Jordan Cronk, Off the Grid (on Hoffman’s vulture) Cinemascope 2020, MDFF Selects, TIFF Bell Light Box: …Nature plays a different but equally ominous role in vulture, an unassuming yet sublime featurette by veteran Canadian filmmaker Philip Hoffman. Assembled by the director over a period of two years, the film comprises 16mm footage shot on Hoffman’s farm in Mount Forest, Ontario that the filmmaker then photochemically processed with natural plant and flower pigments, resulting in a roughhewn, multivalent display of richly tinted and textured celluloid. To hear Hoffman tell it, his analog approach to cinema is part and parcel of a universal cycle of survival and sustainability; like a vulture, his film feasts on the very elements of its production, finding aesthetic nutrients in its every ingredient.
Following a brief shot of Homer Watson’s turn-of-the-20th-century landscape painting The Flood Gate, the film commences with a procession of slow, Wavelength-esque zooms towards a variety of animal life (pigs, horses, cows, goats, chickens) before shifting focus to take in the larger ecosystem surrounding the farm fauna: overhead, birds of prey patiently circle, while in the distance, tractors plow the land and farmers work the fields. The film’s landscape imagery occasionally recalls Nicolas Rey’s autrement, la Molussie (2012) or the work of the late Peter Hutton, though the quietly swelling audio frequencies—the sound is credited to Luca Santilli and Clint Enns, with a mix by experimental filmmaker Isiah Medina (88:88)—portend something far less comforting. Like Wilcox, vulture forgoes direct sound; instead, the distant din of fluttering distortion echoes across the stereo field like helicopter blades on the horizon, with the occasional sample of a young boy’s voice emerging from the void as if summoned from another dimension. Before long, those unassuming establishing shots (which appear mostly untouched by any post-production techniques) give way to a series of colour montages that cut together heavily treated images of plant, animal, and human life from around the farm—an idyllic vision disrupted by the subliminal threat of violence and industrialization. Rather than let the threat loom, Hoffman reworks a selection of this same material for a bracing coda in which the previously placid imagery is subjected to a caustic combination of rapid edits and atonal musical flourishes. (Unsurprisingly, both the sound and edit for this section is credited to Medina.) “Vultures live together, and they don’t fight, they help each other,” the boy says at one point—a perfectly succinct bit of childlike wisdom for a world in which pleasure and peril often go hand in hand.
“for its beauty, the perfection of the relationship between sound and image, its radical concept of cinematographic time, the sophistication of the montage, but above all, for its non-negotiable commitment to the essence of cinema – the image in time – and the didactic and community context that it generates around its work” Fugas International Jury Award from Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, Dora García, artist and filmmaker, and Raúl Camargo, director of the Valdivia International Film Festival (Chile)
Hoffman’s film `vulture’ was awarded the Best Film Award (over 45 min) by the Fugas International Competition Jury at Documenta Madrid 2020. Thanks to Isiah Medina (Editing & Sound Mix), Luca Santilli (Sound) and his band Kennedy (Music), Dagie Brundert, Ricardo Leite,, Franci Duran, Clint Enns, Dennis Day, Zac Goldkind, Janine Marchessault and The Ontario Arts Council.
Kim Knowles on “vulture”:
“Hoffman’s vulture” a beautiful and contemplative study of interspecies co-existence, where farm animals roam freely and the camera patiently observes their various interactions. Shot on 16mm film and processed with plants and flowers, it’s also an exercise in eco-sensitivity on so many levels.” Edinburgh International Film Festival, Blackbox
“The marks and blemishes on the surface of the film that result from hand- processing draw attention to both the mediating presence of the material and the hand of the artist in crafting a visual record of the place. Sections of the film were processed and tinted with a variety of flowers, fruits and plants from around the farm – magnolia, hyachinth, hydrangea, daffodil, rhododendron, pond algae, lilac, oregano, comfrey, rose, mint, goldenrod, hosta buds, wild garlic seeds, tansy, aster, echinacea, sunflower, and walnut. From this perspective vulture is more than just a visual appreciation of the land; it is a complex material engagement with an eco-system that draws out the expressive possibilities of living things beyond conventional forms of representation. Over a shot of a flying bird, we hear a child relating fragments of information about vultures and their hunting habits. `Vultures live together, and they don’t fight, they help each other’, says the child. `I didn’t know that’, replies Hoffman. Behind this simple exchange lie multiple layers of signification that testify to the intellectual and spiritual depth of the film, and, at the same time, point towards a philosophy of collective nurturing that quietly runs under the surface of the Independent Imaging Retreat (Film Farm).” Excerpt from “From Chapter 4, From Film Lab to Film Farm by Kim Knowles from her book Experimental Film and Photo Chemical Practices
JM: Jim McMurray RK: Richard Kerr PH: Phil Hoffman RF: Robert Frank JL: June Leaf
Jim McMurray: How did you happen to find a spot like this?
Robert Frank: Oh, it’s just an accident.
JM: You were just up here?
RF: Well it was on a bulletin board in Port Hood. Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
Richard Kerr: What are the winters like? Pretty severe.
RF: The wind is sometimes pretty rough but it’s not too bad. I like it in the winter.
JM: Where’s the coal mines from here?
RF: Past this house here. See that house? There’s a hole going down, that’s where it used to be. It fell down the tower.
RK: Are they going to use it again do you think?
RF: No, it’s all under the water so it’s too expensive.
JM: Too dangerous too, eh?
RF: …it’s too expensive to come in here and you know look after the track here. It takes a long way to get it out from here.
JM: Can anybody come around here dig themselves and use it in their fireplaces?
RF: People use to do it, use horses, get some chunks. Not anymore.
JM: I sometimes work with, you know like iron. Bending it in a furnace. I went down to the railway tracks and they were selling coal at places where an old railway car had tipped over. All free now.
RF: Where do you come from?
JM: Ann Arbour. I saw a picture in your book. I think The Americans, of someone laying in a park.
RF: Ann Arbour. Yeah that’s with all the cars. There’s a little lake outside Ann Arbour. Not far from…
JM: Do you get away from here very much anymore or do you stick around home?
RF: Well, when I have got to go, I got to go. When you got to go, you got to go. I like it here.
RK: I just saw they had a display of your pictures at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in the spring. Were you up there at all?
RF: No. No I didn’t go.
RK: Just send the pictures and let them do the talking.
RK: I guess what you know were looking for and I guess it’s in the form of some sort of advice, is that, I imagine there’s no secret to it, but what frame of mind were you in when you did The Americans. And how conscious was it? The spontaneity, this sort of thing.
RK: Because you read so much stuff and a lot of it frankly is you know?
RF: I think spontaneity might be a way of not thinking you know. Maybe if I would define it. Spontaneity, I don’t think I thought a lot about it. It was more feeling than thinking.
RK: You just did it.
RK: What sort of line as far as equipment goes, were you outfitted with. The finest equipment of the time or were your tools just what you had?
RF: No, I had ordinary equipment. A couple of Leicas, one with a normal lens the other with a wide angle. It helps with good equipment but I think it’s more important to have good equipment when you do carpentry. It’s more exact. When you’re out there working alone I think that. Then thinking about carpentry it’s not that you’re working together with someone. But doing The Americans at the time, I think that it was wonderful to travel alone.
RK: That’s what we were talking about this morning. This is Phil’s project. I’m doing sound. Jim’s doing the driving and music. We were wondering, to do what he’s doing, to do it by himself, he’d be more mobile. He wouldn’t have to listen to our bitching and complaining you know.
RF: Well if it finally gels, what you do with the tape and what he does with picture. It’s an ongoing process.
RK: Have you ever tried much team work as far as film.
RF: Well with films I think you have to. It’s too hard to make films alone.
PH: How about Jack Kerouac and Pull My Daisy. Did you shoot the film and then Kerouac did the narration after?
RF: Right. He looked at the film and narrated as he looked at it.
PH: Was that a good way to work?
RF: That could be called spontaneity. I mean that certainly was a spontaneous piece of literature.
PH: Was there editing involved? I mean did you go to a third person again? After you had shot it and he had done the narration, anyone cut things out? Like, Kerouac’s On The Road apparently has been butchered quite a bit for the publisher.
RF: There was very little taken out. We just had to fit it sometimes, it ran a little bit over or we wanted to put some music in, so some words were cut out, some sentences. But it didn’t happen very often. Of the thirty minutes that he narrated maybe two or three minutes were cut out and that’s about it.
RK: Earlier we were down talking to Allen Ginsberg in th elower east side, NYC, doing some research at Columbia, that he kept there, and I was wondering, is there… those people they seemed like such a close knit group at the time. Are they scattered now or do you have any contact with any of those people? Is it just a time and a place and now you’re in a different time and place.
RF: Well Kerouac is dead… he’s away. Sometimes I see Allen. I never kept that close in contact with them. So, I don’t know. Corso’s living mostly in Italy. I think it pretty much goes apart after… years.
RK: Yeah, that’s what I find with my friends. We just drift I’m out here now and they’re all out in Calgary in the real estate boom. At the time, were the conditions right to work? Were things as free as it looked. You know we were only two and three years old then but we had the image that it was free, that everything just went along… Did it have that feeling to it or is that something the media played upon. Grabbed.
RF: I don’t think that it gets freer. You know good people work. They work the same in 1980 as you would have worked in 1960. Maybe it was freer because you knew less and you were more innocent. Now I wouldn’t be that free simply because I know more about it. Much more.
RK: Are you familiar with the term zeitgeist?
RK: : Zeitgeist. It’s a German word for spirit of the times.
RF: Zeitgeist, zeitgeist. Yeah.
RK: I heard that word when I was in Switzerland about six years ago. That was the word all the people were using. I didn’t know what the hell it meant.
Frank: Well I’ll give you another one. How about Weltschmertz?
RK: Weltschmertz? ha ha…We come from a German town so we get all this. A town in Ontario, Kitchener. It’s a rural German community, so you get osmosis over the years.
RF: I think this dog makes a good soundtrack.
RK: Yeah. I just did a film called Dogs Have Tales, about my other dog. I don’t go anywhere without a dog.
RF: So who is in charge of editing the film?
PH: I am. It’s a project where we all work together. I think one of the things that’s happening in a way, is it’s just gone a week and things are kind of gelling… We all kind of got our separate jobs now, you know.
RK: A guy gave him a free truck. He went to California and couldn’t take it with him. It was fifteen years old ..I did him a favour once and he said take care of this for me it’s yours.
RF: It’s nice.
JM: It is nice.
RF: What kind of truck is it?
JM: It’s a Dodge. An old Dodge.
RF: Wonderful looking. Nice.
JM: Well we put new doors on it, but it was painted… covered with flowers and beautiful things like that. But nowadays I guess you can get away with things like that. Is there anything we can help you with, any heavy lifting?
RF: No I can’t think. No, I don’t think there’s anything.
RF: How long have you been here, five, six years sort of a thing?
RF: No we’ve been here ten years. Eleven years. We came here in 1969.
RF: We built this you know? Yeah, it’s satisfying to build something.
RK: You bet it is. That’s something I was never brought up to do but it’s something I want to do.
RF: It’s satisfying to look here, you know? See the water?
RF: Well I mean I thought it would be more like having to look into the camera…like a TV interview, you know.
RK: No. We left the make-up girl at home. Make-up person.
RF: I always liked it when films you know had freedom… when you could move sound and image around. When I was teaching in sometimes Super 8, I always liked that about Super 8 because I completely divorced the image from the sound, and there’s so many possibilities then.
PH: It’s exciting… there’s always something being born,
RF: You always stumble on something that makes sense that enhances the picture itself.
PH: I think of a saying… let the feeling find its own form.I have to remember it for this film. That’s what I’m trying to do … sometimes it’s really hard… travelling is hard enough… It’s two jobs in a way.
RF: I use to think… how is the wind doing?
RK: It’s kicking the hell out of this mic, but what can you do?
RF: Sometimes the wind sounds so beautiful. What kind of a machine is that?
RK: It’s a Sony. A Sony cassette deck. It’s got little toys on it you know …too many gadgets.
RF: You always work with one mic?
RK: This can work with two.
RF: Yeah, but you do everything with one?
RK: As much as possible. I’m not a technical person so I got to find a simple machine. Don’t need a Nagra.
PH: We’re just using this Bolex with 3 or 4 different lenses.
RF: Is that a combination lens? I mean that’s just one lens.
PH: It’s just one, yes. That’s one thing I wouldn’t mind for this trip is maybe not changing lenses so much.
RF: You just work with that one lens?
PH: one or two..wide and normal.
RF: You have other ones but then you have to take it off.
PH: Yeah, It’s the only one I could get a hold of for the trip, but it works well.
RF: What do you shoot? Colour?
PH: Yeah, negative. We’ve shot for three or four years now west and east trips. This is our second time out east. I shot super-8 and collected sound when I first started a while, and now what I’m going to do with the super-8 is blow it up to 16mm and use it sort of as a concrete form of memory. And so over the years we have been returning to places and people …. So hopefully the film will have some history to it.
RF: How long is it since you’ve done the super-8?
PH: 1976… about four years ago.
JM: We came out here last year and got some footage, but the car kept breaking down. It was a newer one then this. Do you still go down to the School of Design in Halifax.
RF: No I haven’t been there since at least three or four or five years.
RK: I was thinking about going there back to school for the fourth time. Think it’s an alright place?
RF: School? Well if you feel like you need to learn something and that’s the way you feel you can learn it. What would you take there.
RK: Art education or something like that. How about teaching I do some teaching now, but you don’t get paid well when you know the stuff but don’t have the letters behind you. They don’t pay you as well. But I don’t know, change my mind every day, that’s what I got one for I guess.
RF: Well if you can go to school that’s nice. It gives you place, not in the streets.
JM: Especially out here as opposed to Toronto. I just got out, been going for years. Got a Masters Degree in Fine Arts and I finally realized that it’s not doing me much good at all. I wish I had worked all that time. ….The dog likes it here. He likes those cliffs, feels like he’s climbing mountains.
RF: It’s your dog, eh?
JM: It’s Richard’s dog.
RF: Oh, yeah.
JM: It was his birthday two days ago, two years old. You getting pretty stuck to this place here? I mean hard to leave?
RF: Well I’m attached we put a lot of money into it. We’ve worked on this for a very long time.
JM: Nice to make something and have something there.
RF: It seems permanent. It doesn’t change. It’s nice to watch nature. Watch the water, the wind, the sea.
JM: That’s what I like. I didn’t really want to come on this trip. It was hard to break myself away. How are the people down here? Pretty nice?
RF: Very friendly, yeah. Well they’re very discreet. There’s a lot of room, nobody bugs you.
JM: This has got a lot of Scottish history … The highlanders or…
RF: Yeah, they’re mostly Scottish.
JM: A lot of ***………*** (?)
RF: Some of them speak Gaelic.
JM: Yeah? Wow.
RF: It’s a good place to live. I don’t know about working. I have a hard time working here but June works a lot. She works on the building. Why don’t we stop for a while?
JM: How do you heat in the winter? Is it wood?
RF: Wood stove, coal.
JM: You just go down in your car or truck and pick it up?
RF: Yeah. When we just came here in 1969 coal was something like eleven, twelve dollars.
JM: A hundred weight?
RF: A ton. And now it’s forty and I guess that’s still cheap.
JM: Yeah. It’s a lot more down in the city..
June Leaf: It’s good huh?
RF: Can they have some tea?
JL: OK. You want some tea?
RK: Then we’ll let you get back to work.
RF: It’s a good day for working today.
RK: Yeah. Not too hot.
JL: Are you guys having tea?
JM: Phil you want some tea? (Phil filming on rocks). A lot of people paint their shingles. But I guess that once you’ve painted it once you’ve got to paint it over and over again.
JL: Most people paint them. They do, they like to paint them. It makes the house look fresh every couple of years.
RF: With just oil.. you know, seems to keep them pretty well.
JM: That’s a pretty colour that, silver.
JL: See these are old shingles, see we’re reusing them they’re very strong. I mean, they’re just like new shingles. Look at that. That was already cracked when we took it off. See we took it off with a shingle puller. That way where you see we’re putting it back it varies.
EXCERPT from Film Lab to Film Farm by Kim Knowles (Experimental Film and Photochemical Practices, Palgrave MacMillan, 2021.)
Over the next few days, our world reduces to the contours of this barn and the surrounding fields, but I feel my mind expanding into new terrain. We are taught how to operate the Bolex camera, how to hand-process as negative and reversal with traditional chemistry, as well as eco-friendly formulas with local flowers and plants. We plunge ourselves into the colorful world of tinting and toning, the handmade and largely unpredictable processes that define such films as Jennifer Reeves’ We Are Going Home (1998), Eve Heller’s Behind This Soft Eclipse (2004) and Penny McCann’s Crashing Skies (2002). We experiment with solarization in the dark room, each of us secretly hoping to get results as striking as Chris Chong’s Minus (1999), an uncut stream of superimposed movements on a single roll of film that were apparently produced in one sleepless night at the barn. read more
If there is life in the BARN: it will survive. Philip Hoffman interviewed by James Holcolme
Can you talk a little about the history of the land and buildings before they became a rural lab? Can you paint a textual picture of the landscape over the seasons and how the equipment is bedded down for the winter – what do you have to do to keep quite complex machines working and functional?
I got the property in the early 1990’s, with my partner at that time Marian McMahon, with the idea of creating a kind of school for image-making. The old stone house was built by Henry Chilton in the 1880’s, and had been used for farming ever since. The farm is approximately 50 acres, and some of it is used by my neighbours for farming purposes, in exchange for various things over the years… Erwin dug the pond and built a foundation for an extension to the house. Tom plows my lane and gives me a freezer of meat every year from his grass fed animals that graze on the land. We started the workshop in 1994 with Rob Butterworth, Tracy German and Marian McMahon, and at the time my neighbour had cows in the bottom of the barn, so we had mooing sounds echoing through the barn while we screened films! The old barn, built probably in the 1920’s is an old Mennonite constructed structure, held together solely by wooden pegs. Over the years my partner, Janine Marchessault, and I have had to maintain the barn by having our friend Jon Radojkovic, who’s an expert in timber frame barns, help to keep it standing, as the barn shifts. In 2007 he did a major repair, as the barn was shifting quickly. My neighbour Wayne put some cement posts at the back of the barn and Jon tightened some of the major beams using a permanent winching system, with thick wire, and replaced some beams by jacking the barn up…the jacking is done over a few months, raising the barn a fraction of an inch every week. So the barn is in a constant state of repair. Every winter the animals, the wind and snow take over the barn. We cover everything in tarp and hope the machines start up again in the spring!
Phil tells an apocryphal story in my class at York University. It is a story about how, at the tender age of fourteen, as the designated documentarist of family life, he was asked to photograph his dead grandfather in his coffin. It was an indelible experience for the young man, so traumatic, in fact, that he put the film in a freezer and could only develop it years later.
It was his first dead body and his first photo assignment and whether or not this event represented a primal scene in the gestation of Hoffman the filmmaker, what is apparent in the body of films he has produced over the last twenty years is a profound meditation on the relation between death and the image, on the distinction between the sensual phenomenal world and the moment of time frozen in the flatness of a mortuary image.
In Camera Lucida/ Reflections on Photography, a book which serves so resonantly in reading Hoffman’s work, Roland Barthes argues that photograph has a historical relation with the “crisis of death” which he sees evolving in the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead of trying to locate Photography in its social and economic context, he argues:
we should also inquire as to the anthropological place of Death and of the new image. For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final point. (92)
Even with the incredible proliferation of image culture, the representation of death, that is, actual death, as opposed to the plethora of fictional deaths which fill popular culture, remains, as Amos Vogel puts it, “the one last taboo in cinema.” If natural death in previous centuries, was integrated into the life of the community and culturally naturalized through ritual and religion, the increasing medicalization and technologization of death in the West, removed the experience from everyday life and invested it within impersonal legal and medical institutions. In these new contexts, death remains antiseptically invisible and shrouded in a veil of prudery. Outside of the consistently diminishing power of official religion, the personal, emotional and philosophical content of death has barely begun to be addressed.
Vivian Sobchack has argued that the taboo of representing death in our culture is powerfully connected to “the mysterious and often frightening semiosis of the body.”Death, in this instance, represents one of those primal threshold states, marking as it does as the distinction between being and non being, the transformation of human matter from one state into another. The act of photographing a corpse is experienced as trauma precisely because the corpse utterly confounds these cultural codes. Sobchack provides an elegant quote from “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience,” which gets to the heart of this matter :
The flesh is more than instrumental to control and more than sensitive, it is also revelatory. A man reveals himself to his neighbour in and through the living flesh. He is one with his countenance, gestures, and the physical details of his speech. As some have put it, he not only has a body, he is his body. Part of the terror of death, then is that it threatens him with a loss of his revelatory power. The dreadfulness of the corpse lies in its claim to be the body of the person, while it is wholly unrevealing of the person. What was once so expressive of the human soul has suddenly become a mask.
A corpse conveys the shocking transformation of the subject into a brute objecthood, devoid of consciousness, devoid of intentionality. For the young Phil, what I believe was traumatic about photographing his grandfather’s corpse was not only the cruelty of the silent and still body of a loved one but the insight it yielded, that photography, as a technology of reproduction, is inherently complicit in the transformation of subject into object. Every photograph, Barthes writes, is a reminder of Death because every photograph opens up that irreparable gap (which the photograph of the corpse is, perhaps, the limit case), between the intentionality and sensuality of the lived body and the flatness of the photographed body. Every photograph confronts us with the real absence of the loved one and with the irreversibility of time’s relentless forward movement. Every photograph is thus tinged with melancholy because of the loss which is ontologically inscribed in its very technology.
On the Pond (1978), Hoffman’s first film is paradigmatic of the importance of this insight in his work. This is certainly the film where the role of the photograph as an organizer of memory and as an index of an irretrievable past, the that has been that Barthes speaks of is the most prominent. The central structuring element in the film is a series of black and white family photographs of Phil, his parents and three sisters which are all thematically related to winter recreation, mainly ice skating and playing hockey at a pond in front of the family cottage. The sound is entirely non synchronous. Mapped onto that divide between sound and image, moreover, is the irreparable gap between the past of the images and the present of the auditory track which is filled with the family’s shrieks of recognition, delight and unabashed nostalgia. At one point, Franny, Phil’s sister laments “I want to go back” and it is precisely that desire and its ontological impossibility that structures the emotional content of the film. The voice of the filmmaker, however, is rarely heard in the family chorus yet he implicates himself in this nostalgia through a visual recreation featuring a young boy playing hockey on a pond. In this repeated image of the boy, it is as if Hoffman takes up that desire articulated by his sister, dissolving the veil between past and present through an act of imagination and filmmaking that restores a memory to the present. But it is a false and impossible note, a fantasy of a return to boyhood that can only be realized through the intercession of a fictional signifer as removed from the contemporary real as the family archive of family photos are.
As other writers in this collection are providing detailed readings of Phil’s middle works, I want only to linger on the opening images of Passing Through/Torn Formations as an additional indication of the thematic which I see running through all his work. Passing Through/Torn Formations opens in silence as a handheld camera continually pans over the face of Babji, Phil’s maternal grandmother, who lies dying in an institutional setting, a hospice or hospital whose cool institutional veneer has been somewhat humanized by the family photos, mementoes and cards pinned to the wall by her bed. Phil’s mother is feeding Babji, whose face, without her false teeth, is ravaged and skeletal. The camera lingers over the protruding veins in Babji’s thin arms, her stiffened hands, her gaunt cheeks, her eyes black with pain. Her “creatureliness,” as Sobchack puts it, foregrounded by the palpable fragility and vulnerability of her all too human body. Here again, Hoffman finds himself in a room recording a death. The trauma, however, is acted out by the persistence of movement, by the repetitions of that pan which refuses to rest in a final composition, which continually moves toward the curtain on the window as if to escape the claustrophobia of a room of the dying and of death. The eerie silence of the sequence confounds the sequence’s location in a real time and sends it, reeling, into the future-an image “catastrophe” in which the knowledge of certain death is already vested in the present/past of the image.
In Camera Lucida, while Barthes claimed that the cinematic image (as opposed to the still photographic image) avoided this sense of catastrophe through the continual unfolding of one offscreen space into another, it is clear that he is referring to the shot/reverse shot grammar of classical cinema and not to any particular ontology of the moving image. Indeed, in an essay which might in some respects be seen as the Ur text of Barthes’ insights in Camera Lucida, André Bazin, in his famous essay, The Ontology of the Photographic Image (first published in 1945), already argued for the inextricable connection between photography and cinema precisely through their mutual capacity to “embalm time” against the certainty of death. In that instance, the difference between cinema as a time based medium and the photograph is erased in the more profound consideration given to how both are produced (through the photo-chemical action of light on film) as traces of the real.
A crucial distinction needs to be made, however, between fictional and documentary signifiers in film and photography. Vivian Sobchack argues that this difference inheres, not so much in the property of an image, as in the phenomenal experience of a spectator. As spectators, we have an entirely different relationship to the representation of bodies we understand share the same world as we do. Unlike the fictional signifier of death or of bodily destruction which figures solely for its entertainment value, the indexical qualities of the body represented in documentary (and in experimental documentary) call forth “an ethical space” that is, the visible representation or sign of the viewer’s subjective, lived, and moral relationship with the viewed. 
That is why, for me, the image of Phil’s mother feeding Babji is so moving. It calls forth a flood of memories of feeding my own parents on their deathbeds. And while using all of the experimental cinematic codes that defy realism: repetition, overprocessed stock, silence etc., the sequence, nonetheless, conveys the past/presence of an actual lived body, one that solicits our profound empathy.
If the indexical quality of that body in the opening sequence anchors the film in a relationship to the real and to the acknowledgement of impending death, the remainder of the film proposes memory, storytelling and retracing the past as defenses against that inevitability. As rich and layered as a dream, the film voyages between Poland, the land of Babji and his mother’s birth and Kitchener, home of his Uncle…… If family history was registered as overly bucolic in On the Pond, Passing Through/Torn Formations delves into the other side, the dark histories …..abandonment and depression, the stories that the public archive of family photos does not tell. Supported by the richly textured pans of stones, crumbling fences and pavements, Passing Through is metaphorically associated with an archaeological dig through history but the result, in this instance, is not a seamless whole artifact but a jagged and disjointed assemblage of multiple shards of stories. Like the dream, these stories are layered, like the images themselves, one on top of the other to form a palimpsest of memory, memory as palimpsest. No coherent gestalt or linear family history can be forged from these fragments. What is left to the filmmaker is to bear ethical witness to that impossibility, to continually record and photograph life, hunting and collecting images of everyday life against loss and against forgetting.
Phil Hoffman’s new film, (untitled as of this writing) also opens with a long silent sequence featuring his late partner, Marian McMahon frolicking in the snow at their farmhouse in eastern Ontario. Marion, as she was in life, is full of spirit and mischief playing to the camera with that goofy quality that Canadians take on in the dead of winter. There is something so fundamentally idiosyncratic about her image: the funny red ear muffs, the vintage stripped scarf, the thickness of those wooly socks pulled over her jeans, those stubborn details that affirm the irreducible uniqueness of the individual, that persist despite the inevitability of human mortality. They are what Barthes defines as thepunctum the accidental, the coincidental, the telling detail which “pricks the spectator.” For Barthes, this is the order of love:
the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This …in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression. The off centred detail…the materiality of the particular that. ..won’t and cannot be named.
If so much of Phil’s work involves a meditation on death and the image, that meditation has its most personal articulation in his new work. It is a film explicitly about death, about the particular death of Marian, lover and life partner and about the emotional fallout experienced by the filmmaker as a result of that loss. It is a film about mourning, about how to mourn, about styles of mourning. In the latter part of the film a question is posed by Marian in voice over: “What ritual would you invent for death, would it be public or private ?” Hoffman responds “Public.” This film is his public elegy and while intimately and achingly sad, it is also a film, to borrow a strange word from Peter Harcourt, about redemption and the redemptive possibilities of that mourning.
In “Mourning and Melancholia” Freud described mourning as process “so intense” that it resembles a temporary psychosis. Overcome with grief, unable to reconcile oneself with the painful actuality of loss, the subject clings to the lost love object “through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis… Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected” (253) but each is met by “the verdict of reality” that the object no longer exists. In normal “successful” mourning the narcissistic satisfactions of the ego win out and, though a painful and slow process, libido is eventually withdrawn from the lost object and transferred onto a new one. Proper mourning, then, according to Freud, is like a narrative, it has a beginning, middle and end (and in that order) and its goal is to restore order, to reintegrate the subject to back into the world and into the reality principle.
But what if the proper is resisted and the subject refuses to disassociate affective connection with the lost loved one ? In one of the most lyrical sequences in the film, a text by Hoffman dissolves in over a photo of a seaside landscape taken by Marian in Spain: “If I could brighten up this part of the picture, I might illuminate the conditions of her death, the purpose of her life and the reason why, during the instant of Marian’s passage, I felt content with her leaving, a feeling I no longer hold.” His body still longs for her, he confesses, his mind still imagines her, his soul still aches. The loss remains fully present.
In Mémoires: For Paul de Man, Derrida puzzles as well with this issue of “proper” mourning. Within the classical Freudian conception of the term, successful mourning is equivalent to the assimilation of the object into the self and to an eventual forgetting of the loved one. But does this assimilation, this “eating of the other,” Derrida asks, not eradicate the irreducible altereity of the other ? This is a profoundly ethical question for Derrida : how to honour the otherness of the other while at the same time acknowledging that within the act of mourning, the other is always an object “image, idol, or ideal” that one constructs oneself.
For me that is the resonance associated with the second long sequence in the film which uses video footage of Marian working in her day job as a VON (Victoria Order of Nurses). In the footage, she is the most punky and weird of VON’s with her butch haircut, smoking cigarettes, speculating philosophically on the issue of touching a stranger’s body. At one point, however, she confronts Phil (hiding behind his 3/4 inch video 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. The only synch sequence in the film, it 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.
What one misses in mourning, speculates Derrida, is the response of the other, the voice of the other, the return serve in the dialogue that has structured the couple. Making the film in her absence, with the bits of images and audio fragments left behind, allows Hoffman, the filmmaker, to reconstitute that dialogue. In one sequence, for example, images of a trip to Egypt, to the view from their hotel window fade in as the voice of Marian, waking up from a siesta, recounts a dream: “We went back to Canada. Everything had changed but everything was familiar. What I most remember was walking in the snow with you.” What the film does is implicate itself in this dream, remembering and imagining for Marian, allowing her vision to call forth images. The recounting of this dream lends a retroactive meaning to the opening sequence of Marian in the snow and is linked, associatively, with later sequences of shadows of two people falling on a snowy lane.
The recovery of the loved one’s voice is also undertaken in the sequence featuring the photograph Marian had taken in Spain, although the voice can only be present in its absence, as a printed text superimposed over the image. In many ways, this sequence in which texts by Marian and Hoffman both endeavour to tease out a meaning ostensibly hidden in the photograph, act as a key fulcrum in the entire film. For Marian, the image, taken at a castle near Guadalest, 60 miles from Valencia “reawakens a bodily memory,” and reminds her of a point in the past when she was becoming acutely aware of extraordinary changes happening in her body which, retroactively, seemed to signal the return of a disease that she felt she had been cured of. Going through her affects after her death, Phil discovers this text paper by Marian clipped to the back of the image. His text introduces and closes the sequence, reflecting on Marian reflecting on this image, seeing in the photograph a mysterious and cryptic relic that might reveal “the conditions of her death” and “the purpose of her life.” The photograph itself is banal, a seaside landscape, a tourist image, conventional and undistinguished, as “boring” as looking through another person’s photo albums. Yet, the photo functions as a blank slate, a void whose meaning is produced associatively (ie. not referentially) entirely through personal memory and projection. In that, the sequence acts as a kind of condensation of the series of questions that I’ve argued are central to Phil’s work. How does meaning adhere to an image ? How do images organize and create memory? How does death and the absence of the loved one imbue the image with its beauty and its mystery?
In Mourning and Melancholy Freud experiences some difficulty in definitely distinguishing between the two psychic states. In one instance he posits melancholy as a an unresolved form of mourning where instead of assimilating the other into the ego, the ego identifies with the lost object, as he puts it: “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego [and] the ego is altered by identification.” For Derrida, this is precisely the formulation of love where the other is taken into oneself, not in the service of obliterating difference but of preserving otherness, an otherness whose effect is to alter my being. While I do believe this is the style of mourning and love that Hoffman proposes in his film, let me suggest that Freud’s alternative conceptualization of melancholy may be of some use here. In the second formulation, melancholy is without a specified object. The subject experiences overwhelming sadness but without being able to attribute it to any particular cause: it is a generalized sense of loss. This generalized sense of loss has an uncanny resonance with a thematic that I have argued is central both to Barthes’ formulations in Camera Lucida and to the cinematic oeuvre of Philip Hoffman. In those instances, melancholia has to do, not with the particularity of this death, but perhaps with Death itself, its inevitability and the appraisal of the fleetingness and ephemerality of life. It is this emotional quality which makes photography and experimental film among the more melancholic of arts.
. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).
. William F. May, as quoted in Vivian Sobchack, 288. (Original citation: The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience, in Death in American Experience, ed. Arien Mack (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p.116.)
. Andre Bazin, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
. Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancohia, On Metapsychology, vol 11, trans.James Strachey (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984), 253.
. Jacques Derrida, Memoires: For Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathon Culler Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf. Ed. Avital Ronell and Eduardo Cadava.(New York: Columbia UP, 1989). Much of my argument re Derrida is drawn from Penelope Deutscher, Mourning the Other, Cultural Cannibalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray), differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 10.3 (1998), 159-184.
Philip Hoffman is one of the most influential experimental film artists working in Canada today. He has created a remarkable and sustained body of media art over nearly four decades in that has had an immense impact on several generations of Canadian experimental filmmakers and digital moving image artists.
His enduring impact is seen in the development of personal filmmaking, techniques of hand-processing and artisanal production, and the method of process cinema. His work combines sensitively observational documentary aesthetics, attentive to small gestures and humanist themes, with innovative forms of cinematic experimentation. Hoffman’s inquiry is tied to a deep sense of social responsibility and a profound commitment to pedagogy and to community.
– Michael Zryd, Associate Professor, Department of Cinema & Media Arts, York University