Category Archives: Films

Notes on river

by Philip Hoffman

The Saugeen River was named Sauking, ‘where it all flows out,’ by the Ojibways in the early 1800s. It runs into Lake Huron. The place where I know it is twenty miles south of Owen Sound, Ontario, near Williamsburg, where I spent lots of time in my youth exploring. Over the past dozen years I’ve returned there to film. In 1977 with a wind-up Bolex and one roll of 16mm color film. In 1981 with a 1/2″ reel to reel, black and white video portapak. In 1984, indoors now, with a rear screen set up to record on video the original 16mm footage. And then again in 1989, the camera went for the first time beneath the surface in an underwater housing, the camera loaded with high contrast printer stock.

All the video images were transferred to film in the version that’s now in distribution, though I sometimes still screen the piece as a film/video installation, once even outside, in a forest, on the snow.

On the way to the river to shoot the underwater section in 1989, I made a quick call to my parents who live near the Saugeen to let them I know I was on the way up. My mother told me that my uncle had been found dead that day. He shot himself by the river (a different river), near our home town. She told me not to tell anyone because his immediate family wanted to say it was a heart attack. I got into the car with Garrick and Tim, my friends who were helping me with the filming, and we drove up. Churning inside.

I know that the death had something to do with what we filmed that day, and how I edited the section. I used the filming and editing as a way to mourn for him who I cared for, who never had the chance to be heard.

In this last section of the river, underwater, I gave up the camera. I told Garrick to let the river take him—just start the camera and let the current take you. I stood in the boat wondering about the death and watching. Giving up my hold on the camera.

Kitchener-Berlin (script)

Titles and Intertitles

:20        Kitchener-Berlin

:30        Part 1: A Measured Dance

17:30    Prologue to Part 2

17:40    Member  Amateur Cinema League   (over World Globe)

18:00    One evening while searching for news of the proposed Canadian voyage of the R-100, I fell asleep and dreamed…

18:13    My dream announced a radio message from my twin brother, who is now the Chief Movie Photographer of the R-100 – I am the assistant. My duties are to shoot the scene from the ground while my twin shoots the views on and from the ship. When all is finished, our shots are woven together in the production

18:51    THE HIGHWAY OF TOMORROW

OR

HOW ONE MAKES TWO

 

18:55    R 100 leaving for Canada

19:17    Heading for the Atlantic

19:20    Sunrise in mid-ocean

19:26    Sunset of Cape Race

19:37    The scenic route of tomorrow

18:50    R 100 encounters a terrific storm between Three Rivers and Montreal

20:00    Along the 1000 Islands section of the St Lawrence

20:05    The R 100 arrives

20:15    Safe at last

20:20    Canadian Officials greet Officials and Crew

20:35    Call from the ship. More Pictures. More Pictures!

20:40    We obey orders and make more pictures of the ship at the mooring mast.

21:00    Twin brother comes to see me and finds me still dreaming.

21:05    I show my twin brother a picture of myself editing the story of the R 100 trip.

21:20    I show twin my projector

21:30    I must take a note of that

21:45    Will it go backwards?

22:00    Have you people seen all I have seen in my dreams?

22:55    Part 2: Veiled Flight

Kitchener/Berlin: Or How One Becomes Two (Or None)

by Steve Reinke

I know it’s a hollow rhetorical ploy, a cliché even, an excuse for a certain kind of sloppiness, dispreparedness, but I mean it sincerely: I have given up on the essay I meant to write. Instead I submit these pathetic notes in the form of a letter asking for forgiveness. By now I should be used to my failure as a critic. I continually back away from planned essays, taking refuge in the literary: the aphorism, the satiric manifesto, the autobiographical anecdote. But this retreat is more disappointing than most. When I watched Kitchener-Berlin again (I hadn’t seen it in many years) I was struck by its rightness, its perfection. It seemed to me exemplary. Trebly exemplary: to (or as) the work of Hoffman, to Canadian cinema, and to experimental film. The film surely merits close textual analyses from a variety of approaches. Moreover, it seemed to me, however paradoxically, that these analyses would constitute a more general discussion of experimental film as an endeavor.

Apology
Sure, art is long and life is short, but I am not troubled by this condition. What bothers me is that art is complex and I am simple, though conflicted: stupid. Art makes retards of us all. Writing about it is a clumsy thing, doomed to always miss what is most significant and instead gloss the petty. Criticism becomes an act of contrition, an extended apology. I am sorry, and sorry that this is the case.

Film Contra Video
Experimental video is centered around the voice: an individual talking, rhetorically deploying a particular subjectivity in relation to a certain construction of consciousness. Video is willfully interior: its relation to the world is never direct, but processed through a particular subjectivity. It is doubly mediated, there is no direct perception, no immediate apprehension of the world. One cannot speak of phenomenology in relation to video without undue strain. Experimental film has a completely different relation to voice and the world. There is no such thing as a ‘personal’ film. The voice in film always aspires to be the voice of God. Film is singly mediated, self-consciously authored by authors who retreat behind subjectivity to become merely thinking, perceiving bodies. Interiority is impossible, the world itself impinges too strongly. Experimental video proceeds through a process of talking to one’s self as if one had a self; experimental film through a process of swallowing or incorporating the world into a self which is no longer human, but an author, a hollow signature attempting to structure perception.

Deleuze
This season it’s all about Deleuze’s cinema books. I keep reading these books because his distinction between the time-image and movement-image seems a fertile jumping-off point for a discussion of experimental film. But the only films people seem to discuss are Hitchcock’s (when Zizek via Lacan should have silenced them all, at least long enough so these hacks could take a break in which to think a little bit harder). I asked Laura Marks—one of the few academics who has applied Deleuzian theory to artists’ film and video—why this would be the case. She said because artists such as Hoffman are applying Deleuze’s insights directly (whether or not they have any knowledge of his writing) the need is not so great. This is probably true, but still I am not satisfied, and regret I am not able to supply such an analysis at this time. But here is what I have learned from Deleuze: that there is a kind of vertiginous ecstasy to be always on the verge of coherency, to endlessly defer sense in the hope that what one approaches is something that had been previously unfathomable.

Dream
I dreamt last night that I came across a book called Kitchener-Berlin and it was a really big book—lots of words, hardly any pictures, a few diagrams—something between an encyclopedia and an autobiography. It contained all the information about the images in the film, where they came from and what they mean. This dream is partly a response to my hermeneutic anxiety—a feeling that I can’t write about the film without a greater level of mastery, specifically the ability to form a reading which would proceed from an extensive knowledge of what is depicted in individual shots. So while I continue to remain firm that Kitchener-Berlin does not call for that kind of interpretation (that is, will not constructively yield to a directly hermeneutical approach), perhaps its dream book does (and would). Perhaps this dream book is a bible situated between the artist and the film and ready, in its encyclopedic detail, to tell us everything. We would study the book endlessly in order to derive increasingly accurate interpretations of the film. And the film itself—the hermetic, incorruptible art object—could sink into the background, as pure and coyly mysterious as the Mona Lisa.

Living as Filming: Philip Hoffman interviewed

by Barbara Sternberg

BS: Hi Philip – When I saw What these ashes wanted (which I was almost afraid to see: would it make me cry over our loss of Marian; might I feel you had exploited Marian’s death for a film?), I felt it was your most successful film—most complete, most fulfilled in its methods and purpose. I mean that form and content were synthesized. (Of course, to be reminded of Marian’s liveliness and bravery in life as well as facing death brought sadness.) The film had a looseness, an openness (reduced use of the first-person voice-over, passages of silence, different types of footage and shooting styles, a relaxed episodic structure) that gave Marian, yourself and the audience respectful space. The film breathes, it’s organic-it moves forward, yes, but there are detours, meanderings in its progression. You have always done beautiful camerawork, but I could connect to this shooting and how it figured in the totality of the film more than in any other (Opening Series and Chimera have shooting I also love and seem to mark a change in approach).  After the film I came home thinking how all your films carry forth certain inter-related themes: autobiography (film as constructed memory) which has been constantly examined since your first film Onthe Pond; the ethics of filming, most clearly stated as problematic in Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion; and death. The fear I had had of exploitation, a question of ethics, was addressed in the film’s dialogue:

PICTURE:  SILOUETTE OF MARIAN ON HOSPITAL CURTAIN

MARIAN: …if you could have a ritual for death what would it be…and would it be private or shared.

PHIL: ..I think it would be shared.

CAMERA TILTS TO MARIAN’S EYES…THEN TO THE LIGHT

Opening Series dealt with authorial control, an ethical problem for you, by handing over the sequential ordering of its parts to the audience and to chance. I remember you’ saying, “Why should I have total control?” (One might also think of new music’s compositional principles of indeterminancy and chance.) The choice of order of the rolls gave an element of random chance and loosened the strength of narrative line.

PH: It was also to create a space where the audience, myself and the work could come together and manifest something. Each screening would be different not just because of the order of the work, but the order would reflect its audience. For example, I had shot some footage in Egypt of this Dutch companion that we met along the way who was filming Berber people holding up their tools and crafts. My filming of him, filming the Berber man, became kind of a critique because I included the photographer in the shot. That was shown at an event where he was present in Holland. So, not only did this become an issue when we discussed it after the screening, but there was also some kind of psychic manifestation that happened in the ordering. The way the other elements proceeded and followed this problematic image forced a particular reading of the situation. This was quite surprising. It’s like divining with the I-Ching. So, in Opening Series I was also trying to deal with these sort of  invisible links between people, objects, in and out of art making.

 

BS: In Ashes you make editing choices and yet retain an openness. Space. This new openness is not only a strateg, but a place from which to make a journey, a film. (Is there a difference for you? Is living filming and vice versa? )

PH:  I approach every film differently, so I’m not sure the next one will have the same kind of openness, though I think this is something that I have been developing since the early 90’s in films like Opening Series (1992-95), Chimera (1996), Kokoro is for Heart (1999),  and most recently  What these ashes wanted (2001) I suppose there is not the same need to say things so overtly as in ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986), or in some of the collaborations I made in the 90’s where it seemed the process of collaboration and its outcome was more important than developing my own voice in the way I did in the ` looser films mentioned above. The 90’s for me was a time to try different ways of working but the most common element was collaboration, whether it be an aleatory collaboration with the audience who helped to place Opening Series in an order, or my `directorial’ collaborations with Wayne Salazar in Destroying Angel (1998), Sami van Ingen in Sweep (1995) or Gerry Shikatani in Kokoro is for Heart.

BS:  The story (made up? I had assumed) of film kept in the freezer, unprocessed in ?O, Zoo! is told again, in What these ashes wanted, but this version and this time, it’s true – right?  In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) you questioned your right to film the death of a Mexican youth—at least text over a black screen told us this seemingly true story.

On the road dead lies a Mexican youth
I put the camera down…’

(excerpt of text from Somewhere Between)

In “…Ashes…” you say that just before Marian died you two slipped out of the hospital at night down to the lake’s edge, and here’s the photo of the lake you took.

 I took a picture, you skipped a stone
(excerpt of text from What these ashes wanted)

But just prior to this we see a similar scene from a TV soap opera! Ethics, authority of the filmmaker, veracity, credulity, autobiography… So much of your filmmaking and teaching favors personal story-telling and yet you question both the ethics of film and the possibility of truth. Where does Ashes stand in relation to these terms and in relation to your previous films—and where do you think you place the viewer?

 

PH: The fallen elephant story in ?O,Zoo!, in which I film a dying elephant and then feel badly about filming it, exploiting the elephant for this sensationalistic act, and subsequently I put the film in the freezer—is a metaphor for what actually happened in my youth as the family photographer, when I filmed my grandfather in the casket at the request of my uncle. Subsequently, in horror at what I had done, I put the film in the freezer. I think when I wrote the story for ?O,Zoo!  in 1986 I didn’t realise that unconsciously I was expressing this repressed traumatic experience. I found it quite curious that I had written a fiction, that had its source in a true story, which had happened, but that I didn’t know I was creating a stand-in for this difficult experience. The unconscious was pulling at my shirtsleeve, saying look here, remember this.

 

In Ashes, the Baywatch scene at the beginning of Part 3 mirrors the personal story of Marian and I leaving the hospital the night she found out she had cancer. The TV soap represents the way, through mass media, our culture presents grieving. Ashes offers another method. Some of Marian’s last writings, which I cherish, came after our final walk on the beach. She wrote in a way that told me that this was not just for her, but the writing should be passed on. In her grief, she had found out something that night and was offering it up. I was the one who could release it to the world through film.

 

TEXT ON SCREEN (black text supered over window):

The night we had our last walk
she wrote these words:

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

We come together separate
cry and look wide eyed bewildered…
I want to be near the water
We bundle up and leave the hospital for the beach
Beautiful clear crisp blue skied night
we mourn together
laughing at intervals
clinging madly to some sense of life
The open sky water makes me feel
part of something immeasurable
larger than me
and it is consoling

STILL PHOTOS OF MARIAN’S ROOM

(excerpt of text from What these ashes wanted)

 

 

So in a way, my films blend fiction with real life experience, and the fiction is usually grounded in lived experience. My sense is that once these expressions are mediated through the filmmaking, they are fictions anyway. I feel fine with this as long as what is made up is somehow a reflection of, or is based on, or comes out of a lived experience-which usually happens naturally. I try to let the experience of filming or photographing or recording audio, happen out of an authentic process of trying to find something out, or communicating something to someone. The residue of this process finds its way into my films.

 

I think Somewhere Between and ?O,Zoo! are dealing with ethics, but the starting points were traumatic moments that occurred while filming. I feel my calling is a filmer of life. A death occurs in front of me so I have to do something about the experience. During the filming of  Somewhere Between I remember sitting on the bus with the camera on my lap, feeling the whole horrible experience. I chose not to film, perhaps more as a gut reaction, but when I returned to Toronto the aura of the boy’s death laid over me like a blanket.  I wanted to still make a film about this sacred moment, which I had witnessed, without the so-called crucial image.

 

reaching out,
the white sheet is pulled over the dead boy’s body
the children wept…
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

(excerpts of text from Somewhere Between)

 

 

BS: So, in a way, all your films exist to have the audience at some moment wonder: what is truth? What is fiction? What is film? Is this truth?  All of those things are floating around. As audience we go in and out of being sucked into the film the way mainstream films tend to operate on us, and then we’re conscious that this is a construct, that there are certain clues within it that make us say, Wait a minute… and give space to interact with the film.  Reality is the interaction between us and this thing you’ve put out called a film.

 

PH: You asked me earlier if I brought the camera to the hospital to film Marian. The answer to this question expresses something of how I work, of my process. Marian was in the hospital. It was the fall of 1996, `the days of protest,’ and she was mad as hell at the Harris government and all the cuts that were occurring to the social programs. This also effected her directly `on the floor’ in the hospital she was in. She was trying to write a story about all this and she was taking pictures of herself in the hospital.

 

After Marian’s death, I developed the roll she had taken in the hospital, and found this picture of her, in silouette. She took it of herself in silhouette against the hospital curtain. She also filmed the same curtain from the same angle, and left herself out. Blank. The picture made me shudder. Most often, the powerful personal images, which I use in my films, have had other purposes.

 

Sometimes I do find it necessary to ask family or friends if I can use a particularly `personal’ recording. In an earlier work, passing through/torn formations (1988), there is a sequence about my …uncle  and his daughter, who had not seen each other for sixteen years. I met him in his pool hall hangout and told him his daughter wanted to see him. He said he’d flip if he saw her so instead he gave her a present. I followed him into the drugstore and he found this mirror that was in two parts, that folded into itself – a ‘corner mirror’ he called it. He felt it showed you the ‘real’ reflection of yourself, ‘the real you.’ It technically does this since it is constructed as two separate parts, the image of yourself, though severed, reflects into itself, thereby rendering your portrait normal, like a photograph. Your face isn’t reversed in the way a normal mirror reverses your features. In exchange for the corner mirror she wanted to send her father a recording, so I taped her message to him. It was my idea to also tape her looking into the ‘corner mirror,’ describing her own facial features. I found him again, and we listened to it in my car. He was deeply moved. A few years later when I was finishing the film I asked her if I could use her voice from the recording and the film we shot of her looking into the corner mirror, and she agreed. As for my uncle, we spent some evenings looking at different cuts of the film, while he played music to it. I used his music in the film. Later I showed him parts of the finished film, but he was most interested in the music. I had thought the film could be a vehicle for me to get to know my uncle again, who used to take me fishing and teach me accordion when I was young. I guess it did somewhat, but it was a bit romantic on my part. I was young when I started this film, around 25. Anyway, I find that this kind of material works well for me as it kind of rings true. It is the residue of lived experience. When I start imagining something that I should film, and then I carry it out, it often seems contrived and it’s often not as exciting as working with what comes along.

 

BS: When I used to be the photographer for a friend’s wedding or anything like that, it kept me at a remove, this in-between space of the camera, between the event and me.

 

PH: It is the event. Everyone is using images, looking at pictures and video. It’s not once removed, and it is as authentic a moment as any other. The question is how to position it within your experience.

 

BS: It’s how you interact.

 

PH: It’s how our culture interacts.

 

BS: Your first film On the Pond (1978) starts out with you and your family looking at family slides, and on the soundtrack we hear your family commenting and reacting.

 

PH: Yes, to me this is a continuation of an oral tradition I learned from Babji, my grandma. She would talk to us about our dreams at the breakfast table. The difference is I use a tape recorder and transport conversations through my films.

 

BS: I want to go back to the term “autobiography”. You’ve made a home movie, a road-movie, a making-of-the-movie movie. I guess your films are autobiographical in that they represent the truth of how it is for you, subconsciously, psychically, spiritually, as well as materially. Do you feel the term autobiography is applicable to you?

 

PH: I don’t use it much because autobiography assumes that it’s just about yourself. My films are about people and places around me, though strained through my perception. When a writer uses material from their life in a novel, we do not call the book an autobiography. I suppose we might say there are autobiographical elements in the work, but that is common with most art. It is only that the photographic or electronic image is a good stand-in for the real, so we cannot get around the fact that people depicted in a `documentary’ are actually and fully ‘on the screen!’ But we know it’s still an expression or reflection of the person, of the originating moment. Films are constructions, and in my work I construct characters out of the residue of real life experiences.

 

 

BS: As Godard says: Film is truth at 24 frames per second, all film is fiction. Do you think the focus on death in your work is because of your personal experiences with your grandmother and Marian?

 

PH: Everyone experiences a death close at hand but not all filmmakers deal with death so directly, or so often. Maybe it was this initial experience filming my Grandfather in the casket. You know we spend our lives working through this mess…. whether it be a difficult birthing or a difficult family relationship. I’ve said before that childhood is so traumatic, most of us sleep through it… maybe the next part of that statement is that we spend the rest of our time consciously or unconsciously shedding this inevitable pain. I’m glad I have filmmaking because it seems to be a good place to put all this stuff. Maybe I was marked by that experience and I have to keep pushing the rock up the hill—my karma?

 

BS: Do you think it has something to do with your Catholic upbringing (we saw you at your first Holy Communion in both On the Pond and Kitchener/Berlin)?

 

PH: What I think my Catholic upbringing taught me was that bread can turn into body and wine can turn into blood. The material and the invisible (spiritual?) are interchangeable, certainly one isn’t more important than the other. My films, like many experimental films, take on a form that honors what we can’t see with our eyes. I work with the photographic image, this art that can represent real material objects/beings most precisely, but eventually my intent is to shed light on the things we can’t see.

 

BS: …or your German ancestry? The reason I mention the German ancestry is because a couple of times, in passing, you’ve made a comment to me about your name Hoffman, and that the name Hoffman is German… and I thought, perhaps, you were saying it to me because of my Jewish background.

 

PH: Right.

 

BS: And that was a link between us to that history.

 

PH: Yeah.

 

BS: And what to do with that? The burden of that history.

 

PH: Yeah. Yeah.

 

BS: So, the reason I mention it here is because, certainly recent past German ancestry calls up the Holocaust, and the Nazi period. I don’t know if that’s on your mind at all, as a burden.

 

PH: Well, it’s in passing through. It’s easier to deal with on my mom’s side, which is Polish—the occupation her family experienced in their homeland by the Germans.  There are two stories in passing through, but it’s not dealt with directly, only as a part of the family’s shared history. I also have some old 1/2 “tapes of my German grandma looking at photos from her past and talking, so they may be a vehicle to deal more deeply with this subject.

 

BS: Films to come?

 

PH: Maybe.

 

BS: Are the encounters with death the catalyst for making the films? I recall Bruce Elder pointing out (in a class he was teaching) how Michelangelo Antonioni’s protagonists are separated from others and the flow of daily life by an encounter with death which gives them a different awareness.

 

PH: When the death of a loved one occurs you do go into a different space, and I did film some moments within that space after Marian passed away. However, I am not only in a movie, I’m also looking at my own experience from the outside as I construct the film. Certainly as time passed, my own state changed. As I make my films I’m dealing with people directly, my filmmaking is social, I’m sharing it with the world. I’m making this work and I’m showing an installation of it in Finland and Sydney. I’m not separated from the culture, I’m embracing it, trying to find a ritual to deal with death which makes sense to me, and I hope others. This makes more sense to me than the funeral parlor, the casket, and going into a room with all the flowers and everyone afraid to say anything.

 

BS: I remember at Marian’s memorial service. I was really enriched, and felt I had gained so much from it. But my initial reaction when you showed a film during the memorial was, I was taken aback. I thought, he’s showing a film at her memorial?! But by the end of the whole service, with everyone contributing in their own way, I felt that I had been enriched, and educated, and moved.

 

Ph: Well, I felt it was the only thing I could give because I couldn’t talk. It was just a poem about her first coming to the farm, and a kiss.

 

BS: With Opening Series and Chimera and now Ashes your shooting has changed. The camera is much less stable, more fluid and animated with shorter takes. Where did this come from? Do these signal filmic and/or philosophical developments?

 

Ph: I started shooting in short bursts in Chimera (and in some sequences of Ashes) around the time the wall was coming down in Eastern Europe, and the Internet was going up everywhere. My drive to fragment came from a perception that something was breaking down…well so was my reliance on the photographic image as document, as opposed to expression. I think in Ashes I maintain a better balance between these two aspects which I hold a high regard for. When free association becomes the mode of perception, which is the only sensible tool when so much is up in the air, making a mosaic film is more apt to navigate this space we live in, as opposed to the page-turning form of linear narrative. You’ve also been working in this way, evoking a kind of present-ness…

 

BS: With presence. When I started shooting in short bursts and single frame it was to achieve a simultaneity of place and time I think of as reality, a relatedness, which I had approached in earlier films by superimposition. Now I was trying ‘editing’ closer and closer bits. It also came from a view of myself/filmmaker as observer rather than master or in control.

 

PH: There have been some great developments in this kind of work, like Brakhage. Trying to develop a spiritual space for living/filming in` the now. I love his film Black Ice and theArabic Series, and in your work I love the present-ness in  Like a Dream that Vanishes. As a viewer we’re not thinking about what has happened, or what might happen. We’re right in the moment.

 

BS: Part of my thinking about that was if you get past the identification of what the image is, or what the narrative information of that image is, then you can get closer to a sense of being.

 

PH: And the flow of time.

 

BS: Yes, yes. That it keeps going, and you can’t stop it and hold it, and study it.

 

PH: “Time goes…” as Aunt Katie says in one story in Ashes. In Like a Dream that Vanishes you break it up with observations of the philosopher, John Davis, who you filmed. I think it really works, because you weave these rushing images throughout, and then we’re back listening to him talk about the `mess’ of experience…and of course we realise it’s a mess because it can’t be controlled….because living in the present is the roller coaster you can’t control.

 

BS: This way of shooting and making allows the complexity and wonder in. I’ve been thinking of the structure of Ashes which is more episodic than earlier works. Sequences sometimes have a loose connection, (besides being different shooting styles), but aren’t firmly attached to the preceding one. The connection isn’t justified with causality, although they seem to belong. Some were little detours and gave a bit of relief from the story of Marian’s passing. Like the Egyptian interlude. The sequences stood on their own, and yet they seemed to fit together into a whole. I felt there was a whole-ness to it, despite the fact the sequences could be quite independent. I’m wondering how you determined the structure, how you selected what to put in, and how you ordered it?

 

PH: It was a long and organic process that started in 1989. I was shooting single frames—zooming on each exposure to create a splayed image There were a number of projects that came out of this way of shooting: Opening SeriesChimera, and some installation works. When you are shooting without a plan, just collecting images from your life, there tends to be an organic connection between life and work.

 

BS: There is a unity in all your work, because you’re you.

 

PH: Rather than because it’s a project you are working on. As the 90’s moved along, I started working on Destroying Angel with Wayne Salazar, which Marian assisted through her talks (and recordings) with Wayne. Suddenly in the middle of it Marian tragically died. After a time, Wayne, who had a strong connection to Marian, asked me if we could use some of Marian’s story in our film, which I agreed to. At the same time, I had been asked to construct an installation in Finland. When Marian passed away, I felt I couldn’t really make the trip, but my friends there called me up and suggested I come, they’d take care of me. Since I was spending so much time going through all of the images we had together over our life, why not create something out of it? It seemed to be a positive space for me, so my friends in Helsinki helped me make a kind of offering to her, a six screen circular work, in which many of the ideas for What these ashes wanted developed. My process of finding the structure for Ashes came out of these projects which I was immersed in after Marian’s death. It just seemed to be the way I wanted to spend this grieving time. At the beginning of Ashes, there is a recording from my answering machine from Mike Hoolboom, who gracefully relays to me a story about the repairing of a precious piece of pottery, and I thought that I was trying to do the same thing with the film, with my life. To show something of beauty from a life that had been shattered through her death.

 

HOME MOVIE (SLOWED DOWN) OF A WOMAN (MARIAN) WALKING PAST COLUMNS IN FRONT OF EGYPTIAN MONUMENT

SOUND (TELEPHONE ANSWERING MACHINE):

MIKE:   Hi Phil, I found this in a book and thought you might like to hear it, hear goes.

When I call up pictures of friends, lost, a terrible ache comes over me, so much so that it has to go away on its own, there isn’t much by way of remedy that I can do. I remember a letter of Henry James where he said that in times of great grief it was important to ‘go through the motions of life’; and then eventually they would become real again…. I’ve been trying to write myself a poem about those ancient Japanese ceramic cups, rustic in appearance, the property at some point of a holy monk, one of the few possessions he allowed himself. In a later century someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. So it was repaired not with glue but with a seam of gold solder. And I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history….

(Taken from a portion of a letter from the poet Alfred Corn, Feb 19, 1994 from the novel Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty.)

OK I guess that’s it. See you later.

 

 

At times I think this could come off as crude, using filmmaking as a process for grieving but felt it was a way of honoring her. I went to Spain to try to find the rock opening which is seen at the start of the film, with her text superimposed, where she realizes her illness. I found this text paper clipped behind a still image of this hole, which seemed to be a cave in Guadelest, Spain. I journeyed there with her friend Belinda and we had great trouble finding it. I felt they must have removed it some how, until I looked down on the ground and saw this tiny opening, exactly the same shape as the photograph she took. We had a laugh imagining her down on her stomach trying to take this picture.

 

The film’s structure came after Marian’s death when I was spending this time remembering her, and bringing this film work around to friends and strangers.

 

BS: There was one sequence in the film, where you’re in the back seat of the car taping Marian while she works as a nurse visiting people’s homes. I thought it was a very interesting scene for its mixture of realities. Marian’s a nurse, she’s going into people’s homes, and yet this is being filmed, so is this staged for the film? No, this is real, and we’re seeing it being filmed. This scene sets up the whole question of veracity, what is real and where is the real located?

 

PH: Yes, that’s the synch scene where I sit in the car with this huge 3/4 inch camera, circa 1983, filming her reactions to what she has just seen on a particular home visit. She was giving up nursing so she asked me to videotape her on her last day on the job.

 

BS:  At one point, as I recall, Marian chastises you, or gets mad at you, because you’re not answering her question.

 

PH: Mike Cartmell remarked that what is strong about the film is that it honors not always only her good side. You know, she was a pretty tough cookie. And it doesn’t show her necessarily in the best light, which of course, is the best light, because it was part of her. I’m in, probably, my late-twenties, and I’m saying. Yea it’s hard, the camera’s heavy. And she says, that’s not what I mean, it’s hard emotionally. It’s hard for me to be filmed, and she chastises me, and in a funny way, makes fun of me.

 

BS: And leaving this in gets more at this question of, where is the real in a situation? She’s saying that you answered in a superficial way. It’s an awkward situation because the camera is heavy, but she was trying to get at something below the surface. I think it’s very typical not only of your process of filming, but of Marian’s whole project of digging beneath the surface. How do we come to knowledge? What forms our sense of what’s real and true?  This episode functioned on a lot of levels. I’m wondering how you see this scene functioning in the film.

 

PH: Well, it introduces her ‘in the flesh,’ because it’s sync sound. One of the ways that I want to represent her is as a physical being, closer to, let’s say, a realist representation of her.

 

BS: So it’s Marian. But its also any of us, in a sense. I mean, the film is about you and Marian, and what happened, but what if I don’t know Marian?

 

PH: If you didn’t know Marian, now you actually see her in the flesh. So it’s serving this purpose in the film… you are introduced to the loved one who has been lost. This is why I like to blend various forms, for example, synch sound with a more impressionistic sequence. These are different aspects of how we perceive.

 

But I think the purpose of this scene coming at the beginning of the film is so that there is ground to stand on for the rest of the film. We are introduced to this person in this way, twice. She comes back again, `in the flesh,’ in synch-sound talking in front of the palm trees, and again she is questioning, but mostly I like that scene because we can see her mind working…..she is constantly discovering something for the camera, which brings her to life for a brief moment.

 

BS: And it would seem that the process of making a film is the questioning part of the experience for you.

 

PH: Yeah that’s right.

 

BS: We’ve talked about Chimera in terms of it having been a film in three parts, and used in an installation, and now parts of it finding its way into Ashes. I just wondered how you saw that footage functioning in this film.

 

PH: Well, the single frame zoom footage is carried forward into Ashes, because it carries the three deaths that occurred when I was filming that way. In the early 90’s, three times death came in front of me. This occurred in 1991, 1993, and 1994. I found it strange that this kept happening, and that it was always connected to my filming. I brought these stories and this shooting forward into Ashes, because they seem to serve as a kind of premonition of death, and though one cannot really be ‘prepared’ for the death of a loved one,  it seemed to make me aware that something was coming. I am troubled by these thoughts because two people died, and one nearly, which is horrific and sad. I still do not have an explanation for this so it sits in the film unresolved, like so many things in our lives….

 

BS: The style of that shooting, for me, points to the ephemerality of life. Each second is over, it’s not something we can hold in our hand. Whereas a still photograph gives you the illusion of having something, but really you have something out of time, and so very death-like, whereas this is alive, this is present, and yet you can’t have it.

 

PH: Now you see it, now you don’t. It is like that.

 

BS: There’s also image-to-image speed, because it’s not a single image that you zoom into and out of.

 

PH: Past, present and future exist at the same time, which is maybe what death is, or what happens after death. There is no form, no linear time.

 

BS: I also want to talk about the slow motion sequences.

 

PH: The first part of the film is book-ended by a shot of Marian running in slow motion, first in colour, then in black and white. As if she keeps fading, but is also eternally returning. These are representations of the dream space one is in when one has psychic trauma. She did keep coming back in dreams, or in waking life, or absurdly through the ladybug form. Just like a photograph which actually reminds me that she is gone. It is often said that photos, films or sound recordings help us to understand the past. Well, I think they also help us get through the present. Diving into this kind of footage after Marian’s passing seemed a good place for me to be.

 

BS: Between teaching at Sheridan College and now York University and at the Film Farm workshop, are you creating a movement within experimental film with a manifesto or credo that you espouse?

 

PH: I try to create a place where people can meet and be together. If it’s a movement it’s a movement of sympathy towards each other, or a place to be, where people are working together instead of tearing each other apart.

 

BS: Competing.

 

PH: Competing, or spending so much money to make a film. A place where making something is the most important thing. So I wouldn’t say that is a manifesto, but it is a place where I feel right. The farm workshop is set up so that people need to be there for the whole time, so it’s a retreat. They need to come without a script, and part of the idea is that there is a film inside and no matter where they are, it can be coaxed out. In the time they spend at the workshop they can make a start on that, or finish it, wherever they end up at the end of their stay. Participants learn certain processes, working with a Bolex, with light, with hand processing and tinting and toning. They don’t have to worry about getting it exactly right, sometimes the accidents help them find their route. It’s a bit like cooking, tasting what you’ve done, adding a few more spices here and there.

 

BS: I thought we could call this interview “Man with a Movie Camera” and use the photo of your silhouetted torso with swinging arm suspended by a Bolex-holding hand. I think you’ve had an image of you-with-camera in every film you’ve made. Is this honesty (this film is made by someone, it’s not objective truth) or autobiography (and that someone is me)? Is your life lived through making a film of it?

 

PH: Isn’t it something like a signature? Though this moves against the idea of giving up authorial control. But I think there is something important for me about being able to see where I’ve been through my films, and my life, and the people who have taught me things.

 

 

Living as Filming- Interview by Barbara Sternberg 2004

Philip Hoffman interviewed by Barbara Sternberg (2004)

BS : Hi Philip – When I saw What these ashes wanted (which I was almost afraid to see: would it make me cry over our loss of Marian; might I feel you had exploited Marian’s death for a film?), I felt it was your most successful film—most complete, most fulfilled in its methods and purpose. I mean that form and content were synthesized. (Of course, to be reminded of Marian’s liveliness and bravery in life as well as facing death brought sadness.) The film had a looseness, an openness (reduced use of the first-person voice-over, passages of silence, different types of footage and shooting styles, a relaxed episodic structure) that gave Marian, yourself and the audience respectful space. The film breathes, it’s organic-it moves forward, yes, but there are detours, meanderings in its progression. You have always done beautiful camerawork, but I could connect to this shooting and how it figured in the totality of the film more than in any other (Opening Series and Chimera have shooting I also love and seem to mark a change in approach). After the film I came home thinking how all your films carry forth certain inter-related themes: autobiography (film as constructed memory) which has been constantly examined since your first film On the Pond; the ethics of filming, most clearly stated as problematic in Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion; and death. The fear I had had of exploitation, a question of ethics, was addressed in the film’s dialogue:

PICTURE: SILOUETTE OF MARIAN ON HOSPITAL CURTAIN

MARIAN: …if you could have a ritual for death what would it be…and would it be private or shared.

PHIL: ..I think it would be shared.

CAMERA TILTS TO MARIAN’S EYES…THEN TO THE LIGHT

Opening Series dealt with authorial control, an ethical problem for you, by handing over the sequential ordering of its parts to the audience and to chance. I remember you’ saying, “Why should I have total control?” (One might also think of new music’s compositional principles of indeterminancy and chance.) The choice of order of the rolls gave an element of random chance and loosened the strength of narrative line.

PH : It was also to create a space where the audience, myself and the work could come together and manifest something. Each screening would be different not just because of the order of the work, but the order would reflect its audience. For example, I had shot some footage in Egypt of this Dutch companion that we met along the way who was filming Berber people holding up their tools and crafts. My filming of him, filming the Berber man, became kind of a critique because I included the photographer in the shot. That was shown at an event where he was present in Holland. So, not only did this become an issue when we discussed it after the screening, but there was also some kind of psychic manifestation that happened in the ordering. The way the other elements proceeded and followed this problematic image forced a particular reading of the situation. This was quite surprising. It’s like divining with the I-Ching. So, in Opening Series I was also trying to deal with these sort of invisible links between people, objects, in and out of art making.

BS : In Ashes you make editing choices and yet retain an openness. Space. This new openness is not only a strateg, but a place from which to make a journey, a film. (Is there a difference for you? Is living filming and vice versa? )

PH : I approach every film differently, so I’m not sure the next one will have the same kind of openness, though I think this is something that I have been developing since the early 90’s in films likeOpening Series (1992-95), Chimera (1996), Kokoro is for Heart (1999), and most recently What these ashes wanted (2001) I suppose there is not the same need to say things so overtly as in ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986), or in some of the collaborations I made in the 90’s where it seemed the process of collaboration and its outcome was more important than developing my own voice in the way I did in the ` looser films mentioned above. The 90’s for me was a time to try different ways of working but the most common element was collaboration, whether it be an aleatory collaboration with the audience who helped to place Opening Series in an order, or my `directorial’ collaborations with Wayne Salazar in Destroying Angel (1998), Sami van Ingen in Sweep (1995) or Gerry Shikatani inKokoro is for Heart.

BS : The story (made up? I had assumed) of film kept in the freezer, unprocessed in ?O, Zoo! is told again, in What these ashes wanted, but this version and this time, it’s true – right? In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) you questioned your right to film the death of a Mexican youth—at least text over a black screen told us this seemingly true story.

On the road dead lies a Mexican youth

I put the camera down…’

(excerpt of text from Somewhere Between)

In “…Ashes…” you say that just before Marian died you two slipped out of the hospital at night down to the lake’s edge, and here’s the photo of the lake you took.

I took a picture, you skipped a stone

(excerpt of text from What these ashes wanted)

But just prior to this we see a similar scene from a TV soap opera! Ethics, authority of the filmmaker, veracity, credulity, autobiography… So much of your filmmaking and teaching favors personal story-telling and yet you question both the ethics of film and the possibility of truth. Where does Ashes stand in relation to these terms and in relation to your previous films—and where do you think you place the viewer?

PH : The fallen elephant story in ?O,Zoo!, in which I film a dying elephant and then feel badly about filming it, exploiting the elephant for this sensationalistic act, and subsequently I put the film in the freezer—is a metaphor for what actually happened in my youth as the family photographer, when I filmed my grandfather in the casket at the request of my uncle. Subsequently, in horror at what I had done, I put the film in the freezer. I think when I wrote the story for ?O,Zoo! in 1986 I didn’t realise that unconsciously I was expressing this repressed traumatic experience. I found it quite curious that I had written a fiction, that had its source in a true story, which had happened, but that I didn’t know I was creating a stand-in for this difficult experience. The unconscious was pulling at my shirtsleeve, saying look here, remember this.

In Ashes, the Baywatch scene at the beginning of Part 3 mirrors the personal story of Marian and I leaving the hospital the night she found out she had cancer. The TV soap represents the way, through mass media, our culture presents grieving. Ashes offers another method. Some of Marian’s last writings, which I cherish, came after our final walk on the beach. She wrote in a way that told me that this was not just for her, but the writing should be passed on. In her grief, she had found out something that night and was offering it up. I was the one who could release it to the world through film.

TEXT ON SCREEN (black text supered over window):

The night we had our last walk

she wrote these words:

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

We come together separate

cry and look wide eyed bewildered…

I want to be near the water

We bundle up and leave the hospital for the beach

Beautiful clear crisp blue skied night

we mourn together

laughing at intervals

clinging madly to some sense of life

The open sky water makes me feel

part of something immeasurable

larger than me

and it is consoling

STILL PHOTOS OF MARIAN’S ROOM

(excerpt of text from What these ashes wanted)

So in a way, my films blend fiction with real life experience, and the fiction is usually grounded in lived experience. My sense is that once these expressions are mediated through the filmmaking, they are fictions anyway. I feel fine with this as long as what is made up is somehow a reflection of, or is based on, or comes out of a lived experience-which usually happens naturally. I try to let the experience of filming or photographing or recording audio, happen out of an authentic process of trying to find something out, or communicating something to someone. The residue of this process finds its way into my films.

I think Somewhere Between and ?O,Zoo! are dealing with ethics, but the starting points were traumatic moments that occurred while filming. I feel my calling is a filmer of life. A death occurs in front of me so I have to do something about the experience. During the filming of Somewhere Between I remember sitting on the bus with the camera on my lap, feeling the whole horrible experience. I chose not to film, perhaps more as a gut reaction, but when I returned to Toronto the aura of the boy’s death laid over me like a blanket. I wanted to still make a film about this sacred moment, which I had witnessed, without the so-called crucial image.

reaching out,

the white sheet is pulled over the dead boy’s body

the children wept…

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

(excerpts of text from Somewhere Between)

BS : So, in a way, all your films exist to have the audience at some moment wonder: what is truth? What is fiction? What is film? Is this truth? All of those things are floating around. As audience we go in and out of being sucked into the film the way mainstream films tend to operate on us, and then we’re conscious that this is a construct, that there are certain clues within it that make us say, Wait a minute… and give space to interact with the film. Reality is the interaction between us and this thing you’ve put out called a film.

PH : You asked me earlier if I brought the camera to the hospital to film Marian. The answer to this question expresses something of how I work, of my process. Marian was in the hospital. It was the fall of 1996, `the days of protest,’ and she was mad as hell at the Harris government and all the cuts that were occurring to the social programs. This also effected her directly `on the floor’ in the hospital she was in. She was trying to write a story about all this and she was taking pictures of herself in the hospital.

After Marian’s death, I developed the roll she had taken in the hospital, and found this picture of her, in silouette. She took it of herself in silhouette against the hospital curtain. She also filmed the same curtain from the same angle, and left herself out. Blank. The picture made me shudder. Most often, the powerful personal images, which I use in my films, have had other purposes.

Sometimes I do find it necessary to ask family or friends if I can use a particularly `personal’ recording. In an earlier work, passing through/torn formations (1988), there is a sequence about my uncle  and his daughter,  who had not seen each other for sixteen years. I met him in his pool hall hangout and told him his daughter wanted to see him. He said he’d flip if he saw her so instead he gave her a present. I followed him into the drugstore and he found this mirror that was in two parts, that folded into itself – a ‘corner mirror’ he called it. He felt it showed you the ‘real’ reflection of yourself, ‘the real you.’ It technically does this since it is constructed as two separate parts, the image of yourself, though severed, reflects into itself, thereby rendering your portrait normal, like a photograph. Your face isn’t reversed in the way a normal mirror reverses your features. In exchange for the corner mirror his daughter wanted to send her father a recording, so I taped her message to him. It was my idea to also tape her looking into the ‘corner mirror,’ describing her own facial features. I found him again, and we listened to it in my car. He was deeply moved. A few years later when I was finishing the film I asked her if I could use her voice from the recording and the film we shot of her looking into the corner mirror, and she agreed. As for my uncle, we spent some evenings looking at different cuts of the film, while he played music to it. I used his music in the film. Later I showed him parts of the finished film, though he was most interested in the music. I had thought the film could be a vehicle for me to get to know my uncle again, who used to take me fishing and teach me accordion when I was young. I guess it did somewhat, but it was a bit romantic on my part because film can only do so much. Anyway, I find that this kind of material works well for me as it rings true. It is the residue of lived experience which I can best learn through. When I start imagining something that I should film, and then I carry it out, it often seems contrived and it’s often not as useful as working with what comes along spontaneously.

BS : When I used to be the photographer for a friend’s wedding or anything like that, it kept me at a remove, this in-between space of the camera, between the event and me.

PH : It is the event. Everyone is using images, looking at pictures and video. It’s not once removed, and it is as authentic a moment as any other. The question is how to position it within your experience.

BS : It’s how you interact.

PH : It’s how our culture interacts.

BS: Your first film On the Pond (1978) starts out with you and your family looking at family slides, and on the soundtrack we hear your family commenting and reacting.

PH: Yes, to me this is a continuation of an oral tradition I learned from Babji, my grandma. She would talk to us about our dreams at the breakfast table. The difference is I use a tape recorder and transport conversations through my films.

BS: I want to go back to the term “autobiography”. You’ve made a home movie, a road-movie, a making-of-the-movie movie. I guess your films are autobiographical in that they represent the truth of how it is for you, subconsciously, psychically, spiritually, as well as materially. Do you feel the term autobiography is applicable to you?

PH : I don’t use it much because autobiography assumes that it’s just about yourself. My films are about people and places around me, though strained through my perception. When a writer uses material from their life in a novel, we do not call the book an autobiography. I suppose we might say there are autobiographical elements in the work, but that is common with most art. It is only that the photographic or electronic image is a good stand-in for the real, so we cannot get around the fact that people depicted in a `documentary’ are actually and fully ‘on the screen!’ But we know it’s still an expression or reflection of the person, of the originating moment. Films are constructions, and in my work I construct characters out of the residue of real life experiences.

BS : As Godard says: Film is truth at 24 frames per second, all film is fiction. Do you think the focus on death in your work is because of your personal experiences with your grandmother and Marian?

PH : Everyone experiences a death close at hand but not all filmmakers deal with death so directly, or so often. Maybe it was this initial experience filming my Grandfather in the casket. You know we spend our lives working through this mess…. whether it be a difficult birthing or a difficult family relationship. I’ve said before that childhood is so traumatic, most of us sleep through it… maybe the next part of that statement is that we spend the rest of our time consciously or unconsciously shedding this inevitable pain. I’m glad I have filmmaking because it seems to be a good place to put all this stuff. Maybe I was marked by that experience and I have to keep pushing the rock up the hill—my karma?

BS : Do you think it has something to do with your Catholic upbringing (we saw you at your first Holy Communion in both On the Pond and Kitchener/Berlin)?

PH : What I think my Catholic upbringing taught me was that bread can turn into body and wine can turn into blood. The material and the invisible (spiritual?) are interchangeable, certainly one isn’t more important than the other. My films, like many experimental films, take on a form that honors what we can’t see with our eyes. I work with the photographic image, this art that can represent real material objects/beings most precisely, but eventually my intent is to shed light on the things we can’t see.

BS : …or your German ancestry? The reason I mention the German ancestry is because a couple of times, in passing, you’ve made a comment to me about your name Hoffman, and that the name Hoffman is German… and I thought, perhaps, you were saying it to me because of my Jewish background.

PH : Right.

BS : And that was a link between us to that history.

PH : Yeah.

BS : And what to do with that? The burden of that history.

PH : Yeah. Yeah.

BS : So, the reason I mention it here is because, certainly recent past German ancestry calls up the Holocaust, and the Nazi period. I don’t know if that’s on your mind at all, as a burden.

PH : Well, it’s in passing through. It’s easier to deal with on my mom’s side, which is Polish—the occupation her family experienced in their homeland by the Germans. There are two stories in passing through, but it’s not dealt with directly, only as a part of the family’s shared history. I also have some old 1/2 “tapes of my German grandma looking at photos from her past and talking, so they may be a vehicle to deal more deeply with this subject.

BS : Films to come?

PH : Maybe.

BS : Are the encounters with death the catalyst for making the films? I recall Bruce Elder pointing out (in a class he was teaching) how Michelangelo Antonioni’s protagonists are separated from others and the flow of daily life by an encounter with death which gives them a different awareness.

PH : When the death of a loved one occurs you do go into a different space, and I did film some moments within that space after Marian passed away. However, I am not only in a movie, I’m also looking at my own experience from the outside as I construct the film. Certainly as time passed, my own state changed. As I make my films I’m dealing with people directly, my filmmaking is social, I’m sharing it with the world. I’m making this work and I’m showing an installation of it in Finland and Sydney. I’m not separated from the culture, I’m embracing it, trying to find a ritual to deal with death which makes sense to me, and I hope others. This makes more sense to me than the funeral parlor, the casket, and going into a room with all the flowers and everyone afraid to say anything.

BS : I remember at Marian’s memorial service. I was really enriched, and felt I had gained so much from it. But my initial reaction when you showed a film during the memorial was, I was taken aback. I thought, he’s showing a film at her memorial?! But by the end of the whole service, with everyone contributing in their own way, I felt that I had been enriched, and educated, and moved.

Ph : Well, I felt it was the only thing I could give because I couldn’t talk. It was just a poem about her first coming to the farm, and a kiss.

BS : With Opening Series and Chimera and now Ashes your shooting has changed. The camera is much less stable, more fluid and animated with shorter takes. Where did this come from? Do these signal filmic and/or philosophical developments?

Ph : I started shooting in short bursts in Chimera (and in some sequences of Ashes) around the time the wall was coming down in Eastern Europe, and the Internet was going up everywhere. My drive to fragment came from a perception that something was breaking down…well so was my reliance on the photographic image as document, as opposed to expression. I think in Ashes I maintain a better balance between these two aspects which I hold a high regard for. When free association becomes the mode of perception, which is the only sensible tool when so much is up in the air, making a mosaic film is more apt to navigate this space we live in, as opposed to the page-turning form of linear narrative. You’ve also been working in this way, evoking a kind of present-ness…

BS : With presence. When I started shooting in short bursts and single frame it was to achieve a simultaneity of place and time I think of as reality, a relatedness, which I had approached in earlier films by superimposition. Now I was trying ‘editing’ closer and closer bits. It also came from a view of myself/filmmaker as observer rather than master or in control.

PH : There have been some great developments in this kind of work, like Brakhage. Trying to develop a spiritual space for living/filming in` the now. I love his film Black Ice and the Arabic Series, and in your work I love the present-ness in Like a Dream that Vanishes. As a viewer we’re not thinking about what has happened, or what might happen. We’re right in the moment.

BS : Part of my thinking about that was if you get past the identification of what the image is, or what the narrative information of that image is, then you can get closer to a sense of being.

PH : And the flow of time.

BS : Yes, yes. That it keeps going, and you can’t stop it and hold it, and study it.

PH : “Time goes…” as Aunt Katie says in one story in Ashes. In Like a Dream that Vanishes you break it up with observations of the philosopher, John Davis, who you filmed. I think it really works, because you weave these rushing images throughout, and then we’re back listening to him talk about the `mess’ of experience…and of course we realise it’s a mess because it can’t be controlled….because living in the present is the roller coaster you can’t control.

BS : This way of shooting and making allows the complexity and wonder in. I’ve been thinking of the structure of Ashes which is more episodic than earlier works. Sequences sometimes have a loose connection, (besides being different shooting styles), but aren’t firmly attached to the preceding one. The connection isn’t justified with causality, although they seem to belong. Some were little detours and gave a bit of relief from the story of Marian’s passing. Like the Egyptian interlude. The sequences stood on their own, and yet they seemed to fit together into a whole. I felt there was a whole-ness to it, despite the fact the sequences could be quite independent. I’m wondering how you determined the structure, how you selected what to put in, and how you ordered it?

PH : It was a long and organic process that started in 1989. I was shooting single frames—zooming on each exposure to create a splayed image There were a number of projects that came out of this way of shooting: Opening SeriesChimera, and some installation works. When you are shooting without a plan, just collecting images from your life, there tends to be an organic connection between life and work.

BS : There is a unity in all your work, because you’re you.

PH : Rather than because it’s a project you are working on. As the 90’s moved along, I started working on Destroying Angel with Wayne Salazar, which Marian assisted through her talks (and recordings) with Wayne. Suddenly in the middle of it Marian tragically died. After a time, Wayne, who had a strong connection to Marian, asked me if we could use some of Marian’s story in our film, which I agreed to. At the same time, I had been asked to construct an installation in Finland. When Marian passed away, I felt I couldn’t really make the trip, but my friends there called me up and suggested I come, they’d take care of me. Since I was spending so much time going through all of the images we had together over our life, why not create something out of it? It seemed to be a positive space for me, so my friends in Helsinki helped me make a kind of offering to her, a six screen circular work, in which many of the ideas for What these ashes wanted developed. My process of finding the structure for Ashescame out of these projects which I was immersed in after Marian’s death. It just seemed to be the way I wanted to spend this grieving time. At the beginning of Ashes, there is a recording from my answering machine from Mike Hoolboom, who gracefully relays to me a story about the repairing of a precious piece of pottery, and I thought that I was trying to do the same thing with the film, with my life. To show something of beauty from a life that had been shattered through her death.

HOME MOVIE (SLOWED DOWN) OF A WOMAN (MARIAN) WALKING PAST COLUMNS IN FRONT OF EGYPTIAN MONUMENT

SOUND (TELEPHONE ANSWERING MACHINE):

MIKE: Hi Phil, I found this in a book and thought you might like to hear it, hear goes.

When I call up pictures of friends, lost, a terrible ache comes over me, so much so that it has to go away on its own, there isn’t much by way of remedy that I can do. I remember a letter of Henry James where he said that in times of great grief it was important to ‘go through the motions of life’; and then eventually they would become real again…. I’ve been trying to write myself a poem about those ancient Japanese ceramic cups, rustic in appearance, the property at some point of a holy monk, one of the few possessions he allowed himself. In a later century someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. So it was repaired not with glue but with a seam of gold solder. And I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history….

(Taken from a portion of a letter from the poet Alfred Corn, Feb 19, 1994 from the novel Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty.)

OK I guess that’s it. See you later.

At times I think this could come off as crude, using filmmaking as a process for grieving but felt it was a way of honoring her. I went to Spain to try to find the rock opening which is seen at the start of the film, with her text superimposed, where she realizes her illness. I found this text paper clipped behind a still image of this hole, which seemed to be a cave in Guadelest, Spain. I journeyed there with her friend Belinda and we had great trouble finding it. I felt they must have removed it some how, until I looked down on the ground and saw this tiny opening, exactly the same shape as the photograph she took. We had a laugh imagining her down on her stomach trying to take this picture.

The film’s structure came after Marian’s death when I was spending this time remembering her, and bringing this film work around to friends and strangers.

BS : There was one sequence in the film, where you’re in the back seat of the car taping Marian while she works as a nurse visiting people’s homes. I thought it was a very interesting scene for its mixture of realities. Marian’s a nurse, she’s going into people’s homes, and yet this is being filmed, so is this staged for the film? No, this is real, and we’re seeing it being filmed. This scene sets up the whole question of veracity, what is real and where is the real located?

PH : Yes, that’s the synch scene where I sit in the car with this huge 3/4 inch camera, circa 1983, filming her reactions to what she has just seen on a particular home visit. She was giving up nursing so she asked me to videotape her on her last day on the job.

BS : At one point, as I recall, Marian chastises you, or gets mad at you, because you’re not answering her question.

PH : Mike Cartmell remarked that what is strong about the film is that it honors not always only her good side. You know, she was a pretty tough cookie. And it doesn’t show her necessarily in the best light, which of course, is the best light, because it was part of her. I’m in, probably, my late-twenties, and I’m saying. Yea it’s hard, the camera’s heavy. And she says, that’s not what I mean, it’s hard emotionally. It’s hard for me to be filmed, and she chastises me, and in a funny way, makes fun of me.

BS : And leaving this in gets more at this question of, where is the real in a situation? She’s saying that you answered in a superficial way. It’s an awkward situation because the camera is heavy, but she was trying to get at something below the surface. I think it’s very typical not only of your process of filming, but of Marian’s whole project of digging beneath the surface. How do we come to knowledge? What forms our sense of what’s real and true? This episode functioned on a lot of levels. I’m wondering how you see this scene functioning in the film.

PH : Well, it introduces her ‘in the flesh,’ because it’s sync sound. One of the ways that I want to represent her is as a physical being, closer to, let’s say, a realist representation of her.

BS : So it’s Marian. But its also any of us, in a sense. I mean, the film is about you and Marian, and what happened, but what if I don’t know Marian?

PH : If you didn’t know Marian, now you actually see her in the flesh. So it’s serving this purpose in the film… you are introduced to the loved one who has been lost. This is why I like to blend various forms, for example, synch sound with a more impressionistic sequence. These are different aspects of how we perceive.

But I think the purpose of this scene coming at the beginning of the film is so that there is ground to stand on for the rest of the film. We are introduced to this person in this way, twice. She comes back again, `in the flesh,’ in synch-sound talking in front of the palm trees, and again she is questioning, but mostly I like that scene because we can see her mind working…..she is constantly discovering something for the camera, which brings her to life for a brief moment.

BS : And it would seem that the process of making a film is the questioning part of the experience for you.

PH : Yeah that’s right.

BS : We’ve talked about Chimera in terms of it having been a film in three parts, and used in an installation, and now parts of it finding its way into Ashes. I just wondered how you saw that footage functioning in this film.

PH : Well, the single frame zoom footage is carried forward into Ashes, because it carries the three deaths that occurred when I was filming that way. In the early 90’s, three times death came in front of me. This occurred in 1991, 1993, and 1994. I found it strange that this kept happening, and that it was always connected to my filming. I brought these stories and this shooting forward into Ashes, because they seem to serve as a kind of premonition of death, and though one cannot really be ‘prepared’ for the death of a loved one, it seemed to make me aware that something was coming. I am troubled by these thoughts because two people died, and one nearly, which is horrific and sad. I still do not have an explanation for this so it sits in the film unresolved, like so many things in our lives….

BS : The style of that shooting, for me, points to the ephemerality of life. Each second is over, it’s not something we can hold in our hand. Whereas a still photograph gives you the illusion of having something, but really you have something out of time, and so very death-like, whereas this is alive, this is present, and yet you can’t have it.

PH : Now you see it, now you don’t. It is like that.

BS : There’s also image-to-image speed, because it’s not a single image that you zoom into and out of.

PH : Past, present and future exist at the same time, which is maybe what death is, or what happens after death. There is no form, no linear time.

BS : I also want to talk about the slow motion sequences.

PH : The first part of the film is book-ended by a shot of Marian running in slow motion, first in colour, then in black and white. As if she keeps fading, but is also eternally returning. These are representations of the dream space one is in when one has psychic trauma. She did keep coming back in dreams, or in waking life, or absurdly through the ladybug form. Just like a photograph which actually reminds me that she is gone. It is often said that photos, films or sound recordings help us to understand the past. Well, I think they also help us get through the present. Diving into this kind of footage after Marian’s passing seemed a good place for me to be.

BS : Between teaching at Sheridan College and now York University and at the Film Farm workshop, are you creating a movement within experimental film with a manifesto or credo that you espouse?

PH : I try to create a place where people can meet and be together. If it’s a movement it’s a movement of sympathy towards each other, or a place to be, where people are working together instead of tearing each other apart.

BS : Competing.

PH : Competing, or spending so much money to make a film. A place where making something is the most important thing. So I wouldn’t say that is a manifesto, but it is a place where I feel right. The farm workshop is set up so that people need to be there for the whole time, so it’s a retreat. They need to come without a script, and part of the idea is that there is a film inside and no matter where they are, it can be coaxed out. In the time they spend at the workshop they can make a start on that, or finish it, wherever they end up at the end of their stay. Participants learn certain processes, working with a Bolex, with light, with hand processing and tinting and toning. They don’t have to worry about getting it exactly right, sometimes the accidents help them find their route. It’s a bit like cooking, tasting what you’ve done, adding a few more spices here and there.

BS : I thought we could call this interview “Man with a Movie Camera” and use the photo of your silhouetted torso with swinging arm suspended by a Bolex-holding hand. I think you’ve had an image of you-with-camera in every film you’ve made. Is this honesty (this film is made by someone, it’s not objective truth) or autobiography (and that someone is me)? Is your life lived through making a film of it?

PH : Isn’t it something like a signature? Though this moves against the idea of giving up authorial control. But I think there is something important for me about being able to see where I’ve been through my films, and my life, and the people who have taught me things.

What these ashes wanted (Script)

by Philip Hoffman

TEXT ON SCREEN (White on Black)

What these ashes wanted, I felt sure,
was not containment but participation.
Not an enclosure of memory,
but the world.   ‑  Mark Doty

HOME MOVIE (COLOR) OF A WOMAN (M) AND MAN (P) AT A SCHOOLHOUSE…PLAYING IT UP TO THE CAMERA IN HOME MOVIE STYLE

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

What these ashes wanted

MAN’S HANDS (P) ATTEMPTING TO PUT BROKEN POTTERY BACK TOGETHER – CUT VERY RAPIDLY (COLOR)

HOME MOVIE (SLOWED DOWN) OF A WOMAN (M) WALKING PAST COLUMNS IN FRONT OF EGYPTIAN MONUMENT

SOUND (TELEPHONE ANSWERING MACHINE):

MIKE:   Hi Phil, I found this in a book and thought you might like to hear it, hear goes…

When I call up pictures of friends, lost, a terrible ache comes over me, so much so that it has to go away on its own, there isn’t much by way of remedy that I can do. I remember a letter of Henry James where he said that in times of great grief it was important to `go through the motions of life’; and then eventually they would become real again…. I’ve been trying to write myself a poem about those ancient Japanese ceramic cups, rustic in appearance, the property at some point of a holy monk, one of the few possessions he allowed himself. In a later century someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. So it was repaired not with glue but with a seam of gold solder. And I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history….

(Taken from a portion of a letter from the poet Alfred Corn, Feb 19, 1994 ‑ from Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty.)

Ok I guess that’s it …see you later…

VISITING NURSE (M) ON DAILY CALLS, SHOT FROM BACK SEAT OF CAR BY (P).

M-  It’s almost as if I’m experiencing the stress of the contradiction. A stranger going into someone’s home, touching their bodies and you don’t know what their name is.  Going into your private part of your life experiences but you’re body is public property and it’s being treated by the medical profession.  That to me is very strange.  253, Christ… (LOOKING FOR HOUSE ADDRESS).

M LEAVES CAR. DOG WALKS ACROSS ROAD. BOY `DIRECTS’ CONCERT ON FRONT PORCH. M RETURNS. DRIVING CONTINUES.

M-  You can’t even go to the bathroom there’s just so much junk around.  I go into the bathroom, and there’s a pair of poopy underwear soaking in the sink . Where am I going to wash my hands? I kind of run my fingers under the tap and wet them.

M- A camera isn’t human but it performs the same kind of act…. except it’s not working on my physical experience, but on my psychological experience.

P- it’s working on my physical experience.

M  LEAVES CAR. M COMES BACK. DRIVING CONTINUES.

M- 57, 57, 74… 57. Bingo.  Okay, see you in a minute….bye…(SHE GESTURES AT P BEHIND CAMERA) …Philip kiss me (laugh).

M  LEAVES CAR. M RETURNS TO CAR

M- It’s really hard for me to do this.  I feel like I have to entertain you.  That’s not what I really mean to say.

P- It’s forcing you.

M- I feel like I ‘m not really talking about things that I’d want to talk about, things that I’d want to talk about with you.

P- Yeah, because you are talking to the camera.

M- Yeah.

P- Well, it’s hard for me, too.

M- Maybe, we should have somebody filming us.  Someone
filming you filming me. Why is it hard for you?

P- It’s hard.

M- Because it’s heavy!

P- Yeah.

M- Oh, Philip, here I am talking about psychological difficulties and you’re talking about physical ones.  You’re nuts, you really are nuts.  Sometimes I think you are so insensitive, honestly.

P- What I’m saying is I’m concentrating on this which makes me not able to concentrate on what you’re saying or interact…

M-    That’s a little different than saying that it’s hard for me because the camera is heavy.  It’s a little different, you know? Do you understand the difference?

M  LIGHTS UP A SMOKE AND STARES OUT THE FRONT WINDOW

TEXT ON SCREEN (White on Black):

He always thought they would grow old together

DISSOLVE TO

PHOTO OF SEASCAPE SEEN FROM A DARK CAVE (GUADALEST, SPAIN)

TEXT ON SCREEN – (black text superimposed on photo seascape):

I found this photograph
which she took 8 years ago
it was in her desk
paperclipped behind this text:

TEXT ON SCREEN – SUPERIMPOSED BELOW CAVE OPENING (white on black):

For the last year I have had this picture hanging before me as I sit at my desk. It has plagued me with its possible meanings.  I was convinced that this image held and contained  meanings and that if I stared long enough, they would tell me something about events around the time of the picture’s taking.  I took this picture on September 24, 1988, in Spain at a castle near Guadalest, a small village located 60 miles inland from Valencia. As I write here now I hold my breath in fear of reawakening a bodily memory of that time. It was a time when I had begun to relax after a period of intense work. Simultaneously, the symptoms I was about to experience over the next ten months began to appear acutely. I began to become intensely aware of how little control we have over our body and its functions, of how frightening it is not to know. I came to experience, once again, the terror  –  of not being believed and hence, not being able to believe myself. There were many months of darkness and denial until I began to believe myself, to listen and recognise that something extraordinary was taking place in my body.  I have since retraced the lessons that taught me the power of naming  –  more evidence of the logocentric universe we inhabit  –  and the disadvantage of not being able to describe what is taking place in my own world, in my own body.

Two days ago I awoke, realising that the picture of Guadalest represented the start of an inner process. This process  taught me how to begin to interpret the world from the inside out. I see this image as a record of the affective states of that time, of the confusion, the desire to hide,  as well as a glimpse at a phenomenal process, that I will attempt to expand through my writing.

CAVE IMAGE CONTINUES

TEXT ON SCREEN – (black text superimposed on photo seascape):

I do not know much about
the actual place where the photo was taken
but that its taking coincided with a severe illness
which we thought she recovered from.
In a state of wellness which marked her last years
she travelled and purged the things she felt
created her illness in the first place.
Lodged somewhere in this darkened surround
lays her afterimage.
If I could brighten up this part of the picture
I might illuminate
the conditions of her death
the mystery of her life
and the reasons why
at the instant of her passage
I felt content with her leaving
a feeling I no longer hold.

M AND P WALKING IN THE  SNOW…KISS (COLOR)

HI-CON B&W AND HANDPROCESSED IMAGES

SOUND: MUSIC/SOUNDSCAPE, TELEPHONE MESSAGES DESCRIBING FLOW OF A LIFE:

…and thanks……if you could get in touch with us, and

just wondering how you fellas are getting on, haven’t heard from you in some time, bye for now

its not far out of reach at all….this number is…

 

This is the culture Lab at Toronto General confirming your appointment for Monday, January 23 at 10:10. If you are unable to attend, please call 310 404-0216…  Please remember to bring your Hospital Health Card. Thank-you

 

…I can offer an alternative situation.  If you would like to ring Betty Litkey…. Betty and I’ve worked together in this office, and she’d be able to give you answers to your questions.  Thank you  so much, good-bye. The time is ten o-clock…in the morning, I’ll try to get you by 1 o’clock this afternoon, and I’ll try again before five.

…Parallelogram, Students Against Censorship, This Ain’t The Rosedale Library, if you could please call me that would be excellent… Just calling to say hi and whether you want to put up posters before the meeting, or…anyway

Okay, see you. Hope you had a good day, bye….

Yeah, Arrow does a little nervous yawn during that, when you give your message… that’s quite nice…Anyway, It’s four o’clock, I’m going into class.

Honey I love you, bye.

Marian. I’m thinking about our paper here alot, and I’m…one of the things we didn’t talk about was… schooling as a site of depravation. Would you mind calling me? Bye.

…looks like you got did rid of the fire alarm…and what are we thinking about…

I was wondering if you come and stay with me, sleep over.

Good-bye, love ya….I survived last Wednesday….tried to phone you, um…

Marian…

thank you, can you come in Friday? 10 am tomorrow. That’s Friday…

…your application seems to have gone awry, I tried to call you at half past ten this morning, don’t know whether your bringing it back or whether… I’ve been trying to get a hold of your lawyer, he’s not there. He’s in Palmerston, so I don’t know if you set up anything with him….I’m at the office… here in Flesherton… I’ve been across to Mt Forest and the offer is now with the vendors, so I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow and let you know how it goes.

I got your name and want to organize some kind of benefit for Danica House, if you could give me a call back, I would really appreciate that.

Hello? Hello, hello this is Denise…Oh hi, hi Denise

I’m calling to say your drum is ready…Hi….

I felt like I… I hung on to your stone very tightly. ..Oh, good.

I felt like I…  I talked to my mother in ways that I wanted to….

It’s Saturday night and I just remembered that you said you’d be in Toronto. Just called to say…

…my blood test is back, so give me a call, bye…ok. Love you both, bye now, happy new year.

The short message is…it’s a girl! Talk to you later

…Done…we’re $84.00 over-budget that’s about … the bill is five hundred…

…calling from London, it’s about the article for Feminist Review

I wondered if you got my letter….thought you’d be able to do the changes in time for this issue? Just wondering how you’re getting on?

Mr. Hoffman?

He’s not here, can I take a message?

Is this Mrs. or…?

No, there is no Mrs. Hoffman.

Are you a daughter or….

Hi, it’s me, um

Phil…Phil…it’s a girl …we’re so happy…

..whatever is convenient. take care, bye, bye

I love you, bye

I got your card from Amsterdam … it’s a riot

had a great time … come to your place… I want to  talk to you, I’d love…

Friday

I should be passing through Toronto with a bloody quick transfer … arriving from Halifax at Pearson Airport at 12…Heathrow at…1700 hours….

What are you doing tomorrow night? I thought I’d make dinner

…Is acceptable… well, it has been widely unacceptable in the academy

…I might go…I wanted to speak with you about the proposal.

we haven’t got any wood …. you know…

what happened….

yeah… well, my mother…..

it’s me again

drive me to the show

I don’t know what else to say…but I want to you to be home

…okay, hope you had a good day, bye, bye

COLOR IMAGES IN GARDEN AND AROUND STONE HOUSE

Hello. Will you please call Wilma Rouse at 323-3429. I still have a blouse here that I don’t know what to do with. Thank you.

…Oh, Good…Its hard to…. Its really hard to…Its about 3:34, and um…

Are you there?  I was wondering where you were? It’s me…

I won a competition…and

I don’t know where you’re going to be. Anyway, I’ll call you

… Here’s a very short message from a really long way away…. I just called to say that I miss you, and I wanted to hear your voice, but I didn’t hear much of it… ok, bye.

I’ll call again… I’ll talk to you later on tonight. I think I’ll call you later tonight, ok? Bye.

I don’t know what else to say?

…but I want you to be home.

I hope you’re well…

I keep trying to get a hold…

I was wondering where you were?

How did it go?

It went, it went well.

Yeah?

…Or give me a call before…. I’m making dinner.

People said things to one another…like they hadn’t done before…

….I just called to say thanks for the weekend…..

…a nice tropical island….

LADYBUG MOVES SLOWLY ACROSS LEAF OF PLANT

IN SLOW MOTION (B&W HI-CON FILM) WOMAN (M) DANCES  PLAYFULLY… OFF IN THE DISTANCE SPINNING AND LAUGHING DISSIPATING INTO THE SNOW… CLEAR WHITE SCREEN…DUST

LADYBUGS CRAWL AROUND HEART-SHAPED PENDANT, AND STONES.

CHILD’S HANDS MAKE SHADOWPLAY IN WARM MORNING LIGHT

YOUNG GIRLS TALK:

m-we have all different kinds…one we found was black with yellow spots…

j-last summer were there as much ladybugs as those flies…

m-they were crawling all over the window sills…

j-and I accidentally killed it…

m-they’re all flipped over right now…

SILOUETTE OF M ON HOSPITAL CURTAIN

M- …if you could have a ritual for death what would it be…and would it be private or shared.

P-…I think it would be shared

CAMERA TILTS TO MARIAN’S EYES…THEN TO THE LIGHT

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

Four Shadows

FAST MOVING IMAGES FROM CANADA, EGYPT, ENGLAND, RUSSIA, AUSTRALIA. EVERYDAY HOME IMAGES, SNOW & STREET SCENES.MUSICAL WOVEN SOUNDSCAPE OF POPULAR SONGS, PROCESSED SOUNDS, AND VOICES OF DIFFERENT LANGUAGES.

P- Ladybugs. They hung together like bees on honeycomb, attached to the ceiling in the hallway adjoining your room. Eventually the spread themselves through every corner of the house, as if trying to replace your presence…. I followed them closely.

FAST MOVING IMAGES AND SOUNDSCAPE CONTINUES

M-  (faintly) I dreamt that…I dreamt that we decided to go back to Canada…and when I came back everything had changed, but it was still familiar…mostly I remember walking through the snow with you Phil…

FAST MOVING IMAGES AND SOUNDSCAPE CONTINUES

M- (faintly) there’s no way any of these hotel employees would ask us what we are doing because it looks like we belong…..I’m not sure how to figure all this out…..

P- Not long before you died, death scenes crept into my life. We watched a course of events that cast me as witness, each encounter making death less strange. I wondered why this was happening.

EGYPT.  M IS IN FRONT OF QUEEN HATCHEPSUT’S TEMPLE

P- This is the footage we shot in the Valley of the Kings,  at the Great Temple of Amun, at Horus Chapel,  and at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepsut. These are sacred sites and visitors are asked not to photograph on the inside. We followed this request and photograph them from the outside.

She films the broken bodies strewn on the ground, and the scratched out figure of Queen  Hatchepsut, the female Pharaoh who reigned for more than 20 years. We listen to the tour guide’s version of history: Theology dictated that in order for the spirit or soul to live forever, the body, the image, or at least the name of the deceased must survive on earth. After Hatchepsut’s death a campaign was mounted against this unconventional female king whereby her name

and image were defiled, and she was physically removed from the Pharaoh lists, written out of Egyptian history. In the 19th century with the decipherment of hieroglyphics pieces of her story gradually came to light and her memory was reconstituted, but her body had been removed in antiquity and her royal tomb lays empty to this day.

M TALKS TO CAMERA IN FRONT OF PALM TREES

M-I don’t really want to say anything while you’re recording.  Are you testing it out now. There is no way that any of these hotel employees would come and ask us what we were doing here because we look like we belong, sort of.

P-Why?

M-Well, because we’re white, because we have blue eyes, because we dress the way we are. Because we just look entitled in some ways.  I’m not sure how to figure this out.  It doesn’t fit into the categories I have to understand money and wealth and things like that. It’s just confusing.

M IS IN FRONT OF QUEEN HATCHEPSUT’S TEMPLE

P-By late afternoon on this, the first day of filming, the zoom barrel on the camera jammed. By early evening the trigger seized up and the camera became non‑operative.

Upon returning home I was anxious to see how the footage we shot in Egypt turned out.  I  telephoned the printer in Montreal to see if the optical work was ready.  Carrick had done printing for me before and I found his work to be flawless. His wife answered the phone and she went to get him, but soon I realized there was something going on at the other end of the line. There was panic in the woman’s far off voice, and she didn’t  come back to the phone so I hung up. That evening I called to see what had happened. Carrick’s wife answered and told me that he had a heart attack and passed away.

FARM BUILDINGS. CANADA. DUSK. CLOUDS PASS QUICKLY.

MUSEUM OF MOVING IMAGES. LONDON. FAST MOVING IMAGES.

P- I spent about 2 hours shooting this footage in the Museum of Moving Images in London, where, in just a very short visit you can witness what is recognized as the whole history of cinema.  Blurry eyed  I left the museum and got onto the bridge to cross the Thames. When I was about 1/3  across the river, a man, looked me in the eye, hopped up on the railing and jumped  into the cold February water. Down through the grill of the bridge I could see his head under water and his arms limp,  and he didn’t make any attempt to find the surface. A business man approached  and asked if  what he saw was the same thing I saw and then a woman, running from the middle of the bridge shouted that she would go to the south end to get help. Running all the way to the north end I met a police women and I asked  her to radio in the tragedy…. then I saw two policemen approaching the river who told me that the report had already come in, and that a pleasure boat had picked the man up ‑ he was in the boat. They took my name and number.  I would  be called as a witness if the man died…. Later in the afternoon an officer left me a note at the place where I was staying: `the chap that jumped into the river is alright’ .

STILL PHOTOS OF WATERLOO BRIDGE. LONDON.

CHILD’S FINGERS AND LIGHT CARESS CRAWLING LADYBUGS

FAST MOVING IMAGES. HELSINKI, FINLAND. RUSSIAN MARKET & PHOTO EXHIBIT.

P-Sami and I hurried to catch the 8am train to Pori at the Helsinki train depot. We were travelling to the west side of Finland to present a program of Canadian and Finnish films in a small port town. While we waited for the train to leave we noticed that an elderly man behind us was in some despair. His wife was trying to find something in his pocket, perhaps his medication ‑ he was a very big man and was breathing heavily. After a few minutes a train attendant arrived and asked the woman a few questions as the old man sat shaking.

As the attendant made his way down the aisle to stop the train from leaving and call an ambulance, gears engaged and we slowly pulled away from the Helsinkistation ..it would take 7 minutes to get to the next station. The passengers returned to reading their papers, occasionally they peeked overtop the print to check the man’s condition…. eventually a voice in Finnish came onto the overhead speakers, presumably to request a doctor for the sick man. Sami said that the announcement stated that a lunch cart will soon be arriving with refreshments and sandwiches.  We got up to give the woman some comfort but her attention was on her husband who was passing away before her eyes. Soon we arrived at Passila station and paramedics boarded the train, walked to where the old man lay slumped, and asked the woman a few questions. They quickly dragged his enormous body down the narrow aisle, and laid him by the door of the train. Samiwent back to find out what had happened. The man had a heart attack and was dead. As the train pulled away from the station, we watched through the window. As the train pulled away from the station, we watched through the window. The man was hoisted into the ambulance and the doors shut.

SNOW SCENES. M AND P ON A WINTER WALK. SHADOWS IN THE SNOW.

KIDS SKATING IN SUNSHINE.

SOUNDSCAPE ENDS.

BLACK SCREEN

NURSE REPORT (audio): The lung biopsy itself can lead to some collapse of the lung…this is often seen after these types of procedures, and the person is short of breath for awhile, but this does tend to resolve after a few days or so…

BREAKING WAVE IN SUPER-SLOW MOTION

TEXT SUPERIMPOSED ON WAVE:

antiseptic fictions
invade the living room

every story is ours

MUSIC:  One is the loneliest number that you ever have. Two can be as bad as one it’s the loneliest number since the number one…..

` BAYWATCH’ SOAP OPERA. MAN WAITS BY WOMAN, SLEEPING IN HOSPITAL  BED. HE KISSES HER. MAN CARRIES WOMAN TO BEACH.

NURSE REPORT (audio over above images): We know that the disease was extensive on x-rays as well as on the biopsy that they did…they also did echo-cardiogram. Which showed that there was fluid around the chest….around the heart area as well. Our assumption tonight is that this may have re-accumulated. We did draw back some fluid from the pericardia area. Now the echo-cardiogram showed that she did have some dysfunction of the right side of her heart and this may have been secondary to the ongoing lung problems that she was having. Over the past couple of days it seemed that she was having more and more shortness of breath….a couple reasons……

MUSIC ENDS

 

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

17

STILL PHOTO OF GRAMPA IN CASKET

P-Grampa died when I was in the midst of making my 1st film. As the family photographer I was asked to photograph him in the casket. I arrived before thegrievers, my uncle greeted me and showed me into the room. It was as if I was on an industrial photo assignment to film living rooms or something. When I saw him he really didn’t look like himself yet I knew that what I was doing was important for some of the family. I took 6 shots and left. So shocked with what I had done, I put the film into the freezer and left it there for almost a decade. I often wondered why my uncle never asked me for the photographs, as if the act of organizing the filming was all that was necessary. Years later I developed the film.

BRIGHT ROAD SHOTS (B&W HI-CON)

P-(softly) …17’s the number…1 + 7 is  8 …7 is doing, 8 is infinity…17’s the number….she was born on May 17 and died on November 17…(continues faintly under following narration)

P- My first encounter with death happened when I was 8. We visited Grampa’s brother, uncle Hans. He was my Godfather and I remember him from the smoke filled card games Grampa had in the rec-room where wine flowed like water and German music blared amidst the hollering. Uncle Hans had lung cancer, I was told, because he smoked. Mom took us up to the hospital and with sunshine streaming in I heard for the first time the death gargle.

P-(softly)…my dad was born April 17, my uncle was born on April 17 and my grandfather was born on April 17……my sisters were born on June 17…..1 is 1…7 is for doing and 8 is infinity…my seat on the plane was 17…(continues)

P- Aunt Katie was the widow of Uncle Hans. Every Christmas I would visit her, 1st with mom, and later on my own. She spoke little English and I spoke little German but we spoke. She was happy that I was working in film and television: ` Just the other day the TV repair man charged her a bundle for only a short visit’, so she was assured that I had chosen a lucrative career. On my last visit she complained about a nagging backache, and whispered to herself  `time goes’, over and over `time goes’….A call came from my uncle in the summer, asking if I could help move Aunt Katie’s things. When I asked if she was moving he told me that she had died 3 months ago.

P-(softly) My sisters were born on June 17th, in 1953…after spreading her ashes in England, Finland and Spain, my seat number was 18… my dad was born April 17, my uncle was born on April 17 and my grandfather was born on April 17…(continues)

P- My mother carried her first pregnancy 9 months but the foetus was born dead. Apparently the doctor new that the foetus was not living weeks before the delivery, but they didn’t want to upset my mother with this terrible news.  My parents had already named him Phillip after my father and grandfather. They buried him at the family plot but the priest refused to partake in the ceremony and bless the grave claiming that the foetus was born dead, and therefore the spirit had already left for limbo. My father still sites this event as the reason he stopped going to church on a regular basis. After the triplets were born my mother got pregnant again and had me. I remember sitting on grampa’s knee as he proclaimed that Phillip the third would take over the family business, but I think he really meant Phillip the fourth.

HEALTH CARE CUTS PROTESTERS IN TORONTO. DRUMMING. CHANTING.

(B&W HI-CON)

RADIO ANNOUNCER 1 (audio)- …and really that is all of it, because other then protest areas all the other major routes lighter than usual, in town we are running accident free. Help change the problems and challenges and headaches of running a business, into profits. Call AT&T Accounting Systems…

RADIO ANNOUNCER 2 (audio)-   We’re just at elm Street now where a group of probably several hundred Health Care Workers are protesting outside of heQueen Elizabeth Hospital. They’ve just marched up from Front Street, they were a couple hundred when they started,  other protestors have joined in, other people besides Health Care Workers, people on bicycles…

M IN FRONT OF DESK, IN STUDY.  CAMERA MOVES TO WINDOW. (B&W)

P- autumn came this year in strange colours
your breath was short
a cough persisted through November
what used to go away didn’t
cancer

STILL PHOTO OF HANDS. FOOD. (B&W)

a word that stayed carefully off
your list of possible causes
cancer
arose out of your 3 hour a night sleeps

when the doctor said it might be cancer
and you should prepare yourself for surgery
you asked me to take you to the beach

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

The sadness comes and goes
like when there are fast moving clouds
covering and uncovering the sun
as it makes its way across the sky

P- your coat covers the strapped‑in cardiograph machine
we sneak out of the hospital into the night
a dome of clouds circled above
the water was black and rippling

STILL PHOTO OF BEACH AT NIGHT (B&W)

P- you skipped a stone
and I took this  picture

STILL PHOTOS, HOSPITAL (B&W)

DOCTOR (faintly)- she’s in the recovery room…..all the changes in her lungs are cancerous….it appears….

STILL PHOTOS OF SANTA CLAUS PARADE (B&W)

P- On the third day after the operation
your breathing got worst
We watched your decline
as the Santa Claus parade
marched by your window

A-    He wanted to know what we expected, and I that they find out what was wrong,

because there was no explanation of why she was deteriorating. I really don’t remember what I said but he said there’s 70 patients on this floor that we are responsible for….

MOVING SLOWLY PAST HOSPITAL (B&W)

PROTEST MARCH (B&W)

A-    I felt that the nurses were there..I felt that they were very good at co-operating around her care. I think Marian was relieved to have it over and,  veryconnected with people.

FARMHOUSE HALLWAY, SUNLIGHT DISSIPATES (pixillation)

A-    Letting herself just be cared for, so Philomene started to rub her feet with lotion and she just said it felt so good..and she washed her face with a hot wash cloth and she just loved…..

CLOSEUP OF HANDS PACKING AWAY HER BELONGINGS.

MANY LADYBUGS CRAWLING ON WINDOW

TEXT ON SCREEN (black text supered over window):

the night we had our last walk

she wrote these words

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black):

We come together ‑ separate
cry and look wide‑eyed bewildered …
I want to be near the water
We bundle up and leave the hospital for the beach

Beautiful clear crisp blue skied night
we mourn together
laughing at intervals
clinging madly to some sense of life

The open sky ‑ water makes me feel
part of something immeasurable
larger than me
and it is consoling

STILL PHOTOS OF M’S ROOM: BAGS, LILIES,  WRITING,  FAMILY PHOTOS,

DESK, CD (P.J. HARVEY), PHOTO OF M’S GRANDMOTHER

TEXT ON SCREEN (white on black – end credits):

A self to which it would be
worth her while to be true

Marian McMahon
May 17, 1954  –  November 17, 1996

assistance in
conceptual development & editing

Anna Gronau
Philomene Hoffman
Vesa Lehko
Janine Marchessault

music composed & performmed by

Tucker Zimmerman

sound mix by

Tim Muirhead & Teresa Morrow

titles & assistance in optical printing

Marcos Arriaga

assistant picture editing

Eric Yu

kind assistance along the way

Belinda Budge
Lisa Freeman
Marg Gorrie
Mike Hoolboom
Gary Popovich
Amy Rossiter
Karyn Sandlos
Roberto Ariganello
Mike Cartmell
Ryan Feldman
Joohyun Kwon
Sarah Lightbody
Brenda Longfellow
Susan Lord
Wayne Salazar
Rick Hancox
Colleen Hoffman
Frannie Hoffman
Sue and Phil Hoffman
Graham Jackson
McMahon Family
Jeffrey Paull
Leena Louhivuori
Mikko Maasalo
Ilppo Pohjola
Perttu Rastas
Seppo Renvall
Juha Samola
Sami van Ingen
Denise Ziegler

institutional support

Graduate Programme in
Film & Video, York University

Media Arts Department
Sheridan College

Liaison of Independent Filmmakers
of Toronto (LIFT)

Helsinki Elokuvapaja

produced with the assistance of

The Canada Council

 

Philip Hoffman   2001

Stet

by Mike Cartmell

It means “let it stand.”

Without explanation, for now. Instead, let me oblige you to indulge in the fantasy of a moment of inscription: imagine Phil Hoffman darkly embunkered in his digital basement, bringing to fruition several years’ hard work on his cinematic response to Marian’s death, a task whose already formidable cargo is further laden by an apprehensive public, friends and colleagues (and critics?) poised in anticipation, festival spotlight in the offing, book in preparation; and there is a deadline! And now consider that upstairs the bright world teems — new loves, new job, new life abundant, loud, alive, living on, waiting for Phil to join in, to live there too.

Under these conditions, how is the work of mourning even possible? How possible is the making of the work mourning demands? How could one manage the intimacy required, or the courage, or the vulnerability, or the generosity? How could one avoid distraction, and I mean “being torn limb from limb.” How could one endure the thought of all the scrutiny about to ensue? To say that the task would be daunting is hardly adequate. It would have to be unbearable.

Fortunately, we’re only fantasizing.

Merely daunting is the present task (an altogether different sort of fantasy): what sort of address is possible toward a work so personal, so charged with grief, so apparently non-political as Hoffman’s What these ashes wanted, and how can it meet the demands of its venue, a magazine about cinema but also about action, whose name inscribes a certain militancy, a politics? How can one avoid the temptation to offer a respectful bromide, especially given the tragic loss out of which the film is built. Is it possible to wish to celebrate this filmmaker, his films, this film, and yet meet the work critically, engage it politically? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

The last time I wrote about Phil’s work, I employed the device of having an imaginary conversation take place as a sort of preface to the piece.[1] I think I was trying to be entertaining. In it, I used an expression that has wide currency among (mainly white) people in the deep south, where I was living at the time. It’s an instance of what my friend Neil Schmitz would call “confederate discourse.” I wrote: “I might could have a twin brother.” Not surprisingly, a copy editor figured that I’d neglected to delete either the might or the could, and so deleted one of them for me. When I got the edited copy, I wrote “Stet” in the margin, and appended an explanation of the usage.

So when the book came out, and the deletion remained unstetted (yup, that’s a word), I was hotter, as the Mobile gumbo-queens might say, than a black roux on a high flame. Editors were decried, publishers slandered. In retrospect, one sees how these things can happen, that nobody’s to blame. Pressure of deadline. Mere oversight. Might could happen this time, too. But I hope not.

I like this phrase, this “might could,” because it seems to combine (or let’s say “confederate”) notions of capability, possibility and intention, while subsuming them under the sign of doubt. It’s not reducible merely to the sum of its parts; instead its meaning is disturbed by something which strictly is not part of it. It offers something while taking it back; it withholds while revealing. The statement “I might could help you clean up that kitchen” means, or could mean, something like “I’m quite willing and would like to help you clean up that kitchen, but only if you agree to it, I don’t want to insist, not that you’d really need help anyway.” There’s a sense in which it’s a more sociable, even more ethical idiom. At the same time, an advantage of “might could” lies in its ability to veil just about any assertion with a moderate ambiguity, and to leave the speaker at a certain remove from whatever he asserts, from any proposition about whose status he may not be entirely secure; not quite taking him off the hook, but leaving him a bit of squirming room, so that he may get off it eventually should he squirm to sufficient effect. Given that, consider what these statements might convey (or dissemble): I might could like to try that gumbo; I might could make a film about losing a loved one; I might could never forget you; I might could love you always.

You might could get it by now.

So to come, at last, back to the raft: despite my inability to answer the questions I posed above, I propose to carry on, insufficiently, with my merely daunting task to address, in this place, on this occasion, Hoffman’s What these ashes wanted, but to do so under the rubric (if there can be such a thing) of the “might could.”

To do so, and then to let it stand.

Here’s one way of putting it: when a loved one dies, a hole opens up in the Real. A flood of images rushes in, as if to fill the gap. Mourning would work (might could work?) to marshal those images, to subject them, with no guarantee of success, to some form of symbolic constraint in a process not necessarily terminable since that gap, that hole, will have a persistence. In any case, we have a difficult, uncomfortable, unstable articulation of psychic registers: Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. The subject is in disarray, adrift, at risk even. Disastered, he no longer knows where to look to find the star that ought to guide him; no longer can he rely on familiar locators to let him know who it is that he takes himself to be. Is it any wonder that Freud described the process of mourning, with its dramatic intensity and hallucinatory hypercathexes, as resembling psychosis?

In her commentary on an earlier version of the film, Brenda Longfellow makes an astute point concerning the issue of the other’s inscription in cinema.[2] Speaking of the sequence of Phil and Marian in the car as Marian makes her visiting nurse rounds, Longfellow writes:

…she confronts Phil (hiding behind his heavy 3/4-inch camera in the back seat), accusing him of not understanding how difficult it is to be filmed and how much the camera mediates and makes strange their relation. It is an important moment precisely because it honours the otherness of the other….[I]t anchors Marian in her lifeworld not simply as an image, idol or memory, but as a sensate and intentional subject in her own right, and one, furthermore, who explicitly defies the naturalness of a camera recording her image.[3]

There is another aspect to this sequence, however. Marian’s complaint quite forcefully registers a valorization of the psychological (her feelings of unease regarding her place in front of the camera) over the physical (Phil’s struggle with the heavy camera), a notion that she seems to regard as transparently the case, but whose validity hardly goes without saying; certainly it could be subject to dispute (to say the least, given the brute sovereignty of the physical in the region of illness leading to death). In addition, her protestations are a little excessive (“Oh Philip, you’re nuts! You really are nuts! Sometimes I think you’re so insensitive, really!”); once he explains, she becomes rather condescending, speaking to Phil as if he’s a bit of a nob (“Well, that’s a little different, you know. Do you understand the difference?”). Now it’s true that all of this is carried on with good humor, and I’m not about to embark onto the terrain of how couples work out their private modes of communication. My point is that here and occasionally elsewhere, the film accords Marian some over-exposure, allows her to be presented in what may be other than the best light. Besides the idealization and aggrandizement of the lost other that might be expected, this film permits a certain aggressivity or even hostility to be advanced in her direction. That this may be so need not be seen as a weakness; it may be a sign of inconsistency or contradiction on the part of the maker (though I might could rather not speculate as to the specific operations of his psyche), but that would be something worth registering since it’s something to which we are all likely to be subject. And that we are permitted to recognize Marian as some kind of imperfect creature, whether as a result of the irruption of someone’s aggressivity or no, is part of the film’s value; it provides a bit of purchase from which to resist (and to recognize the need to resist) the tendency to mythologize the lost loved one, to obliterate her faults, to reduce her in elevating her to the level of the ideal.

A black dog at loose ends, standing on a sidewalk; a kid on a front stoop conducting an imaginary orchestra (or is he a filmmaker quelling an applauding crowd at some festival awards ceremony?) This might could be what mourning is.

Though I met her the same day Phil did, I never had any extensive first hand experience of Marian as an intellectual, writer or artist. But I do remember an afternoon a year or two after they got together. Phil was out somewhere, and Marian and I talked for a few hours. I was going through some kind of a bad patch, as they say. She was generous and encouraging. I think it was the last time I spoke with her for more than a minute or two. I left that kitchen feeling quite uplifted, a feeling which lasted for some time afterwards.

What these ashes wanted, I felt sure,
was not containment but participation.
Not an enclosure of memory,
but the world.

The key phrase in the film’s epigraph (something which Marian had extracted from the work of American poet Mark Doty) is the “I felt sure.” Participation and the world rather than containment or enclosure (or incorporation) is not the other’s desire, but arises within the bereaved. It is the mourner who does not wish to be enclosed (trapped, embunkered) within or by his memory of the lost loved one; the “I felt sure” operates to project these wishes onto the departed, concealing, in what would appear to be a gesture of generosity or sacrifice, a flight from or defense against the affect, anxiety, which threatens him on account of what may not be loss, but rather, excessive proximity. Photography, and thus cinema, always functions in the mode of bereavement (recall Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes, et al.); making a film such as this one, making it public, is a way of securing this projection, a way of keeping this (projected) pact with the other, and at the same time an effort at underwriting one’s own defense. Thus Benjamin’s beloved Kafka: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.”[4]

This kind of “I felt sure” (under the sign of which the film proceeds) precisely bears the sense of the “might could.”

In the sequence featuring a photograph from Guadalest, Spain, whose “dark surround” may house Marian’s “after image,” the on-screen text continues:

if I could brighten up this part of the picture
I might illuminate
the condition of her death
the mystery of her life
and the reason why
at the instant of her passage
I felt peace with her leaving
a feeling I no longer hold

Here it is in precisely the place of no information (the blank, silver-free part of the negative that allows all light to pass, thus giving black on the print) that the other, and the answer to her enigma, is sought. It is as if the subject knows without knowing that there is a constitutive failure inherent in his project, that it must fail in order to in any sense succeed: that is, to relinquish, to recuperate, to remain, to remember. And that photography (or cinematography) has a necessary relation to that necessary failure. In the mode of bereavement. I felt sure.

Her snow dance, the second version, black and white, high-contrast. The scratches, dirt and hair, visible splices, the slow bleachout as she skips away. This might could be what mourning is.

In the section called “Four Shadows,” an apostrophe to Marian (but which also, by its second person address, implicates, ensnares, the viewer), Hoffman replays a series of chance encounters with death experienced “not long before you died.” Crucial here is the figure of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, whose presence in the film implicitly but nevertheless forcefully identifies her with Marian. Because she was a woman, and to prevent her from living on in eternity, Hatshepsut’s name had been written out of Egyptian history, her image defiled, her body robbed from its tomb. And yet her story and her name have been recovered, her image reclaimed; now there’s a website promoting a biopic called “The Daughter of Ra”; the other day, Phil told me he’d heard that archeologists think they may have found her mummy at a recent dig. Hatshepsut oscillates, then, between presence and absence; her cartouche is both erased and legible; her crypt is empty and it isn’t. A strong, active woman (socially, intellectually, artistically), Marian had a pharaohic bearing; we might could say that in the film (the figure of) Marian is borne in the same oscillation as her ancient avatar, but with a twist. Neither presence nor absence, but some remnant, a something-other-than, is encrypted here; or better, resides here cryptically: that is, available, should we be up to it, for decipherment.

Two kids discussing an infestation of ladybugs, and the different varieties among the swarm. One relates an accidental squishing, to general amusement. This might could be what mourning is.

Your death is only available to me as your absence or as my loss. You are gone, outside me, and are now nothing since I am consigned to memory, to mourning, to interiorization. But this death that I cannot know, your death (or my own?), makes my limit apparent in my obligation to mourn, to remember, and thus to harbor within me something that exceeds me, is other than me, and is outside me: a remnant of your intractable absent otherness. In me without me, your trace. Without which no “in me” at all, no within to me. Your absence, irrevocable, carves me out, hollows me, leaves me with your trace, which is other than you. Else but that other, I relinquish. What remains, non-totalizable, non-composable, is fragment, scrap, ort, morsel. Them I savor, mourning.

 

Hoffman’s practice is to work with leftovers, scraps, and the mode of his work is fragmentary. His approach is from the margins, and features the marginal: this grandmother; that body on a Mexican road; this twin and his brother; this one, this very one I loved, lost. It can be excruciating at times. There are even occasional bits that stick in the craw, refuse to be processed (for me, this time: Hasselhoff.) But in general, what it preserves, harbors, secretes, what opens in it, what swoons and ranges and percolates and dodges in this broad corpus is surprising, rich and deep. The work exceeds itself, is more than what it’s made from, and becomes itself its own trace, its own remnant. Available for decipherment. At a theatre (not terribly) near you.

More Egyptology: during the filming at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the zoom barrel on Hoffman’s lens jams, we are told, and later the camera stops working altogether. What gorgonizing Medusa’s gaze has come within its field of view? It is not absence that makes the dead so disturbing to encounter (Hoffman’s claim that each of his encounters made death “less strange” doesn’t seem to me altogether plausible given the details); it’s that the dead are somehow all too present, even too enjoying, we might say. Instead of lack, we come into contact with a lack of lack, a non-positive over-abundance exceeding our capacity to grasp it, and it provokes a petrifying anxiety. I might could make a film about a lost loved one, but to do so means that the apparatus itself will stiffen and break, that what I wish to record will utterly resist presentation; and it turns out that I can (and perhaps should) only avert my gaze, and in so doing merely mark the (lacerating) place/trace of what was to have been my subject.

The brilliant poetic reduction of the young Polish cousin in passing through/torn formations (“Where I was born, you filmed”) re/deformed here (chiasmatically; under erasure perhaps) as “You filmed, whereon my trace was born(e).” This might could be what mourning is.

One of a number of beautiful, singular and compelling images in the film: sunlit Marian walking behind a line of columns at a temple of Horus, image replaced by shadow, not-presence and not-absence, and trace. A haunting. Mike Hoolboom’s voice on the answering machine, delivering another potshard, a find from his dig:

In a later century, someone dropped and broke the cup, but it was too precious simply to throw away. It was repaired, not with glue, but with a seam of gold solder; and I think our poems are often like that gold solder, repairing the break in what can never be restored, perfectly. The gold repair adds a kind of beauty to the cup, making visible part of its history.

It’s a comforting story, but there’s another version: you might could never gather up all the pieces; one or two wind up down the cold air return or the sinkdrain, never to re-emerge. Some bits are so tiny you can’t see to pick them up; eventually they’re carried away by swarms of ladybugs. The molten gold solder drips on your hand, searing into your flesh, working its way through your system till it’s lodged in your hot heart. The cup is repaired with Scotch tape and rubber bands, and you put it at the back of a shelf. Every time you happen to see it you’re stiffened with an anxious rigor, and look away. This, too, is part of history. Is it visible?

Now think of Auden’s meditation on Breughel’s Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts” (with the son of Daedelus a figure both of the lost loved one and the artist who tempts the limits of the possible, flying too close to the sun):

                 …how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

New loves upstairs, loud alive in the brightteeming day. This might could be what mourning is.

Perhaps in What these ashes wanted we have seen (at least the remnant of) something amazing. We might could sail on. And in the wake of the final frame, one word:

Stet.

It means “let it stand.”

 

 References

[1] Mike Cartmell, “Landscape With Shipwreck” in Landscape With Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman, ed. K. Sandlos and M. Hoolboom. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001, pp. 222-244.[2] Brenda Longfellow, “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida” in Landscape With Shipwreck, pp. 201-210.

[3] Ibid., p. 207.

[4] In Gustav Janouch, Gespräche mit Kafka. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1968, p. 54.

Originally published in Cineaction, 2002

A Dream for a Requiem


Filmmaker documents pure emotion

REVIEW
WHAT THESE ASHES WANTED

Peter Vesuwalla

Philip Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted is one of those films that forces you to rethink the medium. There are pictures, yes, and movement, light, and sound. There is, however, no narrative, and yet there is emotion. Both of these last two points are remarkable.
To make a film that is genuinely non-narrative is no small accomplishment. At a recent exhibition of short films, I listened as budding visual artist Victoria Prince attempted to explain that there was no narrative link among the images in her latest experimental video, despite an audience member’s insistence that he had been told a story. Last year, soi-disant “guerrilla projectionists” Greg Hanec and Campbell Martin were forced to concede that people will find a story in their work provided they look hard enough: audiences tend to do so. The fact is, there is something hard-wired in the human psyche that forces us to find continuity where there is none.
What makes What These Ashes Wanted unique and interesting is Hoffman’s ability to override our inherent expectation of being told a story. We learn that his longtime partner, Marian McMahon, has died of cancer, and that the film is an expression of his grief, but that’s only what it’s about. Nothing actually happens in it, just as nothing in the physical universe happens to us while we’re sitting and reflecting on the past. It’s assembled from nostalgic pieces of video footage, bolex film, still pictures, words, music, poetry and seemingly random micro-montages that fade into obscurity like fragmented memories.
“In times of great grief, it was important to go through the motions of life,” he narrates, recalling author Henry James. “Eventually, they would become real again.”
Hoffman edits these motions together the way that Jackson Pollock paints. He expresses his grief over his lost loved one not through the images themselves, but through the physical act of filming them. The images such as an empty room, an inventory of mementoes, and a field of sunflowers, coupled with a mournful monologue and a montage of unanswered voice-mail messages, carry all the weight of emotional brush strokes. If Pollock was an “action painter,” then Hoffman, I suppose, ought to be called an “action filmmaker;” that label, however, might cause confusion. Instead, call him a documentarian of the human soul.

Philip Hoffman will be on hand to present What These Ashes Wanted, along with his pupil Jennifer Reeves’ We Are Going Home, on Thursday, May 17, (2001) at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St.