Richard Hancox: Archaelogist of the Canadian Unmodern by Michael Dorland


Originally published in a catalogue: Richard Hancox (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1990)


“Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity.” Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs


Although consistently award-winning, the films of Richard Hancox have received little critical attention since his debut as an exhibiting

filmmaker in the early 1970s. The reasons for this lack of attention range from factors such as the time required for full development of the filmmaker’s style to the particular discursive economy in which discussions of experimental cinema in Canada have been structured.1 Beyond these reasons, the relative lack of engagement with Hancox’s works stems, I would suggest, more from their elaboration within Canadian cultural codes whose reception has been problematic both in the context of an externally dominant, avant-garde (or loosely modernist) discourse and an internally dominant, affirmative nationalist discourse.2


Since Joyce Wieland’s re-articulation of the national anthem of the Trudeau era in Reason over Passion (1969), the intrication of certain Canadian experimental film works with cultural nationalism has made them problematic objects. To put it crudely: Are they are or a sophisticate form of nationalist propaganda? The resulting ambiguity could authorize for instance Al Razutis’s outrage at Hancox letting himself be photographed ,with a Canadian flag (for the cover of Cinema Canada), a crime of lese-avant-garde sufficient for his expulsion from the ranks of “experimental (and especially avant-garde) filmmakers.” 3 Less petty but equally problematic is a statement by R. Bruce Elder that situates, in a broader hermeneutic, the ambiguous duality that haunts the Canadian-made art object:


Some has seen this paradoxical twist of fate as a special privilege history has granted to Canadians that has put us in the forefront of the advance towards a new understanding of reality; others have seen it as our tragic fate because it has placed us always “outside our time”-not really moderns in a predominantly modern age, not fully recovered from our mourning for the past was we advance towards the future.4


The Canadian Unmodern

In the interests of rounding out Elder’s argument that a nationalist

aesthetic of reconciliation animates Canadian experimental cinema

generally, I would like to suggest that Hancox’s work lends itself

admirably to inclusion within such a corpus, but diverges form it in two important ways. Hancox has not only managed to explore the tragic dimension of Canadian duality, but he has done so without recourse to the register of the tragic. His films thus point to an alterative and hitherto largely uncharted dimension of the Canadian artistic imagination that is not modernist nor postmodernist but unmodern.5


Perhaps uniquely among Canadian experimental film,6 Hancox’s work has been profoundly preoccupied with the archaeological problem of being “outside our time:” neither fully modern in a modern age nor fully recovered from mourning the past as we advance, propelled face backwards like Benjamin’s angelus, toward the future.


What allows Hancox’s work to sidestep the seduction of the tragic and with it the ressentiment of an inauthentic past is the realization that our past was never our own. A.B. McKillop states the problem this poses for Canadian and in particular nineteenth-century intellectual history:


If the intellectual historian in Canada looks for originality of thought he will find precious little. To carry out this research (to find out what Canadians were thinking, and what assumptions informed what thought) is not to celebrate the mediocre or to elevate the second-rate; it is rather to recognize colonial minds as just that, and to view colonialism as a phenomenon indicative of a stage of political, constitutional, and social growth, not as a source of national shame (or conversely of national glory-MD). 7


Although Hancox is less constrained than the intellectual historian in the methodology of his research, he has most fully explored the terrain of the colonial mind, particularly in excavating its survival in the forms of that internal Canadian colonialism known as regionalism, whose archaeology Hancox undertakes in his most ambitious film to date, Moose Jaw (1990).


Ironies of Nostalgia

The bedrock of Hancox’s artistic vision could be stated as the realization that the operative dimension of Canadian time is, at best, that of nostalgia: the longing for a past that never was from the perspective a present one cannot accept. In such a perspective-one informed by the full range of Canadian nationalist catastrophism; i.e., Canada is always threatened either form without by American assimilation and from within by politico-linguistic divisiveness-the dimension of the future is also, problematical. The latter dimension enters the present either as the eternal return of a mythic past, for example, Home for Christmas (1978) or in its more contemporary mode as menace, which is often technologically  mediated as with the computer in Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories) (1982) or with the dismantling of the transCanadian railroad in Moose Jaw. With recourse to the dimensions of temporality thus blocked off, sealed in as it were by the time-based medium of film, the Hancoxian universe compels one “outside our time” into irony.


Irony can be understood broadly, according to Cleanth Brooks, as “a general term for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context.”89 In this sense to speak of Canadian nature, or constructs such as Canadian art or experimental film is ironic. Hancox creates irony, for example, in Landfall (1983), when he plays with the legendarily impenetrable Canadian landscape, which is further evidenced by his use of the superimposed text of Doug Jones’s poem, “I Thought There Were Limits” and its aural repetition. But the irony is a saving one since it makes possible the film’s crucial conclusion: “So, neither swim nor float/Relax/The voice is not so bleak.” Irony in Hancox allows for a self (as one might term this an aesthetic) that can outwit the Canadian context rather than fall victim to it in the Atwoodian tradition and its avatars. Irony makes a kind of objectivity possible that is not the tragic one of the Canadian landscape as depicted in Snow’s 1971 La Region Centrale (“It just goes on without us.”)9 On the contrary, in Hancox irony makes possible a linking of the personal with the historical, which has few precedents in the Canadian corpus.


The attempt has been made to define the specificity of Canadian

experimental film as “historical,” although “geological” might be a better ,term, for this cinema is at is best natural history devoid of human presence. Relatedly, Blaine Allan has remarked on the desperate interjection of evidence of the filmmaker’s personal presence within the corpus. 10 Hancox reconciles ironically the disjunction between inhuman history and desperate personality in Reunion in Dunnville (1981), although deployment of re-presentations of self that mediate identity and context occurs in films as varied as I, A Dog (1970) and That mediate identity and context occurs in films as varied as I, A Dog (1970) and Home for Christmas. But Reunion in Dunnville is especially illustrative of Hancoxian irony in that it is passage of historical time that has turned the re-united airmen into caricatures of what they once were, though the reunion itself is meaningless without the historical dimension of the Second World War and the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Not entirely meaningless though, for caught between a past that has made them what they are in a present that can only mockingly remind them of what they were and a future that promises only increasing old age, infirmity and death, the airmen are left with the myth of the moment of re-union itself, which is the irony of the film: eternity captured on the arrow of time.


DeConfederation or Je ne me souviens plus

If a non-ironic reading of Reunion in Dunnville could be said to illustrate both the attractiveness and the limitations of Elder’s thesis of the photographic image as the site of reconciliation of Canadian dualities, 11 Hancox in Moose Jaw takes irony one step further. Here he poses a film equivalent to Descartes’ problem of the malicious deity. If the past is inaccessible-except possibly through the nostalgia secreted from re-presentations of old photos, songs, etc.-what guarantees the truth of the filmmaker’s reconstruction? “No-thing,” Hancox suggests, extending in Moose Jaw the early fearlessness before the void as evidenced in Landfall.


Walter Benjamin reminds us that “the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting?”12 A sequence near the end of Moose Jaw, in which the CPR’s “The Canadian” pulls away from the city, may be interpreted as a nightmare of memory; the filmmaker, face pressed against the window, collapses into forgetfulness/sleep/death. “Canadians,” film director Gilles Carle once remarked, “are a people who forget. If you want a definition of Canadians, we forget. We don’t know about our own history. That’s sad in a way. But maybe we need that to go on.” 13


Hancox’s Moose Jaw is irony appropriate to a context of Canadian

deConfederation,14 and documents the acceptation of individual or

collective death and ceaseless flux that is the way of all things. There can be no sustaining myth: not history, not nation, not memory-“no thing” but the dimensions of forgetfulness. As such Moose Jaw is at once a statement of the filmmaker’s own personal maturation in midlife; a regionalist dirge on the fatality of economic dependency; an excavation of our ever-vanishing collective past, and the ironic deconstruction of all of the above. Moose Jaw/Canada’s epitaph becomes that stated by the poet Ronald Bates in “The Fall of Seasons”:


They stand together in dusty photo albums,

The last repository of dreams.

But nobody bothers to look at them.

Nobody bothers at all.15


Rick Hancox is a filmmaker who has bothered. And the Moose Jaw project, which has obsessed him for the past decade, becomes a monument to an exemplary body of work: time ironically captured in light on the most fleeting of media.



1. For an outline of that discursive economy, see Michael Dorland, “’The Void is Not So Bleak’: Rhetoric and Structure in Canadian Experimental Film,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 14, nos. 1-3 (1990): 148-59.


2. For an attempt at reconciling a Hegelian rendition of Canadian cultural nationalism with a discourse of postmodernity, see R. Bruce Elder’s Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989)


3. See Al Razutis, “Nothing Personal,” The Independent Eye 10, no. 1

(1988): 21-23.


4. Elder, 85.


5. I am obligated to the painter Shari Neudorf for suggesting, in the context of the MFA seminar I have been giving at Concordia University, the notion of the Canadian unmodern. One could extend Arthur Kroker’s model in Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/Grant/McLuhan (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984), by proposing that the Canadian imagination can be divided into at least three fields: the unmodern, the modern and the postmodern. Each field is articulated separately and respectively by rhetorics of ecstatic dissolution, ontologies of dependent being, and the calculuses of limited sovereignty (or combinations thereof within one field). For example, both the Canadian modern and postmodern tend toward articulation in the rhetorics of ecstatic dissolution.


6. Hancox’s role in the synergy that would produce the so-called Escarpment School in Canadian experimental documentary (initially made up of Rick Hancox, Richard Kerr, Lorne Marin and Philip Hoffman) would necessitate a separate discussion.


7. See A. B. McKillop, Contours of Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 5.


8. As cited in Rene Wellek, Concepts of Criticism (new Haven: Yale

University Press, 1963), 62.


9. For Elder’s gloomy reflections on Snow’s tragic solution to duality, see Elder, Image and Identity, 398-99.


10. See Blaine Allan, “It’s Not Finished Yet (Some Notes on Toronto Filmmaking),” Toronto: A Play of History (Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987),



11. Illustrated in a triad of mediations: universal history (WW11) and Canada as the “aerodrone of democracy”; the nation and the citizen as soldier; technology (Harvard trainer/film camera) and its operator (pilot/filmmaker as contemporary kinok, pilot of the eye).


12. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schoken, 1969), 202.


13. As quoted in the context of a CBC “State of the Arts” program on Canadian cinema, broadcast in January 1987.


14. I owe the notion of deConfederation to Jamie Gaetz, an editor of Essays on Canadian Writing, McGill University.


15. As cited in Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays in the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 115.