Interview by Mike Hoolboom (August 20-21, 2004)
Mike drives us to a distant northern Ontario island that can be walked coast to coast in maybe five minutes. He calls this home away from home “the camp.” Phil Hoffman sits behind the camera while Mike tells us about castration, enjoyment, anality. Fun times. Moments appeared in a movie called Lacan Palestine.
Mike: Are you going to ask me any questions?
Stan: In the car you said that if you came up here, and decided that enough was enough, and that the long winter was too long, you’d already decided how you were going to end everything here.
Mike: I couldn’t do it in the winter. It has to do with getting out in the canoe. I don’t know what I would do in the winter. I suppose I could do the same thing, and the same result would ensue, unless someone found the body on the ice, the wolves would certainly find it. It’s such a deep lake, there’s a couple of spots 350 feet deep. You can’t record this but it would be good for insurance purposes. Anybody can fall out of a canoe. If you’ve got some weight you go down 350 feet and you’re not coming up, the fish will just pick you apart. Jazzbo would get to go to college. Maybe with members of the Bush family.
Stan: You mean a good college.
Mike: That’s what I’m saying. Not the University of South Alabama.
There you go, you’ve got some (northern) lights. You have to look at it closely to see it brighten and darken and change its disposition. There, that’s the beginning of it. It’s not a particularly good display, but that’s what it is. It’s a kind of corona. If we stayed out here for another hour or two we would see streaks going up pretty high where it would be unmistakable. It almost looks like city lights in the distance but there is no city there. Instead, there’s billions of stars.
Stan: I miss the construction sounds next door. I don’t know how I’ll get to sleep tonight.
Mike: There’s a really good book by Jean Amery called On Suicide. He writes in German so he makes a distinction between the German expression for suicide which is selbstmord, or self murder, and what he calls voluntary death. Which is making a decision about it, as opposed to…
Stan: Doing it?
Mike: Well you make a decision and you go ahead and do it. The reason it’s called self murder is that there’s some kind of criminality or immorality involved in it, the Judeo-Christian notion is that suicide is wrong in principle because it takes the decision out of God’s hands. Amery advocates the term voluntary death. Well I now choose to die. I exert volition in the direction of death. It’s the same process but without the moral load that’s usually attached to it. That’s all.
Stan: But isn’t that moral load carried by all the people around you who feel that if only they’d done something…?
Mike: Are they better off? Isn’t it a choice? Do you not have the right to make that choice? As opposed to surrendering yourself to whatever exigencies ensue which might involve considerable suffering, not just for yourself but for everybody else who has to watch the process. I don’t think everyone should do this, but to vilify the suicide just seems like a sanctimonious position to take. Is it somehow more kindly to your friends and loved ones if you endure whatever the suffering is, or if you…
Stan: But you’ve thought about it, right? And isn’t it better that you didn’t do it?
Mike: Well I haven’t done it so far. I’m glad that I haven’t.
Stan: You’ve endured.
Mike: The suffering was endurable. I haven’t been faced with any terminal illness or such like. It’s not like I’m saying it’s always a good decision. What I’m saying is that when the question is called, maybe it’s an example of control freakdom. Maybe there’s an aesthetic involved, an act that’s aesthetically cleaner and more formally rigorous than the random decline you might have to undergo. Eventually you lose control. Eventually decisions are made for you. People are put in positions of having to make decisions for you. I unplugged my dad. That’s a little different than what I’m imagining for myself. To do it out of despair, simple despair, people that I admire greatly have done that. I’m not saying I admire them simply because they’ve done that, but a lot of people have done it.
Stan: Is that part of the admiration?
Mike: I don’t think so. In the case of Celan, for instance, I don’t think it has anything to do with it. I wish Celan had written more poetry, but he didn’t. It was his decision. I always wonder about Sebald, I wonder what happened on the road, but his daughter was in the car so it’s unlikely that it was deliberate. Primo Levi. But then you can understand people like Benjamin, it was most unfortunate in Benjamin’s case because if he’d waited another twelve hours he would have managed to cross the border, he would have been OK. But he didn’t know that, he thought his arrest was immanent. So that’s the decision he made rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo and the next thing you know he’d be in the camps. Would you rather endure the camp or commit suicide?
Stan: What if Melville had written Moby-Dick and its publication was met with tremendous celebration? At last here is the book everyone’s been waiting for, he goes on from one majestic triumph to another. Would that still be ok? Would the identification you feel for him change?
Mike: I have no idea. I don’t think it’s an identification.
Stan: How can you say it’s not an identification? You claim that your names mean the same thing.
Mike: That was nearly twenty years ago, I was a baby. OK, you’re right. There was an extremely specious attempt to establish some kind of relation.
Mike: Possibly. Aren’t influential figures paternal in some way? What if Melville had been a success? Well I don’t know, I mean, I think it would have made a big difference in terms of what he did subsequent to Moby-Dick. He stopped writing you know. When he died, his obit was printed in the New York Times a lot of people were under the impression that he was already dead, that he’d died quite some time previous, during the American Civil War. But he actually lived to 1891. He was completely unknown, working in the customs house in New York. He’d written Billy Budd and kept it in his drawer, the manuscript wasn’t found until 1920. His granddaughter found it. He could have killed himself, he was definitely depressed and despairing, they sent him off to Palestine, just to get him away. I think there was some violence in the home. He was miserable. Would I feel the same way about him if he’d been lionized in his lifetime? I should hope so. Why would that change the status of the book, but who knows?
Stan: The tragedy of its being ignored, that’s not part of the lure?
Mike: It’s not ignored now. Do you think that I’m making stuff in secret and everybody is ignoring it, or that I think they’d ignore it? I don’t think anything remotely resembling that. I don’t know what I think in regard to the work. Whatever we’re calling my work.
Stan: We could call it the secret.
Mike: Melville thought he was writing the greatest book ever written. And it was possible he was right about that. It is certainly to my mind the greatest book ever written in the United States, and that’s saying something. There was some guy, and I don’t know who this is, but it’s mentioned in one of the intros to one of the editions of Moby-Dick, but this guy was a very famous literary critic and scholar and was asked at some function what in his view was the greatest English novel? “Well, I think the greatest English novel would be Middlemarch by George Eliot.” And then he paused and said, “Unless you mean the greatest novel written in English in which case the answer would be of course Moby-Dick.” This was after the war, nobody knew about Moby-Dick. Nobody in the 19th century would have said anything of the sort. This was an Englishman too. Why is that the case? Obviously not everyone agrees with that.
Singularity + Community
Stan: Isn’t there some hope that media doesn’t only record the past but the future? Perhaps the series of marks that make up a movie or a poem can be picked up later by strangers, by people you can’t imagine meeting.
Mike: Personalities that simply couldn’t exist, in your own world, in your own lifetime. I think that’s one of the measures of the greatness of something.
The fact that someone like Shakespeare or Sophocles or Melville, or whoever you wish to name, can directly engage you today, and I would expect 300 years down the road, or 3000 years down the road, if we’re still around which I think is highly unlikely. This has nothing to do with universality. This is the commonplace. If you read these overweaning dicta about “the great books” the idea is that the reason we love these books is because they speak in universal terms about universal themes. That’s not the reason whatsoever. The reason that these things matter and engage us is because they’re utterly singular. There’s nothing universal about them. They’re the work of singular individuals who, for whatever reason — certainly we can’t fathom the reason behind why it’s possible for someone like Melville to do what he did, that’s irrelevant. The thing exists in its abject singularity. It’s possible for all sorts of different singularities to engage it.
This is one of the concerns, if we recognize that each subjectivity is this utterly irreducible and unique singularity: how do we make community? Nobody thinks about this, not nobody, but hardly anybody thinks about this. Everybody wants to think in terms of these great and universal truths that have always been in place. Take a look and try to articulate your life in accord with them and so forth. But that clearly doesn’t work. That’s why our culture, this little micro culture in which we live is so fucked. Every micro culture on the planet is so fucked, it’s not just us.
Part of the problem is that we don’t understand that it’s not that we have nothing in common, it’s just that you and I, and you and Phil, and you and Melville, are each utterly unique in a way that can never be finally determined. There’s no way to exhaust the specification or definition of what I’m calling singularity. And yet that is the thing that makes possible every act that we undertake, everything we make. You make what you make the way you make it because you are the one you are and only that one, and that one is completely different than any other one. No one else could make your film. No one else could have written Moby-Dick.
First of all, that’s unrecognized at some level. And the other problem is, alright, if you accept that, how do we do anything in concert? How can we live in accord with one another, in any way? My friend Mitch wrote an essay about jazz combos. What are these guys doing in jazz combos? Let’s say we’re talking about Coltrane’s group with Eric Dolphy in the first week of November 1961 at the Vanguard. For me, that’s one of the five or six premier moments in the history of jazz. These five guys are playing, and each guy (with the exception of McCoy Tyner who I don’t really care for) is articulating their singular thing on their particular instrument together and yeah yeah there’s a theme and 32 bars but the rest of it is totally separate. Everybody has a break. Somehow there’s this problem between individual expression, the expression of one’s individual singularity, and for each one it’s different. Coltrane doesn’t play like anybody else, now there’s a lot of knobs playing like Coltrane, but at that time nobody could play like that. Elvin Jones? Nobody could drive a band like Elvin Jones, five seconds into the piece you know it’s Elvin Jones driving that thing. And Dolphy, it’s unbelievable. Each of these guys are totally different, but somehow they play together in a way that’s… I don’t want to use a musical metaphor like harmony but there’s a coalescence of these quite discrete, quite radically different singular expressions.
There’s certain terms on which they agree. There’s certain experiences they have in common. They’re all carbon-based life forms. They all breathe air and drink water and metabolize sugars the same way.
Stan: They’ve seen many of the same bands.
Mike: All of that is true, but listen to the record. What I’m saying is that a certain point that’s what improvisation means. At a certain point it means you’re free to do what you want within that rubric. Even though there’s a certain melody at stake, a certain chordal stake, time signatures, but once improvisation begins there’s an infinite range of possibilities. Any range, no matter how narrow, is infinitely subdividable. If you think in those terms. Within that there’s an infinite possibility and what one chooses. Melville is using English, there’s a restriction there. He has one language to write in. But within that there’s an infinite possible combination of words that he could use and the same is true within improvisation in jazz combos. The same is true. No matter how narrow the range. My favourite things. No mater how narrow the range. There’s a million ways, a jillion ways, that you can express something of yourself. Not every musician does this. Not every jazz player does this. All you have to do is listen to these highly trained young guys, instrumental facility up the wazoo but they have no fucking soul. That’s what it’s called. You have to give it some nebulous name. But what it is, is, these guys can do what Melville does when he writes Moby-Dick. They do their thing baldly, balls out, and not shirk it. No shirking. That’s what I’m claiming.
I had this idea once that I’d like to make a movie where I just played the five or six pieces of jazz that I love the best and I would just talk while the music was playing. I would show the cover of the record. That would be as unwatchable as Phil’s mom talking about Uncle Janyk in passing through, and yet if I did it well and I was on top of things and could say exactly what was on my mind, that would be a film. That would be great. And as I said the other day, unwatchability is not necessarily a bad trait. Certainly not for passing through. That’s the crucial moment in that film. You can barely look at it.
Stan: Why is it unwatchable?
Mike: It’s her pain. Everything that’s going on in the whole Suzy story is in that shot, and I don’t even know that much about it. There’s a lifetime of pain in that one little gesture. It’s not watchable, it’s just unbearable.
I guess there’s a difference between unwatchable and unbearable. But I think it’s legitimate to ask: Well, who wants to watch that? Who wants to watch Phil’s mom listening to those recordings for the first time, translating the old language, and then the camera doesn’t waver and it’s a shitty looking video image and yet… and then he repeats it and she turns her head to the same side. Who wants to watch that? And yet that’s where I want to go. I want to see that again.
Mike: I don’t know. It grabs me. It’s got a thing. It’s what Lacan called objet a. It’s got that little unsymbolizable kernel of the real. The thing where there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m not saying that everybody would feel that way.
Stan: But when you say that you’re drawn to the unwatchable: what about those photographers who show up in Bosnia and Iraq and record appalling atrocities?
Mike: I don’t think that’s of the same order.
Stan: You don’t think what they’re making is unwatchable?
Mike: I’m sure it might very well be, it would certainly be unbearable to experience that kind of situation if you were under the gun. These kinds of photographs exist and if they’re around I would like to look at them, not dwell on them necessarily, but I would look at them. Yes that’s been done. Yes I understand this is what people have to endure. It’s not exactly the same thing. God you’re making me work very hard here. One feels like everything I’ve said is completely specious. I guess I think of photographs differently.
I would agree with someone like Barthes who would say that given a certain photograph, OK, there’s the meat of the photograph. It’s people blown up in Sarajevo or sniper victims, let’s say, but I’m interested in that over there in the corner. There’s something in the corner of the photo that grabs me. And what is that thing that he’s always talking about? He calls it the punctum of the photo, the piercing point. What is that thing that’s over in the corner? It’s not the thing you’re supposed to look at, it’s not supposed to matter much. It’s always some human thing, it’s always some thing that grabs YOU, the one, the who’s looking at it, that one. It grabs you on the basis of your own singularity. It doesn’t grab necessarily everybody.
Most people look at the photograph and see what’s there in the centre of the frame. Oh yeah, this is somebody who’s been shot by a sniper, or somebody’s been tortured. Maybe that sequence with Phil’s mom wouldn’t grab me in the same way if I didn’t know Phil, if I didn’t know Phil’s mom. Maybe she reminds me of my mom, maybe she reminds me of what I take to be the position of the mom. Fundamentally, at bottom, when you exhaustively analyze this, you can’t finally put your finger on the why. It’s just something grabs you. Why do you love her? Why do you love HER? What is it about her? Why do you love me, honey? I don’t know, your hairy armpits? You don’t know, you can’t say it. You’re supposed to say it, but the truth of the matter is, it simply can’t be expressed. Why do I love Melville? If I do, it can’t be expressed. There’s no end to it. It’s not the qualities of the thing. I already tried to enunciate the qualities of that sequence in Phil’s film, but maybe it has nothing to do with any of those qualities. Maybe it’s just: that thing grabs me. and at the same time it says this is unbearable, this is something unwatchable, and yet it grabs me.
I believe this to the point where this is the only kind of thing I’m really interested in making. And one of the difficulties I have is that I don’t make that kind of thing. Or maybe I can’t say I’ve never made that kind of thing. I don’t think Phil can say I’m deliberately trying to make something unwatchable that will just blow people’s minds. You’re working away and this is what turns up. If I was already dead and could speak about what I wished I had done, I wish I had done things like that. An abundance of things like that.
Stan: You’re concerned with how your work might be received after you’re dead.
Mike: That something will live on.
Stan: You have two kids.
Mike: Some people seem to get a similar sort of satisfaction or gratification that they will live on in their children. I don’t believe that for an instant. All you have to do is look at a child of your own to realize that this is someone as absolutely singular as you are. Utterly different. I’m not Sam, I’m not Jazzbo.
Stan: But the work is different than its author. You are not a movie or a book.
Mike: Melville’s not Moby-Dick, Melville’s the one who made it. He had to be the one he was in order to make it. I want to make work that only I could make. And it may be that’s exactly what I’m doing. There’s no way to tell. I wouldn’t be inclined to trust my own judgment about that. I’d be more inclined to trust your judgment. Quite seriously.
My Life in the Movies
Stan: How did you get interested in movies?
Mike: The Broadway Cinema was originally on King and Main in Hamilton, before it became The Delta. In 1969 that cinema was called The Pussycat Cinema and it showed soft core porn. It was the first year that David Creighton came to Aldershot High School and they had a two week festival of European art cinema. They showed Bergman, and a couple of films by Godard. Creighton took us there, or encouraged us to go. I don’t think I’d ever seen a film with subtitles before. Weekend was staggering, it was a fairly new film, just a couple of years old. That was the first instance of “this is something that is like literature. It’s art, or something like that.” How did I get interested in the “other” cinema? I think I was reading books. Parker Tyler’s Underground Film for instance. You could read about these films but there was no way to see them. Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night. There were people I read about whose films I still haven’t seen, like Gregory Markopolous. The book included a still fromBattleship Potemkin under the caption “The Odessa Steps Sequence: A Marxist Love Pile.” For the rest of a decade I constantly clamoured for a Marxist love pile at parties when there was a lot of drinking. Whatever that would be. It must have involved love. And piling. And Marxism I suppose.
Reading generated fantasies of making these kinds of movies. No steps were taken. When I was an undergraduate I took a course called Philosophy in Film taught by Jack Hanfield. I did make a super-8 film which had to do with a philosophical notion like “nothingness lies at the heart of being coiled like a worm.” I made this really stupid film meant to illustrate that concept. I passed. That’s the first thing I ever did. That was after I came back from Europe and I’d seen a lot of movies over the course of many months at the Cinematheque in Paris. I had this big fantasy of making movies and I had a super-8 camera. I shot some footage, but I didn’t have any way of looking at it. I had a tape splicer but no viewer, which meant measuring footage and sticking it together.
By the early 70s, I think both the CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre) and Cinema Canada had begun in a ragtag fashion. I was vaguely aware that there was something going on, but I wasn’t connected with it. Remember that theatre Cinecity on the corner of Yonge and Gloucester? Once there was an evening when a lot of shorts were shown. I can’t remember if it was billed as underground, or experimental, but there were short films made by people in Toronto. It was a very low space, almost rectangular, with a screen on one end and people were reclining everywhere, there were no seats. Probably around 1974. I went to graduate school for Media Study in Buffalo at that time, Tony Conrad and Bruce Jenkins were there. There were a lot of screenings, almost every day for free. I saw a lot of Sharits films, Brakhage, Snow. That was the first time I got to see a lot of stuff I’d read about. I thought it was great. So the fantasy about making movies — even though I was doing something entirely different which had to do with literature and psychoanalysis — despite that, the fantasy shifted. You could make a story into a film, but you could also make a film that was about film. At that time one of the dominant concerns was film itself, modernism. That was certainly true of Michael Snow, for instance. I was reading avant-garde literature that was about literature. So film about film wasn’t a big leap or an unusual thing. I bought a Bolex (movie camera) in 1974 but couldn’t afford the film, so I only shot a couple of hundred feet a year. Cartouche for instance is full of stuff I shot in 1974, even though I made that in 1986. I still have some footage maybe I’ll use it someday. And then I left Buffalo and started Zone Cinema. I saw a lot of stuff and thought I’d like to do this too. I don’t remember it with any more clarity than that.
Stan: But it took some time between watching and making. A ten year period.
Mike: I made some super-8 things, and showed some of them. The first film I made in 16mm is Prologue: Infinite Obscure (19 minutes 1985) which I don’t like the title of anymore. It was the first section of a multi-sectioned work tentatively entitled Narratives of Egypt. Prologue began with the idea of doing a “remake” of Moby-Dick using the parts of the text that John Huston omitted from his version.
Stan: Why the long gap between the impulse and the making?
Mike: I guess I didn’t believe I could do it. I didn’t think I could do anything. I was busy making forays into areas and by my own rights, failing. Then there was the end of that, then there was working.
Mike: I allowed my father to talk me out of going to the National Theatre School. I rationalized that by saying everyone I met at the auditions was a poser. Or maybe I was a poser too. That’s a huge regret. Part of the fantasy about going to the National Theatre School was that I could be a director and the extension of that fantasy was that I could be a movie director. I don’t think there were any film schools. I think York’s film school was just beginning by the time I was completing my undergraduate work. I remember at one point looking at NYU but I couldn’t afford to go.
Stan: Can you tell that funny story about playing Lucky in Waiting for Godot?
Mike: Some friends of mine mounted a production of Waiting for Godot. I directed it and played Lucky, I thought that would be fairly easy because there’s just the one speech, you know? There’s two acts, in the first act Lucky is the slave of Pozzo, who might be Godot, but no he’s Pozzo. Lucky appears in a collar and leash, and at one point he speaks this three hundred word nonsense speech. It makes no sense, it does, but it doesn’t. It makes sense if you read it carefully, but as a thing delivered it doesn’t make any sense. In the second act he comes back and he’s in charge now, but he doesn’t speak at all.
I get out on stage for the first performance and the speech vanished. Lucky is on stage for three or four minutes before he has to speak. And during those three or four minutes I was aware that it had vanished. It was a horrible experience. So I made up something. I just talked, it was shorter and nonsensical, and one or two of the lines occurred, but had nothing to do with the speech I was supposed to be giving. Apparently nobody noticed. I was the director of the play, I must have looked absolutely panic stricken. I think we did it a couple more times and I recalled the speech correctly. My most embarrassing moment. One of my thousand most embarrassing moments.
Stan: You said yesterday that everything was embarrassing.
Mike: Well because I’m making movies by myself, and trying my best to follow my compulsions in terms of what I record and how I put things together. In other words to not enquire as to what it means when I’m doing it. And number two to not have an absolutely clear plan, there’s a kernel, and I’ll take that and assemble it in terms of whatever happens to grab me at the moment. Sometimes afterwards, maybe I’ve put a minute of footage together, I’ll think: I don’t know if I want anyone to see that. At the same time I think that’s exactly what I have to do. There’s no rationale to it. I would imagine that sometimes Eric Dolphy might have thought, after a particular break that he played, which he’s inventing on the spot, following compulsions, he might have felt oh that was a little embarrassing. It’s different in that it’s real time, you’re performing. And that’s not what you’re doing when you’re making a film. You might have performed in front of the camera, but you can always take that back. What I think is proper is to live with it and let it stand. Put it out. That’s what I’m hoping to be able to do. I don’t mean to suggest that this is the reason that I’ve withheld, that I have a history of withholding, but it’s one of the factors. Embarrassment in a personal sense. In terms of the revelation of one’s own pathology…
Top ten moments of embarassment? When my (home-built) computer wouldn’t boot, I started crying in front of (my son) Jazzbo. I thought because of the way that I’d wired things I had blown up the new motherboard. My whole penurious situation overwhelmed me. There were a couple of other factors. I was already uptight about the car, and I had to spend money and I didn’t have money. My cheque was late. I was just utterly overwhelmed. It turned out to be nothing. I turned the computer off, I turned it on, and it’s been fine ever since. But for ten minutes I felt like… and then it occurred to me that (my son) Jazzbo’s sitting right there and that I’m upsetting him. I tried to apologize and redress whatever the effect of that might have been. That’s an example of it. Why should you be like that in your declining years?
It was a “woe is me” situation. Overwhelming. If I wanted to rigorously analyze it, there was some kind of jouissance in it, a sublime experience of abject mortification. I was flooded with an emotional rush, in this case tears, like people have when they view a Rothko painting. Apparently. That’s never happened to me, but this kind of thing has happened. It’s a regression. I don’t think I had the opportunity to feel like that when I was a child, I wasn’t supposed to. It has something to do with the way my parents handled me. I had to be gritty. Because my grandmother was in the blitz, I had to keep my pecker up, somewhat, quite a bit. And you had to take responsibility for your father’s immanent death.
My father had what he thought to be a heart attack in 1958 I believe it was, I would have been six or seven. I woke up in the morning and he was gone. It turned out he was in the hospital. In those days if you had a heart attack they kept you in the hospital for three weeks. That was the longest period in my life that I hadn’t seen my father. When he returned from the hospital he looked like a different person. He’d lost weight. I remember he brought home a kite, and I thought that he’d made it in the hospital, even though it had Texaco written on it. Here’s what they told me. “If you keep doing this, your father’s going to have another heart attack, and this time he’ll die.” (laughs) I’m sure everyone’s parents said these kinds of idiotic things. And I believed it. For what seemed like years I had to tiptoe around otherwise my father would die. Of course at some level I wanted him to die so I would have the power. But I had a power I could not exercise. I had to go against my desire on that score.
Stan: Why do you say you wanted your father to die?
Mike: Because every boy wants his father to die. The father represents the law and you don’t want to conform to it. It’s the Oedipal thing. It’s not just every boy, and it’s not just the father necessarily, whomever represents the law. There’s a certain level at which you’re in rebellion against that. You’d like to do away with that, in favour of what you want, in my case some kind of jouissance with the mother, not that my mother was particularly available for jouissance. My mother was certainly easier for me to deal with. My father appeared from time to time, to castigate. That was his major function. Wasn’t that your situation?
Stan: My father had no disciplinary role. My mother was the law and set the standards.
Mike: So you probably wished for your mother’s demise at the level of the unconscious. Remember it’s unconscious.
Stan: Do you hear that voice still?
Mike: Certainly at some level. Not the voice that your father’s going to die. But the voice that says: you’re never going to complete anything you start. The night before I was married the first time my father told my friend Adam: “Well he’s never finished anything he’s started, except maybe tonight.” I guess he thought we were virgins. Then of course Adam told me that he said this. Those kind of statements have a resonance, it’s total bullshit, but at the same time… I got kicked out of Mobile (Alabama) because I’m not adequate as a husband or a father. I know it’s bullshit, but at the same time I believe it’s true. It’s demonstrably not true, but at some level one believes it.
Obsessional and Hysterical Structure
That’s the nature of this neurotic structure I participate in, along with half the population. The obsessional structure. Then there’s the other structure, the hysterical structure. Of course I articulate this in an absolutely singular way, but the structure is the structure. You’re either on the hysterical or obsessional side. The obsessional asks a question: am I alive or am I dead? It’s an unconscious question. The obsessional is constantly unconvinced that he’s alive. He’s also wanting. What he makes or anything he does is inadequate. Sometimes the result of that idea at the level of the unconscious is workaholism. Most people who are relentlessly hard workers are obsessionals. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most artists are obsessionals.
Stan: Obsessionals can’t tell whether they’re alive?
Mike: Is this living? Or am I mortified? Am I so reduced that it’s impossible for me to live. Do I mean anything? Am I merely bare existence?
Stan: As opposed to?
Mike: The ideological notion of full living and humanness.
Stan: A life filled with friends, adventure, satisfaction.
Mike: The limit of non-satisfaction would be to be dead. There’s no satisfaction. It’s the limit beyond which no gratification can occur. Remember, I’m not walking around saying am I alive? It has to do with worth. Self worth or value. Anybody who is possessed with this particular neurotic structure operates it in his or her own way. Obviously most obsessionals are men, most hysterics are women, but again, just because you’re biologically a man doesn’t mean you’re situated as a man so it’s quite possible for men to be hysterics, it happens all the time, but on the whole, a majority within each gender is one or the other.
Hysterics ask the question: am I a man or a woman? The hysteric’s dissatisfaction is not with her own production but with the object of desire. She can’t settle on it. It’s this. No, that’s not it. Yes, no. There’s a constant vacillation from object to object. Marriage isn’t fun for the hysteric, for instance. The whole idea of marriage would be anaethema to the aware hysteric, I would think. Am I a man or a woman? I’m not sure where I stand in the complex of desiring relations. I want to be the perfect object for the other. Should we talk about this? I’m not prepared for this. It’s not like one is thinking about this every minute of every day. It’s in the background. In everybody’s life there are moments of recognition, even if you can’t specify what it is. You read Moby-Dick and recognize this is a thing that you’ll keep with you forever, if you’re me. That’s an example. Certain recognitions, it could be a fantasy, it could be something you just imagine, but it remains with you in the background, you don’t give it up. That’s why I don’t think I would be successful as an academic because I actually believe this stuff, and from what I’ve seen, not that many academics do believe what they work on.
Stan: Why haven’t your obsessional qualities translated into workaholism?
Mike: Some obsessionals are so overwhelmed by guilt that they’re immobilized. The primary affect for the obessional is guilt. The primary affect for hysterics is anxiety. Why? Because you’re responsible. You’re no good. What you’ve done is inadequate. So you feel guilty about it. That’s the affect that you battle. We battle our personalities.
I spend a lot of time trying to take care of other people. I don’t do it as much as I used to. I used to run around trying to make sure people were getting what they needed, food and good wine and that they’re comfortable. A lot of energy was expended that way. Why? It’s not because I’m particularly maternal. It’s because I feel responsible, if I don’t keep up with it, then I’m inadequate.
There is an aspect of that workaholism that has to do with acquiring information and minor skills. For instance, I’ve had so many problems with the ignition of this car. It’s the first car I’ve ever that’s had fuel ignition. I know how to tune carburetors but I don’t know anything about fuel ignition, it’s all run by computers, there’s fifteen sensors in the car and they’re wired into this box and the light comes on if one of them fucks up somewhere. I’m never going to get it and I don’t want to. But because I don’t have any money, and I can’t keep taking it to a mechanic, I’ve had to learn. I was astonished to find I could have been doing this all along, what an idiot. I’m 51 years old, and from now on I’m just going to work on the car by myself, unless it’s brake runners which require air tools. I couldn’t afford to buy a computer but for a third of the money I could buy all the parts and put it together myself. It’s not like you have to go to college to do it. You just look at a book, it’s easy to get this information. Admittedly this takes time, Peter wouldn’t do it, he could afford to buy something. That’s what most people my age would do. They have the money and buy what they need. But I don’t have that kind of job, I have a little job which pays the rent, the utilities, the phone, the internet, that’s it. Anything else I have to scrape it, so I have to do these things. I can’t believe what people buy at the grocery store because they don’t know how to cook. I have to buy meat and vegetables and then I make them into something you eat. And I’m interested in it.
Stan: But all of that takes time away from, for instance, writing or filmmaking.
Mike: Well that’s right. So does smoking.
Stan: Is it a distraction or deferral?
Mike: I’m suggesting that all of that stuff, including the fact that at 51 I make $12,000 a year, all of these are traits of my obsessional neuroses. It’s not just some accident. I’m not in analysis, that’s another thing I can’t afford. I’d love to be. I live in a country that doesn’t provide health care.
Stan: Given that you want to make more movies, does that mean cutting across your natural inclinations, the way you acquire skills in so many areas?
Mike: I don’t do any of these things for the sheer pleasure of it. Partly it’s because I’m not alone, I have a child whose needs I have to address to some extent. Even though he doesn’t live with me, I have to have a car. That’s one thing. I have to be able to come up here. I don’t know why I have to come up here. I don’t know why it’s important. A friend of mine that’s a psychoanalyst said the island, in many forms, is really important for you. Your whole thing about leaving Mobile was turned into a metaphor about returning to an island. And you have this island that you want to go to. And one of the problems about living in Mobile was that you could only go there once a year. You couldn’t just wake up one morning and say I’m going up to the camp. And that’s true. He said the island is maternal. The desire for some maternal something, he said. And then there’s all the shipwreck business, the idea of being marooned, washed ashore. It doesn’t necessitate an island, but some of the paradigms are being marooned on an island, like Robinson Crusoe or Gilligan.
Stan: Which is how you feel, these days.
Mike: I do feel isolated. It would be an apt metaphor. In the car, coming up here with you in the car, I did more talking than I’ve done in a long time. I don’t get many opportunities to have sustained conversation.
Stan: Why is that?
Mike: I don’t know. I just don’t spend that much time with other people. I have a few friends that I spend time with who don’t talk much. We talk but not constantly. I can’t talk about the subject of working or making work, thinking about not doing it, showing and not showing it. I need to talk about it. I’ve often had conversations on the phone with you that go on for a couple of hours, after which I’ve felt totally invigorated and sometimes it lasts for a while. You’re cheerleading me or something. It’s great to talk about that stuff. When Phil was in Buffalo we went out for drinks and that Eve Heller gal was there. Do you know her?
Mike: She’s a Buffalo filmmaker and I enjoy talking to her. She gave me her card and I sent her an email. I should phone her up but I don’t want to impose. I think that’s probably also obsessional. Why would you want to talk to me? At some level that’s what I think. The teaching I did last year, admittedly it wasn’t in the greatest academic venue in the planet… I was well prepared and worked hard and no one wanted to hear what I had to say. Utter disinterest. I felt I was speaking in a foreign language. Maybe I was. I haven’t taught for a while, maybe kids are different. They do change. When I was teaching every year for fifteen years it seemed there was an incremental change around their relationship to knowledge, what level of respect they had for knowledge, what they were doing at the university. It seemed to me there was a wasting away of that, there were always great students but fewer and fewer it seemed. Last year was awful. I don’t want to do it, it was a bit of extra dough but not much. It was excruciating. On the one hand, consciously, intellectually, I think well, they don’t know what they’re missing. They should listen to what I have to say. As an undergraduate I listened, not too many had much to say but some did. I learned something, I got to go places because I was paying attention and I gave them that modicum of respect. Maybe I just rub people the wrong way. I’m just a bitter old fuck and maybe I have nothing to say. One also thinks that. I don’t know.
How to Make a Film
Stan: Tell me about how to make a movie.
Mike: The three part method? Well that’s what I do, talking to students, especially at an elementary stage. There are three parts. Decoupage, bust the world into bits. You collect bits. Everything you do is a cut. It makes a cut, it incises something, you frame an image. You take a piece of audio. That’s it. It’s a process of collecting audio-visual bits, or visual bits or audio bits, or other kinds of bits you could present. Textual bits. The world is made up out of all this stuff that you can collect in various forms. You can’t take it all. You have to make some choices. Some of those choices are made in a haphazard random way. Other choices are made with a keen eye or ear with some kind of intuitive aesthetic. Or one could follow one’s compulsions. It could be animated by a lot of forces, or combination of forces.
That’s the first process. The second process is called collage. To take a bit from one context and put it into another context. To combine bits contextually. It’s a matter of recontextualizing material. For instance, if you take a text from a novel by Henry James and you take an image from a film of DW Griffith and you take a sound of the Kennedy assasination and somebody crying in the background, that recontextualizes all of those things.
Then there’s collage which is taking those bits and putting them into their recontextualized form and putting them in a fixed order. That’s it. That’s the idiotic version of how you make a film. Idiotic as it sounds, that’s what a lot of filmmakers whose work I like do. It’s a way of making films. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way dominant cinema is done, I don’t know how to tell anybody about that. I’m not interested.
Mike: Well because when you get right down to it that’s the manufacture of a commodity for sale, and I’m not interested in making some widget that can be sold.
Stan: Why not work within forms that can be recognized?
Mike: I suppose that happens now and again. I think that it’s not a fantasy to suggest that it’s really difficult to make anything good under the production conditions in Hollywood. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. Don’t you think?
Stan: It’s difficult under any conditions.
Mike: Of course, but it’s difficult to get permission. Under the circumstances under which we work you can have permission to do anything, provided you can accept it. No one else is going to stop you from doing whatever it is you want to do. And maybe your goal will be to move your audience somehow, to provide them with a moving experience.
Stan: But the cost of the freedom of being able to do whatever you want, eccentric movies, is accessibility, the ability to reach people. Many regard fringe movies as incomprehensible.
Mike: Some things are difficult, that’s true. And if you look at modern poetry, postwar poetry, a lot of it is difficult. Most people can’t read it. It’s illegible. But that doesn’t mean that no one can read it. And that doesn’t mean that no one has anything to say about it, or can be moved by it, can be led somewhere by it. I guess at this stage in the game for me, I don’t see any point in thinking about that kind of movie, because there is no way I’d have the opportunity to make one. The other thing is I’m not very good at telling a story. But Alan (Zweig) is very good at telling stories. His thinking is narrative. Sometimes I can produce vignettes, little fragments of stories, but I don’t know that I could produce a narrative arc with three acts, and even if it doesn’t look like it, Vinyl and I, Curmudgeonhave three acts. Apparently his life has three acts too. That’s a way of thinking that doesn’t come easy to me. I don’t get it. Although when I look at a Hollywood movie it’s obvious. They might as well put a banner on the screen. Act two starting now. The switcheroo. Conflict. Here’s act three. Twist and resolution. And then maybe another twist right at the very end. How daring. I see dead people. They hate our freedom. I watch a lot of movies and they’re entertaining, some more than others, and I forget about them, I’ve forgotten the plot. Some movies I like and buy the DVD so I can watch them again.
Stan: So fringe movies are for specialists.
Mike: I don’t know that anything I do is in fact difficult. Lots of people like In the form of the letter ‘X’. I doubt that anyone would spontaneously say anything I’ve learned to say about it over the years. Why do they like it? They like the images, the soundtrack, they like reading it. A number of institutions have actually bought it. Surprise to me. Is it difficult? I don’t know. People say I don’t understand why there’s this, and then there’s this. They don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. I say, well, you have to try to make a connection. That’s your job. And some people think about it.
Stan: But most people don’t want to think about it.
Mike: That’s right. That’s the difference between art and entertainment if you ask me. You think about your response. Do you go to see Shakespeare just to be entertained? I suppose you can be. It’s got both. But it’s such an archaic form nowadays I don’t know how you can be merely entertained by it. If it didn’t have the beautiful language, if it didn’t have the profound thought embedded in the language, I don’t see why anyone would want to go, unless it was like going to church, where you had to go. It might have been entertaining in Elizabethan times, though even then not everyone could understand what was going on in the language, but lots of people who were illiterate would go to it. But it was a popular form. It was entertaining because it was a narrative presentation of dramatic events. That’s entertaining. But nowadays that’s an archaic form, we have better, more entertaining forms. Unless, they actually think about something and if they do then it’s different. Obviously Shakespeare is more read than seen. Why do people read it? There’s something there of indeterminate value. It’s not like there’s a nugget of value you can extract from the work, it’s that whenever you happen to read it, the nature of the value that can be gained is different. That’s why it’s still around, that’s why we’re still reading it.
Mike: You have to cross the abyss. Blanchot says reading is anguish because at bottom the text is nothing. You have to cross an abyss and if you do not jump you do not understand. I’m not sure what that means. It could mean that writing is just a bunch of black marks on a white page, it has this completely arbitrary character. So, there’s already a kind of huge leap to render it in the way that we do when we’re reading into a complex of ideas or a network of thought. That’s already some kind of bizarre. It’s like the idea that I often think about when I read fiction for instance, especially nowadays. It’s as if the practitioners of fiction are utterly unaware that they’re making it out of language and if you listen to pundits on television who are critics of literature, novels are character driven. It’s about character and story, you never hear language mentioned, and yet a novel say, or a poem more obviously, but a novel is made out of words. It’s not made out of characters or events or plots. “So is this,” quoting a Canadian film. At bottom the text is nothing, I’m not sure what that means. What kind of existence does it have, what is its being? It may be difficult to specify that, maybe that’s what he means. Maybe its accidental character is what he is referring to. There’s something accidental about it, you just happen to put those words together. You just happen to put those together in that particular combination. There’s something random about it. It doesn’t represent, it isn’t something in and of itself that’s just waiting for you to change it from an idea to that particular conglomeration of words on a page. Obviously he’s speaking or writing in reference to difficulty or obscurity or complexity.
Stan: And that’s the jump the reader has to make.
Mike: Some kind of jump has to be made. It’s a jump between the words or the marks and the thought. It ultimately has to become your thought, as a reader. The reader thinks. There’s thinking in the reader. Is it the same thinking as the author’s? How could you tell? How could you be sure? Does it matter? I’m not sure it does. But there has to be some fairly risky gesture to comprehend.
Stan: What if there isn’t a jump? Most texts don’t function that way. The newspaper for instance.
Mike: Well, could the newspaper be read differently? Is the newspaper a text in the way that Blanchot regards a text? The idea of the newspaper is that there’s information and a vehicle that conveys it from one place to the other. What if that model of vehicular transmission is wrong? What if that isn’t what happens? What if it’s a fantasy, because let’s face it, fantasy is at stake in any text. A lot of people think this. Language is just a conveyor. It’s just a vehicle that conveys thought from one vehicle to another. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that what people think?
Stan: Yes, pass the salt. Language works.
Mike: Yes, but all propositions are not the same as pass the salt. “Some vocal current electric” is something else. “Plump a pond. Billy lieutenant Radcliffe pounced” is something else. I’m not saying language can’t be used that way, but language isn’t always like a little container. This isn’t a new idea. The idea that language is merely a vehicle that efficiently contains and transmits thoughts from one to another has been thoroughly debunked by now. I said “Pass the salt” but what I meant to say is “You fucking bitch you’ve ruined my life.”
Mike: Again. Why should work be complex? What is the explanation for that? Is the human subject simple or complex? Are social relations simple or complex?
Stan: Well they can be simple.
Mike: How can they be simple?
Stan: Hi, my name is Mike. Would you like to buy my vacuum cleaner?
Mike: It’s more complicated than that. Is that a social relation? I guess we could make movies that were like that…
Stan: Functional, useful?
Mike: Well, I don’t know how useful they would be, because they’d be movies. They could depict usefulness, they could depict functionality. I’m not sure how interesting they would be. What do you want to talk about? If your work has to do with some discourse, what discourse is it? Is it one that’s on the order of “Buy my vacuum cleaner”? Or is it something on the order of: whatever is said is never the complete story. Often people ask what is Moby-Dickabout? The simple answer is it’s a whaling story, there’s a crazy captain who has an obsessional desire to kill a whale and he goes mad and drives his men on until the whale sinks the ship and they all drown except for one. That’s true, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s the narrative line. As you know it’s full of all kinds of stuff, and all that other stuff has an effect on what it’s about. There’s other theories. It’s about how to negotiate subjectivity in an emerging nation with an emerging economy. It’s about the disintegration of what at the time was the biggest industry in the world.
I’m interested in doing things that fill me with confusion and wonder. What interests me is how things cause you grief and consternation and anguish and guilt and other such affects. I think that whatever understanding could be reached about those things would be complex and difficult. It’s got something to do with the humanness of one’s self, humanity. To my mind that’s something very complicated. There’s no simple answer to anything that could be asked about it. Some of the finest things that have borne the greatest cargo of insight about these matters are artworks of one kind or another, poetry, narrative, a painting, a movie, a dance, a sculpture.
Stan: Do you worry that your time is running out?
Mike: Maybe it’s too late. Obviously it’s not too late to do anything, but maybe it’s too late to have any kind of public life as an artist. Certainly the time remaining to me is limited. If I have twenty years left, that would be as much as I could reasonably expect.
Stan: Do you feel that as a pressure?
Mike: No, but I think it has a limiting effect. What it should do is make me, if this is something that requires engagement and there’s some value in engaging then it should be done with a certain amount of urgency. A certain amount of rigour. It’s not like I’m full of panic. Will this give meaning to my life? Maybe. I don’t know. One can have some clarity about the fact that one’s life has already been meaningful in some narrow circuit, one has already done something, even if there’s been no tangible rewards or if one isn’t well known. One has already done something. Can you reform? Suppose one had been a criminal up to now? Criminals reform and can have some period of productivity afterwards.
Stan: Do you feel the need to reform?
Mike: Well I can’t proceed in the same way. But I’m not the same one who proceeded in that way. It’s not like it changed yesterday, but circumstances change and you can respond in familiar ways or you can respond in a different way.
Stan: Can you talk about what the circumstances were, and why the change?
Mike: In specific terms? For some reason I got married a second time, late in life, and that didn’t work out. And there is a child, and that was pretty difficult to feel like I was essentially cast out. I was surprised by the way it happened. An unpleasant proceeding. It was experienced as disaster in the etymological sense, to evoke Blanchot. One is separated from the star that ought to guide one. One has problems navigating. One finds oneself up against a rocky shoal and the next thing you know you’re in the drink. What are you going to do? Everything is gone, and all you feel is loss. Luckily for me there were some options and things to do, and you either do them or you don’t. There are lots of ways people manage to deal with that kind of personal catastrophe. It’s called making reparations. Repairing oneself somehow. So that you can continue. Or maybe you can’t continue. Certainly you think about not continuing.
It was lucky that things fell into place to allow me to do something that served as reparation and that made a huge difference. You have the opportunity to re-evaluate or think about things in a different way. There’s another road to follow, and you follow it and you go along and everything’s smooth and glorious and then some pinnacle of achievement and then the end. But of course that’s not how it always happens, all of the other shit is still around to haunt you and have its way with you, or you succumb to it from time to time. Your familiar ways. So you still think things like: why am I living in this shithole at 51? How come when I’m 51 I’m living here? This doesn’t seem right and that leads you to all sorts of conclusions that aren’t really helpful. It’s painful and can immobilize and paralyze you. So you battle that, it’s a constant battle. Everybody does this in a different way. Even people who are seemingly perfectly successful, in some other place, they’re doing battle with something that could bring them to their knees, that could assail them, anytime. Day in day out. Anytime. There’s always this struggle for everybody. It’s not just because something bad happened. Something bad is always happening. Well, it is. The ones who are really admirable are the ones who can keep the battle up, the battle not to succumb.
Stan: Is your art making a way to not succumb?
Mike: Must have something to do with it. It’s a little route out of the morass. How to accept these little videos, let them be. You say that showing is the way you finish them, and in those terms a lot of my work is unfinished. Sometimes I worry that it’s not sufficiently necessary for me to do this in order to survive, to do battle, to survive the battle. You can even go back twenty years and ask: why wasn’t there more then? Why does it take so long? Why all this withholding? There must be anxiety involved, what’s the source of anxiety? No one will like it, no one will understand it. What do you think it is?
Stan: There’s an Alice-like feeling when I’m making work that I’m either too large or too small. As I join a pair of incongruous shots, as I marry certain sounds and pictures, I feel as if a new way of thinking is being born. But the next day, when I look at it with newfound sobriety, it may not work at all. There is an alternating current between feeling another movie will never have to be made after this one, followed by a sinking feeling that none of this will ever work.
Mike: I’m overinvested in fantasy. I think all the artists I know proceed with confidence, and I don’t have any, or rarely have it. When I notice that I don’t have confidence, I ask: why don’t you just proceed with confidence? You finish, there, it’s done. I don’t feel that way at all. There’s a fantasy that Matthias proceeds that way, or you do, or Phil does. And of course I don’t really believe that. But it’s a basis on which I can question my own lack of confidence. Sometimes I think of something and I just won’t do it because it just seems stupid after a while. Why not just execute those ideas? And do so confidently. Why is that so difficult? I think that if you were my coach you could make a bunch of arguments about why I could be confident, in order to build my confidence. But we don’t have coaches. We’re not football players.
Stan: We don’t even have art steroids. But there is Viagra.
Mike: If you didn’t have that then you’d be thinking about whether you had a boner or not. And if you didn’t that wouldn’t be much fun. But there isn’t a Viagra for making stuff. They used to say stuff about Prozac, that it gave you so much focus and you could be vastly more productive. But it didn’t work that way for me. Although it prevented you from bursting into tears when your lasagna noodles tore.
Stan: So it has to come from somewhere else then.
Mike: I think it comes from an immemorial place and I think we can identify the culprits. It’s daddy, mommy and me. But can I put my finger on the moment? No. But it’s that little triumverate, and I think that’s true of everyone, regardless of who fulfills the role of daddy and mommy.
Stan: Does art necessarily come out of a deficiency? Something is missing, so art is made to cover the wound, the gap, the errant personality, the lack of sociability. Art is always a cover story.
Mike: Is art always compensatory? I don’t know. Freud had an idea about sublimation, but his ideas about sublimation as regards to art were pretty stupid I think. He said that having anxiety about the fact that you can’t fuck all the time led you to paint and not only that but you could make some money by selling the painting. But that isn’t it at all. Sublimation has to do with raising the object to the dignity of the thing. The thing itself. The cause. The secret cause. So, could you make art without doing that? Well you probably could, I wouldn’t be surprised if people do. But I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of it has to do with some kind of sublimation in the sense that I just gave, the raising of the object to the dignity of the thing.
Any object, let’s say this act of writing, this music, this painting, whatever it is, we can make it the thing itself. There’s this distinction in enlightenment philosophy, in Kant, between the thing as it appears, this thing, it’s appearance, and the noumenal thing, the thing as it is in itself. Its being inasmuch as it can’t be experienced. The cause of this. It’s Platonic ultimately, that behind every table is the Idea of the table, the table as it is in itself. Kant called it the thing, das ding anzich, in Lacan it means the Real. The unsymbolizable aspect of being or existence. Not the thing we can talk about. This is the thing we can talk about, we can draw a picture, we can write about it, we can tell you how to build one, but there’s something else, or we imagine there must be something behind that, that subtends or supports it, that supports every instance of it. Like the human subject, what’s the real unsymbolizable aspect of you? Can’t put our fingers on it because it’s unsymbolizable, but it’s the thing that makes you radically different from everything else.
Stan: It’s about subjectivity.
Mike: Not necessarily because you can probably apply it to objects. What sublimation means on these terms is that the act of making this little movie becomes something sublime, something that is the cause of my existence going forward. A teleological cause. Towards that which I tend. It governs and compels me. That’s what sublimation means in more contemporary analysis, it’s a more complicated and rigorous idea that Freud came up with, at least in regards to art making.
Stan: But when you say that something is missing in your relation to your work, that it lacks urgency…
Mike: Maybe I’m worried that it isn’t the cause of my existence. It’s related to a number of things. Sometimes the obsessional wonders if he has an existence. You can’t much have a cause of your existence if you don’t really exist. There is no cause, or I have no cause hence my existence is worthless and that is what obsessionals think at some level.
Stan: And along with that any of the work you would produce.
Mike: Of course.
Stan: It’s not worth seeing.
Mike: Like turds. That’s why obsessionals are often anal. Retention of work is certainly an anal characteristic. I don’t mean anal in the popular sense that everything has to be neat and tidy. It’s a kind of anality that compacts and closes down and draws in and retains. I think it has to do with a sense of value or lack of value. The idea is that at the moment the product is worthless but perhaps it won’t always be worthless. Let’s incubate longer. That’s why things take so long to make.
I find myself wanting. You have been judged and found wanting. That’s the writing on the wall in Daniel. God’s finger comes and writes it on the wall. You can’t read the writing on the wall Jimmy. It’s an obsessional gesture. I’m not saying this is an accurate judgment, you’re subject to your own self judgment, especially if you’re an obsessive, you’re doing it obsessively. That what it means.
Stan: Does the judgment take the form of a voice? The inner monologue, a relentless list making, a hectoring task master.
Mike: The psychotic hears voices, we’re just neurotic. But yeah, it’s your own self judged nagging or complaining or judging. And is it your mother’s voice or your father’s voice? It’s your own familiar voice you’re always negotiating. Undoubtedly there’s a good deal of gratification in succumbing to the voice. Why else have it on? The problem of enjoyment, yes there would be a gratification of being a well known maker of obscure small films. Even in the narrow purview of your peers that would be very gratifying. But would it be enjoyment?
Enjoyment is difficult and dangerous and not necessarily pleasant. There’s a lot of enjoyment in torturing yourself with your mean-spirited self judgments. There must be, otherwise we wouldn’t keep doing it. Enjoyment doesn’t always produce effects that everyone would opt for. It’s pretty clear from the way in which people take the sexual relation, for instance.
Stan: You mean because you get attracted to the wrong person?
Mike: Possibly. Some people like to have cigarette butts applied to their asses. But yes, the repeating steps that cause anguish or pain or grief, why do you keep doing it? There must be something in it. Some jouissance. Some enjoyment. The exactions that you require for enjoyment. It’s a rigorous task. It’s strict and rigorous rather than mellow and pleasurable and relaxing. If the drive is ultimately the death drive then what you’re seeking is a complete cessation of everything. The drive seeks its ultimate expression in annihilation. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s the ultimate expression of enjoyment. The consummate expression of enjoyment is annihilation. It would be unconscious. But why do people constantly rearticulate the same wayward path that brings them nothing but pain? They do it all the time.
Sometimes I feel that I’m procrastinating because I’d rather suffer than change and see what else would happen. Sometimes I feel I’m making progress and that makes me feel better. I don’t know how much more I can say about this, ultimately it becomes nothing more than a paltry expression of a specific pathology that happens to be mine. Big deal.
I suppose it matters to some extent, but there’s a certain sense of privacy one wants to maintain about it because it’s unseemly. I’ve always been embarrassed when I’ve seen peple in the movies or on Jerry Springer, in which someone articulates in great detail the nuts and bolts of his or her particular pathology. And they seem to do so in a relaxing liberal manner. I just think that’s unwatchable. How can you talk that way? How can it be so easy to say that? The guy in Capturing the Friedmans articulates his pathology as best as he can. But that’s different, the circumstances are so excruciating. For most people, they’re living their life. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not excruciating most of the time. Again I go back to this metaphor or model of the battle, it’s a constant oscillation between these different positions. Sometimes you feel it’s positive, sometimes you feel that it’s hopeless. To be so humiliated that you just don’t want to continue in anything. I don’t think I’ve reached that point in the world of work. Many years ago when writing was so hard, seemingly impossible, I kept beating my head against the wall until it got to a point where I just didn’t want to live anymore. I’m not sure how I got out of that. There was something like therapy involved.
Stan: The frustration was that the words wouldn’t come? Or the words weren’t the right words.
Mike: I think it was a combination of the two. At bottom it was some kind of strict demand that couldn’t be met, a totally self-generated self-demand. And again somewhere along the line one had no confidence. That has something to do with it.
Stan: You spoke earlier about the absolute singularity of an author and a text. And that singularity arises out of, is conjured out of, the conditions of their living, the way that they’re dealing with their life.
Mike: It has to do with their particular experience of castration if you want to know the truth. Castration means jouissance must be evacuated from the body. Jouissance is enjoyment, not pleasure. It has to be evacuated from the body. In favour of what? Submission to the law. So the evacuation takes place and you submit to the law. But it’s not a complete evacuation. There’s a little deposit left behind, there are little dispositions of enjoyment disposed on your body, but it’s never the same. And it happens at an immemorial moment in your development, this castration. It doesn’t have anything to do with having your dick cut off, it happens to everyone.
Stan: This moment of development that happens early on…
Mike: That we’re calling castration. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate name. But it does involve loss so it’s not a wholly unfortunate name, it’s unfortunate because it has a gendered aspect to it. Jouissance is the thing you can get as the polymorphous perverse infant, because it has to do with contacting a body, and the surface of the body is utterly available to it; that has to be refused and evacuated from the body. And jouissance is available then only through the difficult trajectory of desire later down the road. It has to be deferred. It isn’t complete, it never works perfectly. There’s always little nodes left somewhere. And it’s different for everybody because that moment, the cut that occurs happens in a different way for each one. Different words are uttered from a different speaker. It could be just “no.” But whatever it is, it’s different for each one. That experience is always unique.
Thus it follows, this is sort of metaphorical but you can see its logic, if the evacuation of enjoyment is incomplete, and little nodes are left behind, they’re not always left behind in exactly the same way or in the same places. That’s why people like different things. That’s why enjoyment has to do with quite different things for different people. This whole idea that is constantly spoken of, usually it’s uttered by the religious right, they use this expression “the homosexual lifestyle.” As if there’s some kind of consistency amongst gay people in their sexual practice, and of course there’s an implication that there’s a heterosexual lifestyle that is equally consistent and of course that’s not true. It’s exactly the opposite, there’s no such thing as heterosexual practice, there’s just an enormously broad array of different practices. That’s one of the problems. You and the partner are not going to be exactly in sync. Whoever you are and whoever the partner is.
Sometimes there are moments of wonderful communion but we always hold things back and there’s certain things you can’t quite say, and that’s true for everybody. Most people believe so strongly that there is a certain way you’re supposed to proceed that that’s in fact what they do, even though it gives them absolutely nothing. It’s true. I think it’s pretty obviously true if you think about it for ten minutes. I think it’s why it’s almost impossible to sustain a relationship for very long. I mean for the way it’s supposed to take place. I’m not trying to pretend I understand this better than anyone else, but we don’t have a good understanding of any of this and yet we think we understand it very well and as a consequence we fuck it up constantly. It’s a big fuck up. Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel, says Lacan. There is no sexual relation, there is no sexual rapport. We can’t have a fit. There’s no proper fit between any two subjects because of their singularity.
Stan: But it’s not possible to fall in love with everybody.
Mike: True enough because there’s a certain dictate for each one of us as to who and what would constitute the object of desire. I might not be a possible object of desire for you but I might be for any number of others. But they might not be for me. Anyway, this started with the singularity business. You asked a question and I went off on a tangent.
Stan: The question had to do with the conditions which produce a work of art, which is itself singular, related to a personal neurosis, conditions, maybe even happiness. But you were saying earlier that these are just my difficulties, what does it matter?
Mike: I don’t think whatever I say about my pathology is going to explain much about my work. I don’t think knowing the ins and outs of Melville’s pathology would necessarily explain anything about Moby-Dick. You have all you need.
Stan: And yet you sought out the biographical nuggets.
Mike: I don’t think about them very much. I know some people do, I think instead about his giant pile of words. I think Melville’s a very interesting character but there’s not much of an archive to look at to determine what was running through his mind at any given time. But that’s almost irrelevant, because no matter what you know it doesn’t change the pile of words. It may help to explain how the thing came to be. But I don’t really care how it came to be. I care a lot about it, the thing, and the thing has so far seemed to me inexhaustible, in its intrigue and interest and the exhilaration it provides and surprise, the insight. It’s different all the time, I think that’s what keeps it alive, for me, and I’m sure for many other people because clearly I’m not the only one interested in it. It’s not the only mighty thing, but it’s a great instance of something immensely human. If I say it’s full of insight I don’t wish to imply that Melville had the insight, they’re in his book but I’m not saying that he knew that. I don’t think that at all. He was capable of rendering language in a certain way and I’m sure that at times it was totally out of his control. I don’t mean that anybody else was controlling it, or that he didn’t know what he was doing, but he was on a roll, and what resulted was a seemingly inexhaustible pile of orders in a particular order.
Stan: Could you speak of the speculative etymology that led you to adopt Melville as your father?
Mike: Our names mean the same. Cartmell means a place where carts meet. It’s a crossroads, a market town. The name is quite old, it postdates 1066 because it’s got that French thing meler, Melville’s the same. There’s a lot of towns called Melville all over the place and they’re not named after anyone named Melville. They’re named Melville because there’s a town at the crossroads, a meeting town.
Reducing the intersection, the meeting place, to an “X” is a bit of a leap. But if you don’t jump you don’t comprehend. So I’m claiming. You said the other day that because I’d done that I identified with Melville, I understand what you mean, it was ironic, I don’t believe I’m Melville or anything like Melville. I don’t mean to say I’m not as gifted… He was a pretty smart guy, tormented, I’m reasonably smart and reasonably tormented too. What was it that allowed him to do that? I don’t know.
I don’t think he had very many options, he did have a certain set of experiences and was pretty good at remembering them, he probably kept a journal, and that became the seed of the whale story. People thought differently, and stored knowledge a little differently at that time then our generation. They obviously didn’t have audio visual media of any kind, they had a little bit of visual media but it’s not remotely what it is now, so mostly everything was reading pages of texts. That’s what he did, he just read all the time. And what could he want? He really had nothing else. He wasn’t real good at working, OK that’s like me. Well, it’s true. I think I could have been good at working had I not tried to be an academic. But then I had many years of trying to be an academic, that’s like being a Baptist preacher, it ruins you. It ruins you for work.
I was doing a lot of thinking about Melville. Maybe I was trying to put some work I’d already done in literature into this new movie thing that I was doing. I don’t think those films (Narratives of Egypt) are about Melville, they use Melville somehow, they proceed from the faulty premise that everyone knows about Moby-Dick and you know what? They don’t. Even in America they don’t. I will bet you a thousand dollars that the current president of the US hasn’t read Moby-Dick. He shouldn’t be allowed to be president without having read that. I’m totally serious, it’s about one of the central political problems in that time, and that problem is worse now. Race. It’s got to do with race. That’s not the usual reading of Moby-Dick but I’m not the only one who would say that. The Missouri Compromise was struck in 1850, addressing the question of free versus slave states. The compromise stated that for every free state that entered the union a slave state could enter the union. That was the proposed compromise. I think it was not passed. The debate that animated and ensued from it ultimately led to the Civil War, amongst other purposes it ended slavery. But it didn’t end the racial problem. I guess there are other places in the world where there are racial or ethnic problems but not in advanced western countries, not like there is in the United States, it’s hard to believe. It was almost fifty years ago that various Civil Rights acts began to be passed. Go to the south and open your eyes, or even big cities in the north. There is segregation, blacks and whites hate each other, and there’s an absolute disposition of wealth and power and freedom. Melville was highly cognizant of this problem and wrote about it all the time.
Stan: Do you deal with that in your work?
Mike: Not directly.
Stan: Why is that? You’ve lived in the south.
Mike: So far I don’t really see it in my work. Does that make me a racist too?
Stan: It’s not unusual in fringe media traditions that race is not taken up as an issue.
Mike: I think it has been, though not the racial problem in the United States. I think there’s work by Asian-Canadian filmmakers that has something to do with that. Sometimes I think that white guys are limited in what they can say about it. I don’t think I have anything useful to say other than to point it out. And I don’t think that’s necessary, I think it’s well known.
Moby-Dick has a good story, John Huston made a film about that little bit of the book, and then they made it again recently with Captain Picard as Ahab. But it was the same film, just better effects. But if you really made Moby-Dick in the way that Greenaway really made The Tempest, and on top of that you put your own trait on it, nobody would make that in Hollywood. You’d have to make that all by yourself in your room. You’d have to make Moby-Dick without a whale, without a ship, without an ocean, just gesture in that direction, throw a bucket of water over the actors at some point, but meanwhile you could have the argument between the sperm whale’s head and the white whale’s head. You could have that. You could have people dressed up as Locke and Kant in the forms of whale heads, hanging on meat hooks over the side of the ship. That whole thing about the whiteness of the whale, that in itself could be a feature film. Maybe Peter Mettler could make that film, I could be a consultant while I’m waiting for my trait to emerge. What is my trait? I think if I made the film about the imaginary filmmaker that was actually me, my trait would emerge because I could import some feature of my trait from writing. It would be a heavily written film, it would have all kinds of apparatus, there would be a four-DVD-set catalogue raisoneé of the imaginary filmmaker, just go all the way with the fiction and say this is the real guy and put it out. You’d have to have some help, you’d have to have a publicity apparatus to make the fiction public, perpetrate a minimal hoax for a short period of time. You couldn’t get a grant for this. You wouldn’t want anyone to know about it. When I say you of course I mean you. I probably won’t do it. When I have a good idea, I’m immediately possessed with the idea that I won’t do it. It just happens that it won’t get done somehow. I always had that about getting a doctorate. I could never visualize getting it. I could never imagine I’d actually get it, from the first day I went, and that came true.
Stan: On the car ride to Ithaca, you talked about the jazz movie you wanted to make, the one where you hold up record covers and tell stories. Yesterday you described it again, it seemed so clear which albums you would choose and you told some of the accompanying stories. But it also felt that after you had talked about it, then it didn’t really need to be made.
Mike: I know, that’s sort of it. Well, isn’t there an art practice called coming up with ideas and talking about them? I wish there was. I’m not saying that I’m an unending fount of good ideas, but occasionally I have a good idea, and I can talk about it, and I really get excited and enjoy it, and it’s like, OK, that’s over. It is. It’s pretty upsetting.
But when I actually make something, I’m thinking it as I’m making it. I wish I could execute an idea. Well actuallyBlin (33 minutes 2005) is sort of like that. I was sleeping over at Mickey’s and I was having trouble falling asleep so I just grabbed (Joyce’s) The Dubliners for the hell of it. And as I was reading the first story I thought the language is so great. And then I had the idea, why not just that that that oh that. Turn the page: oh that. And that’s how I did it, I didn’t even read the book to get the text, I just let my eyes wander around, and when I saw something I’d underline it.
I took the book home because I didn’t have a copy, what the fuck? I didn’t have a copy of Dubliners? Now I have about eight. I do. Anyway, that’s how I collected the words, I picked out phrases (each one would be an onscreen title), and then I typed up the bits, and edited it and sent it to you and edited it a little more. That’s what I did. I thought there would be a little bit of image between each title. And then I found that footage of Becky swimming, and her audio. While I was thinking about it I came up here In May and June and pulled a camera out. I find it hard to pull a camera out if anyone else is around, I don’t know what to do with it, pointing it at people seems aggressive. I’m afraid to take it places because I’m afraid that someone’s going to steal it. I’ve never even come close to anything like that but that’s what I’m afraid of. I don’t like taking it on airplanes.
Mike: I had heard of Dr. Seuss but not Ezra Pound. They’re both American poets, but Seuss is better at economy. Do you know that Green Eggs and Ham only has 49 words in it? He made a bet with somebody that he could write a really good children’s book using fewer than 50 words.
Stan: What did he win?
Mike: Fifty bucks and it made his career… My mother was Catholic but didn’t practice. Some priest disappointed my great grandfather. The church wouldn’t allow someone to be buried so the family said we’re not going again. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a Protestant from Belfast, she didn’t like my mother and yet she lived in her house. She had nowhere else to live. Her cleaning lady days were over, she was doing some babysitting, but I don’t know what kind of people would let her look after their children. Though she looked after us when my mother worked at Eaton’s.
Stan: The Eaton’s in Hamilton?
Mike: Yes. That was the only Eaton’s there was.
Stan: There was the big one in Toronto.
Mike: Well that was in Toronto. Toronto was a thousand miles away. I remember going to Toronto and it seemed like it took all day to get there. I was horrified by Toronto.
Mike: Because it was a big city. I mean Hamilton seemed like a really complicated big city to me.
I had grown up in the country, there were hardly any houses, only farms. This was in Aldershot, the west end of Burlington. In the 50s it was all being subdivided. Plains Road used to be a two lane road. I think that’s what my father was thinking when he walked into it. This seems to be what these guys do, they just get into a hallucinatory state where they think it’s 1940 or whatever. My father kept saying things like “I’m going up to so and so’s house,” only that house hadn’t been there for twenty years. He’d go out for a while, we didn’t know where. I wasn’t around when he walked into the road. But I guess he went up to Plains Road and walked across. It’s a four lane road where people are driving up to 50 miles an hour and he just walked right in front of a car. The car was driven by the parents of a guy I went to school with, Teddy McDonald’s parents. I had to go over to their house and tell them it probably wasn’t their fault. This was ten years ago in April 1994. I was 41.
Stan: Were you close to your father?
Stan: But after he retired he had more time…
Mike: He left my mother. I didn’t speak to him for ten years.
Stan: Because of that?
Mike: Yes. I think he pushed my mother down the stairs once. In 1980 she fell down the stairs and almost died, she got beaten to shit, and wound up in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I don’t know how she got this idea, but she came up with this story that she’d tripped over the dog at the top of the stairs. I don’t believe it because he’d been there for ten years sleeping at the top of the stairs, I don’t know why she’d suddenly trip over him and then turn right and left and fall down the stairs. It doesn’t make any sense. And then very shortly after that my father moved out. And then she fell down the stairs again. After that, my father left and she started drinking so she was drunk all the time, she’d have three beers but she was really small so three beers was enough. It was in the late 80s I guess and the only thing that my mother did apart from watching TV and doing crossword puzzles and smoking cigarettes and drinking beer was every two weeks she would get together with the bridge club (a bunch of women she went to high school with). It was rotated around to different houses and happened to be at her house, so the girls came for the bridge club only my mother didn’t answer the door. They could see two card tables set up with cards. My mother was nowhere to be found. Those were the people who were camped out at Folsam, the ones who didn’t wave back.
They called the cops who broke into the house and found my mother in the cellar, hanging upside down over the railing of the cellar stairs. Unconscious. They took her to the hospital and the cops phoned me up. She had a pretty solid head injury. Her head was all purple, she looked like a big ant. My father showed up later and I just about… I felt like beating the shit out of him. I was pretty angry with him and never spoke to him, and then he came back because he had Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know, my mother didn’t know. He came back, he moved back in, and I kept trying to get my mother to divorce him and she said he won’t give me a divorce. I said what do you think this is, 1910? You don’t have to get his fucking permission. It’s probably what he told her. He also got her to sign away power of attorney, she had a bit of money from her father and he took it all, I don’t know what he did with it. She stopped drinking after that second fall, but she had cirrhosis of the liver, and breast cancer and emphysema. When she died she weighed 59 pounds. She never put on any weight after her fall.
Stan: She was vanishing.
Mike: That was her strategy for dealing. She was basically his slave for 35 years and then he fucked off. Then he comes back because he’s got Alzheimer’s. I got this phone call in October of 1993 from his bank manager who said you should come and sort your father out because he comes in every month and takes out all his money. He was getting a pension and he’d come in the first of the month and take it all.
Stan: Was he gambling?
Mike: He was giving it to somebody. There were a couple of friends who took advantage of him, they bought a lot of property, and when he died they actually had the gall to ask the estate to pay for some of the debts on properties that he had no idea he owned. He had no idea because he had Alzheimer’s.
Stan: So your mother never got any of that?
Mike: In fact we had to give these people money. I think the lawyer was in cahoots with them too. It wasn’t huge amounts of money but it certainly reduced what was left. Whatever he was doing he went through a fair bit of dough. When he retired he got a year’s salary plus his pension.
Stan: What was his job?
Mike: He was a business administrator for the Board of Education in Hamilton. He held that job since 1958, and had a reasonably good pension. Anyway, I went and that’s when I found out he had Alzheimer’s. He was seeing the guy at Mac (McMaster University) who was the head Canadian geriatric specialist. My father never told anybody. I figured he just had a couple of minor strokes and his memory was a little off. When he moved back he became belligerent. I stayed there from September 1993 to Christmas time. They were eating rotten food and couldn’t look after themselves. They weren’t paying any bills. I made it so that all the bills got paid automatically and he couldn’t take more than $50 from his bank account at one time. He bought a couple of cars and then he’d forget about them. He put a thousand dollars down on an Accura. When he retired he bought this Mazda RX 7, have you ever driven one of those? It’s the most over-powered car ever made. It’s got that Wankel engine in it, makes about 300 horsepower for a little two-seater. The first time I drove it I touched the accelerator and it hurled me back against the seat. One time he took Sam up north to this cottage he’d bought up on Georgian Bay. He told Sam while he was driving up there, I’m legally blind you know. Sam said what? Apparently he had cataracts, he was going to have surgery to have them repaired but he hadn’t had it done yet so he couldn’t see very well. I said well where is this place? He couldn’t tell me where it was. He said I know how to get there. It’s up north, that was his direction. But he was able to find it.
Stan: Didn’t they want the ordinary happiness of being grandparents for your son Sam?
Mike: No they hadn’t even wanted to be parents. I think my mother did initially. She was sort of like the mother in the Friedmans, she didn’t know how to be affectionate. My father didn’t like us because we weren’t his children. Nowadays, well it’s really hard to adopt nowadays, especially infants, and there’s no way my father would have passed whatever psychological testing they do. No fucking way.
Stan: But you think your mother talked him into it?
Mike: They thought they wanted kids, so they adopted my sister and I. I think that it was probably OK for a little while and then my grandmother showed up and my mother went back to work and that made life hell for my mother. She wanted to leave but she couldn’t. They had a lot of fights. Then my father had a heart attack. After that if I did anything wrong my father would have another heart attack and die. It turned out it wasn’t even a heart attack, it was just pericardidis or something, but in those days, they didn’t have any drugs other than digitalis, so they kept you in the hospital for three weeks and that was horrifying. Also children couldn’t go to see their parents so I didn’t see him at all. I think from then on he just kept to himself and stayed at work more and more. On weekends he’d go play golf so he wasn’t even there, which was good, I didn’t want him there. That’s why I got out as soon as I could. I left home at 17.
Stan: While you were going to high school?
Mike: Yes. Nobody knew that, well my friends knew, but they couldn’t tell anyone. I had a car and lived on Hercamore Street for $87 a month.
Stan: You had your own place?
Mike: I had a job. You’re not filming this are you? This has nothing to do… Are you filming now?
I got kicked out of biology because I didn’t come to class enough. I had to take it over in summer school after grade 13. Plus I got 50 in French in grade 13 which meant that I didn’t pass, but they wanted to get rid of me so they gave me 50. Because if you actually pass they’ll give you 52 or something. I got 53 in history. The history teacher really liked me, we were friends for a number of years after. I had to write an essay for the second term, it was about contributions to Canadian culture made by Quebec. I wrote an essay on Habitant soup and tortiere. She thought it was funny but she failed it. So I had to go to summer school and study biology.
Stan: That must have been a struggle trying to money up for university.
Mike: I didn’t go for two years. I worked for a year and then I went overseas for another year. When I came back I took a couple of night school courses at Mac (University) that were depressing. Then I went into the University of Toronto. There were certain things I enjoyed about it. Eventually I met another teacher who was really good. That’s all you can hope for, one teacher at each stage that makes a difference. I think it was in 1974 that I met Gordon Naigle, he was a Kant teacher and we became friends. We spent a lot of time over at their place, that was very formative in thinking that I could actually do this.
Stan: Do what?
Mike: Intellectual work. Go to graduate school, be a professor. Funny thing is I don’t have any friends other than him at the undergraduate level. I couldn’t get into a downtown campus until third year. Then I went on to graduate school and (our son) Sam appeared immediately. (My ex-wife) Maureen went the year before I did. I probably got admitted to grad school because Maureen was already there. I’m sure that had something to do with it.
I did write stuff, though we didn’t have computers then. I wrote papers but didn’t hand them in. I remember one year, it might have been end of semester in year three, I wrote seven papers in five days. I got four As and three Bs, I don’t think they were very good, but I somehow got those in. I think Maureen was really up my ass, standing over me the whole time making sure I did it. So I did. But it was not pleasant. It wasn’t just putting stuff off, but I have this thing that still persists, if I’m supposed to read something, then I read it and it makes me read five other books, and so on. There is this proliferating rhizome of books, that’s what I was doing as an undergraduate. I just kept reading stuff that I didn’t have to read.
I got a pretty good education, but it didn’t have anything to do… well it had something, but not enough to do with the courses. I would be doing all this reading and I would forget well actually you should be writing this term paper. It was a kind of wild mindedness, too much going on in your head that I couldn’t organize into intelligible papers. Gord Naigle and a couple of other people in the Philosophy department knew me well enough that I could just give them a big pile of paper. It wasn’t really an essay. They would read it and then we would sit down and talk about how it might be organized. They would give me a grade for that. I couldn’t do that with people who didn’t know me, and every once in a while I would get to the point where it was just too late. I didn’t know this at the time, but I could’ve at least petitioned to have the zero removed from my transcript but I never did it because I thought it’s what I deserved because I didn’t hand in the paper. They were senior courses so it all came down to a paper. You attend class and hand in a paper, and if you didn’t hand in a paper you got zero because there was no other basis on which to grade you. I guess you really didn’t have to go to the class either. Nobody took attendence, though I did go to the classes usually.
Then I went to graduate school where the rate of production was much more demanding. The first seminar I took in grad school you had to read a fat novel and write a paper every week for fourteen weeks. The papers didn’t have to be long, maybe three pages. In that seminar you didn’t have to write a big paper, you had to deliver a seminar on a theoretical text. I did something on Reading Capital by Althusser plus we had a baby. Maureen was doing the same program.
Stan: You met in university?
Mike: No we met in grade six. She moved to Burlington from Winnipeg, it was after school started, this was in 1963. This is the mythology I now believe. I know she wasn’t there until the middle of the fall, I think she arrived the week that Kennedy was shot. She got there on the Monday and that Friday he was shot. When we came in from recess all hell had broken loose, some teachers were crying, basically we sat there for the rest of the day until we were sent home. That’s when I met her and instantly had a crush on her. In grade 8 they had a dance at the end of the year and I went with Maureen. Her father drove us. It was pretty arousing but there was not even a kiss, nothing. And then that was it. We both went to the same high school but she was in another crowd and in different classes. I ran into her by accident in 1973, she was at Queen’s (University), and I guess I had started at the University of Toronto. That led her to transferring to U of T and we lived together. We were too young. Or I was. We told our parents we were going to live together and they went crazy so we told them we weren’t, and we did anyway. They went along with the fiction. Maybe my parents didn’t, but they would never come over. Her parents phoned all the time, and looked in on her, and every time they did she had to pretend she lived upstairs. We lived in the basement of a house on Kendall Avenue. There was another student living on the first floor.
I liked it, it was really hard. You don’t know what to do with a baby. I don’t think we did anything terrible, and Sam was easy to deal with, he didn’t have any problems. But I think it had an effect on me, I was overmatched by all the stuff that was going on. For some reason I was identified as being pretty good and immediately I started to fuck up in grad school. I had to be really good and also had a baby and had to be a husband.
Stan; You were married?
Mike: We lived together for a year and got married in 1974. It was a mutual idea. We got much better grants and loans. In fact, my student loan debt after graduating was $3000. Between the two of us we received $15,000 a year in grants, so there wasn’t much loan. I actually paid that back, eventually.
Stan: But that was an added pressure, right?
Mike: Being married?
Stan: Doesn’t that up the ante?
Mike: I was happy to be married to her. I suppose that she’d been part of my fantasy life since she’d appeared. I don’t know why, but she was. I was pretty happy. Graduate school was a big change, and it wasn’t just the school part, it was also the social part. I think it generated an awful lot of pressure. We had a big house that we shared with a couple of other people, my study was up on the third floor. It was one of the best studies I ever had. I remember I was up there one time just before I went bananas, I felt like this wasn’t going very well and I had to start over. I made a little plan about how I would change, start over at Simon Fraser (University), take a film course, a BFA (bachelor of fine arts), and then an MFA (masters of fine arts) in film. I made a little chart with the dates, the academic years and what my age would be. When Maureen found this she asked, “What the fuck are you doing?” I couldn’t really explain what I was doing. I was making this plan. That we would stop doing this and I would go to Vancouver and would take a BFA in film, an MFA in film and then make some films. I had my Bolex and shot some film but I hadn’t made a film except the super-8 short I did for philosophy class at U of T. I should have realized that this is crazy and you should get some help. But it never occurred to me to get therapy. The whole time I was an undergraduate I never realized this was a problem. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and making myself depressed and suffering. These were symptoms but it never occurred to me. I thought mental illness was something else, like you had cancer, or you couldn’t walk. Even though I wasn’t totally unsophisticated you didn’t talk about mental illness, it was shameful. Remember how they used to have advertisements on television about mental health? It’s an illness that can be treated. Come forward. Everybody knows someone who is suffering in this way. Don’t shame or shun them.
When I did go to a psychiatrist in 1979, when I had my break, they put me on this unbelievable thing, a killer antidepressant that fucks you up. I took it for three or four weeks and it was like being a zombie. They still use it but only for really severe bi-polar moments. But back then it was: you fucked up at grad school and made your wife angry so you better take this. It really took me down, plus it had all kinds of horrible side effects. It deadened the nerves in your bladder so you couldn’t tell how much liquid was in you. When you feel like you can hardly stand it you have to take a piss so bad your bladder is really only half full. Or you forget to pee so your bladder fills up and you go a day and half you haven’t taken a pee at all, and when you do it’s fermented, it’s like beer that froths up. Plus it dehydrates you, so you have no saliva and you don’t sweat, and all that water is going out through the bladder, so you have to make a little piss schedule. I just wanted to sleep all the time, I didn’t want to do anything, I was way more depressed than when I started. I also was seeing someone every day and that went on for a number of weeks. And then finally she didn’t know what to do with me, but then I got into a big fight with my father, and I was staying at a friend’s place and she was pregnant and she decided she didn’t want me there so I had nowhere to stay. My psychiatrist said maybe you should come in here, to the psychiatric ward, so I checked myself in. That was horrifying because there were crazy people in there. I could have gone anytime, but I stayed there for a week. I shouldn’t be saying this because now I’ll never get life insurance, but I stayed there for a week and there were very disturbed people not like in Shock Corridor, not exactly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but people who were in severe emotional states, and there were a few older people that had Alzheimer’s and people who were so drugged up on Haldol you just couldn’t talk to them at all.
Stan: Did it scare you to see them?
Mike: Fucking right it did. When I was in there I read a lot of Henry James novels. I was never able to read Henry James before that. I read The Turn of the Screw at night and it scared the shit out of me. I had a really strange reaction to it, I was horrified and seeing ghosts all over the place. And of course I had to talk to psychiatrists twice a day and do group therapy once a day but I had my own room. After a week I thought this isn’t helping me and I had met a shrink there who had been trained as a psychoanalyst and he said that he would see me on a daily basis outside of this so I checked out and I started seeing this guy and that went on for two years.
Shortly after that I moved out of the house in Buffalo. I got an apartment in Hamilton behind the old Forum on Barton Street, and started looking for a job, and then Maureen came a week later with Sam to visit. She was staying at my apartment when she said she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. I was pretty upset and had another crisis which wound up with me going to the emergency room and shortly after that I moved to this farm in Waterdown. Maureen was getting ready for her orals and I had Sam on the farm for a while, maybe for most of the summer. There was a woman living there who also had an 18 month old kid, she was estranged from her husband, and I don’t know if I wanted to have an affair with her but it didn’t happen. Then I moved to another place and I got a job at Stelco (Hamilton steel factory).
Stan: That’s where all my friends wound up.
Mike: The job lasted until the strike in 1981 and after the strike they laid everybody off. They hired a lot of people that had degrees around the time I signed on, I think partly because they had a mandate to hire women and people like me who they wouldn’t normally hire. I was still living like a graduate student so it was an amazing amount of money.
Stan: Was it dangerous?
Mike: I worked for a while on the rolling mill, that was intense. You take the cold rolled steel and roll it down to the dimension of tinplate, and send it to the tinplate to be coated and trimmed. There’s scrap coming off both sides and there’s a scrap baller, and if you’re the low man in the mill which I was you’re in charge of the scrap baller. It rolls this razor sharp shit into a ball, when it’s full it pushes it off into a hole. If you got caught in that… People got their arms torn off. It had happened, getting rolled into a ball with a strip of razor sharp metal. There was that.
The thing about rolling was that rollers were foremen. They were the only foremen who were actually working and not just walking around kicking your ass. They had the status of foremen because it was a highly skilled job plus if they fucked up it was huge amounts of money down the drain. I had Blackie, was his name, who was a lunatic. It crossed my mind, this guy could, just for spite, turn the rolls on, something like that. Oh it was an accident he’d say. He was an Englishman, scary bastard, totally wacky, totally dedicated to his job. Being on Blackie’s mill was the worst, there was no respite in any way. If you fucked up anything, if you had your hard hat on a little cockeyed he’d pounce on you.
Most of the time I was an inspector in the tin mill and that was not bad. I was learning to be a hooker, a guy who guides the crane into the skids, and most of the time I was in shipping and shearing, wrapping big coils of steel. It was the lowest paying job I had but it was the easiest because you had a quota, you had to do eight coils a shift. Something like that. Maybe it was 16. If you worked like a bastard you could finish in four hours and then you could go sleep. You weren’t supposed to do that but as long as you had your coils done no one would do anything. I would just read. I was reading October for instance, sitting at the lunch table reading October while people would be saying “The reason there are no negroes in the NHL is because they have weak ankles.” Tony McCaigny hadn’t appeared at that point. Actually there was a black guy that played for the Bruins in the 40s and 50s I think. That was the discourse at the lunch table at Stelco, that kind of statement. Said with sincere medical knowledge. Oh yeah, weak ankles. You just wanted to scream. I guess this was around the time that Zone Cinema got going.
Stan: You ran a fringe movie exhibition series in Hamilton for a number of years called Zone Cinema.
Mike: When we started we just showed stuff that was available in the library, like Eisenstein or Chris Marker’s La Jettée. Ted and Jules and I were doing that. After the strike I was laid off and eventually got a job at Mac (University) as a janitor at night. It was good, those machines that washed the floors, that’s what I did. Most of the people who worked on this crew were Romanian. They didn’t brook any commie talk because they’d lived under the heel of Mr. and Mrs. Ceausescu.
Stan: Were you filled with commie talk?
Mike: There was a bit of commie talk that would emerge from time to time. I soon learned to keep my mouth shut about commie talk.
Stan: No Marxist love piles in that night shift?
Mike: Definitely not. The best thing about it was that you could go into the stairwells and sing and it sounded great. I would do that every once in a while. I did that for a year. That was 11 until 7, five nights a week.
Stan: It didn’t make you feel bitter?
Mike: Occasionally I wondered: why am I doing this? But I was still young enough, and I had a girlfriend, and I was seeing Sam with some regularity. I started taking pictures, bought cameras, had a photography show or two.
Stan: But grad school didn’t haunt you.
Mike: It bothered me. How was I going to do it? I really didn’t know. I wrote an article, it was just a little thing, a review of an art exhibit by a guy in Hamilton and it was in an art magazine, a real magazine, but they made a correction. I said “some such a response can obtain in a situation like this” and they changed it to “can be obtained.” I don’t know what ethnicity the editor was, she might have been Hungarian, I guess she wasn’t familiar with that use of obtain so she changed it to “can be obtained.” That was the first thing I’d ever published and it had this terrible thing in it. That’s the kind of thing I would fret about when handing papers in. Could I live with what I’d written? As if multitudes would be reading. No, in fact one guy would read it really fast, scan it, oh yes this looks like an A. I know because I’ve done it, and everybody I’ve ever met does it. At some point with a graduate student dissertation maybe you’d pour over it and really look. But if you’re just teaching an undergraduate class? You do it as fast as you can because you have 2-300 papers.
I guess I had the impression that anything I wrote would be for publication, though of course it wasn’t. Eventually I got over that. I do spend time writing now, and I’m aware that it’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with it. I know how to do it. I’m very good at editing other people’s writing, I’ve read enough, that’s not a problem, that doesn’t concern me. I have a way of starting now. I can make up a fake conversation like in “Landscape With Shipwreck” (an essay on Phil Hoffman’s work), and if I can make up a little device I can do it. That’s how it do it. It never occurred to me before.
This is something I owe Susan in a way. Susan Howe. The essay doesn’t have to be Emersonian, it doesn’t have to be completely coherent and utterly finished, it can be a collection of fragments, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve allowed that permission to be given somehow.
I had the idea of turning (my essay) “Landscape with Shipwreck” into a film. Then I asked myself: what if you just made a film about a filmmaker who is completely invented? It would be a way to overcome your inability to show your own work. What you could do is sign it with a different name, and then create a fiction. So this guy dies and in the attic we find that he’s been making these little experimental films or videos. I’m a scholarly type and I’ve looked at these and here is my catalogue raisoneé on video. You show the videos and provide commentary on your own work. It might take two years. But I think I might do it, I could just take every little fart that I’ve made and include it as part of this guy’s pile.
Stan: And what about the urge to sign, to make a name for yourself?
Mike: Obviously I’m not terribly driven by that urge. I was interested in that whole business at that time (when making Narratives of Egypt 1984-89). What did it mean to sign something, what did it mean to make a name? The people whose languages are scattered, whose lips are turned, in the Hebrew it’s “He turned their lips so they all spoke a different language. And they were scattered across the earth to go and make a name for themselves.” The tower of Babel. The name is somehow at the bottom of language itself, a language names you. You are named by your language. It might connect to the idea that style is the man itself. That one’s style is the aspect in language of one’s singularity. Not personality or that sense of self image which is really just a fiction. But the real of subjectivity which is finally unsymbolizable because it’s so extensive and complicated. But it is the thing that marks you as who you are and not someone else.
The difference between (to use perhaps outmoded terms) the strong maker and someone who is imitative, is that the strong maker’s style evinces something of that person’s singularity, as opposed to being another dosser in the genre. No one else could have done this. The anxiety of influence business, the strong maker stuff is from Harold Bloom. If you want to emerge as an artist, if you take the business seriously you are enthralled by someone or ones who have gone before and it’s necessary to make a break at some point and become who you are and not everybody does that. That can be the thing that makes you give up. In Bloom’s theory the younger poet actually rewrites the definitive poem of the antecedent, rewrites and thus destroys its influence on him or her and then goes on to become a strong poet. I think this would apply in any form, any media.
Stan: Is that what you believe?
Mike: It’s one of the things that hampers me because at the moment I’m an ignoramus about the field in which I am working, I haven’t seen much lately and when I say lately I mean the last twenty years. I’ve seen stuff that my friends have done, and I saw a lot of stuff in the early 70s that I can’t remember.
Stan: But you have a pretty clean relationship to literature.
Mike: But I’m not writing. That isn’t the medium… well maybe it is. I’ve said this before many times, one of the reasons I stopped making movies is that I’m just too literary, my films aren’t really about film, they’re all about literature. That’s not really what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to focus on film.
Stan: The way the light shines.
Mike: I don’t mean just that but the formalist project. That’s obviously not the beginning and the end, I was wrong, I should have just continued. But I didn’t. I tried to go back to grad school and get a doctorate and that’s when the films stopped. I’d taught, and that was all good, but it didn’t seem like I was going to get anywhere, so I decided to go back. Maybe that was a dodge to return to the security of the academic womb.
Stan: Instead of going on to make more films.
Mike: Correct. Structurally it’s the same thing as not going to theatre school and giving yourself the rationalization that the people I met at the auditions were all a bunch of posers. There are two reasons. I wanted my father’s support and I couldn’t have that. And probably I was afraid of succeeding. That was a very bad decision.
Stan: Can you further unpack the question of canon and lineage, inventing cinema instead of imitating it?
Mike: Let me say this. If I’m right that when this break occurs one emerges as a strong maker (I don’t really like that term) then one’s work becomes identifiable as yours. It’s connected to your singularity. I would say that’s happened in my writing but I don’t think that’s happened in my videos and films. I’ve come to recognize it in my writing, I think there’s a trait and it’s mine. Nobody else does it. And as you know Mike, I’ve read everything. That doesn’t mean it’s great, or I think I should be listed amongst the great stylists of English literature, there aren’t any great stylists anymore, but there are traits.
Sebald has a trait, there’s no way you could mistake it. He didn’t write that much and he started late. If you look atVertigo it’s not quite there. But in The Immigrants there it is, and it just gets stronger and more commanding and enthralling in Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. It’s there in a different way in The Natural History of Destruction which is written before Vertigo. He didn’t know how to fictionalize the first time he tried it, that’s why Vertigo is so much weaker than anything else, it’s still interesting but all of a sudden pooh. Unbelievable. It’s a tragedy the guy learned how to drive a truck.
That business of coming out from under influence and becoming who you are has to do with tradition and antecedents and some kind of engagement with the milieu, the medium within which you’re working. So I’m always troubled by the multi-taskers, people who write novels, musicals, make films, paint, sculpt, etc. Mike Snow for example, what is he? What does he really do? Where does his best stuff lie?
Mike: Without any doubt. Because that’s where he fully engages and then breaks the tradition. He places his trail there. You can identify some of Mike’s work in other media because it’s so serial, but I’ll bet you could look at a bunch of things you’d never seen before and not be able to tell which one was Mike’s unless it was a film in which case you probably could tell. I wasn’t really thinking about him, there are other people who do everything, I just wish they wouldn’t.
This goes back to the question: is there any reason to make fringe movies? I think, and maybe this doesn’t possess everybody, but it does possess me, and I think it possesses a lot of people who make art, who make fringe movies, although they may not think it in these terms, there’s a requirement to do the thing that let’s say Eric Dolphy is doing on the bass clarinet the first week of November 1961 when he’s playing in Coltrane’s combo. He’s emitting the trait of his singularity, and he’s emitting it in a variety of ways. He’s doing it because he just wants to cry, or he just wants to scream, or he just wants to express love or whatever it is, and you can’t say what it is because it’s a very abstract medium. There’s no way to say what it is, but it’s recognizably honest and powerful and moving. That’s the way he’s doing it, he’s doing it with a horn. I think that the reason to do this is that it affords a way to put forward that thing, to allow that thing that you are in its fullest most difficult complex unknowable form, to put it forward. To simply be, to simply be it.