Not simply a nostalgic death-trip into the nooks and crannies of memory, the virtually unknown Jerome Hill’s filmic autobiography represents a filmmaker kindling his impending demise into a reason to forage for new refreshment in the untested future of the imagination. Although beset by illness, he tackles previously unexplored currents of the self in the present, specifically the mind’s capacity to invent, predict, and propose partial and potential futures for itself. More conventional passages as temporary pause points rather than the overall skeletal framework, Hill largely deposes the rulebook for autobiography and, particularly, the almost infernally dull, antiseptic tone of most cinematic biopics. Whereas many biopics devolve into trials by information or an unceasing march of event rather than a parade of exploration or dangerous cinematic interpretation, Film Portrait does not define life by moments lived so much as moments imagined in the life of the mind. Film Portrait is, one might say, overtaken with death, but in rumination on the past and projection into the future, it reenergizes the cinema of the then-present. It is a film as vital and coursing with life as anything the American New Wave young-bloods like Scorsese could muster at the time.
Hill’s film is double-barreled, a wry and wily experiment in motioning toward a kaleidoscopic future, on one hand, and, on the other, not retreading the past but siphoning all of its imaginative potential into teasing out connections in many hues. But Hill’s pen is more a helter-skelter scribble than in-the-lines coloring. Although he shows us many images of his younger self, he does not rest on them nor on film’s capacity to document the past; he defies the obvious and often unquenchable urge to interpret cinema purely as a hermetically sealed window into the past. Instead, Hill throws his past through the gauntlet of his imagination, turning pictures into rubber-bands as he ricochets his images of his own past into one another and enlivens them in a perpetual present.
Any splintering of the film’s structure is not a statement to the film’s incapability to cogently argue a point so much as a statement to the merit of tracking life not as a coherent through-line but as an unstable, ever-excited escapade flying in many different directions, enlivened by many contradictory present-tenses and moments that exist simultaneously as past, present, and future. Hill’s career was ever-adventurous, always excavating new artistic holes and prancing around in many mediums, from painting to music to, of course, film. But even within film, Hill pulls out freeze frames, film negatives, reverse-shots, Eisensteinian montage of opposites, and a general atmosphere of promiscuity with his techniques. Pictures of old may entomb time, preserving a simulacrum of life in suspended animation robbed of temporality or duration. But Hill’s imagination pushes these photos into the throngs of a full swing, hot-tempered adventure in time and space. His playful attitude is inscribed almost immediately in an opening montage where he ponders how he might die with the spirit of free-form foolishness.
It must be said: Film Portrait does not fail to notice time – the film’s diegetic sequences with Hill at work in a film lab manipulating film suggest quite clearly that Hill is aware his attempt to bring these images to life again is all construction, creation. But with its saucy, discourteous attitude toward cause and effect logic, the film nonetheless refuses to submit to linear time. Perhaps inspired by the imminent demise of all physical representation – the fading of photos, the corruption of memory – Hill’s polychromatic (even psychedelic when Hill’s mind’s eye is in fullest bloom) imagery doesn’t reclaim so much as interrupt past memories by wrapping them in the throes of hallucination. His film understands that this is all formal play, but it also argues that formal play – the will to imagine, to create, to tease – is the essence of life. The past is not an imprinted time filed away but active machinery that exerts a push-pull on the present, with memory existing in multiple states of time – past and present – at once. Hill simply pushes back. Since cinema is temporally liminal, visualizing a past yet reintroducing it to a present audience, Hill’s work is not only a portrait of lived experience, but a painting of the mind in perpetual motion, refusing to give up working with the materials of time.
Showing it to a class of mine (ok, it was a discussion section, but cut me some slack), the question of “what it is to document” came up, a verbal twist on the old “Is this a documentary?” chestnut. For many students, only the stills from Hill’s past – not his imaginative exploits with them – counted as “documentation” since they existed in reference to, hemmed in by, placeable past events. They were external simulacrums of pin-pointable actualities, the rest of the film straying from the safe castle of “documentary” and away from actuality into the realm of possibility. While I would love to romantically proclaim that any and all great works of art exist primarily to stray, I’m not comfortable claiming that Film Portrait truly outs itself form the documentary wheelhouse at all. Watching Hill whimsically project his mind into the future to deduce possible alternatives for his demise, one bright student chimed in that the film was documenting not the exterior life of the body but the interior life of the mind unchained. Cinema, in this sense, is always documentary. The difference between fiction and what we refer to as “documentary” is really a reminder that documentation comes in many forms and takes on many subjects, both those of actuality – of existence – and of potentiality – of the restless mind at work.