Panic Bodies and the Performance of Space by Darrell Varga
(Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 10 No. 2 Fall 2001)
Canadian nationalist film criticism has generally been concerned with the representation of identity in relation to place while ignoring the complex ways in which place and space are socially constructed. (1) An important reconfiguration of the relation between the body, identity, space, and place is Toronto filmmaker Mike Hoolboom’s Panic Bodies (1998) (2) It is, like all of Hoolboom’s work, an encounter between flesh and the space of the cinema, and explores the processes by which technologies of visuality intersect with bodily movement, inviting a re-thinking of space and place outside of the unitary fantasy of the nation-state.
The Marxist geographer Doreen Massey suggests that we think of space and place in light of the ways in which we now think of identity, as something that is always in the process of creation and is always formed in social interaction, that is to say, as something which is never fixed and stable.(3) In contrast, nationalist criticism’s project of championing identifiable patterns of form and narrative in relation to a presumed national identity takes as given the stability of the nation-state and serves to limit and fix into timeless tradition (however justified as a means of cultural resistance) processes of culture and representation which are better understood as fluid. Andrew Higson explains, “To identify a national cinema is first of all to specify a coherence and unity, is to proclaim a unique identity and a stable set of meanings, and the attempt to contain, or prevent the potential proliferation of other meanings.” (4) This paper is a contribution to the proliferation of approaches to Canadian film studies, and a move beyond a nationalist frame of reference. I provide a reading of Panic Bodies through the lens of the emerging field of what has come to be known as spatial theory, and by following what Judith Butler calls the “disruptive promise” (5) of contemporary queer theory’s move out from under the regulative tyranny of spatial-identity categories.
Of importance in my thinking is Henri Lefebvre’s foundational text, The Production of Space , in which he explains that a given space is always subject to contestation of its borders, and is always understood via the social, the social is projected onto space. (6) The space of the cinema forms a particular kind of public space through the norms and conventions which help determine the limits of representation. To consider this space in isolation from the social is, according to Lefebvre, to fetishize space in serve of existing practices of production and state authority. This construction of space is concealed by its seeming transparency, the illusion of realism and decipherability. In this paper, I join Lefebvre’s materialist concept of space with the transformative temporal possibilities offered in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the time-image. Both Deleuze and Lefebvre’s theorize space as open to endless possibilities unconstrained by fixed borders. The Deleuzian time-image is not time as succession but instead engages time as a simultaneity of separate moments of duration. (7)
While these thinkers are quite different and should not be mistaken as interchangeable, a bringing together of their respective relationship with time, space, and place can critically disengage us from the essentialist mythologization of national cinema. Henri Lefebvre explains that the art experience enables us to slip free from the state borders of spatial practice enforced by pre-existing means of representation: “To lead out of what is present, out of what is close, out of representations of space, into what is further off, into nature, into symbols, into representational spaces.” (8) This process is by no means an essentialization of some idealized space called “nature,” but an attempt to overturn the spatialized cicumscription of experience. Visual culture offers both a containment of difference and a means of reterritorialization. This dialectical tension between containment and flux leads me to draw upon Deleuze’s distinction between the movement-image, in which action proceeds according to a unified trajectory, and the contemporary geo-political disintegration of unity in which cinematic time no longer functions in accordance with linear continuity.
Michael Dorland succinctly explains the limits of the prevailing nationalist critical approach whereby the accepted trope of “failure” in the writing of Canadian film history feeds an over-determined fetishization of the “loser” figure on the part of critical responses to narrative, which in turn idealizes and encourages the reproduction of like-minded stories. “More than a discourse of historical scholarship, Canadian film studies has been prescriptive and moralistic. As a moralistic discourse, this field of study has functioned as a mediator between the ideal of a Canadian national cinema and the representatives of that ideal as signified by film texts and filmmakers.” (9) Alternative film practice has the potential to disrupt the spatial cohesion of narrative by overturning normative assumptions of cause and effect, coherence founded on realism, and suture—the cultural assumptions and social legislation which determine appropriate and inappropriate uses of on-screen space with which we can formulate a critique of our culturally-determined sense of place. Vital interventions in queer theory likewise point out the consequences of what Richard Dyer calls the “boundary maintenance” of homosociality. (10)
Panic Bodies is divided into six segments (Positiv, A Boy’s Life, Eternity, 1+1+1, Moucle’s Island and Passing On) each linked metaphorically by themes of the fragmentation of the body in already fragmented social space. These segments enact a movement from rage to openness, from the confinement of frames within frames in the first segment toward a recognition of mortality in the final. This recognition is by no means a romanticized transcendence of embodiment but a process of seeing the very structures which give shape to visual and material experience. While the six segments of this film unfold in temporal succession, they are not enclosed within conventional narrative space, nor are they entirely closed unto themselves. (11) The film’s structure echoes Henri Lefebvre’s understanding of images as both fragmentary and fragments of space, out of which the work of art both reflects and transgresses social limits. (12) This Lefebvrian move anticipates Deleuze’s understanding that while the frame can produce fixed relations, the possibility of cinema cannot be simply limited to technological reductionism. Film collapses Cartesian assumptions of space and time:
The screen, as the frame of frames, gives a common standard of measurement to things which do not have one—long shots of countryside and close-up of the face, an astronomical system and a single drop of water—parts which do not have the same denomination of distance, relief or light. In all these senses the frame ensures a deterritorialization of the image. (13)
I am by no means claiming that Lefebvre, Deleuze, or any of the other theorists deployed in this paper, are a direct influence on Hoolboom’s art and thinking. The question of influence and intentionality is not as important as the relation of this film to a theorization of larger social and spatial processes.
Cinema is typically considered a temporal medium, a conceptualization formed in the experience of narrative succession projected against the fixed screen and consistent with the commonplace notion of space as, on the one hand, a clearly defined container: absolute, empty, and universal; and on the other hand as infinite: the open landscape and the endless cosmos. In either case, this conceptualization is made possible by the misguided separation of space from the social whereby time is recognized as the vehicle of history. Space and time must be understood as processes of interrelation in the formation of place, a dialectic in which neither is privileged and which refuses absolutist or universalized synthesis. (14) It is this dialectical relation which engages a cinematic correspondence with, and transformative potential of, the everyday.
The absence of a theorization of the constructedness of space in Canadian film studies is concomitant with an assumption of co-extensiveness between nations and states and an uncritical idealization of this political configuration. These political objects are not the same thing, and collapsing them together reflects the machinations of the contemporary instrumentalization of space whereby identity is assumed as situated within a pre-given, regulated, and policed terrain. One does not have to travel far within Canada to witness coercive border patrols in the containment of difference and dissent, as state responses to recent First Nations and Environmentalist activism attest. However, hegemony is the preferred means of control within Canada, and it is carried out in small part through nationalist cultural criticism.
A critical understanding of the processes of representation must begin with an understanding that, far from identical, nations and states are, like the images projected onto the movie screen, products of complex social and political processes which are neither neutral nor natural. As David Harvey explains,
A materialist relational theory of space and time has a key political as well as scientific role to play. Not only does it permit us to challenge outright the absolutist presumptions and pretensions—the totalizing vision (the view from nowhere) if you will—of the a-historical treatment of space and time incorporated in conventional analyses and narratives, but it also allows us to resist “the view from everywhere”… The relational view allows for diversity in the social construction of space-time while insisting that different social processes may relate and that, therefore, the space-time orderings and the cartographies of resistance they produce are in some way or other interrelated. (15)
While it is true that one can identify some common and intersecting characteristics of cinema emerging within a particular geographic location, neither should this common ground efface difference nor should the complex interplay of institutions of production, political economy, and transnational aesthetic movements be subsumed by an unmediated relation between aesthetics and nation-state territorialism.
Canada is founded on the production of uneven development. We cannot, then, in good conscience, reproduce existing social realities by assuming that the challenge of our discipline is to articulate a coherent national cinema in which the particular is transcended for the sake of an idealized nation-state. Scott Forsyth describes the practice of Canadian film scholarship as an assiduous scanning “for signs of national identity or peculiarity, (as if) the health of the national culture rests upon the strength of each character, the temerity of each plot resolution, the splendour of each landscape.” (16)
Landscape has too often been assumed as simply given, as the forbidden zone outside the garrison, but in fact its meaning depends upon existing social relations. (17) Films which reflect some idealization of the nation’s character are championed as engendering, following Benedict Anderson, an “imagined community,” a powerful example of Marx’s key criticism of how dynamic processes become structurally deadened. (18) Chris Byfor provides an important deconstruction of this persistent mythologization: the unsubstantiated assumption of correspondence between the aesthetic process and the nation-state as a homogeneous and geographically fixed community. (19)
Deleuze and Guattari explain art as a deterritorializing process of flows which in turn can be used to formulate a challenge to the legitimation of national boundaries: “The value of art is no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence, beneath the conditions of identity of the parameters, across a structure reduced to impotence.” (20) The history of twentieth century art is well marked by a disavowal of assumptions of space produced via a fixed perspective, and this is the link between the deterritorialization of flows and Lefebvre’s spatial transformations. Social and aesthetic space is a social product, that is to say, space is performed. According to Lefebvre, “Space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action; that in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence domination, of power, yet that, as such, it escapes in part from those who would make use of it.” (21)
Lefebvre preserves the dialectical tension between abstract and concrete productions of space and allows for a utopian moment which slips free from the social inscription of identity and spatial coherence. He constructs a spatial triad which emphasizes the inter-relation of flows and processes even as it acknowledges the social formation of territory: spatial practice (production) is understood in relation to spatial representation (knowledge and sign systems) both of which are emergent with what he refers to as representational space (art and alternative sociality). (22) Space exists in excess of our systems of coding, but it is only understood and acted upon via its production.
Mike Hoolboom addresses the architectonic condition of the look in imagery which explores the interconnections between self, body and memory in a manner which opens up a fissure in the spatialized experience of commodity images. His work reflects Anne Friedberg’s argument: “The cultural shifts resulting from the organization of the look in the service of consumption, and the gradual incorporation of the commodified experience into every life, has… profoundly altered the subjective role of memory and history.” (23) Let me be clear: the contemporary nation-state is itself over-determined by relations of production formulated under capitalism; that is to say, it is commodified space. Panic Bodies is interesting precisely because it provides a shift into Lefebvrian representational space, a locale in which experience breaks free from spatial regimentation. While the body is locus of pleasure and pain in Hoolboom’s film, it is not privileged as the singular center of (modernist) experience. The body is a figure of disunity and multiplicity existing within (or at the margins of) material circumstance.
Theorizations of the body and contemporary social space are infused with the metaphor of panic as a trope with which to account of spatial and temporal dislocation and the breakdown of meta-narrative assumptions of unity. Arbiters of the postmodern describe this content, the social body, as “Panic culture:”
…a floating reality, with the actual as a dream world, where we live on the edge of ecstacy and dread. Now is the age of the TV audience as a chilled superconductor, of the stock market crash as a Paris commune of all the programmed supercomputers, of money as an electronic impulse fibrillating across the world, and of the industrial as a quantum energy pack tracing/racing across the postmodern field. (24)
Yet this panic does not play out merely on the Baudrillardian virtual stage. Insofar as the cinema has radical potential in Benjaminian terms, it is because it is located in the everyday. The context of Hoolboom’s film is the ravages of HIV and AIDS, but it is less a eulogy of loss as is the earlier emotionally riveting Frank’s Cock (1993). Nor does it repeat the angry political discourse of AIDS which is the subject of Letters From Home (1996), making use of the voice of late activist Vito Russo. While Panic Bodies uses similar formal strategies as these earlier films, it confronts the fact of disease with a defiant immersion into the sensual pleasures of the everyday, of eating, seeing, and fucking in a form allowing for an excess of meaning and response, even as those pleasures recede into absence. The disease symptomizes social fragmentation and loss, it cannot be marginalized as the experience of singular bodies even as the disease destroys very real individuals.
Yet the invocation of singular experience powerfully inscribes a position of radical otherness against the inscription of homogeneity. The film continues a process cited by Laura Marks in a review of Hoolboom’s earlier House of Pain (1995), a film with a similarly segmented form but more directly confrontational tone: “House of Pain seems to be more about finding a state of grace within, or despite, one’s own body, a state that can be achieved by taking bodies to extremes.” (25) The multi-layered and fragmented images, a postmodern turn of technological and spatial displacement, gives voice to the resistances and pleasures of the everyday. This movement is not simple formal innovation. A radical spatial consciousness must engage with the political constructedness of space rather than simple play within the pastiche of style. This consciousness emerges with the recognition of spatial and personal identity as cultural performance, a recognition which is the first instance of social transformation.
In the conventional film, the constructedness of space is concealed by the illusion of realism, the on-screen naturalization of spatial relations through practices of suture and the veiling of technical processes. In “Narrative Space,” Stephen Heath explains what has become well understood within the discipline, that on-screen space and the limits of action are dependent upon the framing apparatus.
What enters cinema is a logic of movement and it is this logic that centres the frame. Frame space, in other words, is constructed as narrative space. It is narrative signficance that at any moment sets the space of the frame to be followed and “read,” and that determines the development of filmic cues in their contributions to the definition of space in frame (focus pull, for example, or back-lighting). Narrative space contains the mobility that could threaten the clarity of vision in a constant renewal of perspective, space becomes place—narrative as the taking place of film. (26)
In Panic Bodies, Hoolboom’s body, as both author and fictional subject is not merely an abstraction, and is not textually enclosed but offers the imagining of alternative spaces as well as itself as site of decay and mobilization in excess of conventional narrative coherence.
The film’s opening and various segment titles appear with a skeleton graphic, the body itself stripped bare. The body is ground zero for the explosion of disease, the site of viral markings and of the impermanence of flesh as well as for the movement of desire. This movement is a reconfiguration of cinematic space in the depiction of the Deleuzian time-image: “Time ceases to be derived from the movement, it appears in itself and in itself gives rise to false movements. Hence the importance of false continuity in modern cinema: the images are no longer linked by rational cuts and continuity, but are re-linked by means of false continuity and irrational cuts. Even the body is no longer exactly what moves…” (27)
In the film’s opening segment, Positiv, the screen is fragmented into four parts, much like Hoolboom’s earlier film, Frank’s Cock. The space of the frame is a multiple, it exists in repetition and distortion, calling attention to itself as frame and to the mechanical repetitiveness of our commodity culture, to how desire is bought, sold, and commodified via the mass media at the same time that it breaks free of these limits. Hoolboom describes this segment as “a film for those who find TV too slow,” referring both to the vacuity of televison and to his multiplication and intensification of the cinema frame. (28) The top right section encloses the director himself speaking directly to the camera, primarily about the body and being diagnosed with AIDS. In other parts of the frame we see a culture-jamming collage of images from rock videos, science fiction, horror, animation, industrial films, scientific molecular imagery, pornography, home movies and documentary footage of a visit to the doctor. It is a high-speed antidote to the linear trajectory of cinema history. As Hoolboom explains, “Here the body has been divided, cracked open, its myriad reflections in the media allowed to issue like an open wound.”
The typical left to right trajectory of the gaze is disrupted in this Cubist-configuration. While the form calls attention to image commodification, it simultaneously resists homogenization. We have to choose which frame to look at, a choice which necessitates looking away from three others. We are blind to more than we can see but in turn see more clearly in recognition of the rupture between these images and Hoolboom’s speech in which there is little indexical relation of word and image. The following is a fragment of the narration: “There are days I wander through the streets like Michael Jackson, deciding to have that one’s nose, those lips, and my waiter’s perfect clam-shaped ears. When I look around my apartment I think that everything has a warranty except my body.” And later: “You imagine your body as a military map, with arrows marking movements of troops and tanks, each constellation of borders remarking some lost bottle. As you turn the globe between your fingers it comes to you: the division of geography into nations is also a map of the dead world, each line signaling a procession of corpses.”
While the narration evokes a sense of suffering and loss that comes from the devastating news of testing HIV-positive, it recognizes that both disease and desire co-exist in a materialist context. The frame’s four-part grid is “posted” against the instrumental desire to grid the earth, to map and commodify desire. We read the image spatially across arbitrarily imposed borders as the narration speaks of the body transgressing heternormative conventions while desiring community, a place in which to be traced, felt, recognized, a place in which we come to understand national borders as restricting when configured by political machinations. These overlapping images cannot be read as a coherent sign system but as a multiplicity of interpretations, or, to talk like Deleuze, of zones of intensity, but they are zones inscribed in and by the tyranny of geography. It is a geography which rationalizes coherence, in which identity is circumscribed by medical-test results, but also where the body brushes up against the grain of these Cartesian limits.
In the next segment, A Boy’s Life, masturbation leads into an immersion in social space when energetic self-pleasure causes the boy’s penis to break free and he must cruise the city in search of the now missing organ. (30) The segment begins with an emphasis on the sensuous pleasures of touch combined with the edge-play of penetration with a plastic doll. The visceral pleasures of this scene are echoed and transformed in the film’s final segment, Passing On , in which touch connects with the decay of flesh: “Our skin is a blanket, a quilt, on which the destinies of the past have crafted an indelible design.” That conclusion marks the body within a history of loss, but this understanding comes from a dialectical reflection across the temporal experience of the film. On the other hand, the film privileges the immediacy of experience, the invention of the body within sociality and creativity, thereby withholding the tyranny of that universalized perspective.
In A Boy’s Life touch extends across the flesh to the drawing of a self-portrait, an image which is traced, then erased, and mirrored in gestures across a window surface through which we see the outside world on stark overexposed celluloid, like the blank white page on which the self is invented. The act of drawing is matched with the stroking of the penis and brush strokes made across various surfaces of the home. This linkage of creativity and sexuality is immersed in domestic space which is, in turn, transformed. The scrub brush strokes become gestures of sadomasochism as they are applied to the body. This reference to bodily and domestic cleanliness recalls and undermines the fetish of hygiene and sexual representation endemic to Western society. The act of masturbation is then shot through a kaleidoscopic filter which transforms the images from singular pleasure to playful formal multiplication. This 1960s-style narcissism is nicely undermined by a droning soundtrack which casts the scene in a deromanticized, contemporary urban context.
These scenes represent creativity with sexual play, and are intercut with the overloaded psycho-sexual dynamics of a home movie image of two boys: one madly boxing in the direction of the camera, the other stroking a hunting rifle. Other home movie images of little boys at play are intercut. The gentle innocence is made stark and deathly by the overall high-contrast sepia tone. In one shot, a boy runs toward the camera, but before the exposure adjusts he is seen as a ghostly white skeletal figure. Touch is extended to the surface of a map, the figure traces a path which he then inscribes gently onto his own flesh. A cut-out penis shape floats over the screen, the organ-shape matte is filled with images of the domestic home and the urban landscape—cruising for public sex and evading the limits of space as mapped by social prescription. The image reconstitutes Baudrillard’s citation of Borges’ map which grew so large (like the missing penis?) that it effaces the territory of its representation and all that remains is the map itself in tattered fragments. (31) However, Hoolboom’s map is not simply a playful postmodern gesture, as the claiming and naming of queer places within urban space is vital contemporary praxis formed against the regulatory machinations of the nation-state. The film echoes this critique of the regime of power/knowledge in the act of mapping by playfully transforming this space from that of instrumental reason to one of situated knowledge embedded in the desiring experience of the body. When the missing penis is recovered (floating in the murky waters of Toronto’s harbour) and buckled-up inside the boy’s pants, the subject walks away from the camera in a reconfiguration of the Hollywood gunslinger riding off into the sunset.
Hoolboom asserts the movement of the body over the circumscribed images of sociality, as in the following Eternity segment in which an intimate letter relating experiences of death scrolls on screen over dark, under-exposed high-contrast footage of Disneyland, the fabricated location for prescribed heteronormative play as commodity-regimented by the automated movement of the amusement rides. At first the background exists as darkness with intermittent patches of light. It is only obvious as indexical location after the somber textual details play across the surface. The darkness of the image evokes the theme of absence existing as the other to the death-experience narrative of “going into the light.” The segment is made in collaboration with New York filmmaker Tom Chomont, who provides the on-screen text that explores the idea of white light as the final mortal visual experience. These thoughts accompany the story of the death of Chomont’s brother in a New York hospital. The emotional devastation is made all the more vivid in its finality by the absence of voice-over and the visual representation of Disneyland, whereby “Massive underexposure revisits this fabled vacation spot as an underworld, families at play easing into machines that will join a utopian science with a blank psychology.” (32) The blankness of cultural homogeneity requires that we not see into the shadows of experience.
Even in this well-guarded (and usually over-lit) zone of Mickey Mouse behaviour, the creative exchange of language reinterprets this homogenized space of cinema and of the everyday. By suppressing this literal visual representation, Hoolboom evokes a representational space thorough a movement formed out of the cinematic play of light which, in its difference, allows recognition of this playground as if through a child’s eyes. This commodity “playground” becomes magical first because the visual strategy effaces the structured ordering of space, and second because the textual passage reveals the underside of play as anxieties of death. The white light is the visual world, the cinematic experience, and the journey into absence. Indeed, the film as a whole celebrates play in the face of the tyranny of recognition and loss. These stories of death are not fatalistic surrender but a demand to reinscribe the space of life while recognizing that flesh is not eternal—a recognition which necessarily distinguishes childhood from adulthood. Death is made familiar, a child’s game, a scene in an old movie with long-dead stars, and the narrated remainder of friends, family, and lovers. Anguish and acceptance wash together with the delicate sound of flowing water, this sound pulls us inside while the high contrast images push us away.
In the following segment, 1+1+1 , the body disfigured by its outsider status is viewed in pixillated fragments which reconstructs a heterogeneity of meanings. A male-female couple bend the gender-constraints of clothing by trading their outer shells, and stand in a domestic kitchen mock-manipulating the body with hammer, pliers, and other hand tools, suggesting a mechanized interaction which exceeds the limits of measure even as these cinematic bodies are created in mechanical and virtual manipulation. Loud and chaotic with the use of industrial sounds, this segment is a shift away from the previous somber encounter with loss. The images are, at first, hand processed, emphasizing the stain of chemicals, whereby bodies converge as indistinct swirls of colour, yet this surface texture fragmentation separates each body by the very material which likewise brings them together. The grunge soundtrack mirrors the industrial toxins required to realize the image on celluloid. Mid-way, the segment title interrupts and the same images repeat in what is, for lack of a better word, “normal” image-processing.
In this segment, the body is abstracted by the lack of continuity in time created by stop motion photography while the murky film texture disables spatial coherence. Here the bodies merge with the medium as a play of surfaces transformed in social interaction. Again, the film transforms expectations of indexicality in order to undermine an instrumentalist construction of identity. The heads of each character move in sync with the onslaught of mechanical cash register and adding machine sounds, a parody of the wet-dream of capital. It is a game of dress-up and power exchange in which the body is both measured and made free from medical-control technologies (a tyranny of control established in the film’s opening segment). This embodied play draws attention to the Foucaultian relation of sex gender, and desire to the systematization of power.
Judith Butler reads Foucault’s genealogy of law as both prohibitive and generative, her insight of gender as performance enables a radical disruption of the boundaries of sex and gender. This possibility emerges with the questioning of the spatialization of identity.:
The interior psychic space in which identifications are said to be preserved makes sense only if we can understand that interior space as a phantasized locale that serves yet another psychic function… If identifications sustained through melancholy are “incorporated,” then the question remains: Where is this incorporated space? If it is not literally within the body, perhaps it is on the body as its surface signification such that the body must itself by understood as an incorporated space. (33)
1+1+1 locates the body in relation to another while emphasizing the performative realization and deconstruction of these surface relations. The title refers, perhaps, to the remainder of meaning outside the limits gender and social inscription, adding up to more than simply one or the other and within a space which is at once abstracted, interrupted, then grounded in domesticity. It is a playful segment, the grins on the performer’s faces acknowledge the presence of the camera, each as spectator to the performance of the other, and the discord between embodied desire and machines of reason, mapping, and control. At the same time, the pleasures of trnasformation are celebrated.
The body is both subject and object of its representation—both flesh and process kept alive by the demand to transgress its containment within social and cinematic convention as other, as image, as victim. It is a process beyond this polarization, according to Lefebvre: “The enigma of the body—its secret at once banal and profound—is its ability, beyond ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (and beyond the philosophical distinctions between them), to produce differences ‘unconsciously’ out of repetitions—out of gestures (linear) or out of rhythms (cyclical).” (34) The resistance of the body (otherness) are produced within the spatial limits which likewise constrain it. It is the fissure in the closed trope of linearity and the enclosing assumption of circularity. The body is not to be essentialized as outside of social processes or as container for the universalized vision of the suffering artist. Along with fetishization, the body is location for action, desire, and movement—it is within and formed by the social. The social is not merely the immediate physical reality but is desire, memory, and history. This formation, in turn, brushes up against and reformulates the regimentation of space.
In the penultimate segment, Moucle’s Island, a woman’s body is superimposed over a “body” of water so that her skin merges with the surface fluidity. The images evoke the feminist strengths of Maya Deren’s films as Moucle recalls, in voice-over, her memories of primary experiences: bodily pleasure, aging and sexuality. Hoolboom describes his collaboration in the creation of this segment with Austrian filmmaker Moucle Blackout as an attempt to performatively return to a position of sensual innocence: “… asking her to move again as a child feeling the world for the first time… Moucle looks on from the far shore of the present, masturbating in recall as ocean waves roll over her in superimposition.” (35
Here, the film as a whole shifts away from the grunge of immersion in experience and toward a process of reflection on the body as vessel of history and decay. David Rodowick explains a similar link with Deleuzian tropes of desire: “The body is the spatial sign of time that passes… It anticipates the future either reactively as repetition of the same, or affirmatively as the anticipation of the new potentialities and transformative forces.” (36) The desire for an originary or innocent position suggested in Hoolboom’s description is less naive than it is an opening up of the generative possibilities emergent in multiple constructions of the self. Moucle’s gaze is matched by home movie images of a child’s birthday party and a sequence form an old pornographic film in which young women playfully and with a sense of innocence suggested by the fading film stock, span each other. Yet inscribed within these visual ruins are relations of power. Who is the audience for this archival pornography? The reinscription of this image here reveals a relationship between pornography, the avant-garde, and a queer politics which engages a shift from under the systematized and spatialized voicing of the body. Moucle masturbates and the images appear to emerge from her body. The memory-images she gives birth to are transformed out of their original and constraining social contexts. These bodies on film exceed the frame of language even as they are formed in language.
The final segment Passing On, again links images of play and touch with decay and loss through the combination of over-exposed images—the wheel of a car, trees, a graveyard, the city street, and children posing for a group photograph, among many others—in which movement itself serves as simultaneous barrier and means of overcoming. As Jean Perret describes, “The people appear onscreen as though they were disappearing… Passing On addresses itself to death as something familiar, death which prowls and throws into relief the images of a cinema trying to resist another death, no doubt worse, a white death of memories forgotten, without images.” (37) The segment opens with the camera pointed directly at the blinding light of the sun. Overexposure obliterates the image coherence. We are reminded of earlier references to the near-death experience of moving into the light and of the light of cinema itself, projected onto the screen and, as in the previous segment, inscribed on the body and across the cultural imaginary. This emphasis on white light also recalls Hoolboom’s White Museum (1986) which is, save for a single shot at the end, an audio track musing on the nature of cinema playing alongside the unspooling of clear film, drawing our attention to the screen itself, its edges, its content.
The recurring use of white light attracts us to what we cannot bring ourselves to witness, yet the entrance into the light enables what Laura Marks calls “a great sense of release, of having purged some demon.” (38) Our attention is forced onto the face of absences beyond the frame and as the counterpart to material space. According to Lefebvre, death is absence in collision with spatial formation of community and temporal continuity: “Absolute space is thus also and above all the space of death, the space of death’s absolute power over the living… Tombs and funerary monuments belong, then, to absolute space, and this in their dual aspect of formal beauty and terrifying content.” (39)
The body in space is in social practice, in its rhythmic living it is able to make representational space by action, anger, and playfulness against the social restraints of routinized homogeneity and in the face of a final end. The narrative reflects upon the appearance and disappearance of family members: the death of grandfather, the immobility of father, the disappearance of an uncle who was left disabled and unable to work following an industrial accident, and the memory of an aunt who provided ice-cream and invocations to avoid growing old. The camera returns to a graveyard and we are asked to reconcile memory of our dead with this circumscribed space of mourning. The narration reflects upon the construction of the self out of the ruins of genealogy. This body performs authorship not as a modernist individualism but in a position that Richard Dyer describes as “multiple, hierarchical, (and) performed within material and semiotic circumstances.” (40) Dyer’s reading of queer authorship as a position which is simultaneously constructed in relation to and merging against homosociality likewise problematizes the question of identity within a reified narration of the nation.
Passing On, expresses these themes of dislocation, desire, and decay which circulate throughout the film. It abounds with images of looking out past the edges of the frame. Hoolboom himself rides on a playground merry-go-round gliding past the camera yet pinned within its mechanical movement. Intercut are commodity television images of death and the exposure of the decay of the author’s own body as he steps toward the camera and raises his shirt to reveal lesions on his skin. The camera tracks through a graveyard, but we also see the tombstones in negative—the negativity of a final end but also a transformation of image and flesh. The final shot is of children running playfully toward the camera, pausing as if to pose for a school class photograph, then just as quickly turning away. It is an archival image—these children have grown up—the bodies of some have grown large while others have passed away. In this image the children are playing with and moving beyond the frame, passing through and exploring the world rather than seeing the self instrumentalized within the frame. The fact of bodily disintegration is evident and what is “passing’ is not just the flesh but an experience of social space. Social space is, indeed, only made to assume stability with the assumption of the self as stable centre, as subject against which we locate and measure the world. For Lefebvre, our flesh exists in a world of fluidity and transparency. His poetic relation between the body, the social, and the flow of light demands a lengthy citation:
One places oneself at the centre… Assuming always a stable situation… On the other hand, space serves an intermediary or mediating role: beyond each plane surface, beyond each opaque form, “one” seeks to apprehend something else. This tends to turn social space into a transparent medium occupied solely by light, by “presences” and influences. On the other hand, therefore, space contains opacities, bodies and objects, centres of efferent actions and effervescent energies, hidden—even impenetrable-places, areas of viscosity and black holes. On the other, it offers sequences, sets of objects, concatenations of bodies—so much so that anyone can at any time discover new ones, forever slipping from the non-visible realm into the visible, from opacity to transparency… A mere change of position, or a change in a place’s surroundings, is enough to precipitate an object’s passing into light. (40)
With Lefebvre’s textual body collapsing into cinematic shades of darkness and light, Hoolboom’s voice-over conclusion to this film evokes this dialectical process between opacity and transparency, where the body contemplates its own disappearance and its own relation with other (now absent) bodies.
These ghosts are not imaginary projections but are real bodies already decayed and they replace the distracting flicker of our own mediated cultural images, as the narration suggests:
As I grow older there is less television and more funerals. Eva, Jonson, Mary, Rashid, none of you have managed to survive, and as I am also growing older it’s more difficult to lift you from the ground. Every day it seems easier to lie again beside you, to fall into arms which seem more familiar in death than those who would embrace me here, in the kingdom of ghosts, all of us haunted by what we may become. We the living are the ones left behind, the ones who have come after, left to wonder if a lifetime is time enough to remember all who have passed away. Is there a smile we are capable of sharing, or an intimacy we might reveal that has not already been offered? Our skin is a blanket passed on from one decade to the next, a quilt in which the destinies of the past have crafted an indelible design. If we are condemned to repeat, is it only so that we could come to know you more completely, our dead brothers and sisters? Do the contours of our flesh reveal, in its collection of pores and tissues, the shape of history, or only its pressures, as we step quietly towards the grave, where we can rejoin the multitudes of the lost, the buried and the forgotten?
The panic of Panic Bodies is not the inevitability of death but the demand to set it in motion. This expression of motion is not a formalist exegesis of the machinations of cinema but as movement rooted in the social, in experience, in the messy interactions of bodies. An especially “moving” passage of Passing On presents the bond between two brothers as a combined absence and presence:
Words were a luxury, an indulgence I never shared with my brother, so as we grew older we tried to find something to put in its place. We tried bowling, fortune telling and board games before beginning again our mad pursuit of the road. Somehow it was while driving that we could raise again the possibilities of home, rushing from the judgments that words always seemed to bring us. Here, in the car’s restless overturning of geography, we could find a communion of escape where we might be able to leave behind, if only for an afternoon, the long years apart, the vanishing trail of letters and photographs that only seemed to lead us further from home, and from each other.
We hear these words as the screen is filled with the image of a set of hands on the steering wheel of an old car. We see no conversation, just engagement with this machinic trope of cinematic desire intercut with home movie footage of play. But this play evokes a loss of childhood innocence through its voice-over mediation which reflects the inevitability of distance within the structure of the family.
This scene, and the film as a whole, is about the reconstitution of space through motion, through critical engagement. These images are formed through machines of representation, producing Deleuzian ruptures of the social, of the already-the-same of mapped space, recalling that for Deleuze, machines really “work” when they break down. In this film the radical potential of cinema emerges in the transformation of the medium’s spatial configurations. These are not images of the immediately political, but instead invite reconfiguration of the narration of experience and our spatial relationship to this process, thus enabling Lefebvre’s call for a rediscovery and politicization of the spaces of everyday life beyond the regulative constraints of the nation-state. For this process, our collective and contradictory relationship with the movies keeps moving in space and through space, necessarily rooted in and reshaping place.
1. The titles of the foundational texts reflect the desire to mythologize a national identity and historical tradition related to the space of the nation: Peter Harcourt, Movies and Mythologies: Towards a National Cinema (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1977); Harcourt’s “1964: The Beginning of a Beginning,” in Piers Handling and Pierre Véronneau, eds., Self-Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Québec Cinemas (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1980), 64-76; Robert Fothergill, “Coward, Bully or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother,” in Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson, eds. Canadian Film Reader (Toronto: PMA, 1977), 234-250; Feldman’s “The Silent Subject in English Canadian Film,” in Seth Feldman, ed. Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada (Toronto: Irwin, 1984), 48-57. The borders of this canon were, for a time, strictly controlled as evidenced by the hostility to Bruce Elder’s call for an expansion of the scope of official national cinema in his “The Cinema We Need,” Canadian Forum 64.746 (February 1985): 32-35. in response, Piers Handling shamelessly shills for the “culture industry” in “The Cinema We Need?” Documents in Canadian Film, Douglas Feathering, ed. (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1988), 289-293. A more recent and widely cited maintenance of this tradition is Christine Ramsay, “Canadian Narrative From the Margins: ‘The nation’ and Masculinity in Goin’ Down the Road,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 2.2-3 (1993): 27-49. An excellent counter-narrative to the mythologization of the nation state is Richard Fung’s video Dirty Laundry (Canada, 1997) and the critical essay by Margo Francis, “The Inexplicable Presence of the Things(s) Not Named: Dirty laundry, the Railway and Constructing the Nation,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 10.1 (2001): 48-69.
2. Mike Hoolboom’s films are available from the Canadian Filmmaker’s Distribution Centre, Toronto: www.cfmdc.org
3. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1994), 138.
4. Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” Screen 30.4 (1989): 36-46.
5. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, Diana Fuss, ed (New York: Routledge, 1991), 29.
6. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
7. In Gilles Deleuze’s view, pre-World War II film is constructed through action which proceeds toward a globalized whole. This unity is disabled in contemporary cinema. See Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Cinema II: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Haberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
8. Lefebvre, 231.
9. Michael Dorland, So Close to the State/s: The Emergence of Canadian Feature Film Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 7. The author cities as the origin of this point, Bart Testa, “In Grierson’s Shadow” and “The Escape from Docu-Drama” in Literary Review of Canada 3.10 (1994), 17-22. Also important to my argument is the reassessment of the canon by Peter Morris in, “In Our Own Eyes: The Canonizing of Canadian Film,” in Responses: In Honour of Peter Harcourt, Blaine Allan, Michael Dorland and Zuzana Pick, eds. (Kingston, ON: Responsibility Press, 1992), 146-165. Perhaps the health of Canadian Film Studies rests with the ongoing contestation of this terrain.
10. Richard Dyer, Gays and Film (London: British Film Institute, 1977).
11. Nevertheless, the 16mm print I screened came with a note to projectionists, demanding that the various segments be screened in the filmmaker’s prescribed order.
12. Lefebvre, 97.
13. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 14.
14. Massey, 138-141. She emphasizes the social construction of place to dispute the assumption that “place” is inherently reactionary, which she sees as the position taken by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 290.
16. Scott Forsyth, “The Failures of Nationalism and Documentary: Grierson and Gouzenko,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 1.1 (1990): 74.
17. For an overview of the complex and contradictory cultural assumptions of what it is that we mean when we refer to concepts such as landscape and nature, see William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Placed in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).
18. “This preoccupation with language is a persistent theme in Marx’s work as he probes the fetishistic conceptions of bourgeois political economy and seeks to substitute an entirely different language of political economy. Through a deconstruction of the monetized language of the commodity and of profit and the creation of an alternative language that emphasizes exploitation, Marx evidently hoped to use the power of language, and of naming, to a political end.” (Harvey, Justice, 94).
19. Chris Byford, “Highway 61 Revisited,” CineAction 45 (1998): 13
20. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 370.
21. Lefebvre, 26.
22. Ibid., 33.
23. Ann Frieberg, Window Shopping Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 3.
24. Arthur Kroker, Marilouise Kroker and David Cook, Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive guide to the Postmodern Scene (Montréal: New world Perspectives, 1989), 13.
24. Laura U. Marks, “House of Pain,” CineAction 39 (1995): 21
26. Stephen heath, “Narrative Space,” Screen 3.17 (1976): 83.
27. Deleuze, Cinema i, xi.
28. Mike Hoolboom, Plague Years: A Life in Underground Movies, Steve Reinke, ed. (Toronto: YYZ Books, 1998), 200. Hoolboom’s comment can also be read as a reference to Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1986), which makes similar use of simultaneous narratives across the upper and lower halves of the page.
29. Ibid., 200.
30. The filmmaker’s description reads: “This first person monodrama shows a man in flight from the sins of his childhood, his attempted escape through a masturbatory revel so shattering he loses his prick, and his ensuing search for the missing organ. An allegory of wholeness and the body’s fractured unity.” Ibid., 201.
31. Jean Baurdrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, 1.
32. Hoolboom, 201.
33. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 67.
34. Lefebvre, 395.
35. Hoolboom, 202.
36. D.N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 168.
37. Jean Perret, “Visions du Réel Catalogue,” cited in Hoolboom, 203.
38. Marks, 21.
39. Lefebvre, 235.
40. Richard Dyer, “Believing in Fairies: The Author and the Homosexual,” in Fuss, ed. Inside/Out, 190.
41. Lefebvre, 182.