Somewhere Between interview with Phillip Hoffman (by Donnalee Downe 1984)

by Donnalee Downe
23 November 1984

DD: Can you tell me a bit about how you went about shooting and editing Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion?

PH: I had been reading some Haiku poetry at the time. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry which is very simple, yet complex in its simplicity. In fact, when I went down to Colorado that was a poetry convention of sorts. So I decided what I wanted to do in Mexico was shoot in a similar fashion, borrowing from the form of Haiku poetry.  I tried to think of the Bolex camera’s twenty-eight second wind as a structure rather than a limitation. Most of the shots in the film are twenty-eight second takes: the “breath” of the Bolex camera.

I tried to make each shot sparse in its content: the coke sign, the donkey, the open road, the mother and child running, (c) simple, uncomplicated shots. In shooting The Road Ended at the Beach, I had a lot of expectations… about “the big trip”. I felt I had to make the film, it was my first since school. There was a lot of pressure and tension and not much fun.  So it was important with Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion to shoot when I felt like shooting so it would be more like writing poetry.

DD: But it wasn’t until you returned that you decided it would revolve around an image you didn’t have.

PH: Right. So in a way it was a lot of little poems. On the trip I kept a journal and I tried to write little phrases based on the haiku form. Not that it was at all like traditional haiku. I tried to develop a style, to let a form develop out of an idea. When I came back from the trip I didn’t know what the film would be about. I hadn’t shot that much film—about seventeen minutes—and the film is only six minutes long, so it was pretty economical. When I came back, the experience on the bus was still on my mind. I didn’t have the footage and didn’t regret not having it, it was something I just didn’t want to do at the time. I remember putting the camera down and thinking no, I don’t want to do this.

DD: The sparse images you described facilitate open interpretation. The emptiness opens to the missing image.

PH: They’re open but there are still some things that were on my mind while shooting. I kept going back to the churches.

DD: Are the religious images linked to the boy’s death?

PH: No, they’re a reflection on my own experience as a Catholic.  Religion is most visual in Mexico. I was interested in icons and in the beat people—beatific in the Kerouac sense—sympathy to humanity. I see more spirit in the people than in the icons, let’s put it that way.

DD: How do icons function in the film?  We talked earlier about film language. The meaning of the images is largely defined through the film itself through their relation to the death, and yet the icons have such strong connotations.

PH: Yes you can interpret an icon in many ways. For me it was a way of working through Catholicism. You’ll see more of it in my next film.

DD: Did you decide to tone the black and white footage to facilitate a less dramatic contrast with the colour footage?

PH: From a formal standpoint it helps blend the high-contrast shots with the colour. I also wanted it to look old—but not the way we are used to seeing representations of the past in film. Hollywood uses sepia. My first text states “looking through the lens/ at passing events,/ I recall what once was/ and consider what might be.” The first shot is of a black band. We hear the music of a saxophone and see a trumpet. There’s a sort of visual/aural pun there. We’re used to sync sound, but in the last line of the preceding text it’s clear that, well, with film we can do whatever we want.

DD: In the text you changed tenses. For example in the third text: “The white sheet is pulled over the dead boy’s body/ the children wept.”  It’s almost like looking at someone’s memory. The temporal connections are unclear but we’re content with ambiguity.

PH: I believe in an open form where you’re not told what to think. I suppose it is a metaphor for memory. I honestly didn’t think about the different tenses in the text, I went with what sounded good to my ear.  It jumps around and that’s in keeping with putting myself in the past while making, finding myself on the bus again, while I’m really at home in my Bathurst Street basement.

DD: The shot with the Coke sign and the donkey cart has temporal ambiguity too. The sign is obviously modern and the cart so primitive.

PH: Again, there are many ways this can be taken and the ambiguity is important. For example, the last text: “big trucks spit black smoke/ clouds hung/ the boy’s spirit left through its blue.” What is that blue? Is it blue smoke from the trucks? The blue of the brick wall?

DD: It brought me back to the wall.

PH: It did? That’s one of the things I liked about the line. It is ambiguous and I don’t profess to have an answer. To end on a line like this ” the boy’s spirit left through the blue” it’s almost like a traditional religious experience. I suppose this brings us back to my Catholic history and the icons in the film. The line is directly from the journal and was written on the bus. I suppose it was the blue sky that I saw at the time.

DD: I’m comfortable with ambiguity. I guess it’s partly because the second text tells me that there’s no footage of the central image. I don’t have expectations. I don’t wonder how the boy died.

PH: It was the second death I’d seen on the trip. The first was a terrible car accident in Colorado. I didn’t film that either. The windshield was the movie screen and the camera was right there, but no way.

DD: Do you remember deciding not to film the Mexican boy?

PH: I remember my hand on the camera and it would have just been a matter of leaning out. I guess all the media footage we see every day flashed through my head.

DD: I think the absence of the footage is more striking. We’re saturated with media-like images.

PH: Well, the media images are striking, but I think in this case actual footage wouldn’t leave any room for analysis of death and our feeling towards it. Media images are too overpowering. That’s why I put the camera down. I think it’s more successful as a meditation in its absence. There is another text which I think is awkward, yet perhaps one of the most important: “I should have a bible,/ you suppose I lent it to someone/or someone stole it.” Most people ask, “Is that poetry?” It brings us back to the first person that’s having this experience. For me, it symbolizes a loss of religious faith in the Word, in the icon, in what we’re taught in religious classes. Today the Bible seems irrelevant. People take whatever meaning they want and use it for their own cause… and yet the Bible (like the film) is an open form. Its ambiguity facilitates many interpretations.

DD: I guess it’s a question of how didactic one is about a particular interpretation.

PH: Perhaps that’s how it should be read. Let people read it and take out of it what relates to their experience… rather than Jim Baker and the P.T.L. Club saying what it means.

DD: For me, the music really helps define my proximity to the central image. When the tempo is upbeat, in the shots of the two bands for example, the boy is almost forgotten. When the music slows I feel closer to the tragic event. Can you explain how you and the musician decided upon the music?

PH: I showed Mike the film and we worked on it together. I left the film with him and he worked with it and soon certain riffs started to develop, and then it was just a matter of getting it right. We did six takes and I edited the first version which I wasn’t really happy with.  Because it was edited it didn’t seem continuous, it didn’t seem to flow, so we tried again. This recording went directly to 16mm magnetic tape. There were things that he did that, if he was three frames off, it would change the mood completely. We did seven new takes and finally we felt we had it. We were both really tired but decided to try one more and we got it. Only one section was edited, I took that whole section from the sixth take. I think it’s hard to write the music down, it’s certainly possible but perhaps it’s not as direct. I like to work in a way so that everything comes out of experience.

DD: The diarist of The Road Ended at the Beach expresses frustration and disappointment at the failure of events to live up to expectation. One has a strong sense that the camera comes between you and your fellow travelers, thatit distorts what you want to record.

PH: At one point in this film I state: “The best time for me is when I’m on my own with the camera.” Later there’s another reference to how the camera gets in the way. At this point the spectator realizes that the camera is part of the event. In the first part of the film we are painting the van, it’s very mysterious. The guys are preparing for the trip west. It’s very linear at first, setting up the form. I suppose one of the first references to the camera is in a shot in the cabin.  Rub Chan asks me if I want some whisky and starts to get up. Richard says, “No, No, No, don’t get up.” And I get out from behind the camera. It’s the first filmic reference to the  camera. There are a lot of problems with directly autobiographical films. It seems that when a film is too direct, too personal, you meet a lot of obstacles. I tried to use my personal experiences as a vehicle for something more universal. In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion the universal experience is death. It’s an analysis, not just of personal experience, but of how this experience is incorporated in a much larger context.