by Jeff Hicks
March 10, 2016
Philip Hoffman is a diary filmmaker, a scotch-tape scavenger of scattershot memories.
He finds them, crimped and creased, on the photographic scrap-heaps of life and time. He holds them in his disjointed card deck of disarray.
Then, maybe one inspired day, he sticks them to celluloid home between sprocket holes.
“That’s sort of the heart of my approach,” said the 60-year-old Waterloo native on Thursday morning before addressing his film class at York University in Toronto.
“I collect images over a long period of time. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do with them.”
But his running cinematic journal is constant and fluid. He fills its ethereal pages with audio, video, film and photographs. He is a pack rat of cinematic potential.
He’ll receive a medallion at Rideau Hall on March 23. The cash prize is $25,000.
He found out in November. He kept quiet and kept busy, like when he was a teen working the kill line at the family meat plant on Maple Street in Kitchener.
The award was officially announced on Monday.
“I got a lot of congrats from my hockey pals,” said Hoffman, who still plays in a Yorkdale men’s league that often uses the ice at the remnants of old Maple Leaf Gardens.
Hockey and hybrid filmmaking. That’s become the faceoff forté for Hoffman, a long-ago junior puck-chaser for the Waterloo Siskins and Hespeler Shamrocks.
Meshing a digital present with an acetate past still carries aesthetic appeal.
“I see it in my classes,” he said. “People are nuts about still handling celluloid.”
Keeping film alive. Is that his hand-processed crusade? Is that why he runs a “film farm” retreat for experimental filmmakers each summer at his country home in Mount Forest?
“Film is from the past,” he said. “I want to see how it can live in the present.”
The past lives in Hoffman’s first film, “On the Pond.” How long ago? It was 1978.
He pulled his parents, Phil and Susan, and triplet older sisters — identical Colleen and Frannie, plus fraternal Philomene — into his room in their Bridgeport Road home.
He played a slide show of family memories he had chronicled and tape-recorded the audio of their reactions. There was a lot of artistic talent huddled in that room, providing the running commentary to his modest nine-minute epic on the boy’s birthday.
Colleen and Frannie, now living in Oakville and Florida, respectively, started a modelling agency in town. They appeared in TV commercials too, selling washers and dryers and Doublemint chewing gum. And Philomene, now a Toronto-based folksinger, went on to teach music.
Hoffman’s mom Susan was a painter, too. She also crafted beautiful driftwood sculptures at their cottage near Owen Sound. Hoffman used to boat his mom across the McCullough Lake waters so she could scoop up driftwood for her creations.
Hoffman combined his family’s ad-libbed soundtrack with film footage he shot of his cousin Bradley skating on a frozen lake by the cottage.
The 16-mm shortie was the developing story of Hoffman’s young Waterloo life, processed in the dark room he set up in the family basement.
“I kind of started doing it because photography was a way I could express myself,” he said. “I had three sisters. They sort of ran the show. They were pretty dominant as a trio. I’d just kind of do photography and go fishing and get out of the commotion.”
He studied literature at Wilfrid Laurier. He took visual arts at Sheridan College.
He liked beat poetry, too. The spontaneity spoke to his freestyle creative soul.
“Spontaneity is really my process,” he said. “It’s like collecting things spontaneously, and then carving those moments into films.”
Not all those moments are comforting. Intense grief has pierced his work, too.
Twenty years ago, his partner Marian, a writer, died suddenly during a cancer biopsy operation. The 55-minute “What these Ashes Wanted,” an exploration of mortality, was his anguished artistic response to her loss.
“Working on the film was a place to go during that grieving period,” he said. “It was a comfortable place within the pain. I felt safe there.”
Two years after Marian’s death, Hoffman met Janine, a film teacher. They are now married and Hoffman has a 24-year-old stepdaughter in Jessie.
Janine co-wrote his 55-minute feature “All Fall Down” from 2009.
Hoffman’s latest film, a collaboration with Toronto-based filmmaker Eva Kolcze, explores the grounds of Montreal’s Expo 67. The scavenger was at work again. He found some cast-aside Super 8 film on the event in a library and etched it into their film.
“There’s a type of filmmaking within independent film called ‘found footage’ filmmaking,” he said. “You’re recycling images.”
But you’re framing them in fresh ways, combining old and new methods.
“I try to make films that deal with memory,” Hoffman said. “And how history is remembered.”
Originally published here.
Video by Jenn Norton
Philip Hoffman is one of the most influential experimental film artists working in Canada today. He has created a remarkable and sustained body of media art over nearly four decades in that has had an immense impact on several generations of Canadian experimental filmmakers and digital moving image artists.
His enduring impact is seen in the development of personal filmmaking, techniques of hand-processing and artisanal production, and the method of process cinema. His work combines sensitively observational documentary aesthetics, attentive to small gestures and humanist themes, with innovative forms of cinematic experimentation. Hoffman’s inquiry is tied to a deep sense of social responsibility and a profound commitment to pedagogy and to community.
– Michael Zryd, Associate Professor, Department of Cinema & Media Arts, York University
“In a film that consists as a series of displacements, its hard to know where to begin. It would be facile to suggest that time is spatialized (the characteristic of Jamesonian postmodernism) or, conversely, that space registers the vertical imprint of its diachonic totality (Derridean hauntology). But something very like that happens in Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down (2009). So one has to be careful here – the lives of actual people, and their deaths, are at stake here.”
by Tom Kohut (cineflyer – Motion pictures and related arts in Winnipeg, Canada)
“The artistic, experimental side of TIFF gets drowned out in the rush to the next sighting of a Clooney or a Cruz … but you know, that’s unfair. Some of the films consigned to obscurity by the massed media are just as powerful, and just as heartfelt, as anything with a studio logo on the poster.” — Norman Wilner Original Article
“Hoffman’s absorbing debut feature builds parallel tracks out of two lives lived a century apart. One section tells the story of 19th-century First Nations activist Nahneebahwequa, who married a white man and pleaded her people’s case to Queen Victoria; another section meditates on the more recent experiences of George Lachlan Brown, a British expatriate who came to Canada, fathered a child and descended into poverty and mental illness.” — Norman Wilner Original Article
“Could this be the same Philip Hoffman who has been making highly personal films in Canada for more than 30 years, has had two anthologies of criticism written about him, and had retrospectives of his work from Cuba, New York, Australia and India as well as at Toronto’s Images festival?” by Liam Lacey (Globe and Mail, September 8, 2009) Original Article
“Over the last thirty years, Phil Hoffman has often been called Canada’s pre-eminent diary filmmaker. The release of his first feature film, All Fall Down (2009) offers one an opportune chance to reconsider his body of work, his diaristic practice and its relationship to documentary. Revisiting Hoffman’s diverse oeuvre is a revelation: it quickly becomes apparent that Hoffman is one of Canada’s most important documentary filmmakers, full stop. To make this case, one only needs to look at the current ubiquity of ‘hybrid documentaries’ and the critical and ethical debates surrounding their emergence. The term itself is of recent provenance, yet Hoffman has been making what would now be considered ‘hybrid’ documentaries since his first film in 1978, On the Pond.” by Scott MacKenzie – POV magazine, Issue #76 Download as PDF
By Ken Paul Rosenthal
I am flying on Air Canada to Phil Hoffman’s Independent Imaging/Filmmaking Retreat on a farm northwest of Toronto, where I will shoot and process motion pictures, learn tinting and toning, and view contemporary experimental films. It’s been 11 years since I was introduced to the tactile universe of hand processing movie film at the San Francisco Art Institute. Watching the beautiful mess of images emerge from a stainless steel womb for the first time entirely changed the way I make films.
Hand processing is a practice where serendipity is the rule rather than the exception; an antidote to conventional methods of filmmaking that emphasize image control. Whereas new technologies moved me away from the medium, I could use my own hands to embrace the film material more directly and intimately. Over the years I have hand-processed hundreds of rolls of film and shared my experiences in dozens of workshops. Now I’d have an opportunity to learn recipes and techniques from other passionate practitioners and work in 16mm for the first time.
The stewardess offers me headphones for the onboard movie, but I decline and turn my attention instead to the film unraveling outside the cabin window. The sifting contours of the clouds remind me how much hand-processing movie film is like playing in a celluloid sandbox. It can also be quite terrifying. You discover your heart isn’t as malleable as the medium, and you start scraping away at it until only the most precious cell is left. That frame, that naked grain, is your silver soul.
Mount Forest, Canada
I am standing alone in an open barn door. In front of me a tree traces the grass with tender brushstrokes. I turn and enter the barn, where pillars of light ring the space like a motionless zoetrope. It is the morning after the retreat has ended, and I’m still nursing my last shot of solitude.
Although the 11 other participants have departed, the after-effects of five days of nonstop filmmaking are evident everywhere. Glistening strips of hand-processed film drip-dry and flutter from a 15-foot clothesline inside the barn. My own footage wraps around the line in impossible tangles. Short, crazy-colored pieces of film swim in bowls of toning solution. Half-eaten bits are stuck to the fridge like a proud child’s schoolwork. Sheets of opaque plastic cordon off the darkrooms. Just yesterday those same plastic curtains barely dampened the giddiness of fellow processors, who emerged from the darkrooms like proud parents, shouting, “Oh my God, look at this!” as people scurried over to see their newborn images, launching into a chorus of “Oohs,” “Ahhs” and “Wowwws.”
The film retreat was a carnival of creativity, and the barn was the funhouse. At least it was for most of the participants. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder; what was I doing in the farmhouse cellar futzing with my Bolex’s rex-o-fader for two hours while the resident sparrows were pooping on my head? How did I expose an entire day’s shoot to a 100-watt light bulb before it hit the first developer? And why the hell did I go ahead and process it anyway?! Instead of producing images, I made a series of increasingly catastrophic mistakes. Why was it so difficult to practice what I’d long been preaching to my hand-processing students: dissolve prescribed ideas and embrace the process from which the most elegant visions arise?
When I arrived six days earlier, I was prepared to make a dance film. That ambition quickly dissolved when I took on a Bolex Rex-4 as my shooting partner. Having only shot with highly mobile Super-8 cameras for the past 15 years, I found the 16mm Bolex a beast to handle. Using a Sekonic meter to read the light, stopping down the aperture and then recompose before shooting didn’t feel spontaneous. Instead of embracing the Bolex’s noble weight and its economy of functions, I kept wrestling with it. The camera didn’t fight back, it just sort of went away, piece by piece.
Over the next two days I lost the backwind key, a 24-inch cable release, and the filter slide (thus fogging an entire day’s shoot). I also stripped the threading in the crankshaft. With each additional piece of equipment lost or broken, I was forced to peel back another layer of intention. I let go my idea of making a dance film, and I let go my desire to leave the farm with a finished film. After all, I was always reminding my students that film is less about making a film than it is about experiencing the making. And that the texture of the gesture becomes the film. Now I needed to take my own advice.
However, abandoning the images and ideas I had developed in my mind filled me with despair. Without a script or a preconceived vision to guide me, I felt crippled and blind. I did not know which side of the camera to place my attention on, and collapsed to the ground. It was at that moment that an image came to me—my hand reaching through the lens and fondling the sun. I thought about my little focus-free 35mm still camera (which had slipped out of my pocket into a bucket of water that morning) and how liberating it felt to point it and just shoot whatever I found beautiful.
I stood up and immediately began filming in the same way I had made still pictures, without any camera movement, simply framing my subjects for their texture and the way they embodied the light. I shot burlap riding the wind. I shot barbed wire choking wild straw. I shot a newborn calf’s placenta until an irate bull chased me headlong through the electric sting of a charged fence. As the Bolex and I moved arm in crank through pastures and forests, I realized I was making a dance film after all. Only the dance wasn’t taking place in front of the lens, but in the space between the camera body and my own. And I realized that my struggles had not been about making mistakes or knowing what to shoot, but about how to compose my self. I had taken a shot of my solitude, and it was a good fix.
Everyone’s activity reached a fever pitch on the fifth and final day in preparation for our evening screening. Filmmakers darted from pasture to darkroom to flatbed in frenetic circles, with pit stops at the tinting table, optical printer or homemade animation stand. The resident Steenbeck had a wonderful malfunction, which caused the plates to clang like a locomotive pulling into a station, or dinner bell calling everyone to our celluloid feast.
An hour before showtime I chose my selects, drew up a paper edit and assembled a rough-cut. As I hastily sifted through reel after reel of misfortune, a few silver jewels began to emerge. After my piece screened, a warm shivering welled up in my chest as I shared the details of my innumerable mishaps. Although everyone applauded my work’s photography, the images of my solemn, distended shadow hugging an endless road, of rotting barn shingles and a lonely leaf framed against a setting ball of sun were documents of my solitude.
Now it’s the morning after the retreat has ended, and I am standing alone in the barn wondering what to do with my film, with myself. Should I return to the fields and re-shoot all my mistakes? Should I bury my film in front of the barn, where exhausted chemistry had spilled? Or should I just chuck the whole mess into a vat of blue toner? The answer gently materializes when I stop asking questions: continue filming what I find beautiful—the film material and the process of making film. I shoot film images rising out of a chemical bath, film stock spilling into a discarded porcelain sink, film strewn across a long row of bushes and negative film reversing to positive under a light bulb.
With only two hours before my departure, I find the courage to pull off my fantasy shot with the help of Christine Harrison, one of the retreat assistants. We leave the farm and head toward an enormous field of daisies, where I plan to have Christine film me prancing naked in slow motion with an armload of film. We arrive and knock on the door of a private residence neighboring the field to ask permission, but no one answers, so we get right to it. I strip down, then leap and roll about, trampling daisies with blissful abandon. Each time a car approaches on the road, I duck down into my robe of blossoms. As a comic counterpoint, I decide to stand center-frame with a ball of film covering my genitals while I peer about timidly. We are setting up the shot when Christine alerts me to an approaching truck. I figure an 18-wheeler will consider my daisy cheeks worth no more than a toot of his horn. Instead he slams on the brakes and screams bloody murder. This draws out the woman from the nearby residence, whom we thought wasn’t at home. She begins to scream about there being children in the house and threatens to call the police. (Could it be they don’t appreciate dance?)
We gather up clothing and equipment in such haste that my eyeglasses are left behind. So we dash back to retrieve them, but find nothing among the yards of smashed blossoms. Christine seems particularly unnerved. I’m not sure if it’s because the authorities might confiscate our equipment, or because the reputation of the film camp would be irreparably damaged. Regardless, she promises to return that night to search some more, and I drive off to Toronto with the entire world looking like a four-laned fishbowl.
So went my experience on the film farm. I danced with my dark side, my light side and all the other gradations of my silver soul. I lost my eyesight in one sense and gained insight in another, as corny as that sounds. I know deeply and intimately that film is (for me) fundamentally not about recording a picture. It is a process even broader than the developing of images. It is about dancing with stillness and manipulating a novel posture for my heart. Phil Hoffman, the compassionate angel who manages the farm, says that film is about the moment of transformation, and that making love for your self is a reason to make film. Words to shoot by indeed.
I have yet to process the film I shot on my last day at the farm, but that’s OK. I only exposed it as a means to a beginning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ken Paul Rosenthal is an independent filmmaker, teacher and activist. His films weave personal and political narratives into natural and urban landscapes. Rosenthal is the recipient of a SAMSHA Voice Award for his media work in mental health advocacy, and a Kodak Award for Cinematography He holds an MA in Creative & Interdisciplinary Arts, and an MFA in Cinema Production.
(The Afterlife of Latent Images)
By Rick Hancox
Is film dead, or are rumours of its death–as in Mark Twain’s response to the gaffe about his own demise–“greatly exaggerated”? Rumours of film kicking the bucket are nothing new – “FILM IS DEAD” was a banner headline in Daily Variety in 1956 when videotape was invented. Maybe I should have called this talk “A Fleeting Filibuster on the Future of Film,” but it seemed that a title relating to the past was appropriate, thus “Film – Is There a Future in Our Past? (The Afterlife of Latent Images).” The idea of the latent image–exposed film waiting for development–is one of the key differences between film, and its bond with the past, and video, with its virtual window on the present. Of course once the latent image is developed, and comes to life on the screen, it only knows the present tense. Thus, the notion that film’s future as a medium is in its past, is one of the ironies I want to explore.
Read the rest of the article here.