I’ve always had a taste for ultra low-budget science fiction. I don’t mean your average TV episode of Star Trek or Lost in Space, but the real bargain-basement stuff. Z pictures where a couple in a set look out a window, and then there’s a cut to some scratched, stock footage of a nuclear blast – as if it were actually happening a mile away from that window. Or amateur movies made by kids on Super-8 where the young heroes walk through a rubbish dump with handy hardware store gas masks on, as if the apocalypse has happened quite recently, and the characters are struggling for survival in a harsh wilderness.
In these kinds of movies – and I prefer them when they’re being serious, rather than camp – you have to piece the story, and the world of the story, together through the freest and barest sorts of connections from one thing to the next. This very technique – Raymond Durgnat described it as having a story which is just a sketch, a notional scene – is one that pops up in some very sophisticated places, too. Surrealist cinema uses it a lot. In Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí’s famous short film Un chien andalou (1929), there are regular intertitles with phrases like “the next morning”, or “two weeks later”, instantly giving immense narrative significance to the most mundane shot of (say) a person riding a bicycle down the street.
In Raúl Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), there’s an entire, fantastic story-vignette conjured at one point about people who die on a ship and metamorphose into birds circling in the sky and then the birds die and plummet into the water and turn into something else ... but all you actually see, during the telling of this fanciful, magical tale, is just a few misty, dissolving shots of a boat, birds in the air, an empty sky, and water. Yet it’s a rich, poetic event: our imaginations provide all the links and apparitions/disapparitions that make it work.
Canadian experimental director Mike Hoolboom’s Valentine’s Day works in a similar way. I was fortunate enough to meet this artist and see many of his short-to-medium-length films at Melbourne’s Experimenta festival in 1994. One in particular, Kanada (1993), gets recycled somewhat in Valentine’s Day. (Hoolboom is an ecologically-minded artist who recycle and even “retires” certain of his past films – including, possibly, Valentine’s Day itself.) Kanada is about a future war waged within (you guessed it) Canada. Of course, no war scenes are actually recreated, since Hoolboom is definitely someone who works with ultra-low budgets. There are three kinds of scenes: between two women, whose relationship mirrors the violence of the nation; two very ugly, fascistic men who are capitalist war-mongers of some kind; and, most memorably, a bizarre newsreader in a dog mask (Hoolboom himself) reciting outrageously surreal reports of wartime politics.
This guy in a doggy mask comes back in Valentine’s Day, and so do the central lesbian lovers, though this time there’s rather more tenderness and warmth in their relationship. In the abstract, the film narrates a grand dystopian tale of global catastrophe and police crackdown, horrible atrocities occurring on every street corner; but all we see, of course, is just a few people watching TV, or someone in a suit spraying subversive, Situationist-inspired graffiti on a wall.
The really big difference between Valentine’s Day and Hoolboom’s previous shorts is in its degree of stylisation. Hoolboom does wonderful things with big, bold strokes. He uses an agit-prop, Pop Art method, as in the early 1970s films of Jon Jost. The images are simple camera set-ups, but they are often bombarded with lurid, garish colour washes in the lab, or scratched, deformed and bleached in some major way.
Hoolboom, like Ruiz, is a master of poetic and extremely humorous voice-over narration – as his marvellous film Mexico (1992), co-made with Steve Sanguedolce, proved. The music by Earle Peach goes non-stop under everything, like a demented, improvised accompaniment. And the acting in Hoolboom’s films is wild, gestural, physical burlesque, at the extreme end of Brechtian – it’s Bertolt Brecht mixed with Sandra Bernhard, everyone at once screeching neurotic monologues about the myriad daily dysfunctions of sex and the State.
Valentine’s Day isn’t as far out with this style as some of Hoolboom’s other films. For once, you see the actors acting in an almost naturalistic way, in a functional, almost daytime-TV-soap set. The result, for me, of this flirtation with naturalism is a disappointing flatness – it just doesn’t have the energy or consistent inventiveness of his earlier work. Still, it serves as a good introduction to Hoolboom’s remarkable œuvre.
Postscript: I have continued to follow and write about Mike Hoolboom’s prodigious work in subsequent years (eg., his exhibition catalogue Your Face Arrived, Niagara Arts Centre, 2014, downloadable here). I had the pleasure, alongside Cristina Álvarez López, of interviewing him at length in 2014: see here for the English and here for the Spanish translation.
© Adrian Martin June 1995