Self Portrait Taking Stock

72 minutes, 1992

Still from Self Portrait Taking Stock, 1992

Still from Self Portrait Taking Stock, 1992

Credits:

Written, directed, narrated, and original music: Gary Popovich

Produced by Lisa Freeman and Gary Popovich

Production Associate: Kieran Mahon

Camera: Gary Popovich and friends

Hand Processing and Toning: Gary Popovich

Sound Recording: Glenn Howard, Gary Popovich, Randall Smith

Sound Montages: Gary Popovich and Randall Smith

Optical Printing: Kieran Mahon and Gary Popovich

Electro-Acoustic Compositions: Randall Smith

Production Assistance: Lisa Miles, Mark Miller, Steve Sanguedolce

Premiered at TIFF 1992

Self Portrait by one of the brave steering clear of mainstream

Experimental film is a labor of love. So when Gary Popovich comes to town and talks about his work tonight, give him some credit. With no money, no support and no recognition, Popovich and other experimental filmmakers move forward for their love of the medium. While we hear little about them, their work is essential. They push the envelope without worry about “audience”. It was the experimental filmmakers who essentially invented such commonplace techniques as montage, jump cuts, rear projection, double exposure and optical printing. The establishment film community borrows constantly from the pool of artists who dream up different ways of seeing—especially in music videos. In Self Portrait Taking Stock, Toronto filmmaker Popovich glues together the giant puzzle of the Canadian identity with simple editing tape—and it’s great. Popovich’s entire effects reservoir lies in the optical printer, and he uses it beautifully, intercutting family home movies with super-fast sound bites stolen from TV. From little Gary’s first guitar, we cut to the macrocosm of the nation’s fate: we see footage of Meech Lake, Bob Rae’s election—heck, even Bill Vanderfantastic. What does it all mean? I have no idea. But I do know how I felt, and that was everything from truly Canadian, to voyeuristic, to completely high. And really, that’s about all you can ask of experimental film.

Katherine Monk, Vancouver Sun, 1994

More than words

Try swallowing this in 72 minutes.

-An autobiography that stretches from childhood on the commercial motel strip of Niagara Falls to an adulthood of scraping together a living as a relatively obscure filmmaker in Toronto.

-A caves to skyscrapers history of humanity.

-Canada’s unity crisis played out as a dragging hockey game while the USA looms large on a TV screen.

-All this and more explained through overlapping images of politicians and pop stars, psychedelic explosions of colour, home movies and a soundtrack pasting together hundreds of snippets of conversation.

They are all encompassed in Self Portrait Taking Stock, a Festival of Festivals feature film that flips past so many different thoughts, feelings and images, it defies easy description. Even the director, who assembled it, Niagara Falls-born Gary Popovich has a hard time putting it into words. “I’ve been thinking about this thing for seven years, and now to sit down and try to talk about it for a couple of hours or whatever is kind of difficult, said Popovich, 36, after screening the 72-minute film for reporters at the festival, “because the whole film is a sensory kind of trip…If a lot of things are happening and you feel like you’ve been thrown into the water without a life preserver, then I think it’s because life is like that. Sometimes you don’t know where you are or what to think or how to feel.”

Labelled throughout his 10 years of making movies as an “experimental” filmmaker—a visual poet dedicated to driving his films with pure emotion instead of conventional plots and characters of mainstream films—Popovich has frequently fixed his obsessions and intimate history on celluloid. Never has he gone as far as he does in Self Portrait Taking Stock, a film more than twice as long as any of his previous projects.

Self Portrait Taking Stock flickers at a brain’s pace. It’s like a catalogue of fleeting thoughts—all those flashing sounds and pictures seem to slip by too quickly to be remembered, but after a while they begin to add up to something. As a self-portrait, the film defines Popovich’s experiences as a Canadian, and as a Canadian artist. With his frequent appearances on screen, as a child in home movies shot by his parents and as a budding singer-songwriter in film clips from the past year, Popovich also treads dangerously close to lapsing from self-portrait to self-indulgence. The saving grace of Self Portrait Taking Stock is that those home-movie images of Christmas morning and a summer at the beach are generic enough to strike a chord with any middle-class child of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

“The last couple of generations grew up in home movies, “explained Popovich, who has evolved from the hammy, clean-cut little kid of the home movies into an unruly looking character. “Before that, nobody was really shooting that kind of stuff…We’ve grown up in the movies. We’ve grown up being able to see ourselves as kids, and seeing these family events recorded.

“For me, it was something to deal with…it opened a way from self-indulgence toward something that would reach out to other people by showing some of the things that formed us. You see me with certain (Christmas) gifts, like the (toy) guns. The boy has the guns; the girl has the vacuum cleaner. These things are early parts of our formation, that make us who we are. They’re gender-formative kinds of events.”

Such concern surfaces in Self Portrait Taking Stock’s opening 13 minutes, a silent collage subtitled Archaeology of Memory. The collage begins simply as scratched film resembling cave drawings and hieroglyphics, moves to a discovery of light, energy and sexuality, and eventually reaches such childhood touchstones as Popovich receiving a Kenner Give-a-Show projector for Christmas.

“It was a plastic projector that had a cartridge that you fit in, then you would crank it,” he recalled. “There were Popeye films, Mickey Mouse films, Disney stuff and everything. I used to put on screenings for neighborhood kids and charge them a nickel. I was a bit of an entrepreneur when I was seven or eight.

“I grew up in Uncle Sam’s, the hotel. We had a stairwell, a carpeted stairwell, and the kids would sit on the stairs and I would project against the wall. It was like a cinema, almost.”

A lifetime of film that followed those homemade matinees went into Self Portrait Taking Stock’s bursting second chapter. Popovich sorted through 200 hours of sound recordings and 30 hours of film to come up with a self-portrait that moved beyond mere self-indulgence. While slowly working on the film, Popovich became obsessed with the country’s unity crisis to the point where he was imposing on friends to tape The National on their VCR’s (he didn’t have a TV) so he could get the latest news from Meech Lake.

Suddenly Brian Mulroney had a prominent role in the film.

“It just seemed like bullshit to me,” Popovich fumed. “I hated the manipulation, and I felt there was nobody I could really relate to in all of that. We were going through some kind of a crisis and it needed some kind of healing as well. I knew that this was going to start being part of the film, because at that point the film was breaking out of being a self-portrait of just me and what I was feeling and I was thinking of taking into account everything that was going on around me as well.”

Speaking over televised images of the Prime Minister and Premiers, Popovich describes the debate as if it were Hockey Night in Canada (“…the referee has awarded the goal to Jean Chretien, saying it ricocheted off his skate and went in…”). Meech Lake moved Popovich, who was tooling around with a guitar and jamming with filmmaker friends, to write folk and pop songs for the film. In one sequence, he sings a Canadian-American relations lesson while a puppet-like Mulroney sways arm-in-arm with a living, breathing representation of the Stars and Stripes banner.

The Foster Hewitt and Phil Ochs impressions are all very funny at first. Then, like the crisis itself, the unity play-by-play becomes tiresome and limp. The songs are a little more painful. The sports metaphors cut further, as Popovich takes note of how the Canadian public’s shift from hockey to baseball parallels relations between the two countries. A battle for the puck becomes a flight for acceptance waged by experimental filmmakers and the mainstream (“…everybody was keen on scoring goals and being able to go home and tell everybody about it…”).

In Self Portrait’s flood of pictures, Oscar statuettes pop up as a joke (filmmakers covet them, but do they really represent excellence?). And that most admired of American anti-heroes, Batman, puts in an appearance while revered Canadian director Norman Jewison talks about the state of the northern arts. 

If anything, Self Portrait Taking Stock reveals Popovich—patriotic to the point where he rewrote O Canada tongue in cheek and fit it over the closing titles of his film—as an unabashedly Canadian filmmaker. Whether he’s more than an outcast experimental Canadian filmmaker will be seen in festival audiences’ reaction to his work. 

“I don’t know how experimental this is,” he said. “It’s not a structural film, it’s not a minimalist film. It sort of incorporates all kinds of styles and forms and everything filtered through me. I just want to call myself a filmmaker now. I further marginalize myself by calling myself an experimental filmmaker, and I’m not making films to marginalize myself. I think you make a film in order to show to people and share it with people. Hopefully, people will feel something when they watch it, and it can relate to them and their lives…That’s all that matters now—that there’s a meaningful experience coming out of it.” 

Sean Condon, St. Catharine’s Standard, 1992


Thanks To: Christine Allan, Tim Allan, Robert Allen, Michael Balser, Valerie Buhagiar, Paul Couillard, Robin Eecloo, Elana Evans, Jane Evans, Ann Marie Fleming, Claude Forget, Greg Garnett, Werner Hemp, Paul Hemrend, Philip Hoffman, Mike Hoolboom, Richard Kerr, Jolande Klok, Richard Klok, Nancy Kuusela, Denis LaPlante, Sylvain L’Esperance, Karen Lipinski, Bruce McDonald, Gwen McGregor, Ton Maas, Annette Mangaard, Celine Martel, Paul Matthews, Claude Ouellet, Beth Pett, Colin Pett, Popovich family, John Powers, Ian Reid, Ed Rich, Cynthia Roberts, Shawn Roberge, Annellie Rose Samuel, Martine Sauvageau, Susan Smith, Lisa Steele, Barbara Sternberg, Dragan Stojanovic, Tom Thibault, Ignace Verlaan, Jane Wright, Alan Zweig

Special Thanks To: Chris Evans, Jim Evans, Peter Harcourt, Louise Lebeau, Jeffrey Paull, Michael Snow

Funding: Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, National Film Board of Canada, Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT)