Lost and Found

Jason Anderson on John Hofsess's Palace of Pleasure

John Hofsess, Palace of Pleasure, 1966/67/68, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 38 minutes.

THE VALUE OF John Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure (1966/67/68) as a trippy time capsule of Canada’s nascent ’60s film underground would be apparent even if it didn’t include the sight of a young, shirtless David Cronenberg slipping into bed with a nude man and woman. The future director of Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996) was one of several Ontario students cast as actors in Hofsess’s ambitious scheme to fashion an appropriately mind-bending and taboo-busting cinematic response to the era’s tumults, one that was directly inspired by a 1966 appearance at McMaster University (where Hofsess went to school) by the Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Along with poems by the not-yet-famous Leonard Cohen, the fuzz-laden death rattle of the VU’s “European Son” is a key part of the aural accompaniment to Hofsess’s thirty-eight-minute film, which will have its first public screening since 1968 at Cinematheque Ontario. (The program pairs it with Ronald Nameth’s 1967 document of another EPI extravaganza.) While there’s not much shock value left in its juxtaposition of grisly Vietnam War footage, kaleidoscopic abstract imagery, and shots of Hofsess’s classmates performing erotic, vaguely Crowleyite rituals, Palace of Pleasure nevertheless retains a raw vitality. With its vibrant color palette, use of multiple projectors, and rapid cuts, Hofsess’s film still induces the intended sensory overload.

Long thought lost, the work was recently restored by film scholar Stephen Broomer after a print was discovered in the archives of the Canadian Film Institute. When it first began to circulate in 1967, Palace of Pleasure was an early triumph for the country’s independent film community. At the time, it screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and represented Canadian film at a presentation at the National Film Theatre in London; there were also short theatrical runs in Los Angeles and Chicago. Jonas Mekas and Gene Youngblood even cited it as one of the best films of the year.

Back home, the film’s more risqué imagery earned it great notoriety, foreshadowing the furor that would greet Hofsess’s next filmmaking effort, The Columbus of Sex (1969), a sexploitation mockumentary that would incur obscenity charges for its makers. Hofsess later became a film critic for Maclean’s magazine and wrote the first book-length study of Canadian filmmakers. But his own achievement with Palace of Pleasure went underheralded, as the few prints disappeared into archives or were lost altogether. Its resuscitation serves as strange and startling evidence that even a sleepy campus in Hamilton, Ontario, wasn’t safe from the fiery energies of youth in revolt.

John Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure screens along with Ronald Nameth’s Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto on Saturday, January 24, at 8:45 PM. For more details, click here.