Culture  Subverting subversive cinema

Mike Hoolboom compiles conversations on creativity and filmmaking

Vidéographe, a promoter of independent media arts, is a small building sandwiched into a residential block just north of Mont-Royal. It was here, on October 18, in a modest room with only a large projection screen and around 20 chairs, that Mike Hoolboom introduced his book, Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists. The book is a compilation of in-depth dialogues with recognized fringe filmmakers.

At the launch, Hoolboom introduced three of the artists featured in his book, and screened one of their films. Rather than simply drawing upon passages from Practical Dreamers, Hoolboom had a quick conversation with the three filmmakers standing in front of the projection screen. The artists were asked their opinions on issues such as their place in the sphere of filmmaking and the accessibility of audience viewing. Instead of returning to his already published conversations, Hoolboom drew upon the present. In front of the white screen with the filmmakers, Hoolboom projected a new image – one of immediacy.

Practical Dreamers aims to explore the belief that, as Hoolboom explains, “the more personal a work can be, the more universal it becomes.” Many of the fringe films discussed in the book delve into the personal through reappropriation. For instance, one artist spoke about subverting racist Western films by reworking their content, but still using film sets from the originals. He explains that the “Native” canvas is repainted through the formation of a palimpsest – a text which has been reworked many times, but still retains traces of past interpretations. This is one of the fascinating treats often hidden within the lengthy interviews of Hoolboom’s novel.

Many parts of the novel appear like excerpts from a movie artist’s journal, and despite promising a jargon-free reading in the book’s introduction, some anecdotes are tedious asides. Conversations often rotate around subverting a subversive film; this peculiar circularity reflects some of the bewilderment of reading Practical Dreamers. While the detailed makings-of threaten to swallow up the more interesting points of the book, a slow digestion of the conversations proves more fulfilling than sampling the chapters selectively. Practical Dreamers will not satisfy those seeking definitive conclusions; its strength is in capturing an ongoing evolution of filmmaking.

Whether for the cynic or the hopeful, Practical Dreamers refuses to be a pretentious fringe film viewer’s manual. It is not a categorization of “worthy” films that stand in rightful opposition to society-degrading blockbusters; neither is it an underground indie film snapshot. In a conversation with Daniel Cockburn, Hoolboom asks, “Doesn’t your work rely on an audience already hip to art recordings, savvy in the ways of stolen pictures, drunk and drunk again on deconstructive cocktails?” His tone is both earnest and ironic as he subtly questions the legitimacy of the filmmakers’ motives and art.

Jubal Brown also admits that his reason for making movies might be “to talk to other videomakers…or maybe it’s directed bitterly at a lack of audience.” Emily Vey Duke avoids the stigma of intellectualism by finding new avenues to transform Nietzsche quotes from affected to endearing – by making animals her film stars. She muses, “Imagine how irritating it would be if Cooper and I had performed the dialogue between the otter and the muskrat…where one of them quotes Nietzche to the other. It would have been insufferably pretentious.”

Hoolboom’s book, like the movies he investigates, is not a spoon-fed, time-condensing read. It is a behind-the-scenes guidebook that is far from user-friendly. This book begs its reader to follow the practice that it preaches: reading Practical Dreamers requires stepping into a time vacuum where any definite product is sacrificed for the artistic process. While certain parts are striking, others tend to form a narrative lull. Although Practical Dreamers sometimes lulls its reader to sleep, it is a sleep of dreams. The conversations are a probing exposé into the dreams of filmmakers, and Hoolboom is one hell of a dream interpreter.

Some of the artists featured in Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists are featured on the author’s web site, Practical Dreamers is available for $29.95 from Coach House Books.