The Book of All the Dead, arrayed as a massive cycle of films — 40 hours of celluloid representing 18 years of production (from 1974 to 1992) — is as ambitious and complex as any work in international avant-garde cinema. In all likelihood, Elder may be the last experimental film artist with the emotional and intellectual energy to create a work like The Book of All the Dead's core quartet of films: Illuminated Texts (1982), Lamentations: A Monument to the Dead World (1985), Consolations (Love is an Art of Time) (1988), and the multi-part Exultations (In Light of the Great Giving) (1992). Much of this group of four films was completed in a single decade and combines several modes of filmmaking — including short dramatic scenes, long arcing montages, computerized graphics and image-language combinations — into large structural configurations.
To approach Elder's larger films, such as The Book of All the Dead, obliges one to consider how heretical they are and how problematic the conception that drives them. The conception did not originate with Elder; it was formed in the 1960s by film artists such as Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Larry Jordan, Gregory Markopolous, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton. Despite their differences, these film artists shared an ambition: to create a film work that would enfold an entire imaginative world in cinema. In the late 1970s, when Elder adopted this conception, it was considered heretical because it countered what experimental cinema was becoming. The title itself, The Book of All the Dead, admits to the ambiguous truth of Michael Dorland's remark that Elder is a "belated" artist. Like every other experimental filmmaker at the end of the 1970s, Elder entered filmmaking under the deep shadow of powerful predecessors. Elder admitted as much the moment he embarked on his major works.
Illuminated Texts, the highly designed first part of the giant quartet, crosses the line between experimental cinema’s lyrical poetic manner and Elder’s ambition toward epic philosophical filmmaking. Its force sweeps the contradiction into powerful, tense unities. The infamously confident, logical works of modern ambition are undercut in Illuminated Texts, Elder's most powerful and bluntly Canadian film. The film opens with a cranky drama, featuring Elder playing Ionesco’s math professor from The Lesson. After attempting several times to get his student (who can add immense figures almost instantly) to subtract, he explodes, “It isn’t enough to be able to integrate, you must be able to disintegrate as well!” In the film that succeeds this prelude, the fall into history follows and takes on a kind of mathematical inflection — representing modernity as a vast subtraction machine — which calculates the film’s own system entropically, from whole to shards, as an analogue of history.
Although it is an epic work, Illuminated Texts is the opposite of the cosmologically long films of avant-garde cinema; in effect, it's a cinematic apocalypse. Elder’s montage is rapid (and keeps accelerating throughout the film) and the short, moving camera takes are assembled in a musical fashion that parodies set theory. The montage is more heavily constructed than anything that Elder had previously done. Additionally, the imagery collides with the sound montage and is overlaid with super-titled quotes from poets and philosophers. The film builds on a collision of elements that works like etiology (stories of how things came to be named) but in reverse: the film is about how things fade from memory as new technical systems enfold them — the natural landscape, the body, the sky and poetic speaking.
The film climaxes after a two-and-a-half-hour virtuosic build-up and savage fragmentation of the image through optical printing. The final effect of the film is devastation — the overall effect is a kind of assault. Illuminated Texts enacts a powerful deprival of the viewer’s experience. Although Elder's filmmaking is uncommonly elegant with this film, almost every edit is a visual cutoff, and the density of language together with the accelerated montage play havoc on the viewer’s attention. Elder ensures that the viewer cannot hold the film in unified reception, even from moment to moment.
Lamentations poses great difficulties, beginning with its eight-hour running time and then extending to Elder’s exacerbation of the audio-visual complexity of the sound-image super-title montage. The structure is, however, more familiar than its predecessor’s philosophical-logical form. On first impression, Lamentations seems to be a reversal, and the viewer’s engagement occurs, first of all, with the solemn mythopoeic "return and retreat of origins" (as Foucault terms it) that modern poets dig into to answer modernity. It was this kind of reversal that underwrote the American visionary cinema in works such as Brakhage’s Dog Star Man.
Put it this way: Illuminated Texts takes us from the first fall of consciousness into mythic differentiation to the end of history. The last words that appear on the screen are Nietzsche’s “nostalgia/the wounds of returning” — an evocation of the eternal return. Lamentations at first seduces the viewer into thinking it's possible to go back to the beginning. It seems that when the film was shot, Elder felt the same way and entertained the prospect seriously. But over the journey through three continents (Europe, North America and Latin America), his hope was shattered. The film is a journey through memorial time, but the grand récit (as Lyotard calls it), which is totally recited, is likewise totally deconstructed. Staged as a quest for a sacred union of opposites, which has finally simply withdrawn, the film ends in a ghastly perfect simulation of sought ecstasy, a closure of the seeker's prospect.
Consolations is a 14-hour "meditation" on what an artist might do when history collapses and myth shrivels up to struggle past resentment and beyond that dilemma. Consolations is a very long shared secular purgatory, a summing up, and Elder's most beautiful and seductive film. It was originally intended to be just two hours, but Elder decided to abandon the rest of the cycle and round it off. This decision takes form in a long performance that a serially costumed Elder gives of Pound’s Cantos. The intention of the performance is openly acknowledged: the selections from the poet trace Pound’s movement from the bristling modernism of his vorticism period to the ranting propaganda of his Italian fascist period to the serene and accepting bleakness of his last days in an American insane asylum.
In Consolations, Elder constantly uses quotations, employing a series of them in the montage sequences as intertitles and voice-overs. They no longer function ironically nor catch the viewer in the uncoiling of a structure system as they did previously. Rather, they are massively redundant in relation to the imagery, and repetitious, though not in an obvious way in the huge span of the film. This isn't a film of collisions but of contemplative connections, and the film devolves more slowly. The images are no longer clustered in a bombardment of montages but rest on the screen with comparable deliberate pacing. This all suggests that Elder has abandoned structure. Compared to the films preceding it, which have recognizable baseline forms (apocalypse and quest), the form in Consolations is gossamer. Elder seeks to induce a meditative quiet in the viewer — but it is a meditation without mystique — so that the labour of the film and of watching it can become a kind of letting go. A long, long, quiet film, Consolations is hardly a triumphant work, but it is the climax of The Book of All the Dead.
Finally, with Exultations, which is a subcycle of single feature length films, Elder enters the "chaos" cosmos of fractal mathematics, computer-generated imagery and sound, and wordless signification. The films here seem to intend a filmic liturgy — which is impossible. Sincerely, but also with the irony of his apparently inescapable qualifications, Elder uses the computer to recuperate Bach's sacred modes, Mondrian's neoplatonism, Dante's Paradiso, Donne's holy eroticism and the filmic completion of Ezra Pound's unfinished Cantos. Before he made these films, the cycle had been “abandoned"; that is, a half-true word that cuts both ways — passive and active — in Exultations. The Book of All the Dead cannot be accused of not trying, and why it finally succeeds becomes Elder's ambition: to remember — and remember without resentment — what it is worth remembering.
Elder's postmodernism has the form of our collective genealogy, becoming a vast encyclopedic, hermeneutical movie. The Book of All the Dead is a giant and passionate cinematic redaction. It is also, therefore, a cinema we have much use for; yet, paradoxically, though, for it constantly insists otherwise. It is not a film anyone would attempt before. In counterpoint to his films, the arc of his essays, centred on Jack Chambers, Michael Snow, and then, "The Cinema We Need," branded Elder a combative critic on behalf of an integral Canadian aesthetic of cinema and national culture. It won him few friends in the feature-oriented cinema academy, even fewer among the surly functionaries of the Canadian experimental film scene in the 1980s.
The Book of All the Dead serves as a fabulous encyclopedia of avant-garde stylistic practice that manages simultaneously to bury and to resurrect the film art under the shadows of which Elder began his work. The Book of All the Dead is an education (like The Education of Henry Adams, one of the key intertexts on which Illuminated Texts is woven) that illuminates avant-garde tradition, casts it again into an open tradition in which even a tyro artist, like Elder surely was in 1976, might aspire to work rather than a closed monument that no young artist would want to approach or enter. Odd as it might seem, the 40 hours of The Book of All the Dead are peculiarly "usable" — the film cycle only appears monumental. It is really a large contraption, but precisely as such, a production — not a dream, a vision, a magick or a totality, but a failure to be any of these things that it proposes itself to us as our utility. All it demands is that we watch and listen to it and recognize it as our own.