Relax, The Void is Not So Bleak: Rick Hancox and the Mediation of the Canadian Landscape by Anne-Marie Wheeler

"There appeared some boyhood incidents that had a dimension beyond the incidents themselves. Such incidents divided vortex from periphery, the periphery of accompanying memories being absorbed into the centre of the essential gesture. This synthesis, invisible in time, was an experience of an organism within an organism that had accepted me as its centre. That was the basis of my decision to stay in Canada."

- Jack Chambers



AMW: Georges Gusdorf wrote : "Autobiography properly speaking assumes the task of restructuring the unity of the life across time... The essential themes, the structural designs that impulse themselves on the complex material of the exterior facts are the constituent elements of the personality... It is this intervention that structures the terrain where his life is lived and gives it its ultimate shape so that the landscape is truly a state of the soul." Would you agree with that?


RH: I think that would be true, that's very nice. I like that.


AMW: Based on that, would you say there is a Canadian personality?


RH: Oh yeah, I think a Canadian personality is one that understands irony very very well.


AMW: Why? Why are we ironic?


RH: Because I think we have an ability to observe ourselves in a way that British and Americans sometimes don't. We're neither. We're both and we're neither, and I think we tend to see ourselves on a cultural level with kind of a bemused distance. It's a way of coping. So it's fascinating to me the way people see films and talk about it, how it reminds them of their own hometown or is expressive in some way of their own personality. That is exactly what I'm aiming at, I'm not trying to make films that are about me, but just me as one example of many other Canadians, and the connection between the land and the personality, which is so important in Canada. Just the weather, for example, the weather is so formidable and has such extremes that pit can't help but form personality.


AMW: What kind of personality?


RH: One that escapes into ... that needs technology or escapes into hiding during the winter, not terribly sociable. At the end of Moos/aw I'm asleep, and I mean, I don't know if I've bored myself silly or I just can't take it anymore or I'm totally content now that I'm home on the train and constantly moving across the landscape in this kind of womb-like piece of technology : a train which is warm and you can be fed, and you're safe inside, looking at the harsh landscape outside. It's Northrop Frye's garrison mentality in motion.



RH: Yeah the idea that early British settlers had of sort of hiding inside the palisades and pretending that nature didn't exist, and continuing their British traditions of ignoring nature. You know you either conquer it or it conquers you.


AMW: What you're saying about Canadians being innately dependent on technology is interesting, because film-making is the same way, perhaps making it natural and distinctly Canadian to feel comfortable committing our independent personal stories to such a technologically dependent medium.


RH: Yes, absolutely, I think film is a ay of negotiating the Canadian landscape, and further more that mediation is realist, and this is why we never had a large abstract painting movement in this country. Our painting and our literature has really been realist based. I think it's partly the Calvinist background. For a lot of white European Canadians, myself included, the Protestant, Calvinist work ethic prevails. Things must be practical, they must be useful, utilitarian. Poetry must be a way of connecting and understanding reality, and this is maybe why we have this reputation for being good documentary filmmakers, because its just comes naturally to us. Even before I got into film, I was writing poetry that was based on personal experience, and for me film was a practical way incorporating my poetry and my interest in music and photography all into one medium. My poetry was all based on personal memories, personal experiences, and I think it's this realism, this realist sense... It's the kind particular practicality in Canadians, a certain sort of pragmatism in the Canadian psyche, that might have come from dealing with the landscape. It's so important for us to have real images in order to learn how to mediate our environment.


AMW: In terms of our films, this has a lot to do with finance, of course, but even if we had a lot of money, I don't know that there would be as many explosions or stunts or special effects, or you know...


RH: Yeah yeah.


AMW: So how would you use describe your films?


RH: Well, they're autobiographical, or another way you could think of it would be personal documentary or experimental documentary, because it seems you've got to use some kind of adjective for documentary. Documentary is still assumed to be an objective, "truth" seeking form and as soon as you put yourself in a film or even use a hand-held camera then you're, you know...


AMW: Getting personal... So you come up with this hybrid sort of half-and-hyphenated documentary.


RH: Hybrid yeah, because that's what we are. We're hybrids. We live in this country that's halfway located in history between the American and the British Empire. I discovered this in Moose Jaw really, it really hit home, because in Moose Jaw nobody ever, from what I remember of being a kid in the 50s, nobody ever talked about the past, there were no museums really, you know. So there's this impulsive need to leave a document. Moose Jaw's downtown renovation motto in the 80s was " Moose Jaw, there's a future in our past". And now there are museums all over the place out there, and the irony is that here's a civilization that is, at least in terms of European settlement, that is still fairly young and yet we are constantly reminded by its own brief past by looking at these museums. For example the Museum of Transportation...


AMW: And what do these museums commemorate: memories of train wrecks, you know that kind of thing ...In Moose Jaw we see images of cars and trains upon which you've superimposed the sound from the radio announcing the deaths of six 16-year-old boys in a car crash...


RH: One of the tensions in the film is that of imminent crashing ; that something is going to crash and is on the verge of disaster, a technological kind of implosion or something.


AMW: That's the thing, it seems a predominate theme in a lot of Canadian films now is disappointment. Also the idea that we have no history, so we cling to silly bits of history that we can call ours. Like ...


RH: I know..


AMW: I know so many people who go to Paris, for example, and stand in awe that they are actually at the spot where the Bastille once stood... So they think that's the closest they've ever been to having a history, you know? .


RH: One of the things that interests me about landscape the degree to which it contains remnants of the past. You can actually read a landscape ; there are no secrets in the landscape, you know. What I try to do in Moose Jaw, and in certain other films, is to touch down on one particular place, and mine through the sediments. Whether it's going back to pre-history or our own little blip of civilization on the whole cosmological scene, I think that it's fascinating how one piece of land can contain all of this time.


AMW: And you're the top layer of the point upon which you're standing... Place situates you in time.


RH: Yeah, yeah, and when I travel I feel that. I really feel the time in a place. So Canadians are funny, the same people eating up European history then do their best to destroy the history of the native peoples in this country, and then realize, too late probably, what a treasure native culture really is and should have been to European settlement in this country. So now they just try to make up museums to the history of the Indians and...


AMW: They come out ridiculous as wax figurines and...


RH: Yeah, yeah.


AMW: But why doesn't our history count, that's what I want to know. Why do we have this overwhelming feeling all the time that our history, you know, native history, immigrant history doesn't count?


RH: Well, maybe we all feel inadequate compared to Europeans, you know. One of the other things in Moose Jaw is a lot of British Empire leftovers. When I was a kid the British Empire, although it was basically finished, was still being mythologized in schools and as you know, coming from the west, one of the biggest events in a western town is the visit of the Queen with Prince Philip. There are pictures of the Queen and Prince Philip on every public building everywhere... I think we've always felt not quite as refined and sophisticated and as good as the mother country whatever that was, France, you know, England, or wherever.


AMW: Or the United States, in terms of film, they are the mother country.


RH: Yeah, I guess that's the new one. And so to legitimate ourselves as a nation we must have a history, we must have museums, we must have these sorts of institutions and... Take the one in Hull. The Museum of Civilization fits very well into the Canadian notion of simulacrum.


AMW: What do you mean?


RH: It's a simulated history : it's all bells and whistles and projections and images. It's a museum with very little substance in it, and one of the voices going throughout Moose Jaw is a recording I made of the-head of the Museum of Civilization taking several emits on a tour just before it was opened. Basically he is sort of bragging about how because of technology, some new museum technology, he can kind of implode all of Canada back into Ottawa from whence it sprang in 1867, you know. So basically I just took his voice and superimposed it over the landscape of Canada seen through the train window and other places like that. I think that kind of museum, is if not uniquely North American, fits very well with a history which is only a history of technology. You know, European settlement coincides largely with the industrial revolution. So many changes happened since the industrial revolution that there is lots of fodder for a museum in that. I also shot in the Museum of Natural History in Regina, which shows scenes of the prairies when it was still a great inland sea full of dinosaurs and things like that so... there's this ridiculous sort of extreme gap, and tension in the history of the prairies, which I represent with images of European civilization, European technology and native culture represented by this sort of drumming which eventually drowns out in the soundtrack this singing of the British song Land of Hope and Glory. We hear that song in its majesty earlier, then later on it's sung again, but this time by my drunken uncle who died as a wino in the south side of London.


AMW: London Ontario?


RH: London England. He was an uncle and I recorded him, his son - my cousin, and my cousin’s son all singing. Three generations singing Land of Hope and Glory, and as they're singing that we're seeing these old negatives of the Queen and Prince Philip visiting, and there's a voice reading the some of the newspaper coverage of these visits, which is eventually drowned out by native drumming, and it's as if the dinosaurs will come back in their fury and just wipe everything out. One building after another is being torn down in Moose Jaw, and weeds will gradually grow through the parking lots and it'll all become prairie again, as if nothing had ever happened.


AMW: It's a weird teeter-totter, what you're talking about. You started talking about how we've been dominated ; there was the British culture that was better than us now it's the American culture that's better than us, but then we've been too good for native culture. There's the fact that we were dominated, but then we dominated the natives, so we're stuck in this sort of weird limbo.

RH: Yeah...

AMW: It seems to be what you’re describing in your films…


RH: Yeah, oh yeah, that's true.


AMW: Or living in a town like Moose Jaw, living in a place that's dying at the same time, as three generations sing Land of Hope and Glory... That's very personal asking an uncle who's a wino in England to sing drunk for a movie with his descendants.


RH: Well that fact doesn't come out in the movie. It's like in my film Waterworx It's a poetry film, which is a personal sort of landscape, showing the water filtration plant on the east end of Queen street where my father was born, and where I was born and spent the first few years of my life. My mother pushed me around that place in a stroller when I was a baby. She had just had arrived from Manchester England as a war bride. Of course there's no lake the size of Lake Ontario in England, and she had no friends or relatives or anybody she knew living in Toronto, except for my father and his family, and I think she would go down to the edge of Lake Ontario and look fondly over it, imagining it was the Atlantic Ocean, and just across there is home. In fact, when I was about a year old she took me back to England, where I lived for about a year, because she missed it so much. But she eventually came back to Toronto. And the song in Waterworks that weaves in and out of the soundtrack, White Cliffs of Dover, is something my mother used to sing to me... But the audience doesn't know that directly. I just think that if a filmmaker works with images that he or she finds close and powerful, and that they can really relate to, then something will come through to the viewer. Some kind of strength of the image will come through. I did a lot of things in Moose Jaw and in my other films that are very personal that the audience doesn't know about, and doesn't really need to know about, because that isn't why I did them. It's not to tell the story of Rick Hancox, it's more to share feelings about nature, technology, the nation. It's not like a biographer, for example, whose job it would be to do that. I can't speak for other autobiographers, but in my case I'm using some of these conventions to explore and understand who I am and how I've arrived at where I am, and just to understand, to understand life really. There is a different kind of sincerity about documentaries that reveal or discover these sort of intimate details of daily life or domesticity, you know, and then share them with the public. The one thing that's universal about everyone are these little intimate details, and ironically enough the individual differences between people and their habits is what unites us as humans, because that's what we are, we're not wooden stereotypes in the way that a Hollywood drama would portray us. And I think that's why there is a certain universal appeal; on a national basis, it's the idea of a nation of people who are somehow affected by their accidents of geography and space, as opposed to their accidents of race or sexual preference.


AMW: The accident of being born in Canada... carries a lot of implications with it for an overtly autobiographical filmmaker... I was reading an Ontario Film Association Newsletter that talks about Home For Christmas being the most hotly debated of all the personal films shown at the Grierson seminar. Why would that be?


RH: Well that was because it was an autobiographical film and no serious documentary seminar could consider such, sort of...


AMW: Indulgence?


RH: Self-indulgence, exactly. You know, this was in the late 70s, and in those days documentary was some kind of classic form : you could not permit the camera to just go out and film anything uncontrollably, certainly not anything personal, that was `a waste of resources' because filmmaking was so expensive, and `how dare you use public funding to go and make a personal film?' And the first comment I got from the audience after showing Home for Christmas was from one of the Ontario librarians sitting in the front row because they used to sponsor the documentary seminar somewhat... She was knitting, like this, knitting, and her question was `What did you say to the Canada Council to get a grant for that?' They had very specific ideas on what a Canadian film should be. When I was a kid, what we were subjected to in school was a lot of National Film Board documentaries. Now I don't know how much that actually influenced me, because I was usually sitting at the back of the class making wise cracks. But I've looked at a lot of those early NFB films now as an academic, and I teach Canadian documentary at the graduate level, and one of the things I've been writing papers about recently is the space and place in the National Film Board of Canada documentaries, and how that's changed from the war time NFB to the present NFB, which is becoming more and more decentralized... So I think we bought into a kind of national sense of space and place as dictated by the institutions funded by the government, like the National Film Board, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was the main railway through Moose Jaw. We traveled on the CPR every summer to go to our cottage in Ontario, because my father's family is from Ontario, so there was a lot of train travel and somehow I still don't feel at home unless I'm moving. Looking out a train window or a car window, all of a sudden, I feel comfortable as long as I'm moving around... The National Film Board films of the 40s and 50s show a Canada that is still open to exploration and settlement, and the potential to extract resources, and the mood is almost, is of a frontier that is still not completely explored and I think the thing about living in the west is figuring out that the frontier is finished. The frontier is not a western one any more in this country, it's a northern one. Perhaps the frontier was finished as of 1950 but these myths kept perpetuating themselves within the rhetoric of `technological nationalism' ; the technology built the nation, and the technology perpetuates the myth of nation through its own rhetoric, the rhetoric of the CBC, the NFB and all these other institutions. There's a cynicism that comes with having this feeling of being burned, a feeling of having been duped into all sorts of myths of nation, land and space and technology and everything else, only to find out that it was all nothing more than an act of Parliament. A very rhetorical thing that is not grounded in real life experience... But I'm not lamenting the loss of these myths. Moose Jaw is almost a celebration of it and I'm having a lot of fun with it.


AMW: There's a detachment that comes from watching our landscape and history through a car or train window, and this comes out in Canada's `road movie' tradition. The Canadian notion of time and space is very technologically dependent. Marshall McLuhan saw the telephone, for example, as a physical extension of the human voice and the human ear. David Cronenberg examines the way our vehicles have become extensions of our bodies in Crash... You see how different our mentality is when you go to Europe, for example, where a three-hour drive can take you across the country and into another, and in Canada a three-hour drive is nothing. People would drive three hours for a day trip somewhere...


RH: Yeah and also, all this space means we use it differently. In Europe there isn't as much space, so it has to be recycled. Old buildings are still in use, so remnants of the past are still part of life. Here we just abandon old technology and buildings and just move out.


AMW: So the past becomes dead, and we can watch its bones bleach in the sun through our car windows.


RH: We're constantly reminded that the past is gone. Our past is dead because it's really a technological past, which is so full of change and decay.


AMW: Technology moves so quickly, things are constantly becoming part of the past. Our past alienates us from what we are right now.


RH: It really alienates us when it's put into a museum, and I'm looking at cars and other things on display that used to be part of my own living past. There's a difference between that and making a museum of a castle built hundreds of years ago which nobody in Europe today could have experienced. It's like we're visiting our own lives, and nationally we're guests or tourists in our own country as well. I mean we're inundated with the culture of elsewhere, and it's certainly the case with film and television. There's the American influence and the British influence, and the sense that European art and aesthetics and dramaturgy are based on Aristotle and Greek aesthetics. And that we have nothing. I mean, there was a professor in my department of communications who used to tell that to all the students when they began aesthetics; he'd say in his Greek accent: `You know nothing, you know nothing. Start all over. Purge your minds of everything.'


AMW: It's like what you were saying about the guide at the Museum of Civilization, you know `all of Canada can be summed up right here,' that kind of thing


RH: Yeah, you know, you need never leave the museum... I don't think a lot of Canadian intellectuals are very happy with the post-modem scene in which simulation replaces reality.


AMW: How does a filmmaker then escape doing just that : simulating your life. For example in Home for Christmas, you bring in a camera, and in the film we watch how the camera shapes the event, how your father hams it up... It's like bringing another presence into the room, it's like inviting a stranger in, and it changes the way everybody acts. How can you escape Christmas becoming a simulated event for the camera, the film becoming a document of a simulated event?


RH: That's a good question, too. It may have more to do with the French definition of what cinema verité is as opposed to the north American notion which is really direct cinema. Jean Rouch meant cinema verité as a way for film to be an instrument to expose a new reality brought through by the artificial means of the camera, and in America that is misinterpreted completely as being the search for the objective truth, in which case you have to hide the cinema apparatus, and be like a fly on the wall. I think what's produced with these sorts of documentaries, personal documentaries, or cinema verité in the Jean Rouch sense, in a new reality not something that is to replace the para-filmic, or something that is in competition with the para-filmic, or is better than the para-filmic. It's just another way of looking at a multifaceted universe full of multiple meanings, all of which are all valid. There's one of my films called Landfall, a personal landscape film shot on the beach in Prince Edward Island which is in front of where my parents lived in the winter... Landfall does outrageous things with the camera. It's threatening, just as Home for Christmas was threatening not only because it was about ordinary middle class Canadians at home, celebrating an ordinary Christmas, but because I used the camera in ways that were not allowed : hand-held a lot of the time, with the mechanisms of the camera, or the microphone appearing in the shots... It exposes the techniques of film and traditionally documentary filmmakers wanted to perpetuate the illusion of control while dramatic filmmakers wanted to create the illusion of reality.


AMW: So your films almost come out like an expression on how dependent we are on technology, mediated RH: I don't think of it as a big deal ; I don't go out of my way to hide the apparatus, it's part of us, as Canadians, and the event being documented... In Landfall, I use a poem by the Quebec poet D.T. Jones called I Thought There Were Limits, and one of the lines in it is `relax the void is not so bleak,' which I think sums up my attitude to the landscape. Don't fight it, relax. There is the a void, but there's something comforting about the void. Maybe that's from growing up out west?


AMW: I think it is.


RH: There is a void there, but I don't find it threatening. There's a certain feeling of liberation by just examining it, and being aware of it, and writing about it... George Grant would say that "technology is us." He actually used that expression...


AMW: He also wrote Lament For a Nation : The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism.


RH: Yeah, that’s right, he did…