Road Dreams: Visions in Super 8

Last shown on Channel 4 in the early 1990s.

Created by Elliott Bristow

Since discovering Road Dreams little more than a year ago, I have managed to persuade only one person to watch it, and even then my success can be attributed to sheer persistence, rather than anything especially astute that I had said. To sum the series up in a sentence is to undersell it. It is like music in this sense: description doesn’t seem to do it justice. But at least a piece of music can be likened to a similar piece of music. With Road Dreams, I can think of no single series to which it can be compared. Nor can I classify it under any particular genre. The term documentary, for instance, doesn’t really work, for the series doesn’t have any agendas that it wishes to push, or any truths that it is trying to expose. It simply details one man’s twelve-year-long road trip (from 1968 to 1980) across the United States through moving images and music. And that’s about as a complicated as it gets.

There are plenty of documentaries about the great American road trip. Road Dreams is one of a small number of these that are any good because it gives viewers a sense of what it might actually be like to travel America by car. It is a journey in Super 8 film, which leads us along sprawling highways, beside crimson sunsets, and across vast expanses of dessert. Each image may only last a few seconds (about ten if the shot is particularly breath-taking), but there are a lot of them, and along with the music, they are enough to sustain the viewer’s attention indefinitely. There is no need for a narrative. Soon enough the cycle of images begins to make sense, and the viewer starts attaching his or her own meaning to what it shown on screen.

In total there are six episodes in the series. I watched them all over the course of a week, well aware that I would return to the first episode as soon as I finished the last. The appeal is almost entirely a visual one. Like an old photograph, or an impressionist painting, there is a hazy, imperceptible nature to the film, which evokes the quality of memories: fuzzy, colourful and lacking in fine detail. It is unlikely that Elliott Bristow (the creator of the series) set out to achieve this effect, but he was obviously aware of it when he named the series. Road Dreams is appropriate: it seems to describe the flickering, phantasmagorical quality of the footage, which must be even more evocative to Bristow than it is the average viewer. After all, to him these scenes don’t just resemble dreams and memories; they are his memories.

Admirably, Bristow has resisted the urge to make the series all about him. But through small patches of narration we can gather some idea of who he is, and how his marvellous series came about. The title card that prefaces each episode tells us this much:

“In 1968 Elliott Bristow went to New York for a two week holiday. In 1980, after twelve years and 500,000 miles on the road in America he returned to England with three trunks containing 75 hours of silent Super 8 film – his diary of this ‘holiday’!”

Bristow arrived in New York City the day after Martin Luther King was shot, during a time when the atmosphere in the city was even more tense than usual. Within just a week, an insane man had held a gun to Bristow’s neck, asked him to hand over all his money, and then enquired about which landmarks he should visit on his forthcoming trip to England. The man was later arrested and ordered to appear in front of a judge. Bristow was asked to speak at the trial as a witness, although his visa arrangements rather complicated matters. Since the proceedings were not for almost a year, the DA had to write to immigration requesting that Bristow be allowed to stay in the US until after the trail, and thus Bristow’s two-week “holiday” was extended significantly.

It was during this time that Bristow bought a Super 8 camera and began documenting his travels on the road. His films quickly drew an audience, and later caught the attention of Channel One, who paid him to drive around the country screening them at various colleges. The music was different in those days. Originally Bristow had selected songs by The Grateful Dead, the Eagles and other American bands of the time; what was to become the Channel 4 series uses a more obscure, slightly new age soundtrack, which fits so perfectly with the images that one at first suspects that the whole thing has been written especially to accompany the footage.

As a matter of fact, only the songs written by Rick Loveridge and Richard W Gilks are originals; the rest are all commercially available pieces by the likes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Rick Wakeman, Leo Kottke and other performers that viewers might not expect to hear on television, least of all on a road trip documentary. Nothing about Road Dreams in conventional. How such a programme was ever permitted to air on television is almost unfathomable given the current state of the medium. Nowadays, Channel 4 would have insisted that it feature music by cool bands or narration by a brand-approved celebrity. They certainly wouldn’t allow it to be shown as it is, the way it is meant to be seen.

Things must have been different back in 1990, when Road Dreams first aired. Or perhaps somebody at the channel simply wasn’t doing his or her job properly and forgot to interfere with it. Whatever the case may be, and regardless of how it came to be broadcast, I am delighted that it did. I only hope now that some eminent executive somewhere decides that it is about time that Road Dreams is repeated, so a new generation of people can enjoy it. Until then, I’ll keep watching it every couple of months, and trying, no doubt in vain, to get as many people as I can to follow suit. It is far too good to disappear into obscurity.

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