by Darrell Varga
Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice.
For this reason, spatial practices concern everyday tactics.
-Michel de Certeau
I think childhood is so traumatic we sleep through most of it.
The play of light and dark in Phil Hoffman’s river (1978-79) is formed in a tension between film and video, water and land, silence and sound, nature and culture in an invocation to awake from the trauma of personal history. These tensions are not simple dualisms but are dialectical processes enmeshed in the experiences of space and time suggested in my opening quotations. river opens with a series of images shot on film from a small boat drifting down the Saugeen River, a suggestion of tranquility even as the calm flow is unsettled by the absence of sound.3 We are presented with the frame as signifier of absence rather than window onto the world. The subsequent sequence realizes this landscape surface in the altogether different texture of black and white video, but now our relationship to this framed space is overdetermined by the presence of sound. While the technology of reproduction shifts from tactile and mechanical photography to its electronic counterpart, there is no longer human intervention in the steering of the boat, which now drifts according to the riverís current. The boat’s surface amplifies the sound waves as it floats over the water’s surface in a movement of becoming simultaneously free and confined. The microphone rests on the boat seat recording the bump and grind of collisions with tree branches jutting out from the riverís edge. The sound is both jarring in exaggeration while hollow in artificiality. Likewise, the images are at once tranquil and interlaced with sudden reframing movements.
The camera enframes the liquid surface which in turn reflects the clouds floating in the sky above, at once an opaque sheen and permeable depth always mediated by the touch of photo-mechanical process. The easy contrast of the human intervention in nature is complicated by the subsequent scene in which the first segment is rephotographed. Here, the edges of the frame are evident and the space on-screen where the dissolve sutures together transitions from one shot to another is effaced. Instead, we see the white screen on which this re-photographing process is projected. This deferral of meaning is further destabilized in the final segment, a return to the river to film underwater. In this sequence, silent images move quickly between lightness and dark in an onward flow through the liquid surface and across the textures of sand, rock, and light, marking areterritorialization of our relationship to this space in front of the camera. Movement no longer confined to the shape of the boat merges with the object of the image, the water as both surface and depth, recalling GillesDeleuzeís commentary on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934):
On land, movement always takes place from one point to another, always between two points, while on water the point is always between two movements: it thus marks the conversion or the inversion of movement, as in the hydraulic relationship of a dive and a counter-dive, which is found in the movement of the camera itself…Finally, a clairvoyant function is developed in water, in opposition to earthly vision: it is in the water that the loved one who has disappeared is revealed, as if perception enjoyed a scope and interaction, a truth which it did not have on land.4
In drawing out the relationship between Deleuze’s thinking and Phil Hoffman’s film practice, it is important to recall that for Deleuze, philosophy is not theoretical abstraction but is vital conceptual practice, a kind ofassemblage in which the engagement with cinema reveals the practice of thought outside the confines of Cartesian dualism. Hoffman’s filmmaking practice similarly depends upon the immediacy of intuitive and physical response. For Deleuze, cinema is a primary determinant of our understanding of space and time, and must be met outside of the constraining technical-interpretive methods of psychoanalysis.5 Like the hollow sound of the boat bumping into the shore in river, Hoffman’s films grind against normative conventions of documentary and genre categorization. They offer a reconfiguration of indexical presence emerging against assumptions of fixedness: of the borders of the frame, of order, finality, Truth. They can be understood, following Deleuze’s fluid metaphors, as experimental process: “no longer measured except in terms of the decoded anddeterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence…embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of means and aims.”6 By disrupting the ordered measure of images toward a coherent teleology, cinematic experimentation serves a necessary critical function. But its function is not simply as corrective to the positivist tendency of realist narrative and critical discourse; instead, it is the creation of an alternative space in-between that which is simply given and the idea of art as transformative and in which the act of seeing cannot be made co-extensive with believing.
That which is within the frame is never fully known and always points to absences beyond the border, and it is this space which is both celebrated and mourned as simultaneous site of possibility and nothingness. While the commonplace understanding of space, of the landscape around us and within our movie frames, is as something which is simply a location for action and in itself simply given and neutral, it must be better understood as something which is socially produced and which can only be understood through our systems of cultural encoding. This image-making no longer presumes to offer an unmediated window onto the world. Deleuzedescribes the importance of contemporary cinema as engaging a new realization of thought in three ways: “the obliteration of a whole or of a totalization of images, in favour of an outside which is inserted between them; the erasure of the internal monologue as whole of the film, in favour of free indirect discourse and vision; the erasure of the unity of [hu]man and the world, in favour of a break which now leaves us with only a belief in this world.”7 What cinema offers, when it breaks free from the relentlessness of the culture industry and systems of measure, is an image of thought outside of the commodified containment of difference.
Hoffman’s films engage this thought-movement by confounding easy distinctions between documentary and experimentation. These films exist in the spaces in-between film forms, in between image and text, place and space, the body and its absence, photography, history, and memory. As Blaine Allan indicates of several films, including Kitchener-Berlin (1989): “The slash and the hyphen in the titles suggest both a severance from the past and connections to it, an ambivalence that is especially poignant for the descendants of the areaís German settlers. The history of the area underpins the film, but refuses to bind it or restrict it from free association.”8 The landscape which is the surface texture of Hoffman’s films is overlaid with a discourse of territorialism, of personal and political struggles over the domain of space. The Canadian town of Kitchener was, prior to World War I, called Berlin. The juxtaposition of war images of home-town in peacetime elicits a desire to uncover and transform the complicit relation between the name, the regimentation of territory, the onslaught of time, and technologies of mass destruction. This process is not nostalgia for a pre-war law of the father; throughout these films, and especially in the later Sweep (created with Sami van Ingen,1995), there is a realization that the bounding of place by name is an effacement of earlier cultures. The film’s title evokes the brutal gesture of erasure which is the legacy of colonization under which a discourse of Canadian space must begin.
The performative hyphen of Kitchener-Berlin both links and keeps apart these spaces, and it is here that personal history is uncovered through film images which play against the borders of static photography, the moving image, memory and forgetfulness, and the creative process of immersion engaged by the multiplicity of overlapping images. The personal is complicit with instrumentalized destruction whereby the silence institutionalized by the change of the townís name is voiced through cinematographic technology, itself enmeshed in the brutality which is the history of the twentieth century. Hoffman explains this unresolved contradiction in his use of theSteadicam for present-day images as both free-floating spirit and masculine aggression:
…you’re floating in a world where the sky and the ground are equivalent. It’s something we can’t do with our bodies, except through technology. So it’s a metaphor for the spirit released. I wanted to contrast that with the low technologies—the home movies which take a familiar form and subject. The Steadicam provides a solitary and other-worldly stance, an emptiness and separation from anything it shows. There’s something that separates the people sitting in front of these old buildings, that separates the remnants of German history from the present, and the camera signals this. This relates to masculinity. The Steadicam is part of the technology that can take us to far-away places or destroy the world. I wanted to show different aspects of technology through the century, using the Steadicam to create a feeling of introspective space where one can look back and account for what’s happened.9
This process of movement is not a re-writing of history but an evocation of its absences following Walter Benjaminís demand that we “brush history against the grain.”10 The relation to Benjamin is not incidental as his writings are filled with the concept of the shock effect of images and experience which flare briefly and then disappear but which, if recognized, fundamentally transform spatial and temporal understanding. Hoffman’s archeological process is a Benjaminian translation of the past and casting forward into an unnamable future. There is no synthesis of this dialectic; instead, it is an offering which includes the necessary absences of forgetting and misconception haunting the reconfiguration of memory, realizing Hoffman’s assertion that “the possibility of mourning lies in the unseen”.11 To think critically about Berlin is to look into the disaster of history and, in this case, to recognize the silent complicity founded in such acts as the erasure of the name Berlin from what is now called Kitchener. The art process which takes memory as canvas requires the failure of recognition (which is not the same as the absences of official history) to suspend instrumentalization and engage thought, as Deleuze describes:
When we cannot remember, sensory-motor extension remains suspended, and the actual image, the present optical perception, does not link up with either a motor image or a recollection-image which would re-establish contact. It rather enters into relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of deja vu or past ‘in general’…[as in dream and fantasy]. In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical-sound image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.12
Hoffman’s use of silence and the abrupt stasis of still photography disrupts the flow of movement as teleology of action and reaction and acknowledges the unsayable: a mourning which cannot be reduced to the awkward gestures of language, but instead emerges in chance relations.
The overlap of image and experience in the opening segment of Kitchener-Berlin confounds the instrumentality of space. Under the simultaneously hypnotic and menacing drone of church bells mixed with intermittent construction machinery sounds, images of nighttime bombing in Berlin are juxtaposed with home-movie footage in Kitchener. The first image we see is of children opening Christmas presents, suggesting, however innocently, the commercial-commodification of home space while the following war images indicate the brutal contestation for the control of nation-state territory—the bloodbath over who gets to name this space as “home.” Intercut are still photographs of public spaces in the earlier days of Kitchener, and prominent among these are snapshots marking a “successful” hunting expedition in which we see a row of deer carcasses inverted to bleed dry. Violence looms even in so-called peace time. Our attention is drawn to both the violence which underpins homosociality and the way photography similarly frames, confines, and captures the subject while signifying absences beyond (and within) itself.
The photographs are ordered in temporal reverse (images of Kitchener appear first, and then those of when the town was called Berlin), while the film images move forward in time. A young boy steps forward to look into the camera and into a future which he cannot see except in fragments of the past. These images overlap the flow of present-era Steadicam shots which suggest a wandering and free-floating quality while also drawing attention to the relentlessness of Western notions of progress. Frequently, we see the camera operator’s shadow floating through the collage as reflexive presence engaging a link between past and present, betweenKitchener and Berlin. But the shadow darkens the image, making it indistinct and the past irrecoverable.
Hoffman’s films circulate with documents of a past which can never be wholly known, and are overlaid with a present which itself has already begun to fade. Out of what Bruce Elder, in his description of a tendency to investigate the nature of the photographic image in Canadian experimental film, calls this”double-sided nature of the concept of representation”13 in which presence is always bound to absence, Hoffman’s film practice brushes assumptions of photographic indexicality against the grain. Our relationship to these temporal and spatial domains is determined by structures of power out of which emerges the photographic trace. The towering trees of the Canadian forest circulate beneath images of imposing European cathedrals. Tourists gaze upward while their bodies legitimize the commodity-conquest of space. Simultaneously, First Nations peoples gaze into the camera as the Pope moves through the crowd, an image reproduced from television from which the relentless flicker of video transferred to film reminds us of the invasiveness of systems of power even as the seduction of the image evades naming it as such. The dialectical process of negation in the overlap of these images forces recognition of absence without reconciliation.
The notion of cause and effect, of a teleology of history, is blasted apart and recognition is forced in the space of absence. There is no longer a totalizing unity in which thought is contained and experience is managed.Deleuze describes the importance of montage in the contemporary film as engaging the new by evading causal association of images:
What counts is on the contrary the interstice between images, between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it. …Given one image, another image has to be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.14
Where the cinema frame, for Deleuze, once allowed a stable system of measure in which disparate elements are brought together, the contemporary screen is one of chance and simultaneity. Like the overloaded frames of experience and detritus of Robert Rauschenberg, it arises out of a social and historical context in which faith in grand narratives has dissolved. Where we may see something new, it is in the unfixed, unstable terrain of the in-between.
The final section of Kitchener-Berlin is titled Veiled Flight, evoking the recurring tension of simultaneous movement and the obstruction of vision. The final image of the film is of an unfocused figure bathed in washed out red, a home-movie image superimposed over the cave walls and appearing at first glance as an irregular beam of light. That which is given in memory and history has dissolved into waves of colour and a deferral of narrative mastery. This image follows a sequence in which the camera moves into a darkened cave where candles and a flashlight illuminate wall carvings, photographs, and other static images. Some of these images are similar to those found in primary school history texts, such as drawings of dinosaurs and early explorers, but from which the concluding dissolve of light sets us free. If we are bound in chains within this Plato’s Cave, they are chains of our own making, images of power and discipline cast onto the earth.
This cave, in a town called Maastricht on the Dutch-Belgian border, is a quarry for the local community and while material is extracted, local people bring images inside to affix onto the walls. This space of found objects in turn reflects the collection of material with which the film itself is composed, and likewise reflects Hoffman’s cinematic practice of free-moving immersion in the everyday. Following the collage of technocracy in the first half, this section can be understood as an inward journey, but it is a journey likewise bound up with the social process of mediation and materiality. The section begins with an inverted rural landscape and hydro-electric structure. The camera arcs downward and the hydro tower penetrates into the earth. Superimposed over this movement is the archival footage of an old man awakening from his dream of technological progress, the trans-Atlantic Zeppelin flight of the middle prologue discussed below, to gaze into the disaster of history. What follows is a montage of underground mining footage with home-movie images of Christmas gift-giving, a horse-riding competition, and footage of the making of an Imax film which stages aboriginal communal life. In this film within the film we again see the image of animals dead from the hunt, staged for the surveillance eye of the looming authoritarian camera.
Hoffman has called this complex image-collage “polyphonic recitations”,15 evoking an aural contrapuntal multiplicity in the telling of stories through the entanglement of personal memory and history. It is interesting that the term privileges sound within this complex layering of images, perhaps to suggest an ephemeral musicality to the visuals in order to circumvent the instrumentalized relation between word and image common to conventional film reception. Likewise, it evokes another kind of absence. If the images from old home-movies are obscured by the fading of the film surface and the scratches from many passes through the family projector, they speak as well of the impossibility of figuring the family as united by the law of the father, even as the film is explicitly described as marking the paternal side of the Hoffman family, its patterns of dispersion and settlement.16 It does not present a simplistic nostalgia for a prelapsarian age, for it is a movement caught up in the blinding gust of the present combined with a masculinist desire to both know father and get out of his house.
The middle “Prologue” of Kitchener-Berlin is in fact a masculinist journey/progress narrative. It is composed entirely of edited material from an archival film called The Highway of Tomorrow or, How One Makes Two made in the 1930s by a Canadian businessman named Dent Harrison. Hoffman describes being moved by the inventiveness of this film which depicts a dirigible flight across the Atlantic in which Harrison photographically creates a double of himself to facilitate photography from both the inside and the outside of the airship. Harrison then falls into dream in which we see the double moving out of Harrison’s body as the final title card asks: “Have you people seen all that I have in my dreams?”17 The question raised by this quirky film is complex; while serving as document of flight it freely embraces non-realist representational strategies as if to signal the dream of mobility as co-extensive with an alternative imaginary. It is neither newsreel nor museum piece and the opening title announces Harrison’s membership in the “Amateur Cinema League: The Worldwide Organization of Amateur Movie Makers”. As if to signify legitimacy through this internationalism, the title appears over a circulating globe similar to the opening of commercial newsreels. Yet “amateur” indicates a break from commercial or “professional” image-making, and the use of the title here signals an affinity with experimental practices in the true spirit of the term: an energy and practice of discovery unconstrained by commerciality.18
Experimental practitioners are likewise accustomed to having their work derided as “amateur” by some elements of the mainstream. Harrison’s film is a story about travel and technological achievement, engagingDeleuzeís understanding of movement as the central concern of pre-WWII cinema, a reflection of technocratic will to mastery combined with a belief in the possibility of unity: “The mobile camera is like a general equivalent of all the means of locomotion that it shows or that it makes use of—aeroplane, car, boat, bicycle, foot, metro… In other words, the essence of the cinematographic movement-image lies in extracting from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance, or extracting from movements the mobility which is their essence.”19 The use of this footage here is to embrace the everyday and the idiosyncratic personal experience of time and space, but it likewise asks whether Harrison’s dream recognizes the collapse of order which is the consequence of our uses of technology, as reflected in Hoffman’s earlier comments on the use of the Steadicam.
Travel is a recurring motif in Hoffmanís films. His first, On the Pond (1978), is a reflection on childhood memory engaged after having moved away from home and how photography provides traces of the past whileenframing absences impossible to recover. His next, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), is the failure to enact Kerouac’s On the Road in the unfreedom of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, as Hoffman explains: “We’re all waiting on an experience that isn’t coming and no one’s sure why. It has a lot to do with how men relate to each other, dealing with outer realities, getting the job done …The guys on the road are caught in dead-end jobs, and nobody’s relating to each other in the van. …The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip, but their roads are closed now.”20 One thread of their destination is a meeting with Beat-era photographer Robert Frank to ask about the spirit of those times and the nature of his images. They end up, instead, talking about his living life beside the ocean, and lend a hand with the renovations to his cabin. Frank admits to an earlier innocence of the Beats which allowed a sense of freedom, but then bluntly states that Kerouac is dead. Memories of other journeys intercede. The travellers encounter a man who has been continuously cycling since 1953 and has spanned the world numerous times with only the material baggage he can carry on his bike. In contrast, the van these friends are driving in is cercarial and subject to frequent breakdowns. Yet the film persists with the question of what it means to travel, to document, and to exist within homosocial structures of power.21 Spontaneity and the poetry of free movement emerges when Hoffman is alone with the camera dancing on rocks at the waterís edge. Here, the images swirl, making tactile the visual plane in a celebration of looking unencumbered by obligations of language and social discourse. Yet the film refuses an easy privileging of this image, while it offers a moment of pleasure and intensity it exists within the borders of the social.
Sweep sifts through the imperialist legacy of travel. It is a journey north to the remote Ontario town of Kapuskasing and then to Fort George, a destination for Robert Flaherty, who was the great-grandfather of Sami vanIngen, Hoffman’s collaborator. As the author of a foundational film in the history of documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), the spectre of Flaherty is also collaborative, like it or not. But where that cinematic father journeyed north with the belief that the cinema can unproblematically capture and thus museumize northern people, Hoffman’s desire is to shake off this legacy of colonialism, as he describes the problematic homosocialcontext of the film: “Two men, on the road AGAIN, sifting through past worlds where there is everywhere, dusty remnants of the ‘great white father’. Colliding head on with the passing present we see him living in us.”22 Past and present, fathers and sons: again, desire exists in-between these limits. This gap is filled with invocations of the everyday, in the gestures of home-movies (another kind of hyphen), drawing us to the brink of representation and then dissolving in an overlap of experience.
The camera gazes at the spaces in-between image and text, photography and memory, body and place. The surface texture of the film, like the land north of Lake Superior, is overdetermined by the discourse of territorialism, the cultural divisions of space and place framed and divided amidst the ruins of history. An irritating buzz overlays much of the soundtrack, signifying the hydro-electric development which has irreparably disrupted life in the north, while at the same time extending a modicum of material benefits. The filmmakers understand themselves as embodying this southern technocracy, and choose to turn the camera onto their own presence and process of looking. Here, they work against the tendency, since the days of Flaherty and in his more recent imitators, to objectify First Nations peoples within an unnameable (and thus exploitable) landscape.
The colonial project requires the landscape to be empty and unnamed in order to legitimize the narrative of discovery, conquest, and exploitation. This counter-narrative displaces that prescriptive and exclusionary project of imagining community in which difference is displaced by the construction of unity under the banner of tradition. In this way, my use of the concept of in-between spaces intersects with Homi Bhabhaís use of that term to describe the intersection of theory and practice. For Bhabha, the hybrid subject position within colonialism, where the act of production is overdetermined by the spectre of the West, at the same time subverts these hegemonic and binary assumptions. As Bhabha states: “Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological manoeuvresthrough which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities. For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of the irredeemably plural modern space.”23
Sweep opens with a silent archival film of white explorers interacting with the indigenous Cree people. They are on the deck of a ship posing for a photo when the white men begin to playfully fight with each other. The image fades to black but this spectre of homosocial aggression continues to hang over the landscape as the camera pans in a sweeping gesture of our technological view. The final passage of the film weaves together images of the landscape with that of a cultivated flower garden, memories of family and childhood experiences, the looming hydro-electric structures, and archival footage of the Cree in front of which stand the filmmakers in silhouette. This intertwining of history, structures of settlement, of looking, and landscape suggest how all of these spaces are produced within a given cultural context and how they overlap and change in the process of engagement.
In-between framed space are the desires and betrayals of the body—caught in the photographís decisive moment and in the relentlessness of time. Destroying Angel (created with Wayne Salazar, 1998) is, on the one hand, a mourning for the death of Hoffman’s life partner and collaborator Marian McMahon, while also a celebration of Wayne’s gay marriage. In an early scene, Wayne and Marian are cooking dinner while Hoffman, from behind the camera, implores: “Come on you guys, act.” The photographer-subject power relationship is inverted as Marian asks Phil to explain how he would “act”. The dialogue merges this gap of presence and absence while revealing the performative nature of representation and confounding the possibility of verisimilitude—that which is true is transformed in this process of seeing, remembering, and making into film. These are intensely personal images, which raise questions over the representation of self. The scene follows Wayne’s introductory narration which reflects on his childhood travels through the American mid-west with his insurance-salesman father, while foregrounding the role of memory in Phil and Marian’s work. This reflection is triggered by the spatial similarity of Phil and Marian’s home to those farms visited by Wayne during childhood. Childhood is embraced as place of wonder, but this process of memory simultaneously brings forth an archeology of tyranny. It is the convergence of space through the figurations of memory that allow the emergence here of both art and mourning, following de Certeau:
“Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position. Its permanent mark is that it is formed (and forms its ‘capital’) by arising from the other (a circumstance) and by losing it (it is no more than a memory). There is a double alteration, both of memory, which works when something affects it, and its object, which is remembered only when it has disappeared. …Far from being the reliquary or trash can of the past, it sustains itself by believing in the existence of possibilities and by vigilantly awaiting them, constantly on the watch for their appearance.”24
What de Certeau asserts for memory follows his understanding of space as a network of transformative possibilities which emerge in movement rather than in the fixedness of property, casting back to the treatment of space and travel throughout Hoffman’s films.
What is necessary for Wayne is a movement of reconciliation which requires confronting and moving away from father. The camera holds on a close-up of his face against a black background as we hear (but do not see) him read a letter to his father in which he expresses his anger for childhood physical and emotional abuse while understanding that in spite of this pain, there remains love between them. The close-up at first appears to be a still image, but the subject blinks a few times and his presence is felt. The purpose of Wayne’s letter is to gain control over his life, to set himself free from the constraints of family by controlling the terms of contact. Here,Wayne tells his father he has AIDS. Earlier shots expose the litany of pills he consumes each day. A later scene, again in the kitchen, has Wayne explaining to Marian the purpose of the various medications as a series of quick cuts of close-ups relate the everyday pleasures of cooking and the sharing of food. The subject of disease is integrated into the everyday, and formally Hoffman is, in his words, “cooking with the camera.”25 These ritual gestures recur throughout Hoffman’s films, as if what can no longer be found in the fixed assertion of language or the disciplinary boundaries of space exists in the margins, in the fluidity of the everyday. The discussion reflects on the need to exercise individual control in confrontation with disease. It is the flipside to the more formal ritual of Wayne’s gay marriage which, while celebrating and affirming love, is also a public demand for social recognition and legitimacy in confrontation with homophobic patriarchy.
The father, in a moving speech during the wedding reception, celebrates Wayne’s marriage while at the same time reasserting his own sense of authority, even if only to himself. Wayne’s father claims that he has learned to be “liberal-minded”, while earlier the film has detailed the tyranny of control hanging over his relationship with Wayne. These gaps are not reconciled in a negation of the past; rather, they acknowledge the co-existence of contradictions which is the context for self-discovery and social transformation The father’s speech and its inclusion in this film is a means of passage out from under the difficult memories of childhood. This movement is, unfortunately, met by the painful news of Marian’s fatal cancer, a tyranny of the body caught like Walter Benjaminís angel of history:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.26
As tragic as the news of Marian’s death is, the film does not sentimentalize or mystify. It is instead put in the context of life as a process which necessarily includes struggle and suffering beyond individual control. The title,Destroying Angel, recalls Theodor Adorno’s interpretation of Benjamin’s angel as caught up in the destructiveness of the present: The Angelus Novus, the angel of the machine…The machine angel’s enigmatic eyes force the onlooker to try to decide whether he is announcing the culmination of disaster or salvation hidden within it. But, as Walter Benjamin, who owned the drawing, said, “he is the angel who does not give, but takes.”27 I have made earlier references to Hoffman’s use of images “caught up in the blinding gust of the present” to evoke what is a central concern of his work so well encapsulated in Benjamin’s angel: the impossibility of totality and reconciliation in any move into the future.
Like the history of territorialism which constrains the potential for freedom in travel, memory harbours suffering, and its presence can unwrap the protective veil of forgetfulness. Destroying Angel concludes with Waynereading from Marian’s journal. In this writing, Marian works through the possibility that her desire to retrieve painful memories has triggered disease: “How can we reclaim memories without them becoming burdensome? I traveled to a forgotten past in order to understand a fragment of the present. What I retrieved was a pent-up history of abuse and violence that I sometimes, usually afterwards, thought best left hidden. What I am beginning to understand is that insight does not come suddenly but rather slowly and repetitively.” As we hear Marian’s thoughts and accept her absence, we see still images of her walking along the edge of a body of water. The photograph grows larger as it moves through a tunnel-like black frame (recalling the background black void of Wayne’s close-up cited earlier) toward the camera. The body and landscape are frozen by technologies of looking, transforming earlier images of the shore and the water in motion, forever shifting in form and direction even if understood only through the fixed perspective of the frame. These questions of the space of nature and the place of mourning are forever contained within the structures of the living.
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.
- Phil Hoffman, interview, “Pictures of Home,” Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom(Toronto: Pages-Gutter Press, 1997), p. 140.
- I am indebted to the published description of the making of this and other of Hoffman’s films in: Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 79.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). The concept of ‘assemblage’ comes from the translator’s introduction, p. xv, while Deleuze’srelationship between philosophy and cinema is best articulated in his conclusion, p. 280.
- Gilles Deleuzeand Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 370.
- Deleuze, Cinema 2,p. 187.
- BlaineAllan, “Thought-Riddled Nature,” Program Notes: New Works Showcase, Part III (Kingston, Ontario: Princess Court Cinema, February-March 1990).
- Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
- Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn(New York: SchockenBooks, 1968), pp. 256-257.
- Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 142. The comment refers to the decision not to photograph the body of a dead boy encountered during the filming in Mexicoof Somewhere BetweenJalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) and prefigures the need to reconcile the tragedy of loss which underpins Destroying Angel (1998).
- Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 54.
- R. Bruce Elder, “Image: Representation and Object—ThePhotographic Image in Canadian Avant-GardeFilm,” in Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada, ed. Seth Feldman (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984), p. 253.
- Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 179.
- “An Interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations,” Cantrill’sFilmnotes59-60 (September 1989), p. 41.
- The film is from the Dent Harrison Collection of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. See Hoffman’s description in Pleasure Dome, p. 146.
- Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
- Deleuze, Cinema1, p. 23.
- Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 141.
- The place of desire in the relationship between homosociality, homosexuality, and homophobia is explored in Eve KosofskySedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male HomosocialDesire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
- Phil Hoffman, Sweep catalogue description, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, <http://www.cfmdc.org>.
- HomiK. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 149.
- de Certeau, Everyday Life, p. 86.
- Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
- Benjamin, “Theses”, p. 257.
- TheodorAdorno, in Ernst Bloch et. al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor (London: NLB, 1977), p. 194.
Titles and Intertitles
:30 Part 1: A Measured Dance
17:30 Prologue to Part 2
17:40 Member Amateur Cinema League (over World Globe)
18:00 One evening while searching for news of the proposed Canadian voyage of the R-100, I fell asleep and dreamed…
18:13 My dream announced a radio message from my twin brother, who is now the Chief Movie Photographer of the R-100 – I am the assistant. My duties are to shoot the scene from the ground while my twin shoots the views on and from the ship. When all is finished, our shots are woven together in the production
18:51 THE HIGHWAY OF TOMORROW
HOW ONE MAKES TWO
18:55 R 100 leaving for Canada
19:17 Heading for the Atlantic
19:20 Sunrise in mid-ocean
19:26 Sunset of Cape Race
19:37 The scenic route of tomorrow
18:50 R 100 encounters a terrific storm between Three Rivers and Montreal
20:00 Along the 1000 Islands section of the St Lawrence
20:05 The R 100 arrives
20:15 Safe at last
20:20 Canadian Officials greet Officials and Crew
20:35 Call from the ship. More Pictures. More Pictures!
20:40 We obey orders and make more pictures of the ship at the mooring mast.
21:00 Twin brother comes to see me and finds me still dreaming.
21:05 I show my twin brother a picture of myself editing the story of the R 100 trip.
21:20 I show twin my projector
21:30 I must take a note of that
21:45 Will it go backwards?
22:00 Have you people seen all I have seen in my dreams?
22:55 Part 2: Veiled Flight
by Steve Reinke
I know it’s a hollow rhetorical ploy, a cliché even, an excuse for a certain kind of sloppiness, dispreparedness, but I mean it sincerely: I have given up on the essay I meant to write. Instead I submit these pathetic notes in the form of a letter asking for forgiveness. By now I should be used to my failure as a critic. I continually back away from planned essays, taking refuge in the literary: the aphorism, the satiric manifesto, the autobiographical anecdote. But this retreat is more disappointing than most. When I watched Kitchener-Berlin again (I hadn’t seen it in many years) I was struck by its rightness, its perfection. It seemed to me exemplary. Trebly exemplary: to (or as) the work of Hoffman, to Canadian cinema, and to experimental film. The film surely merits close textual analyses from a variety of approaches. Moreover, it seemed to me, however paradoxically, that these analyses would constitute a more general discussion of experimental film as an endeavor.
Sure, art is long and life is short, but I am not troubled by this condition. What bothers me is that art is complex and I am simple, though conflicted: stupid. Art makes retards of us all. Writing about it is a clumsy thing, doomed to always miss what is most significant and instead gloss the petty. Criticism becomes an act of contrition, an extended apology. I am sorry, and sorry that this is the case.
Film Contra Video
Experimental video is centered around the voice: an individual talking, rhetorically deploying a particular subjectivity in relation to a certain construction of consciousness. Video is willfully interior: its relation to the world is never direct, but processed through a particular subjectivity. It is doubly mediated, there is no direct perception, no immediate apprehension of the world. One cannot speak of phenomenology in relation to video without undue strain. Experimental film has a completely different relation to voice and the world. There is no such thing as a ‘personal’ film. The voice in film always aspires to be the voice of God. Film is singly mediated, self-consciously authored by authors who retreat behind subjectivity to become merely thinking, perceiving bodies. Interiority is impossible, the world itself impinges too strongly. Experimental video proceeds through a process of talking to one’s self as if one had a self; experimental film through a process of swallowing or incorporating the world into a self which is no longer human, but an author, a hollow signature attempting to structure perception.
This season it’s all about Deleuze’s cinema books. I keep reading these books because his distinction between the time-image and movement-image seems a fertile jumping-off point for a discussion of experimental film. But the only films people seem to discuss are Hitchcock’s (when Zizek via Lacan should have silenced them all, at least long enough so these hacks could take a break in which to think a little bit harder). I asked Laura Marks—one of the few academics who has applied Deleuzian theory to artists’ film and video—why this would be the case. She said because artists such as Hoffman are applying Deleuze’s insights directly (whether or not they have any knowledge of his writing) the need is not so great. This is probably true, but still I am not satisfied, and regret I am not able to supply such an analysis at this time. But here is what I have learned from Deleuze: that there is a kind of vertiginous ecstasy to be always on the verge of coherency, to endlessly defer sense in the hope that what one approaches is something that had been previously unfathomable.
I dreamt last night that I came across a book called Kitchener-Berlin and it was a really big book—lots of words, hardly any pictures, a few diagrams—something between an encyclopedia and an autobiography. It contained all the information about the images in the film, where they came from and what they mean. This dream is partly a response to my hermeneutic anxiety—a feeling that I can’t write about the film without a greater level of mastery, specifically the ability to form a reading which would proceed from an extensive knowledge of what is depicted in individual shots. So while I continue to remain firm that Kitchener-Berlin does not call for that kind of interpretation (that is, will not constructively yield to a directly hermeneutical approach), perhaps its dream book does (and would). Perhaps this dream book is a bible situated between the artist and the film and ready, in its encyclopedic detail, to tell us everything. We would study the book endlessly in order to derive increasingly accurate interpretations of the film. And the film itself—the hermetic, incorruptible art object—could sink into the background, as pure and coyly mysterious as the Mona Lisa.