John Hofsess: Man in Pieces

This article was first published in Hamilton Arts & Letters 9.1 in 2016. My thanks to Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella.

Contact sheet of John Hofsess, photographs by Arnaud Maggs. 1976.

Contact sheet of John Hofsess, photographs by Arnaud Maggs. 1976.

John Hofsess was born in 1938 in Hamilton, Ontario, the single child to his mother Gladys, and a largely absent father. He was born Canadian in the decades immediately preceding the nation’s centenary, an era when his people, still wrestling out from a colonial heritage, were awaiting self-definition. Canada was further inhibited by its nearness to America, that mythic nation to the south where independence had been captured rather than gifted. John Hofsess was born into a harsh and impoverished life with few prospects beyond its own brutal circulation. By Hofsess’s own telling, his early life was marked by poverty, abuse, and rebellion, but the facts of it, gathered out of articles and letters that he wrote between 1962 and 1991, give conflicting accounts of his family life and his social experiences. Hofsess learned early in his life to mythologize himself, to accentuate his trials, to show and to command empathy, in order to escape the difficulties of the life into which he was born.
    By his accounts, he left home as a teenager to live on his own in Toronto in the 1950s, a life he later characterized as that of a ‘thug’, before returning in order to care for his increasingly infirm parents. By the late 1950s, back in Hamilton, he was feeling the restrictions of a working class Canadian life in an era increasingly marked by optimism, social mobility, and hope. By a combination of chance and determination to change his life, John Hofsess arrived at McMaster University in the early 1960s, first as a special student with a precarious conditional standing, and later as a non-student.
    At McMaster, many of his peers and professors found much to admire in Hofsess — his brilliant, precocious development, his creativity, and in time, his dedication to the greater causes that he would acclaim. Others, in both the student body and administration, met him with an immediate disdain. Among his enemies on campus was the Dean, who resented the faculty’s insistence that Hofsess be admitted. Soon enough, Hofsess was expelled. He continued to attend classes, regardless, and also continued to participate in student union activities, writing for the campus newspaper, and later revamping and editing the campus literary magazine, the Muse Quarterly. He was vilified as an outsider by conservative and elite forces at McMaster, but in the campus art community, he found a group of likeminded students who were interested in journalism, poetry, visual art, music, and cinema. In Patricia Murphy, an active presence in the student art community and an organizer of both the McMaster Art Festival and the McMaster Film Society, he found a muse and inspiration, as well as a hard-working and insightful collaborator. Through the course of 1965 and ’66, Hofsess and Murphy developed an interest in the New American Cinema, the American underground film movement being championed by poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas in New York City. They travelled to New York to meet Mekas and to see such films at the New York Filmmakers Co-operative. As a result of this experience, as well as the encouragement of Vancouver filmmaker Larry Kent and Quebecois filmmaker Claude Jutra, they began to see personal filmmaking as a new and, in Canada, a largely unprecedented possibility. Hofsess began to make films in the winter term of 1965, enlisting his peers in what would become a student filmmaking society, the McMaster Film Board.
    Hofsess also came to see, by his readings in Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and Norman O. Brown, among others, that society was in need of a widespread psychological and emotional emancipation. In the films that Mekas had shown him, Hofsess had seen ways of organizing experience that were truer to the good life that he sought, a life of ecstatic sensation, of love and liberation, without the fear, torment, and hopelessness that he had come of age through. He believed that he could be a messenger of the senses, a guide on a freer path. This was what underground filmmaking came to represent to him, but as he began to put these ideas into form, both in his films and his writings, they also fostered in him a social philosophy that he pursued through the remainder of his life. The film that he was making, The Palace of Pleasure (1967), was conceived to be shown in double-projection, side-by-side, with each projector casting scenes that ranged from domestic scenes of a couple fighting, bored, and in love; a ritual sacrifice; two men and a woman in bed together (joining in tandem to the sound of Leonard Cohen reading his poem, “You Have the Lovers”); and kaleidoscopic scenes of blazing lights and shifting shapes. Palace of Pleasurewas a powerful, sensual experience, unprecedented in Canadian cinema, one which combined light, colour, and pattern to bear on love, alienation, and suffering. When it was released, Mekas called it “a vital part of the new cinema,” and the Toronto Telegram’s Clyde Gilmour wrote that it “haunts the mind long after the screen has darkened.” In anticipation of the film’s release, Hofsess wrote a manifesto on contemporary life, the psyche, and society in which he concluded, “man is a process and the truth is in flux.” Through this art he was putting himself together, a process of becoming.
    John Hofsess’s work with the McMaster Film Board, as founder, visionary, and chief filmmaker for its first years, was under scrutiny from the university administration who resented his presence on campus, and from the Toronto vice squad who became aware of overt sexual content in the rushes of his films and seized them. This would become a familiar scene in Hofsess’s life, and because of his messianic nature, he was delighted to be subject to these little crucifixions. By the time that he was expelled from campus, Hofsess had already made sufficient connections in the world of underground film to receive a job with Aardvark, an American underground film distributor in Chicago. He lived there for a year, working on an unfinished final sequence for the Palace of Pleasure titled Resurrection of the Body. When he returned to Canada, Hofsess began to work on a film that dealt with the Penetanguishene mental hospital (best known as a hospital for the criminally insane), where psychedelic treatments were being enforced, using combinations of psychedelic cocktails and sense deprivation. He planned to call his film Man in Pieces.
    Within a year, his project had been derailed by the suspicions of hospital staff who were surprised that he had donated books to the hospital library that included the writings of the Marquis de Sade. He found himself working instead on a long-form film adaptation of the Victorian-era pornographic autobiography My Secret Life, by the pseudonymous Walter, a notorious illustration of the lust underlying the Victorian aristocracy’s veneer of respectability. Like Palace of Pleasure, this film, titled The Columbus of Sex, was conceived for double-projection, and was in the style of the underground film.

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    At its premiere on the McMaster campus, the Hamilton vice squad arrived, seized the film, and even seized the projectors. Hofsess and his producers were put on trial for obscenity, though the charges against Hofsess were dropped on a technicality, effectively writing him out of his own trial. The film’s producers, Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg, were ultimately found guilty, and The Columbus of Sex is believed to have been destroyed. Hofsess announced that he was compiling a book of commentary on the trial, along with excerpts from the trial transcripts, titled The Night They Raided McMaster. He also announced that he would be making a documentary about the criminal justice system titled Man in Pieces. Neither the book nor the documentary were released. 
    Through the course of this trial, Hofsess had become increasingly invested in critical writing, and began to see himself more as a film critic than as a filmmaker. He was an extraordinary writer, much of his work marked by a unique voice that he had developed in his 20s while immersed in a strange collision of post-Freudian aesthetic philosophy and Victorian romanticism. Hofsess took up the post of film critic at Maclean’s Magazine, one of the most prominent and stable positions a critic could have at that time in Canada, and there he would remain for five years. He also made one final stab at filmmaking, with a narrative film titled Tenderness, a confessional autobiography which was to star a pair of American porn actors and himself. He began to burn his bridges to the film world when he wrote an article confronting ridicule of his project gathered by word of mouth and eavesdropping. By the mid-1970s, he was shifting away from film criticism and towards literary and social criticism.
    As a journalist, Hofsess took up causes, and those causes often transformed him. He made tremendous efforts fighting for a variety of causes that were unpopular in their time - modern art, independent cinema, gay rights. Hofsess had always sought some sense of fellowship among other outsiders, and he struggled more than most people in reconciling that with his need for assent, which haunted him throughout his life. In the years following the collapse of his unproduced film Tenderness and his departure from Maclean’s, a series of episodes altered Hofsess’s newfound career as a professional writer. In addition to his works of film and literary criticism, as a freelance film critic and as a regular contributor of book reviews and author profiles to Books in Canada, he also began to write human interest stories with an activist bent. In the late 1970s, he was taken with the plight of an Ontario Racing Commission steward, John Damien, who had been dismissed from his post after being exposed as a homosexual. Hofsess, who had recently begun an affiliation with Toronto’s gay radical community and had embraced his own homosexuality, started to write articles on Damien.
    The organizers of the Body Politic, a controversial Canadian gay radical magazine, were receptive to Hofsess’s contributions, even though he had the profile of a mainstream liberal journalist. But he would soon alienate this community, and simultaneously compromise his relations in the country’s liberal media, in his attempts to stage a celebrity-endorsed telethon in support of John Damien. His proposal was to have a fundraising telethon for John Damien hosted by Canadian liberal icon and actor Gordon Pinsent, and would include the participation of figures such as Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood, among others. This was very early in the era of telethons, and prior to any significant mainstream acceptance of homosexuality in the west, and so it combined tacky (telethon) and radical (gay) interests, off-putting to both his mainstream liberal friends and his gay radical associates. What was most troubling to Hofsess’s newfound community was the abstraction of Damien’s plight, which had been translated from a matter of gay rights to the more general cause of human rights. To those converging around the Body Politic, this was obfuscating, liberal pandering, and whitewashing the specific crisis to make it more palatable to the mainstream. To Hofsess, it was simply an act of respecting Damien’s own wishes. Hofsess had played his hand with a cause too radical for liberal assent, and methods too conservative and populist for his new community. He found himself cast out of yet another gathering of outsiders with whom he had felt affinity.
    Hofsess would often say, of the work of the entertainment critic, that so much of it “wasn’t writing, just typing.” It was perhaps this casual outlook, combined with depression and frustration, that led Hofsess to the most embarrassing moment of his career as a professional writer. Among his tasks as a freelance writer, Hofsess was an occasional contributor of film reviews to the Calgary Albertan. In 1980, he was accused of having plagiarized a review by Janet Maslin of the New York Times, an act of plagiarism that many in his community found pathetic and amusing, and reflected a final fall from grace. His friends may have found something more baffling and willfully self-destructive in this act, that a skilled writer of remarkable articulation and determined individuality was caught stealing copy from one of the most prestigious newspapers on earth. Hofsess subsequently apologized and withdrew from critical writing for several years. In his time away from journalism, Hofsess worked researching and developing advertising copy and recipes in the earliest days of the Loblaws grocery chain’s President’s Choice brand, an innovative advertising campaign through which the company’s generic in-house brand became a gourmet brand. Hofsess also made attempts to become a playwright. He began to work on a play inspired by true events of rough (and fatal) trade in Vancouver, the story of an older man who was murdered by a younger man after picking him up at a bar. This play was to be called Man in Pieces.
    In spite of his transgression, Hofsess was able to resume his career as a journalist, in the unlikely forum of Homemaker’s Magazine, beginning in the late 1980s. In his first eight-part series he penned scientific articles about man and technology, the technological future, and the future of home computing, among other things. In his second eight-part series he surveyed qualities of life on earth, wrote introspectively on his own life history, on his sexuality, and his family life. All of this writing, whether rooted in science and social survey, or in internal monologue, was consistently introspective and confessional. In 1991 he published his final article for Homemaker’s Magazine titled “Candle in the Wind,” which dealt with his decision, in light of his friend Claude Jutra’s suicide and his mother Gladys’s painful final years, to found an organization, the Right to Die Society of Canada, which would petition the government for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. He wrote of this organization with profound moral conviction, and this provided not only a sense of purpose, it also gave him an opportunity to be creative, to serve as a media impresario, to undertake promotional campaigns involving web-building in the early years of public internet, and, perhaps fatally, to write speeches. It was in this capacity that Hofsess became involved with - indeed, conceived and implemented - the Sue Rodriguez campaign. Sue Rodriguez, a mother living in Victoria, British Columbia, had been diagnosed with ALS in early 1991. She became iconic in the petition for the Right to Die, asking the nation in televised speeches, “Who owns my life?” This statement, like the rest of this famous speech, was written by Hofsess, and stated plainly, it addresses a broader crisis of identity that Hofsess struggled with throughout his life — his desire to take ownership, responsibility, charge of his life, a gesture so often in conflict with strictures of government and society. This question was a signal that Hofsess’s primary theme — liberation — had survived into his new and final creative evolution.
    His skill at writing speeches gave Hofsess a false sense of mastery over the situation he found himself in, and he famously overstepped his bounds when he signed a letter to a newspaper with Rodriguez’s name. The press characterized this as forgery, to match Hofsess’s earlier plagiarism. Although he saw it simply as an extension of their existing relationship, this event was miscast as a malicious violation of trust, in which Hofsess was taking advantage of Rodriguez’s weakening agency. Hofsess once again found himself cast in a harsh light, alienated from Rodriguez, receding from her spotlight. The Right to Die Society thrived regardless, publishing a successful magazine, Last Rights, and a video about methods of assisted suicide. Other cases akin to Rodriguez’s came to Hofsess attention, and he again served as a media wrangler. His was a position of empathy and decency, occasionally overshadowed by his penchant for carnival barking. In 2002, the RCMP arrested Evelyn Martens, a member of the Right to Die Society, on the grounds that she had been assisting suicides. We now know that she was a collaborator of Hofsess. He left the organization soon after her arrest. 
    It took me several years to reach John Hofsess. I began to research his work when his name crossed my path in several contexts — as a Canadian film critic, as an avant-garde filmmaker, and as a strange presence in a television documentary on Sue Rodriguez. When I tracked John down in 2006, he was living in exile, in San Diego, doing community work with a local church, and rooming with another retiree under increasingly difficult circumstances. His history of broken trust — perceived very differently by him than by those he had considered his friends — made for a long period of trust-building between us. When finally he gave me his confidence, we became good friends, at a distance. For the final decade of his life, I am under the impression that he had very little social contact beyond the closed circuit of the Right to Die network, the casual friendships he struck up with healthcare professionals, and the network of journalists and writers who he came into contact with in his final days. I was fascinated by his character and by his history, but my professional interest was in his filmmaking and his critical writing, and in 2008, I undertook a restoration of The Palace of Pleasure and later wrote a book about the formation and dissolution of the McMaster Film Board, which was published shortly before his death. As I wrote and finished my book and waited for it to come out, he was at work on his memoirs, which at times were titled Man in Pieces. We shared drafts at various stages over the years, as I wrote his beginnings and he wrote his end. John struggled in his last years, against failing health, to get his necessary writing down, clouded from the medicines he was taking. He found support to travel to Switzerland in February of this year, where he had arranged to have a medically-assisted suicide.
    John Hofsess’s final act was not his death. In the hours following his suicide, an essay written by Hofsess for posthumous publication began to circulate. In it, he declared — ‘confessed’ is a cruel misnomer — his role in eight assisted suicides through the course of his work as an activist for the Right to Die. In his final decades, Hofsess had often cut the figure of Charon in the eyes of his critics. But as in the 1960s, what he truly believed in was the pursuit of a good life, of liberation from all repressive forces, and these beliefs led him inevitably toward the ultimate freedom of timing the final breath. At the end, he chose to disclose that one man who had received his help was the poet Al Purdy. To John, the weight of Purdy’s memory, as one of the great Canadian poets of the twentieth-century, could help to assuage the grief and horror that many felt toward these acts, for through Purdy’s poems, many readers might already hold a fully-formed image of Purdy’s humanity.
    John was often brave and selfless in the face of criticism. His career was marred by some of his methods that many will have difficulty sympathizing with. But throughout his transit from artist to journalist to activist, he showed a resolute concern for mankind at its most frail and vulnerable. He was publicly doubted, even humiliated, by many journalists over his commitment to his final cause. It is only a small part of all of this, but, I believe by his testimony on February 29, 2016, his sincerity has been proven.
    John believed in a Great Becoming of man, that our jailed hearts could be freed by turning away from those aspects of life, law, and society that injure our dignity, that reinforce our prejudices, that further close us off from joy. The methods that he chose to pursue such liberation disturbed even his closest friends, even those who had admired him most, for his methods were often perceived as being willingly deceitful, of a sort that so many of us would associate with selfishness, misanthropy, and cynicism, values opposite to those he believed himself to represent. For John, he was making a sacrifice — a sacrifice of his own dignity, a willingness to live through shame and embarrassment and abandonment, for his cause and for the benefit of others. There were times when he could not understand why society responded emotionally, rather than intellectually, to his challenge, and he was bewildered by the confusion and anger with which his methods were so often met.
    He could not arrange that new life on earth. That Great Becoming, of liberation and unity, has not come to pass. Those of us who were close to John at the various stations of his life witnessed his messianic tendencies, his willingness toward crucifixion, but if he resembled any god, perhaps it was Osiris, broken and scattered to distant points. John was a compromised and troubled person in many ways, but such is the character of visionaries. He saw too clearly the psychic fracturing of man in the modern age. He knew on sight the miseries and pains of daily life that arise from man’s unrealized, unnourished potential. This he saw in others as in himself, a rare bridge in a lifetime of alienation. In his own mysterious way, John was devoted to righting that wrong. He knew these psychic fractures; he felt them in his own constitution. Rather than vanish into narcissism and self-pity, he was sensitive to the suffering of others.
    He journeyed on. I will not know if he found relief in his final hours, amidst the clichés of beauty that arrive to pacify those who die planned deaths. Even in his final act, he was a man divided: on the one hand, he was exercising final and total control over his own life, and on the other, he was a man suicided by society, facing the final episode in a lifetime of exile.
    His was a lifelong process of putting himself together.