“Philip Hoffman is a precious resource, one of the few contemporary filmmakers whose work provides a bridge to the classical themes of death, diaspora, memory, and, finally, transcendence. As Landscape With Shipwreck makes clear, Hoffman explores these most Canadian of themes without grandiosity; instead they emerge from stories held close to the ground, the family, and personal experience, whether at home or in very unfamiliar places indeed. And he does so through a constant renovation of method that enriches the viewers’ ability to grasp how film form contains and conditions meaning. This is just the sort of human voice articulated through film that we desperately need amidst the thunder of corporate media in all forms.” (“Landscape with Shipwreck: 1st Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman”, Insomniac Press/Images Festival 2001)
Stan Brakhage on `passing through/torn formations’
“passing through/torn formations accomplishes a multi-faceted experience for the viewer—it is a poetic document of Family, for instance—but Philip Hoffman’s editing throughout is true to thought process, tracks visual theme as the mind tracks shape, makes melody of noise and words as the mind recalls sound.”
Mike Hoolboom on `passing through/torn formations’
Hoffman’s sixth film in ten years, passing through/torn formations is a generational saga laid over three picture rolls that rejoins in its symphonic montage the broken remnants of a family separated by war, disease, madness and migration. Begun in darkness with an extract from Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration, the poet narrates the story of ‘you,’ a child who explores an abandoned limestone quarry….The film’s theme of reconciliation begins with death’s media/tion—and moves its broken signifiers together in the film’s central image, ‘the corner mirror,’ two mirrored rectangles stacked at right angles. This looking glass offers a ‘true reflection,’ not the reversed image of the usual mirror but the objectified stare of the Other. When Rimbaud announces ‘I am another’ he does so in a gesture that unites traveller and teller, confirming his status within the story while continuing to tell it. It is the absence of this distance, this doubling that leads the Czech side of the family to fatality.
JM: Jim McMurray RK: Richard Kerr PH: Phil Hoffman RF: Robert Frank JL: June Leaf
Jim McMurray: How did you happen to find a spot like this?
Robert Frank: Oh, it’s just an accident.
JM: You were just up here?
RF: Well it was on a bulletin board in Port Hood. Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
Richard Kerr: What are the winters like? Pretty severe.
RF: The wind is sometimes pretty rough but it’s not too bad. I like it in the winter.
JM: Where’s the coal mines from here?
RF: Past this house here. See that house? There’s a hole going down, that’s where it used to be. It fell down the tower.
RK: Are they going to use it again do you think?
RF: No, it’s all under the water so it’s too expensive.
JM: Too dangerous too, eh?
RF: …it’s too expensive to come in here and you know look after the track here. It takes a long way to get it out from here.
JM: Can anybody come around here dig themselves and use it in their fireplaces?
RF: People use to do it, use horses, get some chunks. Not anymore.
JM: I sometimes work with, you know like iron. Bending it in a furnace. I went down to the railway tracks and they were selling coal at places where an old railway car had tipped over. All free now.
RF: Where do you come from?
JM: Ann Arbour. I saw a picture in your book. I think The Americans, of someone laying in a park.
RF: Ann Arbour. Yeah that’s with all the cars. There’s a little lake outside Ann Arbour. Not far from…
JM: Do you get away from here very much anymore or do you stick around home?
RF: Well, when I have got to go, I got to go. When you got to go, you got to go. I like it here.
RK: I just saw they had a display of your pictures at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in the spring. Were you up there at all?
RF: No. No I didn’t go.
RK: Just send the pictures and let them do the talking.
RK: I guess what you know were looking for and I guess it’s in the form of some sort of advice, is that, I imagine there’s no secret to it, but what frame of mind were you in when you did The Americans. And how conscious was it? The spontaneity, this sort of thing.
RK: Because you read so much stuff and a lot of it frankly is you know?
RF: I think spontaneity might be a way of not thinking you know. Maybe if I would define it. Spontaneity, I don’t think I thought a lot about it. It was more feeling than thinking.
RK: You just did it.
RK: What sort of line as far as equipment goes, were you outfitted with. The finest equipment of the time or were your tools just what you had?
RF: No, I had ordinary equipment. A couple of Leicas, one with a normal lens the other with a wide angle. It helps with good equipment but I think it’s more important to have good equipment when you do carpentry. It’s more exact. When you’re out there working alone I think that. Then thinking about carpentry it’s not that you’re working together with someone. But doing The Americans at the time, I think that it was wonderful to travel alone.
RK: That’s what we were talking about this morning. This is Phil’s project. I’m doing sound. Jim’s doing the driving and music. We were wondering, to do what he’s doing, to do it by himself, he’d be more mobile. He wouldn’t have to listen to our bitching and complaining you know.
RF: Well if it finally gels, what you do with the tape and what he does with picture. It’s an ongoing process.
RK: Have you ever tried much team work as far as film.
RF: Well with films I think you have to. It’s too hard to make films alone.
PH: How about Jack Kerouac and Pull My Daisy. Did you shoot the film and then Kerouac did the narration after?
RF: Right. He looked at the film and narrated as he looked at it.
PH: Was that a good way to work?
RF: That could be called spontaneity. I mean that certainly was a spontaneous piece of literature.
PH: Was there editing involved? I mean did you go to a third person again? After you had shot it and he had done the narration, anyone cut things out? Like, Kerouac’s On The Road apparently has been butchered quite a bit for the publisher.
RF: There was very little taken out. We just had to fit it sometimes, it ran a little bit over or we wanted to put some music in, so some words were cut out, some sentences. But it didn’t happen very often. Of the thirty minutes that he narrated maybe two or three minutes were cut out and that’s about it.
RK: Earlier we were down talking to Allen Ginsberg in th elower east side, NYC, doing some research at Columbia, that he kept there, and I was wondering, is there… those people they seemed like such a close knit group at the time. Are they scattered now or do you have any contact with any of those people? Is it just a time and a place and now you’re in a different time and place.
RF: Well Kerouac is dead… he’s away. Sometimes I see Allen. I never kept that close in contact with them. So, I don’t know. Corso’s living mostly in Italy. I think it pretty much goes apart after… years.
RK: Yeah, that’s what I find with my friends. We just drift I’m out here now and they’re all out in Calgary in the real estate boom. At the time, were the conditions right to work? Were things as free as it looked. You know we were only two and three years old then but we had the image that it was free, that everything just went along… Did it have that feeling to it or is that something the media played upon. Grabbed.
RF: I don’t think that it gets freer. You know good people work. They work the same in 1980 as you would have worked in 1960. Maybe it was freer because you knew less and you were more innocent. Now I wouldn’t be that free simply because I know more about it. Much more.
RK: Are you familiar with the term zeitgeist?
RK: : Zeitgeist. It’s a German word for spirit of the times.
RF: Zeitgeist, zeitgeist. Yeah.
RK: I heard that word when I was in Switzerland about six years ago. That was the word all the people were using. I didn’t know what the hell it meant.
Frank: Well I’ll give you another one. How about Weltschmertz?
RK: Weltschmertz? ha ha…We come from a German town so we get all this. A town in Ontario, Kitchener. It’s a rural German community, so you get osmosis over the years.
RF: I think this dog makes a good soundtrack.
RK: Yeah. I just did a film called Dogs Have Tales, about my other dog. I don’t go anywhere without a dog.
RF: So who is in charge of editing the film?
PH: I am. It’s a project where we all work together. I think one of the things that’s happening in a way, is it’s just gone a week and things are kind of gelling… We all kind of got our separate jobs now, you know.
RK: A guy gave him a free truck. He went to California and couldn’t take it with him. It was fifteen years old ..I did him a favour once and he said take care of this for me it’s yours.
RF: It’s nice.
JM: It is nice.
RF: What kind of truck is it?
JM: It’s a Dodge. An old Dodge.
RF: Wonderful looking. Nice.
JM: Well we put new doors on it, but it was painted… covered with flowers and beautiful things like that. But nowadays I guess you can get away with things like that. Is there anything we can help you with, any heavy lifting?
RF: No I can’t think. No, I don’t think there’s anything.
RF: How long have you been here, five, six years sort of a thing?
RF: No we’ve been here ten years. Eleven years. We came here in 1969.
RF: We built this you know? Yeah, it’s satisfying to build something.
RK: You bet it is. That’s something I was never brought up to do but it’s something I want to do.
RF: It’s satisfying to look here, you know? See the water?
RF: Well I mean I thought it would be more like having to look into the camera…like a TV interview, you know.
RK: No. We left the make-up girl at home. Make-up person.
RF: I always liked it when films you know had freedom… when you could move sound and image around. When I was teaching in sometimes Super 8, I always liked that about Super 8 because I completely divorced the image from the sound, and there’s so many possibilities then.
PH: It’s exciting… there’s always something being born,
RF: You always stumble on something that makes sense that enhances the picture itself.
PH: I think of a saying… let the feeling find its own form.I have to remember it for this film. That’s what I’m trying to do … sometimes it’s really hard… travelling is hard enough… It’s two jobs in a way.
RF: I use to think… how is the wind doing?
RK: It’s kicking the hell out of this mic, but what can you do?
RF: Sometimes the wind sounds so beautiful. What kind of a machine is that?
RK: It’s a Sony. A Sony cassette deck. It’s got little toys on it you know …too many gadgets.
RF: You always work with one mic?
RK: This can work with two.
RF: Yeah, but you do everything with one?
RK: As much as possible. I’m not a technical person so I got to find a simple machine. Don’t need a Nagra.
PH: We’re just using this Bolex with 3 or 4 different lenses.
RF: Is that a combination lens? I mean that’s just one lens.
PH: It’s just one, yes. That’s one thing I wouldn’t mind for this trip is maybe not changing lenses so much.
RF: You just work with that one lens?
PH: one or two..wide and normal.
RF: You have other ones but then you have to take it off.
PH: Yeah, It’s the only one I could get a hold of for the trip, but it works well.
RF: What do you shoot? Colour?
PH: Yeah, negative. We’ve shot for three or four years now west and east trips. This is our second time out east. I shot super-8 and collected sound when I first started a while, and now what I’m going to do with the super-8 is blow it up to 16mm and use it sort of as a concrete form of memory. And so over the years we have been returning to places and people …. So hopefully the film will have some history to it.
RF: How long is it since you’ve done the super-8?
PH: 1976… about four years ago.
JM: We came out here last year and got some footage, but the car kept breaking down. It was a newer one then this. Do you still go down to the School of Design in Halifax.
RF: No I haven’t been there since at least three or four or five years.
RK: I was thinking about going there back to school for the fourth time. Think it’s an alright place?
RF: School? Well if you feel like you need to learn something and that’s the way you feel you can learn it. What would you take there.
RK: Art education or something like that. How about teaching I do some teaching now, but you don’t get paid well when you know the stuff but don’t have the letters behind you. They don’t pay you as well. But I don’t know, change my mind every day, that’s what I got one for I guess.
RF: Well if you can go to school that’s nice. It gives you place, not in the streets.
JM: Especially out here as opposed to Toronto. I just got out, been going for years. Got a Masters Degree in Fine Arts and I finally realized that it’s not doing me much good at all. I wish I had worked all that time. ….The dog likes it here. He likes those cliffs, feels like he’s climbing mountains.
RF: It’s your dog, eh?
JM: It’s Richard’s dog.
RF: Oh, yeah.
JM: It was his birthday two days ago, two years old. You getting pretty stuck to this place here? I mean hard to leave?
RF: Well I’m attached we put a lot of money into it. We’ve worked on this for a very long time.
JM: Nice to make something and have something there.
RF: It seems permanent. It doesn’t change. It’s nice to watch nature. Watch the water, the wind, the sea.
JM: That’s what I like. I didn’t really want to come on this trip. It was hard to break myself away. How are the people down here? Pretty nice?
RF: Very friendly, yeah. Well they’re very discreet. There’s a lot of room, nobody bugs you.
JM: This has got a lot of Scottish history … The highlanders or…
RF: Yeah, they’re mostly Scottish.
JM: A lot of ***………*** (?)
RF: Some of them speak Gaelic.
JM: Yeah? Wow.
RF: It’s a good place to live. I don’t know about working. I have a hard time working here but June works a lot. She works on the building. Why don’t we stop for a while?
JM: How do you heat in the winter? Is it wood?
RF: Wood stove, coal.
JM: You just go down in your car or truck and pick it up?
RF: Yeah. When we just came here in 1969 coal was something like eleven, twelve dollars.
JM: A hundred weight?
RF: A ton. And now it’s forty and I guess that’s still cheap.
JM: Yeah. It’s a lot more down in the city..
June Leaf: It’s good huh?
RF: Can they have some tea?
JL: OK. You want some tea?
RK: Then we’ll let you get back to work.
RF: It’s a good day for working today.
RK: Yeah. Not too hot.
JL: Are you guys having tea?
JM: Phil you want some tea? (Phil filming on rocks). A lot of people paint their shingles. But I guess that once you’ve painted it once you’ve got to paint it over and over again.
JL: Most people paint them. They do, they like to paint them. It makes the house look fresh every couple of years.
RF: With just oil.. you know, seems to keep them pretty well.
JM: That’s a pretty colour that, silver.
JL: See these are old shingles, see we’re reusing them they’re very strong. I mean, they’re just like new shingles. Look at that. That was already cracked when we took it off. See we took it off with a shingle puller. That way where you see we’re putting it back it varies.
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. 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. (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.” 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. 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.”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.
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), 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. 
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 Pond, Passing 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 the punctum 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.
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. 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, 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.” 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.
. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).
. 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.)
. Andre Bazin, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
. Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancohia, On Metapsychology, vol 11, trans.James Strachey (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984), 253.
. 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.
ending series 1-4 (2020-2022)The 16mm film was shot and partly hand-processed with plants and flowers by Hoffman, and digitally edited by Isiah Medina.
` Trees, farm fields with animal livestock, ponds and plants, and natural artefacts disappear in the flicker effect of landscape compositions where sweeping branches carve moving structures into the viewer’s memory, and the transformations of living image threads remind us of the inexhaustible visual exuberance of meadows and grain.’
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. 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. 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.
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.”
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.”
 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. Brenda Longfellow, “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida” in Landscape With Shipwreck, pp. 201-210.
“Who has not marveled at the triumph of slow motion? At the end of every sporting event the decisive moments of the past hours float past in a dreamy montage, everything slowed to a crawl, as if it had occurred days, even years ago, part of a past that seems already out of reach, filled with bygone charms. The pages of Vimeo and YouTube have delivered us to a global tidal wave of slow motion magics, where heroines of time are caught in the full thrall of their secret erotic life, their faces filled with hand grenade smiles and arms stretch beyond the horizon with an inflated heroism. In his too familiar essay, Walter Benjamin wrote about slow motion as a way to defeat capitalism. He imagined that hidden within our everyday gestures were a cornucopia of unseen resistances, that our bodies performed a micro-politics of nay saying that the camera would at last reveal. But the digital revolution appears to have unveiled these once hidden intervals as another area of over exposure, bent beneath the first law of digital culture: that everything should be visible, bright, clear, tagged, identifiable. The surveillance state insists: there is no outside.”