Everything he touches turns into his family. His friends and colleagues, he greets us with a pressing of the flesh, chest against chest, the meat warms together, turns together. At the moment of meeting he pulls me towards him, and in this gesture, repeated time and again, he asks us to regather the many times before this one. We are never all here, in this moment, too much has already passed for that. Our words, the way he looks into my face (are you still there?) and then away again before he continues the story (like me he can’t bear up into the full attention of the receiver while speaking, he needs to look away, to let the eyes look inwards while the mouth points out). All this is happening again. It’s a way we have of remembering.
I don’t think they used words like artist when he grew up. Feedlot and meat packing and carcass and bone but not artist. That wouldn’t come until years later, almost as a kind of default. It wasn’t something he aspired to, instead, being an artist is something Phil backed into. Oh, where am I now? Being an artist meant doing things your own way, finding out for yourself, never mind trying to break the rules or please or displease anybody. It didn’t matter to him where the lines were or the way things used to be done, he was just trying to find a shape for his experience and that led him into small rooms, and he was taken with what he found there. He only learned later that the shape and size of those rooms changed what could be found, but by the time he had that locked it was ok. He had a hunch it would be alright and it’s been alright. As long as I’ve known him he’s worked off his hunches, his instincts. Others have money or scripts or five star actors. Phil has a compass inside and he follows it right or wrong.
In his movies Phil returns to the family again and again. Pictures of home.
In his first college produced short On the Pond he puts a microphone into the room while he dishes a family slide show and records the response. Life happens, and he is there moving alongside, both part of and apart from the group. In passing through/torn formations, he takes up residence on both sides of the ocean, drawing together (while keeping apart) the Czech and Canadian sides of his family, circling around the absent figure of his uncle Wally, pool God, street hustler, the monster who cannot be shown. Phil convenes the family as a way to contend with the death of too many around him. Huddled together in this last place, the river of his youth become a suicide site, his partner Marion dead of cancer. He is determined to show memory at work, to make diary moments and stitch them together (his montage produces a family of pictures, a family album).
There are no fathers in this family. The fathers have faded away (they smile and nod and say yes, sure, that’s fine, they are not the law but acquiescence to things as they are). Though the specter of the mother (talking, trembling, pulled down from a terrible height, carrier of a mysterious darkness) continues to haunt us in our dreams of waking and sleeping. Mother are you? Can you? Will you be alright? Will we ever be alright again?
He is not afraid to let time seep into his work. This one took years. This one took more than years, all his life. And still it is going on. He stops to gather another moment and place it next to another moment, years earlier, the red drapes, the butterflies gathering after her death, the pyramids opening, the road which ends at the beach. How fortunate I have been to be alongside him, sometimes, on occasion, when he is thinking through these confusions of past and present and his refusal to forget. We need these pictures more than ever now so that we might become part of this family of remembrance.