Rick Hancox has been loading up first-person cinema for three decades now. Using the mnost modest of means, he has crafted an exquisitely edited, often brash and moving body of filmwork which is openly diaristic. Working the divide between private and public space, this is an intimate practice, made with friends and lovers, photographed in familiar places where the camera, as well as the conversation, is shared. Often transplanted as a boy, Hancox began in the 1990s to revisit former stomping grounds, crafting an elegant quartet of land and scape and memory which cuts to the heart of the Canadian imaginary.

 

For years he taught in Oakvilles Sheridan College, primal scene of the Escarpment School, offering many their first exposure to the work of the fringe. He continues to teach in Montreals Concordia University, championing a cinema that begins with a thorough shakedown of its first witness and the machines that make subjectivity possible.

 

RH: My father had been a singer during the Second World War in a Canadian Air Force group called The Solid Four which toured and played on the BBC. He once told me, "Richard, good musicians are a dime a dozen." I began playing music pretty early and by 1961 had a rock band called The Viscounts. The next year I had another called The Tempos. They were cover bands and I played guitar and sang. My parents suggested I go to Mount Allison for pre-med and I promptly flunked out two years in a row. They called me the Cox and I'd have these 'Coxian auctions' standing on my residence bed, selling my books for booze money. By the third year they wouldn't let me back in.

 

I left for Montreal to sell encyclopedias. I was so good at it they paid me to teach others and I won a free trip to Rome along with the best salesmen in North America. We stayed in the Hotel Excelsior with live chamber music for breakfast. They gave us spending money which I lavished on three hookers in the first fourty-eight hours. I followed a tour down to the catacombs where the Christians were buried, a maze of tunnels which run for miles. But when the group returned I snuck back down laughing with glee. And then the lights went out. I froze. It was so quiet I could hear my heart echoing off the walls. Wondering if they were closed for the weekend. Finally the lights came back on and I ran like hell to the door. They were pretty mad. They have frequent power failures and many tourists died that way, never seen again. I wrote a poem about my Rome experiences called Yankee Via Veneto which is pretty funny. All my poems were based on real experiences. They're documentaries. Later on I realized that my music and poetry could both find a place in film.

 

I wanted to go back to university and the only place that would take me was St. Dunstan's in Charlottetown which eventually became the University of Prince Edward Island. I had a good year there, and took a summer course called Eastern Thought which changed things for me. Despite my C grade I enjoyed it immensely, and I remember lying in a hammock on the seashore wondering whether the tree was really there. How could we know for sure? I was starting to head out as a solo guitar act, writing my own folk songs, touring coffee houses until I missed so many classes I had to drop out of St. Dunstan's and move back to Montreal. I finally felt that my voice and guitar playing weren't good enough so I dropped out of music. I wound up driving taxi. It was a pretty lonely job, working weekends, people in the backseat heading for a better time. Too much time to wonder why. I was in a bookstore in Montreal between shifts, and a couple of film books caught my eye. I only had money to buy one. There was Ingmar Bergman's screenplays and Sheldan Renan's Introduction to American Underground Film.

MH: An early crossroads.

RH: I bought the Sheldan Renan book because it had great pictures! And was immediately sold on experimental film. I hadn't seen one, but he describes the films so clearly and with so many illustrations, it was the next best thing to being there. That spring I moved back to PEI and got a job as a night janitor in the student coffee shop. God it was depressing. My girlfriend had broken up with me and decided to go out with the campus football hero. One night this cat arrived with a mouse in its mouth and started eating it, slowly crunching through the body until just the tail was hanging out like a piece of spaghetti. When the cat sucked in that tail I knew I'd really hit bottom.

 

That summer I bought a broken eight mm camera for a dollar, fixed it, and started experimenting on my own. I was shooting things that were around me, immediately interested in domestic scenes. I started university again on the other side of town at Prince of Wales College, a fantastically creative place. George Semsel had come up from New York to teach for a year. His course included the history of film, watching documentary and especially experimental work (still called underground film then) and making films. I don't know how he did it all. The film department was in this old house which had flooded, ruining a lot of film stock which George promptly used for the class. We played with it, punching holes, scratching, projecting loops George said we did everything to that stock but throw it up in the air and fill it full of buckshot. I made my first film Rose (3 min 1968) with footage George gave me, hand-coloured leader and scenes from the local news station.

 

For my major project in university I shot another film but the lab lost it and I had a month left to come up with something else. My father, who worked at the newspaper, said there's so many stories in the paper, why don't you see if there's something there? I came across a story about a taxi driver who'd won a Maritime Service Award. Before his regular calls he'd go around Charlottetown, pick up handicapped children and take them to school. I shot it one weekend, put the pieces together and it won the Best Documentary Film Award at the first Canadian Student Film Festival in the fall of 1969. That summer, wanting adventure, I set off for New York to live with George. He wanted to introduce me to his mentors, Willard Maas and Marie Mencken. They had a rooftop apartment in Brooklyn and Willard answered the door in his gauchies. They were both notorious boozers. I'd brought my film Rose and Marie said, "I'm sorry we don't have a projector but let me have a look at it anyway." I was so flattered that Marie Mencken was looking at one of my films I let her unravel the whole fucking thing on the floor. She was saying "This is amazing. Incredible." and actually the film looks better that way, as an object, because of all the work I'd done dyeing and tinting. That was great.

 

I looked for film crew notices and volunteered until I got hired on for pay, just moving from film to film and looking after people's apartments when they left town. I found work on this ridiculous film in Jersey City as a sound playback man. It was like a Busby-Berkely-outer-space-musical, made in 3D Techniscope. He shot it in Jersey City to get around the unions so the set was filled with kids and drifters. One guy fell to his death from the scaffolding. My girlfriend said there's a great concert happening this weekend in upstate New York you should come but I thought no, I have to stay, I'm learning things here. It turned out to be Woodstock.

 

In New York at the top of many modern looking buildings there were old wooden water towers. One afternoon I climbed up to the roof of a recording studio where I was working and set up a tripod. I shot Rooftops (5 min b/w 1971) there. Using a telephoto lens I could pick details out of the surrounding rooftop landscapes and re-animate these later through editing. Without any final form in mind, I began by simply recording what was there in front of me.

 

After that summer I went back to PEI. Because there were no film courses I started a film club and began teaching so other students could carry on. I was doing an English major but every chance I got I turned them into film courses. Tall Dark Stranger (15 min 1970) was the result of some obscure independent reading course. I'd seen and liked Easy Rider in New York that summer but thought it was unfortunate the hippies got blown away by the rednecks in the end. The dream in the sixties was to turn on anybody from the establishment: the straight world, your parents. Stranger's about a PEI farmer who's visited by a hippie dressed like Christ. The hippie turns him on to hashish and the farmer has a vision of squealing pigs in positive and negative and upside-down cows and farm tractors. I hand-dyed this stuff like I'd done in Rose. The next morning the farmer's still sleeping it off when the Christ figure packs up, halving this big block of hash (actually toasted chewing tobacco) for the farmer and walking across the frozen pond in his sandals.

MH: There's an odd sexual tension when Christ reaches into his toga.

RH: He's got the hookah stored underneath his robe, and when he reaches in to get it there's a lot of cutting back and forth between him and the farmer whose wondering what's going on. After the hookah comes out they get stoned.

MH: It's wonderful that this psychedelic western should take place in Prince Edward Island. The farm represents a lonely frontier that's visited by a merry prankster Christ whose communion is dope.

RH: After school I taught film at summer camp where I met Barbara Holland, the piano accompanist for the ballet program. I moved into her upper west side New York apartment along with her two teenage kids. Barbara was sixteen years older. We loved each other but she carried her family's troubles. Her mother committed suicide, and murdered her sister in the process. Her father was a speculator in gold mines, which kept them moving from town to town, there'd be scams and he'd have to move again. He wound up hiding in Guatemala with Barbara's brother who had abused her, and she hasn't spoken to them since. After her mother died, she was brought up by her wonderful grandmother in upstate New York. Barbara took piano lessons, read everything, and went to New York City to seek her fortune. She was eighteen and got in with this artsy crowd, concert pianists and actors. Went out with Marlon Brando when he was acting in Streetcar Named Desire. A real high flyer in the early fifties. She told me some funny stories about Brando. There's a scene in Last Tango that's right out something he said to Barbara, how he arrived at the school dance with shit on his shoes from milking the cows. For a kid from PEI she was a pretty sophisticated, well-read, remarkable woman.

 

I lasted a year at New York University. The film program was very restricting but I learned a lot about photography from Paul Caponigro, and also John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art. His notion of photography included amateur and chance photography, things that were never intended to be art. That was important for me. We studied Cartier-Bresson and I wondered how his notion of the decisive moment might be adapted to cinema to create an extended moment in motion. That's when I started work on Next To Me (5 min b/w 1971). I started living inside these documentary photographs. Seeing them everywhere. I'd make lists of decisive 'movements' which couldn't be defined by a single picture. Like a train in a tunnel, you can't tell whether it's coming or going. Or garbage men throwing refuse in slow-motion, a single photograph wouldn't have captured the grace of that.

 

It begins with a man who comes to a stoplight, and while he waits for the light to turn he starts to have thoughts and visions. The film proceeds for about five minutes, then the light changes and he disappears into the crowd. He sees things that are metaphors for his own psychological state: a liquor store window with an inflatable Santa Claus which collapses, a woman falling naked on the camera, bowery bums with squeegees, and later he contemplates jumping off a bridge but can't muster up the guts to do it. He's alone and alienated, the Canadian in a big American city.

 

The funny thing is I didn't know it was a personal film until editing the film a year later. It was about the people and events in my life, but only in the service of my theory of the decisive movement. Then I realized the actor is playing me! So the soundtrack includes bits of theory read in voice-over as a self parody. I satirize myself in several of my films, I don't know why. When you can see yourself as a character walking through life... it's a coping strategy I guess. It disturbs the hell out of some filmmakers. Bashing presents over each other's heads in Home for Christmas was seen as a threat by conventional 'concerned' documentary filmmakers. You just don't do that if you want to be taken as a serious artiste. But I've always been irreverent.

MH: You finished your schooling in Ohio.

RH: Yes, George was teaching there by the early seventies and invited me to come and finish my MFA degree. One of the things I found in film school, especially at NYU, was that people were inordinately impressed with the biggest cameras they could find. To get an Arriflex and a big crew and draw a lot of attention to yourself. That was real filmmaking. When it came my turn to use that technology I rejected it. I used a Nagra tape recorder but also a wind-up Bolex, wondering what would happen if we tried to make lip-sync films without the right equipment. I loved the Bolex because it was portable and felt more natural with its spring-wound motor.

 

I invented a system where if you make a sync mark at the beginning and end of a shot, then transferred the sound and synced up the head, you can measure the amount of drift at the tail. Then you go back to the transfer, and using the speed control on the Nagra, change speed until the tail syncs match. You do that on your longest take and use that speed change as the standard to transfer the rest of the 1/4" sound to 16mm mag.

 

Wild Sync (11 min 1973) is in two parts. Lorne Marin had come down for Christmas so we're opening presents, playing music and clowning around. Barbara's on piano and her daughter, Nicole, appears as a Spanish dancer. That's intercut with black-and-white shots of me filming myself in a mirror reading a script about how to make the kind of film we're actually watching. As I'm speaking it's drifting out of sync and I say, "You can just cut out a few frames like this," and you see the splice right on screen and goes back into sync. The idea is to do everything myself. I've got the tape recorder over one shoulder with the microphone sticking out of it, the camera's on the other, and I'm holding the Bolex on my shoulder by gripping its auxiliary viewfinder in my teeth, so my hands are free to make the sync mark by clapping my hands.

MH: It's hilarious watching you wrestle with all that equipment. And the other scenes have great warmth and intimacy.

RH: We all had fun doing it. It's a real document of the time. As you can see in the film, Barbara and I had got back together. We broke up in House Movie, made the year before, but by this time we were married.

MH: How did House Movie (15 min 1972) start?
RH: One of Barbara's favourite composers was Rachmaninoff, so she had me listening to his second symphony a lot. That led me to thinking about our troubled relationship. I'd left New York partly to get away from us, got lonely in Ohio, and coaxed her the next year into moving out with her daughter. The second time. And again we tried to break up and take separate apartments. Rachmaninoff became an accompaniment and underlining of this impossible relationship. I'd already made a couple of autobiographical films and thought this one would make sense of the nonsense in my mind. We talked about it a lot and she participated in it very willingly. She didn't feel it would amount to much, but it was part of my thesis work and I guess she could see it meant a lot to me.

 

I shot in our rented house that December, panning over photos on the countertop, the furniture, little details of personal life. There are shots of us eating supper, going to sleep and turning the light off, me getting into a bath. Then I arrive with the moving trucks and our stuff is taken away. I go up the stairs of my new place, this godawful bare room. The final scene is a recapitulation, in which the camera tilts up the outside of the old house again, only snow has fallen. In the spring Barbara moved back to New York. I edited the film when she was gone, following the Rachmaninoff. I studied the score and gave the film a symphonic structure, with repetition and recurring motifs.

MH: Is it hard to show because it's so personal?
RH: No. Some filmmakers feel they're standing up there naked, but I don't. I think it's a really well made film, but I was always concerned about the music being too much. I've considered releasing it as a silent film, because the music would still be there in the structure.

MH: How did you wind up teaching at Sheridan College?

RH: I wanted to get back to Canada, I'd been in the States for three years and missed it. George Semsel was a model for me not only as someone who made personal films but as a teacher. I liked the fact he could teach and keep learning and earn enough money to pay for his films. I went through lists of film schools and liked the way the media arts department at Sheridan College sounded. When I got the job I wasn't planning to stay long. Whenever I got pissed off I'd say, "Well that's alright I'll just quit. I'm either doing it my way or I'm leaving." I didn't have family, debts or commitments, I could teach what I wanted, and was finally able to wrangle an apprentice course where I could work on my own films with certain students helping. That's how all the poetry films were made.

MH: You made a lot of films in the early seventies, and then slowed down.

RH: There was a five year break until Home for Christmas came out. Why? In Toronto I lived with Barbara in a now-condemned apartment next to the National Ballet School where she was working. Our tormented affair kept on: living together, splitting up, living in little rooms I must have moved six times in one year. This went on for several years. Those first two years (1973-4) were a write-off. I was an emotional basket case. Finally we broke up and that fall I decided to shoot Home for Christmas. My father had a heart condition and I was afraid that every shot I took of him might be the last. I phoned him and said I'd be bringing a camera and he said, "Aw Richard, you're going to ruin Christmas." But he turned out to be the biggest ham in the movie. I used my memory of train trips home and back to structure the film, and shot it all in December 1975. Followed by another three years of editing. It was made on a two-to-one shooting ratio and used the wild sync technique seriously this time, all shot very spontaneously. It was a direct cinema impulse whatever happened, happened, and I'd film it. I figured if I shot enough the editing would show the relationships between various family members, the relationship between landscape and memory, and certain rituals of Christmas and taking a train in Canada. Editing was a question of finding the sculpture within the stone.

 

After shooting the film there was a hiatus. I missed Barbara again, so I'd go see her, see other women, and feel guilty. I was totally forlorn and lonely, living in this hell hole while Barbara was on the other side of town, knowing I shouldn't do anything about it, thinking it would never end. I nearly committed suicide that summer. Needless to say I did no film work. The next fall I met Carrie and came alive again and picked up the film again in the winter. A year later it was finished.

MH: Your parents are central to the film. Are you close?

RH: I really admire my father, he's very well liked and has a capacity for work I could never equal. At seventy-six he's in charge of raising corporate money for the University of Prince Edward Island. He's a successful management type I could never emulate. I respect him but we don't have a lot in common. He's a pretty good father. They weren't unsupportive of film, though at first they didn't know what the hell I was doing. Which is okay. I learned long ago that if you depend on the support of your parents, forget it. Mom doesn't like any of the films. She's never asked me a single question about Concordia University where I've taught for the last twelve years. She's a troubled woman who stopped growing up during the war, maybe it had something to do with the blitz on Manchester. She married in England at nineteen and came to Canada right away. We were close during my first five years, before my brother was born. My happiest memories of her are from the past. On the other hand, it's thanks to her I was brought up with any culture at all.

 

The reason why my career has sometimes short-circuited is probably because of this troubled relationship, she's very critical and it hasn't done wonders for my confidence. My mother was from the old country, a real product of Victorian times, where children are seen but not heard. Meanwhile my father's a very popular and successful man. Publishes two newspapers in Charlottetown and another in Summerside. Because of that background, experimental film became a home, a place where I could dissent and be irreverent.

MH: Tell me about taking Home for Christmas to the Grierson Film Seminar?
RH: The Seminar's no longer held but it was a retreat hosted by an association of librarians which brought together makers and users of documentary films. Each year a different curator would invite interesting documentary filmmakers and their most recent work, and screenings were followed by long discussions. A group of European Marxists had been invited to show their work, mostly polemical political tracts, and there was a real atmosphere of confrontation. Along comes Home for Christmas which was immediately criticized for being self-indulgent, a celebration of bourgeois values with erratic, frenzied camera work. Someone asked how such an amateurish film could be programmed. How can you be teaching at a college? Haven't you ever heard of a steadicam? Again I contemplated suicide. I knew Mike Snow and Joyce Wieland fairly well at this time. I'd served on the board of Canadian Filmmakers with Mike and done the neg cutting for Rameau's Nephew. I had no one else I could turn to. So I phoned, told each of them what happened, and they were really supportive. Mike said you must have done something right, the fact that it provoked so much discussion and controversy proved you're onto something original. That saved me.

MH: Tell me about Reunion in Dunnville (15 min 1981).

RH: One of the happiest periods of my life. Carrie and I got married and Emma was born. I was thinking about making a film indirectly about my father and his past. I did some research into the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which had bases across Canada and came across a newspaper article which said that every year since the end of the war there was a reunion in Dunnville, the only base in the Commonwealth to do so. I wanted to go down and check it out and told one of my students about it, Rick Hannigan, who said that both his parents trained in Dunnville, met and married there, and go back each year for the reunion. Four of us went down and shot everything we could. What I didn't know was that the base was also a turkey farm. Filming from the car, we rounded the corner of one of these big hangars, and all of a sudden there were thousands of turkeys everywhere. Ontario surrealism.

 

That evening held one of the most incredible epiphanies of shooting I've ever had. The sun was setting, we're out on this tarmac, weeds everywhere, and you could see the layers of time. When I'm in a place of time I have an ability to see everything else that's gone on there. It's like in Slaughterhouse Five these Tralfalmadorians think it's curious we'd weep at funerals, because everyone's alive at every moment they've ever existed. That's how I feel about time. The present is so transitory it's non-existent, the only permanent thing is the past. That's what I'm really shooting when I pick up the camera.

MH: Could you describe the film?

RH: Reunion is my most conventional documentary and shows the day of the reunion. The memorial service is held in the shadow of an old Harvard training plane. They stand at attention while the names of all those who died in the past year is read aloud. Then I had the narrator read the names of those who died in training accidents, while the scene dissolves to the emptied airbase with its weeds and rusting hangars and the sounds of planes taking off, and then we go back to the service. The past is evoked through the soundtrack which uses the same records they listened to during the war, making a continuity between past and present. They'd recorded all their early reunions and I used that as well. It's one of my favourite films because it shows a join between my father's generation and my own.

MH: What was the Toronto filmmaking scene like during the seventies?

RH: I was involved for years in the Toronto Filmmaker's Co-op, a place run by and for filmmakers. But Bill Boyle got railroaded in, moved the place, bought a lot of equipment no one could afford and it went bankrupt. They thought they could turn the Co-op into a commercial venture, as part of a budding feature industry. Meanwhile at the Distribution Centre they wanted to separate the 'commercial' work which would sell to libraries from the experimental work, though when I joined it was all independent, experimental work. I felt it was a way of ghettoizing experimental film. The Distribution Centre, the Co-op and Cinema Canada used to share the same building but finally they all went their separate ways and then the Co-op collapsed. Out of its ashes were born two institutions: LIFT and the Funnel. The Funnel represented the experimental side, and LIFT hosted the folks who wanted to step up to feature films. The Funnel was not a friendly place. It was run by Ontario College of Art graduates who wanted to be recognized as artists so they invented a publicity machine. The idea was that if you tell people it's art you'll get grants and recognition. It wasn't about making good work but good infrastructure. And the membership required such a commitment that only a few could join. The Toronto film scene became an unwelcoming place, conscious of image and trends. By the mid-eighties I'd had enough of Sheridan College and an arts scene which was increasingly insular, divided and ugly. When a job came up in Quebec, I took it.

MH: Tell me about Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories) (6 min 1982).

RH: My father grew up on Neville Park Boulevard at the east end of Queen Street. We lived together with his parents in that house for the first year of my life. When I was a baby my mother would push me down to the waterworks in a pram, and look out fondly over Lake Ontario. There weren't lakes that size in England, where you can't even see the other side. When we moved out to Moosejaw we'd come back every summer to visit my grandmother and I was warned never to go down to the waterworks because it was dangerous. I'd look over at this enigmatic structure and wonder what it was. It seemed familiar but threatening. When I moved back to Toronto as an adult I'd drive around these buildings, thinking they invited some kind of motion treatment. I wasn't terribly interested in the insides or the fact that it was a water filtration plant because that wasn't its metaphoric value. For me it presented an intersection of time, memory and technology.

 

I made tests in super-8, shooting from the car with twenty pounds of air let out of the tires. Then on a cold, clear November day, I used a low speed colour reversal stock and really saturated it, driving around these buildings. But I didn't know what to do next. Like all of the poetry films it was shot years before it was finished. I came across a poem by Wallace Stevens called A Clear Day and No Memories, which seemed to be relating the same feelings I had for the waterworks. The film was just three minutes long, the soundtrack a mix of wind and the lullaby my mother sang me, The White Cliffs of Dover. Then all of the images repeat with an attenuated music track, and you see Stevens's poetry stamped out on the screen by a computer. We slowed the computer down so you could see the words spreading across the image. The notion of a technological memory imposing itself was very important, preventing access to the eidetic imagery in the background.

MH: Seeing the film twice draws memory into the act of viewing.

RH: Viewers can't have the waterworks the way they see it the first time because words are in the way. Literally. The film transforms a sensual, visual experience into an intellectual one. Which is how much memory works. My father told me that before the plant was built there was a park where children with tuberculosis gathered to take air. Others told me you can still find pieces of beautiful glass on the shore, because a glass factory preceded the park. It's another one of these places associated with layers of time, while my personal associations were the only ones I was aware of, they brought me in touch with others. The waterworks was named after my grandfather's boss. Grandfather was a city engineer who worked on the Toronto subway. His boss was Rowland Harris, Commissioner of Public Works, who lived across the street on Neville Park Boulevard.

MH: Waterworx began a trilogy of poetry films.

RH: Landfall (11 min 1983) and Beach Events (8 min 1984) were both shot in the seventies. The experience of making Waterworx helped me to go back and rework this footage with poetry in mind.

 

Landfall was shot on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. We'd bought property there and the film was shot after I'd come home for Christmas. There was an ice storm the night before, with ice flows forming in the Straight, and I felt inspired that morning. I grabbed the camera and began dancing with it on top of the cliff then down on the beach, trying figure-eights and lasso movements. I shot in slow-motion, with the shutter closed down to enhance sharpness. That became the first third of the film. The rest is slowed down even further, I had every frame printed twice, and then mirror printed. A copy of the original was made backwards and upside-down, then printed back onto itself. So the two pictures move towards each other, circling round the still point of the centre. The only time the image stops is when I freeze-frame it onto my shadow or a glimpse of my hand.

 

I came across a poem by DG Jones called I Thought There Were Limits which fit very well. He wrote it after the break-up of his first marriage, so while he's speaking about limits to gravity and Newtonian notions of physics, he's really speaking of emotional limits. The poem is spoken in the first third of the film, then reappears later onscreen. I used selected words, treating them as visual objects, parking the word 'limits' at the extreme corner of the image, having others float up the frame, while some are upside-down defying gravity.

MH: The film has a tremendous exuberance and joy.

RH: One of the great lines is "Relax the void is not so bleak." The space of the film, where sky and ocean meet, seemed a void, but there wasn't anything frightening about it. Historically the Canadian landscape has been regarded as terrifying because of its vastness, but I've never seen it as a threat.

 

Landfall was shot in the winter of 1974 and finished nine years later. It was named after the house my father built there. When you're on ship and sight land that's called landfall. And of course the film shows land falling away. We had the property for years before the house was built, we lived in Charlottetown and came by in the summer for picnics, to get high and go swimming. I made a little super-8 film of my friends loaded up with beer and grass and climbing onto one of the ice flows with a pole, pushing ourselves around.

 

I shot Beach Events the next year. I went down to the same area every day for a week, determined to shoot something unplanned, and make a diary seascape film. It begins with long shots and each day draws closer to the marine life. I remember showing the footage to Tom at the Distribution Centre who said, "You don't need to edit this film. It's fine the way it is." I thought he was crazy. I started pulling it apart, trying everything, but it never amounted to more than a lot of pretty seascape shots. Finally the workprint was so ruined I had another made, which showed me the original order of the shots. And it dawned on me that Tom was right! It's an imprint of my experience. I move closer to nature, eventually turning over crabs and snails and then there's a natural backlash as the tide washes in and I withdraw into a cave. I re-emerge a changed man, realizing I can't just disturb nature. That I'm part of all this. Then the film shows a merging of beach events above and below the surface of the water, closing with a shot of the horizon where you can't tell where it stops and the ocean begins.

 

The poetry is inspired by a book I found from the South Pacific written in a beautiful descriptive style. It's always in the present: "Going fishing, picking up seashells." Simply describing simple events. I wrote a poem based on what we see in the film and superimposed it on the pictures. There's another poem spoken on the soundtrack written in an 'automatic' style by George Semsel in response to the film. I read this poem and at the end I put my voice through a machine which changes the pitch of your voice without changing the speed. It becomes an anima or child's voice which realizes this merge of self and nature. Like the rest of the poetry films, it's a meditation on a personal landscape.

MH: Each of the three films in the poetry trilogy tell the story of a place, and while your encounters are personal, there's a sense of re-view, of looking again that comes through in the poetry.

RH: I think the Grierson Seminar had a lasting effect on me. It made me more politically aware. So many of my films were direct autobiography without commentary, but that changed in the eighties. I was very influenced by Wallace Stevens who felt that poetry was a way of bridging reason and imagination.

MH: Tell me about Moose Jaw (55 min 1992).

RH: It started in 1978. After the Grierson Seminar, Carrie and I decided to get the hell out and drive across Canada. I took a bunch of films from the Distribution Centre and showed them across the country. When we arrived in Moose Jaw I decided to shoot without any idea of making a film, I just didn't know if I'd get out there again. The first stuff is mostly exteriors of buildings that I recalled, my old house, making very long takes. I was overcome with emotion while I was there, frozen into passivity, and while I was having dinner with Carrie she asked, "What's wrong?" It took me twelve years to answer her.

 

Like a lot of prairie towns it was built on the railroad, but that's been replaced by air travel. The province always relied on one crop: wheat, and they've just gone through nine years of drought followed by too much rain. It has the largest over sixty-five population in Canada. When most return to their home town they don't recognize it because it's grown so big, but Moose Jaw had shrunk. Somehow the town looked the same, with the same buildings, only now they were closed or boarded up. The Temple Gardens, for instance, was a big band dance club during the thirties and fourties. Now there was a sign saying, "This building will soon be gone but the memories will linger on." I went over to the newspaper where my father used to work and asked them if they knew anything about it. They confirmed the building would be torn down. No protests, nobody cared. I filmed it with the sign and we pushed on to Vancouver. When we came back a few weeks later the building was gone, only the sign was left. That was really the beginning of the film.

 

I needed to get back and shoot more. Every excuse I had to go out west for a screening or conference I took a train and stopped in Moose Jaw. Chris Gallagher was teaching at the University of Regina, came out to visit me in Montreal, and offered to shoot for me. He got into the Moose Jaw archives and found stacks of unfiled pictures. A store which sold tombstones. A mechanical dinosaur. We'd confer on the phone how the shooting was going on and what to do next. One year I shot the archives myself. The camera tilts down over binders containing tattered newspapers in this dingy old room. Like mining down through the strata of time.

 

Then I met Arthur Kroker who was teaching at Concordia, I showed him some footage, and he invited me to show it in his class each year as it developed. He said that late capitalism was an excremental culture. In the summer of 1988 all the sewers backed up in Montreal and our basement was flooded. When I opened the cans this terrible smell came from a culture growing inside, and because it was back-up from the sewers, it was an excremental culture! I had it re-washed at the lab, and restored it, but as I tilt down over the archives you can still see these excremental stains flashing. I thought it was wonderful.

 

One night Alan MacKay came to visit. He's a Toronto painter, originally from PEI, and I've known him for along time. I showed him some of the footage saying I just didn't know what to do with all this stuff. I had thousands of feet of film, newspapers articles, research on the history of the west, the suppression of the Natives, the killing of the buffalo herd, radio reports. But how to put it together? The film was still composed of these very long shots, and midway through I got up to adjust the screen, casting a shadow, and Alan said that was the best part. You've got to do something like that. Interact with this footage. I decided to head back to Moose Jaw one last time. They were killing the rail service through the southern prairies so I hopped on the last train with a script in my hand and a cameraman waiting for me on the other end. He'd shoot scenes of me filming with a Bolex. There's a sequence where I'm in the Transportation Museum filming a Model-T Ford, and I got the urge to hop up on the display myself. I became one of the wax figures holding my antiquated Bolex, because Moose Jaw couldn't care less about the problems I was having. I was a relic too. It all came together in 1989.

MH: Tell me about the Moose Boosters.

RH: They were a gang that dominated Moose Jaw politics for years with crazy financial band-aid schemes to stimulate the economy, like turning River Street (the former red-light district of the Prairies) into a giant casino. After voting themselves raises during the worst Prairie drought since the thirties, they were voted out. This is revealed in an interview with councillor Brian Swanson, part of a new generation at City Hall, who frankly admit Moose Jaw's economic plight, and the need to look after its aging population. My discovery of him in the film marks the turn of my satire inward, from sardonic to pathos. This culminates in the parade scene, which cuts from street-level to over-the-shoulder shots of me watching from behind a closed and dirty old hotel window. When I disappear from the frame the camera commences a kind of search, only to wind up at the Western Development Museum again, this time tracking by what looks like a wax figure of me, Bolex in hand, arrested in the midst of filming one of the displays. A display of myself.

 

There was a tour of the Museum of Civilization a month before it opened with an official bragging about how he was going to implode all of Canada in his museum. It was unbelievable. The country had spread from Ottawa as an act of parliament, but was now collapsing like a star. I used his voice while we're looking at scenes of Moosejaw and shots out the train window, as if this was also museumized. There's bits from the Moose Jaw radio station, Brian Mulroney's speech after Meech Lake, CBC items about the closing of the railway. It's a very complex film.

 

The film ends with me desperately trying to film some final shots of the interior of the closed and darkened railway station, as I leave in the middle of the night, headed back East on 'The Canadian.' The scene outside my window gradually becomes a blurred view of rushing scenery, first going east, then west, then east again shot at various times of year. Finally I'm shown asleep, head thrust back against the window, as the Canadian landscape flashes by in a kind of perpetual motion, gradually burning out as the film roll comes to a flaring end in the camera, suggesting perhaps my true home is a moving train even as Brian Mulroney's electronically-distorted voice promises how he is "Saving VIA," and the cuts are seemingly announced through the train's broken PA system.

 

Because I've lived all over Canada, I don't feel like I have roots in any particular place. I feel both at home anywhere and not at home anywhere. That's why the film ends on the train. As if it were home.

MH: When did you live in Moose Jaw?

RH: We moved out there in 1948. After spending the first two years of my life in Toronto, the next eleven were spent in Moose Jaw. Dad talks about what it was like when he arrived, still a frontier town, flush with post-war optimism. It used to be a frontier boomtown, chief red light district of the prairies, hide-out for Chicago gangsters and important rail station. Everyone was young, starting afresh, with no interest in the past. There was a military base built as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training plan I was telling you about during the war. A lot of my earliest memories are accompanied by loud Harvard training planes flying overhead. One of them crashed into a passenger plane and fourty people died. My father was one of the first on the scene, and I've been afraid of flying ever since. That's why I always take the train. Our leaving Moose Jaw for Prince Edward Island in 1959 happened to coincide with the end of my childhood, the beginning of the sixties, the 'jet age', and the start of Moose Jaw's long decline.

MH: Why did you subtitle the film "There's a future in our past?"

RH: During the eighties there was a mainstreet renovation project where you could get a matching grant from Ottawa to renovate your main street. Moose Jaw received money and brought back those beautiful old light standards and really dressed up the street. You'd never think it was the main drag for a town of 30,000. At the foot of Main Street looms this beautiful CPR train station, underground tunnels leading you from the platform to the foot of Main Street. But it was all false fronts and behind it's not much. The motto of the project was: "There's a future in our past," which seemed to symbolize everything that had gone wrong. It had been a young progressive place and turned to a city whose future was in its tourist industry.

MH: It's been five years since Moose Jaw and you haven't started work on a new project.

RH: It was so hard to make that film, it took so much out of me. And you always want to do something more than your last film, and I just I don't know I can do better. I put everything I had into it. Maybe I can. But it gets back to this confidence thing with my mother. So your work peters out because you wonder why go on? I still love film but don't think anyone really wants the films I make.

MH: Tell me about "redeem time."

RH: My wife Carrie was looking into the history of the Hancox name. Many names have a slogan or emblem attached, and she found out the Hancox motto was: redeem time. Which is what I've been trying to do all these years.

 

 

 

Rick Hancox Filmography

 

Rose 3 min 1968

Cab 16 6 min b/w 1969

I, a Dog 7 min b/w 1970

Tall Dark Stranger 15 min 1970

Next to Me 5 min b/w 1971

Rooftops 5 min b/w 1971

House Movie 15 min 1972

Wild Sync 11 min 1973

Home for Christmas 50 min 1978

Zum Ditter 10 min b/w 1979

Reunion in Dunnville 15 min 1981

Waterworx (A Clear Day And No Memories) 6 min 1982

Landfall 11 min 1983

Beach Events 8 min 1984

Moosejaw 55 min 1992