Hamilton Babylon is a detailed rendering of a misremembered, if not largely forgotten, niche of Canadian cine-culture. Written by the inexhaustible film historian, preservationist, and experimental filmmaker Stephen Broomer, and alternating between vivid historical reconstruction and close formal and textual analysis, the book illuminates the McMaster Film Board (MFB), a rebellious, student-run production club and screening society based out of Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University.
Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board
(University of Toronto Press, 2016)
Although it would last less than a decade (1966 – 75), the MFB was a fulcrum of activity, disruption, and controversy during its brief existence. This yielded a remarkable twenty-seven films that crossed all genres, including the notorious lost feature, Columbus of Sex (1969), a dual-screen adaptation of the erotic Victorian memoir My Secret Life. Set against the social backdrop of student protest, sexual liberation, emergent youth culture, and revolutionary politics, and initiated at a highpoint of avant-garde art, the MFB’s early struggles with campus respectability, censorship, and authoritarianism became frequent fodder in the student press and attracted national media attention—quickly prompting reorganization and a pivot towards audience-friendly entertainment.
The protagonists of Broomer’s account are an improbable pair: filmmakers John Hofsess, an outsider experimentalist (provisionally admitted to the university as a “special student”) who sought immersive “cinematherapy,” and Ivan Reitman, a shrewd populist and purveyor of frat comedies. During his brief career as a McMaster student, the working-class Hofsess was an outsized contributor to the campus art community. In addition to cofounding the MFB with Peter Rowe and Robin Hilborn, Hofsess served as editor for one issue of the school’s art and literary journal, Muse Quarterly, a volume that featured interviews with Jonas Mekas (by Hofsess) and the Fugs, a review of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and more. Hofsess also had a hand in programming the 1966 McMaster Arts Festival, with such headliners as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, modernist composer Udo Kasemets, and films by Shirley Clarke, Paul Sharits, Ben Van Meter, and Bruce Conner, among others. Hofsess’s breakthrough double-projection film, Palace of Pleasure (1966 – 67), meanwhile, was unlike anything ever produced on film in Canada. A sumptuous amalgam of formalism, politics, poetry, and rock ’n’ roll, it shatters preconceptions of what a Canadian experimental film looks and sounds like (think, for instance, of the disciplined, axiomatic executions of David Rimmer and Michael Snow, the layered lyricism of Joyce Wieland and Jack Chambers, or the landscape-rich personal documentaries of Sheridan College’s Escarpment School).
Broomer’s descriptions of Hofsess’s neglected masterpiece are among the highlights of the book. Consider this passage on his orchestration of color, accent, and shape across synchronized frames:
Color is of primary significance in Palace of Pleasure, but Hofsess does not ascribe rigid color allocations between the two halves of his oblong composition. The binaries of pale and flushed, of drained and saturated, are evened out by an array of moderate color values, purple and pink combining with beige and brown. The kaleidoscopic images that move back and forth from left to right are defined primarily by the dark space that separates each hexagram fragment of re-photographed projection. The hexagrams shift perpetually between color extremities. The pallid or lustrous hues on the left or right screen are conscious and controlled, but each lasts only for a short measure and then collapses, reverts, and circulates, the left and right exchanging, alternating hues, so that the eye is directed to one frame or the other—whether towards one, or away from the other.
Such careful, finely tuned characterization does a double service to the film and to Canadian film scholarship, reviving and bringing back into consideration a work which has been out of circulation for forty years, save for a handful of screenings organized by Broomer in the late 2000s. Thankfully this will soon change with the forthcoming launch of Black Zero, a multimedia publishing label founded by Broomer and fellow Torontonian Cameron Moneo. Their first release, slated for 2017, will feature a trilogy of newly restored MFB productions, including Palace of Pleasure, Rowe’s raucous docu-collage Buffalo Airport Visions (1967), and David Martin’s surrealist narrative To Paint the Park (1968). (Disclosure: this author is consulting on a Black Zero release of Arthur Lipsett’s 1972 film, Strange Codes.)
Prior to Hamilton Babylon, the McMaster Film Board was narrowly remembered as a springboard and footnote to Ivan Reitman’s now-legendary career. In Broomer’s telling, Reitman and his student cohort, including future Hollywood players Dan Goldberg and Eugene Levy, gained control of the financially mismanaged Film Board after its first two tumultuous years and subsequently nullified its radical, countercultural aspirations. (Although, as Broomer points out, these first successors were also in pursuit of the “transformative dimensions of filmmaking” by different means and, like Hofsess, Rowe, et al., “embraced fantasy and the subversion, be it comic or poetic, of reality.”) Usurped before it could fully flourish, the MFB’s founding vision was transformed into a platform for more crowd-pleasing, Hollywood-inspired productions. Notable among these was Reitman’s own first effort, Orientation (1968), an ambitious, thirty-minute satire of freshman life, shot in color, which parodies Hofsess’s 1966 film Redpath 25 alongside other highbrow artistic tropes of the time, while anticipating his later comedy hits like Animal House (1978) and Old School (2003). But Reitman was a capable and forward-thinking administrator as well. Under his direction, the MFB became more transparent and democratic in its operation, enabling greater participation across the student body and thereby fulfilling a teaching purpose years before film production would be formally accepted into academic study.
A tertiary but significant character in Broomer’s chronicle is Hamilton itself, owing in part to its geographical specificity, its mix of provincialism, blue-collar identity, and conservative politics, and its history as Canada’s steel manufacturing capital. Situated midway between Toronto and Buffalo, New York, along the western tip of Lake Ontario, this heavily polluted port continues to be marked by in-between-ness, transience, and banality. As such, it’s the kind of Canadian city, like Winnipeg, London, Ontario, or Regina, Saskatchewan—isolated, off the radar, inexpensive—where regional filmmaking has often thrived. Unsurprisingly, in Hamilton Babylon, it also animates the circumstances of a biased obscenity trial that would result in the court-mandated destruction of Columbus of Sex and the conviction of its producers, Reitman and Goldberg.
As with his reconstruction of the trial, Broomer excels at recovering and reinvigorating fragments of marginal film culture that slip easily through the cracks, or that too quickly pass into lore. Whether recounting an Exploding Plastic Inevitable happening at McMaster, or describing historic avant-garde festivals like Cinethon and Perception ’67, Broomer combines a scholar’s evenhanded empathy and subject expertise with a filmmaker’s intimate knowledge of formal and technical matters. Aficionados of experimental cinema will likely find the book’s middle chapters about student narrative films tedious, as the author strains to trace thematic continuities between the MFB’s initial underground offerings and its later and more conventional dramatic fare. On the other hand, fans of Reitman, Levy, and Goldberg may be baffled at the earnest collective and humanist ambitions of the Film Board’s founders. But regardless of where one’s preferences lie, it’s refreshing to see a neglected and easily dismissed but immense category of motion picture creation—student filmmaking—receive serious attention.
Befitting a book whose title recalls Kenneth Anger’s infamous tale of Hollywood sex and scandal, Hamilton Babylon offers its fair share of fascinating morsels and legends. Though less than salacious, it was nonetheless a delight to learn that Lorne Michaels (then Lorne Lipowitz) and David Cronenberg attended the first meeting of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC), and that Michaels co-curated the multi-day underground film marathon, Cinethon. (Cronenberg, incidentally, appears in two of the MFB’s early films.) At its heart, though, Hamilton Babylon is a compassionate portrait of John Hofsess balanced by a meticulously researched social history of a student filmmaking cadre, one that would produce both famous and unexceptional participants. The field of Canadian media studies could use more books like Hamilton Babylon, deep dives into slender crevices, which extend our understanding of Canada’s quietly robust but under-examined film culture. If Palace of Pleasure had been made in the United States, it almost surely would have status in the canon of groundbreaking expanded cinema. The same could be said for Buffalo Airport Visions vis-à-vis the New American Cinema. However, thanks to Broomer, the McMaster Film Board might someday be a legendary chapter of a national cinema that is woefully short on myth.