Category Archives: Films

Mike Hoolboom reviews Phil Hoffman’s Aged (2014)

“Who has not marveled at the triumph of slow motion? At the end of every sporting event the decisive moments of the past hours float past in a dreamy montage, everything slowed to a crawl, as if it had occurred days, even years ago, part of a past that seems already out of reach, filled with bygone charms. The pages of Vimeo and YouTube have delivered us to a global tidal wave of slow motion magics, where heroines of time are caught in the full thrall of their secret erotic life, their faces filled with hand grenade smiles and arms stretch beyond the horizon with an inflated heroism. In his too familiar essay, Walter Benjamin wrote about slow motion as a way to defeat capitalism. He imagined that hidden within our everyday gestures were a cornucopia of unseen resistances, that our bodies performed a micro-politics of nay saying that the camera would at last reveal. But the digital revolution appears to have unveiled these once hidden intervals as another area of over exposure, bent beneath the first law of digital culture: that everything should be visible, bright, clear, tagged, identifiable. The surveillance state insists: there is no outside.”

Read the full article here.

link to film and reviews

“Anamnesis by Attrition: Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down” by Tom Kohut

*Featured Picture: Mike Hoolboom in All Fall Down (2009)

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

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

Read original article

Michael Sicinski on `All Fall Down’  here

Interview – Racing Home (by Myriam Rafla 2015)

Check out this interview about Racing Home, a project using Korsakow software and unfinished footage from Marian McMahon, produced through ARC (Adventures in Research-Creation) at Concordia University.

“Experimental filmmaker Phil Hoffman revisits the themes of loss, memory and identity in Racing Home, a film originally shot on 8mm and 16mm film in the early 1990’s by his partner Marian McMahon, who succumbed to cancer in 1996. After several iterations of the film, Hoffman was finally able to ‘complete’ it using the Korsakow system. The result is a nonlinear, poetic reflection on Marian’s original themes of identity through his own lens and personal sense of loss and memory of Marian. (Scholar and Korsakow filmmaker Monika Kin Gagnon coined the term ‘posthumous cinema’* to describe this approach to filmmaking.)”

See the full article here.

McMahon website here

Circuitous Quests: Passing Through Philip Hoffman’s Family Cycle

by Peter Harcourt

I entertain the thesis that “avant-garde” in Canada is
an instance of misprision and that the notion of
experimental documentary may prove more
productive in a Canadian context.

— Michael Dorland[i]

There is a moment in Philip Hoffman’s passing through/torn formations when we see a young boy entering a culvert. At a later moment, we see him coming out again.

Who is this character? What is he looking for? How does he relate to the young girl we see at other moments in the film, sometimes in a field with cows?

As the film evolves, we might be able to infer that the girl is Andrea, a niece of the filmmaker, and that she is standing in for Sue, the filmmaker’s mother — for the re-enactment of a story concerning Sue’s childhood in Czechoslovakia, one day looking for some cows. But who is the boy?

In passing through/torn formations, although most of the references are specific, some seem to float. Cumulatively, we get a feeling of people looking, passing through fields of grass or along endless stone fences, as if seeking something no longer there.

Passing through is the most probing film of Hoffman’s Family Cycle. It is the most intricately concerned with a sense of quest. As a Canadian of European extraction, Hoffman is trying to understand the world in which he lives.


Philip Hoffman belongs to the third generation of Canadian experimental filmmakers. He is part of what is now referred to as the Escarpment School. As Mike Hoolboom has explained:

The Escarpment School is a loosely knit group of filmmakers that includes the likes of Rick Hancox, Carl Brown, Gary Popovich, Marian McMahon, Steve Sangedolce, Philip Hoffman and Richard Kerr. Born and raised along the craggy slopes of the Canadian Shield, their work typically conjoins memory and landscape in a home movie/documentary-based production that is at once personal, poetic and reflexive.[ii]

The notion of home movie is important. Like his friend, Richard Kerr, Hoffman often employs the diary as impetus for more extended inquiries.

As much a photograph album as a diary, On the Pond (1978) was an auspicious beginning. Already, Hoffman’s family is everywhere; already, he is concerned with the past; and already Hoffman combines family photographs with dramatic re-enactments, this time using a cousin, Bradley Noel, as stand-in for himself when a boy.

The structure of the film is simple, the effect immediate. While photographs fill the screen, we hear the ooing and awing of Phil’s family remembering past times. There are shots of Phil’s cousins and sisters, one of whom, Franny, speaks the desire of the film. “I wanna go back,” she exclaims as we see a photograph of two girls pirouetting on the ice beside Phil with a hockey stick. The wish to go back provides the thrust for all these films, as if by examining where he has been Hoffman might better understand who he has become.

Already in this student film, Hoffman, the filmmaker, senses the limitations of Phil, the boy. An aspiring jock performing push-ups on the ice, going fishing, playing hockey, even if it is just passing the puck around with Princess, the family dog: already while still a lad, Hoffman recognizes that the projector of these values, the sound-track of this life, are exhausted. When a young Phil goes out onto the pond (actually Lake McCullough) to push the puck around with Princess and a friend as if for one last time, the projector and record-player are left flapping away in his basement room. The story that they have registered has come to an end.

If the life explored in On the Pond is over by the time filmmaking began, the same is true of The Road Ended at the Beach(1983). Utilizing some “road journals” that he had shot while still at Sheridan College,[iii] the film achieves a complex structure for what seems a simple film.

The older footage, shot both on Super 8 and on 16mm colour reversal, refers to previous trips, then going west. This time, however, once again with his friend Jim McMurry and now with Richard Kerr, they are moving east — on their way to Newfoundland. A tension is established between the journeys west — the footage of the past — and the journey east — the footage of the present. The point-of-view also moves from external to internal. Hoffman has explained the structure of the film:

The first part is the external trip. It’s getting on the road and moving forward. There’s more of a linear plot there. Then there’s a dissolve into a red screen.

Now I look inside the van. The film becomes more psychological and emotional. That’s when it starts jumping around, which gives me the go-ahead to be non-linear because I’m dealing with the emotional things that are happening on the trip.

In the third part, it goes to blue, which are the realizations. It begins with me looking at close-ups of film on the light-box.

The idea of “realizations” needs to be explained; but first we might examine how the film jumps around.

Leaping forward in space and then back again, anticipating times yet to come and then returning to them, the film fudges its own sense of direction.  We see Dan with his wood-carving before we know who he is; we have a flash-back of Jim in his studio in Ann Arbor, unrecognizable as he manages molten metal; Robert Frank, an icon of the independent American spirit, appears and then appears again. Geography is scrambled as destination becomes unclear.

The structure thus enacts, kinaesthetically, the confusions in Hoffman’s mind. The Road Ended at the Beach  becomes, in Michael Dorland’s apt phrase, a “documentary of consciousness.”[iv] Hoffman wanted to make a road movie in the tradition of Jack Kerouac. “I expected adventure,” his commentary explains. “But somehow the road had died since the first trip west with Jim.”

The film engages, however, not only through its structure but through the random characters we encounter on the trip. A hitch-hiker is picked up who once appeared in a Robert Frank film; Mark, an accomplished trumpeter, jams with Jim in Ottawa; Conrad Dubé, initially a polio victim, has bicycled several times around the world — a man who, as Jim explains (drawing upon Aboriginal legend) has perhaps been “touched by God;” and Rup Chan, a Tibetan friend of Jim’s, with his Urdu diary establishes appropriate spiritual expectations at the beginning of the film.

The encounter with Robert Frank could have been a destination but is actually a non-event. Like On The PondThe Road Ended at the Beach becomes an exorcism of received ideas about male buddy-ism and an adolescent sense of adventure. Although Jim’s dog is named (dogs are an important part of buddy bonding),  Phil’s sister Philomene, who is present on one of their previous journeys, remains unidentified!

After we hear Jim declaiming, in front of an “Export A” billboard, “I wanna live, I wanna find some place better,” the film does achieve a kind of nirvana. The “realizations” that Hoffman referred to entail a recognition that such inherited quests must now discover a different kind of harmony.

The beach the road ends at is Burgeo, on the south coast of Newfoundland, about 200 kilometres east of Port aux Basques. The camera holds on the waterfront for an extended period, almost undetectable jump-cuts fore-shortening time as dogs and children gambol back and forth in front of the camera, with no direction and no perceivable goal. An island is visible in the distance and, along with a nonsense verse sung off-screen by a young girl, we hear the sounds of surf. Because we also heard these sounds at the beginning of the film, these sonic references to nature bring this filmic odyssey acoustically to a close.

The quest is over, the scrambled journey at an end. The beach represents the surrendering of desire, a sense of peacefulness before inevitably moving on. Once again Hoffman the filmmaker prepares the way for Phil the character to mature and expand.


 Since the 1970s, since the time that experimental film found a tiny place in academe and occasional sources of financing through government funding agencies, the practice may have lost its innovative edge. In 1987, in a polemical piece published in theMillennium Film Journal, Fred Camper complained that the institutionalization of experimental film has produced schools of supposedly avant-garde practice but with none of the genuine creativity that had marked the works of (say) Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage in the past. “By the start of the institutional period,” he contends,

the fundamental techniques and values of avant-garde filmmaking have already been established, and what once was a movement now becomes a genre.[v]

Lamentations for originary moments in film-viewing experience are legion. Experiences are never as vibrant as they were in the days when we were young! Furthermore, in his insistence on internal coherence and on individual creativity standing out against the conformity of mass society, Camper is romantically modernist and relentlessly American. With the passing of time, however, the notion of “genre” can be seen in a different light. As Janine Marchessault has suggested:

If modernism was characterized by the drive towards origin and purity, then the post-modernist practices of a new generation of filmmakers emphasize heterogeneity of materials: a reconciliation of forms at once profoundly cynical and politically hopeful.

Marchessault goes on to suggest that the films of this generation “take on the difficult task of making sense through the fragment” and she concludes:

The struggle to create meaning out of chaos, to express a different conception of history and experience is one that, in Canada, continues to be strongly inspired by our documentary tradition.[vi]

Traditionally utilizing a clock-wind Bolex and thus a minimum of synchronous sound, often keeping separate the elements of sound and image, the filmmakers of the Escarpment School are dedicated to a fresh exploration simultaneously of the relation between film viewers and film works and between self and world. If the diary format predominates with the narration generally in the first-person singular, the films also retain a documentary integrity in relation to the historical world.

The Road Ended at the Beach was followed by Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan & Encarnacion (1984). On the surface a slight film and supposedly a documentary, it is extremely evocative and, on examination, may be more complex than it appears.

Apparently shot in Mexico, Somewhere Between conveys a sense of suspension, a waiting in the face of an alterity that Hoffman has no heart to penetrate. Although we see Mexican musicians in the film, the sounds of Mike Callich’s saxophone come from another space. Mexican footage is abandoned to silence, conveying the sense of nightmare or dream. Unlike the Coca Cola sign that hangs over a village intersection, Hoffman feels he has no right to be in this forbidding place. Privacies occur that ought not to be invaded.

The crucial privacy concerns a dead boy in the streets whom Hoffman decides not to film. Intertitles inspired by haikus serve as narrative markers, telling the story that we are not allowed to see. However, we do see images of a religious procession and of Christian icons appropriate for the solemnity of death. Meanwhile, the solo saxophone continues along its apparently uncaring, improvisational path.

The structure of Somewhere Between is entirely contrapuntal. The three filmic elements of image, sound, and language (here exclusively in the form of intertitles) are all kept separate, coming together serendipitously from time to time as when, for a moment, the acoustic rhythms of the saxophone seem in synch with the perceivable rhythms of a Mexican drummer.

Although the film conveys the feeling of an impenetrable territory, a space of suspension between two worlds, “the bardo state in Buddhist terms,” as Hoffman once explained,[vii] attentive viewers may observe that much of the film was shot elsewhere. The religious procession, the Feast of Fatima, was filmed in Toronto. The band we see and the radiant girl at the end of the film, presumably the dead boy’s sister, were shot in Colorado — at a conference in honour of Jack Kerouac!

While partly the result of low-budget exigencies, this geographical cheating suggests universality. The film is placed in Mexico, perhaps initially still in homage to Kerouac and Cassady; but death occurs everywhere. Religious processions celebrate the mysteries of existence, and young girls gaze out at us — whether Dan’s lovely daughter in Sable River, Nova Scotia, during a telling moment in The Road Ended at the Beach, or a nameless child on her rock shell, supposedly the sister of the dead boy in the streets of Mexico but actually a stranger from Boulder, Colorado.

The little girl
With big eyes
Waits by her dead brother

Big trucks spit black smoke
Clouds hung
The boy’s spirit left through its blue.

So concludes the final bits of printed commentary in Hoffman’s Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan & Encarnacion, anchoring it in a specific place that, in actuality, we have scarcely seen.

If the roads of the Beats are now closed to Hoffman’s generation, perhaps so too is Mexico as a site for mystic contemplation. Except by sly ruse. For if we think about it, was there ever, in reality, a dead boy in the streets?


Though my work in film always deals with place, I find it odd that the place where I live and work is near-absent in my films … I question to what degree the present place where I am affects the output of the work.

— Philip Hoffman (1979)[viii]

For Philip Hoffman, going home has generally entailed a going away. The three major works of his family cycle all explore an elsewhere. In their very different ways, both ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986) and Kitchener-Berlin (1990) explore the paternal inheritance while passing through/torn formations (1988) explores the maternal one. All three of them touch upon fracturing and disease. Let us look at the two male films together.

?O,Zoo! doesn’t appear to be a family film. Demonstrably, it is the most public film that Hoffman has ever made. It is certainly the wittiest, the most self-reflexive, the most deliberately theoretical. As Blaine Allan has written:

?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) is ostensibly about the making of Peter Greenaway’s feature film, A Zed & Two Noughts, the production of which Phil Hoffman was invited to the Netherlands to observe. However, Hoffman’s film actually concerns the terms and conditions under which it was itself made. In part, the film translates actuality and memory into invention and fiction in which the symbolic father is cast as a real ancestor. Hoffman rewrites the Canadian documentary tradition into a family memory and romance.[ix]

Indeed, the fiction film about which ?0,Zoo! is the making is as much Hoffman’s as Greenaway’s. For ?0,Zoo! is throughout its modest length a fiction — a fiction about family and a fiction about film. Although the film is narrated as if in the first person, Hoffman withholds his own voice. He also invokes a host of imaginary father figures.

To begin with, there is the fictional grandfather, the newsreel cameraman, who made films supposedly for some federal film agency — an oblique reference to the National Film Board. The “old battle-axe” referred to is obviously John Grierson — the father of documentary and godfather of Canadian film.

There is also the fleeting presence, evidently innocently, of the source footage for Watching for the Queen (1973), a film by David Rimmer who is one of the “father figures” of the first generation of Canadian experimental film.[x] There is a fuzzy shot of the Pope as seen on TV and even a decapitated statue of Christ in a Rotterdam square. Finally, there is the presence of Peter Greenaway with his huge production facilities for the fabrication of his fanciful universe.

Purporting to be a documentary, offering us “truth” in the way that documentary is assumed to do, it actually lies about its own practice. Constantly it invites us to look carefully at discrepancies between images and sounds. In one scene, we witness swans swimming in a pond while their absence is described.

Furthermore, the film playfully parallels the Peter Greenaway film. Like Greenaway’s feature, Hoffman’s short examines the relationship between Earth and World, between nature and civilization’s efforts to tame it, whether through confinement in zoos or through photographic representations.[xi] If Greenaway’s film involves dismemberment, Hoffman’s shows decapitation. If there are two brothers in A Zed & Two Noughts, there are two boys in ?O,Zoo!If Michael Nyman’s musical score is a witty part of Greenaway’s film, so Tucker Zimmerman’s pulsational minimalism is a witty part of Hoffman’s film. As Hoffman has explained:

It may be my story but there’s a lot borrowed from Greenaway. Even my voice-over is like a Greenaway ruse. It’s playful and there’s humour in it — the kids playing with the shoes and getting shooed away by the parents. It has that play with language.

If the death of a boy in Somewhere Between was too private to film, so the death of an elephant in ?O,Zoo! prompts the same kind of discretion. Except that in this film, the death is definitely a lie. Not only might we have noticed on one of the camera report sheets the scribble, Elephant gets up; but by the end of the film — after the closing titles — we do indeed witness a resurrection!

Only in relation to his other work can ?O,Zoo! appear a family film; yet without some recognition of family, the concluding shot of an old man with a camera in his hand walking side-by-side with a young boy wouldn’t make much sense. The boy isn’t Phil, but it could be; and as always in Hoffman’s films, they are both, supposedly, relatives.

An immensely playful film rich in observational detail, ?O,Zoo! moves us by its intimacy and yet challenges our assumptions about the nature of filmic truth. Hoffman acknowledges that the film “is less the diary of personal experience than an exploration of the ways in which we create fiction to make meaning of lived experience.”[xii] As an “experimental documentary”, it is an extraordinary achievement.

Less satisfactory, it seems to me, is Hoffman’s Kitchener-Berlin. As a family film, it is certainly less accessible. Comprising footage shot by his paternal Uncle John, the images are less anchored in an observable reality and Hoffman seems absent from his own film.

Mapping such a work is difficult. Abstract in conception, the film is more concerned with ideas than people. “The film is about technology and its rise, which is the machine world,” as Hoffman has explained. Perhaps desiring to retreat from the insistent family preoccupations of passing through/torn formations, in Kitchener-Berlin the here is contrasted with the there, activities with buildings; except that in both the new world and the old, a restless camera mounted on a steadicam floats through both parts, collapsing discernible differences.

Although the steadicam is itself an example of technology, Hoffman employed it for metaphysical reasons. “There’s an obvious kind of spiritual feel to it, because you’re floating in a world where the sky and ground are equivalent.”[xiii] But this assertion may not make sense.

To what extent can “the body of film itself, its flesh and voice,” as Bruce Elder once insisted, achieve film’s “liberating potential”?[xiv] Although films may aspire to the condition of transcendence, I would argue that if the stylistic tropes of cinema can suggest eternity, they cannot depict it. For instance, about ?O,Zoo! Blaine Allan has written:

A scene shot with a static camera captures the sight of Greenaway’s camera crew in liquid motion as they track laterally across the screen. The dolly and tracks are

concealed below the frame line and the figures float across space, appearing as disjoined from the earth as actors against a painted or projected backdrop.[xv]

Here the connotation of weightlessness is arguably more evocative within an observable filmic space than by collapsing earth into sky throughout Kitchener-Berlin.

Furthermore, with the male display of slaughtered wolves earlier in the film and the family scenes of enforced Christmas kissing towards the end, Kitchener-Berlin seems too reminiscent of Jack Chambers’ The Hart of London (1970) but without the personal voice that so tentatively concludes Chambers’ “transcendent” film.

As part of its patrimony, in Kitchener-Berlin, images of aggressive male activities recur. The cannons of war shoot missiles away from the earth; miners drill at its entrails beneath. The Pope makes an appearance, again on television, blessing Aboriginals; a magnificent cathedral in Cologne is “penetrated” by a huge orange crane.

At the centre of the film is a newsreel item about a dirigible flight from England to Canada. As two elderly twins are involved in the filming of it, the item repeats Hoffman’s concern with splitting and doubling.

Kitchener-Berlin is also in two parts, the second part more impersonal than the first. As Hoffman has explained:

The second part of the film moves towards the surreal. I tried to make the second half of the film without thinking. So with the sunflowers out-of-focus and the cave, it becomes like a Brakhage psychic-type film; and actually at that time I was kinda touched by Brakhage.

“The way the images arrive is a surprise,” Hoffman has suggested. “They don’t seem to connect and, formally, they’re hard to follow.”[xvi]

Many viewers would agree. Although its visceral appeal is palpable, conceptually Kitchener-Berlin is difficult to grasp. The references are too arbitrary. Like the on-going River project (1979-89), it perhaps works best at a precognitive level — as a film of surfaces, of psychedelic superimpositions and kinaesthetic effects. It marks a retreat from the examination of the specificities of his family inheritance represented by passing through/torn formations, moving through abstractions towards some kind of closure to this family cycle. There is also in Kitchener-Berlin perhaps a sense of fatigue.


 After the achievement of passing through/torn formations, a sense of fatigue would be understandable. If ?O,Zoo! is Hoffman’s most public film, passing through is his most private. At the same time, through the choreography of its images and through the guiding presence of Hoffman’s questing voice, it is the most fully realized of the Family Cycle.

The film begins with the voice of Christopher Dewdney. While the screen remains dark, he speaks about a boy freeing a dead moth from its fossilization within a piece of layered stone, thereby establishing the geological dimension of the film. The story also establishes a specificity of space. “You feel sure that you could recognize these clouds with their limestone texture out of random cloud photographs from all over the world,” Dewdney explains.

Passing through is dedicated to Babji, Phil’s grandmother. She is, of course, the mother of Sue, Phil’s mother, but also of the … uncle who is the unseen victim/hero of the film.

A tale told with love, passing through/torn formations is full of shadows. With its Polish language on Czechoslovakian soil which had once been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the family has been afflicted by sickness and fragmentation. Europe had been ravaged by two world wars and families had been scattered by the pursuit of emigration.

After the Dewdney poem at the opening, there is a silent scene of Babji in a nursing home, being cared for by Sue. The silence is eerie, as is the blue wash of colour. Although we can see them talking, we cannot hear what they are saying. While the camera cuts away to register curtains on a window and flowers on a table, we get a sense of the perishability of life — a perishability re-enforced by the end-of-roll flare that keeps recurring on the screen, suggesting by association the end of Babji’s life.

The simplest way of unpacking this film might be to deal with two sustaining moments: (a) The uncle’s … need for a corner-mirror, and his accordion; and (b) Sue’s recurring depressions and the scene of the missing cows. Both moments embrace healing.

The mirror was devised by the uncle in …. panic …. to see himself as others see him, in double reflection. Like the mirror, The uncle’s accordion is also an image of splitting and doubling, since the left hand deals with the bass and the right hand with the melody. Performance is part of healing, of putting the two sides together. As Hoffman’s commentary explains, “while Polish polka turns to Irish jig, turns to German march, and then a note repeats itself, again and again,” the scattering of self and of national cultures is minified by music. “The music was a vacant place to return to,” Hoffman explains. “Over and Over. His playing gave him passage.”

…The  uncle is the victim of historical and personal events. There had been the influenza epidemic at the time of Babji’s birth as there had been a boil on Babji’s neck at the time of his birth. “He is to me,” Hoffman has clarified, “the epicentre of … the family.” He exists at “the point where the old world and the new world collide.”[xvii] Like the cyclist in The Road Ended at the Beach, the uncle too has perhaps been “touched by God.”

The scene of the missing cows addresses the healing powers of memory, both for Phil’s mother, whose story it is, and for young Andrea in Czechoslovakia, who helped Phil recreate it. Sue has always been subject to severe depressions, a situation referred to as far back as On The Pond. Part of her healing, Hoffman’s film implies, involves the recovery of memory through the sharing of stories, central to which is the story of the cows.

The story is both told and recreated — once again blurring past and present, fact and fiction, images and words. Sue is often framed at the lower right-hand corner of the screen, translating from Hoffman’s Polish interviews; and the family references are both specific and general.

Family members from Canada and relatives from Czechoslovakia are not easy to identify because their identities continually shift and slide. These characters are transferable throughout the film, for instance, you see an image or images of a certain person and there is a voice-over with this person. Later on in the film different voices are attached to the image of the person earlier seen. It’s a way of avoiding the conventional approach to character construction whereby the character’s identity gets pinned down and there’s less work for the audience.[xviii]

Throughout passing through, the camera is constantly panning over the gnarled trunks of old trees and along stone fences, sometimes superimposed over photographs of family, sometimes on their own. Not only do the fences echo the opening image of the fossilized rock, but as Gary Popovich suggests elsewhere in this volume, the “blue blood that surges through her body finds its mirrored image in the craggy rock formations of her homeland, where her grandson now makes his pilgrimage.”[xix]

Are these fences barriers against easy entry into the past, into the otherness of a relinquished world? Or are they structures of containment — enduring punctuations of human spaces that have evolved over time? If metaphorically the walls are barriers, with the passing of time they have also become culturally created geological formations. They are part of the natural world that, with our addiction to the practicalities of wire fencing, has been lost to North America.

Like the moth emerging from stone in Dewdney’s poem, the present emerges from the past. While there is damage — the formations may be torn — there is also life. As Tucker Zimmerman can transform the uncle’s accordion riffs into the impulsional portamenti that animate this film, so an equilibrium can be found within this world of veined hands and craggy fields.

After the final shots of the stone fences that demarcate the fields of present-day Slovakia, over black leader we hear Marian McMahon reading from her memoir, A Circuitous Quest: “Early one morning, when I was eight years old, I skipped a flat stone across the surface of Lake Kashagawigamog.” Momentarily, weight has been defied. A stone has been made to float. Balance has been achieved — and with it a sense of wonder.


Hoffman’s Family Cycle consists entirely of quest films. They follow the circuitous movement of away and return. The early journeys of On The Pond and The Road Ended at the Beach were a questing after self; the later ones — Somewhere Between, ?O,Zoo! andpassing through/torn formations register a confrontation of alterity. Even River posits the self confronting nature. Perhaps it is the absence of a personal confrontation that renders Kitchener-Berlin, to my mind, a less satisfactory achievement.

In Hoffman’s work the quest can be seen as a personalised enactment of one’s journey through life. It also embodies a search for more individual goals, not all of them attainable. Although the past may be explored, it cannot be claimed. If you do manage to go back, as Franny wanted to do in On the Pond, you cannot stay there. As Janine Marchessault has declared: “Memories are immutable cells that can be rearranged but never made to speak.”[xx]

Hence, except for the “realizations” of the closing shot, the “failure” of the quest in The Road Ended at the Beach. When the Beats were in their prime throughout the 1960s, politically the world was opening up. By the 1980s, it was closing down. “The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip,” as Hoffman has explained, “but their roads are closed now.”[xxi] Besides which their quest was probably too American, too drug-induced, and perhaps, finally, too homoerotic to serve as a controlling model for a young buck from southern Ontario. Hoffman has had to retreat from such classic allegorical journeys to enable him to move forward in his own life and work.

Similarly with the retreat from modernism. Although Bruce Elder, with his musical commitment to Wagnerian repetition and redundancy, still strives to achieve works of high modernism in a post-modern age, the filmmakers of the Escarpment School espouse more modest goals. Their quests are less concerned with self in relation to metaphysical transcendence than with self in relation to the social world.

The important point, then, about the boy exploring the culvert in passing through/torn formations is not who he is or what he might find or even what his relationship is (if any) to Hoffman’s family: the important point is the fact that he is looking. He embodies the curiosity of a new generation, attentive to discovering his own voice within the landscape available to him and to making his own peace with the world.

So once again, we return to documentary. Through the confrontation of self with alterity, with the fractured otherness of the world in which they live, the third generation of Canadian experimental filmmakers seek to make sense of their historical world.

And yet, at their best — supremely in passing through/torn formations with its movement through disease, derangement and death towards moments of epiphany — this confrontation does achieve a spiritual dimension. Drawing upon a theological term adduced by Dennis Lee when writing about Al Purdy, we might refer to a mysterium tremendum — a holy otherness. “An appropriate response to the tremendum,” Lee elucidates, “is awe, joy, terror, gratitude” — exactly the emotions we may feel while experiencing Hoffman’s most achieved films.[xxii]

The experimental cinema of Philip Hoffman embodies some of the finest attributes of the work of his generation. Like his colleagues, Richard Kerr, Gary Popovich, and Mike Hoolboom (among others), through the diary format he achieves a cinematic poetry that is as distinguished as any experimental films anywhere today. In a world in which theatrical film has become a big brass band, the filmmakers of the Escarpment School content themselves with chamber films — with trios or string quartets, sometimes made for instruments with only two or three strings!

Bart Testa once suggested that these films become, finally, “voyages of discovery that shift interest onto formal questions of how meaning is disclosed and expressed.”[xxiii] This self-reflective play throughout Hoffman’s work constitutes a large part of its value. If experimental filmmaking is now, indeed, “a tradition which new filmmakers have to face,” as Fred Camper has insisted,[xxiv] Philip Hoffman has faced it with courage and originality. The circuitous quests undertaken by the Family Cycle of films enshrine his lasting value as an important Canadian artist working in film.


Camper, Fred. “The End of Avant-Garde Film.” Millennium Film Journal 16/17 (Fall/Winter 1986/87), 99-124Cantrill, Arthur and Corinne (eds). “An interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations.” Cantrills Filmnotes 59/60 (Australia, September 1989), 40-43

Dompierre, Louise et al (eds). Toronto: A Play of History (Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987)

Dorland, Michael. “‘The Void is not so Bleak’: Rhetoric and Structure in Canadian Experimental Film.” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 14, Nos 1-3 (Montreal 1990), 148-159

Elder, Kathryn, Catherine Jonasson et al (eds). International Experimental Film Congress. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989)

Feldman, Seth (ed). Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada. (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984)

Hoffman, Philip. “passing through/torn formations.” Cantrills Filmnotes 59/60 (Australia, September 1989), 43-50

…………………………………………  “Philip Hoffman: Pictures of Home.” Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada

Hoolboom, Mike (ed). Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada (Toronto: Gutter Press, 1997)

Lee, Dennis. Body Music, (Toronto: Anansi, 1998)

Lowder, Rose (ed). The Visual Aspect: Recent Canadian Experimental Films (Éditions des Archives du Film Experimental d’Avignon, 1991)

Popovich, Gary. passing through/torn formations, by Philip Hoffman. Lift Newsletter (Toronto), November 1988, 26-28

Testa, Bart. Spirit in the Landscape. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989)


I should like to thank Barbara Goslawski and Alan McNairn of the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre in Toronto for re-screening Hoffman’s films for me; Mike Hoolboom for having invited me to write this article and for his many helpful suggestions; and, of course, Phil Hoffman himself, both for his trust and for his films.Unless otherwise noted, citations from Phil Hoffman are from a personal interview conducted on 27 June 2000.

[i] International Experimental Film Congress, 33

[ii] “A History of the Canadian Avant-Garde in Film,” by Mike Hoolboom. In The Visual Aspect, 43-44

[iii] “Philip Hoffman: Pictures of Home,” in Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, 140

[iv] “‘The Void is not so Bleak’: Rhetoric and Structure in Canadian Experimental Film,” by Michael Dorland, 153

[v] “The End of Avant-Garde Film,” 120-121

[vi] International Experimental Film Congress, 115

[vii] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 142

[viii] “A Play of History,” by Philip Hoffman. Toronto: A Play of History, 100

[ix] “It’s not finished yet (Some Notes on Toronto Filmmaking),” by Blaine Allan. Toronto: A Play of History, 90-91

[x] At the time of filming, Hoffman had not yet seen David Rimmer’s film.

[xi] By way of Bruce Elder, Dennis Lee, and Martin Heidegger. See “Forms of Cinema, Models of Self: Jack Chamber’s The Hart of London,” by R. Bruce Elder. Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada, 264-274

[xii] Toronto: A Play of History, 157

[xiii] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 145

[xiv] International Experimental Film Congress, 45

[xv] Toronto: A Play of History, 91

[xvi] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 146

[xvii] “An interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations.” In Cantrills Filmnotes 59,60, 42

[xviii]  Ibid, 40

[xix] Lift Newsletter, 28

[xx] International Experimental Film Congress, 116

[xxi] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 141

[xxii] Body Music, 92

[xxiii] Spirit in a Landscape, 35

[xxiv] “The End of Avant-Garde Film,” 111

In/Between Spaces

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.
-Phil Hoffman

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.

  1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.
  2. Phil Hoffman, interview, “Pictures of Home,” Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom(Toronto: Pages-Gutter Press, 1997), p. 140.
  3. I am indebted to the published description of the making of this and other of Hoffman’s films in: Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 79.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Deleuze, Cinema 2,p. 187.
  8. BlaineAllan, “Thought-Riddled Nature,” Program Notes: New Works Showcase, Part III (Kingston, Ontario: Princess Court Cinema, February-March 1990).
  9. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  10. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn(New York: SchockenBooks, 1968), pp. 256-257.
  11. 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).
  12. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 54.
  13. 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.
  14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 179.
  15. “An Interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations,” Cantrill’sFilmnotes59-60 (September 1989), p. 41.
  16. Ibid.
  17. 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.
  18. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  19. Deleuze, Cinema1, p. 23.
  20. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 141.
  21. 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).
  22. Phil Hoffman, Sweep catalogue description, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, <>.
  23. HomiK. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 149.
  24. de Certeau, Everyday Life, p. 86.
  25. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  26. Benjamin, “Theses”, p. 257.
  27. TheodorAdorno, in Ernst Bloch et. al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor (London: NLB, 1977), p. 194.

Barns, Brits and Birthrights: Phil Hoffman’s All Fall Down by Scott MacKenzie in POV

“Over the last thirty years, Phil Hoffman has often been called Canada’s pre-eminent diary filmmaker. The release of his first feature film, All Fall Down (2009) offers one an opportune chance to reconsider his body of work, his diaristic practice and its relationship to documentary. Revisiting Hoffman’s diverse oeuvre is a revelation: it quickly becomes apparent that Hoffman is one of Canada’s most important documentary filmmakers, full stop. To make this case, one only needs to look at the current ubiquity of ‘hybrid documentaries’ and the critical and ethical debates surrounding their emergence. The term itself is of recent provenance, yet Hoffman has been making what would now be considered ‘hybrid’ documentaries since his first film in 1978, On the Pond.” by Scott MacKenzie – POV magazine, Issue #76 Download as PDF