Category Archives: Reviews & Articles

Mike Hoolboom reviews Philip Hoffman’s Aged

“Who has not marveled at the triumph of slow motion? At the end of every sporting event the decisive moments of the past hours float past in a dreamy montage, everything slowed to a crawl, as if it had occurred days, even years ago, part of a past that seems already out of reach, filled with bygone charms. The pages of Vimeo and YouTube have delivered us to a global tidal wave of slow motion magics, where heroines of time are caught in the full thrall of their secret erotic life, their faces filled with hand grenade smiles and arms stretch beyond the horizon with an inflated heroism. In his too familiar essay, Walter Benjamin wrote about slow motion as a way to defeat capitalism. He imagined that hidden within our everyday gestures were a cornucopia of unseen resistances, that our bodies performed a micro-politics of nay saying that the camera would at last reveal. But the digital revolution appears to have unveiled these once hidden intervals as another area of over exposure, bent beneath the first law of digital culture: that everything should be visible, bright, clear, tagged, identifiable. The surveillance state insists: there is no outside.”

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Anamnesis by Attrition: Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down

“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) 

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NOW Magazine Review (1)

“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

Barns, Brits and Birthrights: Phil Hoffman’s All Fall Down

“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

Shot of Solitude: Hand (and Heart) Processing at the Film Farm

By Ken Paul Rosenthal

from http://www.incite-online.net/rosenthal.html

 

Photo: Ken Paul Rosenthal
Photo: 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.

Phil Hoffman in his barn at the Film Farm / Photo: Ken Paul Rosenthal
Phil Hoffman in his barn at the Film Farm / Photo: Ken Paul Rosenthal

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.


Film–Is There a Future in Our Past?

(The Afterlife of Latent Images)

By Rick Hancox
INCITE

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.

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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.