Interview by Mike Hoolboom (1998)
In 1957, the United States fired the first missile founded on the explosive power of hydrogen. This inaugural launch of the H-bomb proved to have an unexpected fallout. A cadre of state scientists nicknamed the missile “Mike,” and for the next three decades “Mike” would become the most popular first name for North American males. The folklores of naming hold a special fascination for filmmaker Mike Cartmell, whose adopted beginnings have lent a fictional air to his autobiography. In 1984 Cartmell began Narratives of Egypt, a four-part series that deals with the father in Prologue: Infinite Obscure, the son in In the form of the letter “X”, the lover in Cartouche, and the mother in Farrago. Using a speculative etymology, Cartmell “adopts” the American writer Herman Melville as his father, using selected passages to ruminate on death, language and paternity. It is a work that remains unfinished, though he was never at a loss to finish his sentences, which flowed with endless invention whenever we had a chance to speak.
MH: How did you become interested in film?
MC: After high school, I went to Europe and stayed mostly in Paris, where I went to the Cinémathèque every day. They showed five films a day, and the program changed daily. When I came back from Paris, I studied philosophy at the University of Toronto. In the mid-seventies, after finishing our bachelor of arts, Maureen and I went to Buffalo and entered a cultural studies program. A couple of years went by and our marriage ended, so I had to leave because we couldn’t live there separately. And I went insane, so I couldn’t do any work anyway. I don’t know what this has to do with film. In 1973, I got a super-8 camera and shot with much less inhibition than I do now. I had no way of seeing my film; I didn’t have a projector or viewer so I just kept shooting. Later I borrowed some money and bought a Bolex for next to nothing. I certainly wasn’t thinking of myself as a filmmaker, but I thought, well, I can just make still images; I can shoot 4,000 images every roll. But I couldn’t afford to put any film in it. In 1979 I came back to Hamilton from Buffalo and began working at a steel plant, and suddenly I was making piles of money. So I could shoot again. But it never occurred to me to make a film.
MH: What were you shooting?
MC: Self portraits. I think it was because I was crazy, or I’d been crazy. I’d spent a little while in the nutball factory on my own initiative, and as soon as I got there I realized, oh my gawd, why am I here? So I got myself out. I stayed seven days. I read about six Henry James novels in a week, so you can imagine how bad it was. I remember Michelle McLean showing a one-reel 8mm film of a bunch of stuff on a picnic table with the wind blowing. She said, “I really like the way the light is in that.” I thought: How can you take this seriously? How could you have an entire industry devoted to this, to continually talk ,about the way “the light” is? There seemed to be an awful lot of posing in that direction. To be honest, I think there still is. Cinema could be an art form that talks about itself, but I think it’s almost exhausted that moment. I wondered what else you could use the cinema for. Can you do philosophy in writing any more? Who would read it? Nobody reads any more. I don’t mean read literally, I mean read powerfully. I think we’re going through a transformation in dominant communicative paradigms. There are people coming along with powerful viewing skills that animate their thought processes, and it’s got to do with television and movies even though they’re filled mostly with crap.
MH: But people only understand film to the extent that it mimics literature — look at Hollywood. Marshall McLuhan said that each new medium would pick at the corpse of the one which preceded it for its content. So cinema took shape as a book.
MC: I’m suggesting that one day there won’t be any more literature and that if you want to do philosophy, you have to turn to film. Like in Greece, the oral tradition was supplanted by writing. It didn’t happen in a day. So Plato writes in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter that writing is poison to thought; it’s a terrible way to do philosophy. Too bad we can’t talk. But there aren’t enough people to remember it and say it after I’m gone. But at one time there were. How did the Odyssey get passed on? People remembered it and were able to recite it. But our literacy changed the way we remember. Eventually we’ll run out of people who can read something as complex as Ulysses or the Bible.
MH: What does that mean — philosophy?
MC: I’m using the term in the ancient sense where it embraces logic and nature and spirit. It has to do with everything. Not just an esoteric body of thought harboured in a tiny wing of the university, but philosophy as knowing activity, all activity engaged in inventing and exchanging and developing knowledge.
MH: You said once that all art is either paranoid or schizophrenic.
MC: So what does paranoia mean? In what sense would you say that Joyce or Shakespeare were paranoiac? I would say in the sense that everything has meaning. I’m taking Stephen Dedalus’ view of Shakespeare, that “a great artist doesn’t make mistakes.” That’s not my view of a great artist; it’s his. Here’s a guy who would spend two weeks writing one sentence just getting the wording the way he wanted it. Paranoia is the interpretative desire gone wild, and any form of interpretation is paranoid in principle. In any effort to close, to complete the effort of interpretation, paranoia exists. The problem is that there isn’t any closure to the operation. The alternative would be not to care, to engage in interpretation for jouissance. That’s the Barthean or Derridean position — that one’s life, one’s being, isn’t at stake in the interpretative act; that it’s a gesture made among others. That’s why you can introduce chance procedures. Look up all the words in the dictionary that start with the phoneme “phil” and use that to interpret Phil Hoffman’s films, for instance. But you’d only do that because it’s not crucial to know everything. You produce one reading. Paranoia wants control over everything so nothing can harm it [the paranoid subject]. I don’t want to control everything; I want someone else to guide me through it. I’m infantile in that respect.
We live, you could say, in an age in which the dominant technologies of communication are undergoing a radical transformation. The capacity to access knowledge, information and culture through written works has declined in favour of more passive and more audio-visually oriented modes. What are the possibilities opened by these new and popular electronic media? What sort of “writing” would be appropriate for an audio-visual culture? How would the transmission of ideas, information, emotions, aesthetic experiences, take place in this milieu? Is “transmission” the proper metaphor here: would “exchange,” or “engagement,” or “articulation” be more apt? What would be the most useful structural motifs for the production and circulation of “texts” within such a paradigm? These are just a few questions that have only begun to be addressed. In some of his later books (for example, Dissemination, Glas, Truth in Painting, and The Post Card), Derrida elaborates a theory of “writing” proper to the practices of a number of postmodernist artistic (both literary and plastic) texts — a theory which finds inscribed in those texts manifold extensions of the author’s proper name, and obscure details of his or her life. These inscriptions or “signatures” become the clues both to the decipherment of the works (in the sense that phonetic rendering of foreign names on funerary monuments [cartouches] were crucial to Champollion’s eventual decipherment of hieroglyphic writing), and to the extensions of meaning beyond the texts and authors themselves. The central operating principle here is a kind of semiotic, homophonic, etymological, and metamnemonic play, in which the proper name and its variants are subject to a massive dispersal across and beyond the textual field, opening pathways for the interminable (on the part of the reader/viewer) production of meaning and interpretation in opposition to any notion of consumption or closure. Whew! Texts, in this view, are precisely games, ones that are subject only to laws and rules of overflow, of slippage, of over-determination and excess. I believe that the unconscious articulates itself in one’s work. And it does so unconsciously — a fact overlooked by many.
Take someone like Phil Hoffman. To me, it would be stupid to look at Phil’s films and regard the instances of landscape as symptomatic, as pointing to some kind of unconscious relation, that it has to do with the maternal earth body, or something like that. The things that are symptomatic in his film would be the things that Phil doesn’t think are there, that people wouldn’t notice in the film without moving through the work with a particular kind of address, the gaps in the film, the things that don’t systematically crop up because the unconscious is not systematic. So, if there’s a systematic address of the landscape, that’s not where the real nub lies. I think you have to look at the partial and the fragmentary in any work to find out what the work is articulating on the level of the unconscious. I think that stuff is well hidden in any systematic discourse about work or criticism, especially when it’s only achieved the level it has with Canadian avant-garde film, which is very programmatic and preliminary. There’s not a great discourse about avant-garde film, but what there is, is clearly defined and dogmatic. So any work that doesn’t conform to the rubric is not work. It doesn’t count; it isn’t art.
MH: Do you think that matters?
MC: It’s certainly had effects. Not the least of which is the availability of funds for people to continue to make work. That’s the most damaging effect. Many makers haven’t got money to make films because it’s harder to see their work as part of that “tradition.” And yet it seems to me the concept of tradition, the concept of canon, if they have any meaning, have nothing to do with notions of “experimental” or “independent” or “avant-garde.”
MH: But avant-garde film is most often screened in the classroom where a very strong canon and tradition exists. Patricia Gruben’s work goes to universities as an example of Canadian feminist new narrative; David Rimmer’s films serve as an introduction to structuralism; Joyce Wieland is the avant-garde patriot…
MC: But what if the point of the course was not to articulate a tradition, a history, and a canon, but to engage a number of issues with respect to audiovisual art? Today’s university program hasn’t budged since Hegel invented it; it transmits knowledge from the supposed master to the supposed disciple by presenting a canon of object material which is reviewed with students, who then rehearse that review in exactly the same form — the essay. You’re going to run into the problem that things are changing. People’s capacity to think and learn has changed, and I’m not saying degraded. We’re not literary anymore; we’re something else. The fact that we face in universities a generation of students who aren’t literary is a particularly great opportunity for a culture that isn’t based in letters, and film culture is exactly that. Or it has the potential to be exactly that. Where it’s most that is in the avant-garde. The instances where that potential is most developed is by the inventors of cinema. Most of these are in the avant-garde.
MH: What do you mean by inventors?
MC: People who aren’t imitating literature or theatre in cinema. Like Eisenstein or Godard. We’re dealing now with students whose cognitive apparatus isn’t formed by reading but by watching and hearing stuff. And we have to do something about this. We’re going to miss the brilliant people — because the standards by which we evaluate these students don’t have any application anymore. I think students shouldn’t have to buy books but should be made to buy a video camera. And if you take a philosophy class you should be making a philosophy video. Obviously, the institutional inertia against that change is massive, but it’s a historical shift which will take a long time.
MH: What’s the effect on makers?
MC: To isolate them from the institution. It’s far more possible for someone like my son to be able to take a video camera at the age of twenty and do something useful, powerful, and moving than do what I’m about to do again. Go to university to study and write, in the academically sanctioned fashion. If you look within the universities, the people who are doing the most interesting work are violating all of these sanctions. They’re not writing books anymore. They’re writing, but writing has become something else, not transmission of knowledge, but dissemination of writing. So meaning is no longer something that proceeds through a text in a linear fashion to its conclusion. Meaning is something that explodes from a text, in fragments, in pieces. So if I’m the subject reading these texts, I may be interested in taking something here and taking something there. In other words, knowledge becomes something constructed, rather than something that’s available to be transmitted. And isn’t that a lot like…
MC: But even art has been conceived in these terms. This is one of the problems of the avant-garde. There’s an avant-garde that erupts at a certain time that’s radical and distinct, but eventually it’s recuperated and becomes part of a canon and a tradition. So now we can look back and study Dada. Here’s what I always talk about in film production courses. There are basically three steps to making a film: découpage, collage, and montage. Découpage busts everything into bits, then you start to articulate the relation between one bit and a context other than its original because the original context has been lost. Yet there’s a trace of it left in the bit. That’s the collage process. And montage is putting it back together in a form which either has continuity or it doesn’t. So it’s a constructive process; it’s producing something. But the relation is not the phenomenological relation of mediation which comes out of a romantic tradition, which says, oh yes, the photograph is the way I mediate the world to myself. It’s not that at all. Your relation to the world isn’t one of mediation — it’s one which breaks the world apart. Gregory Ulmer is dealing with this. He argues that film techniques should be used to present material in the classroom and receive the work of students. It’ll be ages before that occurs. But maybe not. Look at the kind of changes that have occurred over the past fifteen years. It’s unbelievable. If we don’t blow ourselves up, there may be an equal pace of change. I’m talking about everyone’s daily life changes; I don’t mean the space race. Daily life is about microcomputers of enormous power and everybody’s got ’em. They change the way you think. Computers aren’t literary either. With a computer you can marshal information in ways you could only do with one skill and a dogged determination in the past; namely, going to the library and looking them up and reading them. You can access the Betman Archive on two disks — literally millions of historical photographs. Just think of your desktop publishing program: the way you can articulate text and image on a page, the shape of a page. You can be Mallarmé, but with vaster potential because you can access stuff faster.
MH: What kind of implications has this had for filmmakers?
MC: It’s what I’m thinking about now. One effect is to make me much less productive at the moment. I’m thinking about it. I wish to inscribe some kind of major break, and it’s causing me all kinds of problems personally. In terms of this condition in education, it hasn’t had any kinds of effects because no one’s explored it to any great degree.
MH: What about how our changing technologies are engineering a shift in how we live?
MC: Video has brought about profound structural changes in the way we think, in the way we act toward one another. The VCR is the technology that marks the eighties more than anything else. It’s done two things. It allows for archival retrieval of material. But the main difference is that you can tape everything, and only watch on tape, which Paul Virillio suggests is the only way to watch TV. So instead of watching the news at six, you watch the news at seven, after you’ve taped it, and then you can analyze it. That’s a big move. Think of the power you gain over the news broadcasts and the ways in which events are represented. If you can stop the tape and look again.
MH: It takes you out of that flow which finally operates to erase memory and history. Without the opportunity to position yourself, there’s only the present.
MC: Precisely. TV erases history. It’s why advertising works. If you could look at commercials carefully, they wouldn’t work. They work because you can’t watch them; they just happen to you. It’s like getting a virus. They repeat things in a way so you don’t notice, so eventually you’re conditioned to accept certain propositions that are ridiculous. You know the expression “knowledge is power”? The question is: For whom? The knower? Or the entity that put the knowledge into you? Everybody knows the saying: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” It doesn’t matter whether you buy it or not because you already know it. And you’re right — it has to do with being in that flow. But as soon as you tape everything, you are in charge of the information. You can see how it works. Now what you do with that is another issue. You can make a videotape and be a video artist in Canada, where you decry the use of television ads and their techniques. Or you can use those same techniques to make a commercial about something more worthwhile than shampoo.
MH: But why has that project been taken up so often by video folk and so seldom by filmmakers? Watching avant-garde film you wouldn’t even know media existed in this country.
MC: Video technology has intrinsic retrieval and copying abilities.
MH: But people have shot off screens, used optical printers…
MC: It’s easier in video. It’s exactly the same as the difference between scratch music with turntables and digital sampling. Film is scratch music with turntables — there are certain things you can do which are the same as digital, but they’re just so labour-intensive. And film has another history. Some filmmakers seem reasonably interested in articulating issues in that history — the history of ethnographic cinema, for example. So they’re not interested in media as a general topic, but cinematic media. I was born in a TV era, but I’m a literary person, which is a disadvantage as a filmmaker. Many filmmakers don’t feel like this because all they’re doing is making literature — in their case, audio-visual literature — and my work is too. That to me is its weakness. In other words, it’s not inventing cinema. Now maybe I’m not capable of inventing cinema. I’m obviously vastly less capable than plenty of people. But the gap I notice between myself and some of my students is that I can come up with all kinds of ideas for films, conceptualize what I want to do. They have a great deal of difficulty doing that. Why? Because the way I conceptualize is literary. Right now the only easy way to conceptualize is using literary methods. There may be other ways. In fact, this whole position implies that conceptualization ought to have another form. But one of the things students are good at is taking an idea and then going on to put stuff together. If you can do the découpage, busting up the world, and hand them a bunch of fragments, they can put it together with more grace and ease than I ever could. And that suggests something about the way their minds work. They’ve been advantaged by not reading.
MH: If most avant-garde filmmakers aren’t inventing cinema, what are they doing?
MC: I don’t know. I don’t think that most people aren’t inventing cinema because they can’t, but because it doesn’t occur to them. I think there are lots of people making work in the tradition of avant-garde film. There are others whose practice is enervated by something they’ve read in a book; they’ve embarked in film because of an encounter with theoretical issues they’ve gathered in some non-filmic way. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that work will be bad, though it has great potential to be bad. Influence is a very difficult question. But finally I have to agree with someone like Harold Bloom who feels that, at some point, influence has to be resisted. All art begins with imitation. We all have some reason to start to work in a certain way. Nobody is going to make a film never having seen one. Let’s suppose you’re a woman and you’re interested in feminism generally and feminine écriture in particular. There’s all sorts of material you’ll likely read, there’s conferences you’ll go to, there’s magazines you might look at, and then you go and make a film or video. All that stuff is going to have an influence. It’s going to give you certain aspects of a recipe. The extent to which you follow that recipe will get you in trouble, I think, although you may be successful. It may get some attention. Reviews. Notices. Even for work that isn’t very good. And that may allow the maker to make an advance. And these advances may get strung together, and suddenly there’s a career at stake. If you want to look at things from the point of view of art, then this kind of procedure can’t be good. Yeah, it can be okay as a start. 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.
MH: What do you mean when you say it doesn’t occur to people to invent?
MC: Well, what are the rewards? What are the sorts of parameters that come into play in terms of whether or not a work is successful, is well received? I don’t know that radical difference is one of them. Not radical. I think that particularly in this town — obviously it’s imagined because I seldom go out anymore — but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that in Toronto there’s notions about what is correct practice. Like the depiction of sexuality. It’s bad if this sexuality is heterosexual and male. Lots of men make art that has something to do with feminism. Some of the work I’ve seen seems quite forced; it seems to lack something. I’m not saying that good old heterosexuality is the only way, because much of what feminists complain about in terms of how sexuality is articulated in our culture is exactly right. It’s like Adam and Eve. She’s there for your companionship. For you. Even if we can reject that, and I hope most of us can, there’s still a residue in our culture that’s impossible to avoid. Even women participate in it.
MH: What about the argument that avant-garde film is now, and has traditionally been, a white, male, and middle-class preserve. That it’s racist and sexist by exclusion.
MC: First of all, I think it’s true that it has been that. And to the extent that it remains that, it deserves to be attacked. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a community which could be legitimately conceived as male and white. But at the same time, I don’t think being black and female, or Native and homosexual, automatically warrants greater authenticity. It’s the problem of affirmative action. If only white men can control the field of avant-garde film, then it’s no good. They’ll simply reproduce themselves. This also explains why video is much more issue oriented, or why work by people who aren’t white and male tends to be more issue oriented. Because they have an issue. They have a legitimate issue. In the best of all possible worlds there might be white men and black lesbians doing work about the same kinds of things, and you could look at the work together — at the work, not the makers. But because of the position that people are placed in now, it’s not possible for someone not to have their personal history, sexuality, and race attached to their making. These aspects thoroughly invest people’s work — it’s as true of white men as everyone else. It’s just that white men have tended to be the standard, the norm, which is a problem. It’s a problem of authorship, believing that work is the vision of its maker. This is another thing which I think is changing. It’s just impossible for me, at an intellectual level, to conceive of authors having anything to do with work.
MH: But you suggested earlier that one should read the work as an unconscious expression of its maker.
MC: Not the unconscious of its maker but the unconscious of the work. I think our culture has an unconscious. Inasmuch as anything produced now shares in its culture, it shares in the unconscious of its culture. So the fact that Phil Hoffman’s work is Phil’s doesn’t matter — knowing him might be a disadvantage only because it might lead you to say, well, Phil wouldn’t think that. For example, one of the things that interests me in passing through is that there’s lots of ways in which it articulates what Hegel or Levinas would describe as a Jewish sensibility. But Phil’s not Jewish. I don’t think he’s even knowledgeable about Judaism. But for me, it’s legible in his work. We participate in a range of symbolic structures and elements and materials — the Jewish sensibility, the Hellenic sensibility — and the themes elicited by those sensibilities are often what we stupidly term “the great themes of art.” So statements about the unconscious of a work don’t have anything to do with their maker.
MH: But in an environment in which makers are asking for grants, where reputations and bodies of work are at stake, in distribution catalogues where works are listed beneath the names of the author, how is this non-author position tenable?
MC: Yeah, we still sign. Someone like Derrida, who has done a lot to disrupt traditional notions of the academy and writing, still signs his work. And his books, which aren’t books, are in books! Here’s a prediction: if he doesn’t die, Derrida will make a video, an audio-visual text which will be a philosophical text. He’ll actually be inventing philosophy, not repeating it. He’s done this in a performative way by giving lectures in two voices. All these are jokes, which is one of the things I like about Derrida. He’s got a good sense of humour. When you look back historically on occasions where there have been quite radical ruptures in tradition, it’s most effectively been done by people with a sense of humour, Socrates, for example, not dour old academics.
MH: Is there any point in making avant-garde films now — given its marginality, its inability to see beyond its own formalist history or respond to newer agendas of race, representation, and the media? Given the preponderance of white male hegemony, the absence of critical discourse, the lack of exhibition outlets?
MC: People who make narratives are real filmmakers, and I’m just a joker and you too; we’re just dorks. I haven’t done what I want to do. I know what I’m going to do — it’s to make things and describe them later as not what I want to do. In other words, I’m going to fail or stop entirely. There’s a future in avant-garde film if we begin to understand “the project” differently. You claim there’s an audience out there for work, but they’re uninterested in the kind of modernist shit that’s in the canon. And you’re right. But we’re not going to be supplying them with anything they’ll be interested in unless we change. The deal is, only so many people can be admitted to that canon, and there are people in our midst to make sure we won’t get admitted. One of the difficulties you might have in putting together cohesive programs that don’t have to do with the canon or the author, that violate the codes that organize material, is that a lot of people are at a stage where they don’t really know what to do. They know what they don’t want to do, but not the reverse. I can’t believe I’m the only person not doing anything.
MH: Many have stopped. But, for most, it’s less out of aesthetic confusion than material necessities — it’s just too expensive and too difficult.
MC: That’s always part of it, but at the level of a social unconscious, there are those whose current projects are consistent with their previous projects. They’re building a reputation and a career and a consistent body of work, and they’re getting grants because they’re doing that. There are other people whose next film bears no resemblance to their past work.
MH: That’s considered to be a great failing.
MC: Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? Because it’s not in keeping with the notions of authorship and continuity and tradition that we ascribe to. We may not aspire to these notions in our own practice, but we ascribe to them in the way in which we articulate our practice. If your next film is different in style and aim and goal and content, it’s likely also different in quality. You might make a film to your own mind that’s a success and another that’s a complete catastrophe. If you look historically at other times of rupture, and there haven’t been all that many, this has been pretty usual.
MH: What do you mean by rupture?
MC: A kind of catastrophe that signals a new beginning. It’s a period of more than just change. It means a radical transformation of the way in which cognition and perception take place, the way work is done, technological shifts and changes in relation to language generally. It’s absolutely certain that we’re in one. If you look back, you find that there are artists of all sorts whose entire careers are occasional successes amid massive catastrophes. Most are forgotten. But even those who have survived as the great signals of transition have uneven careers, especially in their formative period — from thirty to forty, sometimes in their youth. For someone like Joyce it happened all at once, early on. But if you look at Joyce, none of his work resembles his previous work. Freud is another example. He didn’t conceive psychoanalysis all at once. He did a lot of stuff that was a total disaster, like his studies on cocaine and hysteria. Even people who may not necessarily think about all the social, technological, historical, or aesthetic issues of the present moment are in tune with them in some respect. Some repress this and continue. Others can’t repress it successfully, though they may not be able to articulate its eruption. They live its eruption, but eventually they may do something radically different that may turn out to be important. I don’t know. It’s like when the angel comes down to tell Adam about how the world was created. The first thing he says is, “I’m going to tell you the story, but I’m going to tell it to you in terms that you can understand. Using words. This will radically distort the truth.” So I’m saying something about what someone like you or me might do, but I’m still talking in terms consistent with the ideology of art making, which is a romantic ideology — the artist as stalwart, intrepid visionary, and white and male for all that, who has a destiny and a vision. Even somebody who is farting around and in a state of disunity may ultimately emerge as a strong maker. It is really difficult to find a way to talk about this in terms that actually address what might be on the other side of this transformation. How long did it take for the oral tradition to be completely supplanted by the literary? Hundreds of years. In fact, there are remnants of the oral tradition that still exist.
MH: So how does one go about allocating funds to artists?
MC: I would rather have three-billion dollars for arts activities in this country than a submarine. We’re getting eight submarines. Why not seven? Do they come in eights? Like hot dog buns? My position would be not to build one nuclear submarine and just throw the money on the street. It would be a special kind of money only good for film — eight-billion dollars on the road all over Canada. Anybody who finds it can use it. Can’t be transferred to dollars, and it’s a capital crime to sell it. Clearly the situation as it exists is bad, not just because there’s not enough money, but the method of dispersing money is bad because the money goes to friends, because juries may have a particular complexion, or no complexion. But the disbursement of money isn’t the problem. Meager though it is, there remains public money available to us which isn’t similarly available in the United States, for instance. I don’t think money is the ,problem. I don’t think the solution is don’t give any money, because then only the best will survive and only the work that has to be made will appear by the people who have to make it. None of that will change the essential problem of transformation. The nature of things is in flux. So it’s always going to be more possible to repeat the same successfully, rather than doing something radically different successfully — up to a point. I’ll bet that there are dozens of powerful filmmakers who have never made a film. They simply wouldn’t go in that direction because the field is so circumscribed by certain codes. A lot of others have stopped. It’s why I stopped. It makes me uncomfortable in ways it shouldn’t — even to go to screenings if I think I’ll have to talk to certain people. If I have to defend something outside the paradigms being presented, I can’t, so I don’t want to go at all. It’s possible now to make that decision. But by the end of the century, it won’t be possible anymore. That person will do it anyway. Right now we’ve got a lot of apocalyptic thinkers in avant-garde film who feel that it’s over, that there are no great filmmakers left — Camper, Elder, etc. But that’s not true.
MH: Why are they saying it?
MC: Because what is happening is that more and more people are unable to continue in the tradition, and yet they’re still unable to develop the new. But they will. We’re also talking about a generational thing. We’re part of a generation that’s been slow to mature in certain respects. I think the fact that many of us lived in terror that we’d be blown up any second has had profound effects. We had all kinds of material abundance and a nurturing environment in terms of goods that’s almost unprecedented. But at the same time, there was this supplemental insecurity. I think it explains why people who are almost forty right now, like me, don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. They have no career, no prospects, no job. They’re like kids. I feel like I’m twenty years old. There are lots of people at loose ends on the threshold of their chronological maturity who are not doing anything. But unlike other times in history, there isn’t any kind of radical outlet for them. You can’t go to Paris like you could in the twenties. You can’t go to the States and drive across the country for a year and write a book. You can’t do this kind of stuff, because it costs too much to live. I’m out of money. I can only stay here till the end of the month. I don’t know what happens next.
MH: You’ve suggested that what happens “next” is the invention of cinema — the creation of an audio-visual text which is no longer content to illustrate literature, but which “makes sense” in a different way.
MC: Ultimately, I think invention will occur in cinema, or the next technological version of cinema. It may occur at the level of avant-garde film or at the level of pedagogy. Maybe someone like Derrida will make a videotape that will create something unseen. Maybe it’ll occur in the organization of family life. Right now this has been reduced to its lowest common denominator on America’s Funniest Home Videos. But there are people around who are recording everything, stuff you wouldn’t put on TV, and sooner or later some orphan after the funeral is going to go through the parental attic and look through thousands of hours of tape and make a life project out of that. It’s going to be unbelievable and it won’t look anything like what we know.
MH: You think it’s going to be unrecognizable?
MC: Is daily life recognizable as narrative? First of all there’s an initial découpage. In the eighties, everyone had VCRs. In the next century, everyone will get cameras which will be the size of your hand with great resolution and digital sound. Maybe you’ll have two or three, one in each hand with one on the top of your head looking backwards, who knows? The point is, there’ll be this ongoing recording. Then twenty years later everyone will die. That’s important. They’ll die and somebody will see this material that they’ve never seen before. Cleaning up. Going through Dad’s shirts. In some cases it’ll be a lot of Funniest Home Video stuff. But sooner or later they’ll come across a psychotic family, a family in disunity and disarray, a family that is the family of the future, a family that doesn’t resemble the family as we know it ideologically. Some kid will get this stuff, and this won’t be a kid plagued by the literary. It’ll be a kid who lives in a different culture, a kid who is totally digital, and this kid will be someone who needs to make art, and this will be the material. What do you usually find in the history of sons and daughters going to the attic? Letters. What could be more literal than letters? But now it’s going to be images and sounds, and this kid is going to make something out of all that. An unbelievable work of mourning, which is what all art is. The reason we do it — grief.
Because we’re always mourning, we always want to make sure that we will be remembered. Making work helps because it remains — archival permanence and all that. It’s a deeply unconscious part of it, individually and culturally. There’s the knowledge we’re going to die. There’s also the threat of total annihilation which makes our culture different than any culture, ever. There may not be anybody left, and that’s a new idea. We must be a culture that’s radically grieving to want to set up the potential to completely annihilate ourselves so that there won’t be anyone to mourn. That’s the radical Other of civilization — nobody to mourn — inasmuch as civilization exists so that those who die will be mourned. That’s why culture is organized. Every moment of culture is the setting in place of memorials and monuments. Certainly art is. When the threat of annihilation is posed precisely by technology, what better way to address an impossible future than with other instruments of high technology. It’s unfortunate that the cinema is so geared to capital; is always making a gesture in the direction of capital. That’s the problem. Why should makers live way below the poverty line all their lives? Maybe making work is always a compromise between money and ambitions. I don’t do anything at all. It may be the highest mode of non-compromise. Silence.
MH: Gregory Markopolous and Robert Beavers used to pursue that end — deciding to screen their work just once a year on an island off the coast of Greece. Attendance by invitation only.
MC: If art could become more private… One of the present taboos has to do with the degree of intimacy in work. It’s usually located in the sexual, but it can be located in other places. One’s anger, for example. Or one’s death. But to take sex as an example — nobody makes a film which simply records sex. Sure, you can send away for home porno tapes made by “amateurs,” but it’s not the same because these people are still performing sex rather than doing it.
MH: What’s the difference?
MC: What they do is constrained by the presence of the camera. Because it’s so unaccustomed, it’s not usual. But what if that presence were not unaccustomed? What if over a long duration, that presence became ubiquitous and thus unobtrusive? Then what kind of decoupage have you got? What kind of fragments have you got to make something out of? Almost unbelievable ones. Couldn’t you do something to achieve it now? Couldn’t we construct a world that we could fragment and make a film out of, which would be that intimate? 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. That’s aterrible thing to say. Only a white male could say that. But someone else might say that’s expressly perverse; this guy must be Artaud-like or something. I don’t know. Maybe one of the defenses of staying at home and refusing to go out is to keep the hope alive. You seem unhappy and I can understand why. But in a way your reporting isn’t real for me, though I believe what you say because I’m in my house and keeping my hope alive — for myself, which, I admit, is not doing you or anyone else any good. But I haven’t abandoned all hope. Sooner or later something will have to be done.
MH: My hope is waning.
MC: But you’re in the arena.
MH: This is my exit from the arena, my parting wave. I thought this book would be a celebration of different people’s attitudes, understandings, and achievements.
MC: Oh, it’s by no means a celebration, unless you think a funeral is a celebration. You’re performing an act of mourning.
MH: That’s what it feels like because everyone says, this thing that you’re after, it’s not there anymore. It’s finished. All we can do is talk about what it was.
MC: You’re attempting to recover the remains as you depart, and then you’re going to monumentalize these remains in some fashion which you hope will be a book. That’s a reasonable and, I think, thoroughly typical endeavour. It’s proper in every sense of the word. At the same time, I would say news of my death may be premature. It may turn out that what has occurred is that a kind of periodization has ended — a period of your development, for example. But something else may happen. Certainly I don’t think there’s any reason to be optimistic. But it’s astonishing how things change. A stupid invention in someone’s garage can completely change the way everybody thinks. And there are garages in which the lights are burning all night.
Originally published in: Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom, 2nd edition; Coach House Press, 2001.