Category Archives: Writings About Philip Hoffman

Café Ex: The Films of Philip Hoffman

On Thursday December 10, 2015, Philip Hoffman will attend a screening of some of his work as part of Café Ex:

Inaugurated in 1998, the eighteenth season of this ongoing visiting artist series presents artist-curated evenings of independent experimental film and video in the intimate atmosphere of Club SAW. Once again, the series features Canadian experimental cinema, with guest filmmakers presenting their work and engaging in extensive discussions with audience members for a “pay-what-you-can” admission.

More information can be found at the Canadian Film Institute’s website.

PHILIP HOFFMAN: Canadian Independent Filmmaker Comes to Perth For Solo Screening!


Toronto based filmmaker Philip Hoffman has been making independent films for twenty years and his celebrated works have been seen by festival audiences around the world. Philip is coming to Australia to screen his latest work at the Sydney Film Festival in June and on the way he is stopping off in Perth to present a selection of his short films at the Film and Television Institute.

The films of Philip Hoffman cannot be situated within any specific genre of film making, instead we see a remarkable shift between styles that incorporate the home movie, the idiosyncratic documentary, and the formalist exploration of the permutations of sound and image. Hoffman’s cinema is an intensely subjective one, often employing an emotional voice-over to colour the residual traces of the lost and found seen in faded family snapshots, grainy archival 16mm and standard 8 memories. Other works share a lyrical thread in the mode of Stan Brakhage with their graphic and rhythmic effects that engage a viewers perception in a complex dialectical relationship between the techniques of cinema and the physiology and psychology of vision. The poetic intention running through many of Hoffman’s images, from the shadowy black and white portrait of a dying grandmother in passing through / torn formations to the ephemeral floating rhythm of a fragmentedcityscape in Chimera can be understood in part as a desire to reconstitute impressions of memory – (the filmmaker enters) “the work of making ghosts of the past for the future.” (SamLandels)

Denoting the family as source and stage of inspiration, Hoffman’s gracious archaeology is haunted by death, the absent centre in much of his diary practice a meditation on mortality and its representation. His restless navigation’s are invariably followed by months of tortuous editing as history is strained through its own image, recalling Derrida’s dictum thateverything begins with reproduction. Hoffman’s delicately enacted shaping of his own past is at once poetry, pastiche, and proclamation, a resounding affirmation of all that is well with independent cinema today. (Mike Hoolboom, Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film In Canada, 1997).

Program: riverpassing through/torn formationsKitchener-BerlinChimera

Special Matinee Screening attended by film maker Phillip Hoffman on Sunday May 31st, 1998, 5.30 pm at the Film and Television Institute, 92 Adelaide St. Fremantle.

Tickets $7 full or $5 conc/members. Please note change of date!

For all enquiries please contact Sam Landels on 9328 2808 or the FTI on 9335 1055.

This event is proudly sponsored by Imago Multimedia Centre and The Film and Television Institute.

Impure Cinemas: Hoffman in Context

Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001

by Chris Gehman

At the beginning of cinema’s second century, it’s instructive to remember how recently proclamations of the “death of the avant-garde’* (or “experimental film,” or “fringe film”) were a staple for filmwatchers concerned with develop­ments outside the realms of commercial and art-house production (e.g., Chicago Reader critic Fred Camper, and Village Voice critic J. Hoberman). This imminent demise was seen as arising from an exhaustion of creative possibilities, and, for Camper in particular, the domestication of a formerly independent and vital movement. In a 1989 statement, Camper wrote that

What began as an anarchic movement with a singular mis­sion-that of changing the viewers’ sensibilities and thereby changing the world-is now a fragmented col­lection of “schools.” The phrases “avant-garde film” and “experimental film” no longer denote works that break new cinematic ground; rather, they name a style, almost a genre, which has its own set of defining characteristics. (32)

Towards the end of the 1980s this position seemed to solidify into a consen­sus, and filmmakers too joined the chorus. Australia’s Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, for example, toured with a film performance in which they called them­selves “the last filmmakers,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s television series Histoire(s) du cinema was markedly elegiac in tone. Among many artists who shifted their production mostly or entirely away from film (Jordan Belson, Malcolm Le Grice, AI Razutis), American independent Jon Jost “defected” to digital video-and to Europe. There he became an outspoken critic of what he sees as an irrational fetishization of the medium and a hypocritical institutional/critical environment surrounding experimental film.

During the late 80s and early 90s there were genuine signs that experimental film was in trouble. To begin with, many influential independent filmmakers have died over the past two decades. These include Andy Warhol, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Marjorie Keller, Harry Smith, Warren Sonhert, Joyce Wieland, Sidney Peterson, and Kurt Kren. From the mid-80s through the early 90s, most of the institutions that supported artists’ work in film, among them Anthology Film Archives and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the Canadian Film-makers Distribution Centre, the London Filmmakers Coop and Canyon Cinema, experi­enced crises caused by fractures and antagonism between different factions. Thesecrises were exacerbated by dwindling state support and often haphazard adminis­trative practices. In Toronto, the 1989 International Experimental Film Congress, which was organized partly to respond to the idea that experimental film was no longer a vital force, became the site and the subject of heated debates that broke down roughly along generational lines. A younger, more politically oriented group of artists, theorists and programmers attacked what they saw as an outmoded and elitist conception of the “avant-garde,” particularly a purist formalism, that had dominated experimental film production and deformed its discourse. Further, some major art galleries (such as the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario) appear to have dropped film programming and acquisition from their regular activities, while others have cut them back to almost nothing. Acquisitions of film prints by libraries and educational institutions, once a small but important source of income for at least the better-known filmmakers, have all but ceased and a revival of the practice seems very unlikely. And it is probably true that an increasingly academic environment made for a less vital film culture, at least for a particular segment of the field, and for a particular period of time.

But experimental film did not die. Many of the key institutions mentioned above have recovered their stability over the past several years, and new venues for the exhibition of artists’ film have sprung up. Sonic of these have been short­lived, while others have settled in for a long life. Critical writing on film is almost completely absent from general-interest art journals and magazines, but there are specialized journals that publish serious writing on film. A heartening range of books has appeared over the past several years, including Scott MacDonald’s three-volume collection of interviews with filmmakers, A Critical Cinema. Ultimately, however, it can only be the healthy, prickly condition of filmmaking itself that proves these proclamations of death to have been premature. What threatens the form now is less a matter of creative exhaustion than the possibility that the basic tools, materials and services needed to complete a film may disap­pear as the commercial industry turns entirely towards digital media.

What has perhaps passed away is a certain image of the artist as romantic, visionary hero, and an allegiance to large-scale, often highly purist, abstract mod­els of making. Some very interesting film artists of the past two decades (e.g., Jennifer Reeves, Philip Hoffman) have moved between styles and genres in a way that might have seemed confusing or incoherent to an earlier generation.

The characteristic elements of these films are likely to be philosophical, thematic, and personal, unlike the formal “signature style” or clear progression of artistic devel­opment that made up the work of respectable artists in earlier decades.

There has, then, been a significant shift since the “heroic” period of the avant-garde that found its critical spokesman in P. Adams Sitney, and its bible in Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde 1943-1978 (second edition 1979). This book became a flash point for much of the debate over the canonization of exper­imental film. Jason Boughtonsummarizes the critical point of view:

[Sitney’s] book acts and continues to be used as a lexi­con of alternative filmmaking practice, not only for the years it claims, but more generally, forward and back­wards in history. Like all written history it is not just a locus of memory but also a kind of sleep capsule axis of active, official forgetting … The problem is the form history comes in [in] Visionary Film-the confusion of memory and forgetting, the thinly veiled claims of com­pleteness and simple reportage. When one speaks of the Avant-Garde, is it just one era, a single group of friends, great men, a unified field that is referred to? Is avant-garde anidea or an identity? Is it (lead, and if not, can we finally let it die, and take with it a back-breaking debt to every other logocentric, exclusionary Avant-Garde…? (7)

Boughton quarrels with Sitney’s tendency to categorize makers and their works according to major art-historical movements, and takes issue with the staunchly apolitical nature of Sitney’s analysis. He accuses Sitney, for example, of ignoring the radical socialism of Ken Jacobs in his discussion of Jacobs’s works. Boughton points out that Maya Deren is the only woman filmmaker given serious consideration in Visionary Film, while Marie Menken is treated primarily as an influence on male filmmakers, and as the wife of Willard Maas. Boughton con­cludes that “[t]he exclusion of politics in Visionary Film would almost be comfort­ing, an easy resting place, were its politics not so visibly exclusionary” (6).

The “death” that the critics of the 80s predicted, then, was perhaps not the death of the experimental film per se, but rather the death of Sitney’s particular “avant-garde:’ Since that time we have seen a general cultural shift, in which the coherent psychological, spiritual and sexual identity of the individual allegedly asserted by the Romantic tradition and examined by Sitney has been replaced by a conception of the individual as a collection of interrelated aspects under the influence of an array of social, cultural, and political forces. This shift manifests itself in film in several ways: through an explicit examination of personal and fam­ily histories: through an interest in the social construction of gender, race, and ethnic identities; through a desire to convey journalistic or documentary content without resorting to discredited concepts of neutrality or objectivity; through a renewed use of “staging,” that is. the performance of roles and scenarios, though without an attempt at the kind of realism that characterizes the mainstream dra­matic film; through the use of language as an integral communicative element; through the recombination of found/appropriated materials in films made using existing film footage, photographs, consumer objects, etc.; through the live “film performance;’ which challenges the idea of film as a mechanical medium of mass reproduction; and through a burgeoning interest in manipulating the chemical surface of the image.

In short, it is a certain purism of purpose and of form that has been given up by the new generations, but not necessarily a desire to see changes in the world. The development of self-financing, underground “microcinemas,” where a good deal of the material shown has both an activist and an experimental character. testifies to the continuing role of film as an art that aims to contest and to chal­lenge social, political, economic and aesthetic hierarchies, as well as conventions of vision and representation. If anything, it is the members of the avant-garde that Fred Camper so fondly remembers who have found their way into the security of academe, while their contemporary counterparts, practising a myriad of hybrid forms, continue to struggle in a social and artistic environment hostile to film art. Yet the degree to which experimental film has not been accepted into the art world as an equal and crucial form, despite its overwhelming cultural importance over the past century. suggests that there continues to be something “indigestible” about the work, something which resists commodification and academicization. As the very idea of a unifying, central identity disappears. the pathways taken by film­makers become ever more labyrinthine and far-flung, so that the job of the would-be taxonomist becomes difficult, perhaps even impossible. My aim below, then, is to account for some of the disparate elements of contemporary experi­mental film. creating loose categories that are subject to cross-pollination.


Critique is implicit in most contemporary found-footage films, and in films which appropriate images through related forms such as collage animation. Recently, we have seen the emergence of the experimental film “remake.” Jill Codmillow’s What Farocki Taught (I998), a remake of Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), and Elizabeth Subrin’sShuliea remake of a 60s documentary about the young feminist Shularnith Firestone, are the best known examples. Implicit it most contemporary found-footage films is a challenge to conventional codes of representation and the social, political and sexual norms that are seen to he sup­ported by those codes. This political intent distinguishes contemporary uses of found footage from the more poetic, symbolic, or formal uses by film artists who began their work in earlier decades (eg.. Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner).

In tiny units of a few frames each, Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold reworks scenes from Hollywood movies, which he has defined as “a cinema of repression and denial”(Address). Arnold’s work emphasizes the mechanical rhythm of the pro­jected image and hearkens hack to the idea of cinema as a machine for the analy­sis of motion. Arnold’s films may be the fulfillment of Ilugo Musterberg’s 1915 essay describing the possibilities of reordering photographed motion in small groups of frames in order to discover a new rhythm impossible in nature. For Arnold. however, the cinematic machine is primarily an ideological apparatus, and he retools this apparatus in order to draw out every drop of meaning latent in the original material. Arnold’s Passage (I EActe (1993) reworks a scene of several sec­onds’ length from 7o Kill a Mockingbird (1992), extending it to 12 minutes by repeating every few frames several times. Leaving the original synchronized sound intact, he slowly allows the scene to progress. The effect is vehement, even violent, and creates a portrait of patriarchal family life and racial division from a scene that would pass almost unnoticed in its original context. The actors arc trans­formed into twitching puppets in the throes of an ideological seizure.

Like Martin Arnold. American filmmaker jay Rosenblatt has a background in psychology, and mounts his critique as a sort of diagnosis of symptoms. Rosenblatt uses found footage for the creation of compact. personal essays on subjects rang­ing from the construction of masculine identity in childhood (The Smell of Burning Ants. 1994) to theidiosyncracies of the 20th century’s great dictators (Human Remains, 1998) and the historical conflicts between Christians and Jews (King of the Jews, 2000). While Rosenblatt’s deployment of found images may seem relatively straightforward, functioning as illustration to an argument given in voice-over or titles, he often inverts the images’ values, finding sadness, pain and longing in grandiose, aggressive or blustery gestures. In many instances, Rosenblatt isolates and extends brief moments through optical printing, finding in them a nexus of meaning. In The Smell of Burning Ants, for example, two boys bouncing up and down on a car seat suddenly look at one another, and this look is extended to emphasize the underlying homoerotic subtext of their shared activity.

Craig Baldwin also uses found footage as a way to mount a critical essay, though his tone is less sombre and his thinking more lateral than Rosenblatt’s. In his instant classicTribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America (1991), Baldwin orders the film using a system of substitution: a race of alien invaders called Quetzals stands in for Latin American democratic and communist movements, while historical figures are represented by characters from sundry Hollywood movies (e.g., Blacula as Maurice Bishop). The film’s text as a whole, which takes the form of a demented, paranoid, right-wing rant about an alien conspiracy stands in for its opposite: a factual critique of American intervention against leftist movements in Latin America. Filmmaker Craig Baldwin is replaced by his right­wing equivalent, “retired Air Force Colonel Craig Baldwin.” The diversity of Baldwin’s source material and his style of optical printing tend to emphasize the material differences from one shot to the next. Baldwin mixes black-and-white footage with colour and documentary, or educational sources with dramatic sources. Much of the footage is worn, scratched and colour-shifted, so that the seams are emphasized and the result continually reminds the viewer that the film has been “stitched” together, like a patchwork quilt, or Frankenstein’s monster.

The use of found footage can extend to the presentation of intact fragments with minimal alteration. For instance, Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Lore (1994) is presented almost in the same form it was found. Ahwesh has simply made an optical print of the found material and added music. Remarkably, this piece, a fragment of pornography beautifully decaying into organic clumps of colour, fits perfectly into the body of her work. The scene shows two women engaging in sex play over the dead, castrated body of a man, a violent conception of an anti-patri­archal lesbian order. Many of Ahwesh’s other films deal with women’s relation­ships in the absence of men, and particularly with moments in which acting can­not be distinguished from “authentic” or unstaged behaviour. Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Movie (1986) is another noteworthy example of the use of unaltered found images. The film consists entirely of unused 196.5 news footage on the assassination of Malcolm X, with its original sync sound intact.

In contrast, animators and collage artists such as .lanie Geiser, Lewis Klahr and Martha Colburn work frame by frame with manufactured objects and images cut from magazines and books, using these as “puppets”” of autobiographical or ideological reconstruction in a sense analogous to Martin Arnold’s refashioning of Hollywood actors into puppets of the cinematic apparatus. Where Geiser and Klahr tend to conjure lambent dream worlds that evoke the thoughts of a child confronted with a world it cannot understand, or the reveries of an addled adult in the grip of a fever or hallucination of nostalgia, Colburn’s animated collages proceed at a manic pace, wringing out perverse combinations of animal, vegetable and sexual images from her source material. Colburn uses pictures from slick magazines, especially pornographic and animal images, in brief and briskly paced films with a distinctly “pop” rhythm and distinctly “anti-pop” production values and morals.


One of the fundamental tenets of high modernism was that a work of art be a self­ contained object, independent of real-world referents. This idea has arisen in many guises. but for experimental film there are two main forms: the Structuralist/Materialist, and the Formalist. The Structuralist/Materialist argument (distinctly different from Sitney’s concept of “Structural” film) turns primarily on the issue of presentation vs. representation. The argument attacks as reactionary any film that relies on illusion for its process of meaning formation. Peter Gidal, probably the most insistent proponent of this position, wrote in 1974:

Structural/Materialist film attempts to be anti-illusionist. The process of the film’s making deals with devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of the film process … An avant-garde film defined by its develop­ment towards increased materialism and materialist func­tion does not represent, or document, anything … The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary. (1)

In Gidal’s conception, documentation and narrative content presume a passive viewer, and most experimental films, including many abstract works, are under­stood to include some undesirable form of representation. Of the films that make up Sitney’s “Structural film” canon (those by Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, et al.), Gidal writes of how “the discovery of shape (fetishizing shape or system) may become the theme, in fact, the narrative of the film” (1). For all the revolutionary intentions of filmmakers and theorists like Gidal these ideas, and the extremely circumscribed possibilities available to filmmakers working within their boundaries, quickly begin to seem like a form of Marxistpuritanism: no dancing, music, or representation allowed.

The Formalist stream of filmmaking has tended to be less hound by strict rules and formulae, but it shares a generally anti-representational bent with Structuralist/Materialist cinema. In Formalist discourse on film, analogies with music abound. The idea is that film, like music, can engage the audience most intensely when it does not refer to anything outside its own formal system, when it does not rely on representation for its meaning or effect. The conception of film as a kind of “visual music” arose early in the century, and remains an active model for filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, whose non-representational films attempt to embody a type of “pre-linguistic” vision.

If a disavowal of representation was a defining feature of a great deal of experimental filmmaking up to about the mid-70s. a major shift in the postmod­ern period has been the emergence of a generation of artists whose work engages with a specific “extra-filmic” content. However, these artists are not naive about questions of representation, nor do they subscribe to any particular school (e.g., cinema verité/direct cinema) that asserts the possibility of a “neutral” or “objec­tive” representation. Rather, there is a general awareness that every work is a con­struction, an argument, whose formal elements and representational content together constitute the substance of the argument. In a sense, these artists haveexpanded the interest of many structural filmmakers from strictly visual or aural perception to include questions of social, sexual, and political perception. This process demands that the artist foreground the mechanisms by which meaning in a film is constructed, so that traditional documentary techniques (the sync-sound interview or “talking head,” for example) are generally avoided in favour of a clearly constructivist approach that may combine voice-over, titles, original and found footage.

In keeping with this awareness, many artists choose to focus their documen­tary explorations on those subjects closest to them: for instance, their family histo­ries or their sexual, racial, ethnic or religious identities. Su Friedrich maintains a rigorous intellectual distance in excavating her childhood memories in Sink or Swim (1O’H)). ordering the material according to an arbitrary system akin to those often employed by structural filmmakers-the alphabet in reverse (beginning with z for zygote). Elida Schogt, in Zyklon Portraituses a similar distancing tech­nique for her elegiac account of the death of her grandparents during the Holocaust, arranging archival footage, home movies and hand-painted film into two parallel narrative strands. The first recounts Schogt’s Jewish grandparents’ lives in the words of Schogt’s mother; the second describes the development of Zyklon B gas, first as an insecticide, then as the means by which concentration camp prisoners were murdered in vast numbers by the Nazis, the description pre­sented in a neutral tone reminiscent of the conventional documentary. The history of a chemical and the history of Schogt’s ancestors inexorably converge in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Other artists use the documentary form to question the “truth value” of the image. Jesse Lerner’s Ruins (1998) uses the strategy of deliberate and announced falsification to call into question Anglo-European interpretations of pre­Columbian societies such as the Mayan, Aztec and Toltec. Combining found footage with (presumably) scripted interviews, footage shot to look like found footage, etc., Lerner explicitly addresses the difficulty of distinguishing between the “authentic” and the fake, including a brief quote from OrsonWelles’ F 1 ,or hake (1973). The film also deals with the problem of authenticating pre-Columbian artifacts when the museums are full of fakes and replicas that stand in for “real” artifacts. William Jones’ Massillon (19)1) combines social landscape photography similar to that of James Benning with personal history (his experiences as a gay youth in a homophobic Midwestern environment) and social history (tracing the development of legal constraints on homosexual behaviour). In the film’s final section, these elements are drawn together in a visual and verbal portrait of a new California suburb. Jones’ method emphasizes the condition of the unseen, and the need to go beyond pure vision, by slowly “filling” his images with verbal informa­tion, so that the film’s blank and undistinguished locations become inextricably linked to the history and attitudes of the (unseen) people who inhabit them.

At no other time in cinematic history have so many artists been working directly with the chemical surface of the image, using a multiplicity of techniques: hand processing, colourtoning and arcane chemical treatments; homemade emulsions; application of paints, inks and dyes; scratching, abrading, and applying various materials to the film surface;collaging of cut-up pieces of film; and organic decay processes. A direct approach to the film surface is not new, having many prece­dents in avant-garde practice (e.g., Man Ray’s inclusion of strips of “rayograph” film in his 1923 Retour a la Raison, or Stan Brakhage’s 1955 Reflections on Black, in which the protagonist’s eye-images have been scratched away). Beginning as early as the 1930s-40s there are also examples from experimental animation in the cameraless films of Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith. However.partly for economic reasons, but largely because of the enthusiastic interest of a new generation of makers, the sheer amount of this kind of work has vastly increased over the past decade.


Unlike Brakhage, whose cameraless hand-painted and etched films are intended to express an inner reality, a spiritual energy (he could be considered the most prolific abstract expressionist ever), many of these artists emphasize the material of the image in order not only to defeat its illusory qualities. but to draw attention to the physical presence of the film strip in the actual immediate space of the screening room, a concern that derives in part from the earlier Materialist discourse discussed above. This critical intention is confirmed by the frequent use of found footage as a source material for assorted physical alterations. The attack on the chemical surface of the film is implicitly an attack on the intended mean­in(, of the original source images and on the “transparency” of conventional pho­tographic reproduction.

In Germany, in films such as Jurgen Reble’s Zillertal (1989), and the Schmelzdahin collective’s Stadt Im Flamen (1984), artists subject films to organic decay processes and chemical treatments that create swarming masses of colour, often rendering the original images printed on the film barely legible. The sensory appeal of these films is considerable, given their highly textured and often bril­liantly coloured surfaces, but the idea is as much to criticize the meaning of their source material as to provide visual pleasure. Stadt im Flamen (City in Flames), for example, humorously exaggerates the source “text” to the breaking point. Here, the filmmakers work from a super-8 print of a disaster film about an uncon­trolled urban fire along the lines of The Towering Inferno. By burying the film underground for an extended period, colonies of mould and bacteria developed. drawing the pigments in the emulsion into new forms, often intensifying the colours. Under the influence of these processes, the system of representation breaks down, falls into disaster like the crashing buildings and fleeing citizens in the original film’s story.

The Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Gariné Torossian also works directly with the film surface, but in a manner more closely related to Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (19e4-hH) than to the chemical approaches described above. Torossian chops her films up, dyes them, scratches and tattoos them, and tapes them hack together in new configurations, mixing super-8 and 16mm footage at will. Often this footage is already refilmed from a video image of an artwork or photograph, so that the number of generations of remove from any real-world referent is multi­plied irretrievably. This becomes especially poignant in Girl From Moush (1993), a brief, haunting poem in which Torossian’s longed-for homeland ofArmenia is seen only in borrowed images that have inhabited and fermented in the artist’s mind.



Some artists working in film reject its status as an impersonal, mass-reproducible object, mounting live film performances. These works partake of the film projec­tion not as “text,” but as event. In these performances it is not enough to run industrially reproduced materials through a projector. The presence of the living artist is required, as in the performance of a piece of music, with the film and the projector as instruments to be played. Prolific Toronto super-8 filmmaker John Porter, in his ongoing Scanning series, uses the entire theatre as a screen, moving the projector by hand to create magical illusionist effects which simultaneously make the spectator acutely aware of the theatre space. San Francisco artist Luis Recoder creates cinematic paradoxes and time loops using found footage by the simple expedient of looping a piece of film so that it runs through the projector twice, allowing images from one section of the film strip to overlap with those from a later section. His Moebius Strip (1900) uses documentation of sports events: we see a racing car tearing down a track from left to right, the camera panning with it, and simultaneously, the same car racing from right to left. The result is one of frenzied motion that cancels itself out. Recoder’s Magenta (1997) uses a badly colour-shifted medical film demonstrating the proper methods for bandag­ing. Again, by running the same film through the. projectortwice, a visual echo is developed in which each action overlaps upon and repeats itself’. The sensation is created of a continuous caress in the context of medical damage, a feeling both soothing and disturbing.



Philip Hoffman’s highly diverse body of work in film, beginning with On The Pond (1978), shares many interests and approaches with the work discussed here, but is distinct in its relation to the documentary tradition (which is of particular importance in the Canadian context) 1, and in its concern with personal and family history. From On The Pond toDestroying Angel (1998), Hoffman has balanced an awareness of film as a constructed object with a desire to explore specific extra­filmic themes. This has led him to a complex, first-person cinema very different from the formal approach of an earlier generation. When Stan Brakhage films his family in his famous Window Water Baby Moving (1959), or inScenes From Under Childhood (1967-70), the viewer does not learn the names of the people shown, does not hear their voices and discovers nothing of their past. The effect is two-fold: on the one hand, unencumbered by language, the film is able to hold in its form the very specific moments and energy of a particular time with particular people. On the other hand, everything is universalized: the children become all children and represent a state of “childness”; a birth becomes every birth, a symbol for all gen­erations.

In Hoffman’s work the drive is very different and this leads to the inclusion of names and places, and the tracing of specific relationships. However, Hoffman’s acute awareness that the medium is never a neutral carrier of information leads to a variety of representational approaches, which often contain contradictory cues about the “truth value” of the material (see for example ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film (1986)). Alternatively, in a manner analogous to Craig Baldwin’s indi­rect treatment of his subject in Tribulation 99,Hoffman’s “absent presences” refuse explicit visual representation of their subjects. For example, both ?O,Zooand Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) have at their centres the story of a death, and in neither case is the dead person or animal represented visually. In varying proportions, Hoffman’s films play documentary content against fiction within a complex and shifting formal treatment.

Hoffman engages in an intense process of self-examination that is also an exploration of the capacities of his medium. In finding an appropriate form for his themes and ideas, Hoffman has developed a multiplicity of styles. But these are not arbitrary exercises; in each case, Hoffman demands of a film that it communi­cate certain crucial ideas to the viewer while promoting an intense awareness of the film’s means of construction. It is ultimately this foregrounding of the means of construction and Hoffman’s casual hybridity of genre, balancing the concerns of documentary, fiction and formal experimentation, that mark Hoffman as a film­maker allied with the impurities of contemporary practice and engaged in a criti­cal dialogue with the “straight” documentary tradition that has been so important in the Canadian context.

Hoffman’s influence as a teacher at Sheridan College and York University has been as important as his artistic influence. For example, although Hoffman’s films evidence a relatively gentle engagement with the chemically altered image, the summer film retreat he founded with his late partner Marian at their rural Mount Forest home has been inspirational to scores of young makers by teaching the basics of first-person hand processing and other chemical treatments of the film surface. This workshop has been a key catalyst in the explosion of first-person, hand-processed, cameraless and chemically-worked films in North America over the past several years.

The balance of interests in Hoffman’s work has shifted markedly from film to film. Much of his work enters into the relationship between documentary, fiction, and formal experimentation described here, while some of his films favour more generally formal visual and aural approaches (e.g., Chimera, 1992-3), and still others venture into aleatoricconstruction (Technilogic Ordering and Opening Series, 1992 ongoing project). In Opening Series, Hoffman gathers together sever­al separate rolls of film, packaging each in its own box with an unrelated image or text on the outside. Audience members are asked to change the order of the boxes as they enter the theatre prior to the screening. Hoffman splices the film together in the order arrived at by the collective choices of the audience members; the film will therefore be projected in a different edit at every screening, moving his work into the realm of “film performance.”

The richness and complexity of Hoffman’s greatest works, which include passing through/torn formations, Kitchener-Berlin and ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film),have made him one of the important experimental filmmakers of the past twenty years. The insistent hybridity of Hoffman’s practice also marks him as distinctly postmodern, and his particular relation to the documentary tradi­tion as distinctly Canadian. To assert that experimental film is no longer a living force is to ignore the challenge offered by Hoffman’s films and those of many other active filmmakers. If an earlier generation found its identity through a puri­ty of form and identity, the strength of today’s experimental filmmakers may lie in a canny “impurism” that allows them to traverse the boundaries that separate doc­umentary from fiction, abstraction from representation, and political from personal.



Arnold, Martin.
address. Pleasure Dome screening. Toronto, 18 Feb. 2000.Boughton. Jason. “Laid to Rest: Where the Forward Guard, and Their Regrettable Victory, Are Finally Dismissed.” Pinhole Cinema Project. n.p. 911 Media Arts Centre, 1993.5-7. Camper, Fred. International Experimental Film Congress. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989.

Gidal, Peter. “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ Structural Film Anthology. Ed. Peter Gidal. London: British Film Institute. 1978.

1-2 Originally published in Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001.

Phil Hoffman Interview

(Originally published in Media News, Sheridan College, 1988)

by June Hodgson and Mike White

Rated amongst the best Canadian Indepen­dent filmmakers, Philip Hoffman has ostensibly been classified as a documentary filmmaker. However, his unique style transcends negative stereotypes once thought to be inescapable.

Speaking to Vox Magazine in November of 1989, Hoffman said, “As someone born and raised in Canada, the films that I saw when I was growing up were documentaries. However, I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians make films. On the other hand, I can’t pretend that it is not important to me or it hasn’t affected me. So, I work in a sort of blend of documentary and experimental.”

Currently teaching film in the Media Arts Program of Sheridan College, Hoffman is entering his thirteenth year as a filmmaker. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Hoffman nurtured his youthful interest in photography and writing by building his own darkroom. Receiving a Bachelor of Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University, he then studied at Sheridan with filmmaker Rick Hancox.

His 1978 film debut, On The Pond, runs nine minutes and is largely a collection of black-and-white still photographs. It is the first in what Hoffman calls a “cycle of films” – all of them autobiographical and none of them derived from a script. To produce a film without a script is a Hoffman trademark. Instead, he pieces together images filmed over a period of time and connects them through a personal narrative. For example, The Road Ended At The Beach, finished in 1983, compiles events in Hoffman’s life over eight years. Remarkably, his films are cohesive and complete state­ments, in spite of his seemingly undisciplined approach. Hoffman calls this “controlled chaos”. He carries a Super 8 camera with him always and what he films may eventually become part of a future production. It is a slow, labourious process. Hoffman believes it is the little things in everyday life which are the most important and most worthy of being documented. “Filmmaking becomes a process of things that happen in life,” he says.


Hoffman’s latest film, Kitchener Berlinconcludes the “cycle”. Here he examines his father’s German heritage via comparisons of Kitchener, Ontario (named Berlin prior to World War II), and Berlin, Germany. Hoffman says, unlike his previous films, Kitchener Berlin has more to do with the times than with people. It is less personal than passing through/torn formations (1987).  Completed in 1989, Kitchener Berlin was produced with the help of Sheridan graduates. Steadicam work was done by Colleen Graham and Bruce Johnson did the sound. Prior to returning to Sheridan in the fall of 1990, Hoffman took his films and Super 8 camera globe trotting. He led a two-week-long workshop at Finland’s Helsinki University of Art and Design. Hoffman also attended screenings of his work in Germany, England, and at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. Of all of his excursions, Hoffman says Finland left the most indelible mark. Not because the people there are similar to Canadians, but because their primary struggle is similar to ours. “(Finnish) people live in the shadow of the USSR, dwarfed like Canadians are by the US. Finland’s history has been grappling with the USSR.

Disenchantment with the United States is a recurring topic in conversation with Hoffman. He believes that young people do not see enough shorts, experimental film and documentaries and he is disappointed by the predominance of American television in Canadian homes. Hoffman predicts that this situation may lend itself to creating a stronger film underground. “When the voice is taken away, people will go underground.”

To date, Hoffman does not need to work on an underground level. While he would like the National Film Board to put more of its budget towards independent filmmakers, he has managed to go from strength to strength over twelve years of filmmaking and he shows no sign of losing interest.

Colleen Graham on Steadicam, and Hoffman in Germany 1987
Colleen Graham on Steadicam, and Hoffman in Germany 1987


by Grecia A. Sarigianni, Salsomaggiore 1986

We met Philip Hoffman at Salsomaggiore Festival. He is a Canadian director, who at present also teaches cinema, photography and video at Sheridan College Media Arts Department, Oakville Ontario. He is a graduate in Media Studies and is 30 years old. He brings Europe with him as his father is German and his mother is Polish (but from Czechoslovakia). Hoffman found himself in the cinematographic art at a young age, not through heritage (he is the first filmmaker in his family) but through… I don’t knowl Where do artists come from? Hoffman had a photographic darkroom when he was 14, and, since then, he took pictures and shot autobiographical movies which later found a place in his diaristic productions. He has won awards in Canadian and American Festivals and he has participated at Edinburgh and Rotterdam Festivals.

How has he come to Salsomaggiore Film Festival in Italy? It is because Adriano Apra, Salso’s Festival Director, saw Hoffman’s films in Rotterdam and was so impressed with his work that Apra decided to invite Hoffman to Italy.

Philip Hoffman arrived in Salso with five short films, all out of competition: On the PondThe Road Ended at the BeachSomewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion?O,ZOO!(The Makinq of a Fiction Film) and Passing Through (in progress).

Usually the films of the Canadian Director are inspired by family life or what is happening around him; they are diaristic films and he works in a direct and uncomplicated way. “I usually do not use a script in preperation for a film. Scripts can create limits.” he says, “I take pictures and shoot films, mostly during my travels. Each film comes to light (evolves) slowly, instinctively.”

The Road Ended at the Beach  is born of 7 years (’76 – ’83) of intermittent travel through Canada and was inspired by the author of On the Road, Jack Kerouac. The film deals with, amongst other things, the filmmaker’s delusions and realizations with respect to living the Kerouac myth.

The film Passing Through tells the personal story of the director’s mother and of her family. It gathers documents about life in Czechoslovakia and musical excerpts from recordings of the family collection, everything composed in 28 minutes. To Greek people it has been a pleasant surprize, because one can hear an excerpt composed by Manos Hatzidakis, the popular “Never on a Sunday”. Hoffman’s uncle plays the piece in the film onaccordian.

Hoffman’s participation at Salsomaggiore Festival has been a sucess. Journalists requested to show his films again, and during the last day, the request was accepted by the festival organizers.

What’s Hoffman’s opinion of the Festival?

“I’m pleased. This festival is not a chaotic festival… the atmosphere allows the possibility to meet people, to talk, to exchange ideas. That is very important to me.”

In/Between Spaces

by Darrell Varga

Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice.
For this reason, spatial practices concern everyday tactics.

-Michel de Certeau

I think childhood is so traumatic we sleep through most of it.
-Phil Hoffman

The play of light and dark in Phil Hoffman’s river (1978-79) is formed in a tension between film and video, water and land, silence and sound, nature and culture in an invocation to awake from the trauma of personal history. These tensions are not simple dualisms but are dialectical processes enmeshed in the experiences of space and time suggested in my opening quotations. river opens with a series of images shot on film from a small boat drifting down the Saugeen River, a suggestion of tranquility even as the calm flow is unsettled by the absence of sound.3 We are presented with the frame as signifier of absence rather than window onto the world. The subsequent sequence realizes this landscape surface in the altogether different texture of black and white video, but now our relationship to this framed space is overdetermined by the presence of sound. While the technology of reproduction shifts from tactile and mechanical photography to its electronic counterpart, there is no longer human intervention in the steering of the boat, which now drifts according to the riverís current. The boat’s surface amplifies the sound waves as it floats over the water’s surface in a movement of becoming simultaneously free and confined. The microphone rests on the boat seat recording the bump and grind of collisions with tree branches jutting out from the riverís edge. The sound is both jarring in exaggeration while hollow in artificiality. Likewise, the images are at once tranquil and interlaced with sudden reframing movements.

The camera enframes the liquid surface which in turn reflects the clouds floating in the sky above, at once an opaque sheen and permeable depth always mediated by the touch of photo-mechanical process. The easy contrast of the human intervention in nature is complicated by the subsequent scene in which the first segment is rephotographed. Here, the edges of the frame are evident and the space on-screen where the dissolve sutures together transitions from one shot to another is effaced. Instead, we see the white screen on which this re-photographing process is projected. This deferral of meaning is further destabilized in the final segment, a return to the river to film underwater. In this sequence, silent images move quickly between lightness and dark in an onward flow through the liquid surface and across the textures of sand, rock, and light, marking areterritorialization of our relationship to this space in front of the camera. Movement no longer confined to the shape of the boat merges with the object of the image, the water as both surface and depth, recalling GillesDeleuzeís commentary on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934):

On land, movement always takes place from one point to another, always between two points, while on water the point is always between two movements: it thus marks the conversion or the inversion of movement, as in the hydraulic relationship of a dive and a counter-dive, which is found in the movement of the camera itself…Finally, a clairvoyant function is developed in water, in opposition to earthly vision: it is in the water that the loved one who has disappeared is revealed, as if perception enjoyed a scope and interaction, a truth which it did not have on land.4

In drawing out the relationship between Deleuze’s thinking and Phil Hoffman’s film practice, it is important to recall that for Deleuze, philosophy is not theoretical abstraction but is vital conceptual practice, a kind ofassemblage in which the engagement with cinema reveals the practice of thought outside the confines of Cartesian dualism. Hoffman’s filmmaking practice similarly depends upon the immediacy of intuitive and physical response. For Deleuze, cinema is a primary determinant of our understanding of space and time, and must be met outside of the constraining technical-interpretive methods of psychoanalysis.5 Like the hollow sound of the boat bumping into the shore in river, Hoffman’s films grind against normative conventions of documentary and genre categorization. They offer a reconfiguration of indexical presence emerging against assumptions of fixedness: of the borders of the frame, of order, finality, Truth. They can be understood, following Deleuze’s fluid metaphors, as experimental process: “no longer measured except in terms of the decoded anddeterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence…embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of means and aims.”6 By disrupting the ordered measure of images toward a coherent teleology, cinematic experimentation serves a necessary critical function. But its function is not simply as corrective to the positivist tendency of realist narrative and critical discourse; instead, it is the creation of an alternative space in-between that which is simply given and the idea of art as transformative and in which the act of seeing cannot be made co-extensive with believing.

That which is within the frame is never fully known and always points to absences beyond the border, and it is this space which is both celebrated and mourned as simultaneous site of possibility and nothingness. While the commonplace understanding of space, of the landscape around us and within our movie frames, is as something which is simply a location for action and in itself simply given and neutral, it must be better understood as something which is socially produced and which can only be understood through our systems of cultural encoding. This image-making no longer presumes to offer an unmediated window onto the world. Deleuzedescribes the importance of contemporary cinema as engaging a new realization of thought in three ways: “the obliteration of a whole or of a totalization of images, in favour of an outside which is inserted between them; the erasure of the internal monologue as whole of the film, in favour of free indirect discourse and vision; the erasure of the unity of [hu]man and the world, in favour of a break which now leaves us with only a belief in this world.”7 What cinema offers, when it breaks free from the relentlessness of the culture industry and systems of measure, is an image of thought outside of the commodified containment of difference.

Hoffman’s films engage this thought-movement by confounding easy distinctions between documentary and experimentation. These films exist in the spaces in-between film forms, in between image and text, place and space, the body and its absence, photography, history, and memory. As Blaine Allan indicates of several films, including Kitchener-Berlin (1989): “The slash and the hyphen in the titles suggest both a severance from the past and connections to it, an ambivalence that is especially poignant for the descendants of the areaís German settlers. The history of the area underpins the film, but refuses to bind it or restrict it from free association.”8 The landscape which is the surface texture of Hoffman’s films is overlaid with a discourse of territorialism, of personal and political struggles over the domain of space. The Canadian town of Kitchener was, prior to World War I, called Berlin. The juxtaposition of war images of home-town in peacetime elicits a desire to uncover and transform the complicit relation between the name, the regimentation of territory, the onslaught of time, and technologies of mass destruction. This process is not nostalgia for a pre-war law of the father; throughout these films, and especially in the later Sweep (created with Sami van Ingen,1995), there is a realization that the bounding of place by name is an effacement of earlier cultures. The film’s title evokes the brutal gesture of erasure which is the legacy of colonization under which a discourse of Canadian space must begin.

The performative hyphen of Kitchener-Berlin both links and keeps apart these spaces, and it is here that personal history is uncovered through  film images which play against the borders of static photography, the moving image, memory and forgetfulness, and the creative process of immersion engaged by the multiplicity of overlapping images. The personal is complicit with instrumentalized destruction whereby the silence institutionalized by the change of the townís name is voiced through cinematographic technology, itself enmeshed in the brutality which is the history of the twentieth century. Hoffman explains this unresolved contradiction in his use of theSteadicam for present-day images as both free-floating spirit and masculine aggression:

…you’re floating in a world where the sky and the ground are equivalent. It’s something we can’t do with our bodies, except through technology. So it’s a metaphor for the spirit released. I wanted to contrast that with the low technologies—the home movies which take a familiar form and subject. The Steadicam provides a solitary and other-worldly stance, an emptiness and separation from anything it shows. There’s something that separates the people sitting in front of these old buildings, that separates the remnants of German history from the present, and the camera signals this. This relates to masculinity. The Steadicam is part of the technology that can take us to far-away places or destroy the world. I wanted to show different aspects of technology through the century, using the Steadicam to create a feeling of introspective space where one can look back and account for what’s happened.9

This process of movement is not a re-writing of history but an evocation of its absences following Walter Benjaminís demand that we “brush history against the grain.”10 The relation to Benjamin is not incidental as his writings are filled with the concept of the shock effect of images and experience which flare briefly and then disappear but which, if recognized, fundamentally transform spatial and temporal understanding. Hoffman’s archeological process is a Benjaminian translation of the past and casting forward into an unnamable future. There is no synthesis of this dialectic; instead, it is an offering which includes the necessary absences of forgetting and misconception haunting the reconfiguration of memory, realizing Hoffman’s assertion that “the possibility of mourning lies in the unseen”.11 To think critically about Berlin is to look into the disaster of history and, in this case, to recognize the silent complicity founded in such acts as the erasure of the name Berlin from what is now called Kitchener. The art process which takes memory as canvas requires the failure of recognition (which is not the same as the absences of official history) to suspend instrumentalization and engage thought, as Deleuze describes:

When we cannot remember, sensory-motor extension remains suspended, and the actual image, the present optical perception, does not link up with either a motor image or a recollection-image which would re-establish contact. It rather enters into relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of deja vu or past ‘in general’…[as in dream and fantasy]. In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical-sound image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.12

Hoffman’s use of silence and the abrupt stasis of still photography disrupts the flow of movement as teleology of action and reaction and acknowledges the unsayable: a mourning which cannot be reduced to the awkward gestures of language, but instead emerges in chance relations.

The overlap of image and experience in the opening segment of Kitchener-Berlin confounds the instrumentality of space. Under the simultaneously hypnotic and menacing drone of church bells mixed with intermittent construction machinery sounds, images of nighttime bombing in Berlin are juxtaposed with home-movie footage in Kitchener. The first image we see is of children opening Christmas presents, suggesting, however innocently, the commercial-commodification of home space while the following war images indicate the brutal contestation for the control of nation-state territory—the bloodbath over who gets to name this space as “home.” Intercut are still photographs of public spaces in the earlier days of Kitchener, and prominent among these are snapshots marking a “successful” hunting expedition in which we see a row of deer carcasses inverted to bleed dry. Violence looms even in so-called peace time. Our attention is drawn to both the violence which underpins homosociality and the way photography similarly frames, confines, and captures the subject while signifying absences beyond (and within) itself.

The photographs are ordered in temporal reverse (images of Kitchener appear first, and then those of when the town was called Berlin), while the film images move forward in time. A young boy steps forward to look into the camera and into a future which he cannot see except in fragments of the past. These images overlap the flow of present-era Steadicam shots which suggest a wandering and free-floating quality while also drawing attention to the relentlessness of Western notions of progress. Frequently, we see the camera operator’s shadow floating through the collage as reflexive presence engaging a link between past and present, betweenKitchener and Berlin. But the shadow darkens the image, making it indistinct and the past irrecoverable.

Hoffman’s films circulate with documents of a past which can never be wholly known, and are overlaid with a present which itself has already begun to fade. Out of what Bruce Elder, in his description of a tendency to investigate the nature of the photographic image in Canadian experimental film, calls this”double-sided nature of the concept of representation”13 in which presence is always bound to absence, Hoffman’s film practice brushes assumptions of photographic indexicality against the grain. Our relationship to these temporal and spatial domains is determined by structures of power out of which emerges the photographic trace. The towering trees of the Canadian forest circulate beneath images of imposing European cathedrals. Tourists gaze upward while their bodies legitimize the commodity-conquest of space. Simultaneously, First Nations peoples gaze into the camera as the Pope moves through the crowd, an image reproduced from television from which the relentless flicker of video transferred to film reminds us of the invasiveness of systems of power even as the seduction of the image evades naming it as such. The dialectical process of negation in the overlap of these images forces recognition of absence without reconciliation.

The notion of cause and effect, of a teleology of history, is blasted apart and recognition is forced in the space of absence. There is no longer a totalizing unity in which thought is contained and experience is managed.Deleuze describes the importance of montage in the contemporary film as engaging the new by evading causal association of images:

What counts is on the contrary the interstice between images, between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it. …Given one image, another image has to be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.14

Where the cinema frame, for Deleuze, once allowed a stable system of measure in which disparate elements are brought together, the contemporary screen is one of chance and simultaneity. Like the overloaded frames of experience and detritus of Robert Rauschenberg, it arises out of a social and historical context in which faith in grand narratives has dissolved. Where we may see something new, it is in the unfixed, unstable terrain of the in-between.

The final section of Kitchener-Berlin is titled Veiled Flight, evoking the recurring tension of simultaneous movement and the obstruction of vision. The final image of the film is of an unfocused figure bathed in washed out red, a home-movie image superimposed over the cave walls and appearing at first glance as an irregular beam of light. That which is given in memory and history has dissolved into waves of colour and a deferral of narrative mastery. This image follows a sequence in which the camera moves into a darkened cave where candles and a flashlight illuminate wall carvings, photographs, and other static images. Some of these images are similar to those found in primary school history texts, such as drawings of dinosaurs and early explorers, but from which the concluding dissolve of light sets us free. If we are bound in chains within this Plato’s Cave, they are chains of our own making, images of power and discipline cast onto the earth.

This cave, in a town called Maastricht on the Dutch-Belgian border, is a quarry for the local community and while material is extracted, local people bring images inside to affix onto the walls. This space of found objects in turn reflects the collection of material with which the film itself is composed, and likewise reflects Hoffman’s cinematic practice of free-moving immersion in the everyday. Following the collage of technocracy in the first half, this section can be understood as an inward journey, but it is a journey likewise bound up with the social process of mediation and materiality. The section begins with an inverted rural landscape and hydro-electric structure. The camera arcs downward and the hydro tower penetrates into the earth. Superimposed over this movement is the archival footage of an old man awakening from his dream of technological progress, the trans-Atlantic Zeppelin flight of the middle prologue discussed below, to gaze into the disaster of history. What follows is a montage of underground mining footage with home-movie images of Christmas gift-giving, a horse-riding competition, and footage of the making of an Imax film which stages aboriginal communal life. In this film within the film we again see the image of animals dead from the hunt, staged for the surveillance eye of the looming authoritarian camera.

Hoffman has called this complex image-collage “polyphonic recitations”,15 evoking an aural contrapuntal multiplicity in the telling of stories through the entanglement of personal memory and history. It is interesting that the term privileges sound within this complex layering of images, perhaps to suggest an ephemeral musicality to the visuals in order to circumvent the instrumentalized relation between word and image common to conventional film reception. Likewise, it evokes another kind of absence. If the images from old home-movies are obscured by the fading of the film surface and the scratches from many passes through the family projector, they speak as well of the impossibility of figuring the family as united by the law of the father, even as the film is explicitly described as marking the paternal side of the Hoffman family, its patterns of dispersion and settlement.16 It does not present a simplistic nostalgia for a prelapsarian age, for it is a movement caught up in the blinding gust of the present combined with a masculinist desire to both know father and get out of his house.

The middle “Prologue” of Kitchener-Berlin is in fact a masculinist journey/progress narrative. It is composed entirely of edited material from an archival film called The Highway of Tomorrow or, How One Makes Two made in the 1930s by a Canadian businessman named Dent Harrison. Hoffman describes being moved by the inventiveness of this film which depicts a dirigible flight across the Atlantic in which Harrison photographically creates a double of himself to facilitate photography from both the inside and the outside of the airship. Harrison then falls into dream in which we see the double moving out of Harrison’s body as the final title card asks: “Have you people seen all that I have in my dreams?”17 The question raised by this quirky film is complex; while serving as document of flight it freely embraces non-realist representational strategies as if to signal the dream of mobility as co-extensive with an alternative imaginary. It is neither newsreel nor museum piece and the opening title announces Harrison’s membership in the “Amateur Cinema League: The Worldwide Organization of Amateur Movie Makers”. As if to signify legitimacy through this internationalism, the title appears over a circulating globe similar to the opening of commercial newsreels. Yet “amateur” indicates a break from commercial or “professional” image-making, and the use of the title here signals an affinity with experimental practices in the true spirit of the term: an energy and practice of discovery unconstrained by commerciality.18

Experimental practitioners are likewise accustomed to having their work derided as “amateur” by some elements of the mainstream. Harrison’s film is a story about travel and technological achievement, engagingDeleuzeís understanding of movement as the central concern of pre-WWII cinema, a reflection of technocratic will to mastery combined with a belief in the possibility of unity: “The mobile camera is like a general equivalent of all the means of locomotion that it shows or that it makes use of—aeroplane, car, boat, bicycle, foot, metro… In other words, the essence of the cinematographic movement-image lies in extracting from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance, or extracting from movements the mobility which is their essence.”19 The use of this footage here is to embrace the everyday and the idiosyncratic personal experience of time and space, but it likewise asks whether Harrison’s dream recognizes the collapse of order which is the consequence of our uses of technology, as reflected in Hoffman’s earlier comments on the use of the Steadicam.

Travel is a recurring motif in Hoffmanís films. His first, On the Pond (1978), is a reflection on childhood memory engaged after having moved away from home and how photography provides traces of the past whileenframing absences impossible to recover. His next, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), is the failure to enact Kerouac’s On the Road in the unfreedom of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, as Hoffman explains: “We’re all waiting on an experience that isn’t coming and no one’s sure why. It has a lot to do with how men relate to each other, dealing with outer realities, getting the job done …The guys on the road are caught in dead-end jobs, and nobody’s relating to each other in the van. …The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip, but their roads are closed now.”20 One thread of their destination is a meeting with Beat-era photographer Robert Frank to ask about the spirit of those times and the nature of his images. They end up, instead, talking about his living life beside the ocean, and lend a hand with the renovations to his cabin. Frank admits to an earlier innocence of the Beats which allowed a sense of freedom, but then bluntly states that Kerouac is dead. Memories of other journeys intercede. The travellers encounter a man who has been continuously cycling since 1953 and has spanned the world numerous times with only the material baggage he can carry on his bike. In contrast, the van these friends are driving in is cercarial and subject to frequent breakdowns. Yet the film persists with the question of what it means to travel, to document, and to exist within homosocial structures of power.21 Spontaneity and the poetry of free movement emerges when Hoffman is alone with the camera dancing on rocks at the waterís edge. Here, the images swirl, making tactile the visual plane in a celebration of looking unencumbered by obligations of language and social discourse. Yet the film refuses an easy privileging of this image, while it offers a moment of pleasure and intensity it exists within the borders of the social.

Sweep sifts through the imperialist legacy of travel. It is a journey north to the remote Ontario town of Kapuskasing and then to Fort George, a destination for Robert Flaherty, who was the great-grandfather of Sami vanIngen, Hoffman’s collaborator. As the author of a foundational film in the history of documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), the spectre of Flaherty is also collaborative, like it or not. But where that cinematic father journeyed north with the belief that the cinema can unproblematically capture and thus museumize northern people, Hoffman’s desire is to shake off this legacy of colonialism, as he describes the problematic homosocialcontext of the film: “Two men, on the road AGAIN, sifting through past worlds where there is everywhere, dusty remnants of the ‘great white father’. Colliding head on with the passing present we see him living in us.”22 Past and present, fathers and sons: again, desire exists in-between these limits. This gap is filled with invocations of the everyday, in the gestures of home-movies (another kind of hyphen), drawing us to the brink of representation and then dissolving in an overlap of experience.

The camera gazes at the spaces in-between image and text, photography and memory, body and place. The surface texture of the film, like the land north of Lake Superior, is overdetermined by the discourse of territorialism, the cultural divisions of space and place framed and divided amidst the ruins of history. An irritating buzz overlays much of the soundtrack, signifying the hydro-electric development which has irreparably disrupted life in the north, while at the same time extending a modicum of material benefits. The filmmakers understand themselves as embodying this southern technocracy, and choose to turn the camera onto their own presence and process of looking. Here, they work against the tendency, since the days of Flaherty and in his more recent imitators, to objectify First Nations peoples within an unnameable (and thus exploitable) landscape.

The colonial project requires the landscape to be empty and unnamed in order to legitimize the narrative of discovery, conquest, and exploitation. This counter-narrative displaces that prescriptive and exclusionary project of imagining community in which difference is displaced by the construction of unity under the banner of tradition. In this way, my use of the concept of in-between spaces intersects with Homi Bhabhaís use of that term to describe the intersection of theory and practice. For Bhabha, the hybrid subject position within colonialism, where the act of production is overdetermined by the spectre of the West, at the same time subverts these hegemonic and binary assumptions. As Bhabha states: “Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological manoeuvresthrough which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities. For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of the irredeemably plural modern space.”23

Sweep opens with a silent archival film of white explorers interacting with the indigenous Cree people. They are on the deck of a ship posing for a photo when the white men begin to playfully fight with each other. The image fades to black but this spectre of homosocial aggression continues to hang over the landscape as the camera pans in a sweeping gesture of our technological view. The final passage of the film weaves together images of the landscape with that of a cultivated flower garden, memories of family and childhood experiences, the looming hydro-electric structures, and archival footage of the Cree in front of which stand the filmmakers in silhouette. This intertwining of history, structures of settlement, of looking, and landscape suggest how all of these spaces are produced within a given cultural context and how they overlap and change in the process of engagement.

In-between framed space are the desires and betrayals of the body—caught in the photographís decisive moment and in the relentlessness of time. Destroying Angel (created with Wayne Salazar, 1998) is, on the one hand, a mourning for the death of Hoffman’s life partner and collaborator Marian McMahon, while also a celebration of Wayne’s gay marriage. In an early scene, Wayne and Marian are cooking dinner while Hoffman, from behind the camera, implores: “Come on you guys, act.” The photographer-subject power relationship is inverted as Marian asks Phil to explain how he would “act”. The dialogue merges this gap of presence and absence while revealing the performative nature of representation and confounding the possibility of verisimilitude—that which is true is transformed in this process of seeing, remembering, and making into film. These are intensely personal images, which raise questions over the representation of self. The scene follows Wayne’s introductory narration which reflects on his childhood travels through the American mid-west with his insurance-salesman father, while foregrounding the role of memory in Phil and Marian’s work. This reflection is triggered by the spatial similarity of Phil and Marian’s home to those farms visited by Wayne during childhood. Childhood is embraced as place of wonder, but this process of memory simultaneously brings forth an archeology of tyranny. It is the convergence of space through the figurations of memory that allow the emergence here of both art and mourning, following de Certeau:

“Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position. Its permanent mark is that it is formed (and forms its ‘capital’) by arising from the other (a circumstance) and by losing it (it is no more than a memory). There is a double alteration, both of memory, which works when something affects it, and its object, which is remembered only when it has disappeared. …Far from being the reliquary or trash can of the past, it sustains itself by believing in the existence of possibilities and by vigilantly awaiting them, constantly on the watch for their appearance.”24

What de Certeau asserts for memory follows his understanding of space as a network of transformative possibilities which emerge in movement rather than in the fixedness of property, casting back to the treatment of space and travel throughout Hoffman’s films.

What is necessary for Wayne is a movement of reconciliation which requires confronting and moving away from father. The camera holds on a close-up of his face against a black background as we hear (but do not see) him read a letter to his father in which he expresses his anger for childhood physical and emotional abuse while understanding that in spite of this pain, there remains love between them. The close-up at first appears to be a still image, but the subject blinks a few times and his presence is felt. The purpose of Wayne’s letter is to gain control over his life, to set himself free from the constraints of family by controlling the terms of contact. Here,Wayne tells his father he has AIDS. Earlier shots expose the litany of pills he consumes each day. A later scene, again in the kitchen, has Wayne explaining to Marian the purpose of the various medications as a series of quick cuts of close-ups relate the everyday pleasures of cooking and the sharing of food. The subject of disease is integrated into the everyday, and formally Hoffman is, in his words, “cooking with the camera.”25 These ritual gestures recur throughout Hoffman’s films, as if what can no longer be found in the fixed assertion of language or the disciplinary boundaries of space exists in the margins, in the fluidity of the everyday. The discussion reflects on the need to exercise individual control in confrontation with disease. It is the flipside to the more formal ritual of Wayne’s gay marriage  which, while celebrating and affirming love, is also a public demand for social recognition and legitimacy in confrontation with homophobic patriarchy.

The father, in a moving speech during the wedding reception, celebrates Wayne’s marriage while at the same time reasserting his own sense of authority, even if only to himself. Wayne’s father claims that he has learned to be “liberal-minded”, while earlier the film has detailed the tyranny of control hanging over his relationship with Wayne. These gaps are not reconciled in a negation of the past; rather, they acknowledge the co-existence of contradictions which is the context for self-discovery and social transformation The father’s speech and its inclusion in this film is a means of passage out from under the difficult memories of childhood. This movement is, unfortunately, met by the painful news of Marian’s fatal cancer, a tyranny of the body caught like Walter Benjaminís angel of history:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.26

As tragic as the news of Marian’s death is, the film does not sentimentalize or mystify. It is instead put in the context of life as a process which necessarily includes struggle and suffering beyond individual control. The title,Destroying Angel, recalls Theodor Adorno’s interpretation of Benjamin’s angel as caught up in the destructiveness of the present: The Angelus Novus, the angel of the machine…The machine angel’s enigmatic eyes force the onlooker to try to decide whether he is announcing the culmination of disaster or salvation hidden within it. But, as Walter Benjamin, who owned the drawing, said, “he is the angel who does not give, but takes.”27 I have made earlier references to Hoffman’s use of images “caught up in the blinding gust of the present” to evoke what is a central concern of his work so well encapsulated in Benjamin’s angel: the impossibility of totality and reconciliation in any move into the future.

Like the history of territorialism which constrains the potential for freedom in travel, memory harbours suffering, and its presence can unwrap the protective veil of forgetfulness. Destroying Angel concludes with Waynereading from Marian’s journal. In this writing, Marian works through the possibility that her desire to retrieve painful memories has triggered disease: “How can we reclaim memories without them becoming burdensome? I traveled to a forgotten past in order to understand a fragment of the present. What I retrieved was a pent-up history of abuse and violence that I sometimes, usually afterwards, thought best left hidden. What I am beginning to understand is that insight does not come suddenly but rather slowly and repetitively.” As we hear Marian’s thoughts and accept her absence, we see still images of her walking along the edge of a body of water. The photograph grows larger as it moves through a tunnel-like black frame (recalling the background black void of Wayne’s close-up cited earlier) toward the camera. The body and landscape are frozen by technologies of looking, transforming earlier images of the shore and the water in motion, forever shifting in form and direction even if understood only through the fixed perspective of the frame. These questions of the space of nature and the place of mourning are forever contained within the structures of the living.

  1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.
  2. Phil Hoffman, interview, “Pictures of Home,” Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom(Toronto: Pages-Gutter Press, 1997), p. 140.
  3. I am indebted to the published description of the making of this and other of Hoffman’s films in: Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 79.
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). The concept of ‘assemblage’ comes from the translator’s introduction, p. xv, while Deleuze’srelationship between philosophy and cinema is best articulated in his conclusion, p. 280.
  6. Gilles Deleuzeand Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 370.
  7. Deleuze, Cinema 2,p. 187.
  8. BlaineAllan, “Thought-Riddled Nature,” Program Notes: New Works Showcase, Part III (Kingston, Ontario: Princess Court Cinema, February-March 1990).
  9. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  10. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn(New York: SchockenBooks, 1968), pp. 256-257.
  11. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 142. The comment refers to the decision not to photograph the body of a dead boy encountered during the filming in Mexicoof Somewhere BetweenJalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) and prefigures the need to reconcile the tragedy of loss which underpins Destroying Angel (1998).
  12. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 54.
  13. R. Bruce Elder, “Image: Representation and Object—ThePhotographic Image in Canadian Avant-GardeFilm,” in Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada, ed. Seth Feldman (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984), p. 253.
  14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 179.
  15. “An Interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations,” Cantrill’sFilmnotes59-60 (September 1989), p. 41.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The film is from the Dent Harrison Collection of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. See Hoffman’s description in Pleasure Dome, p. 146.
  18. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  19. Deleuze, Cinema1, p. 23.
  20. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 141.
  21. The place of desire in the relationship between homosociality, homosexuality, and homophobia is explored in Eve KosofskySedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male HomosocialDesire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  22. Phil Hoffman, Sweep catalogue description, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, <>.
  23. HomiK. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 149.
  24. de Certeau, Everyday Life, p. 86.
  25. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  26. Benjamin, “Theses”, p. 257.
  27. TheodorAdorno, in Ernst Bloch et. al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor (London: NLB, 1977), p. 194.

The Landscape Journal

by Ronald Heydon

Day One
Writing the first words, always something of a mystery. Might as well begin at the beginning. Michael Sprinkler in The End of Autobiography traces the history of the word ‘autobiography’ to the end of the eighteenth century. The Oxford dictionary credits Southey with the first usage in 1809, and the French Larousse attributes the French form to a derivation from the English. Prior to the eighteenth century, works that are today labeled autobiographies were known as confessions, memoirs, journeaux in times.

Autobiography, the inquiry of the self into its own origin and history, is always circumscribed by the limiting conditions of writing, of the production of a text… Autobiography must return perpetually to the elusive centre of selfhood buried in the unconscious, only to discover that it was already there when it began… The origin and end of autobiography converge in the very act of writing… for no autobiography can take place except within the boundaries of a writing where concepts of subject, self and author collapse into the act of producing a text. (Sprinkler, p. 342)

Day Two
My first conscious encounter with landscape came in Saskatchewan, when I was nine or ten. On a bright, mid-summer day, I crossed the highway that encircled the city and entered the wheat fields. I walked for hours, gradually removing my clothes because of the heat. I remember the wheat scraping slightly the child’s flesh. I remember seeing no one and nothing but wheat and golden sun for miles. People have been known to panic in such conditions. In such solitude (and in each direction the same view) one either feels incredibly importance or insignificance. The feeling I had was communion.

In The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes D.W. Meinig writes that landscape is a technical term used by artists and earth scientists, architects and planners, geographers and historians. It is an ambiguous term, elusive. Landscape is, first of all, the impressions of our senses as well as the logic of our sciences. It is related to, but not identical with, environment. Landscape is defined by our vision, and interpreted by our minds.

In one of the books I recently read (was it New and Naked Land by Ronald Rees?) describing the frontier landscape of western Canada, the author referred to early survey expeditions undertaken to determine if the prairies were habitable. The Plains Indians had roamed there for centuries and one of the surveyors (1857) wrote in his journal: “Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”

The land, after first having been ignored (by earlier expeditions), explored and then appropriated, was later treated as a commodity. It was surveyed, sectioned off and given away in parceled bits to incoming Europeans.

“Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”
Does the landscape remember? Can we talk of land and memory?

Day Three
Heard trumpeter Lester Bowie’s jazz interpretation of It’s Howdy Doody Time. Great title for an autobiography! Went to a party at Steve’s (from sound class) last weekend. Most of the MA students were there. I started asking others about ‘referential productivity’ (from one of Nichols articles) but no one had a clue. Rick has given me a video copy of the Philip Hoffman films to view for class presentation on the 10th of November. Now I must find a friend with a VCR.

Day Four
The closer I look at ‘autobiography,’ the more infinite it appears.  There are four hundred years of it! Rick has set up the agenda so that I’m to defend the notion of autobiography in film. Does it need defense? Do the others understand? Does documentary only promote a cause? Expose malfunction? Couldn’t all this be applied to self? What about autobiographical documentary as therapy?

Day Five
In an interview, Hoffman says his experience taught him the value of the filmmaking process as much as the finished work. He gathers ‘pieces of evidence’—films, videotapes, audio recordings, written diaries—which are reworked to create a meaningful understanding of past events. It’s only while editing that patterns emerge. But this process of reflection and revision is extended to the viewer, who is asked to witness both events and their re-construction. This ‘experimental’ work allows an ambiguity which permits the spectator to bring in remembrances from their own lives.

I view On the Pond (1978) his first film. Family album photos are juxtaposed with images of a young boy playing a solitary hockey game, on the pond. Still photos of hockey teams appear in succession  as the boy becomes a teenager. Like my older brother, it appears the filmmaker lived his youth as part of a team. In the teen’s bedroom, a slow pan takes us from a projector and record player, the instruments of reproduction, to a book-shelf, a row of hockey trophies, and finally to the boy in bed, looking over a hockey scrapbook.

It’s the trophies that trigger my own personal flashbacks. Already the associations begin. I am from a family immersed in sports, a family of professionals. My older sister is a gym instructor and has played on Canadian volleyball teams for years. My older brother played every sport, won many trophies and now coaches football. My younger brother settles into karate and badminton (he was with Ontario’s Champions last year). Even my mother has trophies from her younger, basketball years. ‘Star’ they used to call her. I look over at the wall next to my desk at the picture of my father, taken just before his marriage. He played basketball for the Canadian team at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. (I look for him walking with the teams whenever I see images from the Riefenstahl film, but have never yet found him.) They came in second after the Americans. In the photo, he is seated at a desk, wearing his Olympic leather jacket, pen in hand, about to sign some register or other. There are many trophies in my parents home, but none of them bear my name. I never won any. Obliged, like all the children, to play every sport (I could swim and skate before I could read) my own ‘boy’s landscape was outside the team.

Day Six
Autobiography is a cultural act, where language acts as a focusing glass. Eakins quotes Spengemann who insists that the autobiographer brings together the personal experiences of the writer with the shared values of a culture. He discerns a core belief in ‘individual identity’ which he conceives of as “an integrated, continuing personality which transcends the limitations and irregularities of time and space and unites all of one’s contradictory experiences into an identifiable whole.” (Eakins, p. 73) Do all cultures compress essential values and convictions in human models? Is ‘self-conception’ a problem in most cultures? Autobiography comes into its own at the end of the eighteenth century “in conjunction with the rise of individuality as the dominant ideal of personality.” This in itself is a complex issue—that we all possess unique selves, continuous identities which develop over the course of a lifetime. Eakins calls belief in individuality an anti-model sort of model:

In the opening lines of his Confessions, Rousseau captures the paradox at the heart of the notion of embracing individuality as a model, for he claims for his identity an absolute value of singularity.” I am like no one in the whole world,” he writes, while enjoining others to confess the uniqueness of their own selfhood with an equal candor.” I have displayed myself as I was.” His uniqueness, in other words, is exemplary, a model for others to follow. We must recognize accordingly that the very generality of such a model engenders problems of self-definition that every autobiographer and critic must face anew: what do we think our experience is really like, and how do we conceptualize the experiencing self? (Eakins, p. 74)

Day Seven
“Oh, you write? You keep a journal?” a school chum asks. “Yes, and hand-written too. Not in the computer,” I am quick to add. I’m old-fashioned. I like the texture of the page, the written word. Sure it’s ‘time consuming,’ but so is watching television. Handwriting is like a snapshot, it conveys mood through style. My writing is sometimes harried, sometimes slow and methodical; sometimes in black ink from my father’s fountain pen, sometimes in spur-of-the-moment ball point.

“Oh, you write? Are you so important?” I have been asked in the past, for I have kept a journal since leaving Saskatchewan. But journal writing is so much more than this. It has little to do with fame, importance, ‘posterity.’ The journal is a work place. Asked by CBC’s Brave New Waves to join a panel on journal writing, my initial response was yes, of course. Asked to read from my journal I quickly changed my mind. “But why not?” asks the organizer. “It’s my own personal working out of private dilemmas,” I answer, “not always for another’s eyes, let alone ears!” Then I wrote a piece in the journal, a ‘working out’ of the dilemma of a public text. I decide I could present this piece on the CBC (though probably they’ll want something more revealing.) Katz, in the Art Gallery of Ontario catalogue on autobiographical film, says that a journal brings one face to face with the meaning of one’s personal existence—there, before one’s eyes, and collected in one’s own handwriting. A journal helps to put one’s life in focus. Can I present this? I consult my agenda and see that I have an art history presentation the very next day—my most ambitious project and the one for which I’m least prepared. I decide I can’t do both so I cancel the radio show. Missed opportunity? Story of my life.

“Oh, you write?” Remembering that time in New York, summer of 92, just after Raymond Carver passed away. There was an obituary in the New York Times which I quickly copied out before my taxi arrived to take me to the Port Authority terminal. The friend who had showed it to me, not realizing I had already copied it by hand, said he would photocopy it and mail it to me. “It’s OK, I already have it,” I told him. “You wrote it out?” he nearly gasped, as if I’d wasted so much energy. Of course his vehement reaction might seem relevant if the obituary had been a full page of text, but it was just the following:

I don’t know why people write stories.

Raymond Carver said he wrote them

because he was drunk a lot, and his kids

were driving him crazy, and a short story

was all he had concentration for.

Sometimes, he said, he wrote them in a parked car.

Day Eight
Should a camera record death? There is no narrator in Hoffman’s Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) but there is a narrative in the form of intertitles that resemble Japanese haiku poetry. This story takes place in Mexico where Hoffman chances across a dead Mexican youth surrounded by children. It begins:

Looking through the lens at passing events

I recall what once was and consider what might be

We never see the dead youth, but read via intertitles that the filmmaker has put his camera down. While the intertitles tell the story of this encounter, the ‘walking’ camera enters a village landscape, follows a textured wall overlaid with religious icons and paintings, and then a street procession (are we back in Ontario or still in Mexico?). A lone saxophone wails as if recounting the sad, difficult emotions. The hand-held camera pulls the spectator into the scene.

The little girl with big eyes waits by her dead brother

I am suddenly in a different scene. I am eighteen years of age and hitching around Europe. I am somewhere between Modena and Florence, seated in a medium-sized truck with a young Italian of about my age, who also prefers the back roads to the autoroute. He speaks no English while I manage just a smattering of Italian and French. With much hand gesturing and laughter he tells me that not only does he have a girlfriend, but that she is pregnant (la luna, la colline, capische?). Just ahead of us on the narrow road, an older man on a bicycle. We try to drive around him but the man turns left (doesn’t he hear the truck?) and we drive right over top of him. We sit there, immobile and white. There is not a sound. I get out of the truck and see children running from a neighboring farm. The man is dead. The young Italian can’t face him, he stands and weeps. I hold him and watch the children’s silent faces that look at us as if we were murderers. “It was an accident,” I want to say, but don’t even know the words. I thought I would never forget the look on those young faces, but I did forget until Hoffman’s film brought them back. I understand his ethical dilemma at filming death. What amazes me is his ability to make a thing of beauty from his coming to terms with it.

Day Nine
“Maybe I’m just more observational than the average person,” I say to myself, trying to find some context for the constant cruising, the way I engage others on the street. I don’t just look at people as I ride by on the bike but rather provoke a response. Maybe I’m spending too much time alone.

I did get to see a Dutch documentary film entitled The Ditvoorst Diaries. Back in the early 70s, Ditvoorst, the filmmaker, had been compared with Godard. Not long after his last film Witte Waan (White Madness) he returned to the town of his birth and drowned himself, exactly like a character in his first film Paranoia. It was a strange film to see on a Sunday afternoon, and we were only six people in the whole cinema. Much of the text for the film was taken directly from his diaries.

An incredible snowstorm the first of November. The following day the tree branches are laden with snow in the bright early-morning sun. Orange and black balloons remain tied to a tree in the neighbor’s yard. A little snowman now stands by the sidewalk, next to a discarded jack o’lantern.

Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears in tangible, visible form… The cultural record we have ‘written in the landscape’ is liable to be more truthful that most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves… There are no secrets in the landscape. (Peirce F. Lewis, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes)

Day Ten
The idea ‘to defend’ Hoffman’s methodology leads to other questions: what is documentary film anyway? Can it be experimental? Can something become so personal it’s no longer documentary? Who decides these things? Most docs unwrap issues: poverty, racism, child abuse, hunger. These are worthy topics, so why in my communications MA, have I steered away from TV news and opted for documentary film, sound, art and identity? Art demands becoming more of who you really are. Not just the exposure of an issue, some ‘master narrative,’ but allowing local concerns, personal issues, to surface. And if some of that’s labeled ‘experimental’ well, I’ll deal with labels later. What was it Cocteau said while adapting George Auric’s music to one of his early films? Something about scrambling the pages and using the notion of chance, which might reveal another way of interpreting the material. In that tension, some new aspect might arise. What is learning if not a sense of discovery?

It was in Claudia Gorbman’s book, discussing film music and image, that she called the relationship between music-image and music-narrative “mutual implication.” Could any music accompany a film? Of course!

Whatever music is applied to a film segment will do something—will have an effect—just as any two words will produce a meaning different from each used separately. Kracauer’s reactions to a drunken movie-house pianist from his youth, whose inattention to the screen resulted in pleasingly unorthodox audiovisual combinations, recall the Surrealist’s delight in the fortuitous encounters between two unlikely entities. Jean Cocteau actually scored some of his films on the principle of what he called ‘accidental synchronization.’ He took George Auric’s music, carefully written for particular scenes in the film, and applied them to different scenes entirely. Whether the relation between sound and picture is deliberate or not (surrealist word-games vs. traditional poetic activity, the drunken pianist versus a score by John Williams), their collaboration will generate meaning. Image, sound effects, dialogue and music-track are virtually inseparable during the viewing experience; they form a combinatoire of expression. (Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies)

Why can’t learning be like the viewing experience? It was Jim Lane who equated the ideology of ‘the personal as political’ with autobiographical documentaries. He said they moved between life and representation, and were as much about the genre itself, as the people who made them.

Even Eakin equated the writing of autobiography (the “art of self-invention”) with culture, in the sense that no writing, no matter how private, exists in isolation. It is made up of shared words. It exists “in engagement with the pressures that life and culture entails.”

Day Eleven
Hoffman’s early interests related to photography and place. His pictures are the establishing shots of his life. The landscape sequences in passing through/torn formations were places he traveled in his youth. The remembering of that time, he says, is essential to his work. “Only now I must deal with those moments of discovery using the camera.” The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) was the result of several years of hitching back and forth across the country, not only experimenting with image making, but also struggling with the conventions of documentary. One reviewer wrote that he uses failure (in that film) to make his strongest points about the convergence and intermingling of anticipation and event. He was apparently spurred on by Kerouac’s life “on the road.”

I remember the jazz essay I wrote—the one based on Pierre Bourdieu’s The Aristocracy of Culture, in which he expounded on taste (“manifested preferences”) and the way, according to “educational capital,” cultural products were consumed. I was trying to relate all this to the jazz fan—The Construction of a Jazz Fan in the Post-Bop Era of the 1950s or: Jazz is a Language/Culture is a Game. Ambitious kid! Trying to adapt Bourdieu to the Beats. More interested in the music and those tapes of Kerouac’s poetry.

“…tortured by sidewalks — starved for sex and companionship — open to anything – ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.” (Kerouac, The Beat Generation)

“Miles Davis, leaning against the piano, fingering his trumpet with a cigarette hand—working—making raw iron sound like wood – speaking in long sentences like Marcel Proust.” (Kerouac, The History of Bop)

Day Twelve
I go to Vanier Library in search of the Katz book on film and autobiography. I notice that it has been checked out until the end of November. At the front desk, I ask the fellow if he can let me see who has the book, as it may be someone in my class. “We can’t do that!” he says. “It’s against our rules.” “Well, just look the other way”, I said, “It’s happened before.” He types in the number of the book, and then my ID, then nonchalantly shows me the screen. “Seeing is believing,” he smiles. “The book is checked out… to you!” All the books I have are entitled autobiography anyway. And I have so many. But this is the height of absurdity, running after books I already have. Must slow down.

Day Thirteen
I prefer to write at sunrise. It’s quiet and I can greet my ideas, reflections, impressions (the state of mind to write this) like an old friend. I think that if I wrote at night I would sound desperate. In the morning I reconstruct and face another day.

Day Fourteen
“Art is not a mirror but a hammer,” John Grierson wrote in the early 1930s, though it is his definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” that is most often quoted. Bill Nichols in Voice in Documentarydiscusses the evolution of documentary, how it organizes the materials presented to us, and how the interaction of filmic codes produce meanings. Nichols suggests that contemporary filmmakers have lost their voice (i.e. replaced it with mere observation and unquestioned empiricism), and sets out to fashion his historical overview in order to advise filmmakers how to make documentaries that will more closely correspond to a contemporary understanding of ‘our’ position (whose?) within the world so that effective political/formal strategies for describing and challenging that position can emerge. His concern is how to understand images of the world as speech about the world, and how to place that speech within formal, experiential and historical contexts.

Now let’s face facts—the number of filmmakers who actually work this way can probably be counted on one hand. And though he gives an excellent summary of the four types of documentary film (only four?)—expository, observational, interactive and self-reflexive—I can’t seem to place Philip Hoffman anywhere, save the self-reflexive, and then only up to a point. Nichols defines the self-reflexive as a strategy (right away a problem), where the representation of the historical world becomes itself the topic of cinematic mediation.

It’s odd, that Nichols skims over the expository, voice-of-God mode, as his article exemplifies this approach. All his arguments lead to the self-reflexive mode as the only one worth pursuing. So why is television news and most documentaries still caught in the expository mode? I think the best line in the whole article comes right at the beginning: “The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next.”

Day Fifteen
Today I only feel like quoting.

“The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind.” (Patrick Keiller, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape, p. 43)

It seems, then, that making moving pictures of spaces and places involves the same sort of consideration as any other picture making – perspective, framing, proportion, left and right, and so on – even when the camera is moving, and especially when it is not. The virtues of this approach can be seen in those of Vermeer’s paintings where there always seems to be more shown of the corner of the room than there actually is. In other words, the picture of the corner of the room is so good that we can infer the rest of the room from it. (P. Keiller, ibid, p. 47)

The deeper I delve the more complex it becomes. What was it Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Day Sixteen
Fellini passed away last week. Big state funeral on the news. I notice, on a record jacket I have of selected music from his films, some quotes from Fellini on Fellini. “I am my own still-life.” “I am a film.” “Everything and nothing in my work is autobiography.”

Last week I gave my class presentation on autobiography and documentary film. As if I wasn’t nervous enough, Phil Hoffman was also present. He was very relaxed though, and afterwards, we had a good talk. But trying to cogently present the complicated theories surrounding autobiography was another matter. I started skipping paragraphs, darting across the page, scanning for the essential, unsuturing. I felt I was watching the paper crumble before my eyes.

After passing through/torn formations most of the class left on break and I stayed to speak with Hoffman. I told him the story (which suddenly jarred in my memory during his film) of my own grandfather. Originally from a tiny hamlet of a place in England called Hook Norton, he emigrated to Canada with his family and never returned there. I never knew his wife, my grandmother. She was a French woman, and died shortly after giving birth to their sixth child. My grandfather raised his six children alone. When I was hitching around Europe as an eighteen year old I decided to visit Hook Norton, which is just north of London, though the only Heydons there were on the gravestones. I took a few black and white photos, staying for a few days, and spoke with the oldest woman of the village who remembered my ancestors. I even copied out the record of christenings at the church going back over two hundred years. The next year, back in Canada, I visited my grandfather, who still lived in Windsor with two of his unmarried daughters. I showed him the photos—silly, Instamatic pictures—and told him of my adventures there. My grandfather was a big man, and watched me with steady eyes as I spoke. I spent three or four days there and then left on a Sunday evening for Toronto. The next morning I received the telephone call from my aunt: “Come back. Your grandfather passed away last night in his sleep.”

There were a few students who also listened to the story and one of them (Carolyn?) suggested that it was my fault that he died! “You probably triggered something in memories long buried.” Philip found it interesting but only said, “Looks like you’ve got enough there to make a film yourself.”

Day Seventeen
Hoffman made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) ostensibly to document Greenaway’s making of A Zed and Two Noughts. The film however (as Nichols suggests as the purpose of self-reflexive documentary) is concerned with the conditions of how it was made. He connects Canadian film history with references to Grierson (“that old battleaxe”) to a personal, diaristic travel experience. Landscapes vary from a small square in a Dutch city to a static shot of one of Greenaway’s outdoor locations to lion cages in the Rotterdam zoo. Like his Mexican film, a death occurs, only this time it is an elephant that is dying. The question of filming this death is the same however. The screen is left blank as the narrator describes the event. How to categorize a film that pokes fun at conventions while seriously searching for new forms; and asks us to create these forms with him.The spectator is part of his ethical dilemma. His dilemma is also ours.

Day Eighteen
Some years ago, while preparing a demo tape of a radio broadcast (which turned out well, as I was hired immediately at CKUT), I included several quotes from an autobiographer who has influenced me greatly. PeterHandke’s The Weight of the World is a text made of reflections, observations, self-inventions.

Washing a shirt in the washbasin when all is still and the heart is heavy.

Someone has written me a letter in which he apologizes for not having phoned me instead.

A television talk-show host laughs aloud at something, quite spontaneously—but all the same he forces himself to laugh into the microphone.

A little while ago (evening) for the first time in ever so long—while standing at the kitchen sink eating grapes and spitting the seeds into my hand—I managed to think of a future.

Independent film and video artists, Renov tells us, are asking themselves questions about the representation of their own subjectivity, in which history and subjectivity become mutually defining categories. Renov calls this “embroiling of subject in history” the new autobiography.

Day Nineteen
“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light-grey devonian limestone in southern Ontario. A powdery luminescence oscillates between rock and sky…”

I can see through Chris Dewdney’s words, through the text, the poem, through the words on the page. I am a spectator. I am also a reader. I am the viewer in the dark, before a black screen, listening to these words, theintroduction to passing through/torn formations. And I am glad Hoffman left the screen black. Some things are better left unshown, where the landscape of imagination and memory can more easily reside.

Hoffman describes the peopled landscape as “an inevitable collision between the old and new worlds, like two great landscapes colliding, erupting… Some people in my family just got caught at the epicentre…”

Day Twenty
There are many family voices in passing through/torn formations, as well as a relentless movement of overlapping images. Sometimes we see the same image/scene from different angles. This restatement of imagery (never exactly the same) Hoffman compares to oral history (which changes through the retelling), or to the literary method of Gertrude Stein.

It was Stein who said, back in 1934, that to understand modern painting, one had to fly over the plains of the Mid-West.

With the many changes in the dominant systems of communication that affect our culture as a whole, will film and video replace writing as our chief means of recording, informing and entertaining? Is there a cinematic equivalent for autobiography and, after four hundred years, is it close to extinction? Should I be angry with Philip Hoffman? Is writing to be formally displaced? “The unity of subjectivity and subject matter,” Elizabeth Brusswrites in Eye for I (Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film, “seems to be shattered by film; the autobiographical self decomposes, schisms, into almost mutually exclusive elements of the person filmed (entirely visible, recorded and projected) and the person filming (entirely hidden; behind the camera eye).” What is there in language to explain its peculiar fitness for autobiographical expression? Can the autobiographical ‘I’ survive the move from text to film?

Again I’m faced with Descartes, as Bruss begins her search: “The more radical his doubts (in the Meditations) the more certain the being of the doubter—he never considered whether the ‘doubter’ might not be the product rather than the producer of the doubt. (p. 298)”

She offers three parameters to autobiography: 1) truth value (autobiography is consistent with other evidence; it is sincere); 2) act value (autobiography is a personal performance); 3) identity value (the logically distinct roles of author, narrator and protagonist are conjoined).

Like the sentence I have been composing, language allows the same individual who plays the role of speaker to serve as his own referent as well—the speaking subject and the subject of the sentence are conflated—which is crucial to autobiography. In film, Bruss notes, the autobiographical self begins to seem less like an individual being and more like an abstract ‘position’ that appears when a number of key conventions converge. Film, in other words, offers a new variable—the choice between ‘staging the truth,’ or recording it directly. Can we call a film sincere, she asks. Can a film shot (apart from vocal accompaniment) express doubt?

But all film is manipulation, I want to cry out at her. And hasn’t Hoffman overcome this very thing?

I look at Kitchener-Berlin (1989), Hoffman’s latest film. I am immersed in family history—landscape, memory, time—and I go for a long bike ride afterwards to ponder. I think of my grandfather, who came to Canada from the Ukraine many years ago. He came to our house one day and dumped my grandmother at our front door. “Here,” he said to my mother in Ukrainian (he never did learn English), “Take your mother. She’s sick. She can’t work anymore.” Or at least, that’s the version my mother tells, not in anger, but in the hopes I’ll understand. “It’s their way.” Three weeks later, my grandmother was dead. I know it had something to do with cancer, but what I remembered most (as a young child), is that she died in my bed. I had to sleep in my sister’s room. Why do I think of this grandfather who couldn’t even talk to me, who could only say “hello” (in English) and pat my head?

I go out for a drink. Filled with books, papers and ideas. I stop at a singles bar in the Plateau where there are many people, voices, music, smoke, shouting and laughter. But tonight, there’s no one here I know. Standing alone, watching other casually cruise and flirt, I remember my teen years on the prairies.

Tonight, in the sky

Even the stars

Seem to whisper

To one another.

(Issa, Oraga Haru/The Year of my Life)

Day Twenty-one
Last day. One final glance to that Bruss article. In studying, we don’t just read the things we want to hear.

It is doubtful, she remarks, that the effects of shooting, editing and lighting are capable of expressing what we conventionally call ‘personality’ to the degree that language can. Mieke Bal has recently proposed a separate category (to represent point-of-view) of ‘focalizer’, as distinct from ‘narrator,’ to make the different qualities of these vantage points clearer.

There is a total absence of ‘identity-value’ in film. While speaking, ‘I’ merges easily with another. But the film spectator is always out of frame, creating an impassable barrier between the person seeing and the person seen. Viewing films could relate to our sense of privacy, anonymity—viewing, yet feeling unseen. She quotes Cavell: “We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, from behind the self.”

As Hoffman himself noted, “when photography was invented, painting changed; but photography never replaced landscape painting. If avant-garde film is dying in its struggle to survive, let’s celebrate its death and make it into something else.” Film could offer a new way of experiencing ourselves. Bruss concludes:

Film simply shares-or better, articulates—the dilemmas of an entire culture now irrevocably committed to complex technologies and intricate social interdependencies. To make the means of film human without falling back on outworn humanisms, to achieve more fluid modes of collaboration and diversity rather then the standardized expression, to establish practices in which ‘I’ may no longer exist in the same way but nonetheless cannot escape my own participation—these concerns are not unique to film but among the most fundamental problems that confront ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ as a whole.

The Spy Who Knew Too Much

by Richard Kerr

Let me begin with a confession: I have known Philip Hoffman for more than thirty years. We used to travel together, play hockey, make pictures. An old friendship demands loyalty and discretion, a respect for the line between the stories only the two of you can share, and those fit for print. Phil is an autobiographer, that is his muse, his stock in trade. His life is his material, and any pulling back the curtains or insider exposé might threaten this project. Rarely has someone’s life and work been so interchangeable. In place of hyper-biography I’ve relied on exchange and process, a terrain as practitioners we are both comfortable with. We wanted to keep it on the lighter side, there’s enough angst in our work after all, and rely on a faux interview dialogue. I wanted to touch on the broad stokes that lay at the heart of Phil’s work and process. More importantly, I wanted to know what he is thinking these days, in order to reflect on the consistencies and changes in his thinking over the years. This dialogue is necessarily incomplete. What is said is important, but what is left unspoken is more important. But that is the way these old friends would have it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It changes daily.

What is your greatest fear?
Hospitals (in Ontario).
Lightning (everywhere else).

What is your greatest extravagance?
400’ loads of Double-X negative.

What is your favourite journey?
Inner. It’s cheap, fast and out of control.

What do you consider the most over rated virtue?

What is your current state of mind?
It changes as I write.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Most Gentlemanly Player, Waterloo Siskins—1974.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Imprisoned in your own life.

What quality do you most like in a man?

What quality do you most like in a woman?

How would you like to die?
At home.

What is your motto?
It changes.

August 31, 2000

Hi Richard,

It seemed as Monday morning rolled around there were just too many pressures with J’s family visit outside of Montreal, and the little girl’s needs (you know all about that, kids are new for me).  Anyway, it seemed too much. I’m very moved that you are contributing to this book because in my mind,  you are my brother. Our drifting apart was quite painful for me, so your gestures to reconnect are touching. I want to do the same and am really sorry our meeting didn’t work out.


In the mid-1970s, when Phil was gearing up the grand project of autobiography as his life’s work, the times were less than encouraging. Especially for a middle class white male. And there was a considerable canon of experimentalists who had already forged significant works of cinematic autobiography. Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Robert Frank come to mind, but you can make your own list. This received history can be heavy for a young maker trying to sort it all out.

The mid-70s also marked a sea change from modernism to post-modernism with its libraries of cultural theory and prescriptions of political correctness. It was uncool, if not politically dangerous, to reflect on the self. These pressures of influence could easily lead a young filmmaker away from their muse. But Phil’s clear thinking and thoroughness, his wait and watch style and deliberateness, separated him from the rest of us. Day to day discipline created his body of work. As Yogi Berra put it, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Memories that won’t be made into films

Teenaged Phil alone in his room, listening to Dylan while family life reverberates around him.

Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.  —Jack Kerouac.

Phil always looked like his Father. He was the youngest, with three triplet sisters, but was always the man around the house, possessed of an early quiet confidence and responsibility.

There is no decisive moment. It’s got to be created. I’ve got to do everything to make it happen in front of the lens.  —Robert Frank

Phil was small, wiry, strong and tough. He got bigger every year. He was a natural athlete, competitive but clean, and he never backed down. He was a crafty pool player, a game he sharpened in the basement with hispoolshark uncle Wally. The darkroom was next door.

I’ll play it first and tell you what is later.  —Miles Davis

Things happened fast once we built our first darkroom. Enterprise and imagination. Dylan sings, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

No poet, no artist of any art has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. —T.S. Eliot

Young Phil at his lake a.k.a. On the Pond. Another classic setting in the young man’s life. I always imagined he did his big thinking there. The river served a different purpose…

Ideas are one thing and what happens is another.  —John Cage

On the banks of the Saugeen River, sixteen year-old Phil guts a brook trout. Every year the same scene on a different river: Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Alberta… but never Saskatchewan. I lived in Regina for fifteen years. Final note about fishing: I suspect Phil enjoyed fishing by himself, as opposed to groups. Too much bonding in a boat will drive a young man to the river.

It is a mistake for an artist to speak too often about their job. It releases the tension needed for work.  —Jemina Knowles

Phil Hoffman’s father is proud of his son. I saw that look in his eye thirty years ago, on the (backyard) pond. I saw it again fifteen years later at the Toronto debut of passing through/torn formations. I hope to see that look one more time before I go.

I never heard much about Phil’s days in his father’s meat packing plant, they were overshadowed by his father’s stories which were fantastical. His roots were German, hardworking, filled with personal sacrifice and just rewards. But it was always clear that the son would go his own way. Solo is vertical. The Hoffman team has the most refined sense of father and son I can imagine.

I always say keep a diary and someday it will keep you.  —Mae West

There was always cold beer, reefer and a loaded camera on the road trips. But Phil was the only one who could fix a flat tire in the middle of the night.

I write for myself and strangers… The strangers, dear reader, are an afterthought.  —Gertrude Stein

The more Phil travels, the more verbal he becomes. He may be the best life observer I know. We took some important (R+D) trips together. In 1976 we drove to the Allan Ginsberg archives via Ginsberg’s New Yorkapartment, a good story, but I’ve forgotten too much of it to tell properly. Phil would be able to though. Four years later we drove east to find Robert Frank in Mabou, chronicled in The Road Ended at the Beach. We took a sci-fi type journey to Love Canal. Countless rages into the night that I can barely remember. Once again, Phil’s memory is better than mine … of the details at least.

I know with certainty that a man’s work is nothing but the longing to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which gained access to his heart.  —Albert Camus, 1960

In the restless years between high school and university, Phil looks for the way through. We stay tuned in. One day, he showed up at Sheridan College. Things happened fast again. We are living our movies. Here are the first signs of Phil as an image and sound collector, so organized and methodical. His obsessive work patterns were already established, a life of consistent film creation lay ahead.

All art is a more or less oblique confession. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced to tell the whole story, to vomit up the anguish.  —James Baldwin, 1961

Before photography: many nights out with Phil where nothing is said but much seen. After photography even less is said, but pictures are taken, sound recorded. We are pecking, hunting and gathering. Process is process, but where are the negatives? It was never about copyright, but archive. Memory counts. Phil would have taught me that.

Part of our work is to make what is strange more familiar. The vomit’s always kept hidden away like idle chatter at a funeral.

Marian comes to my wedding in Toronto. It becomes a late afternoon lawn party. As a jet passes overhead, I say it’s Phil on his way to Holland and Greenaway’s zoo. We smile.

We teach together at Sheridan College, huge hours, the beginnings of our second careers. We are dragged into our first academic mutiny, always learning on the job. Today we’re still teaching, keepers of some sort of flame.

There are a few industry freelance ventures, promos for Women’s College Hospital. I direct, Phil shoots, the piece wins awards, good start!  Kevin Sullivan’s first effort  Krieghoff which is really Phil’s story, maybe one of his best. I often wonder if he tells his students about his freelance days. There was a Parachute Club video called Sexual Intelligence, good work if you could get it.

The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you’re an artist.  —Max Jacob, 1922

I moved to Saskatchewan to take a teaching job after Phil turned them down. Phil referred me, I made a cold call, and once again it all worked out. Phil and I weren’t seeing much of each other by then, both trying to look after our separate lives.

Personal history (autobiography) is an effort to find salvation, to make one’s own experience come out right.  —Alfred Kazin

In Saskatchewan I sit with my young family glued to CBC watching the Genies. Phil is up for Best Documentary with ?O,ZooHe wears his comfortable brown cardigan. He has a winner’s look.

Autobiography provides insurance against oblivion. But without publicity, oblivion endures. I believe that all careers end in failure, that each of us manages a certain coherence manifest in a particular work, granted by personality, hard work and luck. But after that moment our later years are spent in decline. If we are fortunate, we are able to do so with dignity. Life is diamond shaped. In the beginning, opportunities expand, later they contract. Unfortunately, none of us knows where the widest point of the diamond resides until we’ve already passed it. The big bang theory of careers? This contracting might not be as negative as it appears because one may retreat from career into home life, perhaps to take care of elders or make gardens. But perhaps there are several diamonds expanding and contracting at different times in your life. Like those party hats you get as a kid, excited to find as you unfold each hat, that one is connected to the other, and you discover that they go on and on, forever.

Book Review Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman

by Elizabeth Johnston, edited by Karyn Sandlos and Mike Hoolboom

Book Review

image002LANDSCAPE WITH SHIPWRECK is a book that acts upon the reader with an uncanny ability to engage both the emotions and the intellect. Quotations from diverse sources are liberally sprinkled throughout thebook, point and counterpoint, making a sort of contrapuntal music. Lifting you up, confirming, lulling, exciting and sometimes terrorizing you. So many times I had to stop and pluck a quote from this rich veinand write it into my journal for safekeeping. What Hoolboom and Sandlos say in their introduction is true:”By reading this book, you risk making this story your own.”

The story of a third-generation Canadian experimental filmmaker, Philip Hoffman, is literally (or academically) told to us in Peter Harcourt’s informative look at one member of the so-called Escarpment School. (Included in this school are filmmakers such as Rick Hancox, Carl Brown, Gary Popovich, Marian McMahon, Steve Sanguedolce and Richard Kerr.) “Born and raised along the craggy slopes of theCanadian Shield, their work typically conjoins memory and landscape in a home movie/documentary-based production that is at once personal, poetic and reflexive.”

A self-styled autobiographical filmmaker, Hoffman has been using 8 and 16 mm cameras to film his family since he was in his teens. Despite the very personal subject matter, Hoffman’s work is a testament to how the specific can be the universal. One of his first “assignments” was to film the corpse of his dead grandfather. (Although he did the filming, it was years before he could develop the film.) Death, and theabsences created by death, including the loss of memories, permeates Hoffman’s work as it does this anthology.

All of us struggle, at some level, to some degree, with identity, memory and the challenge of living in a world where every second all around us things are dying – every second dropping beyond our grasp. Simultaneously, Hoffman’s work performs the double role of magician and embalmer – recre­ating memory and in the very act of recreation fixing that memory as an embalmer fixes a body. This idea is beautifullyarticulated by various writers, but particularly in “Thin Ice” by Karyn Sandlos,”Notes on River” by Philip Hoffman, and Brenda Longfellow’s “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida.”

Ronald Heydon’s “The Landscape Journal,” is indicative of the emotional responses in Landscape. Using Hoffman’s films as a springboard, Heydon ruminates on his own connec­tion to land, memory, and autobiography. In a particularly moving entry, Day 8, Heydon discusses whether a camera should record death, which is for Hoffman a central preoccu­pation. Hoffman’s film Somewhere between Jalostotitlan andEncarnacion is the source of this entry. In this film, there is no narrator, but intertitles tell us the story. At one point, the bus Hoffman is on stops because a boy has been killed in the road. Hoffman thought about filming the death, but decided not to and the resulting film is, in some measure, an attempt to come to terms with that decision and the lacuna it creates in the film itself. Heydon, watching the film, remembers his travels in Italy as an 18-year-old. He’d hitched a ride with a jocular man who preferred back roads to highways.

Just ahead of us on the narrow road, an older man on a bicycle. We try to drive around him, but the man turns left (doesn’t he hear the truck?) and we drive right over top of him. We sit there, immobile and white. There is not a sound. I get out of the truck and see children run­ning from a neighbouring farm. The man is dead. The young Italian can’t face him; he stands and weeps. I hold him and watch the children’s silent faces that look at us as if we were murderers… I thought I would never for­get the look on those young faces, but I did forget until Hoffman’s film brought them back.”

To film or not to film death, that is the ethical question that resurfaces throughout Landscape. In slightly more comic (or objective?) tones, this question is revisited in Hoffman’s documentary of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts dur­ing the filming of which an elephant died on location at the Rotterdam Zoo. In Hoffman’s documentary, the story of the elephant dying is told over a black screen. The narrator says he filmed the elephant, but couldn’t bring himself to develop the film and so put it in the freezer. Yet, after the credits, there is a shot of an elephant getting up from the ground that throws into question the veracity and authenticity of the film.

While there is no doubt such treatment of actuality gives rise to ethical questions, the consensus seems to be (exempli­fied by Michael Zryd’s “Deception and Ethics in ?O, Zoo!,” and Polly Ullrich’s “The Workmanship of Risk” among others) that the censorship of such methods would deny filmmakers and viewers the opportunity for questioning the ways of the self. Hoffman explains it this way:

By means of the personal content of my films I seek to uncover subjective aspects of the way events are record­ed. Focusing on the way that l, as afilmmaker, can and do influence both form and content allows room for the viewer to reflect upon ways in which meaning is con­structed in film. Using the processes of reflection and revision, I seek to examine and express how we bring meaning to past and present lived experiences.

Hoffman’s films demand a sophisticated, or at least an open-minded viewer, one that, given the recent documentary scandals in Britain, does not yet exist in the mainstream.

In the act of reading this book, an open mind, a self­reflexive mind, will find itself transformed and changed. The old self will no longer exist. And, only after reading to the end will some things at the beginning become clear like the nature of this change and, also, the meaning of this rather odd statement:”In biblical times,” write Sandlos and Hoolboom,”there circulated rumours of a book so fearsome, so awful, that its reading would occasion the events it described, and end the world as it was known. I have no doubt that for Phil, this is that book. I pray he never reads it.”

I was nearly put off by that apocryphal introduction. It seemed too large a statement for any book to live up to let alone a ragtag anthology of”critics, architects, and builders.” I tell my students of fiction writing: You have to earn the right to use abstractions, cliches or exaggeration.To my delight, Sandlos and Hoolboom have earned that right. But, I don’t know that Philip Hoffman would feel things were over for him after reading this book since in the early nineties, he killed off the author in his own work and moved into collabo­rative installations, thereby rising from his own ashes. I sus­pect that Hoffman could use this book as confirmation of that transformation or at least keep it handy to stoke the fire needed for the next transformation.— POV

Elizabeth Johnston is POV’s resident book reviewer. She also freelances for major newspapers and teaches cinema in Montreal.