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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 500,000 mile (800,000 km) road trip around America, and showed excerpts from the Super 8 film diary which he made of his travels.

Posted 03-Apr-2014

a report by Bella Adams

The poster that John Prescott designed for the talk. Click to see it as a PDF file.

The American Studies Resource Centre's guest lecture, 'Road Dreams: a Super 8 American Film Diary, 1968-1982' by Elliott Bristow proved a great success and attracted a diverse audience, from those who remembered the original documentary series Road Dreams (Channel 4, 1989) to a new generation of viewers seeking to develop their understanding of American culture in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the influence of American writers, most obviously Jack Kerouac, on Bristow's films, the film-making process and the road trip experience.

Interspersed with short films from his most recent collection, Retro Road Trips: when gas could beElliott Bristow talking about his Road Dreams Click for full-size image got for 33 cents a gallon (2007), Bristow's lecture was educational, entertaining and at times moving. He began his lecture by explaining how his two-week holiday to the US in 1968 became a twelve-year road trip of 500,000 miles (800,000 km). Arriving the day after Martin Luther King was shot and killed, Bristow recalled Jack Kerouac's words from On the Road to describe his experience of arrival as 'a mad dream.' 'Mad dream' could certainly pertain to the cultural and political situation in the US in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, particularly the Vietnam War. 'Mad dream' also had a more personal meaning for Bristow: toward the end of the holiday he had been dreaming about for ten years, ever since reading On the Road, Bristow was mugged at gunpoint. The mugger was caught and the legal case that followed meant Bristow's visa was extended. During this time, he secured temporary work as a 'video roadie' for Groove Tube on the underground American TV channel, Channel 1. Once this contract finished, Bristow continued his road trip with a Super 8 camera, supporting himself, with varying levels of comfort, by showing his films on the US college circuit.

Elliott showing his Road Trips videos  Click for full-size imageBristow describes the experience of a 500,000-mile, twelve-year road trip as 'a form of dream time', mainly because filming and travelling meant that he lived 'on the edge' or the margins of mainstream America. His films also resemble dreams in terms of structure and interpretation. The films shown and discussed during Bristow's lecture, including 'Clear to the Coast: that Gold Standard of Road Trips, a non-stop drive from New York to LA', 'Dinosaur Gas: a Walk in the Rockies, then on to Utah and Nevada and up though Oregon and Washington State', and 'Season of Silence: on the Road in the Winter', present a series of images. Some of these images are recurrent, others, fleeting; all are accompanied by music rather than narration or explanation. In this way, Bristow's films allow viewers to experience Retro Road Trips for themselves. Thoughts are given the freedom to move in different and at times unpredictable directions akin to 'a form of dream time' - to the past, to Hollywood films, to classic American novels and poetry, to personal experiences of holidays and road trips that take in vast metropolises like New York and LA, small-town America, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Many of the images are familiar because of the influence of the American film and media industry that contributes to the sense that entering the US is like entering a film set. Other images from Bristow's films are less familiar, for instance, giant dinosaurs along the roadside, a full size reproduction of Stonehenge, graffiti on the old Hollywood sign and minor celebrities congregating in an LA graveyard. 

While Road Dreams and Retro Road Trips reproduce 'dream time' through their informal structure, Bristow highlighted in his lecture the discipline involved in editing seventy-five hours of his Super 8 film diary, especially the harsh process of literally cutting film. In addition to this contrast between form and process, Bristow focused on other points of contrast: from the extreme weather conditions and diverse landscapes in the US to the romance of the road, along with its privation and danger. The latter gave him ample reason not to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A lively audience asks questions after the talk. Click for a  full-size imageBristow said that his film diary was intended to preserve memories, 'to look at the present as it if is a memory', and record it in a format, in this case, Super 8 film that, despite its age, poignantly and powerfully conveys some aspects of everyday life in the US during the late 1960s and 1970s. During the lecture, Bristow insisted that his films are not issue-based, which is perhaps disappointing for some given the difficult times and conditions under which they were produced. What these films also lack is a hero, a message, a beginning, middle and end. They do not adhere to Louis Theroux's 'weird weekend' approach to the US either. But what you do get from Bristow's films is the time and space to see, reflect and ask questions, which is arguably more important than being told who is good and what is real or true. Bristow will probably say that I have read too much into his films, that he was just on a road trip filming what he saw as he passed by, although I am not so sure, given his response to an audience question that expressed his concerns about the mainstream media, misinformation and stereotyping. 


Thank you to Elliott Bristow for agreeing to do an ASRC guest lecture, and to Ian Ralston for inviting him to Liverpool John Moores University. Thank you to the US Embassy for funding Bristow's lecture and to LJMU, particularly the School of Media, Critical and Creative Arts, for hosting the lecture. Finally, special thanks goes to the staff in the ASRC, particularly David Forster and the American Studies students for producing the publicity and for helping to ensure a well organized and successful evening with the documentary film-maker Elliott Bristow.

Listen to a recording of the lecture


Road Dreams - a Super 8 American film diary 1968-1982 - read the artcile Elliott wrote for American Studies Today Online.

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'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.

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.

Images and audio by courtesy of Aidan O'Rourke



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