of the first reel, more noise. As we move into the second reel, that develops into more of an ambient sound space, calmer. But across the entire soundtrack is this heavy atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.

Broomer 05There’s more density in the first reel’s soundtrack, in one sense – my father is using sub-bass-tones and the aggression of the MRI machine in a way that scales down as the film goes on. But on the second reel, which you’ve called calmer, there are less abrasive sources to the same dense end. So, where the first reel was really hammering at us with the bleating of the MRI, the second reel is using chakra bowls and reversed church bells. Perhaps these are differences between physical states, the first reel giving us a map of the organism, the second reel mapping out or summoning the soul. The MRI in the first reel is a diagnostic diagram of sickness; the chakra bowls in the second a speculative diagram of healing. There’s also the fact that the first reel is denser in images, drawn from many films, while the second reel is primarily made from three or four films, mostly The Battleship Potemkin. As for dread, well, perhaps dread comes in the collision of these desperate faces and the corporeal reminder of magnetic resonance imaging. But the film’s relation to uncertainty, absolutely, this is a film about uncertainty. There’s an uncertainty of where we’re going – the great hereafter of vanishing consciousness – but there’s also uncertainty of where we’ve been. The vision of history that cinema gives us, like any history, is full of gaps and lies… With Potamkin, the flexibility of the film image, as strained by the creative potential of chemistry, could be another manifestation of this uncertainty.

You’re already engaged in a new color film using found footage of Paris during the 1950s, as well as several new editions from Sightline. Any notion of where you turn next?

I follow where my interests take me, however I can, and I try to contribute, in everything that I do, to the defence and understanding of this art form. For the past few years I’ve been very active in the digital preservation of underground films; more recently I’ve started two loosely related publishing companies, one for books and one for discs; and my films, well, that’s my salvation, that’s where I feel free. The best one can hope for in our cinema is to connect with other passionate, kindred spirits and form pockets of resistance to all of the anti-social, hate-riddled and paranoid tendencies of the day. Today I’m balancing a number of projects that may or may not come to pass, as I have for a decade now. If a project ever becomes impossible, I will simply move on to the next one. You have to be ruthless with yourself. One of the things that unifies my writing, teaching and filmmaking is a desire to honour and extend the project of the poets who came before me, so whatever I do next, I’ll be carrying that ambition with me. And it doesn’t matter where I go next. It only matters that my beliefs in this present moment have been refined by where I’ve been.

Brian Wilson has taught film production at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and Washington University in St Louis. He has made over twenty short films and videos, and has written for journals such as Film International, CineAction, and Senses of Cinema.

1 Comment for “The Carriage Set Upright: Stephen Broomer on Potamkin

  1. A really good interview Brian. Yes, Potamkin deserves to be better known. Apart from this interview and an article in an early JUMP CUT issue not much has been written about him.

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