Betzy Bromberg has been independently making films since 1976, which have screened all over the world in festivals, one-woman retrospectives and group shows. She has a true talent for working images and sound together, constructing films that continue to grow in a category of their own. She meticulously feeds emotional experience into her work, giving new life to the experience of memory, leaving nostalgia out of the picture. Her large body of work has continued to vary with every film, straying away from style and repetition.
DIVINITY GRATIS (1996) deals with the struggle between ever-advancing technologies and the preservation natural history. BODY POLITIC (GOD MELTS BAD MEAT) (1988) focuses around the mechanics of the body as it evolves with and without the blankets of religion and science. Her latest work, A DARKNESS SWALLOWED (2005), is an astrological exploration of the mind and what we call “memory” as we gradually experience a slow fall, into a funnel. Using primarily close-up imagery that seems abstract at first, Bromberg creates an overall experience of distorted enclosure that lasts for days.
Using abstraction, photography, documentary, distinct optical effects, 3-dimensional textures and ferociously edited sound design, Bromberg has been able to create films that have so much depth to them, it’s hard to articulate what you comprehend, but yet so easy to articulate the experience. She often provokes curiosities surrounding the ever-developing cyclonic future, mortality and the way we (as humans) evolve throughout time.
She has been working special effects (as well as optical visual effects) in the film industry for over 20 years. As the director of the Film/ Video program at California Institute of the Arts, she continues to teach several classes during the fall and spring.
Interview by Nick Murray.
Most filmmakers I know have certain films that inspired them to make films themselves. Is there a film that inspired you to jump into certain angles of film work?
I really got into filmmaking through photography. I had taken film classes but not with the initiative of going into film. Really, I saw myself as a photographer.
Originally I studied journalism, and then photography. When I transferred schools, I went looking for a photography class, got bumped into an experimental film class instead. So basically I came in the back door, not a direct route.
When I ended up taking an experimental film class by accident, it was really eye-opening. The first experimental film I had ever seen was in high school was Norman McLaren’s PAS DE DEUX. I remember seeing that in the gymnasium, coming out and going “Wow, that was really wild with the trails and everything.”
So, in some ways, the background was always photography.
After making films for a while that I started to notice filmmakers.
And that was sort of mind blowing to me. That was a moment that woke me up in a different way.
I remember in one class we had a couple years ago where you had us listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Does music influence your films before you make them? Is there a driving within the texture, an emotion, part of a ventilation that leads to inspire certain ideas?
It’s all of it. Music is time-based. Where actually, films have a parallel structure with image-making. When you listen to a piece of music, it’s not that you’re corresponding an image to a specific sound; but there’s an essence of movement, an essence of texture, that you can somehow parallel with film - so you can feel how it builds, how it connects, how it dissolves.
All of that is structure for film.
For instance, with Bitches Brew, you can listen to it and have a complete correlation, yet never see an image. I don’t mean it literally translates in a visual way. But to it is a time-based medium, which may have the structure or feel of the a film. I think when I listen to music, or when I’m inspired by music, a lot of the time I’m relating to it in a filmic way. You know, it’s not about images, and I’m not about seeing the images for the music.
It’s also about the way things interact in music.
How they collide, how they disperse. But it’s really a parallel.
Any art form, I guess can be a parallel.
Literature, in a way, does the same thing, only you’re walking through it in a different way. We’re trained early on how to take in literature- to read every word in a literal way - where as in music, you move through its passages, and it moves you through phrases and passages as well. It’s just a different type of literature.
Bitches Brew. People ask me that all the time! It’s great because I took time to think about it, and really, it was listening to Bitches Brew . . .
The only thing I can clearly remember being life-changing to me in terms of an experience- in understanding how far you can go with an idea, taking it to its limit, further and further. There can be incredible results if you keep going and can do it well.
You pick up where you left off and transition into the next place.
Bitches Brew, the actual piece, is only 25 minutes! From start to finish, it’s an incredible album.
A DARKNESS SWALLOWED.
There’s also a correspondence to film, in that there’s something living, breathing, interacting such as the movement within it.
Film also has that, it works in that way. A narrative doesn’t usually work in that way, as it ends up being about story line.
Narrative is a hard word to describe. I picture a swinging door that opens and closes. It’s hard to find out where that definition lies in filmmaking, it’s a gray area. In A DARKNESS SWALLOWED and specifically DIVINITY GRATIS, there’s a pacing and timing in the structure that all evolve. There’s an ongoing theme of evolution throughout your films.
And technology. Our civilization moving forward at an incomprehensible speed, looking at technology and WHAT DO WE DO WITH IT? Having choices with that technology.
Evolution is just fascinating to witness- how we evolve as people. But in terms of individuals, even politically, in terms of companies. That’s the moment where you get to see this flux in movement of how we evolve as individuals politically and psychologically.
It’s really hard not to make a judgement about it.
Especially, like you and I, living day to day. But if you remove yourself and enter into that of an entire species, how we are part of a species and how we evolve is actually really fascinating. Once the emotional quality is removed, humanity is really interesting to see.
We don’t think of ourselves as species, when in actuality, we’re just another kind of species trying to survive, so that many of our choices are probably based not on the intellectual voices that we think, but very simple choices:
What do we do in order to continue to procreate, you know? (Laughs)
To think that all the specific things are really minor in comparison. But there’s never any perspective to how specific that is as it relates to an evolutionary process. When it comes to filmmaking, do you try to make your work present a theme of pacing?
You mean like how the world moves?
The way you can give life to the pacing.
I think a lot of the life in a film is that a lot of the visuals and the camerawork is really the living and the breathing, like that of a performer. In the same way you see the film process. It’s almost like a travel through (in a strange way, to live and breathe in the mind at the same time of the exposure) a visual landscape, or whatever. I think the feeling of life behind it is because of this exploration that’s happening.
You never set out in the beginning to say look, a film’s going to be an exact length. Basically, you watch the shots over and over again, to determine when the right moment to cut is; how it unveils itself, how it builds pressure, how it releases pressure.
To me it’s really an organic process where you have your own time to work out how and when you’re going to use a shot. And of course that really depends on the shooting. Because that’s where you’re setting the pacing, to a certain extent.
I think it’s in the shooting where you’re setting the overall pacing for the whole film, establishing time.
A DARKNESS SWALLOWED took you 6 years to make and was an emotional trip for you. Was there a certain idea you tried to keep in your mind while editing it? Trying to keep outside influences away from the editing, or did you just let it all go and keep at it?
Really, just going at it. It was 3 years of shooting and that pacing was established by a lot of things.
You’re shooting with an intervelometer.
You’re adaptive to the sun movement, you’re shooting over time.
There’s no way that you’re not.
In a different way that you are when there’s light that just comes out. You’re really following the direction of the sun; how it moves, for me, how it was reflecting in the water.
So the pacing was established in terms of how the sun moves. I made sure I shot the intervelometer footage over a full year, so I would capture the entire different movement of the sun over a year.
The distinctions, the differences, the shortening and the lengthening of the days. All of that established the pacing in some ways. All of that footage has a quality of reality to it.
It’s very graceful in how the sun moves through the days.
You’re recording that, but you can’t see that when you’re shooting. You’re not hooked into knowing what that’s going to look like, but the footage that comes out has a definite rhythm to it. It’s not like any other kind of rhythm I’ve shot.
Shooting with the macro lens determined how a lot of it had to be cut.
I had to learn how to shoot properly with the tripod, how to shoot to look like it was handheld, because I don’t like stiff tripod shots.
That took a long time to learn how to move and breathe.
When you’re shooting with a macro lens, it’s easy to blow a show because you’re shooting such a tiny area.
You can’t move very well, you can’t breathe wrong, or your breath is going to blow the shot! You have to get your whole body positioning together.
I was getting to a point in my filmmaking where I knew how to shoot in a way that I was good at.
It meant that it was time to move on to a different plane.
It was time to shift gears and head into a new way of shooting. Capturing the small moments took a while to learn.
The simple things you learn along the way; which never, of course, seem that important. one of them is that when you're shooting with the tripod, you always go to your last position first, and then you back up to your first position. That way, you can comfortably move around to your last position. You become more comfortable with the way you're shooting, as opposed to the other way around.
End position first, back out of it. That way you’re starting in an uncomfortable position, but you get to become more comfortable with as the shot progresses.
Such basic things; such as taking your time with the shot. You know how filmmakers are always rushing because the sun is going down, your actors are waiting for you because you only have 2 hours to shoot in the space. That was something I really enjoyed about shooting A DARKNESS SWALLOWED.
A DARKNESS SWALLOWED.
You never had a time limit.
Most of the film was shot in my back yard on my own time. It was really luxurious. I had time, I could take a break, go relax for a while, come back and shoot. It’s always a stress to get a shot and you know the clocks ticking and you stress out.
Do you normally give yourself plenty of time without the constraints?
Yea! I like to finish work because you don’t get to the next place until you complete something. But honestly, when I was younger I wanted to make films faster. I think now about “God, wouldn’t it be great to be able to knock out films every two years?” to keep people present with your work. But honestly, it’s really about the process. It you want to make long films, that process takes longer. I’ve never pressured myself that way. I’ve never rushed a film out to make a screening or a deadline. It takes as long as it takes, as long as you can stay with that process.
Sometimes certain filmmakers will base the speed of the process based on a deadline or a grant.
Some people need that motivation. I see that in students too. A deadline is a great thing because it motivates them to get it done. I believe that staying on something for a long period of time actually deepens the experience of making it.
There’s some sort of great adrenaline rush to watch the visuals rush in when you’re making a film.
It’s such a great process. It’s wonderful to have this thing in your mind working all the time. Even when you’re not working on the film. You know, driving, for instance and you’re still thinking about it. I like being in that process.
It feels good.
And the between film doesn’t feel that good.
You put so much life into making them, you finish a film and then you crash. Then you get all antsy because you know you need to start something.
For me, the comfort is knowing that you’re working on a film, just working on it, staying in that space is great.
And then, of course, you have to finish. I mean, you can’t let it go on eternally.
All filmmakers have different approaches to how they make films. But when it comes to style, there is concern for being more distinct as you continue making films. This can be daunting unless you can get past that aspect make the film you want to make.
But that’s something I’m completely over. I can’t say that it was never one of my concerns. But now, I look forward to the moment where there’s some clear thread that’s exciting enough for me- to feel like it’s the journey I want to go on now. That’s the film I want to pursue.
Sometimes I’ll get a big old color scheme for a film. Something specific will come in.
Usually it’s a certain subject matter, a certain amount of structure that helps devise some kind of project.
I’m much more interested in working different kinds of ideas.
How it evolves and what that looks like.
It’s interesting to see a body of work. You know, style does change.
I was always under the belief system that somehow it’s intrinsically through everything. But that’s not really true. You never control the change in a body of work.
DIVINITY GRATIS.The word NARRATIVE versus the word EXPERIMENTAL; I feel that people are often afraid to use the word NARRATIVE around experimental work. EXPERIMENTAL is already a really strange word to use when describing a film, and seems senseless to use -
But which is better?
They’re both derogatory-
Right, but that’s the problem.
Experimental isn’t really a good terminology. I think every film is a narrative. From someone who is completely non-narrative, that may sound strange to say. But I really do think that if you’ve got a piece that’s really time-based, it moves over time, there’s some element of narrative to it. Even for films that never move. There’s still a beginning.
The experience of starting from one place and ending in another. I think that all films are narrative to some degree.
The words definitely become derogatory, especially the way people often describe your work and you as an artist. I’m sure you brush it off-
I brush it off because there’s just so much academia and discussion about films, as much as I’ve done, there’s a simpler way to understand a piece.
Most experimental films provoke some kind of radical experience. That’s what is interesting to me. The language surrounding it doesn’t do too much for me. The experience of watching a film, what that will do to me. What I learn from that.
I’ve always been interested in the way film works on people’s perceptions and the different ways you see a piece. You can be sad, get upset or feel good. One of the most interesting things is when you come out from seeing a film, you see the world differently for a half an hour or a day. When you finish a film, after months or years of looking at it, can you look at it in any other way as your piece of work, or can you try and conceive what kinds of perceptions people are going to have afterwards? You can’t control how people are going to feel after watching a film, but in your recent work, have there been any kinds of feelings you were driving toward people having?
When I’m making it, I’m not thinking about ‘This is how people are going to feel’, I mean I do have certain things in my mind where I want them to feel a certain way internally.
Within the interior, close, intimate space that feels familiar, but if not, there will be holes within the interior that you can try and fill in, or trigger.
I have specific things that I’m after, but when you come out of it in the end, you’re curious to find out how people really are responding.
I think that with my work, I like when people go into sort of a dreamy state, for maybe two days sometimes. Just kind of walking through in different ways, I love that. That makes me happy, when their unconscious is conjuring up all of these images again, and they’re entering in. They have a lingering effect in that sort of way.
You can feel when someone really connects with your work. It’s not necessarily from something that they say. It doesn’t have to be verbally conveyed to you. But you can see the person if they’re looking at you and your eyes make contact. They, on some level, got the work on this deep level and you know it. To me, that’s the best. When I can make that sort of human connection. When those moments happen. If you can’t exactly say what it is they experienced, it’s just created this circuit that’s lively. You can really feel it. That’s a great up.
I feel at certain times, that’s the best way to decide.
The majority of your films show in the theater. In Los Angeles, people are able to see a lot more independent work without going to a multiplex. When you make your films, you always hope for an audience to see the films in a theater. Are you ever curious about opening a wider audience toward your films? I was wondering your thoughts about ever placing the films on DVD or anywhere else but festivals? Festivals-
Are very selective. I mean how many festivals can you screen your film at? I’ve gone through this.
You’re always evolving with the changing technology.
Recently, I’ve had a problem with a lot of experimental filmmakers packaging their films in a box that are going for $29.95. There are a lot of filmmakers who all of the sudden, their films are on DVD and you can buy them.
I mean, I think that’s great. I don't have a judgment value on them making those decisions, but I felt really uncomfortable about it. This has been a long, interesting journey trying to figure out what actually makes me feel uncomfortable about it.
I love the idea that its got greater accessibility. I talked to Deborah Stratman, I said
“How do you feel about putting your work on DVD and selling it?”
She said “Well, if it reaches a wider audience, that’s great! I’d love people to see my work. I feel a bit odd, but it’s such a great thing.”
I totally understand that, but for myself, there’s something I still feel uncomfortable about it. Part of it is the amount of work, time, money, expense and everything that’s put into work that’s all of a sudden selling for $29.95, YOU CAN GET THE BOX SET!
I was just in Buenos Aires, Argentina showing work and it was a greta experience on so many different levels. I did transfer all my films to HI-DEF and onto DVD, for preview and not for sale in any way.
Anyway, I had a few extra copies with me, there were people that I met and I ended up giving them copies of the film.
I realized, that’s the ticket! I don’t want to sell them! It’s not about selling them!
But it’s really nice to be able to give somebody a piece of work who might never be able to see it again. It probably seems very simple to someone who’s already grown up in the modern technical age, but for me that was a revelation that - it doesn’t have to be about the selling of it. There’s sort of this great thing that comes out of the digital medium that makes it possible for people who never, ever would be able to see the work. I was just so happy to be able to personally give them a DVD of it. It was really cool.
It’s a very tricky question either way. Because economically, and universally appealing. However the piece becomes sort of a copy. It becomes disposable when you sell it/market it. You’re disposing of the work.
That’s a great way of putting it.
The work into a film becomes the work of a product-
It just completely changes the exchange.
It’s not like I walk around chanting. But when I had the DVD’s made, I had them very professionally done in a way that makes them secure in terms of quality. It was expensively done. But it’s just my new revelation, this type of exchange.
And, of course, it has to do with the way it’s shown.
I’m adamant my work is shown on 16mm. In Buenos Aires, it was all shown on 16mm, which was fantastic. People were seeing it properly. That’s the only way I really want people to see my work, but there is a reality check. 16mm is becoming less and less viable for print and exhibition. It is what it is. Maybe we’ll have a nice little turnaround, where all kinds of 16mm will come back to life. But it seems fairly evident that it’s become harder and harder to show these films on film.
It’s just a shift you have to do as a filmmaker. It’s the same thing with shooting, when will you have to start shooting on video. I’ve seen so many experimental filmmakers having this anxiety for so many years that FILM IS DYING! DO WE DO THE SWITCH! DO WE START SHOOTING ON VIDEO?
There’s this whole anxiety around the subject matter. Finally I became so exhausted with the anxiety, I’m just going to keep shooting 16mm as long as I can.
What can I do? I love it!
It’s doable for me, 35mm is too expensive and honestly, the equipment is just too heavy for me to be able to shoot myself.
I’m going to stick with 16mm for as long as I can; on the shooting side, the exhibition side, finish-to-print side. And there’s nothing wrong with changing when it’s done. I’m just going to have to respond to that moment, and I will.
I don’t mind moving to different technology if it’s as good or better. For instance; sound. Working with mag sound and then switching to PROTOOLS. No issue. PROTOOLS is a fabulous program. It’s incredibly pleasurable to be able to have that kind of control over the work. It’s way better then MAG. That wasn’t an issue.
Just get on board, because it’s all changing. You have to work with it. What else can you do? Or you stop making art. And I don’t want to do that.
I want to go back to sound. In A DARKNESS SWALLOWED, the soundtrack is almost all percussion. It’s so meticulously done. You’ve got these great metallic scraping sounds and textures. I’m curious of your approach to the sound design, how you composed it, how the sound production correlated to the images when you were putting the soundtrack together.
It’s dissonant. It’s a raw sound and it is forceful. It’s not quite ambient sound in the background of the image in any way. People can either tolerate it or they can’t. People who are adventuresome in music, I find, are enthusiastic about the sound. But there are people who find the sound to be very claustrophobic for them and find it to be difficult. The soundtrack is probably the most controversial aspect of that film for an audience.
So I was working on my film and I had a moment when I realized, that was what the film was doing in certain ways; going down a rabbit hole. I wanted to go ahead and get some of their music to accompany it. Luckily, knowing how to get in touch with Jean-Pierre, he was open to working on the soundtrack. He is someone who has constructed soundtracks from beginning to end and has worked in sound for films.
I was very careful because I like to have a lot of control with the sound. I was a bit concerned about positions of control. But I was also totally open to what might work.
I got the film edited, silent. He came over, I projected it, he watched it and thought about it. He knew how I wanted it to work, which was to give me a bunch of sound and I would work with that sound.
So he would do the sound while watching it?
It ended up being a live thing. A live accompaniment to the film. Because they put contact mics up to their instruments, it was no problem to record with a noisy projector in the space. I picked the middle section of the film, which was a half hour section, we went over to Jean-Pierre’s house and set up the equipment and basically ran it. We did three takes. It was a great rush.
Each run was completely different in terms of texture and space, and where they went in the film. They provided me with an hour and a half of amazing music, which I then edited to the picture. There were so many interesting connections. At times, the sound was much more textural than the visual, and then at other times, it was the opposite- so there’s a constant dialogue.
There’s a constant interplay. It’s really intense. Sometimes the sound looks like the visual. Sometimes, the opposite. The visual will look like a frozen, still image and yet the sound will be a constant swirling, percussive phrase. But they work with each other in really interesting ways. Certain moments where the sound and image link up are my favorite moments in the film.
That’s how you edited it I assume, shot by shot. Which phrases worked well with each other.
I was also working in sound with Zach Settel, a composer who lives in Canada. Every couple of years, he’ll drop off cassettes and CDs at my house. Sometimes he’ll come and dump off a bunch of his pieces from his hard drive and say, “Do what ever you want with these!”
Also I work with Pam Aronoff, who I also worked with on DIVINITY GRATIS, which had so many specific pieces. She composes to the image. I gave her a specific section to work on and all this raw sound material from NASA and she constructed tracks from that. For A DARKNESS SWALLOWED, she actually constructed a track from ultrasounds- sounds from within the body. She used the raw material of her own ultrasounds, and constructed a brilliant spooky composition from that. It’s a strange section.
I’m lucky - the composers I work with give me amazing material and allow me to sculpt with it.
That’s the way I like to work if I can. I’ll cut the film silently and then adapt the sound afterwards.
BODY POLITIC had a lot of sync sound and sound I had constructed before I began shooting. Sometimes sound can come first. There are all sorts of strange things happening. Things you never imagined, where the results end up with a construct of the mind- new spacial dimensions that result as an answer to combining sound and image. It’s really fun!
I’m always trying to have the maximum amount of enjoyment while making a film. It’s always great if you can figure out a structure that will allow you to enjoy the process.
That’s part of the ticket. If you can pull that off, you’re in good shape. Not that there aren’t many torturous moments. (laughs)
What are you considering doing now with your films?
I’m taking it easy on myself. I have a lot of amazing outtakes FROM A DARKNESS SWALLOWED. Usually when I make a film, I use all of my good footage. Occasionally I have extra shots left over. But in A DARKNESS SWALLOWED, I have a lot of amazing water shots that I never ended up using.
So I have decided to make an 8 to 20 minute water film. I have a whole concept about what the water’s about in my mind. It’ll be a shorter film comprised of those shots. I haven’t spent any time on the sound yet. And I still have a lot of editing to do. I can’t wait to go back to the flatbed right now.
When school’s out.
When school’s out! (laughs)
I don’t want to have any downtime. I want to go straight to the flatbed and start cutting right where I left it. I hadn’t constructed a lot yet, I had only used a couple of shots.
I used to feel strict about the idea of using any shots that remotely resembled those in A DARKNESS SWALLOWED, but now I’m actually feeling not that strict about it.
I mean, how many people really have seen A DARKNESS SWALLOWED? Honestly, how much of a problem is that? It’s really not!
It’s hard to describe. I was sitting on the floor in the very front because it was beyond sold out. I was really close to the huge screen, so these large images began to take on an even more surreal 3-dimensional quality. You stare into these long images, by the end of the film, you remember the film as a whole and not every single shot. The images were different from each other, but the impact of going into this different space-
The film is strangely minimal. It’s so rich and there’s so much color, so much texture. But honestly, in terms of how many different types of footage there are, it’s minimal in a strange way. I would imagine that in some ways they sort of blend into the space of that exact moment. The beginning of the film had photographs and narration. Completely different from the rest of the film.
The photographs and the narration give you a context for the entire film. In a way, the two photographs; child there, child not there. The film lives in the territory between being and not being.
The last shot of those photographs actually pans up - you’re catching the borders and the edges of those shots, but you’re actually looking at the black space in between.
That’s where the whole film is lives.
Which all fits into the context of the vortex, the spiraling rabbit hole.