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About Elliott Bristow 'Road Dreams' film-maker

Elliott Bristow, traveller, film-maker and writer has built up a remarkable record of America in the 70s in the form of Super 8 film footage taken during countless road trips back and forth across the United States.

I first met him in New York in 1981 when I got a summer job at the Council on International Educational Exchange, then based at the YMCA on W34 St New York. Elliott was also there for the summer, and part of my job was to help him show his four-screen film presentation as part of the orientation program for students arriving to take up summer jobs in the States.

Every morning at 9am, I helped Elliott set up the four projectors and four screens on which he showed Super 8 footage from all four time zones of the USA. The film gave students a flavour of United States, then he gave the orientation session with practical tips on travel, accommodation and finding a job.

I must have seen the presentation over 30 times, but I never got bored with it. I'd never seen anything quite like it, four screens each showing silent moving images, to a background of specially selected classic road music, e.g. the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and others.

Each time I watched, my eyes would dart from screen to screen, picking up on themes, recognising scenes, faces, vehicles, famous locations, as well as unknown ones. I had to watch whilst holding my index finger against one of the projectors to prevent the spool from hitting the side and jamming the film. They were starting to get worn out, they had shown the film so often.

We spent many lunchtimes in the Market Diner across 9th Avenue. He gave me a lot of encouragement as I grew interested in photography.

After the summer I returned to Ireland, then home to Manchester UK and lost contact with him.

And then in 1991, I switched on Channel 4, and there was 'Road Dreams' now presented in single tv screen format, but with many of the familiar snippets I'd seen 10 years before.

This time the music was different, and despite being on only one screen, the experience was still fascinating and absorbing.

I didn't manage to make contact with Elliott and soon after, I went on a life-changing trip of my own - to the Middle East - where I stayed until 1996.

It was only recently that I finally made contact with Elliott via a post on a chatroom. It was great to hear from him again, and I was interested to find out he had returned to the UK in 1982, done some filming in Europe, and was now gathering together all his footage for a new and exciting project.

That project is the RetroRoadTrips DVD, on sale from the RetroRoadTrips website from 5 Nov 2008..

Road Dreams fans were kind enough to send me DVD copies of Channel 4's Road Dreams, and I still found them spellbinding and endlessly absorbing.

Each snippet, barely a few seconds long, is chosen from hours and hours of footage. Each one is a glimpse into a lost world. The clothes, the cars, the signs, all the strange, quirky things you see as you travel across the States, as seen through Elliott's Super 8 camera, pointed out the window of the van or car.

In one of the voiceovers, he says something to the effect that his films are like memories, but in order to shoot them, you have to see the present as a memory. I often work like that in my stills photography.

We all have memories of trips we've made - I have my own visual recollections of travelling overland from New York to Florida in 1981, from west coast to east coast USA in 1989, and driving from Saudi Arabia to the UAE in 1992 (Though in the MIddle East you don't have that 'liberating' feeling you get as you drive across of the American West).

Looking at Elliott's films is like looking into someone's mind and seeing their memories. And soon you begin to take ownership of them yourself. You start to recognise familiar people, familiar places, cars, highways, roads, all blending into an endless cycle of images, like a dream - a road dream.

Playing and replaying the footage, you get drawn in - Who is the guy with the beard? Who is the girl running away from the camera? He mentions Sandi, the one swimming in the pool, but what's going on there, what's that look that flashes across her face on the boat? Where is that bridge, why is that table on the side of a house, and is that a man or woman in the elephant outfit? What's round the next bend, over the next hilltop?

The excerpts from Jack Kerouac's On The Road add an extra element, supporting and counterbalancing the images. At many points they curiously match up with them. The weird, often stream-of-consciousness wordplay is impenetrable, enigmatic, like the pictures.

The effect of the music is similar to having the radio on as you drive down the highway. It has now become prohibitively expensive to licence music commercially, so no more Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane.

The tracks from Channel 4 Road Dreams are by lesser known artists, and many stand out, e.g. the quintessentially American 'I was born to be with you' and the plucked guitar piece at the beginning of the first programme.

A new set of musical pieces has been commissioned for the RetroRoadTrips DVD and they are excellent. Elliott has also added sound effects to the films and applied a dust and scratches filter which has improved the picture quality enormously, but retaining the essential Super 8 ambience.

As we enter the era of high definition TV, the soft focus, super-saturated Kodachrome Super 8 format has become even more visually appealing. The hazy, romantic, soft-filter effect is a welcome change from harsh, phosphorescent powered video images, now with HD hyper-sharpness.

The Super 8 medium has taken on a special quality. I love the bit in the Los Angeles sequence, the spoken radio excerpt is surreal, and captures the mood of the city. Then there's a vision of palm trees and sunsets, and a snippet from a long lost radio jingle comes in momentarily. It's pure magic.

With the passage of decades, the scenes documented in the footage are a snapshot of a bygone America, of gas guzzlers, Checker cabs, Greyhound buses, and New York still with the Twin Towers.

The shaky, fuzzy, nostalgic effect of Super 8 has the quality of an impressionist painting. Just like the Impressionists, Elliott's Super 8 memories have been looked down on and largely ignored by the Establishment, in this case, mainstream tv and film companies. But the Impressionists went on to achieve the highest form of recognition, and I hope Elliott's films will do likewise.

I am lucky, once again, to be helping him, not pressing my finger against projector number 4, but using my experience in photography, writing and web publishing to help raise awareness and spread the message.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2006-06-30

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