In order to round out this selective over-view of English Canadian cinema I think it would be appropriate at this point to look at some experimental films. The work. of Montreal's Rick Hancox was recently brought to my attention in an Experimental film class which he attended with a presentation of his recenn cycle of prize-winning "landscape" poetry films, Waterworx (1982), Landfall (1983), and Beach Events, (1984). That these films seemed to concern the study of the natural and technological environment and its interface with the mind prompted me to record a conversation with him in the hope that it might support or extend the' line of thought that I've been pursuing here. I'll now present some excepts from this (regrettably short conversation and follow this later with some comments.
RH: I'll say that there's two large areas that have really inspired me to understand my past work and apply it to my future work, as a result of meeting certain people here (Montreal, Arthur Kroker, Michael Dorland, Maurice Charland, and those two areas are Technology and Nature. Specifically, the aspect of Nature that my work has been steeped in is Landscape, although I understand Nature to also be human nature as well. And Landscape for me isn't just a Group of Seven wilderness- its the "other" in a sense. And then Technology: of course cinema is a technology, but what's maybe helped to bring that into more conscious light is the fact that it is now, as a result of the inroads that video and digital technology have taken, become more marginalized as an older, mechanical type of technology, with chemical properties ... So while its still a technology, there are technologies and technologies, and relatively speaking, film now seems like a more natural kind of technology- something that could be inclined to Grantean thought and his notion of lament and his emphasis on a lost past. While after all, cinema technology is based on latent image, So thanks to video, which is coming along, and which in some ways is a more practical medium—it has liberated film, as Arthur Kroker has said, to become what he called a "residual technology" and for that reason its important now because it can stand outside and look more objectively on and I think that's happened to me along with this revolution, if you like, of video technology. I think that it has shifted the paradigm of cinema from something that was modernistic to something that is post-modern.
Post-Modernism is another field that I've become very interested in since coming here, which I'd heard only before as a kind of trendy catch word. The fact that its still with us after all this time just proves that there is something to it despite the fact that it might be intellectually trendy. It's prevalent for a reason. Somebody said once that Post-Modernism means all things to all people, which is a lot more than what Modernism meant, which was a restrictive term actually, which only included works which departed from any kind of referent. He (Bruce Elder) says that photography is post-modern precisely because of its association with the nature of the photograph—the fact that its both a presence and an absence at the same time. The fact that it is a kind of mediation between a product of the Mind and a product of Nature. And he goes so far to say that it really forms the basis of all Canadian artist’s sensibility... Elder is another whose theories, and particularly his theory of the photographic image and Canadian experimental film—the importance of the photographic image. What he really means is the importance of the ontology of the photograph'—the importance of the nature of the photograph. Not that we necessarily use photographs in our films... So that is a theory that has emerged since I finished my last film and it has helped me to understand what I've been doing.
L.M.: In the poem "A Clear Day and No Memories," and Waterworx, is the absence of memory that is portrayed reflective of contemporary media and their "destruction of memory"? Your creation of a cinematic or imagistic "memory" for the viewer in the repeated structure' of the film and its distancing through the juxtaposition of moving text seems to suggest this. Or is the "search" more directly derived from the seemingly barren technological environment in which you may be seeking a place, of origin even.
RH: Well, there's several meanings involved here: there's what Stevens meant with his poem, written probably in the early Fifties. There's my own meaning in the film, and there's your interpretation of it and I mean, I don't know what the answer is. In a cursory way I could say that I think what Stevens was referring to was the absence of memory as far as Nature itself is concerned—as far as the atmosphere, the wind, or all those things that are non-human: the absence of memory as far as a non-human protagonist is concerned—the fact that it will exist, that it will perpetuate itself long after we're gone. Our memories may still be metaphorically blowing around in the wind but as far as the wind is concerned its a clear day and there are no memories.
And... I'm trying to think of how that interpretation of the poem would fit into Stevens concern with the two elements of Reason and the Imagination, for which poetry for him was the ultimate vehicle for their code systems and ultimately the best form of thought; Philosophy being too restricted by pure Reason and the imagination also not being adequate to deal with Nature, with Truth—so that there is a tension therefore between Reason and the Imagination. I guess I put that in a more modern or post-modern context—a thought from around 1950 applied in around 1980. Looking at Landscape now, it's hard to find without some evidence of technology or technique, even if its painting technique, in some way already having mediated or transformed that for. us to view. In other words, there are no virginal landscapes anymore. At the very least someone's painted it, someone's photographed it, and we've seen it on so many calendars that we can't look at wilderness anymore without a technique of some kind. So that's one way you could look at it: its just a post-modernization of his poem.
Also, there's the kind of infatuation with technology of the industrial revolution and its following ideology that is the ideology of Futurism and this... celebration of the positive aspects of technology. I said infatuation but it goes beyond-]can't think of a word... Let's look at that technology, of which the waterworks is a kind of example. It was built perhaps at the height of that pre-World War II-which was a great technological war, even going beyond the excesses of the first World War. Let's look at that technology after it's aged fifty years, after that optimism has worn off.
In a sense Technology now takes the place of Nature that Stevens may have been referring to so that it is now what's left in Nature long after we're gone—this impenetrably, seemingly permanent structure—and so in a way it becomes the new Nature. It doesn't know or care about human memory or what's going on around it. As far as it is concerned it's a clear day and there's no memories. Just as the computer memory function -it's very deceptive—computers are very seductive. They don't really have a memory. I don't if I fully understand the implications of the film, but I know that I was sort of unleashing something there, and it's definitely open to interpretation. Your question is actually a statement of your own interpretation and it sounds perfectly fine to me.
L.M.: Would you say that you are trying to draw something out of the environment more than perhaps look for something within it, which is the situation of the viewer of the film—and after your explanation of childhood memories and trying to see what was there that entailed a search. Can you say anymore about that? How that might relate to the technological environment...
RH: Well it's twofold: it's both seeing what's there, then having seen what's there, it's drawing out the metaphorical implications of what's there. What I'm seeing in Waterworx is its connotations, its denotations it. In other words, who says I reason why the resulting image itself but has no referent and can't do this with a camera? There's no cannot be a new world completely unto doesn't need a referent; that's self if you like, as a water filtration plant—but that's hardly important. What I'm doing is drawing out its implications, its connotations; drawing out its metaphor power, psychological power—and just drawing it out to the point where we could all perhaps get a handle on it... I wouldn't want to, nor could I have made the definitive film that would have drawn out all the significance and have it completely contained, so the viewer would not have to work at it. I couldn't have done it as it's just not that easy. I could sort of point the viewer and myself, all of us, in the right direction. Hopefully we can go from there intellectually using film as a springboard. It's a film that really invites the death of the Author; it's really a film that in a sense depends so much on interpretation that it invites a shift of the text.
RH: The initial film was inspired to a certain extent by Snow's La Region Centrale, but I did tot want to do what he had done which was to use a computer-driven tripod, but something that was more reflexive of my self, so that it was a kind of a personal film. Nevertheless, even though I am not looking through the camera—I am holding it. I just wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to see what it would look like. It was just an experiment in that sense, but with a Modernist spirit to contained. That was the kind of Modernist impulse—and then it went through this decade of putting it aside, working on it, leaving it for a few years, coming back to it, reworking it—and what happened at the other end was, I suppose, a kind of Post-Modern transformation. I looked at this footage that I had shot and found it rather dissatisfying. It didn't seem to have any connection, it didn't seem to have any referent; it was just a bunch of swirling images—and decided to add poetry to it and add a soundtrack, and rework it the way that I did it.
L.M.: What aspects of what you call "the luring yet limited world of image identification" do you find most problematic in the search for an emotional representation ?
RH: Well no, I don't think I was trying to search for an emotional, nor a purely intellectual reaction but both. You see, I had made Waterworx by this point, and Landfall was influenced by what I had learned by making that film, and by the influence of Wallace Stevens; his intent in poetry to marry both the intellect, or Reason, and the imagination. The trouble with images, just pure images, is that without any kind of inter-mediating text is that we tend to first of all identify—what the hell is it?-especially the images swirling upside down. You're almost more occupied with—where is this?, where am I?—it's a very seductive image that's a kind of a vortex that sucks you into it, makes you want to figure it out. What's going on here? Now all of a sudden if there's, at the same time, somebody speaking
on the soundtrack or words on the screen, it interferes with that simplistic process of "What is it, where am I?" and it frees the viewer from that way of simply looking at an image and invokes the intellect at the same time.
The emotional element, because there is no intellectual one overwhelms your need to identify what is going on, it overwhelms your need to reason, especially with that kind of image, so that after a while you give up or you turn off or you're sucked right into it. So I hope what happens at the end of that film is that both responses are working, both your emotional response and your intellectual response together. The intellectual response is working because the emotional one has been involved and it's also an emotional film because your mind has been led in a direction which gives greater meaning to what you're seeing, and
I think that any time something can be more meaningful it's probably also more emotional, right?
Re: Beach Events
L,M.: You say in the film: "I will look in the sand for artifacts that will tell me something important". Would that statement stand out above others in the film? If it does—what are you seeking in the artifacts?
RH: I don't ... I guess what turns out to be one of the artifacts by the end of the film is the red pail.
L.M.: …and the starfish...
RH: Yeah. But it's not the particular artifacts that matter—it's the need of the unconscious to find a connection and meaning; to look for signs or signals or artifacts that will help one understand one's existence in relation to Awesome Nature. What you're quoting is the spoken soundtrack, this voice that floats in and out, that fades in and out. In contrast to that is the superimposed text on the screen which is simply descriptive of what's occurring on the screen or about to appear, but it's always Just written simply in the present tense. It's, I suppose, the immediate need of perception itself to simply recognize what's going on; the orientation. I think that subconscious soundtrack implies a need for something deeper.
L.M.: Memory always seems to be working because—I believe the soundtrack refers to the cave before the visuals go to the cave and visa, versa. So there's a sense, just like in Waterworx, where you're viewing something and you already have a "memory" of it, created within the film.
RH: Yes, exactly. It's a structural device for involving the viewer really quickly and deeply in the most challenging form of filmmaking there is, and that is the extremely short film. We're talking six minutes in the case of Waterworx, eight and a half in the case of Beach Events. What can you do in that time to involve the viewer deeply. I think these are the kind of tricks you have to play. There are some experimental filmmakers that make use of repetition, of variations on a theme. I don't know if their motivation is the same a s mine. Variations On a Cellophane Wrapper by David Rimmer for example is a repetition but it's very Modernistic—a good example of how art can show graphically how art departs from its referent—and that's the celebration in this film—how far it can go past what it began as, to the point where it's almost completely unrecognizable. In my use of repetitive elements it's to invoke the original or to draw attention to the loss of the original, which is closer to Grant's thought. I can go right back to films like House Movie in 1972 which uses this device. There's a second part to it with certain repeating elements. When they come back they're not unrecognizable but they are not quite the same as they were in the beginning—they're transformed—they've become somehow negatively removed from the original experience, degraded somehow, and there's a lament for the original image. I don't think there is a lament for the original image in Rimmer's film.
I'm interested in...using film for something else... that it is not traditionally used for—not using it to escape, not using it to fantasize, unless you call the concern. with subjectivity an escape, but I mean, that is what the real world means to me: a series of subjective experiences one has to deal with, a collection of subjective experiences.
RH: He (Grant) doesn't agree with the notion that the computer does not dictate to us the ways in which it must be used. In other words, it's neutral—garbage in, garbage out—that sort of thing. What he says is that... this whole notion is a fallacy, that it's impossible for technology to be neutral to' the principal in which it was conceived. It's' impossible for it to be neutral to its own limitations. For example, the computer's main thrust, he thinks is homogenization; blending all things together with this great force towards homogenizing. It is impossible for the computer to be neutral to the thrust of homogenization. It seems like a neutral thing on the surface, but it doesn't work the opposite way—it can't. It's against its nature to work towards individualization.
We can see from these comments that Hancox believes in the use of the now "marginalized" cinema technology to explore, or at least begin to explore, relations between ourselves and our environment. Hancox’s cinematic "present", which is qualified by dynamics of "memory" and the search for a Greater Syntax, reminds me of a quotation from Grant presented earlier where, "Our present is like being lost in the wilderness, where every pine and rock and bay appears to us as both known and unknown...". In Hancox's work there is at least the, suggestion towards resolving this contradiction of identification. Like Handling's perception of Cronenberg's "Starliner Towers" replacing the hostile wilderness of Canadian tradition, Hancox too is conscious of the transformation of the environment through technology. The idea of the environment containing no memory but in its relation to, or as a manifestation of the technological impulse, neither being "neutral", is a tension that is found throughout this filmic cycle. Using Waterworx as a "springboard", we are encouraged to "re-look" at our infatuation with technology and Futurism. He has-not chosen a newly constructed water filtration plant as a subject, but rather an aged, unpeopled one, that figures, as well as in his childhood memory (from living in that neighbourhood), as an example of Futurism once " that (original) optimism has worn off." However poetic or oblique, his thesis in Waterworx does involve an uncaring technology where the human element i s suppressed.
Like Grant he acknowledges a lament for an original image and searches for "artifacts" which might serve as signposts in the quest for understanding the multiple levels of the "present". Thus there is a continuity between his films and those which form the body of this paper. Notably absent in his commentary is any reference to "victimization", which is significant as I would place him as a Position Four creative non-victim. He is using cinema technology to explore (perhaps not unlike the Tom Thompson character in The Far Shore his relationship to larger technologies and Nature, finding film, like photography, to be useful as "a kind of mediation between a product of the mind and a product of Nature. Although it may be presumptuous to end with a part of Atwood's own ending to Survival, I find it ties in well with Hancox's work and the experimental challenge.
"The title of this chapter comes from a poem by Margaret Avision which begins:
Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes. The optic heart must endure: a jail-break and re-creation... What these lines suggest is that in none of our acts- even the act of looking- are we passive. Even the things we look at demand our participation; and our commitment: if this participation and commitment are given, what can result is a 'jail-break', an escape from our old habits of looking at things, and a Ore-creations a new way of seeing, experiencing and imaging- or imagining- which we ourselves have helped to shape." 12.