Philip Hoffman Radio Banff Interview (1989)

by XX – Autumn 1989

XX: Last evening in the Banff Auditorium there was a screening of three films by an independent filmmaker from Toronto, Philip Hoffman, who has been in the artist colony for the past week; rejuvenating and working on ideas and basically plumbing the depths of new ideas for, and taking shots around the Banff area for up and coming films that he may make or will make. Philip’s in the studio this evening with us. He leaves tomorrow, you leave tomorrow morning.

PH: Yes, short stay. Short stay. Good one, though.

XX: It seems like quite a homey bunch in the artist colony at the moment.

PH: Really good group. We’re working on our own, plus we seem to be working together too. Everybody’s looking at each other’s work, and it’s nice to meet new people.

XX: In the artists colony there are times when people are producing intensive work and you rarely even see them. You hear that so-and-so is here, and nobody even in the colony knew because they would sneak out in the middle of the night, and be gone by dawn. Sleep all day… or however they worked.

PH: I’m sure that still prevails.

XX: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s just that there’s a liberty that I think is wonderful when you’re in the colony. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your background. I know you began as an amateur photographer in your youth, and maybe you could take it up from there.

PH: Yeah, that’s just one of the stories that I put out.

XX: Is that the real one?

PH: It could be. Yeah, it was important, photography, right from the start; when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. I managed a darkroom in the basement of the house. And went out collecting images. As I was saying last night, after all these films I’ve made, about eight now, I’ve realized how that’s been so important in my work. Both being interested in the realist image in photography and questioning that image. And on the other hand, the magic that happens in the darkroom when the image starts coming up, when you’ve got the paper in the developer, in that moment of transformation, that fleeting moment that you can’t really put your finger on. Those things are happening always in your life, I think… in my life. How to try to use film to conjure that transformation? Maybe it’s in the view or in the viewer’s mind that moment might appear.

XX: So you’re saying that magical moment, which for you was when the picture started to appear in the developing process, is possibly transferred to perception? When the viewer perceives your work. Is there another place for you where that magic still exists in the making of a film?

PH: Yes, there is. It’s in the shooting and the interaction between camera and subject. I like to work from that rather than from scripts and confront my subject whatever it may be, and let the structure and the rhythms of the film come out of that moment in shooting. Sometimes I just go collecting images, and that tells me what a future film might be. Which is something evolving here for the past week in Banff, giving myself the time to concentrate on that kind of work.

XX: You use the term diarist not only for your films but the working method. So it’s a very ongoing process, you never start with a script, you collect and assemble.

PH: I don’t think it’s an unusual way of working for artists in any discipline. It’s an unusual way to work in film, when you consider that 99% of the stuff that we see on television and feature films is prefab, the script’s got to be there, or the money doesn’t happen. When you’re working with a Bolex or in Super-8, with small equipment, you have control of the costs so you can work another way. I may work on larger projects in the future, but I would always like try to hold on to the role of intuition. I’m sure this happens in feature films, when people are working with actors there must be moments when the script is changed right on the spot. This is important because filmmaking doesn’t happen on paper.

XX: In a recent interview out of the University of Calgary and in your comments last evening about the films, the word memory came up. And in seeing the films, your approach to time and the use of memory especially in the second film breaking through/torn formations… breaking through or is it the other way around?

PH: Passing through.

XX: passing through, sorry.

PH: Slash, torn formations.

XX: Those two elements. Almost the manipulation of time. Not in a way that’s so rigid you feel some sort of structural approach, but in a way that’s definitely engaging, mixed with your concern about memory. I remember in the Calgary interview you said that memory was something that we were going to have to deal with in the latter part of this century because most mass media is creating a passive viewer, creating things which are very fleeting and ephemeral so we don’t use memory in the same way. I think you’re broaching that subject in your films.

PH: The mass media freezes and packages history so when we think back, we think of what’s been documented. Why do we imagine the world before 1930 in black and white? Time should move on and it shouldn’t be pinned down. For everything that you’re doing in the present you have to remake or question the past. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in the film, by using personal experience, and reworking it. In some of the early works I dealt with home movies more and still photographs of the past, and tried to make a history that would sit well with me at the time of the making. Now maybe in ten years I don’t like that. I’m not really sure where it’s going, but Chris Marker, the maker of La Jetéeand Sans Soleil said that memory is the most important thing we have to deal with in the latter part of this century.

XX: The first film ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film was for me the most accessible in terms of… there’s a certain lightness to it, and even the camera and editing style was much more conservative and traditional. The other two passing through/torn formations and Kitchener-Berlin both used really interesting collage and superimpositions and almost rhythmic imaging that I found quite fascinating. But before we get into that, the whole idea of history which you brought up in the second film, torn formations, you’re dealing with a very personal subject; your family, your mother’s side of the family coming from Czechoslovakia. What I wonder is, this is you making a film, but is it also you working through a very personal thing, that you had to work through and this was the way you were doing it through the making of this film?

PH: I showed it out in Vancouver, and someone said it was an exorcism, which sort of struck me weirdly at first, but then I thought hmmm… if so it’s not over. I guess there’s a lot of things we put under the table and don’t want to look at, and this was something I wanted to look at, because I thought that it might be of value, firstly to the family and secondly the issues of immigration and the incredible pain that comes through that kind of movement which is amplified by my mother’s family coming from Czechoslovakia to Canada in the 1920’s… well it wasn’t Czechoslovakia then, it was the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the twenties… and how the pain echoed down the line through the children. So in that way I think it’s universal as well as my own personal thing of dealing with it.

XX: I felt that there was enough objectivity in the film, there were enough characters, there was enough scope in the film that it didn’t look like a self indulgent home movie. Obviously it goes much, much further than that, and even though everyone in it is your family, the way you approached it and also in the way you present it, the style never allows its viewer to sink into that reverie of just thinking about it as being one specific family, it’s swirled around so that any personage becomes a sort of universal person. The first image shows your Grandmother or an old woman and her daughter, would that be her daughter?

PH: Yes.

XX: I found myself immediately identifying them as family characters. Their particular identities didn’t matter, they were people on the family tree that were established and they would come back and more of their story would be revealed by having another person down the line. I found that fascinating.

PH: I’m glad it worked like that. The formal experiment is the thing with memory… [TAPE ENDS]

XX: …and with a lot of pop videos it’s almost as if they don’t think they can keep your attention with a shot longer than two seconds. They chop it up according to certain rhythms to make it seem dynamic and exciting but sometimes it’s totally exhausting. With your work on the other hand, I’m thinking of Kitchener-Berlin, a work in progress I believe, in which you show buildings, is it a town square or something like that…?

PH: Yes.

XX: It’s swirling. It gives you a sense that they’re swirling around a crowd. And then you also have the ground—the pavement of cobblestones—moving underneath that and at first it seems impenetrable when you’re first presented with it—plus you have the sounds of bells clanging along. At first I was bewildered and then I felt that I had to make a decision, visually, what I was going to do, because I couldn’t watch the thing spinning around—it was making me dizzy for one thing—and so I concentrated on the most immobile part, the crowd sitting there. But at the same time your peripheral vision knows; it’s almost as if you’ve set up contexts within contexts. They’re going at different speeds. They’re taking up different parameters, or sizes of your visual capacity. And I found that whichever one you looked at you were getting them all because there was this counterpoint going on.

PH: It’s new, you know. When it hits its peak four images are superimposing and I’m still getting to know its effect. The same thing happened to me last night when I was watching it and I saw things that I hadn’t seen. It was interesting that you could… well you would never really watch it so many times before you could pick out every little thing, but… it’s shifting. It lets the viewer participate in a way because you’re not hemmed down to looking at only the thing that the filmmaker’s saying you have to look at. It’s giving you choices.

XX: Definitely, even if it is a whirlwind viewing. And it was interesting too, just to see some of the people from our Layton colony group and how they were perceiving the films in different ways. We talked about that. Your films somehow shows us each of us how we look, it represents the way each person sees. There were certain points where there were ways of seeing where you just allow yourself to be taken and the composite images become a unified matter in which no one image is more or less than another. In Kitchener-Berlin, I think I got a sense of what you were trying to say about Germanic culture in Canada before the First World War and after the Second World War, the alienation of being in a country which isn’t your country any longer. That repeated spiral from the Berlin Wall moves upwards into the sky. At first they seem like images that go by and by and by but because you’re not bombarded, it’s not like a rock video where you’re bombarded. I found that you’re enticed and provoked into questioning, “Well why is this scene in there, and what is that?” Some are quite short. There are some scenes of a street in Kitchener, I guess, with the streetcars when they had Berlin on the side of them. You only see them for a moment but you know this is an old picture. You just have enough time to see the Berlin on the side and you don’t know whether it’s Germany or if it’s Kitchener… if it’s Canada. And the whole thing draws you along. The sense of alienation comes through, the ambiguity between it being Berlin one day and Kitchener the next.

PH: I’m from Kitchener in Ontario and before World War I, or on the crest of that, the name was changed from Berlin to Kitchener because of the war and what was happening inGermany. So I wanted to try to deal with that, but I was afraid that people were going to say, “Well this is not a film about Germany or the German heritage, because you’ve got these images off the TV of the Pope visiting the native people.” I just kept fighting this project of doing something about the German people in Kitchener so directly because my experience of Kitchener shared many different cultures, not just the German culture and that’s what happens with migration to the new world or to Canada. The game changes and what we end up with are stereotyped images of Germany, and German dances, colliding with Canadian culture.

XX: Now this work is still in progress. You didn’t show the second half of it, last night. What’s the subtitle of the first part?

PH: A Measured Dance.

XX: A Measured Dance. That in itself is a provocative title.

PH: Yes, when I screened it in David Rimmer’s class in Vancouver he said that as a country becomes fully controlled by the state, the dancing becomes more regular and measured. Now with the wall breaking down the dancing around East and West Germany is a little less measured. They’re pretty wild on the streets right now. The measured dance also pertains to the dance of technology and the repetition which I think is shown through the repetition of television imagery, the screen flashing through the TV bars.

I used a SteadiCam for its fluidly, though put it to a different use than usual, which is to follow a doggy to his dog food in some commercial. My operator was making circular motions and trying all kinds of things which she had never tried before with a SteadiCam and that’s what you’re speaking about at the end where everything’s spinning.

XX: It gives an incredible fluidity to the piece which I found extremely musical. The composer who wrote and performed the music for Zoo and passing through is Tucker Zimmerman?

Ph: Yes.

XX: Is he based in Toronto?

PH: No, he’s an American draft dodger who had a composer’s scholarship in Italy during Vietnam and didn’t come back so he wouldn’t have to go to the war in Vietnam. There he met this lovely woman Marie-Claire from Belgium, so now he lives in Belgium, he’s quite an amazing person.

XX: Did you meet him when you were in Holland doing ?O Zoo!?

PH: Yes, we had a mutual friend, Ton Maas, who was helping me out and when I told him about the type of music I was interested he said I should go see Tucker in Leiges. I had about five days and he was pretty laid back for the first four days. We just played baseball… he was still living sort of the American way…

XX: ..in Belgium.

PH: He got a baseball team going there. But anyway, on the night of the fourth day we looked at the film and it was amazing how he just… you know he wanted to get to know me as a person, he felt that was more important than seeing the film. And I can go for that kind of working relationship. He also did the music for passing through/torn formations a couple years after that. I was so impressed by the way he created a kind of… the repetition of… well, he uses a synthesizer and he mixes real instruments with it, but how he created that sort of… Philip Glass type music with a Czech quality to it.

XX: If you’d heard it without the film you wouldn’t say it was specifically Czechoslovakian, but it does have something about it… it’s almost the tonal quality, there’s a bit of an Eastern something in there. There’s one scene where the narration describes your uncle who was an accordion player and we see someone’s hands running over a keyboard and the music at that point is repetitive synthesizer which gradually blends into actual accordion sounds. It’s really quite brilliant. It’s almost imperceptible and suddenly you feel yourself drawn in by this real instrument.

PH: The image shows a piano, the sound is an accordion with a synthesizer behind it. So instead of the conventional master-slave relation between picture and sound, when you see someone’s finger hit a key then you have to hear the note we worked until the music playing with the image rather than following the image. Most films are allowed to be made because of the way words fall on a page, and not the sound in a scene. For me film is much closer to music than literature, because they are rhythm based and move in time.

XX: Light and time. Just one more question about the audio of the films; when you’re collecting shots is audio also something you’re thinking about or is it only when things start to come together in the lab that you deal with the oral dimension?

PH: The collecting of sound and images happen at the same time. In passing through/torn formations I had a rough cut of the film with all its sound except for the voice over, yet even the voice over was written during certain experiences in journal form and then once the images started coming together with the rest of the soundtrack, I started placing the narration that goes along with it and the voices collected of the family members telling their different stories. While I made ?O Zoo! I collected the voices that are in the background. When I got the images back I would write something, so there’s a big pot of soup and all these different ingredients in it and it gradually, hopefully tastes OK.

XX: Right. Little personal spice put on it in the end. I find the making of ?O Zoo! fascinating in that it’s a film made within a film- like Shakespeare’s play within a play. Were you actually working with Peter Greenaway as an assistant?

Ph: I would help out sometimes, but I had a camera and could go where I wanted. He was encouraging me to make more films because he had seen some early work that he liked. The film’s not really about him, it skirts along his feature film A Zed and Two Noughts as well as some of my side trips out in Holland.

XX: There’s a few scenes in ?O Zoo! that… I don’t know if the footage is from him or was it taken at the same time as he was filming?

Ph: The footage was shot while he was shooting as well, and I got access to all their sound. I worked in the same space they did while editing.

XX: It sounds like a really rare experience for a commercial film, although I guess this was the first big commercial feature he did.

Ph: Peter Greenaway made Draughtsman’s Contract before that, but even that was Super 16, it wasn’t 35 millimetre, and his previous short work had been done in 16mm. With A Zed and Two Noughts he was struggling with things, not always real happy on the set. And sometimes he would come up to me and say that he envied what I was doing… he has a Bolex. Actually he said after he’s starting to make a diary film.

XX: A Zed and Two Noughts is nonetheless a fascinating film and it’s definitely not mainstream. It’s quite…

Ph: Well, that was part of the reason I went over, I wanted to see how someone who has worked as an artist-he’s a painter as well, trained in art school-how he would work in the commercial industry. He has people around him, producers and that, who are interested in not so much in making money, but making films that are important for our cultures.

XX: It seems in every art right now the whole aspect of financing and support whether it be moral support, or financial support is such a big question, especially since so many art forms have integrated a certain array of technology so in order to make certain kinds of art you need an incredible amount of support and the film industry has certainly gone that way. To make so many films that are not good films and if you look at the budget it’s just astronomical.

PH: Filmmakers can really work another way. They can work like a still photographer if they want. I guess you need a grant to get the materials paid for because that’s where it gets expensive but if you can manage that then you can pick up a Bolex for five hundred bucks and you’ve got your camera that does anything. Images can be blown up to 35; I’ve seen some of my stuff blown up to 35 with the Bolex and it looks great. I mean, it’s not something that normally happens but… and just an editing bench and… You could transfer to tape if you want, there’s such a push and hype around video right now, not like in Europe, over here the attitude is let’s get all this video equipment and figure out what to do later.

XX: Yeah, figure out what to do later.

PH: Video will find its place if it hasn’t already, but it doesn’t mean film is dead. When photography arrived painting didn’t die, it changed. I think film should be an integral part of any art institute.

XX: You’ve been teaching at Sheridan College’s Media Arts Department for three years?

PH: I’ve been there about eight years part time along with doing my own work. Now I’ve taken a year off to do some other kinds of things and I’m enjoying it a lot.

XX: Great. I was just thinking of one scene in torn formations in which you show your mother through the video scanning lines. Instead of trying to clean that up, instead of looking at it as an impingement upon what you’re doing, you get these scan lines going and at one point you superimpose a fence or bars or something across it which transforms these scan lines into an iron grate.

PH: I’ve worked with video in quite a few of my last three, four films, but didn’t have the money to transfer the video to film, so when shooting the video I put the camera on its side, which places the scan lines vertically instead of horizontal, so that it would sort of match the shape of the human body, rather than cutting the head off. The reason the line is there is because I couldn’t afford getting it transferred professionally. I used an Éclair camera which allows you to change the shutter angle in order to minimize the flicker and scan lines. This way I could shoot a lot of video and decide what I wanted to use later. Once the film gets old you get scratches and it all looks like a scratch (laughs).

XX: I think we’re going to play some of the soundtrack. So for anyone that was at the screening last night you can remember the pictures, and for those who weren’t you can make your own. This is from ?O,Zoo!, and maybe it will catch your imagination and sometime in the near future you will get a chance to see some films by Philip Hoffman. You’re heading out to Edmonton tomorrow morning to show some films up there?

PH: Friday and Saturday in Edmonton, and then Tuesday in Regina.

XX: So this is the Philip Hoffman Western Canadian Tour.

PH: (laughs)Well  I was in Vancouver and Calgary… so it’s been great to talk to people who are dealing in film and video through the west. You get to looking at yourself in Toronto and you need to travel so I decided to make the trip.

XX: Great. Well, it’s been wonderful having you at the centre last week and wonderful to hear and see your work and to have you here this evening. Good luck.

PH: Thanks.

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