Imagining the Past and Place: Memory and Landscape in the films of Richard Hancox by Lianne McLarty
Originally published in a catalogue: Richard Hancox (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1990)
Introduction: To Look Back
A retrospective provides the opportunity to look back over the career of an artist. In the case of Richard Hancox this is especially fitting, not only because he has become an important Canadian experimental filmmaker over the last twenty years, but also because Hancox so often invokes the process of remembering. Over the last decade, especially, his films have focused on the importance of the past and on the role of memory in mediating both collective and personal landscapes.
Like many of his contemporaries in Canadian avant-garde cinema, Hancox is devoted to investigating properties of film, and what and how these properties can be used to represent. He approaches film as a signifying practice, a medium with its own resources-and resistances-through which the artist’s relationship with his/her personal, and our collective, environments, can be figured. Hancox’s thematic concern with time and memory and his exploratory relationship to the film medium lead him especially to emphasize the temporal dimensions of film images.
Hancox began making films in 1968, after a period in which poetry had been his main interest. His first works were remarkably varied, but they sketched the themes and forms that he would later develop. One striking feature in these films, a negation really, is that Hancox deliberately abandoned poetry. Indeed language itself was rejected. Reflecting on his early work in the mid-80s, just as he was in the midst of completing a trilogy of “poetry films,” Hancox explained that his first filmmaking was prompted by an aesthetic separation of poetry and cinema. “I adopted an aesthetic which held that words of any kind were an unimaginative crutch that violated the ‘purity’ of cinema, and I temporarily abandoned poetry in favour of the poetic.”1
Nonetheless, while his early films were bent towards a purist idea of
cinema, three of his first films suggest Hancox sought the means of
disentangling the film image from an illusory realism. He explored various forms that would embody his concerns. His first films ranged from experimental collage (Rose, 1968) and direct-cinema documentary (Cab 16, 1969) to dramatic narrative complete with allusions to the Western (Tall Dark Stranger, 1970). Another early work, I, A Dog (1970) began what would prove to a continuous streak of autobiographical filmmaking over the next decade. Hancox calls these films “personal documentaries”2 and they provide a continuity running through his experiments with varied forms during the 1970s. Next to Me (1971), House Movie (1972), Wild Sync (1973) and Home for Christmas (1978), for example, all place the filmmaker and his experience of a personal environment in the foreground, although the techniques and investigations, and also the degree of self-portraiture, differ considerably.
Another of his early films, Rooftops (1971), diverges from the
autobiographical series in as much as the film “documents” an urban landscape. Widening the angle of view, from autobiographical to collective environments, Rooftops looks forward to the films that Hancox would begin in 1979 with Zum Ditter and would continue in an increasingly self-conscious manner through the early 1980s. This grouping is developed with Reunion in Dunnville (1981), a documentary, and continues in a different style with the poetry films: Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories) (1982), Landfall (1983) and Beach Events (1984). Hancox’s most recent film, Moose Jaw (1990) synthesizes his work over the last decade.
Hancox explains the shift back to language and poetry in the eighties that started with Zum Ditter (a collaboration with artist Allan MacKay): “I began to feel that the image was not ipso facto worth ‘a thousand words’-perhaps not even worth one word-which didn’t necessarily take away from the image. Instead I began to think how words could be used for more than image-redundant signification.
Theoretical Contexts: Simulation and Representation
Throughout his filmmaking Hancox has explored the image, and through this exploration he has addressed issues of simulation and representation. His films are characterized by a simultaneous, and so, paradoxical distrust of and respect for the photographic-cinematic image. His distrust emerges form an awareness that the photographically engendered image proffers the seductive illusion that it reproduces the referent, and is a simulation of the real, while his respect arises form the recognition that the image can meaningfully illuminate personal and social relationships through the work of representation. So, while Hancox’s films question the image, they are not formalist works in the strict modernist sense. His respect for the significance the image can provide means that he cautiously uses it to make representational films. This use of representation, the refusal to deny the referent, grounds Hancox’s concerns with time and memory, which are both personal and collective concerns. The particular and local are visual dominants in Hancox’s films and they come to be figured in two ways: the personal, intimate, family spaces and the collective environments of cities, public buildings and landscapes.
Distrust of the image as a simulation and respect for its role in
meaningful representation both have theoretical bases in the work of French theorist Jean Baudrillard and Canadian filmmaker and critic Bruce Elder. They both offer divergent but comparable considerations which help clarify the central paradox that characterizes Hancox’s working relationship with film images.
For Baudrillard the photographic image is to be deeply suspected because of its powerful tendency to simulate the real, in effect, to replace it in the social imagination. Despite its broad sweep, Baudrillard’s critique of the image is particularly directed against commercial television and popular cinema. Elder, in contrast, considers how, in the practice of Canadian experimental filmmaking, photographic and filmic images have been used not to replace the real but rather to allow an artist to investigate how images are meditations on the real. For Elder the photograph or film image is not always a means to seduce the viewer, but can instead raise questions about and offer opportunities for meaningful representation.
In The Evil Demon of Images Baudrillard argues that modern media images “are sites of the disappearance of meaning and representation.”4 Society’s relationship to images alters with changes in the technology of their production. Photographic and filmic images appear so real to us that they seduce us into believing in their complete veracity. This illusionism, this “reference principle of images” must be distrusted.5 Baudrillard contends that the modern relationship between image and reality can no longer be one of true reference, which was the domain of representation in the past. Painting, theatre, sculpture and the other traditional representational arts referred to the real but were never mistaken for it. They mapped reality but they did not claim to reproduce it. In fact representation made the images’ mediation of the world more or less obvious and representation meant that the image was dependent on the real for its authority.
With photography and film, however, this relationship between image and reality shifts from representation to simulation. Here the sovereign difference between the real and the image collapses, which gives rise to the peculiar status of images in modern media culture. The obliteration of difference, in effect, cancels reality as a separate existence; reality’s authority is diminished and the relationship of dependency between the image and what it shows is dissolved. Contemporary society relies on images to define reality rather than the other way around, which is why we mistakenly lend film images a veracity they can never own and we can no longer live meaningfully in the real. Instead we live inside simulations where, says Baudrillard, “images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”6 In other words, images constitute a reality of their own. This has becomes especially clear in contemporary media culture where what Baudrillard calls the “hyperreal” holds sway, where meaning is “murdered” along with the real that once lent authority and significance to images. Without contact with the real, meaningful representation is impossible; instead, there exists only the “closed-circuit” of media signs that never look outward to reality, which in a way has vanished.
A deep distrust of the image’s role in simulation is crucial for a film
artist like Hancox who seeks to use filmic images to explore personal meaning in both intimate and social environments. Baudrillard suggests that the new techniques of photography and film effectively preclude representation. But is that inevitable?
Bruce Elder does not believe so. He claims that Canadian experimental films, for example, employ the photograph in two ways very different form most contemporary media culture: to reflect on its own processes and to articulate the problems of representation. In contrast to modernist denials to the referential illusion-which is one radical way to resist simulation-a Canadian “postmodern” practice offers an alternative by working directly on a principle of non-exclusion, in a sense, to recover representation. What characterizes the Canadian avant-garde, Elder argues, is its incorporation of other media and specifically its “commitment to analyzing the nature of the photograph.” 7 By critically investigating , and yet also investing respect in photography, this film work resumes representation, albeit in a more critical manner than the traditional arts.
To take one of Elder’s examples (one that Hancox works with repeatedly in the films of the 1970s), when a still photograph is incorporated into a film, it is transformed because it assumes the durational quality of cinema. Elder suggests that the articulation of the distinction between experiencing a photograph as a photograph and as a film image (or within a film image) points to the fact that “temporality is one of the filmmaker’s fundamental materials.”8 This concern with materials is a reminder of the objecthood of the work of art. Yet, since this concern with materiality takes the photographic image as its focus, representation is also opened up to critical investigation. Canadian film artists are simultaneously devoted to abstraction (i.e., underscoring the objecthood of a work) and representation (i.e., the making or restoring of meaning). This double commitment, which corresponds to Hancox’s paradoxical mistrust and respect, demonstrates how photographically based imagery can resist simulation by overturning the illusion of reproducing the real and by addressing just how representation operates.
Like Baudrillard, Elder understands that representation depends on the difference between an image and what it represents. But, unlike
Baudrillard, Elder does not see the expression of that difference as beyond the capacity of photography and cinema. On the contrary, for Elder, photographic imagery always has a double-sided nature, a sense of “presence” as well as “absence.” The photograph is, Elder writes, “at once the actual object and an illusion, an image that seems to present the object that is actually absent.” 9 This paradox of presence and absence means that the photograph always presents the difference between the real and its image. More than this, the photograph really depends on this difference between representational means and represented object. The intense illusion of presence explains why photographic and filmic image are prone to simulation. As Baudrillard argues, the photographic paradox threatens to collapse representation into the comforts of an illusory presence. Yet Elder is correct in arguing that it is the equally intense absence of the depicted object in photography that can underline illusion and overturn it. The expression of absence, moreover, comes to the fore in cinema because of its temporal nature, which make film the ideal medium for an exploration of the themes of time and memory.
Troubling the Illusionary Surface
Hancox’s films can be situated critically in two ways within this
theoretical discussion of the distrust of and respect for the image.
Firstly, Hancox consistently troubles the illusionary surface of the image by drawing attention to the materials and the constructed nature of film. In so doing he expresses the fundamental difference between image and reality. Secondly, Hancox never denies the potential for representation and meaning. He uses the properties of temporality and absence to explore both the personal and collective implications of time and memory.
An appropriate place to begin discussing Hancox’s films more specifically is Rose. Of all his films it offers the most direct contemplation of the materiality of the film image. Made without a camera, Rose consists of heavily reworked found footage: scenes from Hayley Mills movie, an amateur horror film, shots of a car assembly plant, among others. This footage serves as the referent. Mediation is emphasized by the secondhand character of the imagery; materiality is underlined through rapid editing (the continuous illusion is repeatedly shattered into fragments) and the very surface of the image is underscored as Hancox scratches, paints and dyes the footage.
While Rose is a nonlinear collage, Tall Dark Stranger is a narrative (more or less) and a Western (of sorts). The sketchy story concerns the meeting between a Prince Edward Island farmer and a Christlike hippy figure. Their encounter is rendered through classic realist film forms, like eyeline matches and shot-reverse-shot editing. Certain strategies, however, address formal characteristic of the film image; for example, the footage shifts from black and white to colour and back. After the two characters share some hashish, colour predominates and serves expressionist rather than realist ends. Inside the narrative, moreover, Hancox weaves an experimental film, meant to depict a “trip.” Here black and white shots of farm equipment and animals are rapidly intercut and superimposed. This sequence is the film’s most obvious distortion of the image, and although framed by the narrative and motivated by the farmer’s “stoned” condition, it is not unrelated to the rest of the film. In fact, it emphasizes the more subtle distortion that occurs throughout the film at the level of sound/image relationship.
Synchronized (or sync) sound, conventionally used in film to enhance the realism of the image, always makes the claim that the source of sound-dialogue, for example-is right inside the image. Sync sound is used in Tall Dark Stranger in a selective and emphatic fashion. We hear a gun when it is dropped and chairs slide across the floor when they are moved. The sound is obviously added after the fact to isolate it as an element to be manipulated by the filmmaker. The sparing and critical use of sound is typical of Hancox who seldom permits matching or sympathy between sound and image. This antipathy might well be seen as co-extensive with Hancox’s earlier avoidance of language and his devotion to the image.
Wild Sync and Zum Ditter also set out to prove the role of image-sound antipathy. The first is a parodic lesson in how to achieve an approximation of sync sound without the correct equipment. In filmmaking jargon “sync sound” and “wild sound” are antonyms: sync sound is recorded at the same time as the image is shot: wild sound is recorded apart from the camera, as if often the case with sound effects. “Wild sync” is a technical contradiction in terms, but it is nonetheless the resort of filmmakers without the resources to do sync-sound shooting. In his lesson, Hancox, armed with camera, microphone and tape recorder, films his reflection in a mirror as he demonstrates his version of the wild-sync technique. These long takes are intercut with and at times “synced up” with home footage of a Christmas celebration. The apparent point of the film-to show the process of constructing an illusion, in this case, a deliberately feeble one-changes into another purpose, to show up a technique that conventionally undergird an image’s claim to veracity by crudely but effectively faking it.
Zum Ditter is the film Hancox made to mark the return of language into his filmmaking after a full decade of critical hesitation.10 A prelude to the poetry films to come, Zum Ditter parodies that long hesitation, extending it into a nonsense comedy about sync sound. In contrast to Wild Sync’s technical lesson, it is an exuberantly excessive exercise in synchronization. For most of the film, performer Allan MacKay, playing a learned musicologist, tries to utter a single sentence, but he cannot get past the name of the eighteenth-century composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Compounding MacKay’s humiliation technically, the sound and image are in perfect sympathy so that together they mercilessly record MacKay’s valiant struggle to begin his lecture. The frenetic moments of stuttering extravagance become a piece of sound poetry, accompanying the zooms of the camera in time to MacKay’s manic delivery. The nonsensical performance aids in undermining the realistic convention of image-sound synchronization and in this way both Wild Sync and Zum Ditter make sound an issue and overturn its illusory potential.
In Next to Me Hancox similarly takes up motion. Through juxtaposing still and moving images of street scenes and personal encounters, he demonstrates how motion as a property of film artificially enhances the illusion of realism in cinema. Like sound, movement is often identified as an aspect of film that distinguishes it from photography, but in fact a film strip technically consists of still photographic images. The distinction between still and moving image is fundamentally false and is constituted merely by an illusion produce through the phi phenomenon in visual perception. When Hancox introduces stills into Next to Me, he cuts off the sound; motionless and silent, they produce a jarring interruption of the filmic flow. Because they are not anchored by sound and motion, these stills effectively undermine the illusion of movement and the lifelike jumble of noises that seem to come from the street into the film. Hancox’s voice intrudes to talk about motion and the “decisive moment” (a term coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson): “In the same way there is a decisive moment of pseudo-suspended movement in photography, it seems entirely possible there is a decisive moment of pseudo-extended movement in motion pictures.” Movement is suspended by the photograph, whereas film extends or perhaps reconstitutes the motion initially halted by the still image.
Mediations such as these, which are irresolvably paradoxical, help to sever the film image from its referent by underlining the material conditions that permit the referent to come into view at all. By drawing attention to the constructed character of film, Hancox counteracts the temptation to simulation and re-opens the space of representation.
Even Cab 16, which most closely approximates conventional documentary, engages in such activity. Unlike most direct cinema, which keeps cutting to a bare minimum in order that events may unfold as realistically as possible, Cab 16 is composed of brief and often tightly framed shots. While the sound and image comment on each other, joined by their common subject matter, they are disjoined in space and time. There are no synchronous fits and the fragmented nature of the whole has the effect of distancing the viewer from any sense of having unmediated access to the event.
As these examples indicate, Hancox works consistently to block absorption into the image, to subvert mistaking sound-image conjuncture for a natural whole, and generally, to divorce the image from its referent. Nonetheless, unlike more strictly formalist filmmaking, Hancox’s works do no deny representation. Indeed, the representational capability of film is central to both the autobiographical and poetry/landscape films that are discussed next.
Personal Landscapes: The Autobiographical Films
Although Cab 16 is not one of his personal documentaries, in its form and emotional colouration, it already marks Hancox as an artist concerned with the particular and the everyday that will inform his autobiographical films. The subject of Cab 16 is Elmer Larter, a Charlottetown taxi driver who uses his cab to transport physically disabled children. The subject matter provided the filmmaker with ample opportunity to elevate Elmer’s work to an abstract and universal level, but Hancox diffuses this opportunity and instead focuses on the cab driver’s everyday routines. Shots of Elmer assisting and driving the children are accompanied by a sound track that records conversations with the children and also discussion of his daily rounds, reminiscences about how he started the service and a few anecdotes. The emphasis on the specific make the film a portrait and Elmer’s accent grounds the film in a regional culture; this firm sense of place works against generalization.
I,A Dog, the first of the autobiographical films, expresses a sense of
place through a comic contemplation of the artist’s displacement. The film opens with a shot of a white screen over which appear a series of still photographs, which include images of an old man’s weathered face and fishermen displaying their catch. Offscreen, Hancox sings a song based on an old PEI ballad that tells how he left his “native land” to find his “fortune” in New York. This prelude serves to originate the hero at home. The ballad rhyme with these images: since it is based on a local tune, it locates Hancox alongside the photos as one who was once of-though now from-this place.
There is a wider cultural dimension to Hancox’s rooting himself in this way. The title of the film ironically figures the disproportion between the rural singer and the metropolitan domain he has entered. Except this relationship is soon turned on its head, since Hancox depicts New York as an island of dogs rather than glamorous urbanites. The second section of the film consists of a text edited from Hancox’s correspondence with his mentor George Semsel.
“The city is full of dog shit,” a letter tells us, which is meant literally, since the text goes on to report that “New Yorkers spend 769 hours a year scraping dog shit from their shoes.” Following the text, a montage of dogs and their owners serves as a depiction of the city. The mecca to which the young Canadian artist has entured has literally gone to the dogs. I, A Dog is not only an ironic portrayal of the émigré Canadian artist assuming, not all together happily, a new cosmopolitan identity, but also serves as a reminder to Canadian filmmakers that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the border (it may, however, be better fertilized).
Also shot in New York, Next to Me consists of bits of a love story intercut with street scenes. A soundtrack composed of street noises, bits of pop songs and jazz, and cuts from radio broadcasts and the quick pace of the film create a strong sense of fragmentation. Its formal complexity weaves an intricate play between the social and personal. The love story, for example, is narrated through quotations from pop songs appropriated and made personally meaningful.
Yet, Hancox also addresses how the social restricts and misrepresents individual experiences. The passage of the hero through the film is ironically controlled by street signs such as Walk Don’t Walk. The city is portrayed as a frenetic and claustrophobic arena where culture and reality hardly match. A Bowery man washes windshields while Tex Ritter sings that Santa “doesn’t care I you’re rich or poor/He loves you just the same.” The incongruity of the song and the image points to the contradiction between what culture says and the reality of a man labouring for small change out in the street.
The most intimate of Hancox’s autobiographical films, House Movie opens with an advertisement for the U-Haul company seen taped to a window through which part of the street beyond is visible. The image is initially still and silent and only after a long, contemplative interval does the sound and movement begin. Like the ad, the film is a cultural artifact that constructs the personal experience of moving from a house. The ad, however, is a frozen, ideal image, an “adventure in moving” cliché that absorbs what is always somewhat of a personal trauma into bizarrely impersonal abstraction. In contract, Hancox’s filmed representation of the experience of living in and then moving from a house, though still an artifact, is articulated through an obsessive attention to the pathos of the objects and details that make up a personal environment.
Formally, House Movie is composed of two types of images: hand-held shots of the house and stationary shots portraying the artist and his partner interacting in everyday activities. This intimate subject matter is echoed in the subjective camera’s movement over furniture, walls, and personal objects, which all make up a personal landscape. The film intends to give voice to the specifics of a place and ensures that the viewer grasps that it is about the house as much as the couple inhabiting it. This attention to the particular resists a tendency to universalize both experience and place.
One of the most important devices Hancox uses in House Movie, which records the breakup of a relationship as it was occurring, it to work a principle of memory into the film’s structure. Early shots of the house and the couple are replayed late in the film, after the move has happened. These repeated passages are images retrieved from the film’s past, from its store of memories. Events might have been recorded while they were happening, but they can be grasped only by mediation, as image traces rooted in the past. A powerful sense of loss and absence attends these passages, reinforcing the themes of separation and transience. The doubling back cannot really revisit what occurs before but can only re-present that which is always now absent and lost. In leaving a relationship, in moving from a home, something is lost; indeed, a whole environment of intimate and specific experience becomes accessible only through memory. The film doubles this sad experience in its form of representation.
In Home for Christmas, this last of the autobiographical films, remembrance finds literal expression in a journey home. To go home is, in a sense, to travel into one’s past and there to encounter the particularities that form one’s sense of place which, for Hancox, is both personal (a real trip home for the holidays) and cultural (the Canadian landscape). The film has a three-part structure: the train journey from Toronto to Prince Edward Island, the festive homecoming and the shorter (in screen time) trip back to Toronto. The initial arrival itself provides the filmmaker with an opportunity to contemplate representations of home-the camera lingers on family photographs; his parents tell anecdotes from family history. Christmas itself is an idiosyncratic family affair, chiefly because the custom of the Hancox males is to bash their presents ritually and with remarkable enthusiasm before opening them. For example, when the artist is about to open his gift, his father tells him, “It’s a karate chopper.” This family code, like the wine that bears the Hancox name, is a specific sign of home. And Hancox brings these rituals and photos and signs into a relationship with the rural mailbox, the emblem that names this place as his own home.
The two journeys from and to Toronto bracket this specific family home with depictions of a wider context. A group of passengers forms a community on the train, which the filmmaker leads in a sing-along while playing his guitar. As the train forms a warm enclosure of drink and song, shots of the frozen landscape and remarks about where the trip has progressed encode the film as a voyage across Canada, a country that is linked by the technologies of transportation through which the landscape is made negotiable. The ferry breaking up the ice on the channel on the ride back to the mainland also participates in this negotiation.
When the warm interiors of the train are juxtaposed with the wintry
landscape, the vehicle figures as Northrop Frye’s garrison-the community’s enclosure which protects it from the stark outdoors. This figuration is not foreign to Hancox’s other films. In Tall Dark Stranger there are frequent shots from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, which emphasize the opposition of interior and exterior. The farmer and the hippie form a temporary community in the shelter of a farmhouse, a process that doubtless needs the “other” of the landscape to dwarf the cultural differences. In Hancox’s later poetry films, this classic Canadian image of the alien and potentially threatening landscape is transformed into provocations of time and memory.
Time and Memory: Poetry in the Landscape
As noted earlier in the essay, Elder argues that photographic
representation is founded on an absence. Since film is photographically based, and therefore capable of expressing absence, as well as a temporal medium, it is understandably well suited to themes of time and memory. Memory is necessarily connected to absence and time and extends to what has passed away and cannot be present again.
In an age dominated by a drive toward the future and ever greater technical mastery and by a media culture saturated with a simulated presence, these ancient themes-time, absence and memory-gain a poignancy, fragility and rarity. The Canadian philosopher George Grant has also shown how they gain a new urgency. In Time as History Grant discusses the word “history” and its modern destiny. For him the modern conception of human beings as historical beings emerges out of the way we conceive time. For us, history is progress, the medium of advances in technology. So, for us, time means progress and we are adamantly future-looking. Grant writes:
“To enucleate the conception of time as history must… be to think our orientation to the future together with the will to mastery. Indeed the relation between mastery and concentration on the future is apparent in our language. The word “will” is used as an auxiliary for the future tense and also as the word which expresses our determination to do.”11
The will to mastery for Grant reaches an extreme in North American history. Beginning with our ancestors who saw this continent as “tabula rasa,” “pure potentiality,” contemporary people have become “the chief leaders in establishing the reign of technique throughout all the planet and perhaps beyond it.”12
Grant recognizes the violence that is a consequence of this conception of time. Arthur Kroker describes Grant’s thought as a “lament over the human deprival” that has come with technological society.13 Human existence is now characterized by domination and dependency and Kroker identifies Grant’s understanding of the latter with “a radical colonization from within of the psychology of the modern self.”14 Grant encapsulates this colonization with the line: “technique is ourselves.” Our very identity is tied up with mastery and willing, a dependency on the future-looking conception of time to which we have narrowed history and which concomitantly results in our forgetting (“forgetfulness of the intimations of deprival by which the horizon of the historical age might be breached.”15 It is this sense of loss that needs to be retried if we are to see beyond mastery and willing. “Listening for the intimations of deprival” is for Grant a possible way of living critically in the technological age.16 But that listening requires memory for, writes Grant, “(H)ow can we think deprivation unless the good which we ,lack is somehow remembered?”17
Hancox’s documentary Reunion in Dunnville portrays the thirty-fourth annual reunion of WWII veterans who trained at the RCAF school in Dunnville, Ontario. A reunion, like a journey home, involves a return to a place from one’s past. Reunions, especially, mark the passing of time and privilege memory. They are ritualized, shared rememberings.
Reunion in Dunnville is composed of footage from both the 1956 and 1979 reunions. The passing of time since the war is made clear through the juxtaposition of the training base at earlier times and the site’s later evolution into a turkey farm. Over one of the latter images, a wartime song is heard on the sound track, thereby invoking a sense of what has passed. The frequent shots of the airfield overgrown with grass and weeds are further visual markers of the passage of time. Temporal change is also evident in the voice-over narration when it switches tenses: past (in recounting the history of the base); present (commenting on events as they are shown); future (describing upcoming activities). In all of this, change and loss are foregrounded.
The 1956 footage, which seems to retrieve the past, is itself a
representation of a reunion that remembers an event inaccessible to Hancox’s film, namely, the war-era a life of the school. The intercutting of the two reunions and the narration’s emphasis on temporal change are reminders that with each successive reunion the past is further removed. Like the gatherings it depicts, Reunion in Dunnville is a look back, not so the past might be recovered or relived, but rather with the recognition that the past is only accessible through rituals of remembering.
Although the narration recounts personal stories (“the night someone smuggled Marie Hannigan up in a Harvard to buzz Niagara Falls in her nightgown”), these tales have entered a collective store of memories. The reunion, moreover, is not meant “to glorify war,” the narration tells us, but holds a lesson for today: “It reminds us to ask what we are doing with the freedom they so dearly won.” Collective remembering, like personal remembering, however mediated and indirect, helps to situate the present and provides a means through which the future can be negotiated.
That negotiation necessarily conveys a sense of loss. While the motif of the reunion conveys loss in its focus on the past, the deeper images of loss are those of the base in its current, humbled state, devoid of people and the community that once gathered there. The film ends with a transition from the 1956 reunion to images of the turkey far and the strangely beautiful ruins of the abandoned airfield.
Similar to Reunion in Dunnville, Hancox’s next film, the first of the
poetry films of the 1980s, Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories) is structured on themes of time and memory. While the documentary sets out these themes by intercutting footage from different time periods, Waterworx generates its own internal past. The film repeats a sequence of traveling shots of a Toronto water filtration plant that overlooks Lake Ontario and its surrounding landscape so that the second section duplicates the first. In this way, the film refers to its own past, while invoking the process of memory by encouraging the viewer to remember the identical images that came before. The past and memory are also suggested by the soundtrack, which includes in part children at play and a woman singing a WWII song about remembering (a lyric reads: “I remember when”). The children we hear are absent and the woman’s voice fades in and out of static, as if her song was caught from old radio waves.18
As with Hancox’s other films, memory is a process of mediation. The images in the first section of Waterworx contrast to those in the second section, where a computer-generated surtext of Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Clear Day and No Memories” appear line by line over the image. The viewer’s access to the image in the first section is direct, whereas the second section blocks this access with the text. Absorption into the pellucid images is obstructed; here the image can only be grasped through the text’s mediation. The repeated sequence, then, is not actually identical to the first, but rather, it is a memory of the first and as with all memory it is mediated. In fact, the images are altered, refigured by the poem.
The idea of mediation is formally expressed through what Hancox calls “interruptive” editing. In the same way that access to the past is indirect and filtered through memory, visual access to the filtration plant is fragmented. Only parts of the Art Deco structure are visible at any one time and then only for a few moments as the next image offers another perspective. Despite the “picture perfect” quality of the images, their power to provide a vision of the whole is limited. Like memory, these seemingly direct images are themselves a mediation.
Another tactic Hancox employs to further this mediation is the lateral movement of the text, which accentuates the two-dimensional character of the image’s surface. The back-and-forth movement of the camera also emphasizes flatness. Throughout the film, only the exterior of the plant is made visible as the camera scans the surface, separate and distant. With the recognition that the image is “this shallow spectacle” (as a line from Wallace Stevens’s poem has it) and with the viewer distanced from the image, Hancox creates a context for the contemplation of our relationship to the landscape.
While he chose the water plant because of a childhood connection, Hancox has the site bearing the burden of a wider significance-it represents something done to nature. It marks the control and regulation of the natural. the landscape shown in the film is highly constructed, glimpsed through and around the rigid geometry of the building. Furthermore, what Hancox has called “the Precisionist clarity” of the images, the smooth camera movement (which contrasts sharply with Hancox’s hand-held shots in the autobiographical films), and the sharp lines and angles of the architecture articulate the imposition of human science on the landscape. The poem, produced by computer, appears in a rapid, even manner, divorced from the poet’s breath and speech. The curser blinks at the end of each line, waiting not for the artist’s inspiration, but mere further input. The road that the camera travels (it was mounted in a car) directs and restricts the movement of its gaze.
The relationship to nature that the film figures in these various ways is one of domination and control. In this regulated, technologized landscape, not only are people absent (“No soldiers in the scenery”) but memory of human presence has been removed (“No thoughts of people now dead”). This absence of memory within the landscape compresses Grant’s understanding of the death of memory in the technological conception of time. In an age driven by mastery, by the will to control nature and by a conception of time as progress, the past and memory are obliterated (“As if none of us had ever been here before”). without memory, even our present is in doubt (“And are not now: in this shallow spectacle, this sense”).
Waterworx, then, situates its consideration of memory and time within the context of a technological landscape. And here within this landscape, memory becomes especially important under the signs of its deprival. A sense of the past stands against the future-looking conception of time-as-progress. At the very least, it articulates that things were not always as they are now, that the present state of things is not immutable. Memory offers the possibility, however frail, that an alternative relationship to the landscape can be gained. Hancox’s sense of this alternative does not rest on a naieve nostalgia for the simplicity of a pre-technological age, but he insists on a recognition that something is lost in this age of progress.
In Waterworx the perfectly regulated landscape from which we are formally distanced reverberates with absence. A human presence is remembered only through its absence: “Today the mind is not part of the weather.” The memory the film expresses is of a time when consciousness and nature were not radically separate, when the mind was part of the weather, when there were still “people in the landscape.”
The film ends with a close-up of the computer that generates the text with Hancox and his camera reflected in the terminal screen. Over this image the last line of the poem appears: “This invisible activity, this sense.” Here the human is finally figured, but only as a reflection, framed and refracted by the computer screen. In ending with this image, Hancox grounds everything that came before in the technology (computer and camera) on which it utterly depends. As well as functioning self-reflectively (making “this invisible activity” visible), the last image suggests a relationship between the human and the technological that offers possibility and imposes restrictions. Perhaps the possibility lies in the interaction between art and technology. through the mediating presence of the filmmaker, technology goes up against itself and can be used to express the intimations of deprival.
In initiating the trilogy of poetry films, Waterworx recalls an earlier
film, Rooftops, which also takes the urban landscape-another highly constructed environment-as its subject. In fact, the first shot of this earlier film shows water towers which, like the water filtration plant, are visual emblems of the regulation of the natural. As well, the sign for the Hotel Great Northern suggests that within this constructed environment, the natural landscape invoked by “the great northern” has been reduced to a sign. The absence of the natural world is made all the more obvious by the incongruity of such a name for a New York hotel. And, like Waterworx, Rooftops shows a de-peopled landscape, an absence especially jarring given the film’s New York locations.
The camera frequently adopts a back-and-forth motion and never enters buildings, as if the filmmaker were taking in a landscape panorama. The feeling of distance is, of course, established by the rooftop camera position that separates the viewer from the street life that may exist beyond (or below) the frame. At the end, a lone figure, a little girl skipping rope, appears. The overhead perspective, which includes the closely surrounding buildings, boxes the girl in a claustrophobic space, creating a final image of containment similar to the one at the end of Waterworx.
Both films portray a constructed environment in a style usually reserved for natural landscapes in much Canadian art. In these films, however, the urban and technological habitat is observed from a position outside, as if human being no longer actually inhabit the space they have made for themselves.
In his film Landfall, Hancox, in sharp contrast with Waterworx and Rooftops, depicts a natural landscape and expresses an intense connection with it. This association between the human and the natural is partly achieved through an assertively mobile camera, which, unlike the closely controlled tracking movements in Waterworx, wanders in full and sometimes erratic arc over the entire vista of land, sea and sky. Hancox describes the work as a “dance with the camera,” which is “rooted in the human tripod.”19 At times, the movement stops when the filmmaker freezes on his shadow to emphasize his own presence. Although Hancox again chooses to depict a de-peopled landscape, the human element is everywhere inscribed in Landfall by virtue of the artist’s emotive, hand-held camera. Through his sense of connection with the landscape, Hancox offers an alternative to the modern technological relationship with the natural.
The relationship to the natural in Canadian culture is characterized by critic Gaile McGregor as “a constant recoil from the vastness of the landscape and from its threatening otherness.”20 Consequently, an inside/outside distinction between human space and nature’s huge surround and a depiction of the “boxed experience” of the human enclosure predominate in Canadian imagery.21 Landfall abandons this distinction. Here we are in the landscape. Through continuous takes and the all-encompassing movement of the camera, Hancox afford the landscape an overpowering presence: it surrounds us. Thematically, this presence of the landscape contrasts sharply with conceptions of the natural as hostile and harsh other that must be contained and regulated. When we see ourselves as separate from the landscape, we set the stage for technological domination. In his film Hancox demonstrates an engagement with the natural that depends on connection rather than separation and control.
This new relationship with the landscape speaks against the ideas of progress and time as future-looking, which is further explored by the film’s structure. Landfall is a literal expression of memory: the film is its own past, since the second section is a repetition of the first. Unlike Waterworx, however, the footage is reversed, creating what Hancox describes as “a kind of overall palindrome.”22 The ending of the first section begins with the second, which ends at the start of the first. This structure undermines the idea of progress, of moving forward, and instead suggests a looking or journeying backward through the film’s past.
To Hancox nature is not mystified. Technological mediation is in part articulated by the imagery. The camera movement produces a dizzying and at times disorienting effect that makes it difficult to distinguish the top from bottom. The point of view is constantly in flux, thus denying a stable relationship to the referent. The imagery is slightly blurred and distorted through superimpositions of mirror images that seem to blend into one another. While the film never reaches total abstraction and never completely denies the referent, the passages show that access to the referent, here the landscape, is not direct but mediated through the filmmaker’s camera.
Landfall also addresses the limits of photographic representation, that is, the capacity of cinema to reproduce the real. To an even greater extent than in Waterworx, Landfall reflects on the notion of the copy. The images in the second section are copies of the first and, within the second, images and their mirror reflections appear on the screen simultaneously. The sense of a perfect reproduction is undermined by the fact that the replica is not exact. The second part of the film differs from the first in many other respects: the voice that coloured the first segment is absent in the second, selected lines from the poem that root the film appear on
screen, and the palindrome copy is duplicated inside with mirrored images. With each successive copy, the film takes another step away from the original, the referent itself. The point is not merely that images never replace the real, but more, that they are obvious mediations on the real-in this case, the landscape of Kinlock, PEI.
There is a sense in which filmic representation can exceed limits. As an obvious meditation on the landscape, Landfall visually represents the absence of limits of which the D.G. Jones poem speaks: “I thought there were limits… I was wrong.” The camera seems able to move in any direction so that its relationship to the landscape is not bound by “Newtonian laws limiting time and space.”23 Gravity and a stable sense of up and down are disrupted by this film. The words that appear in the second section move across the screen in varying directions, sometimes tilted and sometimes upside down. The word “limits” appears ironically at the top of an inverted image.
Landfall demonstrates an alternative to the conventions of cinematic spatial orientation, where the viewer is placed ideally in relation to an upright and laterally consistent geometry. The film brings this spatial re-orientation into concert with its disruption of the temporal forward direction typical of most films.
Nonetheless, as the abovementioned poem suggests, there is an ominous aspect to this removal of limits. “I thought there were limits to this falling away,/This emptiness. I was wrong.” The poem speaks of a world of “emptiness” and “deprivation”: “So much for grass, and animals-/Nothing remains,/No sure foundation on the rock…” In this way limitlessness is set within technological domination and its obliteration of nature: “complete/Deprivation brings/Dreams, hallucinations which reveal/The sound and fury of machines/Working on nothing.” In the end, nothing remains but machines. The poem ends with only “A dream of limits.” It may be said that, on one hand, to acknowledge limits is to acknowledge those of the technological imagination and so to become conscious of the “intimations of deprival.” Yet, on the other hand, the limits that must be challenged are those that limit time to a sense of progress and space to separation, to an otherness that must then be controlled.
Similar themes unfold in Beach Events, the last of the trilogy of poetry films that Hancox completed in the eighties. Formally the film combines the pellucid imagery of Waterworx with the intuitive hand-held camera work of Landfall. While these images possess an observational quality that can invoke a sense of nature as simply “viewed,” Hancox works against this distance and separation of such a picturesque treatment of the landscape. The hand-held camera adopts the filmmaker’s subjective point of view as he walks, mostly with head down, along the shoreline. Shots show his feet leaving footprints in the sand, his hand dipping into a pool of water to turn over a snail and otherwise interacting with what Hancox is filming. Here the landscape is felt close up.
This sense of engagement is also suggested by the two poems, one of which is spoken and other of which is incorporated on the image track. Both are descriptions of experiencing a particular landscape. the poems, like the images, express a searching through this natural space. “I will look in the sand for artifacts which tell me something important about this place,” the filmmaker says. His is not a framed space made in a controlled spectacle. Rather, the artist’s search implies a movement into and through the landscape and his own trace-his impressions in the sand, for example-will becomes part of what he sees. “I will move through the cave, savouring the discoveries on the other side;” “leaving/footprints stamped in the sand.”
Interaction with the landscape must be grounded in a different conception of time than the one that leads to control and mastery. “I will find some older footprints, perhaps my own from another decade, to be left for another time,” the artist says. This line, which is spoken, invokes both past and future.
The film’s own temporal structure is foregrounded by the relationship between the poems and the imagery. The written text describes events in the present and reinforces the image’s illusory presentness, but the text and the image slip out of synchronization. For example, we read about a red sandpail long before the film makes visual reference to it. Hence, an interplay between past and future is created since the text (“somewhere rests a red sandpail”) anticipates the image to come. When the red pail does appear, it evokes the written text. The spoken poetry is also out of sync with the image. For example, the line “I will have only just seen the dead crab” anticipates the moment later in the film when the filmmaker does come upon the crab, thus pulling the image out of the present so that it exists only in the past and future.
As these instances suggest, Beach Events is not entirely “in the present” but reflects on its past and future. Contemplation of the landscape, then, is set within a shifting temporal frame, within an interplay of past, present and future. Again, as he has in different ways in many of his films, Hancox shows how temporality and connection with the landscape becomes inextricably linked. Mastery is displaced by connection, domination by the interplay that makes us conscious of the altering results of our presence. The thematic point of such structures is that our experience of the landscape in the present can only be adequately understood through remembrance of the past and anticipation of the future. As Hancox has remarked, “I don’t believe in the present. It’s meaningless without the future or the past.”24
The general movement in Hancox’s films has been from the personal to the collective environment. Although this development could hardly be said to have ever made a sharp dichotomy in his films, his first decade of work was shaped largely as an autobiographical project while the poetry films of the eighties were a contemplation of the issues of technology and the landscape.
Perhaps it was his early focus on the personal that led Hancox to comment that it was only recently that his films have become political.25 His self-reflective treatment of the image and of the temporal features of cinema from the start have had a political dimension. They deny the seductive illusionism of the image and the powerful tendency of films to shape themselves to a temporality of technological teleology. Other ways in which his personal documentaries are political are less readily apparent but no less important. they indicate the necessity of beginning with the particular and the local; the specificity of these personal films mitigates against the tendency of so much filmmaking to universalize experience. The political dimension of this concern with the particular and the local is shown by Grant who writes:
“It is true that no particularism can adequately incarnate the good. But is it not also true that only through some particular roots, however partial, can human beings first grasp what is good and it is the juice of such roots which for most men sustain their partaking in a more universal good?”26
These particular roots are what we lose to the homogenizing and
universalizing power of technology,” adds Grant.27
Hancox’s movement toward a shared landscape neither denies the
personal-each of the poetry films depict a personally significant landscape and the filmmaker’s presence is made evident-or the particular. But the particular now becomes a shared space. Because Hancox’s films are site specific, they are grounded in the actualities of place. The relationship to place in these films depends on memory and on a sense of temporality with a much greater breadth than the boxed-in present or the progress-oriented future of technological reason. Hancox’s films suggest that through a sense of time renewed by memory we can refashion our relationship to the landscape and see it not as something threatening and open to conquest, but as something that needs to be protected from the will to mastery that results from narrowing time to the idea of progress.
What the personal documentaries and the poetry/landscape film have in common is the contemplation of both past and place, memory and landscape. These films emphasize the centrality of looking back, of having a sense of past and place, both personally and collectively. Memory and representation are the vehicles through which the past and the particularities of place are mediated.
1. Rick Hancox, “Engaging Poetry with Film: A Personal Statement,” in Words and Moving Images, ed. William Wees and Michael Dorland (Montreal: Mediatexte and the Film Studies Association of Canada, 1984), 99.
2. A term used by Hancox’s teacher George Semsel in “Toward a Personal Documentary,” Filmmakers Newsletter (Summer 1971): 53-56.
3. Hancox, 99.
4. Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images (Annandale, Australia: The Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1984), 27.
5. Ibid, 13.
7. Bruce Elder, “Redefining Canadian Film: Postmodern Practice in Canada,” Parachute 27 (Summer 1982):5.
10. Hancox, 99.
11. George Grant, Time as History (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation, 1969), 10-11.
12. Ibid., 14.
13. Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984), 23.
16. George Grant, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969), 141.
17. Grant, Time as History, 50.
18. Rick Hancox, discussion with audience, Centre Stage Forum, St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto, April 3, 1987.
19. Hancox, “Engaging Poetry with Film,” 101.
20. Bart Testa, Spirit in the Landscape (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989), 10.
22. Hancox, “Engaging Poetry with Film,” 102.
23. Ibid., 101-102.
24. Hancox, discussion with the audience.
25. Rick Hancox, in an interview with Bob Wilkie, Cinema Canada 154 (July/August 1988): 12.
26. Grant, Technology and Empire, 68-69.
27. Ibid., 69.