John Hofsess Palace of Pleasure
In 1967, Canadian filmmaker John Hofsess published a manifesto advocating for a therapeutic film form. In “Towards a New Voluptuary,” Hofsess declared his belief in the power of cinema to foment hitherto repressed impulses, that cinema could contain an aesthetic, sensual force which would push its witness into an ecstatic, celebratory, Dionysian state. It could do away with the prisons of societal expectation and conformity, and its witness could seek through it a form of sensual emancipation. Hofsess described his ideal subject as disaffected youth, seeking refuge in popular forms of escape, such as drugs and promiscuity, that he regarded as false and superficial syntheses of communal love and acceptance. He believed that, through his therapeutic film form, individuals could achieve an intellectual and emotional freedom that had been denied them by the constraints of society as it is, and that they could, by their newfound will to resistance, begin to form the society that might be. Such a metamorphosis could be achieved by way of the underground movie.1
Hofsess believed that cinema was a tool to arouse sensibilities, that it had the potential to be persuasive (in its propagandist or commercial mode), confrontational (to provoke action), totally flattened out and made graphic (in durational and abstract films), or any variation or combination of such modes. In his manifesto, Hofsess wrote critically on the films of Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger, accusing them of serving only to “strengthen existing defence mechanisms,” and “creating so much anxiety in the audience that to alleviate the anxiety, they must forcefully reject the film.”2 Hofsess believed mistakenly that Smith and Anger were attempting to persuade their audience and failing because their work could not invite in those who were already steeled against them. Rather than recognize these films as reflections of the world of outcasts from which they came, Hofsess understood them as works that, like his, bore a crusade to better the world, and he wanted a different rhetorical model. He wanted to make a film that mixed calming and beautiful images with the dull and abrasive, and, unlike Smith and Anger, he wrote as a messenger of a new order, as the world’s first ‘cinema-therapist’. His vision for such treatment was to make a film across two projections, thrown next to each other, in which a series of events play out in contrast to abstract forms and images achieved by kaleidoscopes, television news footage of the War in Vietnam, motion blurs, photographic negative, and psychedelic colour effects.
The film was titled Palace of Pleasure. Intended as a trilogy, only two parts were completed, Redpath 25 (8 minutes) and Black Zero (30 minutes).3 In Redpath 25, a young woman (Patricia Murphy) has a fantasy encounter with a man (Norman Walker) who she literally unwraps from behind a foil screen. On the left projection, they caress each other in an environment of flowers, foil, and coloured lights, images of ferris wheels and rapid motion blurs interrupt, and on the right projection, television news scenes from the Vietnam War play out, cloaked in a pale blue light. In Black Zero, a series of silent, dramatic scenes play out: a young couple (David Martin and Michaele-Sue Goldblatt) walk through a park; they talk, cry, and fight; a group of youths sit around a table, preparing for a ritual suicide; and three people lay in a bed, one man deeply tormented while the other two, a man and a woman, have sex. Throughout, these scenes are interrupted by kaleidoscopic rephotograph and other abstract images, as well as book and album jackets, and magazine advertisements. The various contents cross both left and right projections. On the soundtrack, contemporaneous rock music plays — the Who, the Velvet Underground, the Mothers of Invention, Sandy Bull — and throughout Black Zero, the characters appear to enact poems by Leonard Cohen, read by Cohen on the soundtrack. The film ends with the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” playing while the images gather intensity, culminating in a freeze-frame of a woman. Once this image has cut to black, in total darkness, the music continues for two minutes, cutting out suddenly on a rising wave of feedback.
With Palace of Pleasure, authorship is in willful crisis, even surrender. It is a communal film made under the rubric of the filmmaker’s ideologies, but the social organization of the film emerges as its overwhelming characteristic. It eschews the auteur sensibility that largely defined the American underground, resonating instead with the smaller margin of those participatory films where authorship is a confluence of ideas shared between the filmmaker and participants (the films of the Kuchar Brothers, some by Kenneth Anger, Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy). In this sense, it is the truest portrait one could find of its social caste, in this case, young Canadian intellectual misfits — it is a film of awkward youths, cast in coloured lights, staging erotic, violent, or domestic scenes in contrast to kaleidoscopic distortions. Hofsess’ role in this is not so much to direct or control the resulting chaos, but to embrace it. Though the film bears his ideology, it is too improvisatory to be editorial and too free-associative to be prescriptive; its structure instead nudges in the direction of Hofsess’s therapeutic form. To this end, he employs a number of strategies: the use of cameraless techniques (bleach and etching) to express what Stan Brakhage had called “closed eye vision”, reaching beyond the limits of vision; the use of appropriated images and sounds of the era to allow scenes to exist within a normalcy that was local to the maker and cast, giving a dailyness to its confrontational events and its bizarre illusions; the use of lights to give figures blue and red glows, manifesting the visible energies that Wilhelm Reich believed to be signifiers of neurosis; and, most importantly, the use of dual projection, which in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) anticipated the totalizing indifference of surveillance, but in Palace of Pleasure ties these scenes of love, death, and betrayal to Marshall McLuhan’s humanistic faith in the emergence of a new tribe. Such a tribe might gather around experiences dense in sensuality and meaning, such as Palace's the polysemic, sensorially-rich dual projections. While Hofsess owed admitted debts to Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, and Paul Goodman, the film’s conflict is akin to the ideas and confrontational practices of R.D. Laing, whose Self and Others (1961) offered a vision of normality akin to what had earlier been Laing’s neurotic case-type, individuals struggling with social expectation and identity. From such writings, Hofsess accepted that the preservation of socially palatable, consensually agreed-upon identities was a widespread neurosis, general to mankind and prime for treatment.
The film was never completed. John Hofsess travelled to Chicago and attempted to finish it there, with a third part, titled Resurrection of the Body, named after a chapter from Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body. The trilogy was abandoned in late 1968, as Hofsess prepared to make an altogether new film, Columbus of Sex, an experimental adaptation of the pseudonymous Victorian author Walter’s pornographic autobiography My Secret Life. When completed, Columbus of Sex would lead to the arrest and conviction of its producers. It is believed to no longer exist.4 It would be Hofsess’s final film.
Palace of Pleasure presents several practical challenges to its preservation, most significantly in its lack of a synchronization point. When originally screened, the projectors would be turned on one after the other, lined up roughly at the head of each reel. This casual approach to synchronization led me to the conclusion that the necessity of a rigid sync-point in digital restoration of the work, as a 2.66:1 diptych, defeats an essential, if minor, characteristic of the original work. To address this, I made a number of versions of the film which feature a variety of synchronization points, of which one John Hofsess identified as his preferred version prior to his death in 2016. Another significant challenge is in the film’s available materials; no pre-print materials appear to exist for the film, some of which were left with the film’s original lab in Toronto, others left with a lab in Chicago, both of which have since closed; still more materials were retained by Hofsess for several decades before he discarded them in the late 1990s. The only existing materials for this work are one complete print and one partial print (a print being two reels of roughly 1400’). The definitive version of the film was made from the complete print, which had belonged to the Canadian Film Institute until it was donated to the National Archives of Canada. The other print is a single screen, donated by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, which appears to have discarded the other screen, presuming it to be a duplicate. I have created an alternative version of the film that substitutes this screen, as its editing differs slightly from that of the definitive version.
Palace of Pleasure had not been seen in 40 years upon our first restoration’s premiere at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2008, and when it had been mentioned admiringly, it was as a distant, likely lost film (in writings by R. Bruce Elder, Peter Morris, Wheeler Winston Dixon). In its time, it received admiring praise from prominent Canadian critics such as Clyde Gilmour and Peter Morris, and American critics such as Gene Youngblood, Jonas Mekas, and Roger Ebert, but in the years after it was withdrawn from circulation, it, like many other films, failed to find a second life as canon, and it was never available for critical reevaluation. Now that the film has been recovered, the success and failure of its therapeutic intentions is once again open for debate. Such difficult works demand a film culture that engages in debate, critical evaluation, discussion, processes that the underground has drifted away from. Ironically, the film also bears such power as to deny analysis and discussion, for in response to its final minutes of deafening electric hum in total darkness, what is left to say?
The Palace of Pleasure was an ideal, a metaphor for enlightenment, an interior castle. John Hofsess believed in filmmaking as a social experience, and as an emotional and ideological exercise. He believed in filmgoing as an opportunity for transformation, growth, of reckoning and catharsis. To enter this new realm, of sensual immersion and emancipation from suffering, was an impossible ideal for him. The film serves as a testament to the ambitions of its times, when cinema could be reimagined as something that could contort and change with us, reshaped beyond its apparent boundaries, to be transformed and to transform, rather than merely reflect the world, to break down illusions rather than merely emit them. At its first screening, a critic described it as a seance. With time, Palace of Pleasure has come to summon more ghosts, to offer wisdom by its innocence, and to remind of the worth of healing ambitions in art. It is cinema as ritual — a revival of the Dionysian Mysteries. By this, the signs of its times have become eternal.
Thanks to Patricia Murphy and Rob Fothergill, who gave the occasion for this reflection when we watched the film together on December 29, 2016. For Murphy, star of the film and a significant community-builder in Canada’s underground film scene of the 1960s, it was her first time seeing it. Fothergill, founder of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, first programmed the film at the 1967 Cinecity Cinethon and has supported its restoration by his generous attention and vivid recollections. The film will be released on blu-ray disc in June 2017 to mark the 50th Anniversary of its premiere, by Black Zero (blackzero.ca).
1This conclusion, that cinema could impact the organism, was a natural one in an era of films with suspicious aesthetic motives and jarring results, through stroboscopic films such as Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960), Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966).
2 John Hofsess, “Towards a New Voluptuary,” Take One, April 1967, 9.
3Redpath 25 takes its name from the combination of the Redpath Sugar Company and the categorical name for acid, LSD-25. Black Zero takes its name from a very different film-performance made by American artist Aldo Tambellini in 1965, in the same era as his pioneering Black Film Series.
4 The production and trial of Columbus of Sex are detailed extensively in my book Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board (University of Toronto Press, 2016). I am presently preparing a speculative reconstruction of it from surviving footage.