Mike Cartmell: Sharpening The Tools


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When I met him, Mike told me that after a hydrogen bomb named “Ivy Mike” dropped in 1952, “Mike” became the most popular first name in North America. I don’t know if he’d ever been a Michael, but when we met he was the Mike bomb I secretly wanted to be, though eventually he’d shuck that skin too and become Mick. A few years later I realized that Mike had picked up some of his naming riffs from Derrida – for some years in the 80s Mike’s theory dad – but he had a way of taking even the most unpronounceable tangents and taking them oh so personally. For instance he once told me, “The name is at the bottom of language itself. A language names you, you are named by your language.” But who else would say this except for an orphan foundling, left on the hospital steps, someone who spent their whole life learning everything except their own name? The first feeling I ever had was: someone isn’t there. Not just someone, but the someone who is the whole world. What do you do when the whole world isn’t there, when those are your roots, the foundation?

When I meet up with his high school friends, or steelworker comrades, fellow complain-a-holics, let’s face it, you could pluck a quiver from any moment in his life and they all tell you the same thing: Mike was the smartest person they ever met. How does the saying go? For better or worse. There didn’t seem anything alive he couldn’t learn, from fixing cars to playing slide guitar, from the four fundamentals of psychoanalysis to furniture building. He was the first person I knew who owned a personal computer, and was learning to code with it. When the car broke, he didn’t have the cashola for the good mechanics, he assured me during another marathon phone call from Ithaca, that it was just a question of going through the manual, and he would be able to fix it himself. He was going to make a movie called How to Throw a Curveball, which serious pitchers learned by throwing hammers because it helped them drop their wrists in the follow through, a secret he shared in his first email handle: yhammer. If you looked closely, you could see great scrums of facts crowded together in his mouth, elbowing their way out together. He never seemed to run out of them.











I think of Mike’s intelligence as something large and mutant, like the X-men who can’t raise their voices above a whisper or else they’d break every glass in the room. In the comic book movies they go to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but Mike went to Aldershot High School, like Mike Myers, and this Mike here, and had his world turned upside down by David Creighton, the only experimental filmmaker in Burlington, a genius anti-teacher that hosted a course called the Unconscious which encouraged video experimentation by sixteen year olds and offered cut and paste readings that freely mixed lesbian separatists, pop lyrics and Marxist class analysis. David was one of the first ones that mattered, friends for life as it turned out, one of the first who recognized the burden of Mike’s intelligence. Being smarter than the average bear was hard to hold sometimes, I think most of us saw the way his intelligence could turn and devour him, puffing up a sliver of doubt into a mountain range of doomed certainties. He could be so damned persuasive, particularly when it came to the self-flagellation society. Here is Mike’s typically perverse and insightful take on 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 couldn’t keep doing it. You keep repeating stuff that causes you anguish and discomfort or guilt or pain. Why do you keep doing it? There must be something in it. Some enjoyment.”

He wanted to write, but writing tortured him. Was it the commitment, the act of faith required, or the feeling that it would never be good enough to make up for the lost years, the books he hadn’t already published? When you met up with him the words poured out, the Irish lilting words, the quotatoes from Joyce, the literary gossip and risotto recipes, often declaimed at high volumes across rooms large and small. You walk away and wonder: why don’t I have a shelf filled with this guy’s books? Perhaps because the words trickled out of him in a death rattle, slower than slow. He said to me, “Every moment of culture is the setting in place of memorials and monuments. That’s why culture is organized.” Was it the burden of this responsibility, the task of having to face up to the promise of his genius, the requirement of being at least perfect as he faced the blank page with his small, fastidious, almost fussy hand writing, beautiful and precise, still bearing the mark of some long ago penmanship class.

What he published and wrote about, in the end, was his friends. Perhaps it was a bargain struck with the overlord, the keeper of the words, perhaps he said to the god who guarded his prison cell that these words don’t really count, they’re just for my pals, so you can let them through the dreaded gates. He wrote about Vincent Grenier, and Phil Hoffman, and this Mike, in strange texts filled with voices that whispered and creaked and howled. All of his friends know him as an accomplished mimic, voices inhabited him, and he laid these out in some of his few published works. It wasn’t novels that he managed in the end or travelogues or cookbooks even, instead he reinvented the art of the essay by taking up the cause of small movies and friendship.


Mike often introduced himself as a “filmmaker whose films nobody ever sees.” Though he had a habit of promising movies that never quite met the deadline, a word he told me was invented in the American Civil War when Confederate troops were captured en masse, and too quickly to put up walls, so imaginary lines were drawn on the ground for the prisoners, and if you crossed them you would be shot. Deadlines. Mike didn’t seem to mind the crossing though. Most of the movies he finished were almost never shown, they are not only personal but private films. At this moment when everyone has become their own publisher, with our social media rush for exposure, he was determined to keep a secret, even in the works that exist in the public record, they are filled with secrets, inviting the patient reader/viewer to spend the time to walk through those labyrinths, searching for clues. Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake motored in part by the dream that someone would spend their entire life reading it. Does that seem a curious ambition? Does it seem curiouser that Mike might have shared it, even a little?

Amongst the movies he didn’t want to show are three nearly feature length films made in the noughts, the first about genius American poet Susan Howe who Mike was convinced was the love child of Samuel Beckett and a woman whose name I can’t recall. The second and third feature serial shorts collected under the title “Shipwreck Theory.” When his second marriage ended, suddenly and unexpectedly, and he was dispatched from Mobile, he pronounced himself “shipwrecked,” in Mike’s words, “It was experienced as disaster, in the etymological sense. 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.” The blend of personal mythology and up to the minute theory was typical of Mike’s riffing, and this was after a considerable imbibing of fine and not so fine wines on an island squat he named “the camp.” On his unusual CV, which he submitted to me with all the hush hush reluctance of state secrets being passed, his movie work is divided into four sections: 1. Juvenalia, 2. Unreleased Movies, 3. Not Available for Screening, and 4. At A Standstill but Not Without Hope.

One of the things he talked to me about, compulsively, again and again, were the movies he was going to make. His descriptions would be so vivid, so terrifying, so strange, that you felt that you were actually seeing the movie as it rolled out of his mouth, and that having delivered the words, the urgency had some of the air let out of it. Here’s something about the sex film he never made: “Couldn’t I make a sex scene that was actually like sex, that would have the horror, the intimacy, the ecstasy, and the grief that real sex has? Instead of being a show, which is what all sex is in cinema — either an appeal to voyeurism, or a deconstruction of voyeurism. Neither of those has anything to do with actually doing sex. Watching sex is another activity as far as I’m concerned, and one of my most enjoyed ones. But it’s different. It appeals to different parts of the libido, zones of gratification. I can imagine living without doing sex. I can’t imagine living without watching it.”

I think every artist has two families, in Mike’s case, as an orphan foundling, it was at least three. The first mysterious family that went missing, the ones who raised him, and then another family of friends and lovers and artists. And in this family he became for me a kind of father. He was forever urging me to read, well, Moby Dick of course, did we have a conversation that he didn’t at least mention Melville? Melville was of course his father, as someone who was adopted, he felt it was his right to adopt right back, and the man he adopted was someone whose name “Mel-ville,” which means a meeting place of villages, an intersection, an X, was the same as “Cart-mell,” a meeting place of carts, a village in other words, an intersection, an X. Or as Mike put it, via his Melville dad: “the names of all fine authors are fictitious ones.” He was always telling me what movie I should see because they contained moments of what he called “unwatchability,” which was the highest good as far as Mike was concerned. The most important things to see were the things you couldn’t bear to watch. Of course. And this shared heritage, of Melville and Godard movies and Coltrane records that he wanted us all to see were not designed to create a uniform culture so that we could all laugh at the same jokes, instead he hoped they would bring us to our differences. The way we would come together was not to nod in time to the same beat, but to express our unique singularity, each in our own way, like the jazz bands he loved. Here was a different idea of the father, not the one who imposes the rule of law that needs to be followed, but one who insists that you find your own style, your own understanding. As Mike put it, “All art begins with imitation… But at a certain point, someone has to invent rather than just copy. You’ve been making pound cake. Then you start to make another kind of cake. But pretty soon you’re going to have to make coq au vin. And you won’t have a recipe to do it. You have to invent.”

And after he made me read Melville and Shakespeare and Joyce and Vollman and Duras he held out the one, the central tome, the most pitch perfect and necessary and central book in the central library. Needless to say it was about baseball. It was a giant book filled with numbers, and he assured me it was central to my development as a human being. It was a kind of sports ephemeris, a stat geek’s wet dream. It turned out that literature’s holy grail had a batting average, slugging and on base percentages. I tried to get interested in baseball, but rarely made it to the seventh inning stretch.

Mike was a powerful reader. I think everyone has a personal desert island list of great writers, the ones they can’t do without, but who has a list of great readers? Mike was one of the world’s great readers, and it struck me that you never see people reading books on TV. Was it because the act was so private and invisible that it suited him so well? He took on books the way others take on new best friends, there was a mix of joy and responsibility – let’s not take this lightly. Some of his best friends, his most cherished company, were books actually. And how he loved to quote them, from memory, having abandoned the high school theatre’s limelight for the smaller stages of dinner table, kitchen counter, or the front seat of a car.










He was always in conversation with an imaginary friend named Jimmy. Like in this Facebook post from July 2013. “Drinking Barolo in Barolo on your birthday does not suck. Nor does eating risotto tartufo nero w/brodo di vitello and BBQ’d costeletti d’agnello. Deep dish apple tart birthday cake? Doesn’t kill, Jimmy.”

Or this one from October 24, 2012, a coded missive about his beloved tools and their equally beloved names. How he relished and delighted in the names of things. He wrote, “I switched from Japanese water stones to diamond covered steel plates and leather strops. 1907ish Stanley 4 1/2 now produces shavings at .0014″ thickness. That’s honkin’ sharp, Jimmy!”

In our last conversation, spoken in a graveyard hush of a voice, exhausted, he just felt exhausted he said, he was just so tired he said, I want to sleep for a while, and when I’m done sleeping I’m going to go back to sharpening my tools. This was one of his final projects, raised as usual to a slightly larger than life, mythical status, laid out in the plain and complicated language he enjoyed which acted as a kind of drop cloth for the subterranean life of his secret hope: to change the world with a single sentence. There’s a modesty in this declaration of intent around tool sharpening as well, a humble and respectful aspect, not for him the announcement of a heroic undertaking, instead there is a keenness of attention, a commitment to readiness. Let me be ready. The end is near. Let’s sharpen the tools and be ready.

Mike Hoolboom (February 2014)

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