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’sShulie, a 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.
THE DOCUMENTARY IMPULSE
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 IN CONTEXT
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,Zoo! and 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.
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.