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SITDOWN: STEPHEN BROOMER

Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies and other events.

Stephen Broomer’s Phantom Ride, an American road movie made from footage shot by Ellwood F. Hoffmann (1885 – 1966), a hosiery mill owner in Pennsylvania, was one of two features shown at Alchemy Live, the free worldwide stream of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival’s tenth edition. 
To mark its UK premiere at Alchemy Live, Stephen spoke to Michael Pattison, Alchemy Film & Arts Creative Director, about home movies, authorial visions and the American Dream.
 

Alchemy: Tell us a bit about Ellwood F Hoffmann, and how you came to know of his home movies.

Stephen Broomer: Ellwood Hoffmann is in some ways an average American of his generation, in the sense that he’s the father in a nuclear family with some curiosity about exotic cultures and a desire for rich experiences of recreation. He’s a man we might imagine having dinner in a tiki bar or hosting a backyard barbecue. We see such a side of him in his travel movies, as we do in the travel movies of many others among his generation.

But in other ways he represents a particular and exceptional American icon, that of the self-made man. The biographical information that I have encountered about him characterizes him as someone who achieved the American dream, working his way up from sweeping floors in a hosiery mill to owning such a mill and retiring young. Before he retired, he made movies on special occasions. After he retired, the special occasion of travel was a regular thing for him, as he began his permanent vacation. He didn’t only make these films for himself, in that he would show them for his local community, with the colour commentary of a parlour show.

He died in 1966, in a sad and somewhat ironic turn, in a car accident, after decades of making movies with a camera mounted on the hood of his car. I came to know his movies through my studies in the home movie, and thanks to the Center for Home Movies’ extraordinary generosity in making these films available on the Internet Archive. This film began as a small episode made for a compilation film spearheaded by Giorgiomaria Cornelio and La Camera Ardente.

Phantom Ride seems to present footage from a specific period of Hoffmann’s outputs – mostly post-war. What drew you to this period as opposed to any other?

It covers a long period in his life. Post-war is a good working definition. There are films in here that are wartime, like the footage of the war bonds rally with Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx and all, early in the film, and some that is pre-war – some footage of Mexico, late in the film, that he shot in the 1930s. The post-war period coincides with Hoffmann’s retirement and this covers the bulk of his output, up to the late 1950s.

So in some ways the source material dictates the frame, but I also felt when I first encountered the material that it was an image of a vanishing American experience, possibly one that never existed, when America was still a vast landscape, when its most recent myths, those of the old west, were still present in everyday life. The pandemic we are presently living through presents the sobering fact that such a life is not only vanished but that it will never be coming back, if it ever truly existed. When I introduced the film at MUTA last summer, when it had its first screening, I quoted Bruce Springsteen who sings, ‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?’ Now, he was singing about being poor and trapped in the busted marriages, faded hopes and dead-end jobs of mill towns of the 1970s and ’80s, but the dream he sang about was that same American dream, that’s been kept alive for so long by the very people that it failed.

The film draws on a very specific American iconography too. There’s Mount Rushmore, there’s the Florida coast, there’s obviously the road itself as a kind of constant. Is your relationship to these places formed through Hoffmann’s footage? Do you feel like you even have a relationship to these places?

The relationship to those places is Hoffmann’s. I feel, in some sense, that I have a relationship to Hoffmann’s vision because of the time I’ve spent with it. But I don’t have the romantic sensibility of being in those landscapes that he has, I don’t know that I’ve ever had those impulses.

When I was first making films, in something closer to a lyric style, my work was very much about landscapes, but those were the traumatised, haunted landscapes of obscure, almost personal history. I was interested in the field where a couple of Jesuits were boiled alive in 1649, and a forest path where psychic frauds spent their summers in the late 1800s, and the ruins of an urban church destroyed by arson in 1998, greenery overgrown through the cracked trestles of its broken stained-glass windows. To me those are exceptional sites, and as monuments they are almost accidental. They’re more like crude grave markers planted on a perilous journey forward, found fifty years later when the tracks cut through the territory.

What Hoffmann was experiencing was something different, he was belonging to a collective act of witness where you take the kids to Mount Rushmore, and you marvel at Big Teddy hiding there in the corner, and you buy hot dogs with ballpark mustard down by the viewing station. I don’t think that reality is any less meaningful or any less holy but it’s not my faith to go chasing. I found it fascinating to travel with the images of someone who did. The road as a constant also gives me a graphic form to work with, and gives a consistent path to our experience of it.

There’s a tension throughout the film between the individual scenes belonging to a single tonal register, if you like, and the sense that there’s nevertheless a narrative momentum, a build or a crescendo. There’s something linear in the image of a dashboard-mounted camera proceeding forward along a road, and yet the overlays point to something more expansive, deeper, something that’s the very opposite of linearity.

I feel that any linearity is subverted by both the layering and the placement of the two scenes from the Forties – the 1944 Republican convention seen near the end, the 1943 War Bonds rally seen near the beginning. One way in which this developing crescendo happens is through the increase in layers throughout. When the image is stripped down to a double- or triple-layer after sequences of five or more layers, it’s almost a caesura. A part of me says, it might as well be pitch blackness for how it changes the rhythm.

And there is no question that the phantom ride knows only forward momentum. Maybe this is all about relativity and the heart. His car moves forward steadily, careening along country roads, stopping at gas stations and toll gates, but remembering is also a thing with forward momentum, and is also a thing that happens to us in the present moment. Perhaps that narrative build is felt because I have imposed a structure of remembering, have forced the film itself to remember – where, for example, Hoffmann’s son’s age is elastic, and we see the little boy in the face of the grown man, and sure enough, a moment passes, and he is a little boy again.

You credit yourself at the end of the film with ‘image’. Talk us through that decision.

I’ve felt for some time that in my collaborations with my father it is wrong for me to give myself a higher station of authorship than image given how much he is my co-author, with his sound compositions. I’m editing and compositing the image, so that’s what I’m doing, and this is our first film that we’ve made with no other collaborators, just us two. Some could argue that, in my found footage films, I’m not truly responsible for the image, because I’m borrowing pre-existing images. But with few exceptions, no image in any of these films is unenhanced, either by chemistry or by digital means. I don’t know what other titles I could take, like ‘a film by’ or ‘directed by’, would even mean in the context of how I’m making these films. I’d prefer not to sign the films in any way at all, which is what I did with my other film from last year, Resurrection of the Body, for which I was responsible for sound and image. For the bulk of my films before 2017, they were signed with just name and date, no roles assigned. I always think pronouncements of authorship look inflated and silly, anyway.

The only other credit is ‘sound’. This film marks another collaboration with your father, Stuart Broomer, who designed the sound. How familiar was he with the footage, and what was his and your approach to scoring it?

My father had free rein for the sound, as he always does. His work here involves temporal manipulation of a single source, so in many ways, as before, our methods are running parallel. Of all of our films, this is probably the one that we spent the most time with, even though the composition is minimalistic by comparison to the dense soundscapes of the earlier films. The picture was complete, or near complete, and he received it a reel at a time – I think of the film as being in two parts – and we were able to anticipate ways in which the sound and image could build together, so that factored into my editing and layering as I went.

In the film’s one-line summary on the festival schedule, we’ve referred to you as a ‘found footage maestro’. How comfortable are you with being associated with a term like ‘found footage’? Is it restricting for you? Would you contest that these images are ‘found’?

I’m less comfortable being referred to as a maestro! But you said it, so I’ll take it with thanks. I used to feel strongly about those kinds of labels. I think these images are found in the same way that anything encountered on the Internet Archive can be found. I used to feel that it was silly to claim that films made out of repurposed mainstream cinema were found films because that’s like claiming you discovered Picasso by walking into the Louvre, or claiming you discovered America in 1492 or for that matter, 1942. To me, found footage was something you did with useful cinema, commercial viscera, advertisements, industrial films, home movies. I’m younger than that now. I don’t care so much about what people label these films as. I’m pretty comfortable with ‘found footage’ although I tend these days to prefer the phrase recycled cinema or recycled media, which I think is more all-inclusive of other acts of détournement, mash-up, and so on. These images have been recycled. But their ghosts are intact.

This is a very, very different film to Tondal’s Vision, the feature we showed last year. What continuities might underpin your approach as an artist to such ostensibly varied material?

I trust that my instincts carry through from one project to another. I don’t imagine my instincts are special, but they are my own. I don’t have to worry about declaring my authorship the way that commercial filmmakers might because I am working in isolation, with only close collaborators or alone. I couldn’t make a film that ‘isn’t one of mine’ if I tried.

Between this and Tondal’s Vision, I think there is common ground in their creation of an afterlife, as different as those afterlives are. The relation between making an afterlife and working with recycled cinema is a natural one. The beautiful hell of Tondal’s Vision, which is also the beautiful hell of De Liguoro’s good intentions, the fecund limbo of Hoffmann’s America, which is also one ugly headline, ‘Dream Found Dead at 244 Years Old.’ Maybe it’s not my place to say this, but I think that if one were trying to find a common thread in my work from Potamkin onward, it’s the creation of afterlives and the synthesis of a last gasp, a prayer, let’s call them messages from these bodhisattvas whose presences vanished when their souls turned back to save us. It was them or us, the cruelty of a pillar of salt.

They obviously appeal to you as a researcher, filmmaker and also a cinephile, but what is it, conceptually or otherwise, that you find so rich or rewarding in home movies?

I’m relatively new to home movies. I didn’t grow up with home movies. The scholarly territory has been trodden so articulately by a few people, especially in the areas of social history and recreation, and I’m just finding my feet in it now, dealing with it as an aesthetic experience. The reward is in their spontaneity, that they have informal tropes, or at least common subjects, but that, because they are personal films, there’s no learning to them, there’s no poisonous rhetorical styling to them, there may be some dishonesty but there’s no manufactured, entrenched dishonesty. These aren’t the films of grifters, we’ll leave that to Hollywood. Like all of the best movies, they aren’t trying to sell you something, tangible or ideological or otherwise.

Home movies, at their best, in the hands of a true and honest amateur, are closer in so many ways to what I idealised in experimental cinema and that brought me to it, and are closer to what I hope to reflect in my own work and to find in the work of others. The operations of the subconscious, the operations of instinct, without a lot of explanation. These are reasons to watch home movies. These are reasons, if one is so inclined, to know and study home movies, and among those who repurpose them, I think a common thread that attracts us is the unknowability of them.

I’ve been really lucky to study with Rick Prelinger recently, and I attended a talk he gave where he spoke about how these movies conceal as much as they show. They show us so much and they conceal so much, and you don’t know about the queer kid who’s being bullied, you don’t know about the abused child, you don’t know about the pains in a marriage, or the heartache of all the broken dreams people carry around with them. You can infer whatever you want, but that can’t get you any closer to a distant, unknowable reality, if anything it’s a sure fire way to get you further away from the truth because visible evidence has such rigid limits. Inferences about home movies are just the cruellest guessing game, and I prefer to take such films at face value for the most part and invite some of their joy into my life. One of the things that I love about studying home movies are those limits. It makes it a challenge to talk about them, and a worthy challenge to rise to, which is what I’m trying to do these days.

That moment at the end of Phantom Ride, of presumably Hoffmann himself peeking at the camera from behind a bush. It’s very lovely, a simple shot after a steady build of superimposition. It’s like a return to something, a punctuation mark following a final flourish. One of the caesuras you’ve mentioned.

I believe that is Hoffmann. If it’s not him, it’s a great resemblance. It’s also taken from a fairly late film, so he’s much older. He peeks out from an orange grove, holds up his camera and takes our picture. All the layers are stripped away, after all that density and all that crowding throughout the once-lonesome American roadways. I wanted him to be given the last word.

Image: Phantom Ride by Stephen Broomer