Lost Dreams: Stephen Broomer’s “Phantom Ride”
Named after a genre of cinema popular towards the end of the 1890s, in which a cameraman was mounted to the front of a moving vehicle to give the illusion of movement, Stephen Broomer’s Phantom Ride (2019) transports us to a past that feels irrevocably and painfully lost.
A teacher, preservationist, and programmer, Broomer is an artist who has devoted his life to the history of cinema. His found footage films combine an obsession with photochemical abstraction and montage to create works that test the limitations of celluloid and expand the boundaries of the cinematic frame. His first feature, Potamkin (2017), focused on the work of highly respected film critic and poet Harry Alan Potamkin, who tragically died of complications relating to starvation at the age of 33. An abstract biopic composed of fragments of the films Potamkin wrote about, images from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) are distorted and distressed to create an impressionistic montage of Potamkin’s life and death. His follow-up, Tondal’s Vision (2018), pushed his methods even further, incorporating color-reversal and chemical augmentation to Giuseppe de Liguoro’s 1911 adaptation of Dante’s Inferno into a re-telling of The Visions of the Knight Tondal, presenting a vision of heaven and hell that erupts with a fury of light and color.
Broomer’s latest feature is inspired by early phantom ride films: the American Mutoscope Company’s “The Haverstraw Tunnel” (1897); the Lumière brothers’ “Leaving Jerusalem by Railway” (1897); and Cecil Hepworth’s “View from an Engine Front – Train Leaving Tunnel” (1899), which used the momentum of a steam train to create the sensation of being moved by an invisible force. Since the camera in early films was usually stationary, these films provided audiences with an exciting new perspective: recreating the physical and visual experience of rail travel from the safety of the cinema. During the early 1900s, phantom rides became so popular that a series of specialized cinemas named “Hale’s Tours of the World” opened up across the U.K., offering visits to the colonies for as little as sixpence. Free from any narrative obligations, the primary focus of these early silent films was movement, but Broomer’s Phantom Ride suggests that this hunger for progress is now little more than a rapidly fading promise from the past.
Constructed from the films of Ellwood Hoffmann (1885–1996), a retired mill owner who traveled across America with a camera strapped to his dashboard, Broomer’s Phantom Ride is ostensibly an experimental road movie, steered by Hoffman’s travels across all 50 American states. Broomer recreates the ghost-like logic of those original phantom rides by overlaying these journeys with footage from Hoffman’s home movies. A self-made man, who went from sweeping the floors at a hosiery mill for 25 cents per week to starting his own silk stocking factory in Philadelphia, Hoffman’s films contain all the defining characteristics of the American dream, including his large house with a beautiful garden and white-picket fence. Now, almost anyone can pick up a camera or a phone and create their own home movie, but back in the post-war years, amateur filmmaking was solely the pursuit of the rich and powerful, with Hoffman’s films reflecting the life of a man who could afford both leisure time and the equipment required to create his own visual record of the past.
Broomer takes these images of family gatherings, birthday parties, and vacations and uses a chemical process to exacerbate their decay. The result is a hallucinatory flurry of corroded images, as fragments of forgotten faces and landscapes emerge from out of nowhere before deteriorating into oblivion. Occupying the space in-between images, you can feel the shudder of the ghost, an invisible presence that doesn’t quite belong in the frame. Is it Hoffman’s spirit, or merely a way of life that feels long forgotten? Giving expression to these unstated fears is the film’s ominous soundtrack — written and performed by Broomer’s father and long-term collaborator Stuart Broomer — which is composed of a single, eerily elongated note that resembles the distant echo of a passing cortege. Any semblance of sentimentality is diluted by a heavy and malodorous sense of mourning that’s both haunting and funereal.
A 68-minute continuous shot of shifting perspectives, these images blur into an almost stereoscopic burst of color and movement as crowds gather for sporting competitions and beauty pageants, or to take snapshots of iconic American landmarks like Death Valley or Mount Rushmore. Moving hastily through a colorful and capricious landscape, the film glides seamlessly from an era of promise to an age of pleasant, empty dreams as the freedom and mobility associated with the open road is replaced by an overriding sense of loss. The road movie has traditionally been used to explore the contradictions that underpin the American dream and expose the guiding ideal of social mobility for the delusional myth it is. But Broomer’s radical aesthetic delves even deeper. Manifesting this optimism as something dreamlike and intangible, Broomer shows how this unyielding belief in American exceptionalism has resulted in one of the world’s wealthiest nations falling into a somnambulant state in which its greatest achievements have become overshadowed by wage stagnation and rising inequality.
Although ostensibly ambivalent, feelings of nostalgia can often be as malevolent as they are benign. By re-framing and recontextualizing Hoffman’s home movies, Broomer interrogates how this sense of longing and loss for a misremembered past has infused and contaminated the present. Taking the American dream and warping it into an abstract ghost story, Broomer takes the inchoate energy and nascent optimism of Hoffman’s films and makes it evaporate before our eyes, as if the very notion of social mobility erodes once exposed to the realities of the immense wealth disparity of the present day. Reminding us of a time when you could speak of the American dream without a shred of irony, Phantom Ride leaves the viewer at a crossroads between a vanishing American experience and the intoxicating allure of nostalgia.
Stephen Broomer’s Phantom Ride is now streaming on Kinoscope.