What these ashes wanted (Script)

by Philip Hoffman

TEXT ON SCREEN (White on Black)

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


TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

What these ashes wanted




MIKE:   Hi Phil, I found this in a book and thought you might like to hear it, hear goes…

When I call up pictures of friends, lost, a terrible ache comes over me, so much so that it has to go away on its own, there isn’t much by way of remedy that I can do. I remember a letter of Henry James where he said that in times of great grief it was important to `go through the motions of life’; and then eventually they would become real again…. I’ve been trying to write myself a poem about those ancient Japanese ceramic cups, rustic in appearance, the property at some point of a holy monk, one of the few possessions he allowed himself. In a later century someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. So it was repaired not with glue but with a seam of gold solder. And I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history….

(Taken from a portion of a letter from the poet Alfred Corn, Feb 19, 1994 ‑ from Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty.)

Ok I guess that’s it …see you later…


M-  It’s almost as if I’m experiencing the stress of the contradiction. A stranger going into someone’s home, touching their bodies and you don’t know what their name is.  Going into your private part of your life experiences but you’re body is public property and it’s being treated by the medical profession.  That to me is very strange.  253, Christ… (LOOKING FOR HOUSE ADDRESS).


M-  You can’t even go to the bathroom there’s just so much junk around.  I go into the bathroom, and there’s a pair of poopy underwear soaking in the sink . Where am I going to wash my hands? I kind of run my fingers under the tap and wet them.

M- A camera isn’t human but it performs the same kind of act…. except it’s not working on my physical experience, but on my psychological experience.

P- it’s working on my physical experience.


M- 57, 57, 74… 57. Bingo.  Okay, see you in a minute….bye…(SHE GESTURES AT P BEHIND CAMERA) …Philip kiss me (laugh).


M- It’s really hard for me to do this.  I feel like I have to entertain you.  That’s not what I really mean to say.

P- It’s forcing you.

M- I feel like I ‘m not really talking about things that I’d want to talk about, things that I’d want to talk about with you.

P- Yeah, because you are talking to the camera.

M- Yeah.

P- Well, it’s hard for me, too.

M- Maybe, we should have somebody filming us.  Someone
filming you filming me. Why is it hard for you?

P- It’s hard.

M- Because it’s heavy!

P- Yeah.

M- Oh, Philip, here I am talking about psychological difficulties and you’re talking about physical ones.  You’re nuts, you really are nuts.  Sometimes I think you are so insensitive, honestly.

P- What I’m saying is I’m concentrating on this which makes me not able to concentrate on what you’re saying or interact…

M-    That’s a little different than saying that it’s hard for me because the camera is heavy.  It’s a little different, you know? Do you understand the difference?


TEXT ON SCREEN (White on Black):

He always thought they would grow old together



TEXT ON SCREEN – (black text superimposed on photo seascape):

I found this photograph
which she took 8 years ago
it was in her desk
paperclipped behind this text:


For the last year I have had this picture hanging before me as I sit at my desk. It has plagued me with its possible meanings.  I was convinced that this image held and contained  meanings and that if I stared long enough, they would tell me something about events around the time of the picture’s taking.  I took this picture on September 24, 1988, in Spain at a castle near Guadalest, a small village located 60 miles inland from Valencia. As I write here now I hold my breath in fear of reawakening a bodily memory of that time. It was a time when I had begun to relax after a period of intense work. Simultaneously, the symptoms I was about to experience over the next ten months began to appear acutely. I began to become intensely aware of how little control we have over our body and its functions, of how frightening it is not to know. I came to experience, once again, the terror  –  of not being believed and hence, not being able to believe myself. There were many months of darkness and denial until I began to believe myself, to listen and recognise that something extraordinary was taking place in my body.  I have since retraced the lessons that taught me the power of naming  –  more evidence of the logocentric universe we inhabit  –  and the disadvantage of not being able to describe what is taking place in my own world, in my own body.

Two days ago I awoke, realising that the picture of Guadalest represented the start of an inner process. This process  taught me how to begin to interpret the world from the inside out. I see this image as a record of the affective states of that time, of the confusion, the desire to hide,  as well as a glimpse at a phenomenal process, that I will attempt to expand through my writing.


TEXT ON SCREEN – (black text superimposed on photo seascape):

I do not know much about
the actual place where the photo was taken
but that its taking coincided with a severe illness
which we thought she recovered from.
In a state of wellness which marked her last years
she travelled and purged the things she felt
created her illness in the first place.
Lodged somewhere in this darkened surround
lays her afterimage.
If I could brighten up this part of the picture
I might illuminate
the conditions of her death
the mystery of her life
and the reasons why
at the instant of her passage
I felt content with her leaving
a feeling I no longer hold.




…and thanks……if you could get in touch with us, and

just wondering how you fellas are getting on, haven’t heard from you in some time, bye for now

its not far out of reach at all….this number is…


This is the culture Lab at Toronto General confirming your appointment for Monday, January 23 at 10:10. If you are unable to attend, please call 310 404-0216…  Please remember to bring your Hospital Health Card. Thank-you


…I can offer an alternative situation.  If you would like to ring Betty Litkey…. Betty and I’ve worked together in this office, and she’d be able to give you answers to your questions.  Thank you  so much, good-bye. The time is ten o-clock…in the morning, I’ll try to get you by 1 o’clock this afternoon, and I’ll try again before five.

…Parallelogram, Students Against Censorship, This Ain’t The Rosedale Library, if you could please call me that would be excellent… Just calling to say hi and whether you want to put up posters before the meeting, or…anyway

Okay, see you. Hope you had a good day, bye….

Yeah, Arrow does a little nervous yawn during that, when you give your message… that’s quite nice…Anyway, It’s four o’clock, I’m going into class.

Honey I love you, bye.

Marian. I’m thinking about our paper here alot, and I’m…one of the things we didn’t talk about was… schooling as a site of depravation. Would you mind calling me? Bye.

…looks like you got did rid of the fire alarm…and what are we thinking about…

I was wondering if you come and stay with me, sleep over.

Good-bye, love ya….I survived last Wednesday….tried to phone you, um…


thank you, can you come in Friday? 10 am tomorrow. That’s Friday…

…your application seems to have gone awry, I tried to call you at half past ten this morning, don’t know whether your bringing it back or whether… I’ve been trying to get a hold of your lawyer, he’s not there. He’s in Palmerston, so I don’t know if you set up anything with him….I’m at the office… here in Flesherton… I’ve been across to Mt Forest and the offer is now with the vendors, so I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow and let you know how it goes.

I got your name and want to organize some kind of benefit for Danica House, if you could give me a call back, I would really appreciate that.

Hello? Hello, hello this is Denise…Oh hi, hi Denise

I’m calling to say your drum is ready…Hi….

I felt like I… I hung on to your stone very tightly. ..Oh, good.

I felt like I…  I talked to my mother in ways that I wanted to….

It’s Saturday night and I just remembered that you said you’d be in Toronto. Just called to say…

…my blood test is back, so give me a call, bye…ok. Love you both, bye now, happy new year.

The short message is…it’s a girl! Talk to you later

…Done…we’re $84.00 over-budget that’s about … the bill is five hundred…

…calling from London, it’s about the article for Feminist Review

I wondered if you got my letter….thought you’d be able to do the changes in time for this issue? Just wondering how you’re getting on?

Mr. Hoffman?

He’s not here, can I take a message?

Is this Mrs. or…?

No, there is no Mrs. Hoffman.

Are you a daughter or….

Hi, it’s me, um

Phil…Phil…it’s a girl …we’re so happy…

..whatever is convenient. take care, bye, bye

I love you, bye

I got your card from Amsterdam … it’s a riot

had a great time … come to your place… I want to  talk to you, I’d love…


I should be passing through Toronto with a bloody quick transfer … arriving from Halifax at Pearson Airport at 12…Heathrow at…1700 hours….

What are you doing tomorrow night? I thought I’d make dinner

…Is acceptable… well, it has been widely unacceptable in the academy

…I might go…I wanted to speak with you about the proposal.

we haven’t got any wood …. you know…

what happened….

yeah… well, my mother…..

it’s me again

drive me to the show

I don’t know what else to say…but I want to you to be home

…okay, hope you had a good day, bye, bye


Hello. Will you please call Wilma Rouse at 323-3429. I still have a blouse here that I don’t know what to do with. Thank you.

…Oh, Good…Its hard to…. Its really hard to…Its about 3:34, and um…

Are you there?  I was wondering where you were? It’s me…

I won a competition…and

I don’t know where you’re going to be. Anyway, I’ll call you

… Here’s a very short message from a really long way away…. I just called to say that I miss you, and I wanted to hear your voice, but I didn’t hear much of it… ok, bye.

I’ll call again… I’ll talk to you later on tonight. I think I’ll call you later tonight, ok? Bye.

I don’t know what else to say?

…but I want you to be home.

I hope you’re well…

I keep trying to get a hold…

I was wondering where you were?

How did it go?

It went, it went well.


…Or give me a call before…. I’m making dinner.

People said things to one another…like they hadn’t done before…

….I just called to say thanks for the weekend…..

…a nice tropical island….






m-we have all different kinds…one we found was black with yellow spots…

j-last summer were there as much ladybugs as those flies…

m-they were crawling all over the window sills…

j-and I accidentally killed it…

m-they’re all flipped over right now…


M- …if you could have a ritual for death what would it be…and would it be private or shared.

P-…I think it would be shared


TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

Four Shadows


P- Ladybugs. They hung together like bees on honeycomb, attached to the ceiling in the hallway adjoining your room. Eventually the spread themselves through every corner of the house, as if trying to replace your presence…. I followed them closely.


M-  (faintly) I dreamt that…I dreamt that we decided to go back to Canada…and when I came back everything had changed, but it was still familiar…mostly I remember walking through the snow with you Phil…


M- (faintly) there’s no way any of these hotel employees would ask us what we are doing because it looks like we belong…..I’m not sure how to figure all this out…..

P- Not long before you died, death scenes crept into my life. We watched a course of events that cast me as witness, each encounter making death less strange. I wondered why this was happening.


P- This is the footage we shot in the Valley of the Kings,  at the Great Temple of Amun, at Horus Chapel,  and at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepsut. These are sacred sites and visitors are asked not to photograph on the inside. We followed this request and photograph them from the outside.

She films the broken bodies strewn on the ground, and the scratched out figure of Queen  Hatchepsut, the female Pharaoh who reigned for more than 20 years. We listen to the tour guide’s version of history: Theology dictated that in order for the spirit or soul to live forever, the body, the image, or at least the name of the deceased must survive on earth. After Hatchepsut’s death a campaign was mounted against this unconventional female king whereby her name

and image were defiled, and she was physically removed from the Pharaoh lists, written out of Egyptian history. In the 19th century with the decipherment of hieroglyphics pieces of her story gradually came to light and her memory was reconstituted, but her body had been removed in antiquity and her royal tomb lays empty to this day.


M-I don’t really want to say anything while you’re recording.  Are you testing it out now. There is no way that any of these hotel employees would come and ask us what we were doing here because we look like we belong, sort of.


M-Well, because we’re white, because we have blue eyes, because we dress the way we are. Because we just look entitled in some ways.  I’m not sure how to figure this out.  It doesn’t fit into the categories I have to understand money and wealth and things like that. It’s just confusing.


P-By late afternoon on this, the first day of filming, the zoom barrel on the camera jammed. By early evening the trigger seized up and the camera became non‑operative.

Upon returning home I was anxious to see how the footage we shot in Egypt turned out.  I  telephoned the printer in Montreal to see if the optical work was ready.  Carrick had done printing for me before and I found his work to be flawless. His wife answered the phone and she went to get him, but soon I realized there was something going on at the other end of the line. There was panic in the woman’s far off voice, and she didn’t  come back to the phone so I hung up. That evening I called to see what had happened. Carrick’s wife answered and told me that he had a heart attack and passed away.



P- I spent about 2 hours shooting this footage in the Museum of Moving Images in London, where, in just a very short visit you can witness what is recognized as the whole history of cinema.  Blurry eyed  I left the museum and got onto the bridge to cross the Thames. When I was about 1/3  across the river, a man, looked me in the eye, hopped up on the railing and jumped  into the cold February water. Down through the grill of the bridge I could see his head under water and his arms limp,  and he didn’t make any attempt to find the surface. A business man approached  and asked if  what he saw was the same thing I saw and then a woman, running from the middle of the bridge shouted that she would go to the south end to get help. Running all the way to the north end I met a police women and I asked  her to radio in the tragedy…. then I saw two policemen approaching the river who told me that the report had already come in, and that a pleasure boat had picked the man up ‑ he was in the boat. They took my name and number.  I would  be called as a witness if the man died…. Later in the afternoon an officer left me a note at the place where I was staying: `the chap that jumped into the river is alright’ .




P-Sami and I hurried to catch the 8am train to Pori at the Helsinki train depot. We were travelling to the west side of Finland to present a program of Canadian and Finnish films in a small port town. While we waited for the train to leave we noticed that an elderly man behind us was in some despair. His wife was trying to find something in his pocket, perhaps his medication ‑ he was a very big man and was breathing heavily. After a few minutes a train attendant arrived and asked the woman a few questions as the old man sat shaking.

As the attendant made his way down the aisle to stop the train from leaving and call an ambulance, gears engaged and we slowly pulled away from the Helsinkistation ..it would take 7 minutes to get to the next station. The passengers returned to reading their papers, occasionally they peeked overtop the print to check the man’s condition…. eventually a voice in Finnish came onto the overhead speakers, presumably to request a doctor for the sick man. Sami said that the announcement stated that a lunch cart will soon be arriving with refreshments and sandwiches.  We got up to give the woman some comfort but her attention was on her husband who was passing away before her eyes. Soon we arrived at Passila station and paramedics boarded the train, walked to where the old man lay slumped, and asked the woman a few questions. They quickly dragged his enormous body down the narrow aisle, and laid him by the door of the train. Samiwent back to find out what had happened. The man had a heart attack and was dead. As the train pulled away from the station, we watched through the window. As the train pulled away from the station, we watched through the window. The man was hoisted into the ambulance and the doors shut.





NURSE REPORT (audio): The lung biopsy itself can lead to some collapse of the lung…this is often seen after these types of procedures, and the person is short of breath for awhile, but this does tend to resolve after a few days or so…



antiseptic fictions
invade the living room

every story is ours

MUSIC:  One is the loneliest number that you ever have. Two can be as bad as one it’s the loneliest number since the number one…..


NURSE REPORT (audio over above images): We know that the disease was extensive on x-rays as well as on the biopsy that they did…they also did echo-cardiogram. Which showed that there was fluid around the chest….around the heart area as well. Our assumption tonight is that this may have re-accumulated. We did draw back some fluid from the pericardia area. Now the echo-cardiogram showed that she did have some dysfunction of the right side of her heart and this may have been secondary to the ongoing lung problems that she was having. Over the past couple of days it seemed that she was having more and more shortness of breath….a couple reasons……



TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):



P-Grampa died when I was in the midst of making my 1st film. As the family photographer I was asked to photograph him in the casket. I arrived before thegrievers, my uncle greeted me and showed me into the room. It was as if I was on an industrial photo assignment to film living rooms or something. When I saw him he really didn’t look like himself yet I knew that what I was doing was important for some of the family. I took 6 shots and left. So shocked with what I had done, I put the film into the freezer and left it there for almost a decade. I often wondered why my uncle never asked me for the photographs, as if the act of organizing the filming was all that was necessary. Years later I developed the film.


P-(softly) …17’s the number…1 + 7 is  8 …7 is doing, 8 is infinity…17’s the number….she was born on May 17 and died on November 17…(continues faintly under following narration)

P- My first encounter with death happened when I was 8. We visited Grampa’s brother, uncle Hans. He was my Godfather and I remember him from the smoke filled card games Grampa had in the rec-room where wine flowed like water and German music blared amidst the hollering. Uncle Hans had lung cancer, I was told, because he smoked. Mom took us up to the hospital and with sunshine streaming in I heard for the first time the death gargle.

P-(softly)…my dad was born April 17, my uncle was born on April 17 and my grandfather was born on April 17……my sisters were born on June 17…..1 is 1…7 is for doing and 8 is infinity…my seat on the plane was 17…(continues)

P- Aunt Katie was the widow of Uncle Hans. Every Christmas I would visit her, 1st with mom, and later on my own. She spoke little English and I spoke little German but we spoke. She was happy that I was working in film and television: ` Just the other day the TV repair man charged her a bundle for only a short visit’, so she was assured that I had chosen a lucrative career. On my last visit she complained about a nagging backache, and whispered to herself  `time goes’, over and over `time goes’….A call came from my uncle in the summer, asking if I could help move Aunt Katie’s things. When I asked if she was moving he told me that she had died 3 months ago.

P-(softly) My sisters were born on June 17th, in 1953…after spreading her ashes in England, Finland and Spain, my seat number was 18… my dad was born April 17, my uncle was born on April 17 and my grandfather was born on April 17…(continues)

P- My mother carried her first pregnancy 9 months but the foetus was born dead. Apparently the doctor new that the foetus was not living weeks before the delivery, but they didn’t want to upset my mother with this terrible news.  My parents had already named him Phillip after my father and grandfather. They buried him at the family plot but the priest refused to partake in the ceremony and bless the grave claiming that the foetus was born dead, and therefore the spirit had already left for limbo. My father still sites this event as the reason he stopped going to church on a regular basis. After the triplets were born my mother got pregnant again and had me. I remember sitting on grampa’s knee as he proclaimed that Phillip the third would take over the family business, but I think he really meant Phillip the fourth.



RADIO ANNOUNCER 1 (audio)- …and really that is all of it, because other then protest areas all the other major routes lighter than usual, in town we are running accident free. Help change the problems and challenges and headaches of running a business, into profits. Call AT&T Accounting Systems…

RADIO ANNOUNCER 2 (audio)-   We’re just at elm Street now where a group of probably several hundred Health Care Workers are protesting outside of heQueen Elizabeth Hospital. They’ve just marched up from Front Street, they were a couple hundred when they started,  other protestors have joined in, other people besides Health Care Workers, people on bicycles…


P- autumn came this year in strange colours
your breath was short
a cough persisted through November
what used to go away didn’t


a word that stayed carefully off
your list of possible causes
arose out of your 3 hour a night sleeps

when the doctor said it might be cancer
and you should prepare yourself for surgery
you asked me to take you to the beach

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

The sadness comes and goes
like when there are fast moving clouds
covering and uncovering the sun
as it makes its way across the sky

P- your coat covers the strapped‑in cardiograph machine
we sneak out of the hospital into the night
a dome of clouds circled above
the water was black and rippling


P- you skipped a stone
and I took this  picture


DOCTOR (faintly)- she’s in the recovery room…..all the changes in her lungs are cancerous….it appears….


P- On the third day after the operation
your breathing got worst
We watched your decline
as the Santa Claus parade
marched by your window

A-    He wanted to know what we expected, and I that they find out what was wrong,

because there was no explanation of why she was deteriorating. I really don’t remember what I said but he said there’s 70 patients on this floor that we are responsible for….



A-    I felt that the nurses were there..I felt that they were very good at co-operating around her care. I think Marian was relieved to have it over and,  veryconnected with people.


A-    Letting herself just be cared for, so Philomene started to rub her feet with lotion and she just said it felt so good..and she washed her face with a hot wash cloth and she just loved…..



TEXT ON SCREEN (black text supered over window):

the night we had our last walk

she wrote these words

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

We come together ‑ separate
cry and look wide‑eyed bewildered …
I want to be near the water
We bundle up and leave the hospital for the beach

Beautiful clear crisp blue skied night
we mourn together
laughing at intervals
clinging madly to some sense of life

The open sky ‑ water makes me feel
part of something immeasurable
larger than me
and it is consoling



TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black – end credits):

A self to which it would be
worth her while to be true

Marian McMahon
May 17, 1954  –  November 17, 1996

assistance in
conceptual development & editing

Anna Gronau
Philomene Hoffman
Vesa Lehko
Janine Marchessault

music composed & performmed by

Tucker Zimmerman

sound mix by

Tim Muirhead & Teresa Morrow

titles & assistance in optical printing

Marcos Arriaga

assistant picture editing

Eric Yu

kind assistance along the way

Belinda Budge
Lisa Freeman
Marg Gorrie
Mike Hoolboom
Gary Popovich
Amy Rossiter
Karyn Sandlos
Roberto Ariganello
Mike Cartmell
Ryan Feldman
Joohyun Kwon
Sarah Lightbody
Brenda Longfellow
Susan Lord
Wayne Salazar
Rick Hancox
Colleen Hoffman
Frannie Hoffman
Sue and Phil Hoffman
Graham Jackson
McMahon Family
Jeffrey Paull
Leena Louhivuori
Mikko Maasalo
Ilppo Pohjola
Perttu Rastas
Seppo Renvall
Juha Samola
Sami van Ingen
Denise Ziegler

institutional support

Graduate Programme in
Film & Video, York University

Media Arts Department
Sheridan College

Liaison of Independent Filmmakers
of Toronto (LIFT)

Helsinki Elokuvapaja

produced with the assistance of

The Canada Council


Philip Hoffman   2001


by Mike Cartmell

It means “let it stand.”

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

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

Fortunately, we’re only fantasizing.

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

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

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

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

You might could get it by now.

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

To do so, and then to let it stand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It means “let it stand.”



[1] Mike Cartmell, “Landscape With Shipwreck” in Landscape With Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman, ed. K. Sandlos and M. Hoolboom. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001, pp. 222-244.[2] Brenda Longfellow, “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida” in Landscape With Shipwreck, pp. 201-210.

[3] Ibid., p. 207.

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

Originally published in Cineaction, 2002

A Dream for a Requiem

Filmmaker documents pure emotion


Peter Vesuwalla

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

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

No Epitaph

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

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

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

— Marguerite Duras, Practicalities.

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

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

If you can read this you are standing too close.

— Epitaph for Dorothy Parker.

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

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

— Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms.

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

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

— Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost.

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

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

— Ann Carson, Men In the Off Hours.

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

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

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

She might have spoken the words, or whispered them.

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

— Adam Phillips, On Flirtation

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

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

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

— Adam Phillips, PromisesPromises.

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

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

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

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

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

— Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms

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

He didn’t just die, he was taken.

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


Works Cited

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

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

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