Category Archives: Reviews & Articles

Notes on river

by Philip Hoffman

The Saugeen River was named Sauking, ‘where it all flows out,’ by the Ojibways in the early 1800s. It runs into Lake Huron. The place where I know it is twenty miles south of Owen Sound, Ontario, near Williamsburg, where I spent lots of time in my youth exploring. Over the past dozen years I’ve returned there to film. In 1977 with a wind-up Bolex and one roll of 16mm color film. In 1981 with a 1/2″ reel to reel, black and white video portapak. In 1984, indoors now, with a rear screen set up to record on video the original 16mm footage. And then again in 1989, the camera went for the first time beneath the surface in an underwater housing, the camera loaded with high contrast printer stock.

All the video images were transferred to film in the version that’s now in distribution, though I sometimes still screen the piece as a film/video installation, once even outside, in a forest, on the snow.

On the way to the river to shoot the underwater section in 1989, I made a quick call to my parents who live near the Saugeen to let them I know I was on the way up. My mother told me that my uncle had been found dead that day. He shot himself by the river (a different river), near our home town. She told me not to tell anyone because his immediate family wanted to say it was a heart attack. I got into the car with Garrick and Tim, my friends who were helping me with the filming, and we drove up. Churning inside.

I know that the death had something to do with what we filmed that day, and how I edited the section. I used the filming and editing as a way to mourn for him who I cared for, who never had the chance to be heard.

In this last section of the river, underwater, I gave up the camera. I told Garrick to let the river take him—just start the camera and let the current take you. I stood in the boat wondering about the death and watching. Giving up my hold on the camera.

Kitchener/Berlin: Or How One Becomes Two (Or None)

by Steve Reinke

I know it’s a hollow rhetorical ploy, a cliché even, an excuse for a certain kind of sloppiness, dispreparedness, but I mean it sincerely: I have given up on the essay I meant to write. Instead I submit these pathetic notes in the form of a letter asking for forgiveness. By now I should be used to my failure as a critic. I continually back away from planned essays, taking refuge in the literary: the aphorism, the satiric manifesto, the autobiographical anecdote. But this retreat is more disappointing than most. When I watched Kitchener-Berlin again (I hadn’t seen it in many years) I was struck by its rightness, its perfection. It seemed to me exemplary. Trebly exemplary: to (or as) the work of Hoffman, to Canadian cinema, and to experimental film. The film surely merits close textual analyses from a variety of approaches. Moreover, it seemed to me, however paradoxically, that these analyses would constitute a more general discussion of experimental film as an endeavor.

Apology
Sure, art is long and life is short, but I am not troubled by this condition. What bothers me is that art is complex and I am simple, though conflicted: stupid. Art makes retards of us all. Writing about it is a clumsy thing, doomed to always miss what is most significant and instead gloss the petty. Criticism becomes an act of contrition, an extended apology. I am sorry, and sorry that this is the case.

Film Contra Video
Experimental video is centered around the voice: an individual talking, rhetorically deploying a particular subjectivity in relation to a certain construction of consciousness. Video is willfully interior: its relation to the world is never direct, but processed through a particular subjectivity. It is doubly mediated, there is no direct perception, no immediate apprehension of the world. One cannot speak of phenomenology in relation to video without undue strain. Experimental film has a completely different relation to voice and the world. There is no such thing as a ‘personal’ film. The voice in film always aspires to be the voice of God. Film is singly mediated, self-consciously authored by authors who retreat behind subjectivity to become merely thinking, perceiving bodies. Interiority is impossible, the world itself impinges too strongly. Experimental video proceeds through a process of talking to one’s self as if one had a self; experimental film through a process of swallowing or incorporating the world into a self which is no longer human, but an author, a hollow signature attempting to structure perception.

Deleuze
This season it’s all about Deleuze’s cinema books. I keep reading these books because his distinction between the time-image and movement-image seems a fertile jumping-off point for a discussion of experimental film. But the only films people seem to discuss are Hitchcock’s (when Zizek via Lacan should have silenced them all, at least long enough so these hacks could take a break in which to think a little bit harder). I asked Laura Marks—one of the few academics who has applied Deleuzian theory to artists’ film and video—why this would be the case. She said because artists such as Hoffman are applying Deleuze’s insights directly (whether or not they have any knowledge of his writing) the need is not so great. This is probably true, but still I am not satisfied, and regret I am not able to supply such an analysis at this time. But here is what I have learned from Deleuze: that there is a kind of vertiginous ecstasy to be always on the verge of coherency, to endlessly defer sense in the hope that what one approaches is something that had been previously unfathomable.

Dream
I dreamt last night that I came across a book called Kitchener-Berlin and it was a really big book—lots of words, hardly any pictures, a few diagrams—something between an encyclopedia and an autobiography. It contained all the information about the images in the film, where they came from and what they mean. This dream is partly a response to my hermeneutic anxiety—a feeling that I can’t write about the film without a greater level of mastery, specifically the ability to form a reading which would proceed from an extensive knowledge of what is depicted in individual shots. So while I continue to remain firm that Kitchener-Berlin does not call for that kind of interpretation (that is, will not constructively yield to a directly hermeneutical approach), perhaps its dream book does (and would). Perhaps this dream book is a bible situated between the artist and the film and ready, in its encyclopedic detail, to tell us everything. We would study the book endlessly in order to derive increasingly accurate interpretations of the film. And the film itself—the hermetic, incorruptible art object—could sink into the background, as pure and coyly mysterious as the Mona Lisa.

Women, Nature and Chemistry: Hand-Processed Films from The Independent Imaging Workshop

 by Janine Marchessault

The representation of nature has been a central and longstanding aesthetic preoccupation in Canadian art and iconography. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in a series of films that have emerged from Philip Hoffman’s Hand Processing Film workshop located on a forty acre farm in Southern Ontario. Since 1994, the films coming out of this summer retreat have been remarkable in terms of the consistency of their themes and innovative aesthetic approaches. One finds here a new generation of women experimental filmmakers exploring the boundaries between identity, film, chemistry and nature.

The creative context for these films is no doubt shaped by the Experimental films and critical concerns of Hoffman and his late partner Marian McMahon. Since the late eighties, both Hoffman and McMahon were interested in autobiography, film (as) memory and pedagogy. Hoffman, weary of overseeing large classes and high end technologies at film school, conceived of a different pedagogical model for teaching film production. Instead of the urban, male dominated and technology heavy atmosphere, The Independent Imaging Workshop would be geared towards women and would feature hand-processing techniques in a low-tech nature setting.. The process encouraged filmmakers to explore the environment through film, and to explore film through different chemical processes. The result is a number of beautiful short films that are highly personal, deeply phenomenological and often surreal. Dandelions (Dawn Wilkinson, 1995), Swell (Carolynne Hew, 1998), Froglight (Sarah Abbott, 1997), Fall and Scratch  (Deirdre Logue, 1998), Across (Cara Morton, 1997) and We are Going Home, (Jenn Reeves, 1998) are among the most striking, recalling some of Joyce Wieland’s most artisinal works and the psychic intensity of Maya Deren’s ‘trance’ films.

By artisinal I do not mean the aesthetic effect of ‘home made’ movies produced by the uneven coloration of hand processing and tinting techniques. I am referring to the process of making  films that is embedded in the final effect; that is, the work of film. Joyce Wieland’s work was often characterized as artisinal, a term that in the sixties and seventies was the opposite of great art. Famously, she made films on her kitchen table, bringing a history of women’s work to bear on her productions. In a video document of The Independent Imaging Workshop, three women sit at a kitchen table in a barn discussing the varying and unpredictable results of processing recipes: the thickness of the emulsion, the strength of the solutions, the degree of agitation, not to mention air temperature and humidity. Out of the lab and into the kitchen (or barn), film production moves into the realm of the artisan and the amateur which, as Roland Barthes once observed, is the realm of love. This is the home of the experimental in its originary meaning, of finding what is not being sought, of being open to living processes and to chance.

Like Wieland, this new generation of filmmakers is exploring the relationship between bodies, the materiality of film stocks and the artifacts of the world around them. The simple images of nature (daisies, fields, frogs, trees, rivers, clouds and so on) and rural architectures (bridges, barns, roads, etc.) are exquisite in their different cinematic manifestations.  This is not idealized or essentialist nature, rather the landscapes are grounded in an experience of place. In Dawn Wilkinson’s Dandelions for example, the filmmaker speaks of her relation to her birthplace and to home, “I am Canadian.” As the only black child growing up in a rural town in Ontario, she was frequently asked “where are you from?”. As she tells us about her experiences of being connected to nature while not being included in the history of a nation, we see her with dandelions in her hair; she films her various African keepsakes in the landscape; we follow her bare feet on a road and later, she does cartwheels across fields. The montage of images is delicately rhythmic, and is accompanied by a monologue directed at an imaginary audience “Where are YOU from?…I was born here.” Like so many of the films produced at the workshop, the film explores the relation between the natural landscape and social identity.

Several of the films display quite literally a desire to inscribe personal identity and history onto or, in the case of Carolynne Hew’s Swell, into the landscape. In Swell, Hew, lying on a pile of rocks, begins to place the stones over her body. The film is structured by a movement from the city into the country, but the simple opposition is undone by both the filmmaker’s body and film processes. The quick montage of black and white city images (Chinatown, bodies moving on the street, smoke, cars), accompanied on the soundtrack by a cement drill, is replaced by feet on rocks, strips of film blowing in the wind and beautifully tinted shots of yarrow blooms. There is no attempt here at a pristine nature, at representing a nature untouched by culture. Rather, the film is about the artist’s love of nature, her sensual desire to be in nature. Shots of her face over the city are replaced with images of nature over her body; yarrow casts detailed shadows on her thigh, a symphony of colors abound–orange, blue and fusia. Strands of film hang on a line and Hew plays them with her scissors as one would a musical instrument. The sounds of nature–crickets, bees, water–are strongly grounded in the sound of her own body, breathing and finally a heartbeat. There are no words in this film but everything is mediated through language and through the density of the filmmaker’s perception and imagination. The film is laid to rest on a beautiful rock as she scratches the emulsion with scissors, the relation between film and nature is dialectical. Nature here is both imagined (hand processed) and experienced. It is impossible to separate the two.

Deirdre Logue’s two short and deceptively simple films, Fall (1998) and Scratch (1998) also convey the filmmaker’s physical insertion into nature only this time the experience is not sensual release, rather it is a sadomasochistic and painful journey. In Fall, Logue falls (faints?) over and over again from different angles and in different natural locations to become one, in a humorous and bruised way, with the land. In Scratch she is more explicit about the nature of her images as we read “My path is deliberately difficult”. Facing the camera, she puts thistles down her underpants, and pulls them out again. The sounds of breaking glass as well as the crackle of film splices are almost the only sounds heard in this mostly silent film. Intercut are found footage images from an instructional film, we see a bed being automatically made and unmade, glass breaking and plates smashed. This film is sharp and painful. Logue, beautifully butch in her appearance, is anything but ‘natural’; it is clear that the nature she is self-inflicting is the nature of sex. Her body is treated like a piece of emulsion–processed, manipulated, scratched, cut to fit. What is left ambiguous is whether the source of self-inflicted pain results from going against a socially prescribed nature or embracing a socially deviant one.

Sarah Abbott’s Froglight (1997) is even more ambiguous than either Swell or Scratch in terms of the nature of nature. The film opens with the artist’s voice over black leader, “I am walking down the road with my camera but I can’t see ,anything.” A tree comes into focus as she tells us “but I know I am walking ,straight towards something, we always are.” For Abbott there is ,something that exceeds the image, that exceeds her thinking about nature. She experiences a moment standing in a field, a moment that cannot be reduced to an image ,or words; ,she “experiences something that is not taught”, she does not want to ,doubt this experience because “life would be  smaller.” Abbott touches the earth, we hear the sound of her footsteps, we see a road, we hear frogs, and later we come upon a frog at night. In the narration which is accompanied by the sound of frogs, Abbott attempts to put into words the idea of an experience that is beyond language, the idea that the world is much more than film, than the artist’s own imaginings. Like the soundtrack, the film’s black and white images are sparse. A magnifying glass over grass makes the grass less clear and is the film’s central phenomenological drive: surfaces reveal nothing of what lies beneath. Towards the end of the film, a long held shot of wild flowers blowing in the wind is accompanied by Abbott’s voice-over: “a woman gave me a sunflower before I came to make this film, and someone asked if it was my husband as I held it in my arm.” The ambiguity of this statement foregrounds the randomness of signs (flower, husband) and language. Froglight affirms a nature that is mysterious and unknowable, a world of spiritual depth and creative possibility.

What first struck me about so many of the films coming out of the workshop is the tension between the female self/body and nature; each film is in some way an exploration of the filmmaker’s relation to the land as place  by cartwheeling, walking or falling on it, and in the last two films that I want to comment on, swimming and dreaming through it. Women’s bodies in Jenn Reeves We are Going Home and Cara Morton’s Across are not only placed in nature but in time. Temporality exists on two planes in all of the hand-processed films I have been discussing, not only in terms of the images of a nature that is always changing but also, in terms of film stocks and chemicals that continue to work on the film through time. Where workprints serve to protect the original negative from the processes of post-production, the films produced at the workshop use reversal stock and thus include the physical traces of processing and editing, an intense tactility that will comprise the final print of the film. This is what gives these films their temporal materiality and sensuality. In We are Going Home and Across this temporality is narrativized and it is perhaps fitting that both films experiment more extensively with advanced film techniques such as time-lapse cinematography, solarization, single-frame pixelation, split toning and tinting, superimpositions, optical printing and so on. Here is where these two filmmakers would part company with Wieland whose cinematic sensibility is, in the first instance, shaped by a non-narrative tradition. Both films are steeped in a narrativity that can be more easily situated in relation to the psychodramas of another founding mother of the avant-garde, Maya Deren.

In the films of Deren, nature and the search for self are always an erotic and deeply psychological enterprise. Dreams allow passage to a human nature and a mysterious self that cannot be accessed through conscious states. Her films have been characterized as ‘trance’ films for the way they foster this movement into the deepest recesses of the self, a movement that is less about social transgression as it was for the Surrealists, than about the journey through desire. We Are Going Home is a gorgeous surrealistic film that has all of the characteristics of the trance film and more. It is structured around a dream sequence that has no real beginning or end. The first image we see is of a vending machine dispensing ‘Live Bait’ in the form of a film canister.. A woman opens the canister to find fish roe (eggs). The equation of fish roe and film, no doubt a nod to the Surrealists, opens up those ontological quandaries around mediation and truth that Froglight refers us to. It is this promise of direct contact along with the return “Home” in the film’s title, that gives some sign that the highly processed landscapes belong to the unconscious.

The film is structured around a network of desire between three women. One woman dives into a lake and ends up feet first in the sand. Another woman happens by and sucks her toes erotically at which point everything turns upside-down and backwards. Characters move through natural spaces (the beach, fields, water) disconnected from the physical landscapes and from each other. Superimposed figures over the ground move like ghosts, affecting and affected by nothing. Storm clouds, trees in the wind, a thistle, cows are all processed and pixilated to look supernatural. Toe sucking complete, the second woman lies down under an apple tree and falls asleep, the wind gently blows her shirt open. A third woman, a dream figure, emerges from a barn; skipping through fields she happens upon the sleeping figure and cannot resist the exposed breast, she bends over and sucks the nipple. The film ends with a sunset and romantic accordion music that is eerily off key.

We Are Going Home is an erotic film whose sensuality derives both from the sublime image processing and from the disunity between all the elements in the film: the landscapes, the colors, the people. The sounds of birds cackling, water and wind that make up the soundtrack further intensify the film’s discordance. It is precisely this disunity that charges the sexual encounters which are themselves premised on an objectification. Home remains a mysterious place that exceeds logic and rationality; it is a puzzle whose pieces are connected in a seemingly linear manner but which will always remain mysterious.

In contrast, the psychic space in Morton’s Across is shaped through unity rather than disunity, the film is about crossing a bridge. The central tension in this lovely film, which accomplishes so much in a little over two minutes, is built upon a desire to connect with an image from the filmmaker’s past. The metaphoric journey forward to see the past is conveyed through a hand-held camera travelling at a great speed across a dirt road, through fields, along fences and through woods. Different color stocks combine with high contrast black and white images of the bridge while on the soundtrack we hear a river. As we travel with the filmmaker through these landscapes, we encounter a high angle solarized image of a woman sleeping in a field, a negative image of a woman swimming in the river below the bridge, a static shot of Morton staring into the camera, and home-movie images of Morton as a young girl running toward the camera. An intensity and anticipation is created in the movement and in the juxtaposition of the different elements. These are quietly resolved at the end of the film: the young girl smiles into the camera to mirror the close-up of Morton’s inquisitive gaze, the swimmer completes her stroke, stands up, brushes the water from her eyes and seems to take a deep breath.

The workshop films that I have written about reveal a renewal of avant-garde concerns and experimental techniques–they are unabashedly beautiful and filled with a frenetic immediacy. To some degree their aesthetic approach grows directly out of the workshop structure: location shooting and hand-processing. Participants (which now include equal numbers of men) are invited to shoot surrounding locations and to collect images randomly rather than to preconceive them through scripting. The aim of the workshop is not to leave with a finished product but rather to experiment with shooting immediate surroundings using a bolex and with hand-processing techniques. Many of the films produced at the workshop are never completed as final works but stand as film experiments—the equivalent of a sketchbook. This is the workshop’s most important contribution to keeping film culture alive in Canada. The emphasis on process over product, on the artisinal over professional, on the small and the personal over the big and universal which has been so beneficial for a new generation of women filmmakers, also poses a resistance to an instrumental culture which bestows love, fame and fortune on the makers of big feature narratives.

Stet

by Mike Cartmell

It means “let it stand.”

Without explanation, for now. Instead, let me oblige you to indulge in the fantasy of a moment of inscription: imagine Phil Hoffman darkly embunkered in his digital basement, bringing to fruition several years’ hard work on his cinematic response to Marian’s death, a task whose already formidable cargo is further laden by an apprehensive public, friends and colleagues (and critics?) poised in anticipation, festival spotlight in the offing, book in preparation; and there is a deadline! And now consider that upstairs the bright world teems — new loves, new job, new life abundant, loud, alive, living on, waiting for Phil to join in, to live there too.

Under these conditions, how is the work of mourning even possible? How possible is the making of the work mourning demands? How could one manage the intimacy required, or the courage, or the vulnerability, or the generosity? How could one avoid distraction, and I mean “being torn limb from limb.” How could one endure the thought of all the scrutiny about to ensue? To say that the task would be daunting is hardly adequate. It would have to be unbearable.

Fortunately, we’re only fantasizing.

Merely daunting is the present task (an altogether different sort of fantasy): what sort of address is possible toward a work so personal, so charged with grief, so apparently non-political as Hoffman’s What these ashes wanted, and how can it meet the demands of its venue, a magazine about cinema but also about action, whose name inscribes a certain militancy, a politics? How can one avoid the temptation to offer a respectful bromide, especially given the tragic loss out of which the film is built. Is it possible to wish to celebrate this filmmaker, his films, this film, and yet meet the work critically, engage it politically? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

The last time I wrote about Phil’s work, I employed the device of having an imaginary conversation take place as a sort of preface to the piece.[1] I think I was trying to be entertaining. In it, I used an expression that has wide currency among (mainly white) people in the deep south, where I was living at the time. It’s an instance of what my friend Neil Schmitz would call “confederate discourse.” I wrote: “I might could have a twin brother.” Not surprisingly, a copy editor figured that I’d neglected to delete either the might or the could, and so deleted one of them for me. When I got the edited copy, I wrote “Stet” in the margin, and appended an explanation of the usage.

So when the book came out, and the deletion remained unstetted (yup, that’s a word), I was hotter, as the Mobile gumbo-queens might say, than a black roux on a high flame. Editors were decried, publishers slandered. In retrospect, one sees how these things can happen, that nobody’s to blame. Pressure of deadline. Mere oversight. Might could happen this time, too. But I hope not.

I like this phrase, this “might could,” because it seems to combine (or let’s say “confederate”) notions of capability, possibility and intention, while subsuming them under the sign of doubt. It’s not reducible merely to the sum of its parts; instead its meaning is disturbed by something which strictly is not part of it. It offers something while taking it back; it withholds while revealing. The statement “I might could help you clean up that kitchen” means, or could mean, something like “I’m quite willing and would like to help you clean up that kitchen, but only if you agree to it, I don’t want to insist, not that you’d really need help anyway.” There’s a sense in which it’s a more sociable, even more ethical idiom. At the same time, an advantage of “might could” lies in its ability to veil just about any assertion with a moderate ambiguity, and to leave the speaker at a certain remove from whatever he asserts, from any proposition about whose status he may not be entirely secure; not quite taking him off the hook, but leaving him a bit of squirming room, so that he may get off it eventually should he squirm to sufficient effect. Given that, consider what these statements might convey (or dissemble): I might could like to try that gumbo; I might could make a film about losing a loved one; I might could never forget you; I might could love you always.

You might could get it by now.

So to come, at last, back to the raft: despite my inability to answer the questions I posed above, I propose to carry on, insufficiently, with my merely daunting task to address, in this place, on this occasion, Hoffman’s What these ashes wanted, but to do so under the rubric (if there can be such a thing) of the “might could.”

To do so, and then to let it stand.

Here’s one way of putting it: when a loved one dies, a hole opens up in the Real. A flood of images rushes in, as if to fill the gap. Mourning would work (might could work?) to marshal those images, to subject them, with no guarantee of success, to some form of symbolic constraint in a process not necessarily terminable since that gap, that hole, will have a persistence. In any case, we have a difficult, uncomfortable, unstable articulation of psychic registers: Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. The subject is in disarray, adrift, at risk even. Disastered, he no longer knows where to look to find the star that ought to guide him; no longer can he rely on familiar locators to let him know who it is that he takes himself to be. Is it any wonder that Freud described the process of mourning, with its dramatic intensity and hallucinatory hypercathexes, as resembling psychosis?

In her commentary on an earlier version of the film, Brenda Longfellow makes an astute point concerning the issue of the other’s inscription in cinema.[2] Speaking of the sequence of Phil and Marian in the car as Marian makes her visiting nurse rounds, Longfellow writes:

…she confronts Phil (hiding behind his heavy 3/4-inch camera in the back seat), accusing him of not understanding how difficult it is to be filmed and how much the camera mediates and makes strange their relation. It is an important moment precisely because it honours the otherness of the other….[I]t anchors Marian in her lifeworld not simply as an image, idol or memory, but as a sensate and intentional subject in her own right, and one, furthermore, who explicitly defies the naturalness of a camera recording her image.[3]

There is another aspect to this sequence, however. Marian’s complaint quite forcefully registers a valorization of the psychological (her feelings of unease regarding her place in front of the camera) over the physical (Phil’s struggle with the heavy camera), a notion that she seems to regard as transparently the case, but whose validity hardly goes without saying; certainly it could be subject to dispute (to say the least, given the brute sovereignty of the physical in the region of illness leading to death). In addition, her protestations are a little excessive (“Oh Philip, you’re nuts! You really are nuts! Sometimes I think you’re so insensitive, really!”); once he explains, she becomes rather condescending, speaking to Phil as if he’s a bit of a nob (“Well, that’s a little different, you know. Do you understand the difference?”). Now it’s true that all of this is carried on with good humor, and I’m not about to embark onto the terrain of how couples work out their private modes of communication. My point is that here and occasionally elsewhere, the film accords Marian some over-exposure, allows her to be presented in what may be other than the best light. Besides the idealization and aggrandizement of the lost other that might be expected, this film permits a certain aggressivity or even hostility to be advanced in her direction. That this may be so need not be seen as a weakness; it may be a sign of inconsistency or contradiction on the part of the maker (though I might could rather not speculate as to the specific operations of his psyche), but that would be something worth registering since it’s something to which we are all likely to be subject. And that we are permitted to recognize Marian as some kind of imperfect creature, whether as a result of the irruption of someone’s aggressivity or no, is part of the film’s value; it provides a bit of purchase from which to resist (and to recognize the need to resist) the tendency to mythologize the lost loved one, to obliterate her faults, to reduce her in elevating her to the level of the ideal.

A black dog at loose ends, standing on a sidewalk; a kid on a front stoop conducting an imaginary orchestra (or is he a filmmaker quelling an applauding crowd at some festival awards ceremony?) This might could be what mourning is.

Though I met her the same day Phil did, I never had any extensive first hand experience of Marian as an intellectual, writer or artist. But I do remember an afternoon a year or two after they got together. Phil was out somewhere, and Marian and I talked for a few hours. I was going through some kind of a bad patch, as they say. She was generous and encouraging. I think it was the last time I spoke with her for more than a minute or two. I left that kitchen feeling quite uplifted, a feeling which lasted for some time afterwards.

What these ashes wanted, I felt sure,
was not containment but participation.
Not an enclosure of memory,
but the world.

The key phrase in the film’s epigraph (something which Marian had extracted from the work of American poet Mark Doty) is the “I felt sure.” Participation and the world rather than containment or enclosure (or incorporation) is not the other’s desire, but arises within the bereaved. It is the mourner who does not wish to be enclosed (trapped, embunkered) within or by his memory of the lost loved one; the “I felt sure” operates to project these wishes onto the departed, concealing, in what would appear to be a gesture of generosity or sacrifice, a flight from or defense against the affect, anxiety, which threatens him on account of what may not be loss, but rather, excessive proximity. Photography, and thus cinema, always functions in the mode of bereavement (recall Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes, et al.); making a film such as this one, making it public, is a way of securing this projection, a way of keeping this (projected) pact with the other, and at the same time an effort at underwriting one’s own defense. Thus Benjamin’s beloved Kafka: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.”[4]

This kind of “I felt sure” (under the sign of which the film proceeds) precisely bears the sense of the “might could.”

In the sequence featuring a photograph from Guadalest, Spain, whose “dark surround” may house Marian’s “after image,” the on-screen text continues:

if I could brighten up this part of the picture
I might illuminate
the condition of her death
the mystery of her life
and the reason why
at the instant of her passage
I felt peace with her leaving
a feeling I no longer hold

Here it is in precisely the place of no information (the blank, silver-free part of the negative that allows all light to pass, thus giving black on the print) that the other, and the answer to her enigma, is sought. It is as if the subject knows without knowing that there is a constitutive failure inherent in his project, that it must fail in order to in any sense succeed: that is, to relinquish, to recuperate, to remain, to remember. And that photography (or cinematography) has a necessary relation to that necessary failure. In the mode of bereavement. I felt sure.

Her snow dance, the second version, black and white, high-contrast. The scratches, dirt and hair, visible splices, the slow bleachout as she skips away. This might could be what mourning is.

In the section called “Four Shadows,” an apostrophe to Marian (but which also, by its second person address, implicates, ensnares, the viewer), Hoffman replays a series of chance encounters with death experienced “not long before you died.” Crucial here is the figure of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, whose presence in the film implicitly but nevertheless forcefully identifies her with Marian. Because she was a woman, and to prevent her from living on in eternity, Hatshepsut’s name had been written out of Egyptian history, her image defiled, her body robbed from its tomb. And yet her story and her name have been recovered, her image reclaimed; now there’s a website promoting a biopic called “The Daughter of Ra”; the other day, Phil told me he’d heard that archeologists think they may have found her mummy at a recent dig. Hatshepsut oscillates, then, between presence and absence; her cartouche is both erased and legible; her crypt is empty and it isn’t. A strong, active woman (socially, intellectually, artistically), Marian had a pharaohic bearing; we might could say that in the film (the figure of) Marian is borne in the same oscillation as her ancient avatar, but with a twist. Neither presence nor absence, but some remnant, a something-other-than, is encrypted here; or better, resides here cryptically: that is, available, should we be up to it, for decipherment.

Two kids discussing an infestation of ladybugs, and the different varieties among the swarm. One relates an accidental squishing, to general amusement. This might could be what mourning is.

Your death is only available to me as your absence or as my loss. You are gone, outside me, and are now nothing since I am consigned to memory, to mourning, to interiorization. But this death that I cannot know, your death (or my own?), makes my limit apparent in my obligation to mourn, to remember, and thus to harbor within me something that exceeds me, is other than me, and is outside me: a remnant of your intractable absent otherness. In me without me, your trace. Without which no “in me” at all, no within to me. Your absence, irrevocable, carves me out, hollows me, leaves me with your trace, which is other than you. Else but that other, I relinquish. What remains, non-totalizable, non-composable, is fragment, scrap, ort, morsel. Them I savor, mourning.

 

Hoffman’s practice is to work with leftovers, scraps, and the mode of his work is fragmentary. His approach is from the margins, and features the marginal: this grandmother; that body on a Mexican road; this twin and his brother; this one, this very one I loved, lost. It can be excruciating at times. There are even occasional bits that stick in the craw, refuse to be processed (for me, this time: Hasselhoff.) But in general, what it preserves, harbors, secretes, what opens in it, what swoons and ranges and percolates and dodges in this broad corpus is surprising, rich and deep. The work exceeds itself, is more than what it’s made from, and becomes itself its own trace, its own remnant. Available for decipherment. At a theatre (not terribly) near you.

More Egyptology: during the filming at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the zoom barrel on Hoffman’s lens jams, we are told, and later the camera stops working altogether. What gorgonizing Medusa’s gaze has come within its field of view? It is not absence that makes the dead so disturbing to encounter (Hoffman’s claim that each of his encounters made death “less strange” doesn’t seem to me altogether plausible given the details); it’s that the dead are somehow all too present, even too enjoying, we might say. Instead of lack, we come into contact with a lack of lack, a non-positive over-abundance exceeding our capacity to grasp it, and it provokes a petrifying anxiety. I might could make a film about a lost loved one, but to do so means that the apparatus itself will stiffen and break, that what I wish to record will utterly resist presentation; and it turns out that I can (and perhaps should) only avert my gaze, and in so doing merely mark the (lacerating) place/trace of what was to have been my subject.

The brilliant poetic reduction of the young Polish cousin in passing through/torn formations (“Where I was born, you filmed”) re/deformed here (chiasmatically; under erasure perhaps) as “You filmed, whereon my trace was born(e).” This might could be what mourning is.

One of a number of beautiful, singular and compelling images in the film: sunlit Marian walking behind a line of columns at a temple of Horus, image replaced by shadow, not-presence and not-absence, and trace. A haunting. Mike Hoolboom’s voice on the answering machine, delivering another potshard, a find from his dig:

In a later century, someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. It was repaired, not with glue, but with a seam of gold solder; and I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored, perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history.

It’s a comforting story, but there’s another version: you might could never gather up all the pieces; one or two wind up down the cold air return or the sinkdrain, never to re-emerge. Some bits are so tiny you can’t see to pick them up; eventually they’re carried away by swarms of ladybugs. The molten gold solder drips on your hand, searing into your flesh, working its way through your system till it’s lodged in your hot heart. The cup is repaired with Scotch tape and rubber bands, and you put it at the back of a shelf. Every time you happen to see it you’re stiffened with an anxious rigor, and look away. This, too, is part of history. Is it visible?

Now think of Auden’s meditation on Breughel’s Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts” (with the son of Daedelus a figure both of the lost loved one and the artist who tempts the limits of the possible, flying too close to the sun):

                 …how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

New loves upstairs, loud alive in the brightteeming day. This might could be what mourning is.

Perhaps in What these ashes wanted we have seen (at least the remnant of) something amazing. We might could sail on. And in the wake of the final frame, one word:

Stet.

It means “let it stand.”

 

 References

[1] Mike Cartmell, “Landscape With Shipwreck” in Landscape With Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman, ed. K. Sandlos and M. Hoolboom. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001, pp. 222-244.

[2] Brenda Longfellow, “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida” in Landscape With Shipwreck, pp. 201-210.

[3] Ibid., p. 207.

[4] In Gustav Janouch, Gespräche mit Kafka. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1968, p. 54.

A Dream for a Requiem


Filmmaker documents pure emotion

REVIEW
WHAT THESE ASHES WANTED

Peter Vesuwalla

Philip Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted is one of those films that forces you to rethink the medium. There are pictures, yes, and movement, light, and sound. There is, however, no narrative, and yet there is emotion. Both of these last two points are remarkable.
To make a film that is genuinely non-narrative is no small accomplishment. At a recent exhibition of short films, I listened as budding visual artist Victoria Prince attempted to explain that there was no narrative link among the images in her latest experimental video, despite an audience member’s insistence that he had been told a story. Last year, soi-disant “guerrilla projectionists” Greg Hanec and Campbell Martin were forced to concede that people will find a story in their work provided they look hard enough: audiences tend to do so. The fact is, there is something hard-wired in the human psyche that forces us to find continuity where there is none.
What makes What These Ashes Wanted unique and interesting is Hoffman’s ability to override our inherent expectation of being told a story. We learn that his longtime partner, Marian McMahon, has died of cancer, and that the film is an expression of his grief, but that’s only what it’s about. Nothing actually happens in it, just as nothing in the physical universe happens to us while we’re sitting and reflecting on the past. It’s assembled from nostalgic pieces of video footage, bolex film, still pictures, words, music, poetry and seemingly random micro-montages that fade into obscurity like fragmented memories.
“In times of great grief, it was important to go through the motions of life,” he narrates, recalling author Henry James. “Eventually, they would become real again.”
Hoffman edits these motions together the way that Jackson Pollock paints. He expresses his grief over his lost loved one not through the images themselves, but through the physical act of filming them. The images such as an empty room, an inventory of mementoes, and a field of sunflowers, coupled with a mournful monologue and a montage of unanswered voice-mail messages, carry all the weight of emotional brush strokes. If Pollock was an “action painter,” then Hoffman, I suppose, ought to be called an “action filmmaker;” that label, however, might cause confusion. Instead, call him a documentarian of the human soul.

Philip Hoffman will be on hand to present What These Ashes Wanted, along with his pupil Jennifer Reeves’ We Are Going Home, on Thursday, May 17, (2001) at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St.

No Epitaph

by Karyn Sandlos
from Landscape with Shipwreck: The Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom/Sandlos, YYZ/Insomniac Press, 2001

When Ann Carson writes “…death lines every moment of ordinary time” (166) she suggests that mortality resides in the quotidian details of our lives. Time, as we know it, is a progression that is measured by clocks, calendars, the passing of days, the changing of seasons.  When a loved one dies, the knowledge of time passing may allow us to hover over the chaotic reckonings of the present and imagine an afterwards; a prospective view that makes the immediate impact of loss bearable. But in the midst of bereavement, ordinary time is a view from the proximate clutter of a present that can’t envision a future, a heightening of the minor drama of death that permeates the everyday. For Carson, the kind of death that “lines every moment” doesn’t quite amount to an event, to the actual fact of Death. The problem is that rather than surviving death, we live it.

What took place every day was not what happened every day.  Sometimes what didn’t take place was the most important thing that happened.

— Marguerite Duras, Practicalities.

Death is a recurring fascination in Phil Hoffman’s oeuvre, a body of films that seem to rehearse a penultimate death that will take Hoffman to the outer and inner reaches of grief. In the film cycle that concludes with Kitchener-Berlin in 1990, be it the figure of a young boy lying dead on a Mexican roadside or an elephant falling at the Rotterdam Zoo, death is an indelible presence that is often left out of the frame. After 1990, by undertaking a series of collaborative works (Technilogic Ordering 1994, Sweep 1995, Destroying Angel 1998, Kokoro is for Heart 1999) and inviting audiences to order the progression of his Opening Series films (1992 ongoing project), death becomes a method in which Hoffman as maker is displaced. Phil’s latest work, What these ashes wanted, documents the death of his late partner Marian McMahon from cancer, and the film is a declaration of insurmountable grief. But the death that Hoffman has been rehearsing since assuming the role of familial custodian of memory at the age of fourteen is his own.

What these ashes wanted is populated by the familiar – even banal – images of home and family that I have come to expect from Hoffman, but here he makes use of the ordinary to evoke a profound experience of loss.  Hoffman’s iconography is that of the immediate material that surrounds him: a garden alive in summer and dead in winter, the view from a hotel window, highway traffic signs, the brick wall of the farmhouse where he lives. Ashes finds a gentle rhythm in the unexceptional that acts as a refrain throughout the film, proposing a way of seeing how extraordinary loss illumines the daily practice of death-in-life. The film is not a story of surviving death, but rather, of living death, of making life hospitable to the prospect of mortality.  It is through Hoffman’s carefully crafted attention to the minor details of loss that the presence of death in the ordinary fabric of life is acutely felt.

If you can read this you are standing too close.

— Epitaph for Dorothy Parker.

Bereavement has become a thriving industry in Western culture, replete with therapeutic approaches and self-help strategies that instruct on how to grieve well and for discreet periods of time. Many forms of bereavement counseling treat life after loss as a healing strategy, a way to reach toward a time when grief will be less shattering, when the pain of loss will be less present. Funerals also act as occasions for shaping and articulating grief, and for marking the distinction between the mourner and the mourned; a kind of reality check that affirms what the mind at once understands and resists knowing.  And it may well be the case that loss is far too amorphous and terrifying without the containers of formality into which we are compelled to pour it. Hoffman’s project is, however, less committed to protocol and more concerned with a practice of bereavement that mixes psychic disintegration with the provisional solace taken through secular therapies or devout rituals of mourning.  Early in ashes we partake of a playfully private moment shared between Phil and his late partner Marion McMahon, the first of several sequences that will draw us into the small circle of their relationship throughout the film.  Heavily bundled against the cold they frolic, home movie style, in the yard outside their Mt. Forest home.  The camera moves erratically across the brick wall of the farmhouse at close range; an uncomfortable proximity is felt in observance of an intimate game from which the burdens of the world seem to fall away. Phil touches the wire fence, feigns electric shock, and laughs. Filming this moment, the couple play at death while reaching for posterity – for permanence – bringing the underlying tension that haunts ashes to the surface.

People may die and be remembered, but they only disappear when they are completely forgotten, when no one ever uses their name.

— Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms.

It was Freud’s observation that dreams are populated by incidental images and fragments of experience from conscious life.  The death of a loved one, he noted, is often obliterated from the dreamscape only to return to memory with unusual force upon waking. (78) Perhaps, then, in the midst of grief the unconscious makes itself known through a heightening of the minutae of waking life, like a long, slow swim under deep water where every movement, every sound, and every glimpse of color and light is attenuated. The irreconcilable clash between psychic longing for the lost loved one and the reality of absence is less an event than a palpable emptiness, a heightened view from the jumble of experience that has fallen out of step with the continuity of time. In ashes, the brick wall of the farmhouse contrasts the brick facade and pillars of a more monumental structure, a relic of ancient history.  A figure walks slowly past an Egyptian temple, appearing, disappearing and reappearing from behind the columns. When the body is absent, this sequence implies, the shadow remains.

A person will walk through a hundred doors to carry out the whims of the dead, not realizing that he is burying himself away from the others.

— Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost.

In the days approaching her death Marian asks, “If you had to make up your own ritual for death what would it be?  And would it be private, or shared?”  Phil responds that it should be shared, and his tone resonates with the force of this deeply held conviction; for Phil, death is a lived practice that must necessarily be shared if one is to live at all.  It is often said that funerals are for the living; but how, precisely, does ritual help us grieve and move on?  With this question in mind, I often visit cemeteries and wander amidst gravestones belonging to people I have never met.  Something troubles about the tone of epitaphs. The words say that the loved one is gone. Etchings in stone mark the finality of death, but they don’t account for how life is lived as the practice of death. The severing of attachment and the abruptness of absence may be life’s most shattering experience, yet loss itself has a lingering presence in life. Lovers leave, but the inevitability of death, if not desirable, is wholly enduring.

Death, although utterly unlike life, shares a skin with it.

— Ann Carson, Men In the Off Hours.

Ashes is no epitaph, no tribute to the solace of monuments or the passing of time. In his latest work, Hoffman remains in his own time, a daily practice of loss lived precariously on the margin between disintegration and ritual. A voice on Phil’s answering machine enjoins that “in times of great grief it is important to go through the motions of life until eventually they become real again.” When Phil films Marian making calls on her route as a home care nurse, he rides in the back seat and watches her face in the rear-view mirror.  Caught up in the demands of the everyday and the immediacy of the task at hand, Marian thinks out loud about how peculiar it feels to provide intimate physical care to complete strangers. In illness, she observes, the body becomes public property.  The conversation takes on a heightened anxiety as Marian describes the awkwardness of the situation, and her inability to talk with Phil about things she really wants to talk about while he complains about the weight of the camera.  The nuances of Phil’s response are missed in an exchange in which Marian teases him for failing to appreciate the gravity of her insights. The conversation becomes a speculation on the daily minutae of loss; the disappointments, missed connections, and absences that act as small rehearsals for the larger drama of death.

Although I never met Marion McMahon, I remember her in a very particular way.  I was a new graduate student waiting for a meeting in the hallway outside a professor’s office. Wanting to absorb the culture of collegiality and ideas I studied my surroundings.  The walls were plastered with memoranda; posters advertising political rallies, calls for papers, and cartoon strips ¾ the clutter of academic life.  What I recall most vividly is a poem that was taped to the door directly in front of me. Reading that poem, I felt a momentary break in time that I have yet to understand.

Perhaps there are no accidents.  I had skimmed the eulogies on e-mail, and heard fragments of conversations in the hallways about a colleague who had passed away.  She was a doctoral candidate, and she died of cancer just as her dissertation was approaching completion. The poem was written by one of Marian’s professors, but it read as if her hand was urgently tracing his words…I am still here.

She might have spoken the words, or whispered them.

It is a common clinical experience that bereaved people fear that talking about the person they have lost will dispel their contact with them.

— Adam Phillips, On Flirtation

Ashes speaks most profoundly through a story that Hoffman struggles to put to words, not only because he cannot bear to articulate his loss directly, but because language itself can only approximate the void that is absence. In ashes, loss is evoked through a reordering of referentiality, a fragmentation of the details Hoffman depends upon to order his world. A window provides the only source of light for a darkened bedroom.  Although the light fluctuates, it is impossible to determine when it is morning and when it is evening. The camera hovers on time lapse.  Are seasons passing, or merely hours?  Formless images, shapes, and shadows are intercut with lush scenes of the garden awash with the color of emotion, with the vividness of an image one might wish to have shared with a lover. Anecdotal remnants of Marian contained in answering machine messages procure the flavor of shared lives, recount daily events, confirm appointments, and announce the birth of a baby girl.

A nurse calls, wondering what to do with a blouse left behind at the hospital.

It is possible that we have no idea what secular grief is; what grief unsanctioned by an apparently coherent symbolic system would feel like

— Adam Phillips, PromisesPromises.

Obsessing over the hidden meaning of a photograph taken from inside a cave, Marian reflects on learning to live life “from the inside out,” from the midst of happenings yet to be understood, yet to be integrated into a coherent realm of experience.  Transposed in text across the darkness of the cave’s interior, her reflections on loss – in this case the loss of memory – resonate with Phil’s own struggle to articulate his grief.  The power of naming, Marian insists, gives experience its credibility.  Attuned to the capacity of the symbolic to legitimize, Hoffman takes ritual as an entry point directly into the midst, the incoherent centre of sorrow.

“Seventeen’s the number,” Hoffman repeats, “One is for one, and seven is for doing.”  With childlike insistence, he translates a personal lineage of life and death into a number game.  “She was born on May seventeen, and died on November seventeen.  My Dad was born on April seventeen, my uncle was born on April seventeen, and my grandfather was born on April seventeen.  Seventeen’s the number.  One is for one, and seven is for doing.” Seventeen, we are told, is the number of Phil’s hockey jersey, and of his seat on a plane, and it is the number entered in his log book on the day an elephant fell down at the Rotterdam Zoo.  Seventeen is just a number, a minor detail easily discounted in the rush of daily experience.  But in Phil’s efforts to account for a series of happenings from the midst of bereavement, seventeen becomes the number, the numerology of loss.

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.  Your house is on fire and your children are gone.

Hoffman’s method is that of reiteration without redundancy; loss, we are reminded, is never just this loss. In ashes we learn that Hoffman is once removed in the birth order of his siblings from an older brother who died as a result of a miscarriage. Because the child died in utero, the priest refused to perform the funereal rites that would have legitimized this life in the eyes of the church. But funerals are meant for the living, and this disavowal prompted a loss of faith that would sever Phil’s father’s commitment to the church. Later, this man would have another son who would also be named Philip.

Good mourning, in Freud’s terms, keeps people moving on, keeps them in time…

— Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms

What becomes of grief that traditional practices of mourning cannot, or will not, contain? Ashes suggests that ritual serves us less as a remedy for grief, and more as a glimpse of ordered time from outside the midst of our daily reckonings with loss. When her mother died, Ann Carson scanned the pages of Virginia Woolf’s diaries in search of something, following Woolf’s own premise that there is pleasure to be derived from “forming such shocks into words and order” after the fact of Death. (165) On the day after the funeral Carson sat at her desk, books spread out before her, looking not for meaning, but for the comfort of structure.  I turned to Carson the week I was finishing this writing, the day I had to pause, unexpectedly, to write a eulogy.  How can I write my uncle’s life? I wondered, barely upright before a blank screen, caught in the midst of this cruel death, of my memories, his personal life, this public declaration, the faces of my family, my anguish, my rage.

He didn’t just die, he was taken.

Sudden death doesn’t begin to feel real until you see its impact etched across the faces of the people standing directly in front of you. Or, as in the case of my uncle’s death, until I read the horrible truth in what would otherwise have been an ordinary newspaper headline, on an ordinary day. Even then, these were cues that only hinted at what I should feel. Everywhere it said that my uncle was gone, but I could not write of his life in the past tense. I could not write “My uncle was a committed painter for over three decades.” In writing that “he has been painting all my life”…has been, and will be, I clung to the present perfect, the tense of continuity. I do not release him, my uncle’s friend choked from the podium on the day of the funeral with an urgency that cut through my carefully measured sentences, my own attempts to fashion the inarticulate expression of my grief. With those words came another break in time. If mourning requires our participation in the flow of time, ashes insists that we live with death in capricious ways that exist outside of this ordered progression.  Perhaps learning to live “from the inside out” means learning to live while dying at the same time – learning to live with death and not despite it. Loss, it seems, is a persistent presence.

 

Works Cited

Carson, A. Men in the Off Hours.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams.  Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1991.

Originally published in Landscape with Shipwreck: The Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom/Sandlos, YYZ/Insomniac Press, 2001.

Juan Antonio De La Torre Letter

July 2001

Dear Phillip Hoffman

RE: Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan & Encarnacion

The same movie but “Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion”(Philip Hoffman’s ) is short movie clip and ?O, Zoo! is longer movie is fiction thing. Can you send me the copy of special movie “Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion” and ?O, Zoo!”?  are the free movies home video cassettes? My parent from Jalostotitlan, Mexico. I am born in Mexico City. I am surprise you were filmed in small Mexican town called “Jalostotitlan” in 1984. I want thank You did filmed in Jalostotitlan because many Tourist people come visit in Jalostotitlan, Mexico. Can you send me the free Catalog? Also Can you make copy of VHS for :”Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion” and ?O, Zoo!? Because I not find the Home Video (I Need Rent a Movie) from Blockbuster Video (Popular bigger Video Store in United State of America and Mexico). I am just ask you about should add closed captioned on “Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan  and Encarnacion” and ?O, Zoo!” on new release home video? Because I am Hard Hearing should watch the two movie called “but “Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion” and “?O, Zoo!”?

Thank You,

Juan Antonio De La Torre

 

From: Philip Hoffman 
Sent:    Tuesday, July 10, 2001 7:16 AM
To: Johnny De La Torre

Hi, I can send you the movie “Somewhere Between”….there is only music so you can turn it up loud… ?O,Zoo! would be much harder as there are alot of words in it…”Somewhere Between”is about an experience I had in 1983, on a bus (between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion) when a boy was killed on the road…I decided not to film him out of respect for his soul and the people…I was troubled by the event so I made a film from other images of Mexico, Colorado and Toronto…hope you like the film…it is a poem and so it would never be in a place like Blockbuster Video store….

bye for now,

Philip

 

Hello Phillip Hoffman

I was sent you my address already.. I Love Mexican town called “Jalostotitlan” is very popular because Big Celebration for Mother of God “Virgin” for Birthday on August, On February for Celebration Spanish (Now “Mexico”) Explored was settlement (1530) in Jalostotitlan in Mexico… I want thank you did Filmed. You always become Famous who films in Jalostotitlan for “First Time” You are first Canadian who filmed in Jalostotitlan in the world. No On American who came in film in Jalostotitlan.

Thank You,

Johnny De La Torre

 

 

Thin Ice

by Karyn Sandlos

In my mid-thirties I realized I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood

— Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family, 1982:22

Beginnings can be awkward, because they ask us to do things before we know how. I read somewhere that that we can’t learn our personal histories off by heart. Memory is fickle; it doesn’t fade with time, it shape shifts. And although memory is a central preoccupation in Philip Hoffman’s work, his first film, On the Pond, suggests that telling personal stories requires a certain degree of amnesia. In 1978, while a student at Sheridan College, Hoffman tape-recorded a family gathering as material for a personal documentary film. The occasion was his birthday, and the Hoffman family had assembled for a celebratory slide show. Following on diaristic work in writing and photography, Hoffman recalls that his aim, in making On the Pond, was to begin with what he knew. What could be more familiar than one’s own family history, retrieved from an archive of Kodak mementos? Yet, in On the Pond, tensions between what can be revealed and what must remain hidden behind a veil of propriety, suggest a much deeper layer of prohibition at stake in the telling of personal stories. In this film, pictures of home give provisional shape to an indeterminate longing, and make of the familiar an uneasy place to return to. At our most personal, it would seem, we are never quite at home.

Memory, the thirst for presence…

— Octavio Paz, A Tree Within, 1988:151

In On the Pond, Hoffman brings the truth-making apparatuses of the still and moving image to bear on that most colloquial of historic documents: the family anecdote. The film opens with a series of black and white stills, underscored by a family’s exclamations of delight. A number of voices proffer the details of time and place. There is the cottage and the pond. There are the children going fishing in summer and skating in winter. The photographs are animated by the usual snippets of commentary:  “Oh, that’s a good one of you!”  “Do you remember when we…?”  “I wish I knew you better then…” Amidst the convivial clamor of the soundtrack, a daughter’s wish to have known her mother better then captures my attention, for she speaks with the quiet resignation of one who has arrived too late. In this moment, the family’s exuberance for the factual details of a past life together belies the tones and shadows of their shared recollections. Through fleeting disclosures they tell stories of longing through a past—or at least a version of the past—that might temper all that is unbearable about the present.

I often wonder whether I have any actual memories of my own childhood, or whether access to a past that I have lived through is made possible only by the stories of others. And there are few things I find more frustrating than being left to my own failed recollections. Lost keys, forgotten directions, and misplaced bits of information are the hints that trying too hard to remember makes us forget. Perhaps most images are like tools that relieve us of this kind of difficulty, by giving shape to a past that is largely made up of traces, impulses, flashes of colour, and fragments in need of a structure. Tell me a story that will help me forget what I want from a past that is lost to me. Images aren’t lies exactly, but they may work like screens that shield us from the discards of our lives. To preserve the past, to give meaning to these fragments, is at once the work of a magician and the practice of an embalmer. With a wish to give order to the refractory pull of desire, the archive snatches memory from the flow of time.

On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory.

— Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, 1996:137

But even anesthesia can be administered in uneven doses. On the Pond cuts between family photographs and the recurring scene of a boy playing hockey on a frozen pond; the clamor of the domestic drama and the stillness of a frozen landscape. Apart from the puck-chasing antics of a German Shepherd, the boy plays alone. At night, backlit by the windows of the cottage, his father prepares the ice with buckets of water. With the toss of a bucket, bleeding through the darkness, there appears a vanishing image of water coating ice. The water will be solid by morning, but first it leaves a stain. While most stains have a material presence, this one lifts off of the emulsion of the film and lingers in the mind with a haunting intractability. It is there and not there at the same time. Amidst images of landscape and childhood that beckon with a nostalgia that is echoed in the words of Hoffman’s older sister when she intones “Oh, I want to go back,” traces of uncertainty pierce through ordered time. If there is a true picture of the past, it must be like these fleeting glimpses, when they surface like a photograph that could easily have been discarded, or returned from the lab stamped ‘print no charge.’ In On the Pond, these are moments when, just as the negative image gives birth to the positive print, amnesia gives memory its contours.

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1955:255

 

In On the Pond there is a strange image of the back of Hoffman’s mother’s head, framed by a figure in motion on the left, and the small face of a very young Hoffman in the lower right hand corner.  The voiceover tells us that this photograph was taken on Thanksgiving Day, when Hoffman’s mother was “feeling lousy.” While the emotional tone of the day is admitted, Hoffman’s effort to cheer his mother up becomes the focus of this conversation. But the seconds of silence that surround the tiny image of a child’s smiling face tear at the delicate suturing between meaning and image, between memory and the psychic cost of bringing the past to light. The family gathers in an act of forgetting. It is not the picture itself that leaves a stain, but the layers of affect and meaning that linger unresolved in the silence that follows their conversation about a day that is lost to them. Forgotten, perhaps, but not gone. The image is as permanent and imperfect as the conflicts it serves to disguise, and it glances off the viewer with the tug of retrospective desire. This is, as Benjamin might have put it, a moment of recognition in which the past flashes up as an image, never to be seen again.

If only I had a photograph, so that people could see who I was.

— Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood, 1997:195

On the Pond is a study in still and moving images, and the flow of the past through preserved moments in time. Pictures of home and family are intercut with photographs of Hoffman’s hockey team, as the silence of the pond is broken by the clamor of an audience, a coach’s obsessive words of encouragement, and the encroaching chant of Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da! A young Hoffman surveys a collection of trophies alongside team photographs that herald his departure from the family. Through a labored series of pushups, he measures his stamina against the ice. Photographs of Hoffman’s own childhood provide a measure of the distance between home and the world, and the small rituals of the pond reveal their larger purpose: Hoffman gains strength in order to leave, and distance so that he may one day return.

It is no accident that many of us become fascinated by our family histories long after we have left home. For years after my own leaving, I asked my family not to pose for photographs at our annual reunions. I stopped taking pictures when I realized that we didn’t know how not to perform in front of a camera. Not posing became more awkward than posing. Perhaps this was my way of trying to call attention to a certain distance of my own; to manipulate the conventional time of family portraits as a way of trying to live outside the ordered traditions of home and family. And it may be that going home requires this measure of distance, this lapse of memory, that most pictures afford us. If absence clears a path for our return, a little amnesia may be the price of presence. Like trying to hold light between two hands.

As in childhood we live sweeping close to the sky, and now what dawn is this.

— Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red, 1998:54

It is possible that the process of making a personal film relies more on memory lapses than it does on memory. My own first film began as a disparate collection of stories that were contained in mental images. These were stories that I had been told about my childhood, repetitively, over time, until I was old enough to wonder where the stories ended and my own experience began. The images I had shot didn’t lend themselves to an easy or obvious ordering, and so I experimented with one version and then another, wondering all the while why I felt compelled to tell stories that I had been told; stories that seemed to fill in the spaces where memory failed me. There was a period in which mastery over the film’s unfolding gave way to a strange sense of disorientation. The film began to unmake the maker, like a dream that was nudging me forward in search of artifacts, vestiges, echos. Toward the end of On the Pond, Hoffman, now in his twenties, reclines on a bed flipping the pages of an old hockey album. Next to the bed, a projector reel rotates and a turntable revolves.  The film has ended and the music has stopped, but the silence is disturbed by the skip of the needle and the incessant hum of the projector. If memories are like water staining ice, then the best replicas of memory must glimmer even as they disappear. The problem is, we make films when we wake to the knowledge that we have been sleeping, but we also make films in order to help us sleep better. And if we do, in fact, sleep through much of our childhoods, it is not just the familiar that we reach for later on, but the urgent flashes of ourselves that can’t be explained, or understood, or fully retrieved. Hoffman glances intently at the camera as he moves off of the bed, leaving the photo album behind. Emerging from the cottage, he makes his way back to the pond.