How to Die: The Films of Mike Hoolboom

For the past decade and a half Mike Hoolboom has taken the body as his subject, and offered a fascinating glimpse at the intersection of flesh and machine. If outrage and transgression have been his hallmarks, these have been leavened with a careful attention to the materials of cinema itself. Here are bodies exposed at the limits of representation, the protuberances of organs and bone wrapped in cinema's second skin, our own flesh the product of an assembly line manufacture. His work may be divided into three periods of production-the first narrating an encounter with the materials of cinema, the second deploying these materials towards a diary practice, and the third describing the shattered compact between body and machine after the filmmaker discovered he was HIV positive.

Hoolboom's first period is marked by a materialist practice which interrogates the limits of the cinematic medium. Individual aspects of the medium are selectively excised and examined in a formalist's catalogue which imagines that our tools of perception shape our experience, that our bodies have been engaged in a machine-inspired elaboration-feet become motor cars, eyes become telescopes, hands become bulldozers. These mechanical prostheses are not without ideology or syntax, the rules of their deployment actively reframing the subject that seeks to use them.
That cinema is comprised of a succession of still photographs is detailed in Book of Lies (1985), in which an airline commercial is extended by placing decreasing amounts of dark between each frame. The film's subject is a male climber whose cropped attitudes of traversal are re-examined in the frame by frame scaling of a mountain. Upon reaching the summit he prepares to dive headlong into the waters below, the dark passage between the frames narrowing, until sound and image merge at the instant of his plunge into the water. Here, the body displays itself as an attitude of parts, broken by a machine made compact of representation, its gestures of ascent subject to a narrative gaze of tumescent arousal and deflation (emblematised by the climber's rise and fall), and viewed as an accumulation of fragments.

Scaling(1988) re-marks the aspect ratio of 16mm cinema-we watch as Hoolboom paints black the space of the frame. Here again the rules of the machine universe are pitted against its human protagonist. Hoolboom is naked throughout, the camera tipped on its side to underscore a gravity bent to the rule of representation, the body made to accomodate the camera's rectangular vision, outlining the arena of encounter. This image is run twice simultaneously, printed backwards and forwards to show the filmmaker painting the rectangle black on one side of the frame, while he unpaints the other side. This doubling of intentions cast inside the four sided vantage of the apparatus is both a metaphor for cinema, and a visible rune of the unconscious, quietly undoing all that we would strive to achieve.

Modern Times (1991) is an essay on the motion picture camera, miming its subject to assume its own shape. Framed by passages of black leader the film appears as a black box, whose illuminated interiors draft a harrowing image of industrial consciousness. While we watch a film camera being wound images of Chaplin from Modern Times intercede, the little tramp tightening screws on the assembly line. Soon enough he is swept into the line and is pushed through a passage of cogs and wheels that bear an unmistakable resemblance to the film path of a camera. The remainder of the film shows a male nude rendered in a frantic and broken montage, his body reduced to a flailing maelstrom of parts. The understanding that the camera imparts to the body is literalised here, its movements shattered in the gaze that doubles it.
Hoolboom's diary practice takes up the 'issue' of the body from another vantage, elaborating a paternal home movie practice and deploying it towards a critique of patriarchy. In Was (1989) he punctuates images of a marital dissolution with a hallucinatory Ford car commercial. As the potential buyer looks around the car of her future she glimpses, matted into its interiors, a number of fantasies-winning a beauty contest, a Parisian idyll with two men, a man offering her flowers and, finally, her own marriage. That these fantasies are male inspired and projected onto women is further underlined in the film's most protracted montage sequence. As we watch images of Hoolboom and his partner talk, quarrel and make love a woman recounts a dream of patriarchy from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. She flees naked through a city while a number of men chase her. While she manages to elude them, the sites of her escape occasion each of her pursuants to build a lodging for themselves. Altogether this city comprises an ugly architecture of containment and repression sion, its masculine imperatives designed to frustrate the Other At once an auto-critique of the film he laboriously constructs and an indictment of the male urge to classify, order and name, Was' fragmented bodies demonstrate the effects of a rationalist will to power, the body refigured through the crucible of representation. In Eat(1989) Hoolboom returns to these diary images and escalates the ferocious mon montage, dissecting the gestures of the everyday into two and three frame passages, shattering the bodily compact pact of these two lovers. Into their broken flesh he pours the pop effluvia of TV commercials and beau beauty contests, pornography, rotoscoped passages, titles from Dante's Inferno and a wash of landscape imagery. These are combined in six rolls which are printed together and played twice, firstly while a woman recounts her anorexia, and a second time as a man recalls a friend who ate himself to death. In both Eat and Was the body is ravaged, torn apart through montage, its perimeters shattered to admit the order of its surround. In both instances this order is rendered as a masculine preserve, its accelerating ating codes of containment signified by spectacle and death on the one hand, and in a lover's body viewed as part of an object universe on the other. The grammars of intimacy are recast as an industrial concern, a combination of mass production and a lost subjectivity, our technical prosthesis relearned as a model for love.

This diary work was coincident with the discovery by the filmmaker that he was HIV positive. These images of a body rent and ruptured are images of the disease itself, madly proliferating in a body doomed to collapse. Hoolboom's response has been typically expansive and diverse. Since 1989 he has produced no fewer than three films per year, and as many as six. This acceleration of production includes five films made in collaboration with other filmmakers, a rarity in the artisan based productions of the avant garde. His AIDS work features an assured cinematic-rhetoric learned in a decade of material ist manufacture, and a practice haunted by death and the dissolution of the body. There exist just a few films that explicitly denote the subject of AIDS, yet it remains an overwhelming subtext for all of this work as Hoolboom continues to examine the body and its relation to power, identity and death.

Careful Breaking (1992) was one of a half dozen films finished in 1992. Hypnagogically colourised and set to a great discordant soundtrack of shattered glass by composer Earle Peach, Careful Breaking narrates rates a body recalling itself, conjuring in its saturated palette a history of flesh. Here is a body travelling its own perimeter in a rapidly flashing montage of light and dark, which gives way at the film's end to a recolourised male nude, rendered initially as a body of parts via frame by frame photography, and then lying in repose. The film closes with a fist unclenchinging, releasing the fiction of the body's wholeness and reconciling itself as a compact of fragments, an alliance of associations.

One Plus One (1993) is a pixillated romp featuring co-filmmakers Jason Boughton and Kathryn Ramey. Photographed one frame at a time over three days One Plus One casts Boughton and Ramey as unlikely lovers, the first appearing as a hovering devil in flight, excreting a vegetable life, while Ramey's clock-spitting, bathing-besuited countenance lifts weights in a frank measure of indifference. Their touch promotes a shimmering aura of light, a celestial tial forcefield against which they lash, finally retiring to the kitchen with a gaggle of tools to fine tune desire. Donning each other's clothes, they fly off together to the strains of Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz. This wordless repast is played out on the body's surface, its movements of opening and clos ing retooled to accommodate another

(1992) is another collaboration, this time with friend and fellow Canadian compatriot Steve Sanguedolce. An episodic travelogue haunted by death, ~ unfolds like a series of postcards, accompanied throughout by a voice-over address which soon converts Mexico into Toronto. Half the film is lensed in Toronto, though the voice-over insists on a Mexican setting, narrating the travels of 'you', an individual unable to leave his past, or his past geography, behind. The voice-over recites, "Behind the wheel you are like King Midas, every thing you touch turns into Toronto." Later, a hilarious ous montage of B-movie monsters wreak havoc in city streets while the narrator muses, "You watch with surprise as giant lizards walk the streets again, wondering that these discarded pictures should have found a new life here in Mexico. After all these years, what were they seeing exactly? What secret horror lies waiting beneath the face of these mon monsters, slouching towards Mexico City to be born?" This 'secret horror' is precisely the visitation of first worlders, and the recently negotiated free trade pact between Mexico, the US and Canada, part of a global pact of homogenising difference and ensuring economic servitude. If the automobile provides one of Mexico's many thematic icons, it serves primarily as a symbol of colonialism. As the narrator describes: "If these lines are illegible it is because they were made by people who failed to understand that the automobile was less a method of travel than a way of life. That these lines were a chronicle of change, bonding the country with a life beyond its borders, marrying its unfinished geographies with the auto factories of the north."

While the judo teams of Monterey, dinosaurs and aquariums, war museums and jungle 6factories float past, the traveller's escape is equated with death, his restless traversals staging a return of the repressed. The film is capped by a vicious amateur bullfight in Mexico City, a clumsy, bloody affair which sees the matador trampled and gored before killing the bull in an agonisingly protracted death scene. Gone here is the glamour and seduction of spectacle, under lined by the scene's binocular matte. In its place stands the cold slaughter of the first worlder, seeking his dissolution in foreign climes, but re-fashioning in place of his destination the place of his origin which, for this tourist, is a place of dread and death.

Franks Cock (1993) remains Hoolboom's most explicit AIDS narrative. Centred around a first per son confessional, actor Callum Rennie narrates the saga of 'Frank', his former mentor, lover and confidante. He describes the difficulties of growing up gay: his introduction into gay life ("I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of sex. Wayne Gretzky with a hard on"); being Canadian ("a Canadian was someone who could open a beer with anything"); sex ("I never had anyone lick my ass before, I know I'm going to sound sentimental but everyone's got their own way to worship") and, of course, Frank's cock ("I know that size isn't everything, but it just seemed to fit, you know?"). Frank finally succumbs to AIDS and dies, leaving his lover to tell his story. While Rennie recites his tale of lust and mourning directly to the camera, the screen splinters into four equal parts, each displaying a different bodily attitude. Rennie talks throughout on screen right, beside him unfold abstract images photographed inside the body, below this a cropped version of Madonna's Erotica video flickers past and, completing the square, the fourth screen shows close-ups of gay pornography. This four-sided mosaic is a frank evo cation of the effects of AIDS, the body broken into dispersed vantages as the narrator attempts to bind with words what this disease will render lifeless and inert.

With 17 million people worldwide diagnosed with HIV, Hoolboom is scarcely alone in his condition. But he has used his privilege as a first-world artist to proffer testimony from the front, his film practice part of a burgeoning discourse comprised of those who are awaiting death. In this university of death we are learning a grammar of morality, a lexicon of illness and, finally, for each of us, an understanding of how to die.

© Jack Rusholme is a white,non-AngloSaxon artist, who studied at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, then left Halifax (site of the school) like everyone else because it's hard to do anything there except collect welfare which he decided to do in Vancouver, then New York, and a gallery of cities from there on. His artwork is 'conceptual', that is, idea based, but doesn't lack for surface charms or material integrity. These installations often interrogate the space of the gallery, and site/context is important for his practice. (Mike Hoolboom)

Jack Rusholme

MESH#4 Spring, 1995. MESH film/video/multimedia/art is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts

Prolific filmmaker, writer and activist Mike Hoolboom will personally introduce this program of his recent films. A leading exponent of contemporary avant garde filmmaking, Hoolboom was previously the Experimental Film Officer at the Canadian Filmmaker's Distribution Centre. He is presently working on a book on Canadian avant garde MIMA is pleased to welcome Mike Hoolboom to experimenta '94.
(5 mins, 1994, 16mm, b+w)

The material girl meets materialist filmmaker in a duet of golden showers and blonde ambitions. Fan mail from the underground. Remember Madonna? This may help. Justify My Love turns the flesh magnate's once scandalous music video into a desperately sexy, abject fantasy, played out on the surface of those high-priced, so-familiar images. Words race along the bottom of a screen that samples the video in its entirety, transforming a spent icon into something that ought to outlast it. (Toronto International Film Festival Catalogue)

(2 mins, 1991, 16mm)
Red Shift's central figure is a woman reading The Thief's Journal - an image reviewed according to a variety of formal procedures which trans forms readership into pictures, its kinetic and alchemical transformations a metaphor for the shift from a world of reading to a world of images.

(7 mins, 1992, 16mm)
Glimpses of the everyday, hypnagogically colourised and flaring from white to black, are circulated in a rhythmic feast, showing the edge of visual fields colliding, its furious montage building along side its soundtrack - a composition for broken glass by Vancouver composer Earle Peach. These moments combine in the body of its protagonist, a flickering, shimmer ing nude whose moments of recall are stripped of repose. Careful Breaking is a film cast in the shape of a body in recall. In memoriam. l imagined a film made by a body recalling itself, a film that might trace the act of memory back onto the body. (with Steve Sanguedolce)

(35 mins, 1992, 16mm)
From war museums to dinosaur excavations, pulls no punches in its unyielding depiction of a ruined traveller abroad. Capped by a brutal amateur bullfight in the heart of Mexico City, Mexico is a travelogue of death and denial gathered beneath the gaze of the tourist. This high contrast anti-travelogue benefits from a sharply ironic image track and a mordant voiceover that lends menace to the notion of direct address. Between the film's title and its somewhat arch 'erasure' the subject shifts from Mexico to its Canuck observers. ('Top Ten Films of 1992', Cameron Bailey, Now Magazine)

(12 mins, 1994, 16mm, b&w)
A first-person chronicle of loss and remembrance, Precious features Toronto filmmaker Kika Thorne in a graveside visitation, there to conjure memories of her lost eye. Staged in three parts, her eye journeys through the body, until a ritual compactwith the dead is achieved. Soundtrack by Earle Peach.

(12 mins, 1993, 16mm, b&w)

Psychodramatic in form, Shiteater features a single protagonist, Vancouver per formance artist Andrew Wilson. Wilson's transgressive fin-de-siecle performances are doubly honed here - appearing firstly as the darkly contoured shiteater of the film's title, and then as a birdman, feathered head-dress and tails crowning a genital metamorphosis which show an egg becoming rooster becoming phallus, finally erupting in a phantasm of sperm. Both these personas are washed away in the Pacific as Wilson scrutinises his own body and finds it permeable, subject to influence, penetration, trans formation. If excrement is also food, or the mouth an asshole, then each of the body's functions may be read as a double sign of affirmation and repression, its perimeters of identity holding the promise of its dark double, the body's secret speech teased from the expressions of the everyday and acknowledged in the full light of day for the horror we have of it.

(8 mins, l993, 16mm)
A work of mourning and humour, Frank's Cock is an explicit narrative of sexual obsession in the time of the plague. Another of Hoolboom's causally brilliant pieces of writing, Frank's Cock is a sharp elegy to a lover lost to AIDS. Callum Rennie performs the monologue with appropriate wit and remembrance and Hoolboom marries his words to a simple, formal design that incorporates abstract and pop styles. (Toronto International Film Festival Catalogue)

This program is presented in association with 3RRR.