by Michael Zryd
Like all “anti-documentary” films–those which call into question the documentary genre’s easy claims to epistemological certainty–Phil Hoffman’s ?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) must be approached in terms of the particular documentary form it questions and the particular context of its maker and making. In ?O, Zoo! Hoffman plays off the filmic projects of John Grierson and Peter Greenaway to furnish an admirably tentative meditation on two knotted ethical problems of film form. One concerns the way that sound/image constructions attempt to dictate meaning in conventional documentary. The second takes on film’s photographic claims to certainty in one of documentary’s favourite subjects: the representation of death. These intersecting planes of subjectivity and convention, and these ethical meditations, create a turbulence underneath the disarmingly simple and elegant surface of ?O, Zoo!, a turbulence which accounts for the emotional resonance of its ending(s), and for its troubling aftertaste
?O, Zoo! is, in some ways, atypical of Hoffman’s work, being his most directly analytical examination of a set of film conventions. In films like On the Pond (1978) and passing through/torn formations (1987), a much more meditative and lyrical mix of image, sound, and narration offers an intensely personal view of childhood and family. Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) deals with Hoffman’s reaction to an isolated incident in Mexico, the death of a small boy in the street. The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) is a diary-quest following Hoffman and some friends “in search of the Beat generation,” as they trek across Eastern Canada to find Robert Frank. All these films share an explicit personal voice (either in voice-over or written text), a voice by turns matter-of-fact, self-ironic, poeticized (here, often with less certain success), but always direct and Hoffman’s own.
Robert Frank’s influence is central to the development of Hoffman’s sensibility. Aware of the filters the apparatus imposes between film and experience, the filmmaker seeks direct contact with his subjects. With Frank, Hoffman shares a concern for the articulation of the filmmaker’s subjectivity, and for the camera’s power to record and reveal events. Unlike Frank, however, Hoffman’s approach is tentative; as Blaine Allan puts it, Hoffman places himself “on the temporal and spatial edges of an event” (1987:91). In The Road Ended at the Beach, Hoffman ironizes the Frank persona to point, finally, to the folly of attempting to recapture the immediacy of the Beat generation’s attitude to “experience.” When he finally finds Frank in Nova Scotia, Hoffman is told, in a low key (and utter) deflation of his quest, that Kerouac is dead, the Beat generation is over, go home.
If The Road Ended at the Beach can be seen as Hoffman’s attempt to exorcize the ghost of Robert Frank, ?O, Zoo! finds him tackling two more figures of influence: John Grierson and Peter Greenaway. In ?O, Zoo!, they are paired as the Founding Father and the Grand Inquisitor of the institutional documentary. Hoffman links the two unmistakably, though not explicitly, in a passage in the first sequence of the film:
“That spring, I went to the Netherlands to make a short film around the making of a fiction film. I met the director in a seminar in my native country in the fall before my grandfather’s footage was found. This seminar, an annual tradition since 1939, is devoted to the documentation and categorization of all types of wildlife species ever captured on film. The seminar grew out of the same institution that employed my grandfather as a newsreel cameraman. I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks about the founder of the institution, as he put it, “that old battle-axe.”
The “fiction film” is A Zed and Two Noughts (1985); the director, Greenaway. Hoffman and Greenaway met at the 1984 Grierson Documentary Seminar held in Brockville, Ontario. The seminar that year, entitled “Systems in Collapse,” was devoted to the anti-documentary. The Seminar began after Grierson’s death and within the fiction of the first sequence, Hoffman conflates the seminar with the National Film Board (NFB), founded by Grierson in 1939. “That old battle-axe” is an appropriate description of the mythical crusty Scotch Calvinist; to underscore the point, the phrase appears over a close-up of an ostrich’s head. The physical similarity to Grierson is striking.
Grierson hovers as a key figure behind both the Canadian and British documentary traditions, and is thus a point of departure for both Hoffman and Greenaway. His unique legacy as film director and administrator, to the end of an openly propagandistic film product in the service of the state, makes the “Griersonian” mode of documentary a particularly acute model of what Noël Burch calls an “Institutional Mode of Representation” (1979). Certainly, one can identify an NFB house-style with as many stylistics as any Hollywood studio study could muster. Greenaway worked for 8 years in the British equivalent of the NFB, the Office of Information. During that time he produced, as he calls it, “soft-core propaganda” (cited in Della Penna and Shedden, 1987:20) before turning to experimental and narrative fiction modes of filmmaking. Especially in his hyperbolically parodic anti-documentaries, The Falls (1980) and Vertical Features Remake (1979), Greenaway works to great advantage off the solidity and recognizability of the government-issue documentary. Systematic in their astonishing mimicry of form, and profound in the depth of their analysis of the technocratic ideology at the base of Grierson’s form, Greenaway’s films initiate a full-frontal assault on the Griersonian institutional mode.
Hoffman’s confrontation with the Grierson mold and myth and with Greenaway’s analytic project are oblique, even affectionate. ?O, Zoo! adapts the central formal device of Greenaway’s critique–a coherent voice-over ordering disparate images to create a hermetic non-referential fictional universe–to the rhetorical traditions of the narrated personal diary-film of the independent filmmaker. The fiction of the grandfather frames Hoffman’s own penetration of Greenaway’s narrative film production, less to satirize (*1) Greenaway than to harness the skeptical dynamic of Greenaway’s voice-over/image relation. While the extreme artifice characteristic of Greenaway’s later cinema is concentrated into his elaborate visual tableaux, in his earlier films, Greenaway’s artifice is concentrated in the complex counterpoint between his soundtrack (Colin Cantlie’s voiceover narration and Michael Nyman’s music) and “documentary” imagery. Hoffman mobilizes Greenaway’s counterpoint but refuses to capitulate his filmic world entirely to fiction; instead, Hoffman keeps his meditation on events focussed on what he calls “lived experiences”.
In “The Creative Use of Sound” (1933) Grierson outlines his defence of the freedom and power of sound. Clearly inspired by the 1929 “Statement on Sound” co-signed by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov, Grierson insists, like the Soviets, that “the final question is how we are to use sound creatively rather than reproductively” (1966:158). Yet, though he maintains the mobility of the sound montage-piece, Grierson prescribes a limit to the possibilities of asynchronous sound:
“Our rule should be to have the mute strip and the sound complementary to each other, helping each other along. That is what Pudovkin meant when he talks about asynchronous sound.” (1966:159)
By invoking Pudovkin instead of Eisenstein, Grierson demonstrates his preference for linear coherence at the expense of a dialectical approach that would expose contradiction. In this respect, when Grierson calls for art to be a “hammer” (cited in Morris 1987:41), he is far from Eisenstein’s “kino-fist.”
Complementary sound/image relations serve the production of coherent, stable meanings in the text. Later in the essay, when Grierson speaks of the use of “chorus,” he says it must be in the service of unity: “By the chorus, characters are brought together and a single mood permeates a whole location” (1966:160). Interestingly, he notes of the “recitative chorus” that “the very crudest form of this is the commentary you find ordinarily attached to ‘interest’ films” (1966:161). 1 Yet even if Grierson favours, at this early point in the 1930s, a voice-over narration “which adds dramatic or poetic colour to the action” (1966:161), that “colour” must not in any way create conflict. Rather, it must enhance meaning. As he said of the general desired effect of the propaganda film, the voiceover should “inspire confidence” not present “problems” (Morris, 1987:45). Grierson’s dislike of Humphrey Jennings’s WWII films demonstrates how the “creative use of sound” must not be in any way disturbing. Moreover, the overarching dominance of the “recititive chorus” in the Canadian WWII documentaries made under Grierson’s command demonstrates how the route of least resistance to a strong propaganda message is through “authoritative narration” (Elder,1986-87: 157).
The complementary voice-over/image relation is the bedrock of the institutional documentary. The image track is arranged to illustrate the narrator’s descriptions and the indexical power of the [**add: photographic] [**sorry to add a word, but not all images are indexical] image is harnessed to the rhetoric of the soundtrack. This places its referential authority in the service of an authoritative voice-over narrator, usually male, whose own vocal performance is coded by standardized diction, pacing, clarity of tone, and coherence. Greenaway’s mimicry of this convention is superlative. In Vertical Features Remake, Colin Cantlie’s “BBC voice” explains the attempts of the “Institute for Restoration and Reclamation” to reconstruct a film by a “TulseLuper.” As names and places appear on the soundtrack, photographs, drawings, and moving images appear on the image track to illustrate the often convoluted but always self-assured narration. The insistence of the illustration is key to the satire; the film cuts to the same photograph of Tulse Luper no fewer than 23 times.
Hoffman’s clearest appropriation of Greenaway’s method of constructing a fiction in fake documentary form appears in the opening sequence of ?O, Zoo!. Instead of attacking the authority of the institutional narrator (Greenaway’s target), Hoffman undermines a different set of conventions: those surrounding the authority of the filmmaker-narrator of the personal diary film. Interestingly, ?O, Zoo! is the only early film of Hoffman’s where he does not read his own narration. Reminiscent of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971), where Frampton has Michael Snow read the voice-over of his most obviously “autobiographical” film, Hoffman puts himself at one remove from the “revelations” contained in ?O, Zoo!.
Sound-Image Relations and Fake Framing
The film opens in silence on a lion roaring–a joke on the MGM lion announcing the beginning of another, more familiar, kind of fiction film. The image is sepia-toned (as will be all the images of this sequence), connoting age. The silence is broken by the voice of the male narrator:
“The footage was found by my sister in my grandfather’s loft. Having been at one time a newsreel cameraman, grandfather knew to keep the cannister well-sealed, and since the loft was relatively cool and dry, there was no noticeable deterioration.”
The voice is flat and deliberate, not a BBC voice but a voice appropriate to a personal diary film. This explanation of the image’s integrity and lack of deterioration makes reference to the filmmaking process, while bringing the viewer into the confidence of the voiceover. The narrator assumes we know that a cool, dry loft and a well-sealed canister will prevent a film from deteriorating. The immediate wedding of image and voice-over, its personal tone, and the reflexive explanations attempt to pull us into the film, consistently set against the institutional film:
“I recalled seeing my grandfather’s old newsreels … There was a marked difference between the repetitive nature of the news film and the footage found in the loft.”
If Hoffman differentiates the “voice” of the institutional newsreel from that of the personal diarist, he also invokes his own tradition: Canadian experimental filmmaking. One shot of the stock footage Hoffman uses has already been incorporated by experimental filmmaker David Rimmer into his film, Waiting for the Queen (1973). The allusion is, first, proleptic of the levels of intertextuality in the film as Grierson, Greenaway, Vermeer, and a variety of tropes of structural film make “appearances” in ?O, Zoo!. More specifically, it refers to the tradition of Canadian experimental filmmaking that interrogates the photographic image. Rimmer, for example, often uses stock footage to study image degradation through looping, so Hoffman’s term “repetitive” is apt. When Hoffman later implies that the NFB is an organization devoted to the filming of wildlife, he makes allusion both to Greenaway’s obsessive filming of animals (and the setting of A Zed and Two Noughts in a zoo) and to the stereotypical NFB nature documentary. The inversion is here complete: within the fiction, the “personal” images of the grandfather are linked, by subject, to the institution of the NFB. Meanwhile, the stock institutional images of the public event allude to the independent experimental tradition.
Another important arena of cinematic critique in ?O, Zoo! is the film’s use of direct address to set reflexive traps for the spectator. In the next section, the narrator directly addresses the viewer in the imperative:
“There was something peculiar about grandfather’s footage. Watch. Wait for the flash marking the beginning of the shot and then start counting.”
Once again, the direct address underlines the reflexivity of the film by acknowledging our presence as spectators, underscoring its apparent honesty and transparency–even as it more forcefully tells us how to interpret the images (there is something “peculiar” to watch for). But the voice-over tricks us. After the flash, the narrator falls silent for about 20 seconds over a close up of a camel rhythmically chewing. Following the narrator’s orders, we begin to count and fall into sync with the camel’s chewing. But as the shot proceeds, the chewing gets more and more erratic and our counting struggles to keep its own pace. Finally, the voice-over returns to rescue the viewer and explain the “peculiarity”:
“Most of the shots are exactly 28 seconds in length.”
Instructed to count, we are defeated by the rhythm of the image. The narrator’s knowledge further points to our failure:
“I was impressed with both the precision and self-control my grandfather expressed in shooting this unusual material as compared with the erratic camera work displayed in the newsreels.”
“Precision and self-control” are qualities of the text and its “maker,” but not of the viewer. Moreover, the “self-control” is an arbitrary limit set by the apparatus; Hoffman’s camera is a spring-wound Bolex, whose full shot length is 28 seconds at 24 fps.
In addition to direct address, ?O, Zoo!’s voiceover plays with codes of documentary evidence, specifically with one of the most banal elements of the cameraperson’s trade: camera logs. ?O, Zoo! takes this elementary “document” and uses it to critique Grierson’s “technocratic” logic of classification. The narrator suggests:
“More clues as to the nature of my grandfather’s discipline were found on a slip of paper secreted in the film canisters.”
After the shots of the camel, the film cuts to a close up of a piece of paper titled “Camera Negative Report Card,” dated 6/6/45, with neat, legible printing listing six shots, all under the heading “Day 17”: “Lion”; “Elephant slo-mo”; “Fallen Elephant tries to get up”; “Elephant gets up”; “Camel Chewing”; “Insert Humps.” Here is another piece of the film apparatus exposed – and if we read quickly enough, we can see that shot list supports what we’ve been seeing. But questions arise: if this is a slip of paper the contemporary narrator has found, why would it be filmed with the same sepia tone as the grandfather’s footage? The characteristics of different documents (paper and film) begin to collapse into one another.
Later in the film, we see that the contemporary filmmaker also uses these cards to chart the progress of his Holland diary, following in the family line, it seems. But here, too, the very neatness of the “documents” indicates that they are fictional constructions, not a log representing the process of filmmaking but a later construction caught in the false hermetic package of the fiction. All the shots listed on the grandfather’s cards appear in ?O, Zoo! (unless the film has a 1:1 shooting ratio, the report sheets must be reconstructions); both the grandfather’s and the filmmaker’s cards list “S. Mangor” as cameraman (explicable by continuity of family name, but improbable). Finally, later in the diary, we see the right hand part of the grandfather’s card from the first sequence, now dated 6/6/85, as a hand tapes a second card to it and writes “Day 17.” This notation completes, in a sense, the missing left side of the grandfather’s card (also Day 17). It would seem that even off-screen space can be recaptured by the hermetic bounds of the fiction film frame.
Next, the long passage explaining the “making of a short film around the making of a fiction film” establishes ?O, Zoo!’s link to Greenaway and Grierson:
“The footage was found in the winter. That spring, I went to the Netherlands to make a short film around the making of a fiction film. I met the director in a seminar in my native country in the fall before my grandfather’s footage was found. This seminar, an annual tradition since 1939, is devoted to the documentation and categorization of all types of wildlife species ever captured on film. The seminar grew out of the same institution that employed my grandfather as a newsreel cameraman. I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks about the founder of the institution, as he put it, “that old battle-axe.”
This passage appears over shots of animals (a seal, peacocks, an ostrich); images which reinforce the grand father’s employment with the institution dedicated to wildlife photography. The phrase, “documentation and categorization”, alludes to Greenaway’s obsession with classification and naming – that technocratic rage to order laid bare in Greenaway’s films by the hyperbolic application of that rage. Though the allusion is no more than a nod to Greenaway’s project, in recognizing their shared heritage in Grierson, Hoffman acknowledges the ideological implications underlying how documentary convention orders experience – and the subversive nature of any questioning of that ordering.
After the close up of the ostrich and the narrator’s statement, “I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks…”, we cut to a slow motion shot of what seems to be the shadow of two gorillas. The gorilla is a Darwinian “founding father”–and it turns out that the shadows of what appear to be two gorillas are in fact those of a single gorilla and the filmmaker. Once again, in the spirit of Greenaway, Hoffman slyly undercuts claims to cultural authority. On the soundtrack, we hear a mechanical whirring, then an old man’s voice fighting through static and muted sound:
“That old battle-axe! What the hell does he know about this country anyway? All he knows about [sound unclear here] is whoring and crammed up pubs!”
The narrator presents another piece of documentation, apparently a tape recording of the grandfather’s voice (the voice explains the whirring as a tape recorder rewind), literalizing the idiom, “I can still hear him say….” What the narrator hears in his mind can be conjured for the film. The question, “What does he know about this land anyhow?” refers to Grierson’s status as a foreigner to Canada and underlines one of the central ironies of the NFB: an institution designed “to show Canada to Canadians” is founded by a Scotsman. The last line of the “recording” is ambiguous, a false “rough edge” attesting to its status as “document”.
The tape recording introduces a new element into the soundtrack besides the narrator’s voice. The next image, of a gorilla cage next to a spinning water sprinkler, contains a “sync” sound effect of a jet water sprinkler playing underneath the narration:
“Though the director was from the same country as the old battle-axe, I couldn’t see a connection. I couldn’t see why he’d been invited to the seminar. Yet there seemed to be similarities between my grandfather’s footage and the films the director presented at the seminar. I thought I would try to incorporate my grandfather’s footage with the film I would take on location in Holland. As usual, I would keep a diary of the whole affair. [music begins.]”
The “sync” water sprinkler sound (an allusion to another of Greenaway’s obsessions, water), and the introduction of music, fleshes out the possible range of sound at the narrator’s disposal. The gradual and very subtle introduction of each sound option in O, Zoo! parallels the increasingly arbitrary rhetorical power of the narrator and the complexity of the fiction he weaves. The “authenticity” of the “personal” voice-over is first established, and then used as a springboard for the introduction of more and more conventional rhetorical effects. All of this precedes the announcement of the film’s overarching form: “As usual, I would keep a diary of the whole affair”.
Faking Death: the Ethics of Representation, Fiction, and Actuality
This short film around a fiction film has its own enigmas to be worked out in its “narrative” progression. In the passage above, the narrator puzzles over the connections between Greenaway and Grierson, between Greenaway and the Documentary seminar. On one ingenuous level, of course, the puzzlement is justified; Greenaway’s films are, indeed, fictions, and further, are absolutely antipathetic to “Griersonian” documentaries. In specific reference to the 1984 seminar, the “puzzlement” registered by the narrator translated to outrage on the part of many conference participants. The challenge that the anti-documentaries shown at the seminar presented to seminar participants, for whom the Grierson Documentary Seminar was typically a “tribute” to Grierson’sofficial legacy, led to violent debates and charges that films like Greenaway’s The Falls were senseless hoaxes. In ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman seems to be quietly satirizing this debate.
Working out the relations between Greenaway and Grierson is one problem the narrator will tackle. The second is the resemblance he notes between his “grandfather’s footage” and Greenaway’s films. On the level of the fiction, the narrator says he will incorporate his grandfather’s footage into the film he is “about to make” in Holland – the sequence we have worked through is, in a sense, a different film than the ?O, Zoo! to come. On the most banal level, the narrator “discovers” that “the director” shares his grandfather’s fascination with animals. More substantively, Hoffman seems to be announcing that his own exploration of the relations between Grierson and Greenaway will be effected precisely by taking a page from Greenaway’s book. Here, the narrator introduces a hermetic fiction by pretending that his grandfather’s footage is not his own.
These two levels interpenetrate to present two problems: one to the viewer, the problem of reading ?O, Zoo! between the levels of fiction and actuality, between the image and the voice-over. The second problem is Hoffman’s. When he says, “as usual” he would keep a diary of the whole affair, Hoffman is situating the film within his own practice and his own preoccupations – not Greenaway’s assured multiplication and excavation of fictions but his own tentative probings of the problems of representation. The “resolution” of these problems of reading and making appears as the film finally incorporates the two missing shots from the Day 1× shot card: “Elephant tries to get up,” “Elephant gets up.” Just after the diary section shows us the right half of the grandfather’s shot report, the narrator tells a two-minute long story over a black screen, about his witnessing and filming an elephant having a heart attack at the Rotterdam zoo. The passage is descriptive and emotional, centred around the filmmaker’s crisis of conscience in deciding to film the death, and the responsibility and guilt that accompanies it. In the end, he decides “to put the film in the freezer. I decide not to develop it.” At the end of the film, after the credits (in a sense, after the end of the film), two extra shots, both 28 seconds long, sepia-toned, and silent, show an elephant struggling to get up and then an elephant getting up.
The effect of this enclosure of a frame around ?O, Zoo! is double-edged. In one way, these last two shots expose the artifice of the voice-over. The events of the first shot (the elephant rocking back and forth, the attendants shoving bales of hay under the elephant) match the earlier voice-over, but in the second shot, the elephant gets up. The narrator lies twice. First, he developed the footage, and second, the events of the story are contradicted by the image. This decisive break in the fiction takes place by a radical separation of voice-over and image: the story is told over a black screen, the final images are silent. With this separation, the viewer can return to the film to reconstruct, in a sense, its non-meaning, and to question and revise the “authenticity” of the versions of events the film presents.
Working through these possibilities, of course, suggests that a thoroughgoing skepticism is called for in the viewer’s relation to the film, and especially to the narrator’s voice-over. For example, do the final images tell the whole story? Is there more elephant footage than is shown or listed? Is the order of the last two images correct? However, thoroughgoing skepticism is not, it seems to me, the final affect of ?O, Zoo!. It is important to note here a crucial difference between Greenaway and Hoffman: Greenaway’s oeuvre is obsessively interwoven with recurring images, themes, and characters, but his fictions are rigorously hermetic and unconcerned with the codes of realism. In ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman exposes the hoax; moreover, the emotional resonance of the elephant’s struggle is highly charged and excruciating to watch. One suspects that if the story of the elephant’s death is a fiction, it is still a fiction filtered through Hoffman’s sense of the crisis of representation.
The key to Hoffman’s sense of his own intertextuality is the line in the voice-over, “I’ve come across this problem before.” This statement refers to Hoffman’s film made a year earlier, Somewhere Between…. , where Hoffman, travelling by bus in Mexico, comes across a crowd of people around a dead Mexican boy just run over in the road. Hoffman puts away his camera, and cannot film the scene. Somewhere Between… is structured around the absence of the visual representation of the event, which is instead described in written text ‘voice-over.’ Yet, while making ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman did begin to shoot the elephant’s struggle, not knowing if the animal would live or die. The absence structuring Somewhere Between… becomes a kind of contingent presence in ?O, Zoo! Just as Hoffman gathers and organizes the images of Somewhere Between… to hint at, refract, and rehearse the moment of hesitation at the heart of the film, so in ?O, Zoo!, he organizes the film around the potential consequences of his decision to film the event – a kind of rehearsal of the variety of responses he felt as he filmed. The expressive urge behind Hoffman’s work, always constrained by its tentative, questioning attention to and awareness of the process of filming, distills itself into the structure his films adopt: radically extended meditations on a single, almost ecstatic moment.
When Hoffman showed Somewhere Between… at the 1984 Grierson Seminar, he was taken to task by a veteran war corespondent, Don North, who wanted to see the scene of the Mexican boy’s death. Shelley Stamp, reporting on the conference, writes, “[North] felt that the film would have been stronger with the addition of the death. What North missed, I think, was the very structure this absence provided, and Hoffman’s implied critique of North’s type of filmmaking”. The nature of Hoffman’s critique is clearer in ?O, Zoo! In the voice-over story, the narrator rationalizes his decision to film the scene with the lame excuse: “Maybe the television networks would buy the film and tell people the tragedies in their neighborhood”. After the elephant “dies”, he admits, “My idea of selling the film to the network now just seems an embarrassing thought, an irresponsible plan”.
The “social utility” arguments of sensationalist news and documentary makers and institutions always carry a hint of the National Enquirer (“because people want to know”) – an epistephilia which borders on what Tom Gunning has called the spectatorial mode of curiositas (1989:38). But it is important not to see Hoffman’s tentative meditations on the problematic of representation as party to the opposing camp which censors representation under the flag of “responsibility to subject” – the simplistic and squeamish argument that filming “takes advantage” of the subject. Rather, Hoffman understands film’s power to mediate between the consciousness of the filmmaker and the viewer; his hesitations around the problem of representation reflect a personal ambivalence about the necessary link between his vision and the viewer’s. In an “artist’s statement” for the Art Gallery of Ontario, Hoffman writes,
“By means of the personal content of my films I seek to uncover subjective aspects of the way events were recorded. Focusing on the way that I, as a filmmaker, can and do influence both form and content allows room for the viewer to reflect upon ways in which meaning is constructed in film. Using the processes of reflection and revision, I seek to examine and express how we bring meaning to past and present lived experiences.”
If this statement names the terms of Hoffman’s meditation on representation it does not reflect the intensity of the tension felt between the extraordinary control a filmmaker has over images and the guilt they arouse, nor the sense of danger around Hoffman’s approach of the particular “lived experience” at the core of these films, namely, bearing witness to death.
In the voice-over of the elephant story, Hoffman includes a sentence that clarifies this intensity of responsibility and danger:
“concentrating on the image I had filmed as if my mind was the film and the permanent trace of the elephant’s death was projected brightly inside. Somehow it’s my responsibility now.”
Hoffman makes explicit that central insight and concern of radical independent film practice and theory: film’s status as a radical metaphor for consciousness and its relation to the world. The capacity of film to mediate the relation between consciousness (“as if my mind was the film”), and events in the world, centres around its indexical nature (“permanent trace”). This mediation with carries the potential to represent death and suggests a radically powerful level of epistemological inquiry carrying both an intimation of the ecstatic – outside space and time – and what Jean Epstein has called “a warning of something monstrous” at the heart of cinema (1977:21). The “responsibility” Hoffman feels around this encounter with death is keyed by the phrase “projected”. For if film is a radical metaphor for consciousness, we must understand the double-hinged nature of that metaphor as it swings between filmmaker and spectator. Hoffman’s hesitations regarding filming, or developing, or showing his experience of death revolves around a terror of the urgent but reckless energy that representation burns into the filmmaker and the viewer.
If the filming of a moment of death is the central expressive theme of Hoffman’s film, its representation and deferral is never divorced from his recognition that the weight of film history and convention always interposes itself and structures the spectator’s access to the image. The engagement of film history in ?O, Zoo!, especially with the Griersonian documentary tradition with its central claim to absolute truth, underlines the epistemological stakes behind Hoffman’s questioning. Hoffman wants to bring the conventions and history of the construction of certainty to crisis, to clear a space for the spectator to approach, with Hoffman, the intensity of fascination and doubt inscribed in that image which appears literally as supplement, as coda, to the text of the film. The point is not to escape mediation – this is not an Edenic pure image. Nor is it to restore certainty. Rather, Hoffman clears a space for consciousness to reengage the world in “lived experience” via representation.
Allan, Blaine. “It’s Not Finished Yet (Some Notes on Toronto Filmmaking).” Toronto: A Play of History (exhibition catalogue). Toronto: Power Plant, 1987. 83-92.
[Burch, Noël. “Film’s Institutional Mode of Representation and the Soviet Response.” October 11 (Winter 1979): 77-96.]
Della Penna, Paul, and Jim Shedden. ” The Falls .” Cineaction! 9 (July 1987): 20-4.
Elder, Kathryn. “The Legacy of John Grierson.” Journal of Canadian Studies 21.4 (Winter 1986-87): 152-61.
Epstein, Jean. “The Universe Head Over Heels.” Trans. Stuart Liebman. October 3 (Spring 1977): 21-25.
Grierson, John. “The Creative Use of Sound.” Grierson on Documentary. Ed. Forsyth Hardy. London: Faber, 1966. 157-63.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Art & Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-45.
Hoffman, Phil. “Artists and their Work: Phil Hoffman.” Pamphlet. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1985.
Morris, Peter. “Rethinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson.” Dialogue: Canadian and Quebec Cinema. Eds. Pierre Verroneau, Michael Dorland, and Seth Feldman. Montreal: Mediatexte/Cinematheque Quebeçoise, 1987. 21-56.
Stamp, Shelley. Program Notes for Somewhere Between… . pamphlet. Toronto: Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 1984.
Winston, Brian. Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited. London: BFI, 1995.
* “In one delicious sequence, Hoffman ironizes Greenaway’s move to big budget feature filmmaking. While Greenaway’s crew makes futile attempts to corral a flock of flamingos, Hoffman simply sets up a feed bucket in front of his Bolex. A flamingo approaches and he gets the shot; personal control of the apparatus has its rewards.”
** “My thanks to Karyn Sandlos for her excellent editorial work on this essay