Category Archives: passing through / torn formations

“Circuitous Quests: Passing through Philip Hoffman’s family cycle” by Peter Harcourt (2001)

Circuitous Quests: Passing Through Philip Hoffman’s Family Cycle
by Peter Harcourt

Circuitous Quests by Peter Harcourt (edited) here

Originally published in:
Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman
ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001.

also see the Hoffman film on death and mourning, `What these ashes wanted’  here

Circuitous Quests: Passing Through Philip Hoffman’s Family Cycle

by Peter Harcourt

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

— Michael Dorland[i]

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little girl
With big eyes
Waits by her dead brother

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

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

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


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

— Philip Hoffman (1979)[viii]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[i] International Experimental Film Congress, 33

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

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

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

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

[vi] International Experimental Film Congress, 115

[vii] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 142

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

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

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

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

[xii] Toronto: A Play of History, 157

[xiii] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 145

[xiv] International Experimental Film Congress, 45

[xv] Toronto: A Play of History, 91

[xvi] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 146

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

[xviii]  Ibid, 40

[xix] Lift Newsletter, 28

[xx] International Experimental Film Congress, 116

[xxi] Inside the Pleasure Dome, 141

[xxii] Body Music, 92

[xxiii] Spirit in a Landscape, 35

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

Philip Hoffman’s passing through/torn formations

by Mike Hoolboom
Cinema Canada (magazine), July 1988

The most important Canadian film made in 1987 will  not be playing in a theatre near you, neither subject to those journalists charged with turning images into verse or to an audience whose unflagging allegiance to  American stars has so recently nurtured Mulroney’s latest sell-out of Canadian theatres. Instead this brilliant meditation on violence must be relegated to the backwaters of Canadian expression, unwilling to con form—to change the how of its expression to suit Telefilm’s turning of Canadian light into American money.

A turn of a different sort has been negotiated by a group of filmmakers belonging to the Escarpment School, so named by Zone Cinema founder Mike Cartmell. Born and raised along the steep slope of the Canadian escarpment (or else subject to its looming beneficence in Ontario’s Sheridan College) the filmmakers are technically adept, well versed in experimental film (most are teachers), inclined towards autobiography and landscape, work in 16mm and have joined the formalist traditions of the international avant garde with the Canadian documentary tradition. Their works have moved from a lyrical formalism to a concern with the nature of representation and the reconstruction of the autobiographical subject. Central to the emerging mandate of Ontario’s Escarpment School has been the work of Philip Hoffman.

Hoffman’s sixth film in ten years, passing through/torn formations is a generational saga laid over three picture rolls that rejoins in its symphonic montage the broken remnants of a family separated by war, disease, madness and migration. Begun in darkness with an extract from Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration, the poet narrates the story of ‘you,’ a child who explores an abandoned limestone quarry. Oblivious to the children who surround, it is the dead that fascinate, pressed together to form limestones that part slowly between prying fingers before lifting into a horizon of lost referentiality. The following scene moves silently from a window drape to enfeebled grandmother to her daughter, patiently feeding her blood in a quiet reversal of her own infancy. Over and over the camera searches out the flowered drape, speaking both of a vegetable life cycle of death and rebirth and the literal meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’ which means the tearing of the veil or drape. The film’s theme of reconciliation begins with death’s media/tion—and moves its broken signifiers together in the film’s central image, ‘the corner mirror,’ two mirrored rectangles stacked at right angles. This looking glass offers a ‘true reflection,’ not the reversed image of the usual mirror but the objectified stare of the Other. When Rimbaud announces ‘I am another’ he does so in a gesture that unites traveller and teller, confirming his status within the story while continuing to tell it. It is the absence of this distance, this doubling that leads the Czech side of the family to fatality.

Each figure in the film has a European double, as if the entry into the New World carried with it not only the inevitable burdens of translation (from the Latin ‘translatio’ to bear across) but also the burden of all that could not be said or carried, to all that needed to be left behind. There are two grandmothers in the film—Babji, dying in a Canadian old age home and Hanna whose Czech tales are translated by the filmmaker’s mother. There are likewise two grandfathers, Driououx married to the dying Babji in Canada and Jancyk, shot by his own son after refusing to cede him land rights. This son is returned to the scene of the shooting by Czech authorities and asked to recreate the event for a police film three months after the shooting. Unable to comply he breaks down instead, poised between death and its representation.

Hoffman’s imaging strategies recall the doubled tracks of American avant gardist Owen Land. An avowed Christian, Land posits a simultaneity of expression as the precondition for conversion, parodied in Land’s own Wide Angle Saxon. But while Land’s conversions transform the institutional settings of auto shows, instructional films and supermarkets into sites of individual revelation, Hoffman’s turning is a movement away from the violence that has marked past generations, using home movies to reshape the way history reproduces its truth within the family.

The darkroom, a ceremony of mixing potions, gathering up the shimmering images, the silvery magic beneath dream’s surface. In the morning Babji would tell us what our dreams meant, and then stories of the ‘old country’ would surface, stories I can’t remember… now that she’s quiet, we can’t hear about where it all came from, so it’s my turn to go back, knowing at the start the failure of this indulgence, but only to play out these experiments already in motion. passing through/torn formations

This connection between things made in the dark: doesn’t this aspiration lie at the heart of every motion picture? We can say this for certain: that this darkness has occupied the centre of Hoffman’s film work since Somewhere Between Jalostotitlian and Encarnacion (1984). While Somewhere Between moves around his real life encounter with a boy lying dead on the Mexican roadside the boy is nowhere to be seen; Hoffman relates his death in a series of printed intertitles that punctuate the film. Similarly, midway through ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986) an elephant’s heart attack is related in voice-over while the screen remains dark and the voice explains, somewhat abashed, that showing its death would only exploit his subject.

Hoffman searches out the reasons for his wanderings in the home he never had, in the place of his conception, in a Czechslovakia ravaged by plague and occupation. That he should bear the stamp of this history,  without a glimpse of the death camps that would claim his ancestors or the soil that had nourished thousands of his forbears recalls for us the movement of this film around a figure that is hardly seen. The filmmaker moves in his place—drawing his camera over the places ‘he’ could never go, looking for reasons ‘he’ could never guess in his restless quest for a perfect game and the delirium of the accordion.

He stares out. Fingers pound the keyboard. Magically. Melodies repeat. Again and again. Fingers dissolve into fingers. He was past the point of practice. The music was a vacant place to return to. Over and over. His playing gave him passage. passing through/torn formations

CKLN Interview

with Cameron Bailey
(March 1988)

CB: ?O,Zoo!; what’s the intonation on that?

PH: You have to say with with a question ….

CB: ?O,Zoo?

PH: Something like that.

CB: OK, that was a film written on top of a film called A Zed and Two Noughts by Peter Greenaway. Anyway could you just describe the new film passing through for us?

PH: OK, I can talk a bit about it. It revolves around my mom’s history; she’s from Czechoslovakia and her family came over before the war, the second world war. And it’s sort of a collision between the old world and the new world, also it’s a collision of form and texture. Also a different genre of experimental film, I think is also included in the making of that.

CB: You say a collision between texture and form and also different genre of experimental film. What exactly do you mean by that? What genres does it use and what’s the experience of watching the film?

PH:  I try to make it so that it’s, you know, not on experience but you live it when you watch… anyway I guess what I mean is that my background is experimental film and the films of the 60s and 70s …the films that I studied and grew through film with…but I am making it in the present moment, so in same way the form is being further developed in my work…

CB: What about Stan Brakhage?

PH: Brakhage and Snow and Wieland and you know, a lot of those experimental filmmakers. And I think, in a sense, my film covers a lot of styles. Yet I believe it has its own style, its own way of speaking.

CB: From your other work that I’ve seen, you tend to work very much with your own history; your family history, your personal history, and with your memory of say growing up or what your childhood was like and that sort of thing. How is that treated in this film and how is it different from what you’ve done before?

PH: Well I think it would be good to compare it with my first film On the Pond, which was also about family in which I was trying to somehow represent my part. It was the first film I made, about eleven or twelve years ago, in 16mm. I don’t think this film tries to represent a past, but find a future. In passing through, I work through film to, I would say, I don’t try to represent a past but whatever I come upon, as I put myself in the midst of this filmmaking, looking into my mom’s past, I sort of discover as I go along and I guess put everything into a big pot of stew, and what comes out is the film. So I’m not consciously trying to remake my mother’s history but, you know, the film is very much about what’s happened to me right now and how I experience my mother’s history and the things that are happening both in the old country and Canada.

CB: What does your mother think about this? I know you make films… your films are very much involved with your family. What does your family think about having a filmmaker sort of filming them all the time? How do they react to it?

PH: Well that’s not too unusual because I’ve always had a dark room in the basement and I’ve always, you know, when I was young, they were used to a camera being around. It’s not that unusual. But I also don’t think the film comes off as someone’s personal life. I think it could be anyone’s. And I try to create the characters in a way that, even though I’m using people around me, through film I recreate different types of characters, using their voices and images to match. I try to get away from this thing of having to grab onto a character. There’s no way you can in my film, passing through. And in this way it sort of takes it out of the realm of simply personal, but its about family.  Hopefully then, more people can get involved in the film.

CB: I noticed as well that, you talk about emerging techniques, I noticed that you have a certain resistance to the conventions of any particular form; in ?O,Zoo! I remember there’s a sequence where you tell a story and then you say-you show an image of the site of the story after the actual story has happened. You say, “This is what it looked like after everybody had left.” And that sort of resistance to showing a narrative or just sort of getting caught up, as you mentioned before, in character. And I was just wondering what’s your relationship to filmic conventions, conventions of documentary or narrative or whatever? How do you work within and outside of them?

PH: Well I think, especially with the example you gave, it allows a viewer to participate more in the making of the film and whether I use a black screen and have a narrator talk about a scene and you know maybe I might not give you that scene in the image but really I am, because you can imagine it how you wish. I think the new film, passing through, is just a labyrinth of those kind of exercises, which I started with in maybe ?O,Zoo!… So how I feel about the conventions is, even in experimental film there are conventions and they must be continually broken. And so I think I’m interested in that always; to try to at least display a convention and then turn it upside down a little bit. That comes from making in the moment.

CB: Another thing I wanted to get your opinion on, the whole idea of ethics in filmmaking. It’s an old question, “What can you film and what can’t you?” We were talking earlier about your grandmother who is in the film and who is now in a nursing home. And your, sort of, initial reluctance to film her and also the state that she’s in now-she doesn’t necessarily know that you’re filming her. So it’s not a case of getting permission. What can you film and what can’t you?

PH: Well if we’re going to talk about my grandmother, that would be Babji, that’s the Polish translation of Grandma. The film’s dedicated to her, I remember her fondly from youth…she made perogies in the kitchen and taught me how to shoot a camera from the hip, not looking through the viewfinder…. I have to somehow deal with  those memories. But yet I still have to deal with her and the experience that she and I are going through during her sickness.  I have to deal with it right now with the bolex. And she happens to be in a nursing home and I know that can be taboo but I want to bring these real experiences to the screen, not just hide them away in the nursing home.

CB: OK, I’d like to ask one final question and that’s about the process of collaboration. In this film you have used a Christopher Dewdney poem and an excerpt from a work by Marian McMahon at the end. I know our relationship with Marian and I want to ask how do you work with each other? How do you bounce off each other?

PH: Well Marian gives me a bigger picture of things. To me that’s important. Its the other half.  I took the poem she wrote and had her read it for the end of the film. She talks about skipping a stone “across the smooth surface of Lake Kashagawigamog”. So after this tumultuous interweaving family story, I end with a reference to the land we are on…First Nation Land…it’s a small gesture to a very big question of land rights, but I wanted the film to end with this simple act, referencing the land…. throwing a stone… Marian’s lovely voiced poem.

Passing through

by Gary Popovich

It is from the Canadian tradition of intuitive gathering of sounds and images (partially indebted to the documentary and realist traditions)—their tireless re-working, and, ultimately, sublimation into an aesthetic experience—that Canada’s boldest works of film art have come. It is a process that is distinctly different from scripted, pre-conceived image structuring methods. One abandons literature and theatre and uses the microphone and camera to define the shape of experience. This legacy of Canadian cinema is situated between a European (most conspicuously, but by no means exclusively British and French) and American sensibility—the area ‘in-between’ the American technological imperative and a lament for what that suppresses. This is what Arthur Kroker calls the Canadian discourse on technology:

… it is our fate by virtue of historical circumstance and geographical accident to be forever marginal to the ‘present-mindedness’ of American culture (a society which, specializing as it does in the public ethic of ‘instrumental activism,’ does not enjoy the recriminations of historical remembrance); and to be incapable of being more than ambivalent on the cultural legacy of our European past. At work in the Canadian mind is, in fact, a great and dynamic polarity between technology and culture, between economy and landscape.

— Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind

It is in our films, predominantly from a group of filmmakers who are becoming known notoriously as the Escarpment School, that this discourse has been evolving its most fascinating and forceful arguments. I can think of few more powerful reflections on this discourse than Philip Hoffman’s seventh film passing through/torn formations. In it, he synthesizes a quasi-romantic European journey, home movie-like segments, enigmatic family stories, poetic narration, and some of the most beautiful and harrowing images he has recorded to date. Through a fragmentary landscape of familial ties that criss-cross the continent of memory, Hoffman orders the generation and re-generation of images passed down, passed through, a life’s becoming. And it is in the study of his own cultural legacy that this obsessive weaver of tales exposes the dark heirs which loom in camera.

passing through opens in darkness, while poet Christopher Dewdney recites a child’s archeology. A young boy, oblivious to the others playing around him, becomes enraptured by the image of a rock whose layers come apart easily, freeing moths that “flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil.” This transformation of darkness into the light of reflection, from darkness to speaking the image, from word to the mind-image evoked in a word, creates a spell where history is released, admitted, and set free. It is in this equivalence between layers of stone and human generation that passing through discovers its own logic of layering.

The image is formed of the words which dream it.

— Edmond Jabes

The next six minutes of the film comprises a silent colour sequence (one of only three in this otherwise black and white film) where the camera hesitates, draws, and re-draws a scene, in search of some way to record the filmmaker’s institutionalized grandmother (Babji) as she is being fed by her own daughter. Moving from mother to grandmother, Hoffman draws a painful trajectory before inserting an intertitle “To Babji” cut on the look of his grandmother to reaffirm, to us, that here the rock, the family, and the film are what holds and cares for generations before they too flutter up like ashes. This release is also about letting go—dying.

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

— Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

It is in these first two disjunctions, sound without image, then image without sound, that the film exposes the goals it sets for itself. It strives to return a fragmented history to a present-day unity and wholeness.

Hoffman travels to the old country, bringing with him tapes and photos of his family here in Canada; there he collects sounds and images of his Czech relatives that he brings back to Canada. Hoffman’s family has been severed, with one half remaining in the old world, and the other coming to Canada in an effort to escape Nazi persecution during WWII.


How often will I die, yet go on living?

this sequence unearths a host of images as if inspired to generate its own reproductive force. Representation becomes resurrection. Over her face, in a return to colour, we advance with the camera over lilting waters towards the face of a rock wall where we detect the outlines of Indian petroglyphs etched into this stone. As we draw near, the surface of the film itself emits scratches of colour which break into further superimpositions which appear to emerge from the stone. We see cascading layers of home-movie images, the filmmaker perhaps, his siblings, other family members, Babji in her hospital bed, pouring out of the cut stone/film in an epiphany that magically joins the film’s many threads in the eyes of its beholders.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history.

White Noise, Don DeLillo

From the fissured video image of his mother translating messages sent from Czechoslovakia: “We hope that God will somehow make us get together again and we can talk some more.” And then we hear the family cheering, as if they have survived a mortal test of their being. Hoffman’s journey ends on a train ride through Czech landscapes. There he recounts the tale of his Czech uncle, killed by his own son over a land dispute.

Life is lived forward but understood backward.

— Kierkegaard

The camera sweeps slowly past large rock fences which fragment the countryside, predominantly blue in colour—recalling the rocks of the epiphany sequence, the institutional blues of Babji’s hospital room and Babji’scraggy blue-veined hands peacefully folded into her lap. The blue blood that surges through her body finds its mirrored image in the rock formations of her homeland, where her grandson now makes his pilgrimage. Here in this dream landscape to which he awakes he finds the final pieces of his project, a dreamer’s reverie which draws together dispersed generations, recalled again in an image of the land.

Am I the sleep walker who does not tramp along the routes of life but who descends, always descends in quest of immemorial resting places?

— Gaston Bachelard

While technology’s path has so often been a horizontal movement, a progression, where chronology, history and narrativity unfold as if in unbroken chains, here the intrusion of the poetic unlinks this endless procession of zeros, opening a view to the vertical, where being falls in a slow suspension out of time and into a configuration closer to the spirit of experience. Hoffman conjures another ‘I’ whose being rests in the peace of imaginative reconstruction. Using the power of film he generates his incantations, and plunges us into meditations on our own generative powers. To make and unmake the past. To pass through.