Inteview with Stephen Broomer
Potamkin: Death of a Poet

An interview with Stephen Broomer, celebrating the premiere of his latest film, Potamkin, in a A Coruña.

Why did you decide to devote a film to Harry Potamkin? I guess that to undertake a task like this you should be very emotionally linked to this figure.
Harry Alan Potamkin is a figure I first encountered through the poem of Kenneth Rexroth, who talked about Potamkin as a poet who had been wounded deeply by society, who had died under really tragic circumstances and who was only dimly remembered for his contributions to film criticism and not so much for the power of his poetry. I am very interested in Potamkin as a poet, but I came to him through Rexroth, and I came to Rexroth’s writings on Potamkin through my friend Bruce Elder who often teaches courses that end with him reading two poems of Rexroth for Eli Jacobson both of which are about the impulse of society to destroy poets. That is sort of the seed of my interest for Potamkin. As I read and as I searched out and found Potamkin’s poetry, with a lot of help from two people, Cameron Moneo and Mónica Savirón, I was very struck by the power of the poems, but also by the bizarre transit in them from a kind of Ezra Pound modernism to a kind of Mike Gold socialism. There are poems of Potamkin that could be collected under the title A Marxist Garden of Well Meaning Verse, they are really kind of hollowed out poems on social justice. So the idea that he sort of transitioned from the dense broken tone of early 20th century imagism and a kind of explicit politic interested me. I was not sympathetic to all his politics at all, I think that his beliefs actually drove a lot of his despair, rage and things I am sure influenced his demise, out of outrage and passion for his fellowmen. But the idea of that these two things coexisted interested me, and that’s how you get the film that is pitched, I think, between a humanist impulse to calling out acts of brutality and war and the dense fractured and ambiguous compositions of modern art.

How did you come out with the idea of making a film on Potamkin like that?
Actually, a lot of this comes from the failure of an earlier project that I hope to go back to. I was at one point trying to make a kind of film biography like this about a Canadian artist named Sam Perry who had been an incredible live show maker, he had this psychedelic light show in the 60s and I wanted to make a film that was sort of in his style, but his own films have all been destroyed, so we can only go with what has been said about them to simulate them. That project was never able to get finished because of funding and costs, so I am hoping to go back to it. But this idea of film biography which is like in the voice of the subject it’s actually a weird Canadian tradition. The lyric critic Hugh Kenner used to write books in the style of his subject, so he wrote The Pound Era that reads kind like an Ezra Pound writing about Ezra Pound. This kind of approach is kind of like a distinctively strange stream of Canadian criticism. So when I started thinking how to represent someone who hadn’t made images but someone who was so tied to images I thought “If I, without any mind of his qualitative judgment of these films, if I just gathered up every existing film that he had written on than I can access and I use them as a base for this film, I tamper them I destroy them and so on, them maybe what I can get to is to something like a kind of eruption of consciousness, maybe I can make something like a singing out to death”. That’s what brought me to this material, some of it are films that were important to him and his aesthetic ideas: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Battleship Potemkin, and many soviet films. But there are also there some film that he would had find quite objectionable, Hollywood films, melodramas that didn’t do much more than repeat Victorian moralist structures and one of the things I am doing here is straining those films and putting them in this kind of odd montage. The film relationship to montage is not really Eisenstenian montage or anything like that, it’s not really Pudovkin, Kuleshov, but there is this exchange of images and how they build that is rooted in the philosophy of montage in the way that this Hollywood cinema could have been. That’s how I started working in the images.

Can you talk about the physical process of working with the images?
I’m sure this will be controversial for the media specificity crowd: I gathered all the materials in video. That doesn’t bother me because where would I was to seen Battleship Potemkin no on VHS when I was growing up, and many of these films part of this is also my experience. I gathered all the videos that I could, and I selected compositions that were interesting to me or that would resonate with events in Potamkin’s life: for instance, he was kicked out of university for failing to pass a mandatory swimming test, so there is a lot of drowning imagery in the film. This is a man who died of drowning in his own fluids so there’s a lot of resonances on that too. So once I put those together I rephotographed them to 16mm and then I hand processed them with the bucket method, just going from developer to fix and having produced a negative or reversal image I could see whether it turned out and also that parted down the material I was working with, because at this point I had rephotographed about four hours of material. Then I started using a number of processes on that image, one of which was to use household bleach to soften the image, and then use a steel wool to strip part of the images selectively. Another was to use tape as a stop, so you take tape and the you lay it in the emulsion side of an image and then you put it overnight in household bleach and when you take it out you peel off the tape and wherever the tape was the image is preserved and everywhere else has disappeared. Another thing was to work with a type of photographic bleach called mordançage solution which is made by combining glacial acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide and copper chloride which are very unpleasant things to work with to say the least. When you leave an image in this material the emulsion peels up at its edges, has this effective veiling, and you see this is the main technique in the film where you have emulsion that peel up partially and it seems also as like tearing pages out of a book or something. That is a technique that has been used by, I would imagine, Jürgen Reble, Phil Solomon, Eva Kolcze and so on, and that I only have used a few times before in films like Jenny Haniver, and never with this falling in love with material.

Could you tell us about the soundtrack of the film? It is very intense and it has an influence in the impact of the film.
The soundtrack is made by my father. He was a free jazz musician, free jazz experimental music in the 60s, 70s and the 80s and to the present not as active, and he studied electronic music. He is also a writer on improvisational music, and he had previously made the soundtrack of a film of mine, Variations of a Theme by Michael Snow, in which he used Morse code patterns to create distortions and polyphony. This soundtrack is structured in two parts as the film, that is structured in two reels. The soundtrack of the first reel you have a lot of sub base tones creating distortion and drones but against that you have this penetrating M.R.A. sound, the sound of an M.R.A. machine that is giving you these call and response rhythmic patterns. This culminates in the appearance of Skip James song “Hard Time Killing Floor” which hasn’t been treated that much but which plays against this other sounds in a kind of spooky way. And then in the second half of the film the soundtrack is composed by many of the same elements but they are being brought way down. You have Tibetan chants, chakra balls, and bells and at different points of the second part they would play in backwards, because one of the central gestures of Potamkin is that eventually all of this horror is sort of undoing itself and moving in reverse, so that the sound mirrors the picture in that way.

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