Early on in The Complete Works, Justin Stephenson’s adaptation (of sorts) of the works of Canadian avant garde poet bpNichol, is a reading of the sound poem “White Sound.” In a way, it functions as a gateway to the rest of the film. Without question the most abrasive part of the film, the collision of strange noises produced by the reader and the barrage of text and animation effects layered on top could easily push people into abandoning the film all together. But, if they push through, it’s arguably the key that unlocks the whole experiment.
Sound is the most important part of The Complete Works, which won the Founder’s Award at the recent Yorkton Film Festival. The sounds of letters that make up the English language being an apparent fascination of the poet the film is trying to capture. A later reading has a section on oral fixations, and the work itself frequently descends into noises without pretending to be tethered to words. The film takes this as a chance to play with letters itself, often experimenting with typography, experimenting with how letters are presented, using computer animation, basic projection or just cutting up letters and throwing them across the screen on pieces of paper. But whatever Stephenson does, the visuals are secondary to the sound, and take a music video approach by trying to match what the sound is doing.
The readings are by a selection of bpNichol’s friends, or from archival recordings of the man himself, who appears behind an oscilloscope in a move oddly reminiscent of Russ Meyers’ Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! They give a little glimpse into the man, but not more than a fleeting one, the film is more interested in letting the words or even noises explaining who this was and why he was important. The impression you get is of a buzz of energy obsessed with the idea of sound and letters rather than the dull business of the language they are attached to. Which isn’t to say that this is all nonsense, some of the work has a clear narrative – for example, The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid, presented in several sections through the film and backed with stock footage from an old, public domain Billy the Kid movie, adjusted to feature the text being read – but it’s clear that the sounds of the words themselves were a big draw to the author, even the more traditional work taking trips into words that sounds amusing together.
It’s only natural that Stephenson would be interested in bpNichol, given that much of his other work is the main titles for film and television, including several recent films by David Cronenberg. His job, then, is to try to capture the tone of a film through the presentation of words and letters, using language as a gateway to something else.
His portrait of bpNichol suggests another artist doing the same thing, and while that might be the result of the filmmaker’s own obsessions, it does make sense that one would find the other. They are both making works out of what letters represent, whether it’s sounds or visual meaning.