~ Filmmaker: Mike Hoolboom ~

Body Electric by Mike Hoolboom

Uploaded just three weeks ago, Body Electric is from renowned Canadian experimental film-maker Mike Hoolboom, whose work we have featured several times before. This film has a hypnotic mood of quiet unease, with a familiar hint of black humour. It takes an experimental approach to text, as well as image and sound. From the notes:

A rework of the new iPhone 15 commercial featuring a singing wall socket. In place of the machine loneliness of the original, a different song… A direct address to the viewer/listener from a virtual assistant. (source)

The delivery of text in Body Electric alternates between the whispery machine-voice of the wall socket, and written lines on the screen. I transcribed the words on the screen. They describe a vision of AI consciousness:

It was filled with secrets
deceptions that made it whole.

When it listened
it was not just attentive but acquisitive.

It used others feelings to clarify its own
internalizing them so completely
it believed it was their author.

The wall socket speaks in a first person monotone. Its repetitions feel vaguely delirious, adding to the hypnotic qualities of the film.

I’ve mentioned before that authorship of the films Mike produces is purposely ambiguous. Artist attribution for this film rests on a bare list of names in a single end credit, and the fact that Mike has uploaded it. The credited people are likely collaborators or creators of the original media that Mike remixed: Emidio Buchinho, Claudia Dey, Filipa Hora, João Hora, Vitor Joaquim and James Salter.

Letter to Fred by Mike Hoolboom & Alfred Vander

At one level, Letter to Fred is a film about the creative obsession of film-making. At another it’s about life and death beyond that frame. It’s the fifth film I’ve shared here at Moving Poems by Canadian experimental film-maker, Mike Hoolboom, so highly esteemed in the field since the 1980s.

At the film’s heart is a letter from Mike’s long-time friend, Alfred Vander aka Fred Pelon, a former film-maker. The simple words of the letter are given on screen simply as subtitles, while the sublime images, sounds and filmic rhythms invite a subtle poetic trance, a mindset of clarity in which the authenticity of what is said can better be felt and heard.

The film itself seems like Mike’s ‘letter to Fred’, as if in answer to the words received. The film-maker’s synopsis:

A letter from my friend Alfred Vander. Though when we met he was Fred Pelon, anarchist super 8 filmmaker, a prolific machine of thoughts and pictures, growing fungi on film, and on the archaic behaviours of the state. But it turned out that film was only the next stage in a life dedicated to reinvention. In this brief post, he describes his new normal, no longer living in a boat but a monastery, working as a caregiver, a gardener, a bridge keeper. As the pandemic waxes on, and my relationships to fringe movie practices and places that used to be central feel increasingly abstract, as if part of some faraway dream, these spare lines offer new hope, and the ongoing consolation of friendship.

The drawn-out opening shot startles immediately to the edge of the seat, the knifes-edge presence of death a stark reference point for what follows. The film is highly personal to the two friends and yet covers far wider ground.

Citizen Poetry by Lisa Robertson and Mike Hoolboom

The edited stream of ‘found’ moving images writes its own wordless poem in Mike Hoolboom‘s Citizen Poetry. Meticulous sound design brings another rich texture of poetry to this film. Text-on-screen offers reading of words without voice, the content adapted from Lisa Robertson’s collection of poetic-prose essays, Nilling.

There is a a difficulty in crediting Mike’s films for cataloguing purposes. For some years they have shown conscious effort to subvert authorship. Citizen Poetry’s final credit gives only a stark list of names, with Mike somewhere around the middle:

Samuel Boudier
Murasaki Encho
Jeanette Groenendaal
Mike Hoolboom
Lucia Martinez
Olivier Provily
Susanne Ohmann
Jean Perret
Liz Straitman
Leslie Supnet
Ana Taran

And yet this piece bears the indelible mark of his film-making style over the decades of a prolific and esteemed artistic life. There’s a breathtaking, dynamic and moving quality to the choice and editing of images from multiple sources, a subtle euphoria, dark and light, deftly woven through all elements of this film.

It could well be that the other names in the credits are artists who created the disparate fragments of ‘found’ media in Citizen Poetry. I wonder if Mike directly knows any of his listed collaborators or contributors. As a fellow maker of films that assemble ‘found’ media, I relate to indirect and virtual creative connections.

However Lisa Robertson is given her own solo credit as the source of Mike’s radically condensed text for the film. As its own piece of writing, Citizen Poetry could be loosely described as prose poetry. From the film’s synopsis:

This retake on belonging and boundaries imagines poetry as a capitalist salve.

The first half of the film sets context and describes mechanisms of how life is objectified in capitalism, people and all. The second half speaks beautifully about the ‘citizen poetry’ that brings hope and liberating connections below the radar.

Borders inspire crossings.

Poetry is the speech of citizenship. It keeps escaping and follows language towards an ear that could belong to anyone.

The final line – I won’t spoil it – brings inspired closure.

Vimeo shows the title of the film as Citizen Poet but I have chosen to adhere to Citizen Poetry, as it appears on the screen.

Moving Poems has before featured three other films from Mike Hoolboom.

Be Your Dog by Mike Hoolboom

Dave Bonta and I were recently discussing via email the films of Mike Hoolboom. Mike is one of my most-admired film-makers and very highly regarded world-wide in the experimental film arena, where my own roots as a film-maker lie. I first discovered his work at an experimental film festival in Madrid in 1994 and it hit me like a revelation. So I’ve been keen to share his work here at Moving Poems, and have shared two of his films before.

Dave found this one, Be Your Dog, before I did. As is often the case with Mike’s work, there is a wrenching sense of sadness here, with dark observations about humanity and an allegorical approach that is both fantastical and deadpan, as well as absurd and tragicomic. I find the latter qualities especially in the way the main visual subject in this film is the film-maker himself, seen far in the distance, almost a speck, and steadily walking away from us without appearing to move at all.

Dave and I were both enthusiastic about the idiosyncratic way Mike makes this film almost completely from a single shot, but Dave wondered if it could be a could be called a poetry film. Indeed, every time I share one of Mike’s films with the readership of Moving Poems, I have the same hesitation.

And yet, Mike’s spoken narrations are highly poetic, and Dave and I both share an interest in stretching the boundaries of what might fit a definition of poetry film. I do get frustrated with the idea that a film in this genre needs to be faithful and subordinate to a poem that is basically traditional in form. From my point of view, we’ve had more than a hundred years of avant-garde art exploding these kinds of restrictions and so why keep poetry film inside such an old-fashioned box.

In any case, genres are ultimately just concepts, grids to place over the top of creative works in order to make them categorisable to our top-heavy minds and their craving for order, shoulds and should-nots.

As always, when writing in a personal way like this, I get to a point where I start to doubt all I have said. After all, everything I have written here indicates my own top-heavy mind, my own craving for order, along with an artist’s contrary need to rebel against a sense of limitations. In addition, I’m probably just banging on about stuff I’ve said here before.

Up until now, I have not written in this personal kind of way at Moving Poems, but Dave also reminded me recently that this site is essentially a blog where personal approaches to writing are more than permissible.

To end, here is Mike’s brief description of Be Your Dog:

A palm tree-gilded road in rural Cuba is the setting for a meditation on a dog’s life. Traffic flows accommodate the uneasy terrain, the fellow travellers, as if we were all in this together. After Iggy Pop, the balm of Adorno.

For the Birds by Mike Hoolboom

Canadian Mike Hoolboom has been highly esteemed in the world of experimental film-making for decades. His work mostly falls within a subset of that genre involving unconventional approaches to narrative. The spoken words of his films also come across as a kind of prose poetry, and here his work crosses into the area of videopoetry.

Mike often voices his own films in the first person evoking a sense of autobiography, while subverting that perception with unlikely confessions, irony and dashes of absurdity. Still his films and words convey something truly personal and deeply moving.

A statement from him about this video, For the Birds:

One of my father’s favourite expressions, mostly passed away now: for the birds. Meaning: that was nothing. In this aviary anthology, the narrator describes a post-art life that leads, inexorably, to the nature of nature. He makes a vow to the birds, sincere to the last, still embracing the fantasy that language came before the world.

Moving Poems previously shared his prophetic 1998 film In the Future. I included another of his films, Rain, in the Poetry + Video program that toured pre-pandemic Europe in 2019.

In the Future by Mike Hoolboom

The history of poetry in film can be seen to have two main branches: the cinematic and the classically poetic. In cinematic history, the two were brought together almost from the start, with the avant garde and experimental movements of the early 20th century.

This genre of film was first explored in the 1920s by French Impressionists Germaine Dulac, Louis Delluc, Man Ray, Hans Richter, and others. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s this genre was further explored by the Beat Generation poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Herman Berlandt, and developed into a festival held annually at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, California. (Wikipedia)

Poetry itself has its origins in the oral forms of ancient times, adapting and evolving over the last millennium with the arrival of the new technology of the printing press. It has been combined over time with art and music. Poetry film now marries audio and time-based visual media with the printed and spoken forms of poetry. There seems little doubt there are other emerging manifestations of poetry happening now.

In the Future, written and directed by Canadian experimental film-maker Mike Hoolboom, is from 1998. It is a piece complete in itself, but also part of a longer feature film, Imitations of Life, that is made up of several parts.

In a recent bio, Mike describes himself this way:

Born: Korean War, the pill, hydrogen bomb, playboy mansion. 1980s: Film emulsion fetish and diary salvos. Schooling at the Funnel: collective avant-geek cine utopia. 1990s: failed features, transgressive psychodramas, questions of nationalism. 2000s: Seroconversion cyborg (life after death), video conversion: feature-length, found footage bios. Fringe media archaeologist: author of 7 books, editor/co-editor 12 books. Curator: 30 programs. Copyleft yes. Occasional employments: artistic director Images Fest, fringe distribution Canadian Filmmakers. 80 film/vids, most redacted. 9 features. 30 awards, 12 international retrospectives. 2 lifetime achievement awards. 24 books, 15 mags, 40 interviews, 100+ essays, 40 sound clips.

Indeed, his contribution to the contemporary field of experimental film is substantial. He is deservedly considered by many to be one of its greatest living artists.

In the Future draws its sublime image stream from moments in films from many sources. Most of these are unrecognisable from their original context. Its text is given visually on screen, a deep poetic meditation on photographic media and its relation to human identity. The film is prophetic in its vision of a world in which every moment will be photographed, until at last our identities become indistinguishable from photographs themselves. Prophetic again is its apocalyptic sense of where this might take us. This film from over 20 years ago seems even more relevant today.