Phil Hoffman’s Camera Lucida

by Brenda Longfellow

Phil tells an apocryphal story in my class at York University. It is a story about how, at the tender age of fourteen, as the designated documentarist of family life, he was asked to photograph his dead grandfather in his coffin. It was an indelible experience for the young man, so traumatic, in fact, that he put the film in a freezer and could only develop it years later.

It was his first dead body and his first photo assignment and whether or not this event represented a primal scene in the gestation of Hoffman the filmmaker, what is apparent in the body of films he has produced over the last twenty years is a profound meditation on the relation between death and the image, on the distinction between the sensual phenomenal world and the moment of time frozen in the flatness of a mortuary image.

In Camera Lucida/ Reflections on Photography, a book which serves so resonantly in reading Hoffman’s work, Roland Barthes argues that photograph has a historical relation with the “crisis of death” which he sees evolving in the second half of the nineteenth century.[1]  Instead of trying to locate Photography in its social and economic context, he argues:

we should also inquire as to the anthropological place of Death and of the new image. For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final point. [2](92)

Even with the incredible proliferation of image culture, the representation of death, that is, actual death, as opposed to the plethora of fictional deaths which fill popular culture, remains, as Amos Vogel puts it, “the one last taboo in cinema.”[3] If natural death in previous centuries, was integrated into the life of the community and culturally naturalized through ritual and religion, the increasing medicalization and technologization of death in the West, removed the experience from everyday life and invested it within impersonal legal and medical institutions. In these new contexts, death remains antiseptically invisible and shrouded in a veil of prudery.[4] Outside of the consistently diminishing power of official religion,  the personal, emotional and philosophical content of death has barely begun to be addressed.

Vivian Sobchack has argued that the taboo of representing death in our culture is powerfully connected to “the mysterious and often frightening semiosis of the body.”[5]Death, in this instance, represents one of those primal threshold states, marking as it does as  the distinction between being and non being, the transformation of human matter from one state into another. The act of photographing a corpse is experienced as trauma precisely because the corpse utterly confounds these cultural codes. Sobchack provides an elegant quote from “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience,” which gets to the heart of this matter :

The flesh is more than instrumental to control and more than sensitive, it is also revelatory. A man reveals himself to his neighbour in and through the living flesh. He is one with his countenance, gestures, and the physical details of his speech. As some have put it, he not only has a body, he is his body. Part of the terror of death, then is that it threatens him with a loss of his revelatory power. The dreadfulness of the corpse lies in its claim to be the body of the person, while it is wholly unrevealing of the person. What was once so expressive of the human soul has suddenly become a mask.[6]

A corpse conveys the shocking transformation of the subject into a brute objecthood, devoid of consciousness, devoid of intentionality. For the young Phil, what I believe was traumatic about photographing his grandfather’s corpse was not only the cruelty of the silent and still body of a loved one but the insight it yielded, that photography, as a technology of reproduction, is inherently complicit in the transformation of subject into object. Every photograph, Barthes writes, is a reminder of Death because every photograph opens up that irreparable gap (which the photograph of the corpse is, perhaps, the limit case), between the intentionality and sensuality of the lived body and the flatness of the photographed body. Every photograph confronts us with the real absence of the loved one and with the  irreversibility of time’s relentless forward movement. Every photograph is thus tinged with melancholy because of the loss which is ontologically inscribed in its very technology.

On the Pond (1978), Hoffman’s first film is paradigmatic of the importance of this insight in his work. This is certainly the film where the role of the photograph as an organizer of memory and as an index of an irretrievable past, the that has been that Barthes speaks of is the most prominent. The central structuring element in the film is a series of black and white family photographs of Phil, his parents and three sisters which are all thematically related to winter recreation, mainly ice skating and playing hockey at a pond in front of the family cottage. The sound is entirely non synchronous. Mapped onto that divide between sound and image, moreover,  is the irreparable gap between the past of the images and the present of the auditory track which is filled with the family’s shrieks of recognition, delight and unabashed nostalgia. At one point, Franny, Phil’s sister laments “I want to go back” and it is precisely that desire and its ontological impossibility that structures the emotional content of the film. The voice of the filmmaker, however, is rarely heard in the family chorus yet he implicates himself in this nostalgia through a visual recreation featuring a young boy playing hockey on a pond. In this repeated image of the boy, it is as if Hoffman takes up that desire articulated by his sister, dissolving the veil between past and present through an act of imagination and filmmaking that restores a memory to the present.  But it is a false and impossible note, a fantasy of a return to boyhood that can only be realized through the intercession of a fictional signifer as removed from the contemporary real as the family archive of family photos are.

As other writers in this collection are providing detailed readings of Phil’s middle works, I want only to linger on the opening images of Passing Through/Torn Formations as an additional indication of the thematic which I see running through all his work. Passing Through/Torn Formations opens in silence as a handheld camera continually pans over the face of Babji, Phil’s maternal grandmother, who lies dying in an institutional setting, a hospice or hospital whose cool institutional veneer has been somewhat humanized by the family photos, mementoes and cards pinned to the wall by her bed. Phil’s mother is feeding Babji, whose face, without her false teeth, is ravaged and skeletal. The camera lingers over the protruding veins in Babji’s thin arms, her stiffened hands, her gaunt cheeks, her eyes black with pain.  Her “creatureliness,” as Sobchack puts it, foregrounded by the palpable fragility and vulnerability of her all too human body. Here again, Hoffman finds himself in a room recording a death. The trauma, however, is acted out by the persistence of movement, by the repetitions of that pan which refuses to rest in a final composition, which continually moves toward the curtain on the window as if to escape the claustrophobia of a room of the dying and of death. The eerie silence of the sequence confounds the sequence’s location in a real time and sends it, reeling, into the future-an image “catastrophe” in which the knowledge of certain death is already vested in the present/past of the image.

In Camera Lucida, while Barthes claimed that the cinematic image (as opposed to the still photographic image) avoided this sense of catastrophe through the continual unfolding of one offscreen space into another, it is clear that he is referring to the shot/reverse shot grammar of classical cinema and not to any particular ontology of the moving image.  Indeed, in an essay which might in some respects be seen as the Ur text of Barthes’ insights in Camera Lucida, André Bazin, in his famous essay, The Ontology of the Photographic Image (first published in 1945)[7], already argued for the  inextricable connection between photography and cinema precisely through their mutual capacity to “embalm time” against the certainty of death. In that instance, the difference between cinema as a time based medium and the photograph is erased in the more profound consideration given to how both are produced (through the photo-chemical action of light on film) as traces of the real.

A crucial distinction needs to be made, however, between fictional and documentary signifiers in film and photography. Vivian Sobchack argues that this difference inheres, not so much in the property of an image, as in the phenomenal experience of a spectator. As spectators,  we have an entirely different relationship to the representation of bodies we understand share the same world as we do. Unlike the fictional signifier of death or of bodily destruction which figures solely for its entertainment value, the indexical qualities of the body represented in documentary (and in experimental documentary) call forth “an ethical space” that is, the visible representation or sign of the viewer’s subjective, lived, and moral relationship with the viewed. [8]

That is why, for me, the image of Phil’s mother feeding Babji is so moving. It calls forth a flood of memories of feeding my own parents on their deathbeds. And while using all of the experimental cinematic codes that defy realism: repetition, overprocessed stock, silence etc., the sequence, nonetheless, conveys the past/presence of an actual lived body, one that solicits our profound empathy.

If the indexical quality of that body in the opening sequence anchors the film in a relationship to the real and to the acknowledgement of impending death, the remainder of the film proposes memory, storytelling and retracing the past as defenses against that inevitability. As rich and layered as a dream, the film voyages between Poland, the land of Babji and his mother’s birth and Kitchener, home of his Uncle…… If family history was registered as overly bucolic in On the PondPassing Through/Torn Formations delves into the other side, the dark histories …..abandonment and depression, the stories that the public archive of family photos does not tell. Supported by the richly textured pans of stones, crumbling fences and pavements, Passing Through is metaphorically associated with an archaeological dig through history but the result, in this instance, is not a seamless whole artifact but a jagged and disjointed assemblage of multiple shards of stories. Like the dream, these stories are layered, like the images themselves, one on top of the other to form a palimpsest of memory, memory as palimpsest. No coherent gestalt or linear family history can be forged from these fragments. What is left to the filmmaker is to bear ethical witness to that impossibility, to continually record and photograph life, hunting and collecting images of everyday life against loss and against forgetting.

Phil Hoffman’s new film, (untitled as of this writing) also opens with a long silent sequence featuring his late partner, Marian McMahon frolicking in the snow at their farmhouse in eastern Ontario. Marion, as she was in life, is full of spirit and mischief playing to the camera with that goofy quality that Canadians take on in the dead of winter. There is something so fundamentally idiosyncratic about her image: the funny red ear muffs, the vintage stripped scarf, the thickness of those wooly socks pulled over her jeans, those stubborn details that affirm the irreducible uniqueness of the individual, that persist despite the inevitability of  human mortality. They are what Barthes defines as  thepunctum the accidental, the coincidental, the telling detail which “pricks the spectator.” For Barthes, this is the order of love:

the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This …in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression. The off centred detail…the materiality of the particular that. ..won’t and cannot be named.[9]

If so much of Phil’s work involves a meditation on death and the image, that meditation has its most personal articulation in his new work. It is a film explicitly about death, about the particular death of Marian, lover and life partner and about the emotional fallout experienced by the filmmaker as a result of that loss. It is a film about mourning, about how to mourn, about styles of mourning. In the latter part of the film a question is posed by Marian in voice over: “What ritual would you invent for death, would it be public or private ?” Hoffman responds “Public.” This film is his public elegy and while intimately and achingly sad, it is also a film, to borrow a strange word from Peter Harcourt, about redemption and the redemptive possibilities of that mourning.

In “Mourning and Melancholia” Freud described mourning as process “so intense” that it resembles a temporary psychosis. Overcome with grief, unable to reconcile oneself with the painful actuality of loss, the subject clings to the lost love object “through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis… Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected” (253) but each is met by “the verdict of reality” that the object no longer exists.[10] In normal “successful” mourning the narcissistic satisfactions of the ego win out and, though a painful and slow process, libido is eventually withdrawn from the lost object and transferred onto a new one. Proper mourning, then, according to Freud, is like a narrative, it has a beginning, middle and end (and in that order) and its goal is to restore order, to reintegrate the subject to back into the world and into the reality principle.

But what if the proper is resisted and the subject refuses to disassociate affective connection with the lost loved one ? In one of the most lyrical sequences in the film, a text by Hoffman dissolves in over a photo of a seaside landscape taken by Marian in Spain: “If I could brighten up this part of the picture, I might illuminate the conditions of her death, the purpose of her life and the reason why, during the instant of Marian’s passage, I felt content with her leaving, a feeling I no longer hold.” His body still longs for her, he confesses, his mind still imagines her, his soul still aches. The loss remains fully present.

In Mémoires: For Paul de Man,[11] Derrida puzzles as well with this issue of “proper” mourning. Within the classical Freudian conception of the term, successful mourning is equivalent to the assimilation of the object into the self and to an eventual forgetting of the loved one. But does this assimilation, this “eating of the other,” Derrida asks, not eradicate the irreducible altereity of the other ? This is a profoundly ethical question for Derrida : how to honour the otherness of the other while at the same time acknowledging that within the act of mourning, the other is always an object “image, idol, or ideal” that one constructs oneself.

For me that is the resonance associated with the second long sequence in the film which uses video footage of Marian working in her day job as a VON (Victoria Order of Nurses).  In the footage, she is the most punky and weird of VON’s with her butch haircut, smoking cigarettes, speculating philosophically on the issue of touching a stranger’s body. At one point, however, she confronts Phil (hiding behind his 3/4 inch video 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. The only synch sequence in the film, it 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.

What one misses in mourning, speculates Derrida,  is the response of the other, the voice of the other, the return serve in the dialogue that has structured the couple. Making the film in her absence, with the bits of images and audio fragments left behind, allows Hoffman, the filmmaker, to reconstitute that dialogue. In one sequence, for example, images of a trip to Egypt, to the view from their hotel window fade in as the voice of Marian, waking up from a siesta, recounts a dream: “We went back to Canada. Everything had changed but everything was familiar. What I most remember was walking in the snow with you.” What the film does is implicate itself in this dream, remembering and imagining for Marian, allowing her vision to call forth images. The recounting of this dream lends a retroactive meaning to the opening sequence of Marian in the snow and is linked, associatively, with later sequences of shadows of two people falling on a snowy lane.

The recovery of the loved one’s voice is also undertaken in the sequence featuring the photograph Marian had taken in Spain, although the voice can only be present in its absence, as a printed text superimposed over the image. In many ways, this sequence in which texts by Marian and Hoffman both endeavour to tease out a meaning ostensibly hidden in the photograph, act as a key fulcrum in the entire film. For Marian, the image, taken at a castle near Guadalest, 60 miles from Valencia “reawakens a bodily memory,” and reminds her of a point in the past when she was becoming acutely aware of extraordinary changes happening in her body which, retroactively,  seemed to signal the return of a disease that she felt she had been cured of. Going through her affects after her death, Phil discovers this text paper by Marian clipped to the back of the image. His text introduces and closes the sequence, reflecting on Marian reflecting on this image, seeing in the photograph a mysterious and cryptic relic that might reveal “the conditions of her death” and “the purpose of her life.” The photograph itself is banal, a seaside landscape, a tourist image, conventional and undistinguished, as “boring” as looking through another person’s photo albums. Yet, the photo functions as a  blank slate, a void whose meaning is produced associatively (ie. not referentially) entirely through personal memory and projection. In that, the sequence acts as a kind of condensation of the series of questions that I’ve argued are central to Phil’s work. How does meaning adhere to an image ? How do images organize and create memory? How does death and the absence of the loved one imbue the image with its beauty and its mystery?

In Mourning and Melancholy Freud experiences some difficulty in definitely distinguishing between the two psychic states. In one instance he posits melancholy as a an unresolved form of mourning where instead of assimilating the other into the ego, the ego identifies with the lost object, as he puts it: “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego [and] the ego is altered by identification.”[12] For Derrida, this is precisely the formulation of love where the other is taken into oneself, not in the service of obliterating difference but of preserving otherness, an otherness whose effect is to alter my being. While I do believe this is the style of mourning and love that Hoffman proposes in his film, let me suggest that Freud’s alternative conceptualization of melancholy may be of some use here. In the second formulation, melancholy is without a specified object. The subject experiences overwhelming sadness but without being able to attribute it to any particular cause: it is a generalized sense of loss. This generalized sense of loss has an uncanny resonance with a thematic that I have argued is central both to Barthes’ formulations in Camera Lucida and to the cinematic oeuvre of Philip Hoffman. In those instances, melancholia has to do, not with the particularity of this death, but perhaps with Death itself, its inevitability and the appraisal of the fleetingness and ephemerality of life. It is this emotional quality which makes photography and experimental film among the more melancholic of arts.

 

References

[1]. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

[2]. Barthes, 92.

[3]. Amos Vogel as quoted in Vivian Sobchack, Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol.9, no.4 (1984), 283.

[4].  Perhaps only the Aids crisis and the politics of representation it has generated has forced images of death and the dying body again into public consciousness.

[5]. Sobchack, 286.

[6]. William F. May, as quoted in Vivian Sobchack, 288. (Original citation: The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience, in Death in American Experience, ed. Arien Mack (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p.116.)

[7]. Andre Bazin, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

[8]. Sobchack, 292.

[9]. Barthes, 40.

[10]. Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancohia, On Metapsychology, vol 11, trans.James Strachey (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984), 253.

[11]. Jacques Derrida, Memoires: For Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathon Culler Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf. Ed. Avital Ronell and Eduardo Cadava.(New York: Columbia UP, 1989).  Much of my argument re Derrida is drawn from Penelope Deutscher, Mourning the Other, Cultural Cannibalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray), differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 10.3 (1998), 159-184.

[12]. Freud, 258.

Anamnesis by Attrition: Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down

“In a film that consists as a series of displacements, its hard to know where to begin. It would be facile to suggest that time is spatialized (the characteristic of Jamesonian postmodernism) or, conversely, that space registers the vertical imprint of its diachonic totality (Derridean hauntology). But something very like that happens in Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down (2009). So one has to be careful here – the lives of actual people, and their deaths, are at stake here.”

by Tom Kohut (cineflyer – Motion pictures and related arts in Winnipeg, Canada) 

Read original article

Interview with Philip Hoffman (by Lee Hill 1989)

by Lee Hill

LH: We’re here with Phil Hoffman. Talk about your work.

PH: My film work over the last eleven years has been busy purging the ghost of Grierson. Born and raised in Canada, the kind of films I saw in school and libraries was documentary film. I think in the United States a lot of independent experimental filmmakers have to purge the ghost ofHollywood. I see documentary as something I have to deal with as an artist. I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians but on the other hand, I can’t pretend that it’s not important to me. My work is a blend of documentary and experimental. I like to use a diary form, which again is a little bit different than documentary.

LH:  You say you don’t use scripts? Explain.

PH: I like to deal with the experience of the camera and the subject first; rather than preconceiving something I might put myself in a situation. In this case it was the set of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, the feature film, and then try to react spontaneously to what’s going on.Greenaway sent me the script of his film, but in my work I’ve always tried to react to the moment. Then as the filmmaking goes on, I look at material that’s come back to the lab, I write about that. I collect sound as I’m going, and all this stuff gets woven into the film. So it’s like a big pot of soup with all kinds of things in it, that’s my working method.

LH: You said that the film deals with your father’s side of the family. How?

PH: Well actually in ?O Zoo! it’s a Grandfather that I’m dealing with, but it is my Father’s side of the family that I am using poetically. Some of it is fiction as the title explains, ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film. Some of it is fictionalized, some of it is… I guess that’s also for the audience to find out and discover. ?O Zoo! can be taken in many different ways, and I think once you put something onto film it becomes fiction anyway, it becomes something different than reality. I think passing through/torn formations is much closer to home, and lays more of my experience out on the line, family history and such things; whereas ?O Zoo! is kind of masks, the autobiographical part is masks. Since I began making work in 1978 with On the Pond, each of my eight films have been autobiographical, and also about the shaping of autobiography.

LH: Can you talk about your film influences?

PH: It’s a funny thing; my influences were not so much filmic as much as they were from literature, and painting. Especially literature, I was interested in Beat poets in my formative years, what they were doing in the fifties. I did a film that deals with that. But anyway, I went to film school and had two teachers, Rick Hancox who is an experimental filmmaker and Jeff Paull, who both emphasized the importance of doing something about your own life rather than mimicking the cop shows. That struck a chord in me, that was already happening through my interest in poetry and literature, and photography. When I was fourteen, fifteen, I had my own darkroom; so all these things came together in film.

There hasn’t been one thing but a multitude of things that have affected me. We talked about it a little at the beginning. Documentary did have a strong influence on me, and I still like good documentaries, innovative documentary, rather than the kind that tells you what you’re seeing. Things like David Holzman’s Diary which is a film about a guy in the sixties, I guess, he decides he’s going to make a film about his life, and he makes this diary, I guess I shouldn’t say what it’s about because people may get a chance to see it. But basically he’s dealing with questions about documentary realism, and truth, and how the medium makes things look as if… oh, it’s really happening… and he was one of the first to do that, that I know of. So there was that, but on the other hand there was the National Film Board, the lyrical documentaries of the fifties and sixties, which were sort of poetic, which was interesting for me too. And then also things like the New American Cinema which was Stan Brakhage, and JonasMekas, and Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland… and those filmmakers were dealing with form, or at least Michael Snow was dealing especially with form and duration, and Brakhage was doing poetic image making. All these different things come together in my work, because these have been influences and I think I get into that problem now, with some people that want to categorize you as purist, experimental, formalist. We’re using all these big terms but all I’m really trying to say is my work is a blend of many different things and I’m not afraid to mix them. It all doesn’t have to look exactly the same.

LH: What about experimental film influences?

PH: Both Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage make films dealing directly with perception, and I may be going more in that direction. In your work as an artist sometimes you need to explore a certain aspect of your making, but the mass audience doesn’t want you to. But you don’t want to stagnate either. I can see that problem, and how it happens, and I think it’s because, I’m  sort of turning this round, but I think it’s because we don’t have very good visual education. It’s just not happening at schools, it happens at co-ops and art galleries and places like that where film orvideomakers come in. Artists should be moving this forward but that’s just not happening.

LH: Do you plan to do a feature. Something longer and bigger?

PH: It’s something that could happen, I don’t know. Right now I’m just finishing a series of films, so I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen next. I mean it’s always in the back of your mind, because it’s the features that get the air play… short films just don’t have as good a market but I don’t think it’s because people don’t want to see shorts. I think it’s the institutions that are trying to determine the market. But I’ve considered… I mean my films are getting longer. If I wanted to make the kind of feature film… I don’t know if I could do it in Canada. I know Peter Mettler tried to do it, and made a feature film called The Top of His Head which is fairly experimental. It’s still a lot more narrative than I would do, but it’s in that range. Canada is fairly closed minded regarding innovations in narrative.

LH:  Atom Egoyan is doing quite well with his alternative narrative films.

PH: Yes he is, he found the approval of Europe, and that’s the only reason why he’s making films. What bothers me is that all these co-ops here in Canada are all striving for these Atom Egoyan type films, but Atom Egoyan is the only one they’re going to let that happen to. It’s only going to be some exceptional cases. So what you get is these people, one year out of film school wanting to make their big feature, failing miserably, making a load of crap, and not learning about film. Atom Egoyan made a lot of short films before he made feature films, he dealt with the medium. So it’s this whole thing, like “we’re going to make our feature,” I mean the whole Canadian film industry is based on that. And publications are the same, you just have to read Cinema Canada and you can see that them pulling for this kind of thing. So you don’t get people working in short film, and working out ideas, and working out their own story like Atom Egoyan did. That disturbs me, a lot.

LH: What about Greenaway?

PH: When Peter Greenaway made A Zed and Two Noughts, it was actually his first 35mm feature, because he did Draughtsman’s Contract on Super 16, and there’s a big difference between shooting on 16 and 35. I really saw him at the point where he was making the jump. PeterGreenaway was trained as an artist, a painter. He went to art school. That’s the reason why I wanted to see how he worked in feature films, and how he managed. Personally, I think on this shoot he wasn’t enjoying himself, and I would be walking around with my Bolex and shooting, which is a small 16mm camera, taking my time and making my own film, and he would come up to me and say Jesus, you know, I envy you. Because he had sixty people on the crew to satisfy and union rates, and things that he hadn’t really experienced much yet. But I think it’s the sheer will of putting his ideas on film that has made him successful. He’s very determined, and he found different places that would fund him and produce him. They have an interest in art not just in commercial film and I think that’s lacking in Canada.

LH: So how can good films get made?

MH: It’s a lot of things that we talked about already. I think that the co-ops are in a positive stage, but there’s so little money. If the National Film Board should put more of their relatively large budget towards supporting the independent filmmaking community. Everybody moves so cautiously in Canada, maybe that might be it.

LH: What about cable networks, video access and so on?

PH: Things like that help, but with our American media alliance we don’t have a chance. Free trade means the lines are wide open for the American mass media machine, and I can’t see that things are going to get better. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I guess that some people think that now it’s all freer, so the cream’s going to rise to the top. I don’t believe that, because I think there’s so much mediocrity out there on the airwaves. We’re just going to get more of it. You just have to walk into the supermarkets to see how that’s working and how that’s affecting people. Maybe that’s a bit negative but I think people have to stand up for things like this kind of stuff, and some are. We’ve got a big fight ahead of us.

Duets: Hoffman in the 90s: an interview (by Mike Hoolboom 2001)

An interview by Mike Hoolboom (2001)

Philip Hoffman: After finishing the autobiographical film cycle I wanted to play again. I brought a super-8 camera along with me to Banff in order to do some sketching. I began exposing a frame at a time while zooming, or moving the camera. The result was a Cubist kind of taking apart of the world. It splays the frame, making the image move. Because of its extreme speed, it is necessary to slow the image down afterwards, controlling the speed via re-photography on the optical printer. The lightness of the camera allowed me to play along with my subject in a musical way. This kind of shooting, or being in the world, marked the end of one kind of working, which was much more personal and traditionally ‘documentary.’

MH: Why was it important to break the space up?

PH: It was in the air. The Berlin Wall had fallen, film had become media, computers were everywhere and fragmentation ruled. The cycle of personal film work I’d finished allowed me to travel and show the work, and Chimera (15 minutes 1996) was the result. It was photographed in Banff, Finland, Russia, Egypt, England and Australia.

MH: Despite lensing for years all over the globe, your shooting style is very consistent.

PH: I felt electric. Like I was touching eternity. These camera gestures create rhythms at the speed of light following an inner-outer sympathy. I was doing a fair bit of inner work at that time—trancing, meditation, yoga—so what was coming to me in image was symbolically meaningful. I had my own narrative, no matter how abstract it might appear to others, but instead of people and places which are a part of a social world, it became another kind of journey. Chimera  began in 1989 during the Banff residency and took seven years to shoot and edit.

MH: The shooting blends one place into another.

PH: It shows a world breaking down, and the images express the energy of change. The film doesn’t insist that market people in Cairo’s Khan Khalili and London’s Portabello are the same, but that they share an energy related to colour, shape and form. That’s why some of the film is abstract, to evoke these pleasures of sharing.

In Technilogic Ordering (1994), by contrast, the fragmentation is political, re-working media images of the Gulf War. The collisions mean more because lives are being lost, along with their representation. This sketch of Chimera is simply one way to experience the world. As a viewer you’re only moving forward, like the stream of images that come to us through TV, or the Web. Chimera is a representation of that way of being in the world. Gathering speed. But in the third and concluding part of Chimera I finally go back, and this return offers a critique of the first two sections where each image replaces and erases what’s gone before. In the final section a man plays electric piano in a Russian square, and this is intercut with scenes from a Finnish rave, and the great rock Uluru. Uluru is a sacred aboriginal site which I photographed from a distance. It stands boldly through it all. This movement finally brings us back to making pancakes in the kitchen, because despite virtual velocities and cyberspace, at the end of the day you have to go home and make supper.

I had a lot of trouble finishing the film, in finding the shape for these sketches. I finally returned to its original idea, which is contained in the title. Chimera is an animal in Greek mythology which combines the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. For the first time in my making, I didn’t have a narrative to hang the structure on, so I was guided by myth, and the beast’s embodiment of diversity and fragmentation. The first section begins with a roar on the soundtrack and proceeds with an accelerated drumbeat and a scream, which I associate with the roar of a lion. The second section has a very ethereal soundtrack, which is the goat on the mountain, ‘up in the clouds,’ where he finds his place. The final section is the serpent. It is filled with sibilant chanting which brings on transformation.

There were many things in my life that I pinned to these scenes. They are returning now in my making because I couldn’t deal with them at the time. I encountered three deaths while shooting this way. The deaths are not shown or even alluded to in these films, but they lie underneath each of them. Waiting.

Chimera‘s original super-8 footage was being blown up to 16mm by Carrick Saunders in Montreal. I gave him a call to see how it was going and his wife answered. There was some commotion—she left the phone and didn’t return. I phoned later that night and discovered he’d had a heart attack and passed away.

MH: He died while you were on the phone?

PH: Yes. And you don’t know why you’re part of it. Of course this is an awful tragedy for Carrick’s family, but I didn’t know him. As a witness to his death, I felt I was being given a gift, and that I had to do something with it. I just wrote it all down in my journal, but couldn’t figure on how it would become part of Chimera.

In the second instance, I was crossing a bridge over the Thames, just coming out of the Moving Image Museum where I’d shot their history of cinema exhibit. I was blurry eyed. I stepped out on the bridge where a stranger looked me in the face, got up on the bridge and jumped. I spied him through the cracks, already going underwater without a struggle. Dazed, I wondered if I should film him. And didn’t. A man came by and asked if he’d jumped. A woman arrived from the other side of the bridge and said she’d call the police. That’s when I came round. I’d been stuck in that existential moment where you see someone who wants to die. Do you let him? Should you do something? Can you? I ran to the other side of the bridge and met up with a policewoman who didn’t have a walkie talkie. I kept running until I found another cop who said they’d got him. A pleasure boat had come by and picked him up. What a coincidence, this man wants to die but a boat chances along. I asked the cop if he could let me know what happened, and that night I got a note: “The bloke who jumped in the creek is alright.” Both these events made me think about death, and how little control we finally have.

MH: Tell me about Technilogic Ordering (30 minutes 1994).

PH: The Persian Gulf War was a made-for-TV affair which filled me with anxiety. I watched the war with some of my students at Sheridan College where I was teaching. A couple of them—Heather Cook and Stephen Butson—began to collect images as a way of thinking about the broadcasts. It’s like when you have a lot of nervous energy you go for a skate. You have so much anxiety watching this stuff and you have no control over it.

During our gathering I found a VCR with a computer chip that fragmented the image into Muybridge-like box-frames. This machine allowed you to play the image, changing the size and number of the boxes onscreen—do you want 9, 400 or 1600?—and scroll them from left to right, like reading or media literacy.

We collaged some of the different footage we’d collected, inserting commercials, movie fragments and sports into news broadcasts of the war. Among other things, we wanted to show the difference between Canadian and American coverage. While many Canadian commentators questioned the necessity of the war, the Americans were blindly patriotic. As we discovered later, all the war footage had been cleared by the Pentagon, so it appeared bloodless and techno-centric. It was mayhem at a distance. The boxes were a visual way of commenting on the reports, making patterns out of this destruction, and allowing the pictures to critique themselves.

The montage featured many heavy-handed collisions. Kitchen cleaners were juxtaposed with images of the Iraqi army being ‘cleaned up.’ Airplanes from the Wizard of Oz smoked messages across the sky: “Surrender Dorothy.” There was a nationally televised football championship going on at the same time which blurred the line between sports and war. Both featured the same mass hysteria. Once the editing was done, the video footage was transferred to film because in order to really see television you have to look at it somewhere else, in a movie theatre for instance.

MH: Like much of your work in the nineties, this film began as a collaboration.

PH: After my personal work in the eighties it was time for the author to die. I wanted to relinquish control, explore ways of making that would expand the palette. In the early nineties I started three projects that had in common sketching, collaboration, and smaller format technologies (other than 16mm). With the help of Vesa Lehko and other friends in FinlandChimera was turned into an installation. Technilogic Ordering was made with Stephen Butson, Heather Cook and Marian McMahon, who naturally helped with all of them.

In Opening Series I collaborate with the audience by offering a film in parts, each in its own painted box. I ask them the audience to arrange the boxes in the order they would like to see them on screen. The film not only runs differently each time, but provides a picture of its audience. Opening Series arose out of questions of inter-activity, which too often means people watching computer screens instead of relating to one another.

Following Opening Series are three collaborations: Kokoro is for Heart with Gerry Shikatani, Sweep with Sammi van Ingen and Destroying Angel with Wayne Salazar. By the mid-90s, I’d committed to hard-core collaboration.

MH: Kokoro is for Heart (7 minutes 1999) has a feel of daily ritual and naming.

PH: I met Gerry Shikatani at Sheridan College where he worked in the writing department. Gerry’s a poet, a Nichols protegé. He writes sound poetry, novels, and food reviews for the dailies. One morning Gerry came up to the farm and we went for a drive, not thinking about making a film at all. We wound up at a gravel pit, and I pulled my camera out of the truck while Gerry interacted with the space of the pit, moving rocks and branches around. I shot two rolls of 16mm reversal. When I got the footage back I noticed the registration pin was slipping, so there were periodic stutters in the image. Trained as a cinematographer, I saw these as flaws, though Marian said they were like Gerry’s voiced poetry. He works with the structure and gestures of language, and the flipping frame reveals the structures of vision strained through the machine.

I optically printed the whole film one to one and two to one. So each picture had a double, one for each of its makers. Then I cut the film into twelve parts, and put them into twelve separate boxes for Opening Series 3 (7 minutes 1995). The audience would choose the order they’d be screened in. I made the paintings for the box covers by using natural materials like seeds and sunflowers, along with family photographs and paint. Then I put a blank canvas on top of the painted ones, laid them on the ground and drove over them with my truck, so every picture is doubled as well.

As an interactive work, the film began its life as part of the Opening Series experiment where the audience effected the order of the film by arranging the boxes. We also ran it as a performance at Cinecycle where Gerry sat in front of the projected image rapping out his sound poetry. Later, we fixed the order of the film, made a final print and renamed it Kokorois for Heart. The performances served to find a satisfying, fixed order. But it can still run as an open ended work in the performance setting.

‘Kokoro’ is the Japanese word for heart, or life force. Here, it’s the heart of the land, speech or breath. Gerry is shown as part of the landscape but separate from it, and his words on the soundtrack (a blend of Japanese, French and English), are a way of knowing or naming the land. They’re the language of the land or a landscape of language.

MH: Tell me about Sweep (30 minutes 1995).

PH: One of my interests in making the film was to go to Kapaskasing because that’s where my mother settled when she first came to Canada. My grandfather, Driououx, came toCanada to work as a lumberjack, eventually ran a poolhall and pushed moonshine on the side. The area they lived in was actually called Moonshine Creek. My grandmother, Babji, ran a rooming house. I asked my mother to recollect Babji’s stories for the film, which she does while looking at family photos. One of these shows the family gathered for Christmas dinner. Mom says this picture makes her feel happy, because at Christmas everything would go well. But I knew from my own growing up that visits to Babji and Driououx’s would always start in fun but often end with a plate of food hitting the kitchen wall. I pose these questions to my mother through narration, and her answer is evident in the grain of her voice. The violence and abuse in the household remains in her trembling speech. This is where our forgetting, and the things we care not to tell, come to reside.

This makes me think of Marian’s work, how the past lives in the present. The fears we don’t get over become part of our everyday life.

My mother’s image returns at the end of the film when I zoom in on her, followed by a zoom on me, as a reminder of that repressive pain, which flashes forward from the beginning of the film to its end, as suddenly and ferociously as the past takes over the present.

MH: Your collaborator is Sami van Ingen and his journey is also a personal one.

PH: Sami’s great grandfather was the American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. He’d made ethnographic ‘classics’ like Nanook of the North, which was shot in Canada. While it is considered one of the first verité documentaries, most of the scenes were staged and rehearsed. And it offered a particularly white view on native practices, made in a time when white meant ‘objective.’ Sami wanted to return to some of the places that his grandfather had been in order to deal with this part of his family’s history.

While we were making the film, a feature-length drama was released about Robert Flaherty, which reveals a love affair he had with a native woman. Everything was suddenly out in the open. Sami and his family already knew this, but no one dared to speak about it. They were keepers of the legend, the great genius, the family name. Our film begins with a suggestion that we will hear details of family history, but Sami didn’t want to go further in that direction, so the film arrives at more general conclusions. We used archival home movies showing white men’s journeys to appropriate the north. Sami’s great-grandfather, Robert Flaherty, was just the most famous person who went up there. So while we couldn’t speak of the family legacy, we could show white men hanging around the native camps, and the effects they had. These scenes are intercut with shots of Sami and I dozing around a pool on our way home amidst spring blooms, implicating us as part of another wave of white explorers. The film has a strong visual thesis, but parts are missing. It’s like the deaths I encountered while making Chimera, real life overwhelmed its representation.

MH: The film shows the two of you traveling north by car, meeting people along the way, and entering a Cree reservation. This journey ends when one of the native guides takes you across the water to Fort George.

PH: Fort George was one of a series of British forts built in the North, and Flaherty would have traveled through there. The Fort is gone, but we found an old Hudson Bay Company trading post still standing which we filmed. I say in voice-over, “You’re not going to find your grandfather here. It’s gone now. It’s over.” Around the building we discovered a lot of beautiful driftwood. Earlier in the film we showed the dam, and talked about how the need for hydro-electric power overwhelmed Native protests, and how their burial grounds were flooded because the dam raised the water level. This driftwood is also a result of the dam. These are the bones of the forest, the ruined culture. The driftwood was shot in high contrast stock, with the haunting call of Canada geese in the distance. Then we have a lunch of canned fish and tomatoes which we film, because all we can do now is film ourselves. We’ve come all this way to shoot the making of a sandwich.

During the trip all of the native people we met asked us to film them. During the dam protests so many white journalists had been up to visit they were used to it. They’d even built a motel just for visiting politicians, and had a huge teepee as the local supermarket! We always refused, saying we don’t want to tell your story, this is up to you, and it always has been. So the film’s critique of ethnographic filmmaking shows the failure of white culture to integrate, proposing a movement alongside instead of the usual pictures of control.

At the end of the film, during dinner, I showed our native host Christopher Herodier how to use the camera, and he shoots us eating. I left him with the camera, saying, “Give me a surprise.” When we got back to the city and processed the roll we discovered that Christopher had filmed a teepee against a backdrop of new housing, and then the two of us against a sunset, slightly out of focus.

When the film was finished, Petra Chevrier invited Sweep to screen at the YYZ Gallery. I called Christopher and asked if we could show our work together. He had made a videotape called Chiwaanaatihtaau Chitischiinuu (Let’s go back to our land). It shows a Cree protest against the building of another dam, the canoe voyage from Fort George to Great Whale, the singing and the outrage. The two pieces played together for a month and it was very satisfying. It reflects our approach of living cinema.

MH: Can you tell me about the title Sweep.

PH: To shoot the drive northwards we rented a motor that ran the camera very fast, giving us super-slow motion. At the head of the shot the motor’s still gaining speed, so you get a fast motion which is overexposed, which then turns into slow motion at a regular exposure. This gives a sweeping motion to the image, a sweeping of landscape and driving. ‘Sweep’ is also sweeping the road clean, trying to start over again, sweeping away Flaherty.

MH: Destroying Angel (32 minutes 1998) features another collaboration, how did that begin?

PH: I met Wayne Salazar in Australia in 1991 at the Sydney Festival. The curator Paul Byrnes had invited me show all my work. In Sydney, Paul would take you to supper every night, with a small group of filmmakers and curators, and Wayne was party to that. It was a marvelous time. Soon after the festival I visited Wayne in New York, and a while later he called to tell me he’d contracted AIDS and was very sick. He was going to tell his mother who lived in New York State, so I invited him to come up to the farm and relax and meet Marian. That’s when we started shooting. I don’t know how these things start. Maybe it’s just that you’re always shooting film, and when people come you keep shooting and then films start.

The farm reminded Wayne of his rural youth, the day trips he used to take with his father who worked as an insurance salesman. Wayne’s bad health made him wonder how long he was going to be around, and he felt compelled to deal with his father who had abused him as a child. They hadn’t seen each other for years, but Wayne decided to go see his father and tell him he had AIDS. This all became part of the film. The first weekend he came he got along well with Marian, and they spoke about personal histories, and her themes of remembering and forgetting. He was very sick then, and taking a lot of pills. The drug cocktail hadn’t been introduced yet, so he was tired and depressed. It was Wayne’s idea to make the film and I felt my role was to assist. He’d made a short video about Cuban artists, had seen a lot of films as a curator and had been painting since art school, but really had no experience making personal film work. Which is fucking hard. During the making, I felt I was back working on Road Ended because the struggles were the same. Road Ended took seven years to make, trying to give shape to these concrete bits of memory, working without a script, and letting the camera respond to experience as it’s happening. I stayed patient, trying to help give Wayne an outlet. I learned more about his struggles of growing up gay, dealing with his macho father’s disappointments, and how he and his lover Mickey were finding a way to live.

It began as a film about our fathers, but it quickly became clear that mine was no match for his. The stories of Wayne’s abuse created too much of a contrast to my father’s sympathetic parenting. I shot sequences and told stories which were part of an early cut, which might one day join another film. But there was so much anger and need on Wayne’s part that I had to withdraw. The decision was made when my partner of twelve years, Marian McMahon, was diagnosed with cancer, and a week later, during a biopsy, she died. We stopped making the film, and when I climbed up out of the hole, that’s when I moved my voice out of the film. I needed to make my own film about Marian, her life and the grieving. Marian was already part of Destroying Angel, asking Wayne questions on video about his meds, and AIDS, and everyday life. Wayne felt close to her and asked if her story could be developed more in the film, if we could show this passing, and I felt that would be right.

MH: You show Wayne and Mickey getting married.

PH: Back in San Francisco, Wayne got healthier, which was partly the drugs, diet and exercise. But the film had a lot to do with it as well. Wayne and his partner Mickey decided to get married. Mickey is Austrian, so an Austrian TV crew arrived to shoot them for a news program on San Francisco gay life and marriage. And I thought, yes, we have to have this in the film. Their reportage was typically television. It opens with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, then moves into the gay bars, and sexual activity and dancing and high pitched screaming, but in our film, we inserted a shot of Wayne and Mickey walking down the street buying flowers. Very everyday. It’s a nice moment because it shows how television creates stereotypes.

MH: Why did they want to get married?

PH: They were in love of course. But I think it was a political decision as well. In a culture that doesn’t accept their sexuality, it was a step towards gaining the same rights as heterosexual couples.

MH: Wayne speaks to his father surrounded in darkness, directly to the camera, outlining a history of ignorance and abuse. But when we meet his father at the wedding he looks so benign.

PH: The film reveals how the monsters of our past live in us. He’s become an old man, no longer shouting abuse at Wayne. But it doesn’t change what he did. He hurt Wayne, and neither of them could deal with it. They held onto this pain for years. At the ceremony, Wayne says it hasn’t always been easy with his father, who then breaks in and proposes a toast to Wayne and Mickey. He says that he’s from Guatemala, a culture where gay people exist only in the closet. And then he wishes Wayne and Mickey happiness in their life together. But it took the making of our film to release this fear. It’s Wayne that’s done the work to recover his past, and the evidence of this work is Destroying Angel. While the early passages of the film are drawn from Wayne’s point of view, the ceremony at the end is shot in a verité style by the Austrian video crew. Finally, we’re seeing something outside ofWayne’s frame. He’s no longer telling his story using voice-over. We enter another side of him, and this adds in a profound way to the information we get about his relationships.

Wayne called me last week, a year after his father died. He said, ‘I don’t recognize that guy in the film.’ He was referring to himself. People use different tools to create change in their lives. Some use work, or alcohol, or art. Wayne doesn’t need to talk about his father that way anymore. This is a familiar feeling for me. passing through, for instance, was a grieving for my grandmother Babji. You hope these rituals of filmmaking resonate for others.

Marian’s death is revealed in Destroying Angel and people say, ‘you must find that hard to watch,’ but I don’t. I love her images, her voice and her writing. After Marian’s death, while looking up references to bring her Ph.D. thesis to completion, I dwelt for hours on the small hand-scribbled writings she left on the texts she was reading. No matter how esoteric or academic the text, her response would always tune in the personal, the everyday. She came back to life for me through her writing. The film I’m working on now attempts to deal with the traces she’s left behind, so that I might better understand our time together and learn something about death and life. The dead carry on longer than the living, and it seems that the force of a life lived is stronger once it ceases to exert itself… its silence and mystery.

MH: The title Destroying Angel suggests an angel that returns to wreak vengeance, a once purity that’s now armed.

PH: It’s also a mushroom, one of the most deadly and poisonous. The poison is the virus, which brings pain and suffering, but also transformation and change and growth. There’s an eating sequence in the film shot up at the farm where Wayne is making us dinner. In the early nineties there was still such a fear of casual infection, you know, he could cut himself and infect us, but instead there’s only celebration. We’re living right now, the camera’s floating around the food and we’re having a ball in the face of it all.

MH: Much of your work in the 90s is more hermetic and difficult than your autobiographical cycle. What would you say to those who feel your work, along with others in this small field, is willfully self enclosed, unnecessarily obscure, interested in formal issues in a medium which itself is coming to an end, and on the other hand suffers from solipsism andnarcissism.

PH: Yes and? It lives with me and that’s what is important. Often circumstances collect around you and you have to make the film as well as you can without knowing why until later. Sometimes you get a song out of it, sometimes a mumble.

MH: Is it important to finish work or is it just the process that’s important?

PH: I need to bring everything to some kind of completion. I learned from my dad how to start and finish things in the factory when I used to make boxes every day. Screening your work and receiving feedback is an important part of the process. We experimentalists may not get the TV audience but that’s alright. Our work has a different purpose. We’re the people behind the stage sweeping up the old act and getting it ready for the new show.

People who try and push boundaries are part of a lineage that’s a much thinner thread than CNN or Cineplex, but it’s continuous, it’s a living history. We’re carrying this on, and maybe I’ll make just one film that’s important, that will have an effect on people. I hope I haven’t made it already. If I’ve always held on to the personal it’s because I believe that what I’ve lived has a shape, an organic world that can be shared, through film, with others.

Hand-Made (in the digital age): an interview with Phil Hoffman (by Aysegul Koc 2002)

by Aysegul Koc
March 2002

AK: When we say hand-made I think of the craft as well as the art using the hands and the labor involved.

PH: It’s sort of having control of the whole process and at the same time you are out of control. You have a pact with the process… with the world, that it has some say in what the film will be. You have great control in, for example, hand processing the film yourself… you don’t have to give it to the man with the white lab coat any more… and all your money along with it.

AK: When we talk about hand made film it’s not necessarily hand- processed film.

PH: No but it’s kind of a nice metaphor for it. In the hand processed film you are actually putting the film in the developer, swishing it around and putting it into different processes. What’s great about hand processed film is that you are never in total control. So it’s again being in control and at the same time relinquishing control because within a few seconds you can lose a beautiful image you love by leaving it in a chemical too long or not long enough.

AK: Has that happened to you?

PH: Oh sure, it happens all of the time. …it’s odd because that image still lives on in your memory. I have a lot of those… That beautiful image you saw in the dark room… gone… That’s life, right? These things move in time and when they’re gone they’re gone. This way you go against the idea that the film is precious and understand that the process is more important.

AK: But when you make a film you keep something as opposed to losing it?

PH: Well the film’s the residue. I’m talking what excites me. When I am not in control and I don’t know what’s going to happen and something does… that’s the fuel.

AK: Is there a project about which you would think ‘This can only be handmade’?

PH: It’s the way of living, the way of working, I think in the beginning I thought someday I’d make a big feature with real actors and all that, but then I came to realize that this is not the way that I work. The project that I am on now is called Commute. I can’t say anything useful about the film at this point. I started working on it in 1995… and in 1996 Marian died. I put Commute on the shelf. And now it resurfaced and it’s funny because now I am clear on how I want to work with it, whereas in 1995 it was vague. So I think after finishing Destroying Angel and What these ashes wanted, I was reminded of the way I want to work …it may be with some actors, or at least friends, but it will still be hand made. We’ll probably get a pile of people together and a pile of film and video together and start working. I’ve got the structure somewhat worked out, and the various threads of the story, but I’m not always sure what road will get me home…

AK: What exactly is hand made film? What would you consider a hand made film?

PH: I wouldn’t limit it to anything. There are many different ways.

AK: If you make a totally digital film would it still be a hand made film?

PH: I haven’t done that yet. I don’t know what that would look like. I would like to say no in some ways. And yes in other ways. I can’t really give you an answer to that. I haven’t made a completely digital film so I don’t know. But I do know that the incorporation of different elements like film footage, video footage, working on a Steenbeck, then working on a computer digitally for the editing then going back to the Steenbeck is a process I know from making What These Ashes Wanted. So because of necessity, because it’s so wonderful to work with almost seventeen, maybe twenty years, of material as I did with Ashes, on a computer, because you can call up things so fast and so easy, I’d like to think that handmade film incorporates different materials. With digital editing you have some headaches of course but… it works just like memory… boom it’s right there… I want it. In What these ashes wanted I was working on a Steenbeck and on the computer at the same time… shooting with a digital camera off the Steenbeck screen and then dumping it into the computer to work out my ideas… back and forth. It was a bit crazy because I had footage which was processed and printed way before digital editing was invented and so it wasn’t reasonable to do a keycode transfer.

I worked out my whole soundtrack, including many adjustments to the narration, on the computer which was wonderful. I found all the images I needed (super8, 16mm hand processed, still photos, video) by working out the ideas on the computer, and then I just had to master, through optical printing and video to film transfers, all of the material back to 16mm neg. In the early 1990’s I used a similar process for Chimera, using digital editing to work out the flow of images, and the frame rates, and then I went back to the optical printer and step printed the super-8 up to 16 mm negative.

AK: And you wouldn’t call that hand made?

PH: Sure, I suppose, but there is something about the physicality of hand processes that is different than mouse-made works.

AK: It wasn’t an aesthetic choice it was something that helped you work out the material.

PH: To me it was great to blend these different ways of working, these different tools. You learn something at the intersection. I think when we cross boundaries we bring what we have learned from one medium and apply it to another, and something new is discovered. Within independent film, experimental film, video art… there are many practices…ways of working. Artists find things out in their work, pass it on…this movement expands and contracts. Old movements influence new movements, new movements influence old ones…and bring it along. I remember when Jeffrey Paull was first asked to teach Photoshop, to basically move out of still film and onto computers….he was sort ordered by the administration to make the transition, and he had to teach in one of these computer labs… very un-Jeffrey Paull. So what he did was turn off all the florescent lights and bring in some nice lamps and placed them around the room… to me that’s a hand made solution. He just said: “Well wait a minute let’s not just take what’s being shoved down our throats… resist this corporate way of working…”

The term that came to being in the 60s was “living cinema” and that’s like hand-made film. In hand made making you don’t light the breakfast table… you film your loved ones, or they film you on the spot… you don’t make them pour the orange juice again… and again… and if you miss a shot, you get the next thing that comes along… light glistens off the apples on the table… the kids playing…

AK: Is this not more possible with the video camera? More people have access to it now and can do amateur work.

PH: I would say that it is but it’s different because there is usually the sound attached whereas with a Bolex it’s always just the image. In video it’s, ‘What are you doing with that toy, Jessie?’ The words become important so there’s a difference and I don’t think it’s always better though it can be… it’s how one works with it. Access is great of course, yes. For me it has less to do with technology and more about working ‘from your hand’…working ‘from your heart.’

AK: What about all the difference between mouse and hand?

PH: We have to develop ways to work with computers that isn’t so draining. For myself I find it just as exciting but sometimes I get a hollow feeling when I sit in front of a computer for ten hours whereas I just feel exhausted sitting in front of a Steenbeck… to me there is a difference. We have to work out how to get the best out of the various technologies and practices…. My body of work contains video all the way through, though it often ends on film but I try to use video and film for good purposes. So I think that integration is sort of happening and will continue to. You can take ‘a hand made perspective’ on it.

AK: When you use mixed media video, film, Steenbeck, media 100 AVID…. Instead of the actual process it shifts to a mentality.

PH: Let me ask you. You started shooting film and fell in love with it. So tell me why.

AK: It smells, it’s the very basic things. The way you like food or sex, it’s the same thing. Like sweating over the dark bag. Dealing with film macaroni when you open the magazine lid, the reward of capturing moments.

PH: (laughs) Yeah it’s good. We make a trade off. We get this wonderful memory machine, the computer. We use it. But we don’t give up the hand made philosophy and the hand made techniques you know.

AK: What you are doing, mixed media, is very important. Is this unavoidable in the future? Is this the path your work is going to take? Somehow it makes our life easy, you’re sitting in front of a computer now. You can’t go back?

PH: You hate it and you love it. I hate it and I love it. I think it’s a matter of how to make it palatable. You have to say ‘enough is enough.’ It’s like too much sugar. It’s seductive. It’s become this octopus with arms all around you, this open access. I get hundreds of e-mails a week from students, admin, strangers, filmmakers…. It’s all wide open. I think in the next five years I will be working out how to deal with this incredible communication overload. Everybody needs to do that or else there’s going to be a lot of sick people around.

AK: Is it why there is so much interest in the projects like film farm?

PH: First off it’s a retreat… you have people staying together, talking to each other about film & ideas… for a full week… quite intense… we create a very powerful energy.

AK: Don’t they come to the farm to learn hand made?

PH: Yeah, but they could do it in LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) workshops as well. I think it’s something else… a few years after the film farm began, some guys from a television station asked if they could come and follow the workshop for the week, for some kind of cable broadcast… and I said no because the taping process …the crew and all that… would create a rupture in the space we try to make… the workshop would become something else so I try to protect this little thing that’s kind of grown, but is still pretty small and intimate… the problem that we get into at film schools is that everything needs to be big… We need the newest technology so we need more money….so we need more students… so we get government cuts… and we can’t run this big thing that’s been created. It gets out of control. So we started the Film Farm, tore away some of that film school infrastructure so we could get back to the things we like about working in this art form The film farm is democratic… here, Karyn Sandlos and Deirdre Logue do the tinting and toning cooking show.

AK: Do they call it that?

PH: That’s what I call it.

AK: How did you start making hand made films?

PH: It came out of photography. I had a dark room.

AK: So you were already close to the chemistry.

PH: I was close to the idea of an image coming out of nothing. It’s magic you know. It’s now you see now you don’t. The image appears in the developer and that’s enough for me. I can stop right there. That moment when something is appearing you get a kick. That’s what I try to maintain in filmmaking. I don’t get a kick out of it as much when I know what’s going to happen.

AK: And video in a sense is very predictable?

PH: With video you get these moments where there is interactions with people. You get sound and you get people saying beautiful things. That’s why I use video in my films. In What These Ashes Wanted Marian is in the car talking about what she just saw behind the closed doors along the roadway during her visiting nurse calls… There is no way I could have received those moments, in the same way, with a film camera. I would have controlled it, if I used the film image, without sound. She is kind of in charge there, not me, even though I might have thought I was in charge. She is performing, and she turns things around by making me look at what I’m doing.

AK: Directly addressing you or ignoring you or looking at the traffic.

PH: Yeah, and even so much as saying, ‘This really feels uncomfortable, you’re pointing the camera at me.’ Suddenly the lens shatters because it makes you aware of the apparatus, makes you look at the construction… the filming process. Marian was so good at that, always stepping outside of the frame. That’s fantastic… I was just learning from her in some ways.

AK: It’s a process of learning handmade film… I just want to know more about the limitations and the freeing aspects of the hand-made. It sounds good to make a hand-made film but it must have limitations.

PH: It’s hard… maybe harder than working with a script. I collect images, over a long period of time, and then I have to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It’s a long process, What These Ashes Wanted took nearly five years, but actually I used footage dating back almost 20 years. passing through took six years. Road Ended at the Beach took seven years. Chimera took six years. I usually need time to think about it.

AK: One more thing, the hand made films (I’ve seen) tend to be experimental, do they always go together?

PH: There are some filmmakers working hand made and their films are more narrative. They’re working with actors. It depends… I think anything can be hand made. It’s just that hand-made is likely not to be on TV, although you say Carolynne Hew’s Swell was on TV… that’s was shot at the Film Farm… great! Just think …a hand-made film channel…

AK: (laughs)

PH: Put that at the end… ok?

AK: But what if next year at the film farm there are TV cameras wanting to watch you twenty-four hours…

PH: I won’t let them in. They have to stay at Tim Horton’s in town …they have to wait there….and we will make daily appearances when we come for coffee….(laugh) But anyway, we protect what we have. It’s really a matter of how you work and good work comes out of that. You work in a way so that you are still having fun…. you’re with people you want to be with… if the pressure gets so great that you’re not having fun, that’s not hand-made film. (laughs). Actually, it doesn’t always have to be fun but you’re learning and you’re sharing these things with people.

A Play of History

by Philip Hoffman

What does it mean for me and my work to have been in this place, Toronto?

Looking back over my film work of the past ten years, I see few traces of the city I choose as home… I notice my journal entries laden with references of people and places of the past.

August 19, 1979 – left Kitchener-Waterloo for the Toronto airport but first, goodbye to Mom and Babji, lying side by side. Babji speaks to me in her Polish, “Nie rozumiem…,” then, “I was think you were from the other place.” The old country is still with her, in her morning dream… to our dreams she taught us to listen… Though my work in film always deals with place, I find it odd that the place where I live and work is near-absent in my films… I question to what degree the present place where I am affects the output of the work.

January 1977 – I’m on a great flat houseboat, like the one old Roy Girdler used to ride on Lake McCullough, picking up cottagers on trips around the lake… I sit on the flat deck amidst peo­ple’s frantic legs. I’m six—I write everything down in my black book.

When have I turned the camera on Toronto?

In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984), a storefront, John’s Religious Painting, Bloor and Bathurst, a glimpse through the window, through the wall, an artist copies a painting of Christ, the paintbrush careful to match the lines of the original, the camera careful, superimposing the image of the artist, a reflection on glass… Again from the same street, the same film, a procession up Bathurst Street, the Feast of Fatima, a questioning angel amongst many leaves her procession to smile for the camera. Mary is lifted up high, mingling with second-floor and third-floor rental flats. It’s an unusual day in the streets of Toronto when the grinding streetcars of commerce are replaced.

Near the end of The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), the basement on Bathurst Street is shown for a few seconds, with me, slumped over a light table editing film. At the time it seemed necessary to put myself in frame, fingers on film, trying to put an order to and make some sense of the seven years of collected film images… I learned about time, cutting film in that damp brick basement.

January 8, 1978 – I drive away from Toronto, the 401 again, passing through frozen fields, the harsh light cuts through the windshield, stops time on the road. On my way to Kitchener-Waterloo and Grampa’s funeral… in my frozen hand, the weight of my grandfather and the family procession, orderly disciplined, a strange German march echoes from his gramophone—seems like a dream.

In ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986), some camera report sheets filmed on the kitchen table in the Dovercourt Road apartment were made to look as if they were shot in Holland. The report sheets were carefully forged, made to look as if my shooting procedure is systematic, made to look like I’m in complete control, like Grandpa.

Toronto is a place to find work, to make and look at movies, to talk with people about movies. But I’m still not persuaded to shoot film in Toronto. I keep wanting to dig down into a past which is impossible to retrieve. Place is impor­tant to me but my work has little to do with concrete places like Toronto, Kitchener or even Lake McCullough. Place is where I am, what I think and feel, and for the time being I continue to find my place in Toronto.

(Originally published in A Play of History Catalogue (Toronto: Power Plant, February 1987)