Imitations of Life: an interview with Mike Hoolboom by Tibor and Noémi (2003)
Love is the historian’s first duty. History, no matter how it’s written, will always be about someone. The historian must recognize his subject, and care deeply about them (especially if, as so often is the case, that subject turns out to be himself). Beware of the third person; it is a cold and dangerous deceit. John Dee
T+N: It seemed to us that Imitations of Life is a kind of “message in a bottle” sent by you to the present and the future as well. Was it your aim with this movie?
MH: Largely composed of other’s material, Imitations offers a set of possible arrangements. In the not too distant future this movie, along with millions of others, will find its way onto the internet, where flash twelve year olds, weaned on all things digital, will make short work of our cinematic history, refashioning it with children’s tools into something miraculous, and wholly unexpected. I think the movies which have been produced up until now are fertilizers for those to come. Some you’ll be able to use pictures like a wrench or a screwdriver, to work yourself out of bad jams or moments of missed communications. After watching them you’ll be able to fall in love again, talk with your best friend, learn to dance. Others will fade away. How often do we think of the romantic poetry of England, the Palestinian expulsion in 1948? Some histories are forgotten, others rewritten. I realized lately, visiting once again the necropolis that lies beneath Paris, that this collection of bones is not about funereal memory but its opposite. This open graveside, with its hundreds of skulls plainly on view, is about forgetting, about the impossibility of remembering so many dead. Some of my friends already feel this, once the AIDS scourge began, you can’t lend someone the all the way over feeling that real mourning deserves, despite the entreaties of ghosts, the too perfect memory of his face, that kiss. You want to care more, but you can’t. You’ve been there too many times.
Our movies will be largely forgotten and left behind, that’s for sure, but what’s wonderful about digital expressions is that the copy is the original. Unlike analog where each copy degenerates from its pristine source until there is nothing left but the noise of reproduction, in a digital environment there is no difference between the tenth generation of a digital file and the first. It’s just information. Either it’s there or it’s not. Moments of the past can be reseeded into a motion picture future, assuming of course they’re still interested in experiences as passive as the movies.
There is no system of divination, no way of telling the future, that I do not believe. The Chinese have assigned each year an animal, and as a former partner never tired of reminding me, I was born in the year of the pig. In western astrology, I am an august lion. Imitations is framed by a pair of stammering animals, opening with a lion, closing with a pig, these animal familiars offer a frame which is another way of saying ‘I’.
T+N: Can pictures prevent us from forgetting (who we are, our past)?
MH: Paulo runs a large motion picture archive in Rochester, New York, home to Kodak amongst others, and he reminded me of this simple fact: every time a film is run the projector wears down the print. Even with the finest equipment, each print has a finite life, played often enough, the emulsion will be lost entirely, as well as its optical soundtrack, leaving only a blank screen and white noise, the infinite film, the film containing all other films. This is the state all movies aspire to, and are in the process of becoming.
What we are watching when we see a film is the act of destroying it. Movies offer us the hope, impossible hope, of being able to return to a moment of the past in all of its richness. In the early days of cinema, street placards announced that with the addition of sound and colour, death would be no longer final. Cinema would defeat the vagaries of memory and then death itself. Brave new machine. Though one of its inventors, was it Louis or Auguste?, pronounced it an invention without a future. How prophetic that turned out to be. Cinema has no future but more importantly no past.
The section in Imitations entitled Portrait deals explicitly with the Lumiéres, consisting entirely of footage made at the turn of the century, either filmed by the brothers or paid for by them. This documentary about the origins of movies is strained through fiction, even allegory, and began when I found, quite by accident, a stupefying reel of film. It shows two women in long white dresses throwing bread crumbs into a courtyard where a swarm of black children gather them up and eat.
Plainly set up for the camera, this feeding is also a kind of choreography, early Busby Berkeley crowd control. Important to note that this image is no different than, for example, the images CNN ran during the last empire excursion into Iraq. The message is the same: here is something less than human, and if our consciences dictate that we help these poor savages, these beasts, then our technology will ensure that they will be forever in the dirt, searching for food. They are naked and nameless, things in a world of things, while we have mastered even ourselves. In Portrait I narrate the story of Henri LeBlanc (The Blank Henry, doppelganger for the Lumiéres), a Frenchman who exhausts public rituals in his native Paris, though the fact that crowds gather round his camera suggest that his documentaries are already turning into fiction. He moves further afield, finally arriving in a courtyard on the other end of the world, realizing too late that he is able only to produce an image of himself. This is the last roll of film he will ever expose. After the courtyard he stops, unable to continue now that he’s uncovered the secret wish of his life’s work.
The next image is wordless, and is the last in the movie. It shows a number of village children laughing and running, and we laid a sound of a great, rumbling jet plane over them, so it appears as if they’re chasing this plane out of their home. Can you imagine a revolution like this? Not borne out of hatred or a call to arms but led by pleasure and play, by children, who simply shoo out the invader. A utopia no more far fetched than the invention of the Lumiéres.
T+N: The most shocking part of the film (for us) was after you announced Jack’s birth, an entire scene from Schindler’s List played. Is this also Jack, in whom life and death are mixed symbolically?
MH: Jack is the second chapter of Imitations and tells the story of my nephew Jack Daniels Fuller. Like all those I love, I imagine he is just like me, in other words, that he has absolutely no memory. As my sister was uninterested in taking pictures (she believes only in the present, which in her capable hands is an infinite prayer) I wanted to offer him a reminder, a memory prompt (the Greeks used architecture, we use cinema, snaps and pop songs) but also a crisis aid. It would be his secret weapon, years later, when he is crushed, when the world as he knows it comes to an end, he will still have this movie as a clue offering him a way out.
I began shooting him in the high chair when he was just about a year old, and continued, roughly once each annum, until he was seven. He appears in carnivals, at the science museum, running through parks and yards, taking his dog for a walk, bathing. His gift is to make these ordinary moments an adventure. While I am busy turning everything I see into habit and repetition, Jack uncovers in play the invention of undreamed pleasures. I make my way towards him the way others pilgrimage to holy sites or masters, to learn how, to discover by example. He has been a kind and generous teacher.
The movie begins with a scatter of world events in 1994: civil war in Lebanon, Michael Jordan’s retirement from basketball, Jack’s birth. While these events are recounted in voice-over you see pictures of my friends and neighborhood, familiar street crossings, as if history were happening everywhere (and of course it is). Schindler’s List took the Oscar for best picture that year, and I clipped a scene which shows a young boy searching for a place to hide inside the concentration camp. Everywhere he looks children are already crowded, beneath floorboards, in secret closets, so he jumps into his last resort, the camp’s open sewer, only to find others there as well, urging him to leave.
This scene contains a secret message for Jack which has to do with our grandfather, a man plagued by bad luck. He was living and working in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies, and took his family back to Holland for a holiday. The year was 1939, and after the Germans invaded they never left. The war prompted the Indonesian government to round up everyone of German descent and put them in jail, so the Reich responded by sending all the Indonesians in Holland into concentration camps. My grandfather survived the camp, though part of him never made it out, he had seen too much, suffered terribly, and lay sick for the rest of the war.
What is the first line of a love poem called? A cata-strophe. Godard
As you can imagine, this history is not often recounted in our family, and seems a thousand years away from life in the benign malls of North America. But this history is waiting for him, and this clip is a way of bearing witness, even if only at one remove, second hand, distracted and distorted through a Hollywood lens, screen memories in place of the thing itself. Let me make this offering of faith. I believe that the unconscious is not strictly an individual concern. Perhaps buildings and streets, certainly families, have an unconscious. There may come a moment when Jack too is pushed to the brink of what he is able to imagine. I’m not suggesting that he will be dragged into a camp, but that echoes of experience sound through family, not only in the way we look, a nose or knee bone carried through generations, but also our emotional attitudes, the way we fall in love or seek out the calamities that will bend us into shapes the ghosts would recognize as their own. The unconscious is the hard drive, we only run the programs.
T+N: Do you want to dissolve/try to open the limits of the world of pictures?
MH: The limits of pictures are my limits. Hard to imagine getting up in the morning without their company, and the dreams I have at night, like everyone else’s, more closely resemble fringe cinema than anything yet produced by the studios.
There are some places refused by pictures. I’m sure each of us can remember moments in our lives for which there is no corresponding picture. And in the end, death is a reminder that there are worlds forbidden to the photographer. Pictures reach their limits in many movies, but never more poignantly than in Derek Jarman’s Blue, a single 75 minute shot of a blue screen, blunt reminder of his blindness and death by AIDS. In this last testament he speaks of friends lost to the plague, his medication, but for me the most heartbreaking moment occurs on the beach where his “greedy lips” ask for just one more kiss.
T+N: Can you discuss why you show this long shot/movie of a man painting?
MH: One of the episodes is called Scaling , and simply shows a man painting a white wall black for five minutes (originally released in a fit of youthful enthusiasm as a 16mm silent short called Eulogy for Tom Sawyer), while another unpaints the black wall back into white. On the soundtrack, a young boy offers a series of excuses, always beginning with the word ‘because.’ They are explanations of failure, or not trying hard enough, going far enough. “Because we don’t talk about that kind of thing, not where I come from. Because we mistook our prejudices for love.” The movie is a reaction shot to an event never seen, though its context makes clear that this offscreen catastrophe has been occasioned by a failure of pictures, the public imaginary worn thin by the produce of globalized spectaculars owned by too few and delivered too well, in too many places, too often.
But for me the movie has a more personal take. It is a parable of creation. It is impossible to make a film with every image, every sound, though my camera is something like a slut, never stopping at its subject to wonder why. Oh please not this, this is too intimate, or too distant, or too exploitative. My camera opens to everything, but as a maker I can’t follow my machine, I have to make a choice, right at the beginning, which is about a theme, an idea, but also a way of seeing. I frame the world, make an in-camera session, sit in the judge’s chambers. This means cutting almost everything else out, and using this small aperture I hook experiences, I make a universe out of this small place.
When I met Noll Brinckmann she said she was just finishing up an essay about the ubiquity of a single shot in mainstream cinema: an aerial view of a bed. That night Kika was offering her work at the Arsenal, and as chance would have it, she opened with a loop which accompanied the audience’s entrance, a collaborative video she named Sheet Sculpture. It shows Kika and Adrian making shapes beneath a pair of tied white sheets. The view of course, is from above. Noll was beside herself, all day she works on this image on her computer, then at night she arrives at the cinema and sees it there, already waiting for her. This is what happens when you begin to live your ideas, they follow you everywhere, you run into them, articulate coincidence. This is how you work at chance, you offer it your point of view, and open yourself to what it brings. These offerings become the film, painting, novel, sculpture taking shape, not to mention your life. First of all it’s a question of living.
Whenever I walk into the movie theater I begin again the dream of the perfect film. Perhaps tonight? But no, most of the movies, whether large or small, are not even shades of OK, and I think it’s because while making it’s necessary to maintain a deadly focus, though the result is a vast blind spot (and this blindness may also have a shape). In my movie the blind spot is represented by the second figure, the one patiently unpainting all the work the first figure is doing. The first figure can’t see the undoing of his work because the only way he’s got this far is to maintain focus, no matter what. Everything the first figure is doing is exactly tied up in NOT seeing the other. But as maker it seems important to be able to step back for a moment, bring both figures into the frame, view them all at once, both the steady relentless focus that brings you all the words and shapes, but also its other side, the road not taken, the people and events that have been left out as a result of this making. This living.
T+N: The ten parts of the film build up a whole unit. But each part is built from smaller units. Is this fragmentary structure a conception, do you think we can explain things only this way?
MH: It’s a question of how you see. Some people go to bed at night and have a single, long dream, complete with closing credits. My dreams resemble an epileptic with a channel changer, short bursts of landscape, faces, incident, giving way to the next. Almost overwhelming sensations followed by a numbing amnesia.
I was never big on the total work of art, the painting that pulverizes you in a glance, the opera that rips apart your molecules. My movies are miniatures, modest desktop events, big on ideas, but small in means. I’ve sided up with Deleuze and Guattari who call for a thousand points of light, a thousand plateaus, each offering its own vantage from which we can view the terrain of our own lives.
I began working in an episodic “feature-length” form with Panic Bodies (70 minutes 1998) which was made in six parts. Sometimes, when you make a short film, it looks lonely, requires company, so you have to go on and make another. How do you know when it’s done? How does a chef know if dinner is ready? Is it spicy enough, rich enough, cooked enough? It’s a question of balance and proportion, of rhythm first of all, and these are qualities that can be described in books, but if you want to be a good cook, you have to put the book down and head into the kitchen. Sometimes, if you’re feeling energetic or adventurous, you may decide one dish isn’t enough. Perhaps you’d like to make a starter, and then a salad, maybe a soup, a main course rounded off with dessert. I think of my movies like that, as a full course meal, and how disappointing, how crushing it would be to arrive at a restaurant and find that every dish was pasta. Pasta salad, pasta soup, pasta ice cream. How much more satisfying to sample a variety of tastes and flavours, each creating an entrance way in the mouth to admit the next, savoury then sour, cold then hot, all topped up with something sweet.
T+N: Does your imitation relate to the imitations of other arts, regularly used in humanism? Or does your ‘imitation’ implicate the failure of film to reproduce life?
MH: Wasn’t it Andy Warhol who remarked that movies make emotions feel so real, whereas in daily life they’re a far shore? Pictures seem at least as real to me as my friends, and as someone who makes movies I am condemned to watch them over and again, backwards and forwards, at every conceivable speed, so I see them more than most of the people in my life.
Whenever I walk into a new building or down a street or pick up a fork I think: this was just a picture once, a draftboard sketch, a glimpse in the mind. Out of these pictures we are hoping the world into shape. A friend told me about attending a lecture by a noted anthropology scholar in Dresden, a woman whose face was so beautiful she was rumored to have single-handedly invented lesbianism in postwar Germany. As she lectures her gaze drifts across the students, but when she gets to my friend (who is staring, she confesses later, mostly at those perfect legs) she stops, the lecture hall is crowded, she doesn’t talk everyday, so two hundred hold their breath while these two catch each other’s eyes in silence, my friend and the famous one at the dais, and this look is all it takes. In the weeks to come they fall in love, move in together, and it all begins with this look. Or does it? I believe that there must have existed in each of them an image, and in a single moment, they look out and see it there. What was inside appears outside.
The pictures in our lives are not imitations. They are the thing itself.
The longest of Imitations ‘s ten section is entitled Imitation of Life . It features a trio of portraits about people afflicted by pictures, one tells us she is being swallowed by her shadow, become a shade’s shade. Another walks into a photo booth to have his picture taken, but once he emerges everyone walks around him as if he’s radioactive (of course, they’re only trying to avoid the camera, but it’s as if a force field, granted via photography, repels everyone around him). Another narrates a dream of birth while we watch the scientist from Metropolis constructing the she-robot he hopes will squash the revolution. A voice-over tells us that his father built him a special body which was an aperture, a body lacking skin and perimeter, unable to keep the outside outside. Apt description perhaps for the perfect consumer, the one who says yes to everything.
This movie opens with shots of egg and sperm and fetus, literally an “imitation of life,” and then immediately after birth, its multiplication/simulacra, dozens of nurses push strollers across the hospital yard dissolving over a child’s face superimposed into the belly of a very pregnant woman, the face of the unborn sounding through loudspeakers, barber shops, hillsides around the world. She offers warning and prophecy, announcing that the pictures she has been left will not allow her, the generation that will follow us, to grieve. “And when you die, we will walk on your graves as if you were never there.” She says that the pictures she’s been left, her inheritance, helps her only to forget, and the ensuing portraits further this impression. These portraits are framed by two long sections which alternate intertitles and movie moments, most clipped from science fiction flicks, a genre reserved for our tomorrows.
Here in the future
is the same war
the same lonely detectives
the same deadly women
each moment of our bodies
become an instrument of death.
Your new world
will begin like ours as pictures
pictures we long to see
and finally become.
Over and over we are shown, in these glimpses of the shape of things to come, the cruelty of spectacle; mutant science and atomic anxieties, all prelude to The End. This final curtain is linked to globalization (if McLuhan’s prophecy is correct then we are living in a global village. The mayor? Bill Gates), a centralization of industrial power and industrial pictures, mass produced and widely distributed. The world bank and the world image bank work towards the same end.
In this mini-essay globalization appears as a war of light, culled from the opening salvo in the 1942 battle of El Alamein. There are no corpses, no tanks rolling over desert, hardly a body to be seen, instead only the night flashes of canons, this battle remade into an exchange of light. After this opening salvo we see men carrying torches, they have taken this light and bear it in ordered columns, bringing it into the city (as if in illustration of Benjamin’s dictum that fascism aestheticizes politics), where we see crowds scurrying towards a vast, unseen figure, hands reaching out for the manna of uberstars as a voice on the track stutters in digital cut-up, “yyyooour’e jujujujust like hhhheaven totototo touttttoutttouch.” The unseen figure is Hitler, whose mythic status (in the bravura opening sequence of Triumph of the Will he descends from the cloud heavens to earth) stands for all the other overexposed stars in the dream factory’s firmament. Is it too much to call this perceptual fascism? It is the willing surrender of the crowd, the need to follow, to belong and believe, that underlies the glossy surface of these pictures (which need to be seen everywhere, like an army of occupation, even in our dreams). We are inside the coliseum again where the lions have become motion pictures, MGM lions swallowing its spectators. In the words of William Blake: they became what they beheld.
T+N: Why do you mention together the terror of annihilation and the terror of remembering?
MH: In the section of Imitations dedicated to our pictured future there are a series of shots drawn from science fiction films, interrupted by titles: “Our movies mark the passage of time.
They are time machines, machines built for mourning, and in some moments they are all that stand between us and our desire to destroy everything. To wipe the slate clean. To begin again. There are two kinds of terror here, the terror of annihilation and the terror of remembering. Which will we find more painful, more seductive? How will you invent the future?”
All art is the act of making marks, leaving behind a trace, grieving for lost moments and carrying them forward into the present. They are reminders of what happened once. But there’s also television which presents images not to re-member but to forget, the amnesiac flow where one image replaces another. Pictures to remember, others to forget. The red pill makes you larger, the blue one makes you small. Forgetting is a kind of death, a disavowal and rupture with the past, and without this reminder we have situations like the recent invasion of Iraq. There was shock and awe OK, but also, is it too harsh to use the word ‘irony’? Imagine the Iraqis in Baghdad watching English troops storming into the capital once again, they were the ones who had kicked out the Turks almost a century before, replacing the Ottoman Empire with their own, and drawing up the borders that made up this country in the first place (ask the Kurds how they feel about that line in the sand). Now the English returned on the side of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ the pictures change, but the cruelties of empire remain the same. Many of the pictures that surround us, more than we might at first imagine, are working to support the consensus of empire, not at all isolated to interventions in Iraq but to destroying the labour movement in the United States by inventing the Red Scare for instance, or the agrarian revolution in Brazil right now. Political and social repressions have usually turned to places where capital accumulates, like motion pictures, to support their views. The Imitations text is really a riff on a chat I had with Mike Cartmell, one of the subterranean geniuses of the fringe. I threw questions at him for a book called Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, a collection of 25 interviews published by Coach House in Toronto. Here’s a byte out of what he said:
“There’s also the threat of total annihilation which makes our culture different than any culture, ever. There may not be anybody left, and that’s a new idea. We must be a culture that’s radically grieving to want to set up the potential to completely annihilate ourselves so that there won’t be anyone to mourn. That’s the radical Other of civilization-nobody to mourn-inasmuch as civilization exists so that those who die will be mourned. That’s why culture is organized. Every moment of culture is the setting in place of memorials and monuments. Certainly art is. When the threat of annihilation is posed by technology, what better way to address an impossible future than with other instruments of high technology.”
T+N: Last Thoughts is the only movie which has no text, except for its title.
MH: Last Thoughts is a wordless lyric that occurs in the moment before death. There is a repeating figure lying in a hospital bed, and the thoughts of the title are his. I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve come as close to the end as you can get and then pulled back and they don’t have the whole of their past flash in front of their eyes, maybe there’s no time, more likely much of our lives are simply forgotten. Their accounts aren’t a uniform though most insist past moments circulate like a round in music, overlapping in waves. I began to construct a life out of water moments, collecting dives, drownings, submersions and cast them around this deathbed like echoes across a pond. Life as a long swim. The pictures are layered, typically three are running at once, but sometimes four or five, sometimes just one, as memories heap and collide, collect, congest, and replay. The body is mostly made of water, so this movie is also a trip inside the body, moments of cell and tissue and the operating table move in and out of the flow. In the end, a group of schoolchildren jump up and down at a fence, waving good-bye before the image goes black and the heart monitor beats once, twice and then flatlines.
T+N: In My Car was a movie released separately, before Imitations was finished. It shows a group of children driving cars, racing from the devil.
MH: In My Car was written in a fever late one night in Cork. I was sick, always sick in those days, leaving home was enough to make me ill and Cork was a long way from the front door. I was watching a late night flick in the hours I should have been sleeping, and tripped across an episode where young boys, children really, are busy driving cars. I wrote the text like taking dictation, without hesitation or corrections, which appear in my version of the movie as a series of intertitles. It was as if, in my weakened state, my body was unable to resist the words that were already there. The original sequence with the boys is beautifully photographed, the editing precise, the church motifs suggestive, but finally doesn’t add up to anything. The forms are empty, like the pictures in calendars, they are an accompaniment to time, a backdrop, nothing more. The titles tell the story of a boy whose family is so large he has to live in the family car. At a McDonald’s drive-in, the devil dares him to race and how can he refuse? But the devil uses the driver’s own emotions to power his car, it’s love gasoline, until the young boy remembers his dead brother “and shifts gears to mourning.” In the act of grieving he leaves the devil behind, forever, though “the devil’s death is a tragedy for the imagination.” Sometimes the very worst is necessary to know, or at least pass through, if we’re going to have a chance to glimpse the other place.
T+N: People going to cinemas ‘demand’ story in a film, what’s your opinion of common story or narration lines in films? How do you use it in Imitations?
MH: Narrative seems to me the stitch, the thread of memory, not the thing itself, the events and moments of the past, but the way they can be carried from what was once to our tomorrows.
Our dreams are experimental films. Our memories are dramas. Richard always said stories are best in the bar, when you can feel the hot breath of it on your face. “But the movies…” and then he’d shake the mask he sometimes carried in front of his face. Richard was always bursting with stories and incident, though in his movies he was careful to remove every trace. For Richard the door of cinema had a sign over it, “Abandon stories all who enter here,” at least if you wanted a chance to turn this flickering abomination into something that could be art. Strange oedipal dreams. He wasn’t alone in this, years past when various enemies were named and banished, like tripods for instance (exorcised for their repression of natural human/camera response), sync sound (sound/picture slavery echoing human slavery), scripts (the defeat of the imagination (which could only be ‘spontaneous’), and the placement of words above pictures (the greatest heresy). The doctrines of a certain period of avant makings was a small place. I had an uneasy toehold on these shores, inclined to tell stories somehow, but knowing they were part of the enemy (who would fall one day, we were certain of that, we had only to apply enough rigour to our small efforts and they would collapse at the sight of all that mauled emulsion). Typical was White Museum , a half hour movie made in the mid-80s which had only one image, but refused to show it until half an hour of blank leader had passed through the projector. My first “hit”, or at least the first movie that made its way out of the clubhouse, impelled by a voice telling stories about the cost of pictures, imagined opening scenes, musings on sound versus image, the usual.
How can I resent the stories I see in movies? I’m too busy living them.
Imitations is filled with pictures whose origins lie in story movies, what could be more natural than to press them into the service of other tales, new ideas? In Secret for instance, the shortest of Imitation‘s ten parts, a young girl speaks of her own birth. Inspired by Alena, a mother I met in Vancouver who showed her kids videotapes of their birth, hard to imagine this happening anywhere but the coast. She was determined that her children remember everything, be able to tell the whole of their story, memory was something that had to be fought for, she said, so she made these tormented, bloodied pictures open to her daughters, who invited others from school home to watch. My movie shows a fetus floating through the amniotic drip while young Lisa narrates, “Last night I had this dream that there were only fifteen faces left in the whole world. There were still many different kinds of personalities but the DNA which made new faces possible had been all used up. In my dream, I’m walking down hallways which exist inside my mother and I am taken to a small room where I have to sit before I am born. In that room, already waiting for me, are the faces that would accompany me for the rest of my life.” Then a series of faces appear in negative, ending with a man who announces himself as “Adam” (the first man, the beginning). A waterfront follows (the water inside the body turned to water outside it), baby trolleys stroll past, before an iris narrows in on a sparkling bit of light as Lisa concludes, “When I woke up I knew right away the meaning of my dream. The world was no longer infinite. It no longer stretched forever in every direction. And I was the keeper of this secret.” What she is recounting is the painful moment of division between self and mother, the recognition that she is not continuous, but separate from, the world she lives in. This distance is also the distance of pictures, whether in their production or reception (try watching a movie with your face pressed against the screen).
T+N: In the writing you sent us we read about AIDS, the fact that you are alive in spite of it. How does it appear in your filmmaking, or in your view of things?
MH: I spent my childhood tossing from one sickbed to the next and sure it felt good, better at least than having to perform myself in front of incomprehensible peers, but the illness, whether measles or poxes or kidney failures, were all imagined as invaders. Something that didn’t belong. Like a series of fickle Romeos, they entered me then left in search of someone else. But AIDS is not like that. For years I imagined It, the intruder, contagion. Only it was always there. Still there. So I started getting used to it, realized at last that it would be around as long as I was. I may suffer from it, almost certainly die from it, but it would be at least company until the end. It was part of me, that was the rub, no longer separate or something else, but a necessary part of who I am. What didn’t change?
I remember looking down one morning and seeing a small red sore below my left nipple. Mosquito bite? Only it grew, spread across my body in lesions that were just pain, like someone sticking a knife in me over and over again until sleep took the feeling away. This went on for weeks, until the medicine reversed the flow, and I watched the sores recede, fall back into my body, though I can still feel them there in moments of stress or excitement. One day I felt strong enough to stagger out of my apartment and walk outside. The elevator took me there, and then the front door, and then a blinding light, an overwhelming cascade of colour and sound. I could make out every shade of green in the park that lies between my building and the lake, every curl of bush and plant and tree, every sound of every engine that passed me by. I cried for the immensity of it, shattered, it was too much. I could stay outside only a few minutes before putting my head down and heading back inside. Each morning I ventured out a little longer, until at last, some weeks later, the world appeared as it usually does, covered over in habit, named not seen, ignored, a backdrop to that unceasing interior voice that continues to describe me to myself, and keeps me from being swallowed up by the abyss of the present.
Infinity is just a memory now, but I know it’s there, right in front of me, all the time. From this infinity I am able to see just a small portion, I filter it through my routines, and this filter is what I name as myself. AIDS changed the place I look out from, shifted it just a little, so that I could see people dying, even as they were standing there talking to me. I could see the small time we had left before the end, the quick bloom and hope before lying down for the last time. This is the place I’ve been making movies out of for the past ten years, but Imitations marks another shift, no longer the certainty of a quick end, not another last testament, a last fling of light before leaving. Some of it maintains the feeling of a life passing before your eyes at the closing bell, the rush of pictures, the summary intents, but there is a lightness to these stories, an ellipsis in place of periods, an easy humour I think, and that’s new.
T+N: You explained to us what fringe mean. What about fringe films?
MH: Fringe films are the underground, the road not taken, the refused. If we could imagine cinema as the spectrum of light then the fringe are those parts of the spectrum which are unseen, like x-rays or ultra violet light. I live close to America, where popular cinema insists that movies should be seen everywhere at once, at the same time. But the fringe resists this impulse. It’s enough to share our small yields with some few others, no need for us to turn into Incredible Hulks or King Kongs to be heard. There are traditions of this kind of refusal of course, some making explicitly political work, like the Letterists and Situationists, or those dedicated to exposing the tragedies of empire. These films, we can be sure, will never be part of a broadly public imaginary. And there are those who have worked on the shape of an image, the way stories are told, imagining that if we can change the kind of roads we take, our destinations will also change. When I was young I imagined that the viewing of fringe cinema would be enough, just by itself, to birth a new kind of human being, who would be kinder and more compassionate, critical, able to open, this is the crucial point, to open and keep on opening, to live as if one were in love. This was going down at The Funnel, Toronto’s once fringe film emporium, notorious for its inhospitable crowd, an east-end collection of malcontents who mostly conversed in monosyllables, grunts and hand gestures, and I amongst them, too afraid to venture anything like an opinion, certainly not a feeling, feelings only belonged onscreen. It took too long to realize that the hoped-for utopia of these pictures and the reality of their reception were so distant. But they remain for me a part, a small part certainly, but a necessary part of the ongoing struggles against globalization, the colonization of the imagination, the way we imagine our futures and presents, all this begins with an image. The fringe makes new lives possible. And love above all.