artist, writer, filmmaker, musician, teacher, mentor, brother, friend
By David Vainola
Most people live haphazard lives subject to the varying winds of fortune. Many are forced by the situation in which they were born and the necessity of earning a living to keep to a straight and narrow road in which there is no possibility of turning to the right or to the left. Upon these the pattern is imposed. Life itself has forced it on them. But the artist is in a privileged position. The artist can within certain limits make what he likes of his life. In other callings, in medicine for instance or the law, you are free to choose whether you will adopt them or not, but having chosen, you are free no longer. You are bound by the rules of your profession; a standard of conduct is imposed upon you. The pattern is predetermined. It is only the artist, and maybe the criminal, who can make his own.
~ W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up
Rob Thompson has vanished. He vanished on May 9, 2013. We can project onto the word 'vanish' our own personal meanings. We, who knew Rob personally, have a myriad of them, some comforting, some not. One of mine, and I have a series, is to see in his disappearance the continuance of an approach to the world that was, to my mind, uniquely his. For Rob, life was very much always in question, a fortress we continually circumnavigate the perimeter of, seeking but never finding a way in; and consequently any summation of his life, his work as an artist and his disappearance are going to be, as Churchill once said in describing Russia, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
This enigma does have at least the pretense of being knowable. After all, as a filmmaker, writer, sculptor, photographer, web designer, musician and performance artist, he has left a vast body of work we can plumb, navigate, investigate and decode. The process of doing that, certainly for me, always leads to more questions than answers, not just about Rob but my own life as well, and that is exactly the way Rob would have it.
I met Rob in the film program at Algonquin College in 1979 where he was transitioning from a nascent career in music (he was in a successful local folk band, Trilogy) and theatre (his musical Undercurrents had been premiered by the Penguin Theatre Company) to filmmaking. Why film? Rob had been inspired by Marcel Carné's 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis, a love story set in the Parisian theatre world of the 19th century. Though a beautiful and haunting film, what inspired Rob most about it was the conditions under which it was made. It was shot in Nazi-occupied France under appalling conditions constantly interrupted by the realities of war and the Allied invasion. That art could be created at a moment of great crisis, and that its aesthetics were inextricably linked to the reality it emerged from, was something intensely vital and exciting for Rob and something he aspired to throughout his career. His disenchantment with the way film and video were industrialized in our culture, squeezing much of the 'juice of life' out of it, would be an ongoing preoccupation for him.
After film school I helped Rob adapt his musical Undercurrents, a play about teenage suicide, into a feature film. As a director, Rob was interested in disrupting the aesthetic norms of the viewing experience that rendered it, to his mind, easy and comforting. If a scene was disturbing then the viewing of it should be difficult and the audience should be made aware of their discomfort. He employed a long slow style, often removed from the action, resisting the desire to interpret a scene for the audience and instead insisting they view it in proscenium fashion as a unity. It was a risky venture and though the film struggled to find distribution, Rob came away from the experience aware that reconciling art’s transcendent possibilities with commercial concerns was going to be a lifetime's challenge.
He saw the advent of affordable video production technology in the eighties as fortuitous. Frustrated by the expense and limitations of working in film, video offered a portable and spontaneous approach that jibed with his innate sense that creativity emerges from the unconscious and enabling its expression as rapidly as possible would always produce the best work. He began what would become a lifelong practice of making short video pieces in a variety of genres and styles but all unified by the need to work quickly and capture the creative impulse before it faded. Some of his earliest works were The Seventh Winter (a collaboration with Ray Hagel), Heroin Is Good For You and Diary of a Neo-Fascist. Socially biting, they also reflected the dark humour that would become one of his hallmarks. Nor did he reserve himself from his own sharp attacks. Works such as The Video Artist's Handbook (a collaboration with Andrew Moodie) were as much an indictment of his own pretension to say something profound in the medium he loved as it was a satire on video art in general.
As much as he was pre-occupied with satire and parody, he was also a documentarian who had a deep empathy for oppressed and under-represented groups. This didn't simply stem from a political viewpoint but was a lived thing for Rob; he deeply felt the suffering of others. Each Christmas, despite his limited means, he would randomly hand out envelopes to the homeless each containing a Christmas card with twenty dollars. Whether it was his documentary Bonehead, that examined how young people become attracted to hate groups, or Video Revolution, which looked at the use of video technology in grassroots social movements, or Caged, his animal rights reality program, each was suffused with strong feelings about injustice. De-emphasizing an analytical approach, Rob sought in each work to find visual and aural language to convey emotional truths.
Perhaps his most successful documentary, Journey to Little Rock looked at the history of the Little Rock Nine who challenged racist school segregation laws in the Deep South in 1957. Eager to find news way to convey the emotional power of this well-documented event, Rob blended iconic and dramatic vignettes with documentary footage in a way that felt fresh and brought a new perspective to the familiar, winning the accolades of none other than the legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room) who hailed it is as "a beautiful film that should be seen by everyone."
Frustrated by what he saw as the inertia that surrounds the 'film industry' where projects become moribund in endless cycles of development, Rob sought out ways to become a one-person filmmaking entity, and in the last decade he pioneered an effective form of solo filmmaking that satisfied his voracious need to actually be producing 'moving' art. He effectively blended his techniques with the increasingly abstract and non-narrative sensibility that was growing in him, something spurred on by the passing of his mother in 2004. His concerns became increasingly spiritual, something he identified with nature, and his later work reflected his desire to capture moments of bliss and terror as unmediated as possible. Works such as Derailleur, One Year, The Last Resort, The Heart of Things and broader artistic installations such as Riverdale Park Bench and Toronto Walkabout are informed by Rob's fascination with the sublime.
Rob was also a teacher and mentor to many emergent film and videomakers throughout his life. He began teaching workshops for at-risk youth at SAW Video in the early nineties and continued with his last workshops in Killaloe, Ontario and the Innu Youth Project in Northern Labrador just a few years ago. His approach emphasized the importance of the finished work and the satisfaction that comes from sharing it with an audience. He designed his workshops accordingly, so whether they lasted six months or only a day, the participants walked away with a sense of the entire process and the feeling of what it's like to have your work viewed by an audience for the first time.
Rob was a great fan of Maugham's essay "The Summing Up," yet his work itself resists a tidy, thematic summation. Varied in genre, form and aesthetic, his creations do not try to encapsulate the world so much as reflect it. As an artist, he was like a nerve receptor, a tuning fork, or simply one of the rocks he loved to collect, allowing the world to act upon him as a transmission point effortlessly and delicately altering the patterns of reality by his presence.
Two years ago, when he was teaching in Northern Labrador, he lived in a tent under the stars. In that tent he wrote:
Wood smoke billowing into the night like a coiled snake. A million stars overhead soaking up my soul. I know there is a story there but like the smoke it dissipates, it unravels every time I try to grasp it. The night time is the only time the universe holds sway. In the daytime myopic blue turns us inward to the world. But the night is like some vast window that connects us to eternity. Morning is like a window shutting. Our thoughts turn inwards to the world of man. Ghosts are too busy dreaming to notice mere mortals. For when we die we journey into our dreams.
(NOTE: SAW Video has established the Rob Thompson Award in Rob's memory. It will be awarded every two years to a senior filmmaker who perserveres in their craft and mentors others. Click here to donate.)