by Ilppo Pohjola
“You look like Christ coming up that hill.”
These were the first words Robert Frank said to Phillip Hoffman when he was visiting the photographer in Newfoundland six years ago.
“We were driving with a ’67 Dodge… And I only knew where he was staying from his photographs but I wasn’t sure of its exact location. We drove around and asked the way there, and they didn’t know. Finally we picked up a hitchhiker, who appears in Frank’s film Pull My Daisy, and he told me how to get there.
We stopped at the bottom of the hill and I started to walk across it. And walking up the hill I noticed there was a man sitting and looking out to the sea. I was too far to say hello and at this point I wasn’t sure of myself. What am I doing here? What was the point of all this?
And then he said something that didn’t put me at ease.”
Philip Hoffman is an experimental filmmaker for whom the making of a film, the process itself, is as important as the finished film. It is his way of keeping a diary.
” My films are a combination of everyone I meet, what I learn, e.g. from other filmmakers. It all channels through me. I’m in a way just a medium, but I might change it on the way, making it work.” He collects personal day-to-day experiences in the form of films, videotapes, audio recordings and written diaries. “When I film I write about what I film, and when I get the footage back, I write about that.” Then he examines and reworks his notes, diaries, audio, videotapes and films, analyzing and editing them to create a more meaningful understanding of past experiences and events.
“I think you should not be self-conscious when you are working with a camera, you should be in the rhythm of life. Only the editing process is analyzing.”
Gradually his films develop and certain patterns emerge. Only while editing does the final structure of the film unfold, without a script written before shooting. His film The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) is an example of this kind of theory in practice. It developed during seven years, begun when Hoffman was a student at Sheridan College and was shot during his travels in North America. Finalizing the film was also one reason to meet Robert Frank.
“I had seen his photographs and films, but what did I know about him as a human being?”
Mabou was a good place to stop.
“I wanted to meet him face to face, and ask him about his own pictures and the Beat poets. Because there has only been a few people besides Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac whose work has moved me in that way. There is something I could connect to my own world.”
The Road Ended at the Beach starts with waiting for the trip. Hoffman’s old friends and traveling companions Jim and Richard are preparing for driving and painting their van.
“There is a preoccupation in the film that it is going to be as good as Kerouac’s trip.”
The purpose of this last trip is to reunite old friendships and experiences again the feeling of the earlier journeys. They meet an old Asian man, who has traveled the world for ten years. They meet an old cyclist, who has traveled around the world since 1953 and who is now going around for the seventh time. They drive and meet old friends, and try to experience again Jack Kerouac’s and Neil Cassidy’s sizzling Mexican nights.
“But when I got the footage back, the joy and excitement of traveling wasn’t there… There are two points to be made. One is that Kerouac’s trip was written as myth. And secondly, I did not go out to create a myth with my camera. I tried to record something that is there… And the myth wasn’t there.”
The film turns into a discussion of the filmmaker’s own mind and personal growth and also the realization of myths and the need to break them.
“Kerouac’s work was not only a bohemian lifestyle. That is something the media has grabbed on. The heart of it is when he was describing simple things… ‘Sympathy for humanism’ is how he described his work. And that is something I think Beat is. Sadness of life and joy of life both happening at the same time.”
” I see myself less as an observer. The camera is something else for me… like someone playing jazz music… it puts me into rhythm with the rest of the world. It is my tool into the world.”
And life can be experienced better outside home or the place which is called home.
“I have discovered something about traveling. It’s a perfect container, an environment for the recording of life.”
Most of Hoffman’s eight films are results of traveling. His newest one, passing through/torn formations (1987) started when he visited his relatives in Europe during the summer of 1984. Hoffman’s father is German while his Polish mother was born in Czechoslovakia. He was born in Kitchener, Ontario and lives now in Toronto. The film describes his mother’s background, but is at the same time an investigation of how history can be recreated and formed differently with different kinds of media. Hoffman tried also to reunite the family by his work, their lives divided on different sides of the Atlantic.
His films are subjective recordings of his own life, while weighing in against myths and conventions.
?Oh,Zoo! (1986) is a puzzle-like study of reality and truth, how they can be created in cinema and treated by cinematic means. The framework for the film is the documentation of the making of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts. This connected again to Hoffman’s own observations on life and his experiments, which contribute to the underlying questioning of documentary evidence. What is documentation, what is narrative storytelling and what is the difference between them? It is up to the audience to decide.
“I like people to participate in these films. I leave them open for interpretation, because I don’t like to feel authority and make big statements, and secondly, I don’t have the answers.”
By doing his films he questions conventional ways of filmmaking. “I think conventions are made, that people try to mimic what has already been done. Conventions are sad and old… I am interested in every person that has their own way of looking at the world. By doing it your own way, you are unique… but not as a reaction to conventional films. It just comes out of living and being and doing what you want to do. I can’t worry about anything else.”
Robert Frank appears in The Road Ended at the Beach just in a couple of scenes, doing his own thing, nailing and looking over the sea. As an everyday person.
“I don’t know, if I would go there again, but it was part of playing out your youth. I guess I was looking for someone to give answers, but of course, you have to do it alone. I think this resolves in the film, too. And this film is not like On the Road. It describes my trip, my personal end of the road and moving to something else. The road ends at the beach. Then you have to do something else.”