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Contemplating Suicide

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DETERMINATIONS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Oliver Hockenhull.

Not long into Oliver Hockenhull's film Determinations, following a dense collage of images and sounds, we see a woman in an empty room. She identifies herself as a prostitute, and describes how she has served time in jail for stabbing a man "in his privates." As the sequence progresses, she describes how her foster father had molested and raped her, beginning when she was seven; by the scene's end, we learn that the man she stabbed was her foster father, whom she had sought out for revenge when she was 18.

Although this story is spoken by an actress, it has the ring of truth, and in fact it was taken from the reminiscences of a French woman in the 1950s. Part of the scene's effectiveness comes from the nonlinear way in which it is ordered. We first hear of a repugnant act of violence, and then of another one that occurred years earlier, and only then do we understand that one caused the other. This pattern, of seeking out causal and other connections between different forms of oppression, violence, and despair, is the principle underlying this recent Canadian film, which has its U.S. premiere tonight at Chicago Filmmakers.

Hockenhull bases his film on an actual series of bombings in the early 1980s, carried out by a Vancouver-area group called Direct Action. These five Canadians--two women, three men, all in their 20s--bombed a defense plant, a hydroelectric power substation, and three porno video stores, expressing their opposition to the war machine, to pornographic images of women, and to at least some instances of hydropower. (To many, hydropower is nonpolluting, "clean," but for an extreme environmentalist it is also oppressive--of the river that it dams, of the land that it floods.) The group, which had both leftist and anarchist ties, declared itself against "ecological destruction and human oppression," against "all repressive hierarchies of East and West." In early 1983 they were captured on an isolated wooded road that the police had sealed off in order to arrest them; they were later sentenced to long prison terms.

Not all of these facts are apparent on a first viewing of the film, because Hockenhull's method follows the rules of neither the documentary nor the political diatribe. He does not tell a linear story because to do so would be false to the multiple connections between actions and events in the world. Nor does the film advocate any one method of thinking about causes; it is not pedantic. Instead, the viewer is flooded with a dense clutter of images and sound: scenes shot in a variety of cinematic styles, shots filmed off a television screen, rock and punk-rock music, diverse voices speaking and reading various texts. In one scene, footage of a street prostitute soliciting clients is accompanied by two texts read simultaneously. One describes violent acts against women, the other is a rather poetic and idealized text about love. The viewer is thus forced to make a decision about how to listen to the texts: Which one? Or both? Or as a weave of word-sounds without meaning? One is encouraged to arrive at an independent judgment about the relationships between the texts, even though Hockenhull's sympathy for one of the texts is clear.

It is characteristic of much of the best art of recent years that it contains multiple viewpoints, without necessarily arguing for one over the other. Throughout Determinations, the viewer is asked to assume the active role that such works require. But there is another, almost contradictory effect. The viewer feels assaulted by the sounds and images, as if trapped in a collage-barrage from which there is no escape. Here the film tries to describe, even replicate, the aggressor-victim pattern that Hockenhull sees as informing the relationship between culture and the individual in society.

While some choices concerning right and wrong may be clear, the means for implementing one's ideals are far less obvious. That one of the group's bombings injured--to their professed regret--seven people is one indication of the perils of "direct action." What makes Hockenhull's film so extraordinarily rich is that it combines three different ideas, any one of which would be sufficient for a lesser film, into a richly intersecting weave. We feel the filmmaker's clear condemnation of what he regards as oppression and destruction; the film's editing patterns encourage the viewer to think about cause and effect and evaluate the material from an ethical perspective. And yet stylistically the work is a brooding, poetic meditation on its maker's confusions and despair.

A large part of Determinations is spent recounting some of the ills of the world. The U.S. defense establishment's nuclear overkill and Canada's participation in that is a primary target (the bombed defense plant made cruise-missile parts). A viewer seeing a small portion of the film might be annoyed by its sometimes shrill tone. But as the work progresses, its repetition of facts combined with variations in form and style suggest a film that is far less sure of itself, or of any absolute answers, than one might think at first.

Indeed, at the heart of Determinations I see a despair so profound that I would not hesitate to call it a kind of suicide film, in the great tradition of Christopher MacLaine's The End (1953) and Stan Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night (1958). In these earlier works, the filmmaker looks at the external world and finds in that looking the reason to contemplate his own suicide. Hockenhull is not present in an autobiographical way in his film, but his cinematic style does have some of the tormented quality of the Brakhage and MacLaine works. In The End, which Hockenhull has not seen, we are struck by constant shifts in the film's representational mode. And in Determinations, written texts are presented in an almost bewildering variety of forms. We hear them spoken by a number of different voices, sometimes simultaneously; we also hear sound recorded from TV. We see printed words and sentences, made on a video-titling system and filmed off a video screen, in a variety of different formats. Certain key words, "schizo" and "dead," are privileged texts: they're scratched directly onto the film emulsion.

A similar variety can be found in image styles. Many shots are filmed from broadcast TV, at times presented in ultrarapid montage. The film often alternates between black and white and color. In some scenes, carefully choreographed camera movements are used; others are shot in an improvisational, documentary fashion.

The juxtaposition of two sequences near the film's center illustrates the effect and meaning of this stylistic variety. We first see a man on an aerial tram that bridges a wilderness river. He tells a story of an insomniac so tormented by his condition that he kills himself, only to find that "he still cannot sleep. . . . Insomnia," he says, "persistent thing . . ." At the beginning of this scene, the man is in long shot above the river amid the wooded landscape; at the end, repeated close-ups of his hand on the tram rope create a rhythmic, repetitive trap, also suggesting a possible reference to the suicide by rope at the end of Anticipation of the Night. The sequence that follows is an extremely rapid and assaultive video montage, synced to a loud rock song.

As in the scene of the woman describing her childhood rape, we move from effect--the description of a man in torment--to possible cause: it's suggested, indirectly, that the intrusive cultural noise that surrounds us denies not only a genuine appreciation of nature but any real inner peace. We are all like walking dead; we have killed ourselves, but animated by the endlessly self-duplicating cultural energy that surrounds us, we still cannot sleep.

However dense the skein of specific meanings that Hockenhull elicits from his material, what is most impressive about the film is its overall emotional impact. As in the films of Yvonne Rainer, which Hockenhull admires, personal and public issues are not separated but are presented as inextricably linked. The aggressive collage form and the constant stylistic shifts of Determinations finally lead the viewer to experience a crushing despair. This is the case even when it seems as if those shifts are also producing clear meanings. In the juxtaposition cited above, for example, the viewer can't help but feel bombarded by the color video-montage and its loud music, which have the opposite effect of the black-and-white bridge scene with its quiet story telling. On one level, this difference supports the meaning cited--the noise of the world denies us rest--but on another level, it is just one of many moments in which the stylistic shifts prevent our feeling either a smooth flow or a clear contrast at the point of transition. Instead, the new images and sounds act as if to deny, even obliterate, the previous sequence, almost as if the film were destroying itself. The accretion of such shifts means that we're permitted no consistent sense of physical space. At such transition points, a void opens up; one feels oneself staring into a whirlpool, into which all of the material of the world, now drained of its meaning, is being irretrievably drawn.

The constant shifts deny any feeling of consistency, undercut any possibility of belief. The film's inability to settle on a fixed mode or modes for representing the world evidences an inner nihilism beneath its fundamental, and authentic, commitments. The shifts begin to open, in the viewer's mind, a kind of vacuum in which nothing is possible, in which nothing can live--the vacuum, perhaps, of the world after the holocaust toward which Hockenhull believes we are headed. In the words of one of the film's texts, "At the end of the world . . . figure becomes lost in ground," and fine art is rendered irrelevant.

Herein lies the film's central contradiction: that its dense sound- and image-filled surface, one that appears to be committed to specific beliefs, is really only a vision of a terrible spiritual emptiness, the emptiness of the prison of a culture that seeks to deny all of us our fundamental humanity. But then, the real contemplation of apocalypse that the film attempts must lead in itself to a denial of belief. In the words of another of the film's texts, "The centre is no longer occupied by a political power but by a capacity for complete destruction."

Though Hockenhull has expressed admiration for the natural beauties of British Columbia, where he lives, and though one of Direct Action's bombings was inspired by the notion of undammed, untamed wilderness, nature has only a marginal presence in the film. The wilderness images we do see are either brightly colored, in postcard style, or pale black-and-white. In either case, the viewer has no real sense of contact with the land. When such images appear, a voice on the sound track sometimes says such things as: "It's the whole political society that nauseates." The fact is that Hockenhull has chosen to construct his argument largely in negative terms: he gives us hell, not paradise. The film's form represents the interlocking grids of oppression, the cycles of violence, that threaten in fact to turn our world into a kind of hell.

Among the few "beautiful" images Hockenhull allows himself are shots, spread throughout the film, of women's shadows, often seen moving against a wall. These images are quiet, tender, evocative. They form an important contrast to the scenes of women exploited--they offer a momentary alternative to the film's aggressive noise. Yet in this film's oppressive world, they can exist only as shadows. And in one scene, the shadow is seen against the wall of the U.S. consulate in Vancouver. Another of the film's "beautiful" images is the view of an apparently pristine wilderness. Then we quickly pan down to an isolated road, which is soon followed by images of a map. It seems this road is far from "innocent," and in fact it is the road on which the five activists were captured.

Near the film's end, in one of its more choreographed scenes, a woman reads a text about the history of the arms race. While the woman walks back and forth under a highway viaduct, the text ascribes all the initial arms escalations to the United States and identifies all the Soviet Union's actions as "responses." The camera follows her by moving repeatedly to the left, then right, and sometimes it continues these movements even when she can no longer be seen but is still heard offscreen. The camera's back-and-forth action and reaction are clearly intended as a metaphor for the escalations described in the text. If the film's poetic qualities come largely from the sense that its style generates a self-negating void, perhaps its strongest positive statement is achieved through the negative arguments--the analysis of what is wrong, rather than the construction of an ideal world--of this and other scenes. Hockenhull protests the ways in which oppression and violence perpetuate themselves, in ever-widening spirals. Whether the camera moves to the left or right, whether the cause is the United States or the USSR, is really not the point. The point is that if humanity is to survive--"We will either survive or die as a species" is another text in the film--we must learn to escape the cyclical traps of action and reaction, of the industrial and cultural noise that is increasingly filling our planet, and denying us our selves.

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