Rick Hancox: The Funnel (February 24, 1984) by Dot Tuer


Rick Hancox, a filmmaker and sometime poet, abandoned words early in his filmmaking practice in favour of the silent purity of the cinematic image. Concerned with the themes of memory and time, his film sought to equivocate poetry with image through a personal, diaristic approach. The oral and written text of poetry, however, has crept back into his films. In the unpeopled landscapes of Waterworx, Landfall and Beach Events, words become the protagonists. They add a philosophical dimension to our sensual appreciation of the films on a purely visual plane. Waterworx won the 8th Annual San Francisco Poetry-Film Festival in December 1983.


In Hancox’s exploration of poetics and images, it is not surprising that he cites the influence of Georgio De Chirico. De Chirico’s use of architectural forms to elicit mystery parallels Hancox’s own fascination with a water filtration plant in Waterworx. Using a continually moving camera to capture diverse views of the building’s structure, Hancox achieves a precision of image without granting it a temporal reality. Glistening in the early morning light, it appears from a certain angle to be reminiscent of a Renaissance palace. From another perspective, it looks like a Victorian factory. Without establishing shots to give the building an identifiable location in time or space, the sequence of images becomes evocative of a dreamlike state.


Located at the foot of Neville Park Blvd. In Toronto, this building is significant for Hancox as a memory from childhood. Before the plant was built, his father told him that the site was a park where children with tuberculosis used to take the air. In the opening shot of the film, we hear the voices of these children playing, yet see no evidence of their presence at the vacant corner of the building. As the camera moves around the corner, tracking the exterior facades like a disembodied eye, we sense an isolation, a solitude which is only heightened by the voice of a woman singing which crackles through the soundtrack. First scanning a row of glazed windows, we then glimpse through clearer panes to an empty interior, filled with dusty shadows like the long silent corridors of Versailles. In the final shot, the camera moves through the darkened passageway which divides the building towards a blue horizon beckoning in the distance. As the camera comes to rest upon the quiet lapping of the lake, we are left with an impression like Aragon’s description of a dream “which slips away like the horizon before the walker, for like the horizon, it is a relation between the spirit and that which it will never attain.”


The film repeats itself. Only this time round, a Wallace Steven’s poem is superimposed in computer text upon the sequence of images. Subtitled A Clear Day and No Memories it tells us that “there are no people in the scenery… once young and living in live air,” for today the air has “no knowledge except of nothingness… And it flows over us with meanings.” But as Schopenhauer suggests, people who have lost their memories are insane. The building itself is full of memories and desires hidden in its empty recesses. It becomes a repository, a symbol for those memories invisible in their recollection through the conscious activities of perception and speech. Like a dream in which we are both conscious and unconscious. Waterworx illuminates the paradox of memory in which the two realities which harbour the events of our past can never meet.


In the last image of the film, the horizon above the lake with the word ‘sense’ imprinted upon the frame condenses in to the screen of a computer terminal. A strange contrast to the dreamy atmosphere of the film, it suggests another sort of memory, forcing the viewer to consider what ‘sense’ Hancox and Wallace are ultimately referring to. As if in answer to the question, Hancox’s next film, Landfall, offers a contrasting visual metaphor for the structure of our conscious and unconscious realities. While the camera swings and sweeps around an ocean cove in P.E.I., the interjection of frozen frames reveals a shadow of Hancox holding a Bolex camera above his head. A voice-over of D.G. Jones’s poem I Thought There Were Limits, accompanies this dizzy profusion of images, describing a falling away from the “Newtonian laws of emotion.”


In the second half of the film, the images are not only repeated, but their mirror reflection superimposed. The words, which now appear as text upon the screen, know no gravity as well. A sonorous repetition of synthesized notes sound warning of their arrival. They float diagonally across the screen. They move up and down, the upside down, swinging around. The visual effect of this sequence becomes a physical impression of disembodiment. In contrast to Waterworx, we are not detached from the images, but almost part of them. But despite this sensation that we are experiencing time and space from a different vantage point of perception, the poem tells us that these are “dreams, hallucinations, which reveal the sound and fury of machines working on nothing.” The illusions of the cinematic machinery can approximate a different perceptual reality, but it can never realize the thought processes of this unconscious world. Like the computer, the unconscious is a vats storehouse of forgotten events, illicit desires. Unlike the computer we can never recall this knowledge to consciousness. As in Waterworx, our meeting of the unconscious process brings us to the paradoxical impasse of nothingness, of a void. Conclude, the poem suggests, that “desire is but an ache, an absence… It creates a dream of limits and it grows in gravity as that takes shape.” ‘Sense,’ in Hancox’s poetical exploration, becomes non-sense. We can only know through repetition, in an enigmatic flash, the presence of the unconscious through absence.


In contrast to the metaphysical dimensions of Landfall and Waterworx, Hancox’s Beach Events is a return to earth, a return to a diaristic and personal cinema. There are no absences in this film, all the memories are present. All that occurs visually is described by a poetry specific to the concrete nature of physical reality. Using one of his own poems, Hancox fuses the present of the images with their past and future descriptions by a voice-over and superimposed text. Beach Events reinforces the signification of words to image in what Hancox describes as a “kind of anonymous primitive poetry of events.”


Originally published in Vanguard May 1984