Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Ox

I was drawn to Ben Proudfoot’s 10 minute documentary short on account of my father. Dad worked as a truck driver, an owner-operator, and undertook all the servicing and repair work himself. An intuitive mechanic, he could listen to a truck engine and know just by the sound of it if some component was running out of true. He could strip an engine down and rebuild it and not cast a glance at an owner’s manual. He’d build his own tools if necessary to get the job done.

But his real passion was woodwork. Give him a lathe, a plane, a stand-drill, a jigsaw and he morphed from artisan to artist. Eric Hollenbeck, founder of Blue Ox carpenters and the subject of Proudfoot’s film, put me in mind of my dad. True, my dad never went to Vietnam like Hollenbeck did (he was a veteran at 19), and Hollenbeck’s workshop is way bigger than dad’s, but nonetheless I experienced an immediate point of identification with the film, and something in the way that Proudfoot’s camera lingers on motes of dust swirling through a beam of sunlight that took me back to my childhood.

Hollenbeck is a documentarist’s dream subject: eloquent, thoughtful, knowledgeable; an interviewee who’s prepared to be open and honest without any prodding. Hollenbeck discusses his Vietnam experience with the quiet gravitas of someone who has been through hell and come, in his own time, to his own understanding of it. “It’s like there’s two Erics,” he explains: “the sixty-five year old, and the scared eighteen year old kid.” Describing the difficulty of reconciling the two, he uses the metaphor of bending a coiled spring out of shape: “you can try and bend it back but it never realigns”.

Shaping words as easily as he does wood, Hollenbeck employs another metaphor when discoursing on the modern age: a train going at full speed, collecting information as if shovelled up by the cowcatcher at the front of the loco, while the brakeman on the caboose is constantly throwing it out onto the tracks behind him just to make room for the next lot of information. The problem is, Hollenbeck says, “the information we’re throwing out took us two thousand years to get to”. The most modern piece of equipment in the Blue Ox workshops was made in 1948, the year its founder was born. You have to admit, the man has a point.

But there’s more to Hollenbeck than homespun wisdom and master-craftsmanship. He opens his premises to kids who are failing at school, recalling that he had a hard job fitting in and dealing with theoretical learning at that age. “These are good kids,” he says of a largely court-ordered group of what the system would probably call juveniles; “they’re makers, not sitters.” The work they produce under his tutelage, beaming with pride at their achievement, bears out his faith in them. As the film ends, Blue Ox are approached by the Veterans’ Association to run craft workshops for returning servicemen.

I’ve spent this last month on the blog engaging with offbeat documentaries, from the shameless self-promotion of Troy Hurtubise in ‘Project Grizzly’ to the demented denizens of Vernon, Florida, by way of the Tiffany-fixated individuals in ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. But ‘The Ox’ has proved the perfect documentary with which to end this mini-season. Eric Hollenbeck is both a regular guy and an unsung hero, a true man of the people.


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