Incident Reports, the brilliant feature-length essay film by Mike Hoolboom, has an ingeniously flexible form. It is comprised of short segments, each around a minute long, and each showing a particular setting, scene, or event. They are accompanied by Hoolboom’s voice-over narration, short pieces of poetic prose in which he ties together themes of memory, gender and community, his words referring metaphorically to the images in dense, luminous language. For example, in one shot we see a man and a woman with a dog, standing on a bridge and surrounded by an expansive cloudy sky. The man points into the distance and inspires this comment from the narrator: “Without the anchor of memory every group appears like a family group. They point to the country of the outside and the country of the inside. Who will plant the flag inside me; who will mark the borders?” Identity, whether of family, gender or nationality, is inherently social.
The film’s opening shot is of runners lined up at the start of a race. The accompanying text compares the process of psychoanalysis to playing music and to running: the trick in all three is simply to trust the process and keep going, without letting self-doubt sabotage the endeavor. It’s a point of view Hoolboom applies to his construction of the film itself: working through it section by section, he trusts that the film’s many threads will come together in an illuminating way, and they certainly do.
In the film’s framing story, the narrator is an amnesiac whose doctor puts him on a therapeutic regimen of photography, a metaphor which allows Hoolboom to address the issues of individual and cultural memory from many angles. Looking at a woman applying a false beard to her face with spirit gum, he refers to a friend who has “changed genders,” although he refers to her with a female name and pronouns. The woman in the picture approaches maleness as an artist or performer would, as a creative exploration, rather than as a person who claims a transgender identity. He tells us that she has asked him to teach a “forgetting workshop” to her friends, so they can be her friends again. Memory loss is an essential tool to those who are trying to cut ties to the past.The narrator complains frequently about the limitations of photography as therapy, beginning with the limitations of the rectangular format and its bias towards a horizontal, quasi-narrative image. Later, he remarks that he no longer sees with his eyes, only with the camera. The camera turns vision into a process of selecting and narrowing what you see, not expanding it.
Several sections link erotic desire to images. A crane demolishing a building is compared to one lover undressing another. A nude bike ride elicits a comment on the oddity of discovering, through porn sites, that your personal fantasies are shared by others. “People eat pictures with their eyes,” he tells us, “but the catch is: the more you eat, the hungrier you get.”
It becomes evident that Hoolboom shot the images first, and then wrote the text in response to them. But the sequencing of the images is likewise built on associations. A shot of a man holding a silver ball is followed by a ball floating on water, which is followed by a shot of a river. The text then reconnects this associative flow back to the original image of learning to play music, of learning how to manage a flow.
Quite a few shots are taken through wet or shiny glass, or a sheet of plastic, calling attention to the camera’s lens and the point of view of the photographer. The text is also preoccupied with making meta-pictures, pictures which document the process of picture-making.
It is interesting to compare Incident Reports to Hollis Frampton’s iconic 1971 film Nostalgia. Like Nostalgia, Incident Reports is structured as a sequence of short essays linking images to text, and exploring the connections between photography and memory. But it is the added layers of meta-narrative and meta-photography that give Hoolboom’s film its special power to connect the dots and build a larger picture. The text literally pulls meaning out of the shots, the editing pulls meaning out of the sequence, and Hoolboom masterfully negotiates through the currents of perception and thought, arriving victorious at the finish line, a shot of a celebratory street performance of the song Karma Chameleon by a Toronto community choir. The runners from the first shot have become a community of celebrants, and we’re all winners.