|Road Dreams - a Super 8 American film diary 1968-1982|
Between 1968 and 1982 Elliott Bristow kept a Super 8 film diary documenting his 500,000 mile (800,000 km) road trip around America, which he subsequently made into a series of TV documentaries. Here he gives an account of his travels and the making of the diary.
by Elliott Bristow
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Road Dreams is available for iPad from July 31st. See below.
I first read Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road in 1958 and from it formed an impression of a country that had much to offer, most especially those magic ingredients that most seventeen year olds feel is their right - freedom and seemingly limitless horizons. It took another ten years before I got to America and the upshot was that I have been one of those extremely lucky people who, when the Fates allow them their wish, find that the reality lives up to their expectations. I spent fourteen years on the road, driving over 500,000 miles (800,000 km) in total, and America stayed a fascinating and visually compelling experience for all that period.
A different time
It was, of course, a different time. I remember using a magneto pay phone at a remote spot in the Arizona desert (like a locale from Bad Day at Black Rock); there were only three channels of television, and they closed down at night; gasoline will certainly never be 33 cents a gallon again; McDonald’s had only sold 9 Billion hamburgers; and the Beatles era was winding down. (I would occasionally be asked if I knew them. As Paul McCartney had once walked up the garden path of my aunt’s theatrical digs to call on Jane Asher, that gave me some clout.) Also, news bulletins often provided the daily body count of the enemy dead in Vietnam. The numbers given were regularly so large that it was hard to understand how the NVA and Viet Cong could field so many troops.
In those years it was also possible to live on fairly small amounts of money, to support oneself on a part time wage - the sort of lifestyle that Kerouac recounts for Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums. For the first 18 months of my sojourn in Los Angeles I lived in an 8x5ft (2.4 x 1.5 m) garden shed, costing $40 a month. When on the road I mainly slept in the car and washed my hair by the side of the road. There was no question of seeking welfare support and, possibly rather hard to comprehend compared to our present economic social model, no access to credit cards. Yet there was a great deal of personal freedom attached to living this way. It would, I think, be quite a lot harder to follow this path in the America or UK of today. It isn’t a question of whether it was a better or worse time then, but it might be said to have been a romantic era, at least in the literary sense of there being the opportunity for adventure.
Keeping a record of my road life was done with a Super 8 movie camera. Apart from a small group of avant garde filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Super 8 was the home movie medium. I used to buy my supplies at KMart. That role is now served by the video camcorder and Super 8 has become something of a dedicated filmmaker’s tool. For myself, there was no initial awareness of collecting scenes out of a sense of their potential historical value. It was more on the lines of feeling that in America I had come out of a movie theatre only to find the film was still going on outside in the street. So I bought a second hand movie camera for $120 to allow me to record this fantastic range of movie lots - to participate through filming the film.
Luck, of course, has some part in how our lives turn out, though I am in the camp that feels it helps to make oneself available. Luck is rarely in the habit of coming to your house to get you out of bed. My initial stroke of good fortune, soon after I first arrived in New York in 1968, was to apply for a job running a revue theatre in the East Village, just around the corner from Filmore East. This movie lot looked like a set for West Side Story. The theatre’s programme was quite possibly the first ever video review, a show called Groove Tube. At the time the term Underground was used to describe fresh creative activities. There was certainly no consumer video equipment. The show was screened on three b/w television sets hanging from the ceiling, and the VCR’s (as they’ve since become known) were worn out, 2” Ampex decks, purloined from a contact at one of the networks as they were about to be thrown out as scrap. There were only two decks and the video heads were so worn that, more often that not, in the middle of a show the image would turn into a visual snowstorm. My job was to try and keep the audience somewhere between pacified and entertained as the spare deck was driven in from Brooklyn. Certainly not counted as a lucky break.
That came a year or so later, when the Groove Tube show had become very popular. It might seem hard to understand now, but the expression 'ground breaking′ could fairly be applied to this collection of skits, which mainly lampooned network television. There really had been nothing quite like them before. So an agent was commissioned to find bookings for the show on the college circuit, and I was the person chosen to take said same show on the road, all expenses paid and a salary as well. Good fortune had smiled most brightly.
There was no such thing as video-cassettes. The VHS-Betamax war was to break out a bit later and entertainment, outside the frame of network television and cinema release, still had to be physically transported to its audience. The closest thing then to the range of choice the web now offers was short wave radio. For the travelling show I used 1″ reel to reel video tape decks. However, technological change flows like a spring melt river, and within eighteen months this dream job had played out its life cycle and VHS cassettes were available for postal delivery. I had seen enough of America by then to know that I wanted to stay on the road.The questionable solution was to put together my own film show - four projectors showing simultaneously on four screens, a representation of the four time zones. The material for this show was taken from the footage I’d shot during the eighteen months of travel with Groove Tube. A comparison between then and now is that it was necessary to edit the original film. This meant that an edit decision required a physical cutting of the film, and that cut was final and irreversible, based on viewing the scene on a hand crank editor with a 15 watt bulb. Outside of teaching a necessary decisiveness I would not wish this on anyone. The world of NLE editing is to be totally welcomed. (As an account about a film project this article must necessarily be text. If any reader would also like to view some of the film, it can be found at: www.retroroadtrips.com )
It was never going to be a successful business operation, though my audiences were usually most positive. However, it did provide a structure for further road time, and the opportunity to carry on collecting material for the film diary. In the main, this has tended to be the sort of single image that prompts a second look when driving by, the minor moment that stands out from the backdrop of everyday scenes. There were also occasional highlights. Early on I wrote to Volkswagen of America suggesting that, as I visited colleges and kept an ongoing film diary of my travels in a VW bus, perhaps they might like to give me a new one. And they did! I rather thought I had found the magic key to life in America, and had a similar request all ready to send to Winnebago just as the 1974 gas crisis hit. Soon after, Rhode Island’s tourist bureau starting advertising that state as ‵three gallons tall and two gallons wide′. For a period there was considerable anxiety attached to making any long distance road trip for fear of not being able to find fuel on the way. The film Easy Rider, with its portrayal of rednecks and long hairs, also came out at about the time I was driving around Mississippi in a VW bus with New York licence plates and hair long enough to rest on my shoulders. I know the movie scene, where a passing police car slows, does a U-turn and tucks in behind for a closer inspection, quite well. And there were a few occasions when tables in cafes quickly cleared when I sat down, but not often. I’ve mainly found Americans to be friendly, open and considerate. That might even be (partly) true for one of the (two) muggings I experienced. The first mugger, in New York in 1968, after having established that I was English (which became apparent during the process of forcing me to lie on the floor, handcuffed, with a gun to the nape of my neck), was most curious about where I would recommend he go on his forthcoming English vacation. He even offered to telephone anyone I nominated to alert them to my predicament after he left.
The following ten years or so were more of the same in many respects, most especially where the financial insecurities of such a life tended to make themselves felt. What made this uncertainty acceptable was a slowly growing awareness that, rather than simply shooting home movies, I was in the process of establishing a potentially useful record of the times. If I did have a role it was to 'look at the present as if it were a memory'. My eventual tally was over 25 hours of useable film, culled from a total of 75 hours, and since my return to England in 1982 (with time on the road around Europe included) a further 25 hours of film has been added. I’ve also become aware of the English filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. He made films (Listen to Britain; Diary for Timothy) to assist the war effort during WWII. His genius was to record everyday events in a relaxed, unobtrusive and non-declamatory fashion so that now, when we watch these films, we are able to experience the people portrayed as vividly as if they were with us today. In like minded fashion I would hope that some of my footage will provide a similar experience for future generations. For any budding filmmakers reading this article I would end with the recommendation they learn to look at our contemporary world with an awareness that, despite its familiarity, it too will slide away into the past with unsettling speed. The future world, during its own brief period of present tense, will be quite different again - and interested from their own contemporary perspective in how things were 'before'.
Retro Road Trips - visit Elliot's own web site where you can view samples of his films and order the DVD. (opens in new window.)
Elliott Bristow brings Road Dreams to Liverpool. Elliott Bristow was this year's guest lecturer at the American Studies Resource Centre. Centre Director Bella Adams has written this report of a fascinating talk in which he spoke of his trip around America, and showed excerpts from the his Super 8 film diary.
Road Dreams Revisited 2007: From New York City to Los Angeles by campervan. In the late summer of 2007, the Centre's own Helen Tamburro travelled across America with 12 strangers in a campervan, and this is her graphic account of her experiences.
Elliott Bristow's Road Dreams continue...Following on from his 1989 TV series and the 2007 Retro Road Dreams DVD, Elliott Bristow has now produced a multi-media iBook that presents more extracts from his archive of American images. Ian Ralston, former Director of the ASRC, reviews it for ASToday.
Elliot Bristow writes on 26th June 2013
A belated greeting to all of you
After such a long period with no news, I'm pleased to report something positive. I'm afraid that doesn't refer to finishing Codachrome (more on that below). However, I have finished an iPad 'book' (text, stills, films) and have just heard that it's been accepted by Apple for sale in the iBookstore - from July 31st. Some of it will be familiar to you, though there is a greater range of anecdotes, plus the iPad adds a quality that suits the personal nature of the Road Dreams story. Since those times an additional aspect has to do with how today's brave new world of always on connections and surveillance stands in such stark contrast to a time when the government didn't know who I was, and when I lived without credit cards, etc. I'm hoping this contrast might be of interest to a younger generation as well - while not overlooking the main thread of 'the road', and its myriad scenes, challenges and pleasures.
The title is Road Dreams an American Adventure, and on an iPad the details can be accessed in iBooks. Either enter the full* title or elliott bristow in Search - a small logo comes up - tap on that and the details appear. From here it's possible to both download a short sample, and/or place a pre-order. The price is £5.49, which I think is reasonable for 148 pages, 330 still images, 33 pages of road stories, and 51 mins of video - file size 426MB. Using a computer, go to the iTunes Bookstore and enter the same information.
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