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Be It True, or Be It Fals: Stephen Broomer Discusses "Tondal's Vision"

The experimental filmmaker talks about his sensorial cinematic adaptation of Dante's "Inferno" using found footage and bleaching film stock.
Ben Nicholson
Since the birth of the medium, films have ventured intrepidly into hell. From the moment Georges Méliès put Satan’s lair on screen in 1903’s The Damnation of Faust, all manner of filmmakers have wrangled with their own visions of the netherworld—from the minds behind myriad torturous horrors and screwball comedies to art-house behemoths such as Jean-Luc Godard, in Notre musique (2004). Canadian filmmaker Stephen Broomer’s entry into this century-old pantheon, Tondal’s Vision, is a tribute to one early cinematic journey into the underworld and to various other artistic katabasis while remaining a truly singular rendering. At once thrilling and terrifying, the film seems to recall that line in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”
The physical source material for Broomer’s vision is Giuseppe de Liguoro, Francesco Bertolini, and Adolfo Padovan’s 1911 film adaptation of Dante, L’inferno. Broomer has rephotographed the film and then through a genuine alchemy of 16mm processing and digital manipulation contorted and abstracted the images into a serpentine re-staging of the tale of the medieval Irish knight, Tondal. In this pre-Dantean version of the story, Tondal’s visions of hell led to a renewed piety and while Broomer inserts a framing device to represent the knight suffering in the real world, it is the remarkable images of hell that envelope, unsettle, and enthral.
It would be possible to watch Tondal’s Vision as a found footage riff on L’inferno—and there is delight in spotting certain recognizable shots and sequences from the original film—but here the images pulse and shift as they appear and figures seem to disintegrate into their surroundings. The action loops constantly, and we find ourselves back at the same crossroads we saw earlier, but each time the scene looks different—the colors have changed or the exposure has blown out—leaving us as uncertain of our footing as Tondal is. This is exacerbated by a disconcerting soundscape that melts groans, drones, and cries of anguish into a reverberating electric guitar that grabs hold of you and won’t let go. At the same time as all of this, the bold strokes and colors of the visuals are utterly glorious to revel in and give the entire film a painterly quality that speaks to Broomer’s multidisciplinary interests and ties this contemporary vision to an imagined supernatural past and an actual art historical one.
I caught up with Broomer at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in Scotland where he was presenting Tondal’s Vision and speaking about “the found image as psychic analogue.” We talked about Dante, Mordançage processing, Burgess’s ideal reader, and hell as a room with no exit. 

NOTEBOOK: So I wanted to ask how you first arrived at this work, this tale, this particular amalgamation of sources and texts?
STEPHEN BROOMER: I had read a version of the story of Tundale’s Vision, or Tondal’s Vision, that was in a book called Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante, edited by Eileen Gardiner. She does these incredible collections of things like creation myths; she’s written collections of prose tellings of early Hindu myths and things like that. She’s a remarkable communicator of ancient times. I had read this maybe 20 years ago, when I was a teenager, and around the same time I had read a translation of Dante's Inferno—I didn’t read the rest of the Divine Comedy until years later but, y’know, that’s a particular rite of passage—and I was really struck by those resonances that she had clearly identified between Dante and his sources because of course the Inferno is one of these master archetypes of the twentieth century modernist experimental novel. It’s absorbing all of these sources from its world, and from literature itself, and it’s becoming self-reflexive in a very particular way that is new when Dante does it.
NOTEBOOK: Very much as it feels like Tondal’s Vision is.
BROOMER: Well, at some point I actually got interested in making an adaptation of Tundale’s Vision that would be something like Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates [1969]. I wanted to make a tableaux-structured piece with original photography that would be an adaptation of this fable. There is an early medical illustrator named Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty who made these incredible mezzotints of illustrations of flesh torn from skin. Perhaps he’s most famous for this anatomical angel he’s painted, which is a woman with the folds of skin on her back lifted into this angelic form [Back of Female, 1746]. They’re very strange because they’re sort of mystical but they’re also, following in the line of Da Vinci, useful as illustrations. At some point, I thought about combining that with those sorts of visual cues and so on, so it was a long evolution for it become what it became. Eventually I started to think that the most interesting aspect to me of Dante’s poetics, and of the relationship between Dante and his sources, is this self-consciousness and it seemed to me at a certain point that it was ideal for a found footage film. That I have this Giuseppe de Liguoro film readily on hand and that it is burned into my memory, from seeing it as a young man, made it a natural link.
NOTEBOOK: Were there also other versions of these stories from which you drew influence? I ask in particular because there’s one recurring image of people who appear to be drowning, or they’re disembodied heads on the ground…
BROOMER: Ah yes, they’re frozen.
NOTEBOOK: Yes, that sounds like the one… it reminded me of that famous painting often attributed to Bosch.
BROOMER: I thought about that image a lot. In terms of sources about this story, I drew from two particular manifestations: one is prose version by Eileen Gardiner, which is extraordinarily accessible and legible; the other is this Old English version and texts from it appear in the film. It gives us this beautiful, weird final line of the poem: “Be it true, or be it fals / Hyt is as the coopy was”—which may have meant something very different in its time, in our time I can only take it to mean: “I don’t know if this is real or not, it’s what was told to me,” and I think that’s the most meta, Dantean way to say almost anything. But that text is actually the one I drew from the most when thinking about how to structure a retelling of that story because it has the most incredible experience about it—reading it, making sense of it using the translation guide. Seeing that distance of language through six centuries left a real impact on me in the idea of translating de Liguoro’s film from one story to its predecessor.
NOTEBOOK: So you’re presenting us with Tondal’s vision, but this is clearly Stephen Broomer’s vision…
BROOMER: Sure. So that’s how the film came to be. How it became even more-so my vision… I guess this plays into psychic processes I’ve been thinking of around found footage—by that I mean an embrace of the illogic of dreams and dreamtime that we see in Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart [1936], for instance. The idea that all of this could become analogues for my experience, but also analogues for historical conflict—in this case very particular conflicts between creation and source, between self-consciously authored meaning and something that belongs to the “common river of dreams,” which to me is also one way of talking about early cinema and Hollywood cinema, in appropriation. The particulars of how it becomes more individuated as my vision than say de Liguoro’s or Eileen Gardiner’s lies in my relationship to abstract art, my interest in emanations—I think that this is a film about emanations in many ways. The reduction of things to silhouette form and then colouring them as such gives everything some visual debts to Clyfford Still’s paintings but also it does speak in very personal ways to me to these ideas of mentorship and guidance and that becomes the primary theme of the work, and the thing that I think personalizes it in that sense. You can’t separate the Inferno from those themes obviously, but one of the aspects of Tundale’s Vision that I find so interesting—and I may be misremembering it but I don’t care—is that I remember it as being that the angel that guides him gets him lost and that’s been very much my experience of mentorship. We are led down all kinds of paths.
NOTEBOOK: To shift to the how of making the film, I first wanted to ask about the soundtrack. How involved are you in the creation of that?
BROOMER: The music—I think of it as music, he thinks of it as sound—is my father’s work [Stuart Broomer]. He’s been a writer on jazz and improvised music since 1962, when he was 15 years old, and he’s also a musician. In recent years, he and I have been collaborating on film soundtracks; specifically on my found footage films because he’s making kind of found sound art works. He’s making these collage soundtracks using all kinds of elements that have been lifted from all kinds of places—and there’s an example of this that I’d really like to call back to because I think it’s particularly remarkable. Our collaboration on [Stephen’s previous film] Potamkin [2017] involved these very violent percussive sounds from an MRI machine, obviously not a contemporaneous device for Potamkin’s time but somehow it comes out sounding like air raid sirens. So we tend to collaborate in such a way that he knows the process that I’m working through. I am sometimes operating as a kind of assistant and technician and he’s locating sounds and he’s putting them into dialogue with each other and we work through the film looking at the images and how they work with the sound and sometimes I change the image to suit the sound and so on. In the case of Tondal’s Vision, the sources he’s working with are things like this recurring yelp that is a sound taken from a judgement of a woman by the Stasi when they find her guilty of conspiracy (or something like that) and sentence her to death. It’s not a point of joy in the film for me, but definitely in keeping with the suffering gesture of these long films. The bulk of the soundtrack is a period instruments recording of L'Orfeo by Monteverdi. My father has distorted it in a lot of different ways—mostly by slowing it down and playing it backwards—and one of the effects of this is that it no longer sounds like the period instruments it would have been recorded on, it starts to sound like a guitar being played through a volume pedal and broken amplifier. I really love this soundtrack because it brings the film into a kind of midnight movie space that I appreciate. Somehow that soundtrack turns it into something of a rock movie by my standards.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned changing the image to suit the sound: how exactly does the creation of these images work? I’m especially interested in the physical processes you undertake.
BROOMER: I never work with precious materials—this is a funny confusion that some people seem to have. I re-photograph everything. I re-photograph it to high contrast stocks that were designed for photographing waveforms for optical soundtracks, so these films stocks only have very strongly defined black and white tones, there’s very little grey tone that can be defined. I’m re-shooting sequences from de Liguoro’s film in this case, and I’m then processing them in buckets of chemistry through which the film will get kind of enwrapped and scratched. It’s a rough process—I’m pretty casual about it—and you see a lot of those scratches in the film and it creates interesting accidents, but for the most part it’s a controlled process. Then I’m using a bleach solution called Mordançage and this is combination of hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride, and glacial acetic acid. It’s a really gross little soup; it looks like blue Kool-Aid—but don’t drink it! It’s very toxic, but this is the same material, so far as I know, that artists like Carl Brown and Phil Solomon have worked with and so it’s become wrapped up in this language of “decay”—which I don’t like. I think the only time you decay a film is if you bury it in the ground, you find it in the ground, or if it rots on your shelf or something. But anyway, this is process is inflicted on the film, and then from there I digitize it and I work with a color palette. In this case I’m working with a color palette that I’m drawing from Simon Marmion's illuminations of Tondal’s Vision which were published in the fifteenth century.
Tondal's Vision
NOTEBOOK: I’ve been looking at those before speaking to you, they’re incredible.
BROOMER: Oh, you’ve seen some of those? One of the things I’m fondest of is that—although the image in the film no longer resembles it at all—when I first did the processing of the image of Dante and Virgil walking out of the mouth of the cave at the end, it looked just like that hell mouth that you have in the famous image by Marmion. It almost occupied the same composition window. That was largely chance, I mean those are images that I know well but I didn’t realize how much it would come out looking kind of like it.
NOTEBOOK: Just to jump back to that idea of decay, there are particular moments in the film in the visuals do appear to be decaying and there are striking instances in which it could even be melting in the fires of hell. Having heard you speak about making films for an audience of one—yourself—I wondered, how much are you thinking about the potential effects the specific images might have when you’re looking at your process and the abstraction?
BROOMER: It’s true that I think of my work as being designed for an ideal viewer, which for me is like Burgess’s ideal reader. He describes “a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, colour-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read.” I can only gauge the kind of impact that it has on me, but I’m aware that the way in which I respond to this melting world that I’m building—or is it a world that I’m melting?—is likely to resonate with the way others would respond to it. One of the purposes of working on behalf of the ideal viewer is that you accept that there are aspects of your experience that will resonate with others. For me, and this has been an almost evangelical point for at times in my career, I think of my filmmaking as kind of an S.O.S. to all the other freaks out there, of which I think there’s a surprising number. I think that one always has to maintain this kind of very particular integrity of process that has to do with working inward. The considerations for audience, though—it’s not that I’m playing with people, it’s not that I’m creating effects to really strain people, but I am aware of that when I use these frame alternation passages that strain me in a very particular way that I like. I’m also working within the kinds of motif structures that I’m working with, that strain me as well, in a way that I like. So in terms of anticipating an audience reaction, I can only anticipate that people will bring to it, ideally, their own sense of damnation and find some kind of paradise in it. We have in this film—and in Potamkin, and it’s something my father and I both work towards—an experience of a locked groove, a skipping record. For some people I’m sure that would be a totally interminable thing, and they can leave, but for me a locked groove is an astonishingly beautiful thing. And at the same time a locked groove is kind of a silly metaphor for me to use because a locked groove takes a lot longer to change than what we’re looking at, which is changing all the time.
One of the things I go back to in this work is that there are motifs in the films I’m making now, but almost every time a motif appears it has been transformed in some way. So even though the film may seem to repeat large passages, no two images are actually repeated and that sense of constant movement what I hope people will feel from it rather than impatience. Again, those people can leave.
NOTEBOOK: Definitely, although being trapped in that interminable cycle is, for a lot of people, exactly what damnation would be.
BROOMER: There’s no question. There’s a reason that image—again, unless I’m misremembering this—of someone being guided through the afterlife by an angel who is lost would be a terrifying thing. I use these two points of reference for me as sources for works about damnation—Flann O'Brien’s The Third Policeman and Sartre’s No Exit, both of which are built around this idea that hell is a repeating form. We also—this will sound just hopeless of me, but...—we live in a kind of hell and maybe the thing that makes this most hellish for some of us, or at least it does for me, is how unpredictable it is. The world changes so dramatically day to day now and I find something deeply comforting about an angel who points me down a path and it’s somewhere I’ve walked before.


InterviewsStephen Broomer
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