Layers of Being: Stephen Broomer’s Brébeuf

Canadian experimentalist Stephen Broomer is a film artist who works in recognizable idioms. Many of his most recent efforts reflect a keen interest in place and in particular the natural landscape, and in this respect his work nestles quite cozily within a noble and often ecstatic avant-garde tradition, one with roots that go back to at least the 17th century. However. In terms of painting, the examination of nature as both an optical and a haptic space, an experience as well as a geometry, we can situate Broomer within a modernist cinematic tradition that stakes certain claims with Cézanne and, particularly within Canadian filmmaking, the Group of Seven and their fellow traveler Emily Carr.

The tradition of landscape film within the avant-garde moves in many directions, but one constant seems to be the tension between the camera as a tool of detachment or one of tremulous engagement, as either an extension of a distanced eye or a body in the throes of what Heidegger called “enworldment.” Merleau-Ponty had an even more precise reading on this problem when he wrote of the chiasm, the intertwining between body and world. Since we are enrobed, enveloped by the sensory universe, which moves around us, and we around in it, like water in a swimming pool, how can we ever hope to attain a picture of the world from a position outside? Nevertheless, phenomenological thinking tells us we can assume that distanced position, “bracket” that sensory engulfment, and gain something like a total picture, even if only momentarily, and only provisionally.

We can consider certain key films in the history of landscape cinema as marking out positions within this tension. Artists such as James Benning (from One Way Boogie Woogie [1977] onward] and Peter Hutton (in films such as Landscape (for Manon) [1987] and In Titan’s Goblet [1991]) favor fixity, allowing people and objects to move through their own stationary frame. By contrast, Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971) exemplifies the opposite position, allowing spatial indeterminacy to overwhelm any attempt at optical mastery. Snow’s film doesn’t bypass the eyes, exactly. But it short-circuits their sense of distance from overall embodiment; it reintegrates them into the entire physical apparatus.

La Région Centrale is a film we watch with our eyes and with the rest of our bodies, as we lock onto the screen and feel our receptors being turned every which way. A number of other filmmakers have engaged with landscape in a similar vein: Joyce Wieland (Reason Over Passion [1969]; Ernie Gehr (Signal: Germany on the Air [1985], Side/Walk/Shuttle [1991]); R. Bruce Elder (Consolations (Love is an Art of Time) [1988]); and Chris Welsby (Fforest Bay [1973]; Seven Days [1974]), to name just a few. For the most part, we can best understand Broomer’s filmmaking within this framework.

But not entirely. One of the things that has made Broomer’s recent films so interesting is that, rather than giving over to one pole or the other – distanced or embodied, shall we say – he has organized his work as a kind of perceptual struggle between the two. This can be seen in the deeply tactile manner in which Broomer approaches the landscape, his way of describing natural spaces with his handheld 16mm camera. One frequently gets the sense that Broomer is holding the camera still, trying to produce a fixed-frame view or sequence of views within a particular locale, but the slight tremble of his grip emphasizes his bodily presence behind what we are seeing.

This is not the gestural cinematography of Stan Brakhage, at least not immediately. It tends to scan more like an emulation of the static summation of the landscape as a set of parts (the Benning / Hutton approach) with a suppressed energy, a will to become something else. For example, in Brébeuf (2012), Broomer is examining St. Ignace II, a mission site in present-day Tay, Ontario that was the historic site of the Huron-Wendat peoples prior to their forcible removal in the mid-17th century. In the earliest shots of the film, we see Sturgeon River and the tree line, a train trellis, and various snow-dusted shots of the surrounding woods. They are discrete, semi-static shots, connected by straight cuts.

However, at around the 1-½ minute mark, Broomer turns the camera loose from its moorings on his body. The woods, the snowy ground, the flares of the sun, all become a whirling, jagged form of writing. Trees go horizontal, a wooden railing flies skyward. Then, after another anchored shot (or branches entwined around a utility pole), Broomer layers a static shot of the river with one in which we are moving slightly forward through a circular portal. This maneuver launches the dominant action of Brébeuf, wherein Broomer superimposes two views of the St. Ignace II landscape, pitting them against each other as tussling forms. Sometimes one, then the other visual track will adhere to Broomer’s tremulous but predominantly stationary gaze, at the hills in the distance or the forest from within. The other image will usually engage in some sweeping gesture, instigating an abstraction that makes this contested Canadian space something less than the picture of clarity. Instead, Brébeuf generates a poetic agitation, one that not only refers to the particular historical valence of the site but to the competing tendencies within experimental landscape cinema as well.

Although the particular history considered in Brébeuf makes Broomer’s technique particularly apposite, his landscape work can generally be understood as an intervention into the ways we have addressed the natural world through cinema. This has philosophical ramifications, of course. A line of Western thinking from Kant and Hegel, and particularly pernicious in Western Marxism until the Frankfurt School, understood nature and the environment to be the empty, inert “stuff” on which human activity occurs. Where such thinking got us, I need not point out.

But the idea that cinema can be a tool for negotiating our comprehension of nature’s active existence, and our interconnectivity with it, is a vital one. Broomer’s film work doesn’t just look at nature, or flash and cut and move it around, like a kind of ersatz animation. His films are about the tension we experience between the apparent placidity of the natural environment and the way that environment reaches out to us, serving as a phenomenological envelope for our bodies’ greater potentials. The fact that dirt, trees and sky all enjoy a far greater permanence than we do only adds a historical dimension to this haptic co-presence. In Brébeuf, Broomer asks us to give our vision not just to any restless energy, but that discovered and provoked by contested land, comprised of the same physical substance then as now. When Broomer layers double visions of the haptic -- melding them, colliding them, and pulling them apart – the struggle to navigate between them is a kind of act of social self-definition. That is, we can neither observe the landscape, nor luxuriate in it. Instead, we must negotiate the chiasmus between observation and experience, two inadequate poles of knowing. The films of Stephen Broomer maintain that suspension space; his method produces the activated field that allows landscape to come forth to meet us while retaining its identity.