by Gary Popovich
Originally published in New Directions Catalogue (ed. Richard Kerr)
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Saturday 19 April 1987
Films, whose natures defy easy description or those whose structures clearly break from the traditional narrative formats, would seem to break wide open the possibilities of writing on film. It is in the space between the potential viewer and the film in which writing, especially this writing, posits itself—writing for the viewer so that the viewer, in consequence, accordingly reads the film. When the writing is precisely ad hoc writing, no amount of editorial freedom can liberate the writing from the already imposed strictures that tend to find their purpose outside the film, so that writing is actually produced as a third element coming between the film and the viewer. So that ‘title,’ signifying recognition, does not pass directly to the viewer but is passed and mediated by the writing to the viewer, In effect a trilogy is established, the structure of which is apparent whenever two things come together and something is passed between them. The third element is always present, be it this writing, language in general, or films; and the third element always finds its roots in desire.
It is at the title and the passing of the title that the film itself begins operating. ?O, ZOO! and A Trilogy both veil and reveal; both actively produce some other element which situates itself as an absence in the discourse of the film and is nothing less than the film itself as an expression of desire attempting to satisfy that absence.
“I’ve come up against this problem before,” so goes one of the lines from Philip Hoffman’s ?O, Zoo!. The responsibility of the film maker and what he should and should not film occurs again and again in Hoffman’s work. In an earlier work entitled Somewhere Between, he decided not to film a dead boy lying on a Mexican road, rather to capture evocatively the spirit of the event by footage structured to suggest the absence and the loss and the truth of the event without sensationalizing it. In fact it is by cinematically putting into the foreground that absence, by selecting images or discussing their absence, that the absence becomes a presence, a presence outside of time—fictionalized, represented—re-presented.
In ?O, ZOO! absence, loss, and truth undergo a series of transformations from playful fictions concerning the film maker’s newsreel, cameraman grandfather, and the National Film Board, weaving into the ostensibly truthful documentation of the shooting of a fictional feature film in Holland, to a story on a more serious tone about an elephant—the veracity of the story remaining questionable till the end of the film.
The full title of the film, ?O, ZOO! (The Making of a Fiction Film), derives from the title and making of Peter Greenaway’s Zed and Two Noughts, the fiction film set in Holland. Hoffman’s title acts as a sudden recognition of the British cipher for Z-0-0. As an observer on the set of Greenaway’s film shoot, Hoffman takes the opportunity to make a film which questions documentary truth and raises questions about the place and function of his own footage. He prefaces his film with an introduction outlining Grandfather’s two styles of shooting, fictionalizing and blatantly and humourously revealing his fictions as the film progresses. Camera report sheets are transformed into the film maker’s daily journals, Grandfather’s black-and-white footage transforms into Hoffman’s colour footage of Greenaway’s film shoot. The strands of truth, fiction, the responsibility and integrity of the film maker, all come together in the elephant story. A voice-over describes an elephant’s struggle to get back on its feet while zoo keepers, onlookers, and other elephants try to give the fallen animal encouragement. The film maker ponders whether to process the footage he has shot or to leave it in the freezer. The entire scene is played without images—entirely black.
The film and its internal logic seem to be calling itself into question here. Structured on absence, the film (as desire) moves to fill a hole. Earlier in the film the film maker wonders whether Grandfather had hoped that someone would find his footage one day. The making of Hoffman’s film, his own fiction film, which in its final section propels the film maker through a cinematic ricorso, brings him back home to a home-movie image to grandfather and grandson together, to his innocence, his present wishes, dreams, as if Grandfather had passed title of the footage to him, to his desires sprung loose by the spring of his camera – to a calculated fiction which aspires only to poetic truth.
Although stylistically different, ?O, ZOO! and A Trilogy are remarkably similar both thematically and in the codes they use. In A Trilogy the film’s focus is on the relationship between the film maker and her son, structured both to allow and to refuse easy dissection, whence is generated the main tension of the film.
Breaking down A Trilogy into three separate pieces or even searching for parts of the trilogy as distinct sections is misleading, for trilogistic elements abound in the film (three sets of rolling titles, three seemingly distinct ages at which the young boy is shown, the three days marked out by CBC’s “World Report”, the three distinctly separate letters read by the mother, et al.). Furthermore, the film has three major distinct sections which weave in and out of each other throughout the film: (I) a woman diving into a swimming pool and a man running down a road; (2) a narrative section in which a husband and wife are having breakfast; (3) a collection of personal images, home-movie footage, and memories, most of which are optically printed and most directly evocative of Sternberg’s emotions visa-vis the themes of the film.
Each of these elements constitutive of the whole is always separate and distinct, yet always resisting separation. As if the active voice of the film maker was everywhere trying to assert its presence amidst the roar of emotion which has already denied the voice these easy delusions …the absences joined together by a fiction situated outside of presence representing loss… two movements—one always moving inward toward some unity of expression, an offering from film maker to viewer; the other a visual and aural representation of the coming apart… the recognition of hole in whole; the parting of mother and son. The opening shots record these very movements. A woman poised at the edge of a swimming pool hesitates to dive into the water. A man runs down a country road, his panting breaths are broken by occasional remarks about water, sinking, love, and giving. A breakfast scene depicts the habitual ritual reducing emotion to empty gesture: a kiss, a spoken good-bye, while “World Report” talks about disaster at sea. And throughout the film a mother and her young son are together or moving apart, at beaches, in or near the water. As images race by and emotion comes to a pitch, the now submerged swimmer from the beginning of the film breaks the surface as the loud cry of a new-born baby and the subsequent cutting of the umbilical cord mark the re-presentation of the first significant separation.
As the boy is always running or moving away from his mother, so in the end does the running man keep running. But the camera no longer stays close to him. It stops to watch the man disappear in the distance, then it returns to the woman poised at the edge of the pool to capture her dive expressing its affinity with her, situating itself in the water with her.
A Trilogy begins unveiling itself at the title so that ‘title’ is passed from the film maker to the viewer and from the film maker to the son by means of the film. The two movements then (moving together and coming apart) both unite and separate film maker and viewer, and mother and son. As the film maker passes the title to the audience she also passes it to her son—title as a form of recognition, title as film—the emotion into which both must plunge.
?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) script
(HI-CONTRAST BLACK & WHITE FILM)
A LION LAYS PEACEFULLY INFRONT OF A ROCKY FORMATION IN A METROPOLITAN ZOO. IT LOOKS ABOUT WITH ITS HEAD HELD HIGH.
The footage was found by my sister in my grandfather’s storage loft. Having been at one time a newsreel cameraman, my grandfather knew to keep the film canister well sealed, and since the loft was relatively cool and dry, there was no noticeable deterioration.
I wonder where he had to go to get this exotic footage.
ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF THE QUEENS VISIT TO CANADA. A GROUP OF PEOPLE STAND BENEATH A BALCONY AND GAZE UPWARDS WAVING.
QUEEN ELIZABETH AND PRINCE PHILLIP STAND ATOP A LARGE BALCONY LOOKING AT THE MASSES THAT HAVE FORMED BELOW. THE PRINCE IS IN A DOUBLE BREASTED SUIT WITH GOLD BUTTONS. THE QUEEN IS WEARING A WHITE GOWN. BOTH ARE WAVING AT THE CROWD.
(AERIAL VIEW) (ELS)
A SEA OF HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ARE GATHERED ON THE STREETS.
THE CROWD STARES UP AT THE ROYAL FAMILY ON THE BALCONY
WHILE THE QUEEN AND THE PRINCE WAVE TO THE CROWD
I recalled seeing my grandfather’s old newsreels but could never connect the pictures he made, to the old man I got to know on our summer fishing trips. There was a marked difference between the repetitive nature of the news film and the footage found in the loft.
AN ELEPHANT STANDS STILL IN A 45-DEGREE ANGLE WITH ITS HEAD FACING TOWARDS THE LEFT OF THE FRAME. IT LOOKS DIRECTLY AT THE CAMERA.
I wonder whether he had hoped that someone would find the film one day.
There was something peculiar about grandfather’s footage: Watch, wait until the flash marking the beginning of the shot and then start counting.
(WHITE FLASH ON SCREEN)
A CAMEL CHEWS IN A PROFILE VIEW. IT FACES THE LEFT SIDE OF THE FRAME.
45 DEGREE ANGLE OF A CAMELS BACK … TWO HUMPS ARE HIGHLIGHTED BY THE SUN.
AN OLD CAR DRIVES ALONG A STREET (RIGHT TO LEFT) THAT IS LINED WITH MANY SPECTATORS.
(WHITE FLASH ON SCREEN)
Most of the shots are exactly 28 seconds in length. I was impressed by the precision and self-control my grandfather expressed in shooting this unusual material, as compared to the erratic camerawork displayed in the newsreels. More clues as to the nature of my grandfather’s discipline were found on a piece of paper secreted in the film can.
A FULL SHOT OF A CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT WITH DETAILS
(WHITE FLASH ON SCREEN)
A TIGER LAYS ON THE GRASS INFRONT OF A SET OF PILLARS THAT LINE THE WALL OF OLD RUINS IN A METROPOLITON ZOO
The footage was found in the winter. That spring, I went to the Netherlands to make a short film around the making of a fiction film. I had met the director of the film at a seminar in my native country in the fall before my grandfather’s footage was found.
A SEAL, WITH HEAD ABOVE WATER, SWIMS IN A REFLECTIVE POND.
(WHITE FLASH ON SCREEN)
WHAT LOOKS LIE A FLOWER, UPON MOVEMENT, SUDDENLY TRANSFORMS INTO THE HEAD OF A PEACOCK. IT LOOKS ABOUT THE AREA.
This seminar, an annual tradition since 1939, is devoted to the documentation and categorisation of all types of wildlife species, which have ever been captured on film.
A TREE ENCOMPASSES THE RIGHT HALF OF THE FRAME WITH IS BILLOWY LIMBS AD LEAVES. THE LEFT OF THE FRAME IS COMPSED OF THE CLEAR BLUE SKY. AN OSTRICH ENTERS FRAME LEFT (SEEN FROM NECK UP) AND LOWERS IT’S HEAD OUT OF FRAME.
(WHITE FLASH ON SCREEN)
AN OSTRICH HEAD LOOKS ABOUT A FORESTED AREA.
The seminar grew out of the same institution for which my grandfather worked as a newsreel cameraman. I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks about the founder of the institution, as he put it “that old battleaxe.”
SHADOW OF A CAMERA MAN IN BRIGHT SUNLIGHT. THE SHADOW OF A MONKEY ENTERS FRAME RIGHT AND WALKS ACROSS THE WALL ONLY TO JUMP DOWN OUT OF THE SHOT.
TWO OSTRICHES STAND IN A GRASSY AREA, APPEAR TO BE KISSING, BUT THEY ARE LIKELY CLEANING EACH OTHERS FEATHERED FACES.
(OLD SOUND RECORDING)
Grandfather: “That old battleaxe, what the hell does he know abut this land anyhow? All he knows is whoring about in cramped up pubs.”
A CIRCULAR, GRASSY, CLEARING IS SURROUNDED BY A SHALLOW POOL OF WATER.
ACROSS THE CLEARING IS A SPRINKLER THAT RAPIDLY SHOOTS BURSTS OF WATER FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, TOWARDS THE CAMERA.
Though the director was from the same country as “the old battleaxe”, I couldn’t see a connection; I couldn’t see why he’d been invited to the seminar. I thought I would try and incorporate this footage with the film I would take on location in Holland. As usual, I would keep a diary of the whole affair.
TELEVISION FOOTAGE OF PEOPLE CARRYING UMBRELLAS GATHER TOGETHER ON A SIDEWALK.
This, the first entry, taken off the television set, describes details surrounding the papal visit to Holland.
THE POPE TALKS INTO A MICROPHONE ON TELEVISION. A JET TAKES OFF DOWN THE RUNWAY.
Day 1 . . .I arrive in Rotterdam at 7:55pm, May 21st . . . a new moon.
A SWAN TAKES OFF FROM A POND.
TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):
A FENCED-IN POND, HAS A SWAN TREADING WATER BEHIND THE BARS.
TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):
(The Making of a Fiction Film)
A SWAN SWIMMING BEHIND BARS IN A POND COMES TOWARDS THE CAMERA AND PEEPS ITS HEAD THROUGH THE BARS. A TRIPLE TAKE OF THIS IS SEEN. THE THIRD TAKE OPTICALLY REVERSES AND THE SWAN PULLS ITS HEAD BACK THOUGH THE BARS.
( MUSIC ENDS)
A STATUE OF JESUS (`THE SACRED HEART’) STANDS IN A PARK ACROSS FROM A SERIES OF TOWNHOUSES THAT ARE THREE STORIES HIGH.
THE STATUE NO LONGER HAS A HEAD, THE HEART IS THE MAIN FOCUS OF THE SHOT.
Day 2 . . . In an Amsterdam square a young boy explained to me that during the Pope’s visit to Holland someone had defaced this statue of Christ,” The Sacred Heart.” When I started to climb over the railing to take a close-up shot for editing purposes, there came a loud rapping sound from the houses, camera left. I had spent a long time setting up the shot and must have attracted a crowd from behind the windows.
CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT WITH CIRCLED TAKES AND DESCRIPTIONS
A BARREN LANDSCAPE OF FARMLAND MEETS A LIGHT BLUE SKY WITH PATCHES OF CLOUDS. THE CAR IS MOVING FROM LEFT TO RIGHT.
Soon after I arrived on the shoot, the film crew went on a two-day break, and so, as there was little activity, I took a short trip to visit some friends in the province of Zeeland.
A CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT DESCRIPTION OUTLINES 5 SCENES WITH SWANS.
A PAIR OF SWANS SWIM IN A POND WITH A SET OF BABIES SURROUNDED BY A GRASSY MEADOW. A WINDMILL AND FARM HOUSE STAND IN THE DISTANCE. THE SKY IS BRIGHT BLUE AND STREAKED WITH STRATUS CLOUDS.
My friends had been watching closely this pair of swans that had come to roost on the bank above a small pond. At night the family of swans would sit on the road, which passed by the pond. I went to the pond at dusk to film the scene described by my friends, but the swans were nowhere to be found. I put my hand on the pavement and found it still warm from the afternoon sun. I walked to the other end of the pond – perhaps they were there. *(1)*
A MAN IS HOLDING AND WINDING A BOLEX CAMERA. THE MAN STANDS NEAR A WATERS EDGE THE RIPPLES MOVE SOFTLY TOWARDS THE SHORE ON WHICH HE STANDS.
DISSOLVE TO: A BUILDING SITS ON TOP OF A TRIANGULAR SHAPED HILL THAT TOWERS
OUT OF A CRATER LINED WITH GREEN TREE TOPS AND BUSHES.
A CAMERA CREW DOLLIES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA.
DISSOLVE TO: A CONSTRUCTION PLATFORM SHOT FROM THE GROUND, TOWERS INTO A DEEP BLUE SKY. ITS SAFETY RAILINGS HOLD A LARGE REFLECTIVE BOARD THAT GLISTENS IN THE SUN.
DISSOLVE TO: THE SAME CONSTRUCTION PLATEFORM NOW CONTAINS A MAN HOLDING THE LARGE REFLECTIVE BOARD. HE MOVES IT AROUND AND IT CREATES LENS FLARE IN THE LENS.
A MAN IN WHITE (D.O.P SACHA VERNY) HOLDS A STILL CAMERA FACING THE CAMERA IN THE CENTRE OF THE FRAME. HE STANDS IN THE GRASSY FIELD THAT LEADS BETWEEN TWO LARGE TREES TO THE TRIANGULAR HILL WITH THE BUILDING ATOP OF IT. HE SEEMS TO CATCH THE LIGHT COMING FROM THE REFLECTOR BOARD.
HE LOWERS THE CAMERA AND TALKS TO SOMEONE OFF SCREEN.
A CAMERA CREW LEAVES THE FRAME (LEFT TO RIGHT). ONE OF THE CREW MEMBERS (IN THE FOREGROUND) WALKS TOWARDS THE BUILDING ONTOP OF THE HILL AND POINTS TOWARDS IT.
THE FRAME BEGINS EMPTY AND THE TWO CREW MEMBERS WALK IN TOWARDS THE RIGHT OF THE FRAME FROM THE LEFT SIDE.
AN OPEN FIELD SQUEEZES BETWEEN TWO LARGE BILLOWY TREES. THE PATH IS BLOCKED BY A FENCE WHICH A CAMERA CREW DOLLIES INFRONT OF (LEFT TO RIGHT).
THE CAMERA CREW DOLLIES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT INFRONT OF THE GRASSY FIELD THAT LEADS BETWEEN TWO LARGE TREES AND TO THE TRIANGULAR HILL WITH THE BUILDING ATOP OF IT.
DISSOLVE TO: THE SAME SHOT SET UP AS ABOVE, ONLY THIS TIME, A LADY WRAPS AN XLR CABLE AND EXITS THE FRAME.
THE DIRECTOR (PETER GREENAWAY) ENTERS THE FRAME TO MEET THE CREW, WHEN HE IS A THE CENTER OF THE FRAME, THE SHOT FREEZES.
Day 5. The director told me that the production was a slow massive wheel. All you could do was get on it, and let the momentum of the wheel carry you where it would.
DISSOLVE TO: A MAN STANDS INFRONT OF AN UNDERGROUND AQUARIUM. DARKNESS SURROUNDS HIM EXCEPT FOR THE LIGHT COMING FROM THE TANK. HE PEERS INTO THE TANK.
Oliver: where’s pipe? He is supposed to be the keeper of fish.
Boy: Does he keep Red Herrings?
CLOSE UP SHOT OF FISH SWIMMING IN A TANK.
Boy: Do you keep lots of black and white fish?
Oliver: The also have Parrot fish, Rat fish, Elephant fish, and Tiger Sharks , but there are no Swan fish. We have Angel fish.
Boy: Can I have one?
(ENTER MUSIC )
A MAN STANDS IN THE CENTRE OF THE FRAME LOOKING UP AT THE BUILDING ATOP THE TRIANGULAR HILL THAT LIES BEYOND THE TWO TREES ON THE GRASSY PATH.
A CAMERA CREW DOLLIES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT AGAIN, FILMING THE HILL.
A CAMERA CREW DOLLIES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT INFRONT OF GATE BLOCKING THE GRASSY PATH BETWEEN THE TWO LARGE BILLOWY TREES. THE ACTORS (OLIVER AND OSWALD), DRESSED IN WHITE ARE APPROACHNG THE GATE
Oliver: It’s beautiful, Does Zelba know what she’s really got here?
Oswald: Come on Oliver you’ve done enough.
Oliver: This tiger walks ten miles up and down this cage every day.
CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT READING: DAY 7
(SOUND OF TIGER GROWLING. ENTER SOUND OF CHILDREN)
A TIGER BEHIND BARS PACES BACK AND FORTH.
Today the production moved to the zoo for scene 68, in which one of the twins has locked himself in the tiger cage
Dutch Boy: Strange sounds…grrrrr…horrible beasts
TWO TIGERS ARE IN THE CAGE. ONE IS URINATING ON THE CAGE FLOOR, WHILE THE OTHER PACES AROUND THE CAGE. EVENTUALLY THE SECOND TIGER BEGINS TO PACE AS WELL.
Since the enclosure was overcrowded with actors, crew and on-lookers, I went over to the other side where the tiger was waiting patiently for it’s call. Two curious Dutch boys asked me if they could have a look through the viewfinder to see what I was filming. The boys came to the zoo quite often, and they knew all of the most interesting places. They decided it would be best if they became my guides. I agreed.
TWO DUTCH BOYS STAND ON EITHER SIDE OF THE FRAME GAZING INTO THE MUDDY POND. A SWAN SWIMS TOWARDS THEM AND BOTH REACH DOWN TO TOUCH IT.
Dutch Boy: Most of the animals are two, like Noah…you have a woman and a man. When you have a woman and a man you get children…so when you get more beasts you get more people come to look
LS OF TWO BOYS AS THEY LOOK AT THE CAMERA AND GIGGLE. A PAIR OF SWANS GLIDE BY BEHIND THEM.
A CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT LISTS 6 SCENES THAT ARE ALL OVER EXPOSED.
OVEREXPOSED IMAGE OF A STREETSCAPE. AN EASLE-LIKE STRUCTURE ENCOMPASES THE LEFT SIDE OF THE FRAME AND IS PLACED ON A 45 DEGREE ANGLE EXPOSING A SIDE OF THE EASLE THAT IS DECORATED WITH POSTCARD-TYPE IMAGES. PREDOMINANT IN THE FRAME IS VERMEER’S `HEAD OF YOUNG GIRL’. THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FRAME CONTAINS A PAIR OF OVERSIZED WOODEN SHOES NEAR THE EDGE OF A ROAD. TWO CHILDREN BEGIN TO PLAY IN THE SHOES BUT LEAVE WHEN THEIR PARENTS CLIMB INTO THE LARGE SHOES.
A young boy and girl were playing by a large pair of wooden shoes in front of a shop in the Delft Square.
THE MOTHER AND FATHER OF THE CHILDREN STAND IN THE SHOES AND FACE ACROSS THE STREET, PRESUMEDLY, TO HAVE THEIR PICTURES TAKEN BY AN OFF-SCREEN PHOTOGRAPHER. THE MOTHER AND FATHER STEP OUT OF THE SHOES AND WALK AWAY, LEAVING THE CHILDREN TO RETURN TO PLAY IN THEM AGAIN.
They were shooed-away by their parents, presumably, who were having their pictures taken with their feet in these oversized shoes. After the photo was snapped, the kids returned. Do you see the Vermeer painting in the midst of the Delft blue pottery? The painting is called “Head of Young Girl”, and is the only picture on display where the subject is looking back at you.
THE YOUNG BOY AND GIRL CONTINUE TO PLAY IN THE OVERSIZED SHOES. THE BOY STARTS TO TAKE HIS PANTS OFF.
THE FRAME IS EMPTY EXCEPT FOR THE EASLE AND THE SHOES.
(DURING THE PRECEDING, SIMILARILY FRAMED 4 SHOTS, THE EXPOSURE GRADUALLY SHIFTS FROM OVER-EXPOSURE AT THE START, TO NORMAL EXPOSURE BY THE END OF THE SEQUENCE)
LATE IN THE EVENING THE TWINS (OLIVER & OSWALD) STAND AT EITHER SIDE OF THE FRAME AND LOOK TOWARDS THE CAMERA. THEY ARE NEATH A PILLARED ARCHWAY. A CORRIDOR LINED WITH PILLARS GLOWS GOLDEN IN COLOUR FROM THE SETTING SUN.
A PHOTOGRAPHER TAKES A PICTURE.
Oswald: I cannot stand the idea of her walking away.
Oliver: What is the 1st thing that happens?
Oswald: The first thing that happens is the bacterium goes to work in the intestine.
Oliver: What sort of bacteria?
Oswald: Bisocossis Populi. There is supposedly 130 000 Bisocossis in each lick of the human tongue…. 250 000 in a French kiss.
Oliver: Suppose Eve kissed Adam.
CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT LISTING 5 SHOTS ABOUT THE BOY AND GIRL, MAN AND WOMAN AND THE ROTTERDAM PARK.
A BOLEX CAMERA IS WOUND UP AND THE HANDLE LOCKED BACK IN PLACE.
A LARGE WOODEN APPLE SITS IN A PARK, INFRONT OF A MUDDY POND. THERE IS A BRIDGE OFF TO THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FRAME, WHICH HAS A LOT OF PEOPLE CROSSING IT. ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FRAME A COUPLE PLAY FETCH WITH THEIR DOG.
I walked through the park past the large wooden apples. From the other side of the river I could see two lovers taking advantage of the shade of a birch tree. A young boy parked his bike behind the apple and snuck around to see what the couple were doing. A teenage girl, perhaps the boy’s sister, came from the other side of the apple and put her hand on his shoulder – they stepped down to the river for a talk. Meanwhile, ten boys and a German Sheppard had gathered at the far side of the park. The boys were tossing sticks toward the couple so that the dog would disturb them. Soon the boys surrounded the apple and the couple left. Shortly afterwards the young boy and teenage girl left as well. I crossed the river and this is what I filmed after they all left.
A DINING ROOM SITS JUST ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF A PAIR OF OPEN DOORS WITHIN A ROOM. THE DINNING ROOM TABLE SITS IN OPEN SUNLIGHT AND IS PREPARED BY DIFFERENT WAITERS. ANOTHER ROOM SITS DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM THE TABLE, ALSO WITH ITS DOORS OPEN.
A SERIES OF DISSOLVES SHOWS A LADY SITTING DOWN AT THE TABLE AND A GROUP OF WAITERS ENTERING AN EXITING THE ROOM FROM ACROSS FROM THE TABLE TO SERVE HER. AS THE SCENE PROGRESSES, THE ATTIRE OF THE LADY CHANGES UNTIL
SHE IS FINALLY WEARING A RED FEATHERED HAT AND A RED DRESS. AS THE SCENE PROGRESSES VARIOUS PEOPLE (CREW MEMBERS, D.O.P, DIRECTOR) CONFRONT THE LADY AS THEY SET UP THE SHOT. SHE IS LOOKING AWAY FROM THE CAMERA.
The Twins: And the ostrich eats anything at all…and buries it’s head in the sand when it is afraid… and the elephant lives to be 100 and never forgets a face. So, you see, between us, we know everything.
Boy: You don’t know everything.
Oliver: Between us we do.
Boy: Alright then, you see that woman over there? What color knickers is she wearing?
Oliver: Ah. Red ones.
Boy: No s e doesn’t.
Oliver: How do you know?
Boy: I know.
Oswald: Well, Oliver, you could always go over there and find out.
Boy: Go on. Ask her.
Oliver: Excuse me ma’am. Sorry to trouble you. I think we may have met before. Um. May I trouble you in the interest of that child’s education? Could I ask you a few questions?
Woman: If you like.
Oliver: Are those Ostrich feathers?
Woman: Who are you exactly? Do I know you?
THE LADY IN THE RED DRESS LOOKS BACK OVER HER SHOULDER DIRECTLY AT THE CAMERA WHICH HAS UNTIL THIS MOMENT, BEEN VOYEURISTICALLY VIEWING HER FROM BEHIND. AS SHE TURNS TO THE CAMERA, THE LIGHT CATCHES HER EYE.
A CAMERA NEGATIVE REPORT IS TAPED TO A SINGLE PIECE OF LINED PAPER. A PAIR OF HANDS WRITE: “DAY 17”
From a distance I heard the scream of a beast. Moving closer to the source of the sound, I saw that an elephant had fallen down and was struggling to get up. Outside the enclosure, I noticed that a group of people had gathered to watch and inside some elephants and zoo workers had surrounded the fallen animal, trying to give it encouragement as it rocked its huge body in the sand. As I watched I tossed over and over in my mind whether to film the scene or not.
I’ve come across this problem before.
Like the crowd that had gathered, I was feeling helpless; I wanted to assist the beast and filming would make me feel that I was doing something constructive. Maybe the television network would buy the film and show people that tragedy is right at their doorstep.
I took out the tripod, set up the camera and looked through the viewfinder.
The compressed image caused by the telephoto lens intensified the sounds coming from the huge rolling body. I pulled the trigger: listen to the spring slowly unwind, and watch the elephant’s painful rhythm. I wind the camera tight and press the trigger for another burst of 28 seconds. Now the zookeeper is shoving bales of hay under the elephant as the others surround it. This only gets the elephant more aroused. The heat is intense and in its excitement the elephant plunges back into the sand and with one last scream, stretches out its body… and then it stops moving. The attendant says that the elephant has had a heart attack. My throat is parched, and sweat pours off my body; I watch the dust settle. I go looking for a drink, pushing through the crowd, fixed on the image I’d filmed; as if my mind was the film and the permanent trace of the elephant’s death was projected brightly inside. Somehow it’s my responsibility now. I wonder why I took the film. There seems to be no reason to develop the negative; my idea of selling the film to the network now seems just an embarrassing thought, an irresponsible plan.
I decide to put the film in the freezer. I decide not to develop it.
THE TWINS STAND ON A STAGE WHICH IS DRAPED IN FLOWING PLASTIC
WASHED BY COLOURED LIGHTS IN THE NIGHT. THEY PEER AT THE CAMERA.
A CUL-DE-SAC, WITH A MONUMENT AT ITS CENTRE, IS SURROUNDED BY A SERIES OF FLAMINGOES THAT PASS BY THE CAMERA. A GROUP OF PEOPLE SURROUND THE BASE OF THE MONUMENT AND TRY TO CONTAIN THE BIRDS. THE BIRDS RUN AWAY, LIT BY TWO FLOOD LIGHTS ACROSS THE ROAD.
A MAN TRIES TO WRANGLE THE BIRDS BY MAKING A ZIGZAG PATTERN, LEADING THEM TOWARDS THE MONUMENT.
DISSOLVE TO: THREE MEN TRY TO GATHER ALL THE BIRDS INFRONT OF THE MONUMENT. AS THEY STEP BACK, THE BIRDS RUN IN ALL DIRECTIONS.
A SERIES OF DISSOLVES SHOW A FEW CREW MEMBERS/ACTORS AND BIRDS CROSS IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA. THE CREW AND ACTORS ARE LEAVING. THE BIRDS REMAIN, UNABLE TO BE CONTAINED BY THE PEOPLE.
IT’S DAWN. ONE OF THE BIRDS STANDS ABOVE A PAIL AND FEEDS FROM IT, IT’S HEAD BOBBING (IN RHYTHM WITH THE MUSIC).
A MAN WINDS A BOLEX CAMERA.
IT IS DUSK. THE CAMERA LOOKS DOWN ON A PAIR OF SWANS WITH THEIR BABIES, BATHED IN BLUE EVENING LIGHT. THE POND REFLECTS THE COLD BLUE SKY.
Day 3. From the roadway I could see the other end of the pond, and the moon moving arced bodies of the swans, silver silent in soft evening moonlight. I walked cool summer night remembering, my grandfather and his grandson laid quiet in lakecalm, star counting: fishermen; heroes.
Weary walking, I cranked the camera until it locked tight
Tightly, the taunt spring wound tightlytight…. tight…. *(1)*
(DISSOLVE TO) A SMALL BOY AND HIS GRANDFATHER WALK SIDE BY SIDE TOWARDS THE CAMERA. A BLACK HALO SURROUNDS THE EDGES OF THE FRAME.
(HI-CONTRAST BLACK AND WHITE FILM)
ELEPHANT STRUGGLES TO GET UP. ZOO WORKERS PUT BAILS OF HAY UNDER ELEPHANT. ELEPHANT RISES. ZOO WORKERS PAT ELEPHANT ON TRUNK. RESURRECTED ELEPHANT IS GREETED BY ANOTHER ELEPHANT.
*(1)* After Ph left Zeeland and his Dutch friends, Ignace Verlaan told him by letter what became of the family of swans. A gang of boys cornered them, chased them onto the bridge, beat them, leaving them to die on the hot wooden planks. The story sprung a return to `Day 3’, at the conclusion of the film, and the `out-of-order’ telling of the tale. The shot of the evening swans on the pond, seen at the end of the film, was shot, then held out to the light of the full moon, which accounts for the overall blue wash. – Ph
by Tucker Zimmerman
I want to take you into the actual process of working on music for a film. I want to do this with a piece of music that I am not so pleased with. This is intentional. I had a lot of trouble with this film music. The film was made by Philip Hoffman, a Canadian filmmaker. In Canada, Phil met Peter Greenaway who liked his work and invited him to come to Holland to make a documentary on the shooting of his new film which was A Zed and Two Noughts. Phil shot his documentary in the summer of 1985, and at the end of that summer he came to me from London, where he had met a mutual friend who told him of a composer living in Belgium who writes a similar kind of serial music that Greenaway used in his film.
At this point Phil and I didn’t know each other. This was our first meeting. One of the things I sensed about Phil was that for me to write successful music for his film I would have to become his friend. This was not as drastic as it may sound. We did become friends—and not only because of the work we did on the music for this film. However, everything that Phil does is personal. And in many ways, at the start at least, this was a difficult situation to be put in. It is much easier if the relationship between filmmaker and composer is detached. Then it is simply a transaction.
As it turned out, Phil had four days to spend with me. And for the first three days I think I drove him crazy because I refused to talk about music, film music, or even the specific work at hand. So we had conversations about other things. I had him doing other things, such as playing baseball (he is not the first filmmaker I have subjected to my baseball test, nor will he be the last—I can tell a lot about a person once I get him or her out throwing a baseball). Later Phil told me that he had serious doubts about my own sanity, about my capabilities—whether I knew how to write music for films at all.
Finally, on the last day we got down to talking about his film. We went to the RTB in Liege where I had the use of a Steenbeck, and I saw the unedited footage on the small screen. After the screening, I was not sure I could do the job. I must say that when I look at most films the first time, I know what needs to be done and how to do it. With Phil’s film I didn’t know what I was looking at. I’d never seen this kind of work before. It was not just a question of what kind of music I would write, but if I could do it at all. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for this job.
One of the first things we discussed was the music of Michael Nyman, the composer of Greenaway’s film. Phil thought that my music should somehow connect with Nyman’s. He wanted something with a mechanical nature to it. My first reaction was that Phil’s film did not need minimal music, that it was not a ‘minimal’ film, that it needed another kind of music.
Another element that became important was that this was the first time that Phil had worked with a composer. He had used music in some of his previous films—one features a saxophone solo— but it was done without a great deal of preparation. This new film would demand a composed score.
So understandably, Phil was a little nervous about this new adventure. And he reacted by wanting too much control over the music. He had these elaborate charts. Music should be here and music should be there. Which is OK. If a filmmaker says he wants 37 seconds of music at this point here, and another piece of music over here for 13.5 seconds, that’s no problem. But if he gets too specific about how all these various pieces should be related—and not only in musical terms—then the job becomes too restrictive. The composer is shut out of the process and his input is denied. This is a trap that Phil fell into with his unbelievable schemes which I couldn’t decipher. And this is getting back to what we talked about before about trust — learning to trust the composer and letting him get the job done. Phil couldn’t trust me, and as it turned out, he found he couldn’t trust himself either. In any case I agreed to do the music, still unsure I could, thinking maybe that I was jumping off a cliff.
Phil returned to Canada and then began a series of long telephone calls. The plans kept changing and the phone bills kept going up. We exchanged letters with a lot of conflicting decisions. We were wasting time. He told me later that he was confused about the music. He admitted it.
(Later, when I did the music for his next film, he gave me total freedom and the music came out quickly and we were both pleased with the result.)
Anyway—concerning the film we were working on back then—the film presented certain problems to me that I wasn’t sure how to solve. It was supposedly a documentary about the making of a feature length fictional film. It’s called ?O,Zoo!, and subtitled: The Making of a Fiction Film. But what Phil did was a lot more than that. He created a fictional documentary. A documentary is one thing, but a fictional documentary is something else. For example, let’s take the opening sequence. The old footage that his grandfather, who was a newsreel reporter, had shot a long time ago and which Phil discovered in his attic. As you quickly find out, there is no grandfather, there is no attic and there is no old footage. You begin to see that this is all something that Phil has created himself. It is imaginary. Then you start realizing, you say “What’s going on here?” And what is going on is that he’s playing around with the documentary, with its traditions, while making a fiction film.
Now for the music. Phil is saying ‘mechanical’ and I still don’t know what to do. I’m struggling, trying out this and that kind of music and unsure of what I’m doing.
Another problem was that Phil had shot some of the same things Greenaway had shot and would probably use in his film—from a different angle and not all of the time—for as you will see, Phil spent a lot of time with his camera doing other things, which at first sight might appear to be unrelated to the Greenaway film, but which in fact are not. You have the scene with the tigers. What does Phil do? He goes around to the back of the cage where the tigers are waiting and gets into a conversation with two boys. Those scenes Phil shot on set were the same as Greenaway, and to which Nyman would probably write his own music. So the problem here is twofold. First, I don’t know what music Nyman will compose, and second I must compose my own music for a different ‘angle,’ just as Phil’s camera was shooting that scene from a different angle.
Finally Phil and I established the idea that we would start with ‘source’ and move away from that and progressively deeper into the illustrative (or a non-real music). I was talking earlier about sound effects and how music can be mixed with good result with natural sound. So we started with the water sprinklers. Tapping and making a spraying sound. Of course this is not the real sound of water sprinklers. This is the noise generator on my synthesizer making a ‘false’ sound effect. This tapping allowed me to establish the pulse of the first piece and I moved on from there, inwards, into the illustrative. The plan was then to get progressively deeper into the illustrative until you reach the end where the boy is walking with his grandfather, coming home from a fishing trip, and you’re hearing music that is almost straight out of a Hollywood film from the 40s or 50s, if not in colour at least in style and gesture. It has the same nostalgic, or sentimental type of feeling to it, but of course its function here is quite different. Its function is to make you aware that I’m fooling around with these emotions, that the music is almost a parody of itself. So I am playing around with ‘false’ music in the same way that Phil is playing around with a ‘false’ documentary.
So I hope you get the idea. It’s a very complex thing. Let’s look at the film.
by Barbara Sternberg
…speaking to Philip Hoffman about his summer in England ‘apprenticing’ with filmmaker Peter Greenaway (Draughtsman’s Contract, The Falls): Philip was especially interested in Greenaway as someone who has bridged the gap between shorter experimental films and (low-budget) feature-length works accessible to a broader audience. Philip wanted to see how Greenaway operates within the commercial industry, yet maintains his control; how he can make films for the ‘public’ without compromising his conceptual and visual concerns. Philip is an independent filmmaker (On The Pond), The Road Ended at the Beach, Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encaraclon) and a freelance cinematographer. He worked on Kevin Sullivan’s Krieghoff and Megan Carey. And recently on Richard Kerr’s On Land Over Water. His films have been screened at the National Gallery, Ottawa; Zone Cinema, Hamilton; The Funnel, Toronto: Museum Fodor, Amsterdam; London Filmmakers’ Co-op, England. Philip teaches part-time in the Media Arts Department at Sheridan College.
He first met Peter Greenaway at the ’84 Grierson Seminar where the idea arose of going to England to observe Greenaway shooting his newest film Zed and Two Noughts while Hoffman made a short film of his own. Philip speaks highly of the experience – the opportunity to look over the shoulder of cinematographer Sacha Vierny, to follow the filmmaking procedure right through, to see what worked, what didn’t, how adjustments were made, when to let an idea go, and generally how communication was effected. Philip is still glowing from the warmth of his reception. Besides access to the shoot and the use of his editing facilities, “more than just that,” says Phil, “Greenaway appreciated that I am trying to be inventive in film against all odds. He even took prints of my films and showed them around—that kind of cooperation!”
Interest was shown by Kees Kasander of Allart’s Enterprises (the Dutch producer of Greenaway’s film) in Hoffman’s short premiering along with Zed and Two Noughts at the London Film Festival in November. Philip returned to Canada at summer’s end with his film? O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) in rough-cut stage and with this deadline in mind.
Unfortunately, he won’t make the festival. Although the film had been accepted into the N.F.B. PAFFPS programme, Ontario Region, Philip was reminded in September that this is a Low-Priority Programme—the film would he printed when there was time, perhaps three to six months. He was also told that he would have to reapply for completion money and that the programme is ‘on hold’ for now. Philip was disappointed by a system that is supposed to help, but even more by the lack of interest, respect or enthusiasm shown—they didn’t even ask to see the film!
The N.F.B.’s aid to independents IS helpful, but the whens and hows are always uncertain – and that’s less than helpful. Philip has decided to apply to the Arts Councils and hopes to complete the film for the Berlin Festival in February.
(Originally published in Cinema Canada 1985)
*Footnote: When Hoffman tried to use NFB facilities to edit his film, he was told he would have to wait his turn as the editing machine were all in use. Meanwhile, Gary Popovich another PAFFPS recipient, and partner in experimental crimes, invited him into the space he was given. Hoffman was surprised to see many machines on the floor unused, so the film was eventually edited at the NFB, though they do not know that. This was the last film Hoffman made with support of the NFB.
by Michael Zryd
Like all “anti-documentary” films–those which call into question the documentary genre’s easy claims to epistemological certainty–Phil Hoffman’s ?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) must be approached in terms of the particular documentary form it questions and the particular context of its maker and making. In ?O, Zoo! Hoffman plays off the filmic projects of John Grierson and Peter Greenaway to furnish an admirably tentative meditation on two knotted ethical problems of film form. One concerns the way that sound/image constructions attempt to dictate meaning in conventional documentary. The second takes on film’s photographic claims to certainty in one of documentary’s favourite subjects: the representation of death. These intersecting planes of subjectivity and convention, and these ethical meditations, create a turbulence underneath the disarmingly simple and elegant surface of ?O, Zoo!, a turbulence which accounts for the emotional resonance of its ending(s), and for its troubling aftertaste
?O, Zoo! is, in some ways, atypical of Hoffman’s work, being his most directly analytical examination of a set of film conventions. In films like On the Pond (1978) and passing through/torn formations (1987), a much more meditative and lyrical mix of image, sound, and narration offers an intensely personal view of childhood and family. Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) deals with Hoffman’s reaction to an isolated incident in Mexico, the death of a small boy in the street. The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) is a diary-quest following Hoffman and some friends “in search of the Beat generation,” as they trek across Eastern Canada to find Robert Frank. All these films share an explicit personal voice (either in voice-over or written text), a voice by turns matter-of-fact, self-ironic, poeticized (here, often with less certain success), but always direct and Hoffman’s own.
Robert Frank’s influence is central to the development of Hoffman’s sensibility. Aware of the filters the apparatus imposes between film and experience, the filmmaker seeks direct contact with his subjects. With Frank, Hoffman shares a concern for the articulation of the filmmaker’s subjectivity, and for the camera’s power to record and reveal events. Unlike Frank, however, Hoffman’s approach is tentative; as Blaine Allan puts it, Hoffman places himself “on the temporal and spatial edges of an event” (1987:91). In The Road Ended at the Beach, Hoffman ironizes the Frank persona to point, finally, to the folly of attempting to recapture the immediacy of the Beat generation’s attitude to “experience.” When he finally finds Frank in Nova Scotia, Hoffman is told, in a low key (and utter) deflation of his quest, that Kerouac is dead, the Beat generation is over, go home.
If The Road Ended at the Beach can be seen as Hoffman’s attempt to exorcize the ghost of Robert Frank, ?O, Zoo! finds him tackling two more figures of influence: John Grierson and Peter Greenaway. In ?O, Zoo!, they are paired as the Founding Father and the Grand Inquisitor of the institutional documentary. Hoffman links the two unmistakably, though not explicitly, in a passage in the first sequence of the film:
“That spring, I went to the Netherlands to make a short film around the making of a fiction film. I met the director in a seminar in my native country in the fall before my grandfather’s footage was found. This seminar, an annual tradition since 1939, is devoted to the documentation and categorization of all types of wildlife species ever captured on film. The seminar grew out of the same institution that employed my grandfather as a newsreel cameraman. I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks about the founder of the institution, as he put it, “that old battle-axe.”
The “fiction film” is A Zed and Two Noughts (1985); the director, Greenaway. Hoffman and Greenaway met at the 1984 Grierson Documentary Seminar held in Brockville, Ontario. The seminar that year, entitled “Systems in Collapse,” was devoted to the anti-documentary. The Seminar began after Grierson’s death and within the fiction of the first sequence, Hoffman conflates the seminar with the National Film Board (NFB), founded by Grierson in 1939. “That old battle-axe” is an appropriate description of the mythical crusty Scotch Calvinist; to underscore the point, the phrase appears over a close-up of an ostrich’s head. The physical similarity to Grierson is striking.
Grierson hovers as a key figure behind both the Canadian and British documentary traditions, and is thus a point of departure for both Hoffman and Greenaway. His unique legacy as film director and administrator, to the end of an openly propagandistic film product in the service of the state, makes the “Griersonian” mode of documentary a particularly acute model of what Noël Burch calls an “Institutional Mode of Representation” (1979). Certainly, one can identify an NFB house-style with as many stylistics as any Hollywood studio study could muster. Greenaway worked for 8 years in the British equivalent of the NFB, the Office of Information. During that time he produced, as he calls it, “soft-core propaganda” (cited in Della Penna and Shedden, 1987:20) before turning to experimental and narrative fiction modes of filmmaking. Especially in his hyperbolically parodic anti-documentaries, The Falls (1980) and Vertical Features Remake (1979), Greenaway works to great advantage off the solidity and recognizability of the government-issue documentary. Systematic in their astonishing mimicry of form, and profound in the depth of their analysis of the technocratic ideology at the base of Grierson’s form, Greenaway’s films initiate a full-frontal assault on the Griersonian institutional mode.
Hoffman’s confrontation with the Grierson mold and myth and with Greenaway’s analytic project are oblique, even affectionate. ?O, Zoo! adapts the central formal device of Greenaway’s critique–a coherent voice-over ordering disparate images to create a hermetic non-referential fictional universe–to the rhetorical traditions of the narrated personal diary-film of the independent filmmaker. The fiction of the grandfather frames Hoffman’s own penetration of Greenaway’s narrative film production, less to satirize (*1) Greenaway than to harness the skeptical dynamic of Greenaway’s voice-over/image relation. While the extreme artifice characteristic of Greenaway’s later cinema is concentrated into his elaborate visual tableaux, in his earlier films, Greenaway’s artifice is concentrated in the complex counterpoint between his soundtrack (Colin Cantlie’s voiceover narration and Michael Nyman’s music) and “documentary” imagery. Hoffman mobilizes Greenaway’s counterpoint but refuses to capitulate his filmic world entirely to fiction; instead, Hoffman keeps his meditation on events focussed on what he calls “lived experiences”.
In “The Creative Use of Sound” (1933) Grierson outlines his defence of the freedom and power of sound. Clearly inspired by the 1929 “Statement on Sound” co-signed by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov, Grierson insists, like the Soviets, that “the final question is how we are to use sound creatively rather than reproductively” (1966:158). Yet, though he maintains the mobility of the sound montage-piece, Grierson prescribes a limit to the possibilities of asynchronous sound:
“Our rule should be to have the mute strip and the sound complementary to each other, helping each other along. That is what Pudovkin meant when he talks about asynchronous sound.” (1966:159)
By invoking Pudovkin instead of Eisenstein, Grierson demonstrates his preference for linear coherence at the expense of a dialectical approach that would expose contradiction. In this respect, when Grierson calls for art to be a “hammer” (cited in Morris 1987:41), he is far from Eisenstein’s “kino-fist.”
Complementary sound/image relations serve the production of coherent, stable meanings in the text. Later in the essay, when Grierson speaks of the use of “chorus,” he says it must be in the service of unity: “By the chorus, characters are brought together and a single mood permeates a whole location” (1966:160). Interestingly, he notes of the “recitative chorus” that “the very crudest form of this is the commentary you find ordinarily attached to ‘interest’ films” (1966:161). 1 Yet even if Grierson favours, at this early point in the 1930s, a voice-over narration “which adds dramatic or poetic colour to the action” (1966:161), that “colour” must not in any way create conflict. Rather, it must enhance meaning. As he said of the general desired effect of the propaganda film, the voiceover should “inspire confidence” not present “problems” (Morris, 1987:45). Grierson’s dislike of Humphrey Jennings’s WWII films demonstrates how the “creative use of sound” must not be in any way disturbing. Moreover, the overarching dominance of the “recititive chorus” in the Canadian WWII documentaries made under Grierson’s command demonstrates how the route of least resistance to a strong propaganda message is through “authoritative narration” (Elder,1986-87: 157).
The complementary voice-over/image relation is the bedrock of the institutional documentary. The image track is arranged to illustrate the narrator’s descriptions and the indexical power of the [**add: photographic] [**sorry to add a word, but not all images are indexical] image is harnessed to the rhetoric of the soundtrack. This places its referential authority in the service of an authoritative voice-over narrator, usually male, whose own vocal performance is coded by standardized diction, pacing, clarity of tone, and coherence. Greenaway’s mimicry of this convention is superlative. In Vertical Features Remake, Colin Cantlie’s “BBC voice” explains the attempts of the “Institute for Restoration and Reclamation” to reconstruct a film by a “TulseLuper.” As names and places appear on the soundtrack, photographs, drawings, and moving images appear on the image track to illustrate the often convoluted but always self-assured narration. The insistence of the illustration is key to the satire; the film cuts to the same photograph of Tulse Luper no fewer than 23 times.
Hoffman’s clearest appropriation of Greenaway’s method of constructing a fiction in fake documentary form appears in the opening sequence of ?O, Zoo!. Instead of attacking the authority of the institutional narrator (Greenaway’s target), Hoffman undermines a different set of conventions: those surrounding the authority of the filmmaker-narrator of the personal diary film. Interestingly, ?O, Zoo! is the only early film of Hoffman’s where he does not read his own narration. Reminiscent of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971), where Frampton has Michael Snow read the voice-over of his most obviously “autobiographical” film, Hoffman puts himself at one remove from the “revelations” contained in ?O, Zoo!.
Sound-Image Relations and Fake Framing
The film opens in silence on a lion roaring–a joke on the MGM lion announcing the beginning of another, more familiar, kind of fiction film. The image is sepia-toned (as will be all the images of this sequence), connoting age. The silence is broken by the voice of the male narrator:
“The footage was found by my sister in my grandfather’s loft. Having been at one time a newsreel cameraman, grandfather knew to keep the cannister well-sealed, and since the loft was relatively cool and dry, there was no noticeable deterioration.”
The voice is flat and deliberate, not a BBC voice but a voice appropriate to a personal diary film. This explanation of the image’s integrity and lack of deterioration makes reference to the filmmaking process, while bringing the viewer into the confidence of the voiceover. The narrator assumes we know that a cool, dry loft and a well-sealed canister will prevent a film from deteriorating. The immediate wedding of image and voice-over, its personal tone, and the reflexive explanations attempt to pull us into the film, consistently set against the institutional film:
“I recalled seeing my grandfather’s old newsreels … There was a marked difference between the repetitive nature of the news film and the footage found in the loft.”
If Hoffman differentiates the “voice” of the institutional newsreel from that of the personal diarist, he also invokes his own tradition: Canadian experimental filmmaking. One shot of the stock footage Hoffman uses has already been incorporated by experimental filmmaker David Rimmer into his film, Waiting for the Queen (1973). The allusion is, first, proleptic of the levels of intertextuality in the film as Grierson, Greenaway, Vermeer, and a variety of tropes of structural film make “appearances” in ?O, Zoo!. More specifically, it refers to the tradition of Canadian experimental filmmaking that interrogates the photographic image. Rimmer, for example, often uses stock footage to study image degradation through looping, so Hoffman’s term “repetitive” is apt. When Hoffman later implies that the NFB is an organization devoted to the filming of wildlife, he makes allusion both to Greenaway’s obsessive filming of animals (and the setting of A Zed and Two Noughts in a zoo) and to the stereotypical NFB nature documentary. The inversion is here complete: within the fiction, the “personal” images of the grandfather are linked, by subject, to the institution of the NFB. Meanwhile, the stock institutional images of the public event allude to the independent experimental tradition.
Another important arena of cinematic critique in ?O, Zoo! is the film’s use of direct address to set reflexive traps for the spectator. In the next section, the narrator directly addresses the viewer in the imperative:
“There was something peculiar about grandfather’s footage. Watch. Wait for the flash marking the beginning of the shot and then start counting.”
Once again, the direct address underlines the reflexivity of the film by acknowledging our presence as spectators, underscoring its apparent honesty and transparency–even as it more forcefully tells us how to interpret the images (there is something “peculiar” to watch for). But the voice-over tricks us. After the flash, the narrator falls silent for about 20 seconds over a close up of a camel rhythmically chewing. Following the narrator’s orders, we begin to count and fall into sync with the camel’s chewing. But as the shot proceeds, the chewing gets more and more erratic and our counting struggles to keep its own pace. Finally, the voice-over returns to rescue the viewer and explain the “peculiarity”:
“Most of the shots are exactly 28 seconds in length.”
Instructed to count, we are defeated by the rhythm of the image. The narrator’s knowledge further points to our failure:
“I was impressed with both the precision and self-control my grandfather expressed in shooting this unusual material as compared with the erratic camera work displayed in the newsreels.”
“Precision and self-control” are qualities of the text and its “maker,” but not of the viewer. Moreover, the “self-control” is an arbitrary limit set by the apparatus; Hoffman’s camera is a spring-wound Bolex, whose full shot length is 28 seconds at 24 fps.
In addition to direct address, ?O, Zoo!’s voiceover plays with codes of documentary evidence, specifically with one of the most banal elements of the cameraperson’s trade: camera logs. ?O, Zoo! takes this elementary “document” and uses it to critique Grierson’s “technocratic” logic of classification. The narrator suggests:
“More clues as to the nature of my grandfather’s discipline were found on a slip of paper secreted in the film canisters.”
After the shots of the camel, the film cuts to a close up of a piece of paper titled “Camera Negative Report Card,” dated 6/6/45, with neat, legible printing listing six shots, all under the heading “Day 17”: “Lion”; “Elephant slo-mo”; “Fallen Elephant tries to get up”; “Elephant gets up”; “Camel Chewing”; “Insert Humps.” Here is another piece of the film apparatus exposed – and if we read quickly enough, we can see that shot list supports what we’ve been seeing. But questions arise: if this is a slip of paper the contemporary narrator has found, why would it be filmed with the same sepia tone as the grandfather’s footage? The characteristics of different documents (paper and film) begin to collapse into one another.
Later in the film, we see that the contemporary filmmaker also uses these cards to chart the progress of his Holland diary, following in the family line, it seems. But here, too, the very neatness of the “documents” indicates that they are fictional constructions, not a log representing the process of filmmaking but a later construction caught in the false hermetic package of the fiction. All the shots listed on the grandfather’s cards appear in ?O, Zoo! (unless the film has a 1:1 shooting ratio, the report sheets must be reconstructions); both the grandfather’s and the filmmaker’s cards list “S. Mangor” as cameraman (explicable by continuity of family name, but improbable). Finally, later in the diary, we see the right hand part of the grandfather’s card from the first sequence, now dated 6/6/85, as a hand tapes a second card to it and writes “Day 17.” This notation completes, in a sense, the missing left side of the grandfather’s card (also Day 17). It would seem that even off-screen space can be recaptured by the hermetic bounds of the fiction film frame.
Next, the long passage explaining the “making of a short film around the making of a fiction film” establishes ?O, Zoo!’s link to Greenaway and Grierson:
“The footage was found in the winter. That spring, I went to the Netherlands to make a short film around the making of a fiction film. I met the director in a seminar in my native country in the fall before my grandfather’s footage was found. This seminar, an annual tradition since 1939, is devoted to the documentation and categorization of all types of wildlife species ever captured on film. The seminar grew out of the same institution that employed my grandfather as a newsreel cameraman. I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks about the founder of the institution, as he put it, “that old battle-axe.”
This passage appears over shots of animals (a seal, peacocks, an ostrich); images which reinforce the grand father’s employment with the institution dedicated to wildlife photography. The phrase, “documentation and categorization”, alludes to Greenaway’s obsession with classification and naming – that technocratic rage to order laid bare in Greenaway’s films by the hyperbolic application of that rage. Though the allusion is no more than a nod to Greenaway’s project, in recognizing their shared heritage in Grierson, Hoffman acknowledges the ideological implications underlying how documentary convention orders experience – and the subversive nature of any questioning of that ordering.
After the close up of the ostrich and the narrator’s statement, “I can still hear my grandfather’s remarks…”, we cut to a slow motion shot of what seems to be the shadow of two gorillas. The gorilla is a Darwinian “founding father”–and it turns out that the shadows of what appear to be two gorillas are in fact those of a single gorilla and the filmmaker. Once again, in the spirit of Greenaway, Hoffman slyly undercuts claims to cultural authority. On the soundtrack, we hear a mechanical whirring, then an old man’s voice fighting through static and muted sound:
“That old battle-axe! What the hell does he know about this country anyway? All he knows about [sound unclear here] is whoring and crammed up pubs!”
The narrator presents another piece of documentation, apparently a tape recording of the grandfather’s voice (the voice explains the whirring as a tape recorder rewind), literalizing the idiom, “I can still hear him say….” What the narrator hears in his mind can be conjured for the film. The question, “What does he know about this land anyhow?” refers to Grierson’s status as a foreigner to Canada and underlines one of the central ironies of the NFB: an institution designed “to show Canada to Canadians” is founded by a Scotsman. The last line of the “recording” is ambiguous, a false “rough edge” attesting to its status as “document”.
The tape recording introduces a new element into the soundtrack besides the narrator’s voice. The next image, of a gorilla cage next to a spinning water sprinkler, contains a “sync” sound effect of a jet water sprinkler playing underneath the narration:
“Though the director was from the same country as the old battle-axe, I couldn’t see a connection. I couldn’t see why he’d been invited to the seminar. Yet there seemed to be similarities between my grandfather’s footage and the films the director presented at the seminar. I thought I would try to incorporate my grandfather’s footage with the film I would take on location in Holland. As usual, I would keep a diary of the whole affair. [music begins.]”
The “sync” water sprinkler sound (an allusion to another of Greenaway’s obsessions, water), and the introduction of music, fleshes out the possible range of sound at the narrator’s disposal. The gradual and very subtle introduction of each sound option in O, Zoo! parallels the increasingly arbitrary rhetorical power of the narrator and the complexity of the fiction he weaves. The “authenticity” of the “personal” voice-over is first established, and then used as a springboard for the introduction of more and more conventional rhetorical effects. All of this precedes the announcement of the film’s overarching form: “As usual, I would keep a diary of the whole affair”.
Faking Death: the Ethics of Representation, Fiction, and Actuality
This short film around a fiction film has its own enigmas to be worked out in its “narrative” progression. In the passage above, the narrator puzzles over the connections between Greenaway and Grierson, between Greenaway and the Documentary seminar. On one ingenuous level, of course, the puzzlement is justified; Greenaway’s films are, indeed, fictions, and further, are absolutely antipathetic to “Griersonian” documentaries. In specific reference to the 1984 seminar, the “puzzlement” registered by the narrator translated to outrage on the part of many conference participants. The challenge that the anti-documentaries shown at the seminar presented to seminar participants, for whom the Grierson Documentary Seminar was typically a “tribute” to Grierson’sofficial legacy, led to violent debates and charges that films like Greenaway’s The Falls were senseless hoaxes. In ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman seems to be quietly satirizing this debate.
Working out the relations between Greenaway and Grierson is one problem the narrator will tackle. The second is the resemblance he notes between his “grandfather’s footage” and Greenaway’s films. On the level of the fiction, the narrator says he will incorporate his grandfather’s footage into the film he is “about to make” in Holland – the sequence we have worked through is, in a sense, a different film than the ?O, Zoo! to come. On the most banal level, the narrator “discovers” that “the director” shares his grandfather’s fascination with animals. More substantively, Hoffman seems to be announcing that his own exploration of the relations between Grierson and Greenaway will be effected precisely by taking a page from Greenaway’s book. Here, the narrator introduces a hermetic fiction by pretending that his grandfather’s footage is not his own.
These two levels interpenetrate to present two problems: one to the viewer, the problem of reading ?O, Zoo! between the levels of fiction and actuality, between the image and the voice-over. The second problem is Hoffman’s. When he says, “as usual” he would keep a diary of the whole affair, Hoffman is situating the film within his own practice and his own preoccupations – not Greenaway’s assured multiplication and excavation of fictions but his own tentative probings of the problems of representation. The “resolution” of these problems of reading and making appears as the film finally incorporates the two missing shots from the Day 1× shot card: “Elephant tries to get up,” “Elephant gets up.” Just after the diary section shows us the right half of the grandfather’s shot report, the narrator tells a two-minute long story over a black screen, about his witnessing and filming an elephant having a heart attack at the Rotterdam zoo. The passage is descriptive and emotional, centred around the filmmaker’s crisis of conscience in deciding to film the death, and the responsibility and guilt that accompanies it. In the end, he decides “to put the film in the freezer. I decide not to develop it.” At the end of the film, after the credits (in a sense, after the end of the film), two extra shots, both 28 seconds long, sepia-toned, and silent, show an elephant struggling to get up and then an elephant getting up.
The effect of this enclosure of a frame around ?O, Zoo! is double-edged. In one way, these last two shots expose the artifice of the voice-over. The events of the first shot (the elephant rocking back and forth, the attendants shoving bales of hay under the elephant) match the earlier voice-over, but in the second shot, the elephant gets up. The narrator lies twice. First, he developed the footage, and second, the events of the story are contradicted by the image. This decisive break in the fiction takes place by a radical separation of voice-over and image: the story is told over a black screen, the final images are silent. With this separation, the viewer can return to the film to reconstruct, in a sense, its non-meaning, and to question and revise the “authenticity” of the versions of events the film presents.
Working through these possibilities, of course, suggests that a thoroughgoing skepticism is called for in the viewer’s relation to the film, and especially to the narrator’s voice-over. For example, do the final images tell the whole story? Is there more elephant footage than is shown or listed? Is the order of the last two images correct? However, thoroughgoing skepticism is not, it seems to me, the final affect of ?O, Zoo!. It is important to note here a crucial difference between Greenaway and Hoffman: Greenaway’s oeuvre is obsessively interwoven with recurring images, themes, and characters, but his fictions are rigorously hermetic and unconcerned with the codes of realism. In ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman exposes the hoax; moreover, the emotional resonance of the elephant’s struggle is highly charged and excruciating to watch. One suspects that if the story of the elephant’s death is a fiction, it is still a fiction filtered through Hoffman’s sense of the crisis of representation.
The key to Hoffman’s sense of his own intertextuality is the line in the voice-over, “I’ve come across this problem before.” This statement refers to Hoffman’s film made a year earlier, Somewhere Between…. , where Hoffman, travelling by bus in Mexico, comes across a crowd of people around a dead Mexican boy just run over in the road. Hoffman puts away his camera, and cannot film the scene. Somewhere Between… is structured around the absence of the visual representation of the event, which is instead described in written text ‘voice-over.’ Yet, while making ?O, Zoo!, Hoffman did begin to shoot the elephant’s struggle, not knowing if the animal would live or die. The absence structuring Somewhere Between… becomes a kind of contingent presence in ?O, Zoo! Just as Hoffman gathers and organizes the images of Somewhere Between… to hint at, refract, and rehearse the moment of hesitation at the heart of the film, so in ?O, Zoo!, he organizes the film around the potential consequences of his decision to film the event – a kind of rehearsal of the variety of responses he felt as he filmed. The expressive urge behind Hoffman’s work, always constrained by its tentative, questioning attention to and awareness of the process of filming, distills itself into the structure his films adopt: radically extended meditations on a single, almost ecstatic moment.
When Hoffman showed Somewhere Between… at the 1984 Grierson Seminar, he was taken to task by a veteran war corespondent, Don North, who wanted to see the scene of the Mexican boy’s death. Shelley Stamp, reporting on the conference, writes, “[North] felt that the film would have been stronger with the addition of the death. What North missed, I think, was the very structure this absence provided, and Hoffman’s implied critique of North’s type of filmmaking”. The nature of Hoffman’s critique is clearer in ?O, Zoo! In the voice-over story, the narrator rationalizes his decision to film the scene with the lame excuse: “Maybe the television networks would buy the film and tell people the tragedies in their neighborhood”. After the elephant “dies”, he admits, “My idea of selling the film to the network now just seems an embarrassing thought, an irresponsible plan”.
The “social utility” arguments of sensationalist news and documentary makers and institutions always carry a hint of the National Enquirer (“because people want to know”) – an epistephilia which borders on what Tom Gunning has called the spectatorial mode of curiositas (1989:38). But it is important not to see Hoffman’s tentative meditations on the problematic of representation as party to the opposing camp which censors representation under the flag of “responsibility to subject” – the simplistic and squeamish argument that filming “takes advantage” of the subject. Rather, Hoffman understands film’s power to mediate between the consciousness of the filmmaker and the viewer; his hesitations around the problem of representation reflect a personal ambivalence about the necessary link between his vision and the viewer’s. In an “artist’s statement” for the Art Gallery of Ontario, Hoffman writes,
“By means of the personal content of my films I seek to uncover subjective aspects of the way events were recorded. Focusing on the way that I, as a filmmaker, can and do influence both form and content allows room for the viewer to reflect upon ways in which meaning is constructed in film. Using the processes of reflection and revision, I seek to examine and express how we bring meaning to past and present lived experiences.”
If this statement names the terms of Hoffman’s meditation on representation it does not reflect the intensity of the tension felt between the extraordinary control a filmmaker has over images and the guilt they arouse, nor the sense of danger around Hoffman’s approach of the particular “lived experience” at the core of these films, namely, bearing witness to death.
In the voice-over of the elephant story, Hoffman includes a sentence that clarifies this intensity of responsibility and danger:
“concentrating on the image I had filmed as if my mind was the film and the permanent trace of the elephant’s death was projected brightly inside. Somehow it’s my responsibility now.”
Hoffman makes explicit that central insight and concern of radical independent film practice and theory: film’s status as a radical metaphor for consciousness and its relation to the world. The capacity of film to mediate the relation between consciousness (“as if my mind was the film”), and events in the world, centres around its indexical nature (“permanent trace”). This mediation with carries the potential to represent death and suggests a radically powerful level of epistemological inquiry carrying both an intimation of the ecstatic – outside space and time – and what Jean Epstein has called “a warning of something monstrous” at the heart of cinema (1977:21). The “responsibility” Hoffman feels around this encounter with death is keyed by the phrase “projected”. For if film is a radical metaphor for consciousness, we must understand the double-hinged nature of that metaphor as it swings between filmmaker and spectator. Hoffman’s hesitations regarding filming, or developing, or showing his experience of death revolves around a terror of the urgent but reckless energy that representation burns into the filmmaker and the viewer.
If the filming of a moment of death is the central expressive theme of Hoffman’s film, its representation and deferral is never divorced from his recognition that the weight of film history and convention always interposes itself and structures the spectator’s access to the image. The engagement of film history in ?O, Zoo!, especially with the Griersonian documentary tradition with its central claim to absolute truth, underlines the epistemological stakes behind Hoffman’s questioning. Hoffman wants to bring the conventions and history of the construction of certainty to crisis, to clear a space for the spectator to approach, with Hoffman, the intensity of fascination and doubt inscribed in that image which appears literally as supplement, as coda, to the text of the film. The point is not to escape mediation – this is not an Edenic pure image. Nor is it to restore certainty. Rather, Hoffman clears a space for consciousness to reengage the world in “lived experience” via representation.
Allan, Blaine. “It’s Not Finished Yet (Some Notes on Toronto Filmmaking).” Toronto: A Play of History (exhibition catalogue). Toronto: Power Plant, 1987. 83-92.
[Burch, Noël. “Film’s Institutional Mode of Representation and the Soviet Response.” October 11 (Winter 1979): 77-96.]
Della Penna, Paul, and Jim Shedden. ” The Falls .” Cineaction! 9 (July 1987): 20-4.
Elder, Kathryn. “The Legacy of John Grierson.” Journal of Canadian Studies 21.4 (Winter 1986-87): 152-61.
Epstein, Jean. “The Universe Head Over Heels.” Trans. Stuart Liebman. October 3 (Spring 1977): 21-25.
Grierson, John. “The Creative Use of Sound.” Grierson on Documentary. Ed. Forsyth Hardy. London: Faber, 1966. 157-63.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Art & Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-45.
Hoffman, Phil. “Artists and their Work: Phil Hoffman.” Pamphlet. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1985.
Morris, Peter. “Rethinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson.” Dialogue: Canadian and Quebec Cinema. Eds. Pierre Verroneau, Michael Dorland, and Seth Feldman. Montreal: Mediatexte/Cinematheque Quebeçoise, 1987. 21-56.
Stamp, Shelley. Program Notes for Somewhere Between… . pamphlet. Toronto: Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 1984.
Winston, Brian. Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited. London: BFI, 1995.
* “In one delicious sequence, Hoffman ironizes Greenaway’s move to big budget feature filmmaking. While Greenaway’s crew makes futile attempts to corral a flock of flamingos, Hoffman simply sets up a feed bucket in front of his Bolex. A flamingo approaches and he gets the shot; personal control of the apparatus has its rewards.”
** “My thanks to Karyn Sandlos for her excellent editorial work on this essay
28 St Peter’s Grove
January 24th 1984
Arts Awards Service
Canada Council, Ottawa
Dear Ms Belanger,
I met Phil Hoffman at the 1984 Grierson Seminar. His films were a breath of fresh air amidst so much conventional material. His films blithely side-stepped the orthodoxies so taken for granted by those who believe documentary cinema is an educational rostrum, is about questions of balance, is essentially a dissertation on something described as ‘truth.’ Meeting him in the context of his films backed up my impressions of his aims and abilities. His work is an encouragement to those who want to use autobiography as subject matter, personal vision as a trademark, and show how small resources can be a positive virtue.
It was Phil’s suggestion in London several months later that he would like to be some sort of witness to the feature production of the film Zed and Two Noughts in Rotterdam in the Spring of this year—which I am certainly agreeable to—though I will not hide the fact that I believe, as a filmmaker with a personal vision, he is well past the apprenticeship stage. What he needs now is opportunities, encouragement and experience. Since his method is to work with a camera as a constant companion, I would wish he could be encouraged to make a modest film whilst he is in Rotterdam and London, certainly to be encouraged to shoot some two or three thousand feet of 16mm. The desirability of his presenting a script before hand, as far as I can see, is not necessary, considering his work method. In fact, I think it ought to be a condition of his association with the Zed and Two Noughts project that he shoot on his own on any subject whatsoever.
Most of the relevant detail of the production of Zed and Two Noughts Phil has already mentioned. It is perhaps not so strange a co-production, as seen from a British point of view, but nonetheless will present a nicely complex mixture of finance, production, cast and crew that aptly mirrors the complexity of the film’s structure and content—the ambivalent diversity of species and purpose—of beasts and men—both sides of the cages in a zoo. Phil has volunteered not just to stand by and observe but to offer practical help which will always be useful on such a modestly budgeted, ambitious film.
If he (and you) believe that he (and you) can profit by his experience with the production, then I am certainly happy to invite him. If there is anything else you would like to know, I am sure I can help, though I would be obliged, as I am sure you would understand, to keep bureaucracy to a minimum. The production of a feature film is very time-consuming and demanding.
Here’s hoping that you can agree to Phil’s participation.