A Reading of Philip Hoffman’s ?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) and Barbara Sternberg’s A Trilogy

by Gary Popovich
Originally published in New Directions Catalogue (ed. Richard Kerr)
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Saturday 19 April 1987 

Films, whose natures defy easy description or those whose structures clearly break from the traditional narrative formats, would seem to break wide open the possibilities of writing on film. It is in the space between the potential viewer and the film in which writing, especially this writing, posits itself—writing for the viewer so that the viewer, in consequence, accordingly reads the film. When the writing is precisely ad hoc writing, no amount of editorial freedom can liberate the writing from the already imposed strictures that tend to find their purpose outside the film, so that writing is actually produced as a third element coming between the film and the viewer. So that ‘title,’ signifying recognition, does not pass directly to the viewer but is passed and mediated by the writing to the viewer, In effect a trilogy is established, the structure of which is apparent whenever two things come together and something is passed between them. The third element is always present, be it this writing, language in general, or films; and the third element always finds its roots in desire.

It is at the title and the passing of the title that the film itself begins operating. ?O, ZOO! and A Trilogy both veil and reveal; both actively produce some other element which situates itself as an absence in the discourse of the film and is nothing less than the film itself as an expression of desire attempting to satisfy that absence.

“I’ve come up against this problem before,” so goes one of the lines from Philip Hoffman’s ?O, Zoo!. The responsibility of the film maker and what he should and should not film occurs again and again in Hoffman’s work. In an earlier work entitled Somewhere Between, he decided not to film a dead boy lying on a Mexican road, rather to capture evocatively the spirit of the event by footage structured to suggest the absence and the loss and the truth of the event without sensationalizing it. In fact it is by cinematically putting into the foreground that absence, by selecting images or discussing their absence, that the absence becomes a presence, a presence outside of time—fictionalized, represented—re-presented.

In ?O, ZOO! absence, loss, and truth undergo a series of transformations from playful fictions concerning the film maker’s newsreel, cameraman grandfather, and the National Film Board, weaving into the ostensibly truthful documentation of the shooting of a fictional feature film in Holland, to a story on a more serious tone about an elephant—the veracity of the story remaining questionable till the end of the film.

The full title of the film, ?O, ZOO! (The Making of a Fiction Film), derives from the title and making of Peter Greenaway’s Zed and Two Noughts, the fiction film set in Holland. Hoffman’s title acts as a sudden recognition of the British cipher for Z-0-0. As an observer on the set of Greenaway’s film shoot, Hoffman takes the opportunity to make a film which questions documentary truth and raises questions about the place and function of his own footage. He prefaces his film with an introduction outlining Grandfather’s two styles of shooting, fictionalizing and blatantly and humourously revealing his fictions as the film progresses. Camera report sheets are transformed into the film maker’s daily journals, Grandfather’s black-and-white footage transforms into Hoffman’s colour footage of Greenaway’s film shoot. The strands of truth, fiction, the responsibility and integrity of the film maker, all come together in the elephant story. A voice-over describes an elephant’s struggle to get back on its feet while zoo keepers, onlookers, and other elephants try to give the fallen animal encouragement. The film maker ponders whether to process the footage he has shot or to leave it in the freezer. The entire scene is played without images—entirely black.

The film and its internal logic seem to be calling itself into question here. Structured on absence, the film (as desire) moves to fill a hole. Earlier in the film the film maker wonders whether Grandfather had hoped that someone would find his footage one day. The making of Hoffman’s film, his own fiction film, which in its final section propels the film maker through a cinematic ricorso, brings him back home to a home-movie image to grandfather and grandson together, to his innocence, his present wishes, dreams, as if Grandfather had passed title of the footage to him, to his desires sprung loose by the spring of his camera – to a calculated fiction which aspires only to poetic truth.

Although stylistically different, ?O, ZOO! and A Trilogy are remarkably similar both thematically and in the codes they use. In A Trilogy the film’s focus is on the relationship between the film maker and her son, structured both to allow and to refuse easy dissection, whence is generated the main tension of the film.

Breaking down A Trilogy into three separate pieces or even searching for parts of the trilogy as distinct sections is misleading, for trilogistic elements abound in the film (three sets of rolling titles, three seemingly distinct ages at which the young boy is shown, the three days marked out by CBC’s “World Report”, the three distinctly separate letters read by the mother, et al.). Furthermore, the film has three major distinct sections which weave in and out of each other throughout the film: (I) a woman diving into a swimming pool and a man running down a road; (2) a narrative section in which a husband and wife are having breakfast; (3) a collection of personal images, home-movie footage, and memories, most of which are optically printed and most directly evocative of Sternberg’s emotions vis­a-vis the themes of the film.

Each of these elements constitutive of the whole is always separate and distinct, yet always resisting separation. As if the active voice of the film maker was everywhere trying to assert its presence amidst the roar of emotion which has already denied the voice these easy delusions …the absences joined together by a fiction situated outside of presence representing loss… two movements—one always moving inward toward some unity of expression, an offering from film maker to viewer; the other a visual and aural representation of the coming apart… the recognition of hole in whole; the parting of mother and son. The opening shots record these very movements. A woman poised at the edge of a swimming pool hesitates to dive into the water. A man runs down a country road, his panting breaths are broken by occasional remarks about water, sinking, love, and giving. A breakfast scene depicts the habitual ritual reducing emotion to empty gesture: a kiss, a spoken good-bye, while “World Report” talks about disaster at sea. And throughout the film a mother and her young son are together or moving apart, at beaches, in or near the water. As images race by and emotion comes to a pitch, the now submerged swimmer from the beginning of the film breaks the surface as the loud cry of a new-born baby and the subsequent cutting of the umbilical cord mark the re-presentation of the first significant separation.

As the boy is always running or moving away from his mother, so in the end does the running man keep running. But the camera no longer stays close to him. It stops to watch the man disappear in the distance, then it returns to the woman poised at the edge of the pool to capture her dive expressing its affinity with her, situating itself in the water with her.

A Trilogy begins unveiling itself at the title so that ‘title’ is passed from the film maker to the viewer and from the film maker to the son by means of the film. The two movements then (moving together and coming apart) both unite and separate film maker and viewer, and mother and son. As the film maker passes the title to the audience she also passes it to her son—title as a form of recognition, title as film—the emotion into which both must plunge.