Category Archives: Writings About Philip Hoffman

Impure Cinemas: Hoffman in Context

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

by Chris Gehman

At the beginning of cinema’s second century, it’s instructive to remember how recently proclamations of the “death of the avant-garde’* (or “experimental film,” or “fringe film”) were a staple for filmwatchers concerned with develop­ments outside the realms of commercial and art-house production (e.g., Chicago Reader critic Fred Camper, and Village Voice critic J. Hoberman). This imminent demise was seen as arising from an exhaustion of creative possibilities, and, for Camper in particular, the domestication of a formerly independent and vital movement. In a 1989 statement, Camper wrote that

What began as an anarchic movement with a singular mis­sion-that of changing the viewers’ sensibilities and thereby changing the world-is now a fragmented col­lection of “schools.” The phrases “avant-garde film” and “experimental film” no longer denote works that break new cinematic ground; rather, they name a style, almost a genre, which has its own set of defining characteristics. (32)

Towards the end of the 1980s this position seemed to solidify into a consen­sus, and filmmakers too joined the chorus. Australia’s Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, for example, toured with a film performance in which they called them­selves “the last filmmakers,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s television series Histoire(s) du cinema was markedly elegiac in tone. Among many artists who shifted their production mostly or entirely away from film (Jordan Belson, Malcolm Le Grice, AI Razutis), American independent Jon Jost “defected” to digital video-and to Europe. There he became an outspoken critic of what he sees as an irrational fetishization of the medium and a hypocritical institutional/critical environment surrounding experimental film.

During the late 80s and early 90s there were genuine signs that experimental film was in trouble. To begin with, many influential independent filmmakers have died over the past two decades. These include Andy Warhol, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Marjorie Keller, Harry Smith, Warren Sonhert, Joyce Wieland, Sidney Peterson, and Kurt Kren. From the mid-80s through the early 90s, most of the institutions that supported artists’ work in film, among them Anthology Film Archives and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the Canadian Film-makers Distribution Centre, the London Filmmakers Coop and Canyon Cinema, experi­enced crises caused by fractures and antagonism between different factions. Thesecrises were exacerbated by dwindling state support and often haphazard adminis­trative practices. In Toronto, the 1989 International Experimental Film Congress, which was organized partly to respond to the idea that experimental film was no longer a vital force, became the site and the subject of heated debates that broke down roughly along generational lines. A younger, more politically oriented group of artists, theorists and programmers attacked what they saw as an outmoded and elitist conception of the “avant-garde,” particularly a purist formalism, that had dominated experimental film production and deformed its discourse. Further, some major art galleries (such as the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario) appear to have dropped film programming and acquisition from their regular activities, while others have cut them back to almost nothing. Acquisitions of film prints by libraries and educational institutions, once a small but important source of income for at least the better-known filmmakers, have all but ceased and a revival of the practice seems very unlikely. And it is probably true that an increasingly academic environment made for a less vital film culture, at least for a particular segment of the field, and for a particular period of time.

But experimental film did not die. Many of the key institutions mentioned above have recovered their stability over the past several years, and new venues for the exhibition of artists’ film have sprung up. Sonic of these have been short­lived, while others have settled in for a long life. Critical writing on film is almost completely absent from general-interest art journals and magazines, but there are specialized journals that publish serious writing on film. A heartening range of books has appeared over the past several years, including Scott MacDonald’s three-volume collection of interviews with filmmakers, A Critical Cinema. Ultimately, however, it can only be the healthy, prickly condition of filmmaking itself that proves these proclamations of death to have been premature. What threatens the form now is less a matter of creative exhaustion than the possibility that the basic tools, materials and services needed to complete a film may disap­pear as the commercial industry turns entirely towards digital media.

What has perhaps passed away is a certain image of the artist as romantic, visionary hero, and an allegiance to large-scale, often highly purist, abstract mod­els of making. Some very interesting film artists of the past two decades (e.g., Jennifer Reeves, Philip Hoffman) have moved between styles and genres in a way that might have seemed confusing or incoherent to an earlier generation.

The characteristic elements of these films are likely to be philosophical, thematic, and personal, unlike the formal “signature style” or clear progression of artistic devel­opment that made up the work of respectable artists in earlier decades.

There has, then, been a significant shift since the “heroic” period of the avant-garde that found its critical spokesman in P. Adams Sitney, and its bible in Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde 1943-1978 (second edition 1979). This book became a flash point for much of the debate over the canonization of exper­imental film. Jason Boughtonsummarizes the critical point of view:

[Sitney’s] book acts and continues to be used as a lexi­con of alternative filmmaking practice, not only for the years it claims, but more generally, forward and back­wards in history. Like all written history it is not just a locus of memory but also a kind of sleep capsule axis of active, official forgetting … The problem is the form history comes in [in] Visionary Film-the confusion of memory and forgetting, the thinly veiled claims of com­pleteness and simple reportage. When one speaks of the Avant-Garde, is it just one era, a single group of friends, great men, a unified field that is referred to? Is avant-garde anidea or an identity? Is it (lead, and if not, can we finally let it die, and take with it a back-breaking debt to every other logocentric, exclusionary Avant-Garde…? (7)

Boughton quarrels with Sitney’s tendency to categorize makers and their works according to major art-historical movements, and takes issue with the staunchly apolitical nature of Sitney’s analysis. He accuses Sitney, for example, of ignoring the radical socialism of Ken Jacobs in his discussion of Jacobs’s works. Boughton points out that Maya Deren is the only woman filmmaker given serious consideration in Visionary Film, while Marie Menken is treated primarily as an influence on male filmmakers, and as the wife of Willard Maas. Boughton con­cludes that “[t]he exclusion of politics in Visionary Film would almost be comfort­ing, an easy resting place, were its politics not so visibly exclusionary” (6).

The “death” that the critics of the 80s predicted, then, was perhaps not the death of the experimental film per se, but rather the death of Sitney’s particular “avant-garde:’ Since that time we have seen a general cultural shift, in which the coherent psychological, spiritual and sexual identity of the individual allegedly asserted by the Romantic tradition and examined by Sitney has been replaced by a conception of the individual as a collection of interrelated aspects under the influence of an array of social, cultural, and political forces. This shift manifests itself in film in several ways: through an explicit examination of personal and fam­ily histories: through an interest in the social construction of gender, race, and ethnic identities; through a desire to convey journalistic or documentary content without resorting to discredited concepts of neutrality or objectivity; through a renewed use of “staging,” that is. the performance of roles and scenarios, though without an attempt at the kind of realism that characterizes the mainstream dra­matic film; through the use of language as an integral communicative element; through the recombination of found/appropriated materials in films made using existing film footage, photographs, consumer objects, etc.; through the live “film performance;’ which challenges the idea of film as a mechanical medium of mass reproduction; and through a burgeoning interest in manipulating the chemical surface of the image.

In short, it is a certain purism of purpose and of form that has been given up by the new generations, but not necessarily a desire to see changes in the world. The development of self-financing, underground “microcinemas,” where a good deal of the material shown has both an activist and an experimental character. testifies to the continuing role of film as an art that aims to contest and to chal­lenge social, political, economic and aesthetic hierarchies, as well as conventions of vision and representation. If anything, it is the members of the avant-garde that Fred Camper so fondly remembers who have found their way into the security of academe, while their contemporary counterparts, practising a myriad of hybrid forms, continue to struggle in a social and artistic environment hostile to film art. Yet the degree to which experimental film has not been accepted into the art world as an equal and crucial form, despite its overwhelming cultural importance over the past century. suggests that there continues to be something “indigestible” about the work, something which resists commodification and academicization. As the very idea of a unifying, central identity disappears. the pathways taken by film­makers become ever more labyrinthine and far-flung, so that the job of the would-be taxonomist becomes difficult, perhaps even impossible. My aim below, then, is to account for some of the disparate elements of contemporary experi­mental film. creating loose categories that are subject to cross-pollination.


Critique is implicit in most contemporary found-footage films, and in films which appropriate images through related forms such as collage animation. Recently, we have seen the emergence of the experimental film “remake.” Jill Codmillow’s What Farocki Taught (I998), a remake of Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), and Elizabeth Subrin’sShuliea remake of a 60s documentary about the young feminist Shularnith Firestone, are the best known examples. Implicit it most contemporary found-footage films is a challenge to conventional codes of representation and the social, political and sexual norms that are seen to he sup­ported by those codes. This political intent distinguishes contemporary uses of found footage from the more poetic, symbolic, or formal uses by film artists who began their work in earlier decades (eg.. Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner).

In tiny units of a few frames each, Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold reworks scenes from Hollywood movies, which he has defined as “a cinema of repression and denial”(Address). Arnold’s work emphasizes the mechanical rhythm of the pro­jected image and hearkens hack to the idea of cinema as a machine for the analy­sis of motion. Arnold’s films may be the fulfillment of Ilugo Musterberg’s 1915 essay describing the possibilities of reordering photographed motion in small groups of frames in order to discover a new rhythm impossible in nature. For Arnold. however, the cinematic machine is primarily an ideological apparatus, and he retools this apparatus in order to draw out every drop of meaning latent in the original material. Arnold’s Passage (I EActe (1993) reworks a scene of several sec­onds’ length from 7o Kill a Mockingbird (1992), extending it to 12 minutes by repeating every few frames several times. Leaving the original synchronized sound intact, he slowly allows the scene to progress. The effect is vehement, even violent, and creates a portrait of patriarchal family life and racial division from a scene that would pass almost unnoticed in its original context. The actors arc trans­formed into twitching puppets in the throes of an ideological seizure.

Like Martin Arnold. American filmmaker jay Rosenblatt has a background in psychology, and mounts his critique as a sort of diagnosis of symptoms. Rosenblatt uses found footage for the creation of compact. personal essays on subjects rang­ing from the construction of masculine identity in childhood (The Smell of Burning Ants. 1994) to theidiosyncracies of the 20th century’s great dictators (Human Remains, 1998) and the historical conflicts between Christians and Jews (King of the Jews, 2000). While Rosenblatt’s deployment of found images may seem relatively straightforward, functioning as illustration to an argument given in voice-over or titles, he often inverts the images’ values, finding sadness, pain and longing in grandiose, aggressive or blustery gestures. In many instances, Rosenblatt isolates and extends brief moments through optical printing, finding in them a nexus of meaning. In The Smell of Burning Ants, for example, two boys bouncing up and down on a car seat suddenly look at one another, and this look is extended to emphasize the underlying homoerotic subtext of their shared activity.

Craig Baldwin also uses found footage as a way to mount a critical essay, though his tone is less sombre and his thinking more lateral than Rosenblatt’s. In his instant classicTribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America (1991), Baldwin orders the film using a system of substitution: a race of alien invaders called Quetzals stands in for Latin American democratic and communist movements, while historical figures are represented by characters from sundry Hollywood movies (e.g., Blacula as Maurice Bishop). The film’s text as a whole, which takes the form of a demented, paranoid, right-wing rant about an alien conspiracy stands in for its opposite: a factual critique of American intervention against leftist movements in Latin America. Filmmaker Craig Baldwin is replaced by his right­wing equivalent, “retired Air Force Colonel Craig Baldwin.” The diversity of Baldwin’s source material and his style of optical printing tend to emphasize the material differences from one shot to the next. Baldwin mixes black-and-white footage with colour and documentary, or educational sources with dramatic sources. Much of the footage is worn, scratched and colour-shifted, so that the seams are emphasized and the result continually reminds the viewer that the film has been “stitched” together, like a patchwork quilt, or Frankenstein’s monster.

The use of found footage can extend to the presentation of intact fragments with minimal alteration. For instance, Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Lore (1994) is presented almost in the same form it was found. Ahwesh has simply made an optical print of the found material and added music. Remarkably, this piece, a fragment of pornography beautifully decaying into organic clumps of colour, fits perfectly into the body of her work. The scene shows two women engaging in sex play over the dead, castrated body of a man, a violent conception of an anti-patri­archal lesbian order. Many of Ahwesh’s other films deal with women’s relation­ships in the absence of men, and particularly with moments in which acting can­not be distinguished from “authentic” or unstaged behaviour. Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Movie (1986) is another noteworthy example of the use of unaltered found images. The film consists entirely of unused 196.5 news footage on the assassination of Malcolm X, with its original sync sound intact.

In contrast, animators and collage artists such as .lanie Geiser, Lewis Klahr and Martha Colburn work frame by frame with manufactured objects and images cut from magazines and books, using these as “puppets”” of autobiographical or ideological reconstruction in a sense analogous to Martin Arnold’s refashioning of Hollywood actors into puppets of the cinematic apparatus. Where Geiser and Klahr tend to conjure lambent dream worlds that evoke the thoughts of a child confronted with a world it cannot understand, or the reveries of an addled adult in the grip of a fever or hallucination of nostalgia, Colburn’s animated collages proceed at a manic pace, wringing out perverse combinations of animal, vegetable and sexual images from her source material. Colburn uses pictures from slick magazines, especially pornographic and animal images, in brief and briskly paced films with a distinctly “pop” rhythm and distinctly “anti-pop” production values and morals.


One of the fundamental tenets of high modernism was that a work of art be a self­ contained object, independent of real-world referents. This idea has arisen in many guises. but for experimental film there are two main forms: the Structuralist/Materialist, and the Formalist. The Structuralist/Materialist argument (distinctly different from Sitney’s concept of “Structural” film) turns primarily on the issue of presentation vs. representation. The argument attacks as reactionary any film that relies on illusion for its process of meaning formation. Peter Gidal, probably the most insistent proponent of this position, wrote in 1974:

Structural/Materialist film attempts to be anti-illusionist. The process of the film’s making deals with devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of the film process … An avant-garde film defined by its develop­ment towards increased materialism and materialist func­tion does not represent, or document, anything … The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary. (1)

In Gidal’s conception, documentation and narrative content presume a passive viewer, and most experimental films, including many abstract works, are under­stood to include some undesirable form of representation. Of the films that make up Sitney’s “Structural film” canon (those by Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, et al.), Gidal writes of how “the discovery of shape (fetishizing shape or system) may become the theme, in fact, the narrative of the film” (1). For all the revolutionary intentions of filmmakers and theorists like Gidal these ideas, and the extremely circumscribed possibilities available to filmmakers working within their boundaries, quickly begin to seem like a form of Marxistpuritanism: no dancing, music, or representation allowed.

The Formalist stream of filmmaking has tended to be less hound by strict rules and formulae, but it shares a generally anti-representational bent with Structuralist/Materialist cinema. In Formalist discourse on film, analogies with music abound. The idea is that film, like music, can engage the audience most intensely when it does not refer to anything outside its own formal system, when it does not rely on representation for its meaning or effect. The conception of film as a kind of “visual music” arose early in the century, and remains an active model for filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, whose non-representational films attempt to embody a type of “pre-linguistic” vision.

If a disavowal of representation was a defining feature of a great deal of experimental filmmaking up to about the mid-70s. a major shift in the postmod­ern period has been the emergence of a generation of artists whose work engages with a specific “extra-filmic” content. However, these artists are not naive about questions of representation, nor do they subscribe to any particular school (e.g., cinema verité/direct cinema) that asserts the possibility of a “neutral” or “objec­tive” representation. Rather, there is a general awareness that every work is a con­struction, an argument, whose formal elements and representational content together constitute the substance of the argument. In a sense, these artists haveexpanded the interest of many structural filmmakers from strictly visual or aural perception to include questions of social, sexual, and political perception. This process demands that the artist foreground the mechanisms by which meaning in a film is constructed, so that traditional documentary techniques (the sync-sound interview or “talking head,” for example) are generally avoided in favour of a clearly constructivist approach that may combine voice-over, titles, original and found footage.

In keeping with this awareness, many artists choose to focus their documen­tary explorations on those subjects closest to them: for instance, their family histo­ries or their sexual, racial, ethnic or religious identities. Su Friedrich maintains a rigorous intellectual distance in excavating her childhood memories in Sink or Swim (1O’H)). ordering the material according to an arbitrary system akin to those often employed by structural filmmakers-the alphabet in reverse (beginning with z for zygote). Elida Schogt, in Zyklon Portraituses a similar distancing tech­nique for her elegiac account of the death of her grandparents during the Holocaust, arranging archival footage, home movies and hand-painted film into two parallel narrative strands. The first recounts Schogt’s Jewish grandparents’ lives in the words of Schogt’s mother; the second describes the development of Zyklon B gas, first as an insecticide, then as the means by which concentration camp prisoners were murdered in vast numbers by the Nazis, the description pre­sented in a neutral tone reminiscent of the conventional documentary. The history of a chemical and the history of Schogt’s ancestors inexorably converge in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Other artists use the documentary form to question the “truth value” of the image. Jesse Lerner’s Ruins (1998) uses the strategy of deliberate and announced falsification to call into question Anglo-European interpretations of pre­Columbian societies such as the Mayan, Aztec and Toltec. Combining found footage with (presumably) scripted interviews, footage shot to look like found footage, etc., Lerner explicitly addresses the difficulty of distinguishing between the “authentic” and the fake, including a brief quote from OrsonWelles’ F 1 ,or hake (1973). The film also deals with the problem of authenticating pre-Columbian artifacts when the museums are full of fakes and replicas that stand in for “real” artifacts. William Jones’ Massillon (19)1) combines social landscape photography similar to that of James Benning with personal history (his experiences as a gay youth in a homophobic Midwestern environment) and social history (tracing the development of legal constraints on homosexual behaviour). In the film’s final section, these elements are drawn together in a visual and verbal portrait of a new California suburb. Jones’ method emphasizes the condition of the unseen, and the need to go beyond pure vision, by slowly “filling” his images with verbal informa­tion, so that the film’s blank and undistinguished locations become inextricably linked to the history and attitudes of the (unseen) people who inhabit them.

At no other time in cinematic history have so many artists been working directly with the chemical surface of the image, using a multiplicity of techniques: hand processing, colourtoning and arcane chemical treatments; homemade emulsions; application of paints, inks and dyes; scratching, abrading, and applying various materials to the film surface;collaging of cut-up pieces of film; and organic decay processes. A direct approach to the film surface is not new, having many prece­dents in avant-garde practice (e.g., Man Ray’s inclusion of strips of “rayograph” film in his 1923 Retour a la Raison, or Stan Brakhage’s 1955 Reflections on Black, in which the protagonist’s eye-images have been scratched away). Beginning as early as the 1930s-40s there are also examples from experimental animation in the cameraless films of Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith. However.partly for economic reasons, but largely because of the enthusiastic interest of a new generation of makers, the sheer amount of this kind of work has vastly increased over the past decade.


Unlike Brakhage, whose cameraless hand-painted and etched films are intended to express an inner reality, a spiritual energy (he could be considered the most prolific abstract expressionist ever), many of these artists emphasize the material of the image in order not only to defeat its illusory qualities. but to draw attention to the physical presence of the film strip in the actual immediate space of the screening room, a concern that derives in part from the earlier Materialist discourse discussed above. This critical intention is confirmed by the frequent use of found footage as a source material for assorted physical alterations. The attack on the chemical surface of the film is implicitly an attack on the intended mean­in(, of the original source images and on the “transparency” of conventional pho­tographic reproduction.

In Germany, in films such as Jurgen Reble’s Zillertal (1989), and the Schmelzdahin collective’s Stadt Im Flamen (1984), artists subject films to organic decay processes and chemical treatments that create swarming masses of colour, often rendering the original images printed on the film barely legible. The sensory appeal of these films is considerable, given their highly textured and often bril­liantly coloured surfaces, but the idea is as much to criticize the meaning of their source material as to provide visual pleasure. Stadt im Flamen (City in Flames), for example, humorously exaggerates the source “text” to the breaking point. Here, the filmmakers work from a super-8 print of a disaster film about an uncon­trolled urban fire along the lines of The Towering Inferno. By burying the film underground for an extended period, colonies of mould and bacteria developed. drawing the pigments in the emulsion into new forms, often intensifying the colours. Under the influence of these processes, the system of representation breaks down, falls into disaster like the crashing buildings and fleeing citizens in the original film’s story.

The Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Gariné Torossian also works directly with the film surface, but in a manner more closely related to Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (19e4-hH) than to the chemical approaches described above. Torossian chops her films up, dyes them, scratches and tattoos them, and tapes them hack together in new configurations, mixing super-8 and 16mm footage at will. Often this footage is already refilmed from a video image of an artwork or photograph, so that the number of generations of remove from any real-world referent is multi­plied irretrievably. This becomes especially poignant in Girl From Moush (1993), a brief, haunting poem in which Torossian’s longed-for homeland ofArmenia is seen only in borrowed images that have inhabited and fermented in the artist’s mind.



Some artists working in film reject its status as an impersonal, mass-reproducible object, mounting live film performances. These works partake of the film projec­tion not as “text,” but as event. In these performances it is not enough to run industrially reproduced materials through a projector. The presence of the living artist is required, as in the performance of a piece of music, with the film and the projector as instruments to be played. Prolific Toronto super-8 filmmaker John Porter, in his ongoing Scanning series, uses the entire theatre as a screen, moving the projector by hand to create magical illusionist effects which simultaneously make the spectator acutely aware of the theatre space. San Francisco artist Luis Recoder creates cinematic paradoxes and time loops using found footage by the simple expedient of looping a piece of film so that it runs through the projector twice, allowing images from one section of the film strip to overlap with those from a later section. His Moebius Strip (1900) uses documentation of sports events: we see a racing car tearing down a track from left to right, the camera panning with it, and simultaneously, the same car racing from right to left. The result is one of frenzied motion that cancels itself out. Recoder’s Magenta (1997) uses a badly colour-shifted medical film demonstrating the proper methods for bandag­ing. Again, by running the same film through the. projectortwice, a visual echo is developed in which each action overlaps upon and repeats itself’. The sensation is created of a continuous caress in the context of medical damage, a feeling both soothing and disturbing.



Philip Hoffman’s highly diverse body of work in film, beginning with On The Pond (1978), shares many interests and approaches with the work discussed here, but is distinct in its relation to the documentary tradition (which is of particular importance in the Canadian context) 1, and in its concern with personal and family history. From On The Pond toDestroying Angel (1998), Hoffman has balanced an awareness of film as a constructed object with a desire to explore specific extra­filmic themes. This has led him to a complex, first-person cinema very different from the formal approach of an earlier generation. When Stan Brakhage films his family in his famous Window Water Baby Moving (1959), or inScenes From Under Childhood (1967-70), the viewer does not learn the names of the people shown, does not hear their voices and discovers nothing of their past. The effect is two-fold: on the one hand, unencumbered by language, the film is able to hold in its form the very specific moments and energy of a particular time with particular people. On the other hand, everything is universalized: the children become all children and represent a state of “childness”; a birth becomes every birth, a symbol for all gen­erations.

In Hoffman’s work the drive is very different and this leads to the inclusion of names and places, and the tracing of specific relationships. However, Hoffman’s acute awareness that the medium is never a neutral carrier of information leads to a variety of representational approaches, which often contain contradictory cues about the “truth value” of the material (see for example ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film (1986)). Alternatively, in a manner analogous to Craig Baldwin’s indi­rect treatment of his subject in Tribulation 99,Hoffman’s “absent presences” refuse explicit visual representation of their subjects. For example, both ?O,Zooand Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) have at their centres the story of a death, and in neither case is the dead person or animal represented visually. In varying proportions, Hoffman’s films play documentary content against fiction within a complex and shifting formal treatment.

Hoffman engages in an intense process of self-examination that is also an exploration of the capacities of his medium. In finding an appropriate form for his themes and ideas, Hoffman has developed a multiplicity of styles. But these are not arbitrary exercises; in each case, Hoffman demands of a film that it communi­cate certain crucial ideas to the viewer while promoting an intense awareness of the film’s means of construction. It is ultimately this foregrounding of the means of construction and Hoffman’s casual hybridity of genre, balancing the concerns of documentary, fiction and formal experimentation, that mark Hoffman as a film­maker allied with the impurities of contemporary practice and engaged in a criti­cal dialogue with the “straight” documentary tradition that has been so important in the Canadian context.

Hoffman’s influence as a teacher at Sheridan College and York University has been as important as his artistic influence. For example, although Hoffman’s films evidence a relatively gentle engagement with the chemically altered image, the summer film retreat he founded with his late partner Marian at their rural Mount Forest home has been inspirational to scores of young makers by teaching the basics of first-person hand processing and other chemical treatments of the film surface. This workshop has been a key catalyst in the explosion of first-person, hand-processed, cameraless and chemically-worked films in North America over the past several years.

The balance of interests in Hoffman’s work has shifted markedly from film to film. Much of his work enters into the relationship between documentary, fiction, and formal experimentation described here, while some of his films favour more generally formal visual and aural approaches (e.g., Chimera, 1992-3), and still others venture into aleatoricconstruction (Technilogic Ordering and Opening Series, 1992 ongoing project). In Opening Series, Hoffman gathers together sever­al separate rolls of film, packaging each in its own box with an unrelated image or text on the outside. Audience members are asked to change the order of the boxes as they enter the theatre prior to the screening. Hoffman splices the film together in the order arrived at by the collective choices of the audience members; the film will therefore be projected in a different edit at every screening, moving his work into the realm of “film performance.”

The richness and complexity of Hoffman’s greatest works, which include passing through/torn formations, Kitchener-Berlin and ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film),have made him one of the important experimental filmmakers of the past twenty years. The insistent hybridity of Hoffman’s practice also marks him as distinctly postmodern, and his particular relation to the documentary tradi­tion as distinctly Canadian. To assert that experimental film is no longer a living force is to ignore the challenge offered by Hoffman’s films and those of many other active filmmakers. If an earlier generation found its identity through a puri­ty of form and identity, the strength of today’s experimental filmmakers may lie in a canny “impurism” that allows them to traverse the boundaries that separate doc­umentary from fiction, abstraction from representation, and political from personal.



Arnold, Martin.
address. Pleasure Dome screening. Toronto, 18 Feb. 2000.Boughton. Jason. “Laid to Rest: Where the Forward Guard, and Their Regrettable Victory, Are Finally Dismissed.” Pinhole Cinema Project. n.p. 911 Media Arts Centre, 1993.5-7. Camper, Fred. International Experimental Film Congress. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989.

Gidal, Peter. “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ Structural Film Anthology. Ed. Peter Gidal. London: British Film Institute. 1978.

1-2 Originally published in Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001.

Philip Hoffman’s Films

by Gary Popovich

The films of Philip Hoffman exemplify a process in which raw, amorphous experience undergoes examination, whereupon the filmmaker’s initial emotion and volition are sublimated to a state of cognition. The filmmaking process acts as a catalyst organizing nature, objects, people, events, film (and other media), memory, and time into a comprehensible form for understanding experience. The phenomenological (both that which is captured on film and that which is Lot captured on film) is ordered into an ontological system by the act of filmmaking.

Nature, or objects in nature, rarely stand for something else in Hoffman’s films. Buildings, dogs, vehicles, ponds, and beaches have a relationship to the past, or conjure memories of the past, which stir the filmmaker to put the stories, events, and memory fragments in relationship to the present. As experiential images captured on film they open a context which demands questions from the filmmaker during his editing: Where was I then? What happened? Why did I want to remember it, to capture it on film? What is its relationship to the past, and to similar older film footage? Was it the colour, or form which captured my eye, or did it serve as a respite from the hectic interaction with people? The inherent form, colour, or movement of a shot is reason enough for its inclusion in his films. Objects are often allowed to perform purely cinematic purposes, as opposed to symbolic purposes, so that the filmmaker predicates the logistics of his personal cinematic memory as the sole means of structuring his film.

In his films Hoffman acknowledges the influence of the Beat poets, especially of novelist Jack Kerouac; but I think Hoffman’s form puts into practice the theoretical work done by poet Charles Olson at least to the degree of success attained by the so-called Beat filmmakers (Robert. Frank for example), if not to a greater degree of success, using Olson’s ‘projective’ or ‘open’ form. Olson’s poetics, even in the often idiosyncratic and abstruse language he uses, do clearly strike to the root of Hoffman’s manner of formal organization:

if he (the poet) stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problem, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. …breath is man’s special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself … then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size.1

I believe the references to language, speech, and breath are applicable to Hoffman’s films in terms of his relationship to the camera. Repeatedly the camera is alluded to being an extension, or inextricable part, of the filmmaker’s body. The act of becoming one with the camera, and one with nature, is exemplified in The Road Ended At The Beach (1983) where Hoffman (as he is dancing over rocks in a stream, camera looking at the rocks and water) concedes that the best time “is when I’m on my own with the camera” or inSomewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion when he incorporates the breath, or duration of the spring wind, of the Bolex camera (approximately 28 seconds) into the film as he would his own physical and motor capacities for maneuvering with the camera.

Nature is appreciated for what it is, and displayed as such; mountains or rivers, people or objects, do not derive their significance as symbols but as elements which the filmmaker must confront or through which he must pass. In The Road Ended At The Beach confrontation leads to revelation as object or event recalls a similar more pleasing moment in the past, so that cinematically even the past and present confront each other, thereby manifesting the personal visions, and memories of the filmmaker.

When objects and nature are used in terms of symbols, Hoffman is less successful. Freeze-Up (1979) is weakened by the predictability of movement from the good, calm, bright, warmth of the country to the cold, dark, fast and impersonal city. The images are less than inspired, as if Hoffman’s heart was not at one with the material, creating a coldly impersonal work that cries out for his presence. His strongest work includes himself as a participant in the action. This he has learned to do quite well with growing confidence from On The Pond (1978) to The Road Ended At The Beach culminating in his latest film Somewhere Between where he has learned how to remove actual images of himself from his film while retaining a personal quality through reference to the relationship between himself, his camera, and passing events.

Freeze-Up also suffers due to the restrictive reading of nature which is reduced to a few probabilities rather than leaving it open, for the most part, as it is in The Road Ended At The Beach and Somewhere Between. Vestiges of restrictive signification of objects are still in evidence in The Road Ended At The Beach (such as the ‘Feeling Satisfied’ sign which is a rather trite comment upon the growing disenchantment of the travellers with their journey) but these have disappeared in Somewhere Between. When Hoffman does not take the elements he works with into himself, and resorts to the imposition of foreign elements (whether they be resonant with understandable symbolic cultural signification or not) the phenomenological remains in the realm of phenomena and neither the audience nor the filmmaker has come any closer in understanding the ontological relationship between the filmmaker and his work. However, when Hoffman’s bond with nature and his art is most successfully manifested through the depiction of his vicissitudinous relationships between people, events, and objects he, in a practical sense, captures the essence of the theoretical definition of art proposed by Nietzsche in his famous dictum* “art is not merely imitation of the reality of nature but rather a metaphysical supplement of the reality of nature, placed beside it for its overcoming.”2

At the same time Hoffman must ask himself in what way film, or the camera, gets in the way; in what way does it restructure the manner in which we look at experience by the nature of cinematic selectivity of shooting and editing? The presence of the camera is repeatedly acknowledged; the filmmaker grapples continually with the meaning of what he has recorded on film and what he would have liked to record. In On The Pond snapshots and slides from the filmmaker’s childhood are buttressed against live action footage of a young boy playing hockey and the filmmaker sifting through hockey memorabilia. The old slides are thus instilled with an emotional quality which reaches the audience, capturing, in their juxtaposition with live footage, quite successfully the spirit of what was initially only of private value. For all its slides, its periodic self references, and the opening slate, On The Pond is not nearly as reflexive or self-consciously reflective as The Road Ended At The Beach. In this film a trip east documented by the filmmaker and two friends is edited with film footage of previous trips to the east and west coasts of Canada, with occasional references to trips undertaken by Conrad Dube, a physically handicapped bicycle rider who has clocked 308,000 km. world-wide; Rup Chand, an old Tibetan friend who inspires Hoffman to keep a journal after talks about trips to the far east; and Kerouac and Cassidy, who seem to have been the seminal influences of filmmaker-road traveller Hoffman. The film is laden with photographs, old films, inter-titles, conversation about previous films of Hoffman and his filmmaker friend Richard Kerr,3 conversation concerning the present film, references to the camera, and shots of the filmmaker both travelling and at work on the film.

The trip, full of disappointment and frustration, is continually set in contrast to more glorious or exotic trips in the past. This trek to the east coast, having been consciously planned as a trip for documentation on film, by its very nature is conducive to introspection and comparison by the filmmaker and his art. His hopes may have been set too high in anticipation of dazzling film footage of adventure. Pressed by his preconceived needs and the cost of such an undertaking he feels the trip is failing to deliver that which was expected; the result is a documentation of his own reflective thoughts and cinematic perceptions concerning failure to measure up to the past, failure to realize the idealized preconceptions one might have about a trip that would seem to hold great promise, and failure to actually see the richness that the present does hold (albeit hidden during the actual shooting) so that the finished film is a rich mosaic that successfully captures the predilections and artistic turmoils of the filmmaker in the midst of trying to understand his artform.

A brilliant example of this occurs through the use of a repeated fragment of dialogue over two shots that although formally similar, contextually reveal the filmmaker’s reflections on the disparity between. bright expectation at the beginning and introspection towards the end. As the three friends set out in their van, Hoffman gives us a shot from inside of the van looking out to the road ahead (the characters in silhouette, the road ahead exposed for detail), while on the soundtrack Jim, the driver, sings and comments about the “big last run” of the van. After the meeting with Robert Frank (which is disturbingly anti-climactic due to Frank’s stand-offish manner) Hoffman cuts in shots of the stern of a ferry and the wake behind it, ferry smoke stacks, a shot out of a porthole which dissolves to red, then dissolves to a shot of himself in a room listening to sound from the film, to a shot from inside the van once again — this time with the view out of the van windshield over-exposed while the interior of the van is exposed for detail. As we hear Jim repeat “the big last run” Hoffman’s voice comes on the sound­track to says “The trip begins again. Now I look inside the van.” From ‘this point onward the shots of past trips come into disparaging collision with the present due to their perceived banality and mundaneness, and especially due to Hoffman’s harsh interpolatory comments such as: “I recall more exotic trips … he (Jim) told me he’d rather be at home … he (Richard Kerr) must have felt imprisone1 by the van … I expected adventure, but the road had died since the first trip west with Jim … the best time for me is when I’m on my own with the camera.” With shots through mirrors, looking back, from an automobile speeding through the rain on a distant western trip and some final disparaging remarks, the camera ends up on an eastern beach in Newfoundland with no further to go. The camera itself seems to reflect on how far it has come, looking incessantly at a large rock in the ocean, with reflection, and the return, its only alternative.

Hoffman appears in Somewhere Between only through the first person singular ‘I’ in the intertitles. Retaining its personal quality through the titles, the film’s images (gathered from various locations in Mexico; Boulder, Colorado; and Toronto, Ontario) organize the phenomena of experience into a system that attempts to understand the myriad of spiritual feelings and spiritual acts in a universal sense. The text tells the story of a dead Mexican youth encountered by the filmmaker “on the road.” Among the visuals are Mexican street scenes, pious worshippers in front of a church, children inside a church, street bands, and a religious parade. The filmmaker, at this point in his career, realizes the richness of documenting his own searching attempts to bring together related experience. In one segment an artist is copying a painting of Christ. Superimposed over the image of the artist is a close-up of his hand and brush in motion; however, as the brush moves it seems to be tracing the outline of, and painting, the artist himself, so as to say that as one creates a work of art one is actually drawing oneself. The subject of much of 20th century art involves artistic activity as a paradigm of experience and free activity without prescribed norms. Hoffman himself seems to feel that by making the process of filmmaking a large part of his subject, he can best demonstrate the action of filmmaking and his relationship to it.

Along with nature and reflexivity, children too figure prominently in Hoffman’s films. After a clapboard is removed from the shot, On The Pond begins with an outdoor nighttime scene and a young boy’s voice asking: “Are we going to do it tomorrow?” A voice, which we assume belongs to the filmmaker, responds with a simple “yes.” What they do the next day is both shoot the film and play some hockey. The. boy plays a role similar to that which we can imagine Hoffman to have played as a young boy fascinated with hockey and the ice skating pond. In fact the boy acts as a means to manifest the filmmaker’s own personal childhood experiences and emotions. He captures the boy’s joy, his preoccupation with, and concentration on, hockey, as well as the attendant fears and embarrassments. Intercut with this footage are slides projected off a screen, while on the soundtrack the filmmaker’s family provides a commentary.

In a wonderfully evocative scene we see an array of old slides of the pond area is a young woman’s voice says “I wanna go back.” Hoffman then dissolves from the slides to live action slow motion footage of the young boy stick-handling a puck around his dog. He then inserts a.match cut of pages flipping, then a match cut of the boy waving his scarf in the direction of the dog and the camera while on the soundtrack we hear the growing buzz of an arena crowd. As the boy, now stick-handling again, falls to the ice, the soundtrack crossfades from a shouting crowd to the family laughing loudly, whereupon Hoffman finally cuts to a slide of a bald headed boy (undoubtedly Hoffman himself) standing out amongst other family members. The scene delineates a complex relationship between the private and fragile self-conceptions of childhood, and the often disquieting insouciance of the public (family included), while Hoffman leaves no doubt that an adult filmmaker, too, is not immune to this kind of suffering.

In The Road Ended At The Beach Hoffman begins by looking, as with the eyes of a child, back to his heroes in literature (Kerouac) and photography (Frank) and to previous trips, soon finding himself asking what it means to confront their stories with his own self-styled model of their journeys. They have become older; their legends demystified, they have become part of mundane reality. For Hoffman, action must be put on hold; the time for reflection ha come. By the end of the film he has come to the edge of land and water where he stares out at a large enigmatic rock in the ocean. On the sound­track and in front of the camera, children, oblivious to Hoffman, are able to transform the distant rock into their personal plaything singing to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey.” Hoffman stares at the rock trying to com­prehend after all the distance he has come; the children accept it as part of their experience. The song recalls a similar scene in Robert Frank’s film Pull My Daisy in which a child interrupts the narrative track, which is other­wise dominated by Jack Kerouac, by singing “Humpty Dumpty.” The child’s nursery rhyme has as much validity as the musings of a wild poet. But where this makes a rupture and sets the apartment confined poets in search of adventure accompanied by Kerouac’s musically phrased “let’s go … let’s go!” in Pull My Daisy, Hoffman, in The Road Ended At The Beach, seems to say ‘we’ve been… let us stop now and examine where we have been … let us try to comprehend.’ Realizing that it is his own personal journey that matters most, and that some aspects of nature and existence can best be understood, or come to terms with, through the imagination, Hoffman is able to work more confidently and universally in scope in his next film.

Where in The Road Ended At The Beach documentation on film seems to be the pre-text for the journey, in Somewhere Between the journey serves as a pre-text for the triangulation of simultaneous spiritual events (Toronto, Boulder, and Mexico). Through the inter-titles we get the story of the dead boy on the Mexican road; the images show us children playing in an empty church, a child begging for money in front of a street band; a little girl playing on a large sculptured model of a snail, and children dressed as angels in celebration of the Feast of Fatima. A certain ambiguity arises from these images in juxtaposition with the text. The last title tells us “the boy’s spirit left through its blue.” In the visuals the children seem to be cinematically orchestrated in concert for the redemption, safe passage, or re-incarnation of the boy’s spirit; but the film is full of walls. The camera searches along them, over them, through doorways, but we can only get a glimpse at what lies beyond due to interruptions such as a hesitant and shaky camera or a deliberate cut away. Throughout the scene in which children parade as angels and an artist copies a painting of Christ, Hoffman has super­imposed a blue wall. The camera’s long look at the end of The Road Ended At The Beach (the realization point) has superimposed its lesson over much of Somewhere Between, so that barriers and the inability to-entirely understand all experience is now accepted and the filmmaker is free to express and orchestrate the feelings he has, upon seeing the dead boy, without attempting an explanation.

The manner in which time is used, in two of the three films discussed here, is a direct reflection of the difficulty in dealing with present experience. Feeling the past encroaching upon each present moment, camera in hand, Hoffman documents the apparent lack he feels. In both On The Pond and The Road Ended At The Beach this is initiated by memory, discovered and analyzed as he sifts through the past and present visual and aural material .he has gathered, and communicated to an audience by means of his editing. The film, as finished product, is the result of trying to come to terms with the present.

In Somewhere Between the present no longer intrudes upon the filmmaking. The first title reads:

looking through the lens at passing events
i recall what once was
and consider what might be

Initially this would seem to be the same approach employed in The Road Ended At The Beach; however, the consideration of “what might be” is no longer predicated upon a restrictive reading of a dichotomous past-present laden with inquietude. Hoffman, having extricated himself from the obfuscatory fetters of time, is now able to consider a harmony among pro-filmic events. The intertitles often mix the past and present tenses in the same breath.5 The images have a time­less quality;6 while space is rendered ambiguous, inasmuch as one is not sure whether—certain images were shot in Toronto, Boulder, or Mexico.

Two clear aspects of time do emerges (1) Hoffman before the lens considering time, and (2) the present time of sitting through the actual screening of the film; all other aspects of time are emotional and spiritual. When a title announces:

the little girl
with big eyes,
waits by her dead brother

The corresponding image is not from Mexico, not from the same time, but is emotionally connected to the text — we see a young girl climbing and crawling upon a large sculptured snail in Boulder. Her face, and backward glances toward the camera, suggest numerous unanswerable questions which one could well imagine the dead boy’s sister posing — and the filmmaker no less. An immemorial tenor is suggested that parallels Hoffman’s superimpositions of the painter’s brush strokes upon himself, placing the camera in a long line of tradition which finds itself pre-occupied with spiritual questions or spiritual imagery in an often secular sense. It is secular to the extent that Hoffman’s imagery is of the mundane, of the quotidian, while the narrative text, delivered with white letters on black, attempts to conjure a sense of the extra-mundane (such as in the final title when “the boy’s spirit left through its blue”).

Up to The Road Ended At The Beach Hoffman displayed a methodical structuring of the interactions of various time elements; with The Road Ended At The Beach he seems to have found synchronicity to be a fundamental, or necessary, grounding to his work. Yet the ideas, feelings, and impressions are more contiguous than they are synchronous. The contiguous past and present elements form a dialectic through the editing, resulting in an asperous look to the film akin to the image we might have of the filmmaker on his journey. The counterpoint in Somewhere Between is of a deeper weave; the narrative text suggestively imprints images on the mind (that endure in a manner similar to the persistence of vision properties in viewing motion picture images) forcing the viewer to juggle these images with the actual visual images in the film, so that the film’s structure resembles that of a musical fugue. As opposed to distinguishing the two, if one allows both sets of images (the filmic and the suggested) to come together as one, a preterite film image tense co-existing with the past-present tense of the text creates a form of preterite present tense (as articulated by the filmmaker in the opening title) releasing the filmmaker and the viewer from the restrictions of time. In effect, the viewer plays as much a hart in structuring the work as the filmmaker has — choosing where, how,*and when to accent the two sets of complimentary images. The intrusive and/or disjunctive editing style of The Road Ended At The Beach has been replaced by a simplified form of cutting on the breaths, or lengths of the Bolex camera’s shot, alternating with an intertitle so that the intrusions and/or disjunctions are within the shots not in their juxtaposition.

In The Road Ended At The Beach the camera “got in the way” between Hoffman and his subjects; it prevented the filmmaker from realizing on film his preconceived ideas of how the trip would unfold and how it would, or could, be documented. In Somewhere Between an intertitle tells us:

on the road dead, lies a mexican youth i put the camera down the cop car passed right by

In order to come closer to events, to get in tune with them, at times it is necessary to lay the camera down, looking not through the pre-figured limit­ations of a lens and with the sensibility that accompanies the act of filmmaking, but to see with one’s own eyes and to look for the existing relationships.? The result is a feeling of synchronicity with objects, people, and events represented by images from Toronto, Boulder, and various locales in Mexico (excepting the area where the dead boy was encountered). The rough hand­held camera searching through a Mexican alleyway, the children wandering among the empty congregation chairs framed between two solid church pillars with a large crucifix visible in the background, the street bands in Mexico and Boulder, the religious festival in Toronto replete with a large sculpture of the virgin and with children parading as angels, the young girl on the snail, and the quiet stream are a result of the sublimating of the initial emotion inspired by the dead child and the power of willing initially foreign elements to move in harmony with one another and with the narrative text. This attitude in the filmmaker is arrived at through the persistent efforts to understand the phenomenological in terms of his relationship to the art of filmmaking, but could only have reached this state of fruition by the ongoing realization (through On The Pond and The Road Ended At The Beach) that the form of a film suggests itself if one is able to see clearly the relationships between seemingly disparate elements (objects, events, and people), the camera, and the eye of the filmmaker. So the somewhat un­specific ‘somewhere’ between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion8 is rendered explicitly as everywhere between what one can see and what one can imagine.

In relation to time, and in its two states of liquid and solid, water plays an important role in Hoffman’s films. The water in On The Pond, in its frozen state, is an arena of inward reflection that catalytically allows the filmmaker to reach back in time to his own childhood. The juxtaposition of documented evidence of the past (snapshots and slides) with the shots of Hoffman, as a filmmaker, returning to the frozen pond reveal the disparity between what the slides signify to an independent observer and Hoffman’s own personal feelings towards the frozen moment which only through his manipulation can relay to the audience the same warmth and emotional depth he feels in them. What has not changed, one senses, is Hoffman’s emotional relationship to the public and private aspects of his chosen activity (the love of hockey as a youth, and hockey and filmmaking as an adult) so that over the course of time only the ability to articulate feelings has changed — it has become more adroit.

The Road Ended At The Beach begins and ends with the sounds of waves. What surfaces through the course of the film is Hoffman’s dissatisfaction and attempts to come to terms with the shards of recalled time,- both in memory and on film, that suggest  that the present view of things is grossly at odds with one’s past idealized perceptions. The finished film, in effect, creates a new past which, once examined by the filmmaker, has a validity and importance which was not recognizable during the actual shooting of the film. This idea is not reactionary in and of itself as the past is not so much romanticized as it is misunderstood in its relationship to the present; so that the methodical work of the filmmaker pushes forward his understanding and ability to deal with the present tense of his filmmaking by taking into account his initially unfocussed way of perceiving the past.

The waves and water bracketing the film suggest that the problem is immemorial and is, of necessity, a problem which Hoffman must deal with if he is to grow as a filmmaker.

Each image in Somewhere Between begs a question, is a hypothetical response to the story of the dead boy. From the questions he posed about time, his frustrated ideals, the inability to communicate as effectively as he would like, and tumultuous emotions he felt in The Road Ended At The Beach Hoffman has learned not to expect concrete answers but to keep his camera searching for the unity of experience and emotion which he feels is bound to all that his camera chooses to record. The last image of the film, a serene stream in the woods,9 with the saxophonist exhaling his final quiet breaths into his instrument, predicates the value of the unanswerable questions concerning life and death and the contradictory elements of existence with which the filmmaker has now learned to live. Although tinged with a sense of regret or helplessness, Hoffman, with the last title, draws us an image of pathetic fallacy that both asserts the inexorable and oblivious march of time and his own sense of the synchronicity of mundane elements:

big trucks spit black smoke
clouds hung
the boy’s spirit left through its blue

The multi-media piece The River, Hoffman’s latest work, reflects his growing interest concerning the reproduction of images and the representation of pro-filmic events on both film and video, as well as dealing with motifs (such as nature, time, and water) that have surfaced in previous films. The first piece of The River is a 3 minute 16mm film showing a river and river bank from the point of view of the cameraman on a boat. The film captures the glimmering of the sun reflecting off the water, the texture of the leaves on the trees, and a three dimensional look which one has come to expect from realistically represented images. The film is silent, so the movement of objects (dropping of a bobber, splashing of a paddle) and the movement of the boat has an ethereal quality.

The next piece is on black and white video with sound. The images, although sharp and crystal clear, look decidedly different from the film image in fact, the water and reflections from the water have an abstract look about them. The camera is often moved jarringly and the sound is harsh and it intrusively accentuates the movement of the boat and the boat’s objects which had all been smooth and slick in the film. The boat scrapes by branches, and at one point comes into collision with a fallen tree protruding from the shore. Nature, in this video, is something to contend with; and appropriately we get shadows and reflections of the cameraman (Hoffman) shooting his images, as well as shots of the microphone being buffeted about by the gear on the boat during a long camera pan. If the film portion exuded a seamless string of ethereal images, the video portion undermines, by interruptions, the false serenity of the original footage.

The final piece is the original 16mm film flipped on its horizontal axis, so that the image is reversed, and recorded onto video directly from a screen projection of the film. The 1/24 second flickers of the film are captured on video resulting in further abstraction; the three dimensional quality and the glossy look has disappeared. The sounds, including those of birds, seem louder and incommensurate with the images — as if they were overcompensating for the deterioration of the representational images.

A significant work in images and representation, and the meaning various processes construct in relationship to pro-filmic and filmic events, The River remains more of an exercise (albeit an important one) than a finished product. The original film footage seems to have been shot prior to the intent of incorporation into a larger multi-media piece — but Hoffman’s most successful shooting has always preceded the conscious conceptual­ization of a final form.

The various forms of media, with which Hoffman has been preoccupied in his films were in need of undergoing the type of examination that The River offers — in fact more rigorous examination is still necessary. In making The Road Ended At The Beach the filmmaker learned not only that the camera got in the way, but how it got in the way; in Somewhere Between it was learned how the filmmaker, the camera, and the pro-filmic events could be rendered accordant. Using the process of filmmaking to order phenomenological events into an understandable ontological system, Hoffman has documented both his own growth in film and his growing understanding of his relationship to filmic and extra-filmic experience. With The River he turns outward to the territory, as yet only peripherally explored by him, in which spectator-­screen-image-filmmaker relationships are to be explored, so that the process of filmmaking will provide him with a means of epistemologically querying the cinematographic sound and image.


1. Olson discusses three “simplicities” by which composition by field, or projective composition, is accomplished. “(1) KINETICS A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.” As such the poet “can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. (2) FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT … right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand. (3) ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”— Charles Olson, Selected Writings; Poetry New York, 1950.

2. Continually, Hoffman seems to be enmeshed in a struggle to understand his reasons for making a film, or for turning on the camera, partly believing that film (like music in Nietzsche’s statement): “is not a copy of the phenomenon, or, more accurately, of the adequate objectivity of the will, but an immediate copy of the will itself, and therefore complements everything physical in the world and every phenomenon by representing what is metaphysical, the thing in itself,” so that not only is Hoffman caught questioning his own will but also the meaning of images that can seem to be a reflection of the will and an exact copy of nature at one and the same time. Without resolve he continues to search for an allusive oneness with nature in balance with a belief that “existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.”

Nietzsche quoted from: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans by Walter Kaufmann; Random House, Inc., 1967.

3. A short segment of Kerr’s film Dogs Have Tales is inserted into Hoffman’s The Road Ended At The Beach as Hoffman mentions that the two friends attended college together (“we made films together”). Hoffman himself appears in the shot from Kerr’s film.

4. Shortly before the end of The Road Ended At The Beach Hoffman inserts a close-up of a child’s face looking directly into the lens of the camera. He then cuts back to Robert Frank who says, about the beat generation,: ? Maybe things were freer because we knew less.” After more shots through a rain splattered car windshield (from one of the trips west) washed in somber colours and replete with mirrors, a ‘Feeling Satisfied’ advertising sign, and a blue moonlit evening, Hoffman cuts to his last shot on the beach in Newfoundland looking out to the rock where we hear and see children again.

The disillusionment and dissatisfaction Hoffman feels as his static camera peers, blinking (the shot is composed of a series of jump cuts), attempting to understand loss, change, and find meaning in what he sees (and has seen) while joyful sounds of children playing about assail his private thoughts, -places him in the same deplorable position in which Wordsworth found himself:

… I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we have all reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character, and have rejoiced over the remembrances, as is expressed in the lines -­ ‘Obstinate questionings Of sense and outward things, Fallings from us, vanishings; To that dream-like vividness and splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood, every one, I believe, if he would look back, could bear testimony …”

William Wordsworth, Introduction to “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood”

After The Road Ended At The Beach, these thoughts seem to be reconciled in Somewhere Between.

5. eg.

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

6. The action in most shots is langourous; nearly each shot is separated by an intertitle; three of the shots are in black and white, thereby obscuring their contemporaneity; the selected Mexican locations appear ageless, even in the second shot in which a large red Coca-Cola sign, and speeding cars traversing the frame horizontally, try to dominate the image, an old Mexican in a mule cart draws torpidly up the centre of the-frame and stops.

7. By placing his camera down on the ground and refusing to show images of the dead boy, Hoffman may seem to be following an accepted wisdom, stemming as far back as the Greek classical tragedy, in which the most explicit, violent, or horrifying act does not take place before the eyes of the spectator (leaving it to the power of the imagination) or he may be taking into consideration the dubitable efficacy of presenting spectacular or gratuitous shots to an audience already immune to such images due to their inundation from the mass media; but I contend it was a more personal moment derived from the filmmaker’s own history in film together with the attendant awareness that he would be able later to capture images commensurate with his feelings at the time, synchronous to his perceptions of the passing events in the narrative text. Although unconscious decisions are made in the filming, the material itself would suggest its own place in the editing stage.

8. Near the otherwise inconsiderable little town of Jalostotitlan is an ornate graveyard; Encarnacion, a town 60 km. away, is the Spanish word for incarnation. Somewhere on the road between these two towns lies the dead boy.

9. The first image and last two images of the film are shot in high contrast black and white with yellow light added in the printing stage. Although many of the shots in the film reflect a minimal amount of manipulation (superimpositions, wide angle lenses) the first and the last two shots are almost painterly in their look. The first shot is of a Boulder street playing; on the soundtrack we hear the saxophone playing upbeat jazzy phrases that for a moment seem to be synchronous to the image. We soon realize that the saxophone has been added later and sound and image are not synchronous.. Through the course of the film the saxophonist’s breaths (and lonely, mellow phrasing) develop synchronously with the breaths of the Bolex camera; and as the boy’s spirit leaves through its blue (in the intertitles), and the last two black and white-yellow coloured shots (the girl on the snail and the stream in the woods) come up on the screen, and the saxophone exhales a sigh, it is the filmmaker’s manipulation which manifests the harmonious concert of elements derived from his perception of the synchronicity of people, events, and objects.

Passing Through: The film cycle of Philip Hoffman

by Mike Hoolboom

The films of Philip Hoffman have revived the travelogue, long the preserve of tourism officials anxious to convert geography into currency. Hoffman’s passages are too deeply felt, too troubled in their remembrance, and too radical in their rethinking of the Canadian documentary tradition to quicken the pulse of an audience given to starlight. He has moved from his first college-produced short, On the Pond (1978) — set between the filmmaker’s familial home and his newfound residence at college — to a trek across Canada in The Road Ended at the Beach (1983). In Mexico he made the haiku-inspired short Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984). The next year he was invited toAmsterdam to observe the set of Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, and made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986). Trips to Europe to unearth the roots of his family formed the basis for passing through/torn formation’s (1988) pan-continental dialogue of madness and memory. Kitchener-Berlin (1990) takes up this immigrant connection from his father’s side of the family. And the last work, in what was only named afterwards as a cycle, a revolving peer of understanding, is river (1978-89), which is both a return home, and an acknowledgement of the restless flux which lies at the heart of this project. For all of their circumnavigations, this cycle is primarily concerned with pictures of home and family, gathered with a keen diarist’s eye which has revamped its vision at every turn, shifting styles with every work, as if in answer to its subject. Denoting the family as source and stage of inspiration, Hoffman’s gracious archeology mines a concession of tragic encounters, powerfully refashioning his intersection with the limits of representation. His restless navigations are invariably followed by months of tortuous editing as history is strained through its own image, recalling Derrida’s dictum that everything begins with reproduction. Hoffman’s delicately enacted shaping of his own past is at once poetry, pastiche, and proclamation, a resounding affirmation of all that is well with independent cinema today.

On the Pond (9 min b/w 1978) is an elaboration of the family slide show, its intimate portraits greeted with squeals of recognition and a generational shudder of light and shadow. The slides show the filmmaker as a child, his unguarded expression an ensign for innocence. In winter he is dwarfed by the furry excess of his parka, summertime finds him casting flies on the Saugeen River (subject of the final film in this cycle), trekking through forest, or lounging by the family cottage. Reviewing the photographs with family, the filmmaker asks, “What do I look like?” in a gesture that underlines the reliance of identity on the family’s complex of role play, fantasy, and projection, on its investment in shared secrets, and its dramatic restagings of generational loss and symmetrical neglects. As the author of the film, Hoffman assumes a distinctly paternal guise, but within its confines he is very much the son, waiting on his elders for the signs of assent that will take shape as his own desire. Hoffman offers up these photographs as evidence, insistently returning to moments whose nostalgic impress provides a blank for the interchange of codes and riddles. These are hieroglyphs from the dead world, resurrected in order to reconstruct the memory of a time alien even to its inhabitants, because the measure of this familial solidarity must rely on a willful disavowal of experience, casting aside the ghosts of illness and psychosis, turning away from all that fails to conform to the familial ideal. What lies unspoken here, though hinted at in Hoffman’s careful editing, are stories of a darker nature, his mother’s illness, the death of relatives and the traumas of dislocation.

These photographs are drawn in a dialectic with dramatic re-enactments of Hoffman’s boyhood. These centre on a boy of seven skating “on the pond,” his only company a German shepherd. As he diligently hones his puck handling skills, his easy skate over the big ice is interrupted by intrusive voice-overs — the exhortations of a coach and the scream of hockey parents. As Hoffman pans over a well stocked trophy case and the young boy falls to the ice in a paroxysm of push-ups, the public stakes of this private practice become clear. He is leaving the family. His play has already become a kind of work, the means by which he will move from the pond to the city, though the cost is the incessant clamour for achievement. Everywhere the superego beckons.


No soon has the dream has been conjured then it ends. In a long pan over a projector run out of film and a record player at the end of its disk, the filmmaker rises from his bedside vigil over the past to close the apparatus of memory. Confronted with the escalating tensions of his trade, and a growing distance from his cherished solitude on the pond, Hoffman quits hockey, turning instead to a diaristic filmmaking which will stage the self in its various incarnations. All this is suggested in the film’s closing shot, which shows Hoffman join his young double, confidently calling for the puck before slipping on the icy sheen, no longer the player he once was. Brilliantly photographed in black-and-white, with a spare piano score and a sure use of accompanying sound, On the Pond marked an auspicious debut from Canada’s premier diarist.

The Road Ended at the Beach (33 min 1983) is a shaggy road flick whose waystations of memory allow past adventures to meld into present ones, though its true aim is neither adventure nor destination, but an examination of male myth. Setting off for Canada’s east coast, Hoffman joins two friends, fellow filmmaker Richard Kerr, enlisted as soundrecordist, and Jim McMurry, driver of the van. Road’s opening sequence finds them bent over the van, painting over its psychedelic glyphs with a fluorescent orange. Each of the “characters” is introduced through flashback — McMurry as the manic, fast-talking, blues-singing driver of past trips, Kerr as a fishing pal and filmmaking companion. In Ottawa they meet up with Mark, a friend who used to play jazz trumpet but now blows in a military band. “There’s things you do for love and there’s things you do for money,” he flatly intones as the travelers move on, meeting Conrad Dubé, a cyclist since 1953, who has crossed the globe eight times, barely able to speak due to infantile paralysis. In Sable River they find Dan, a friend from film school now working in the east coast fisheries, trapped in a dead-end job in order to support his family. They push on to Cape Breton where they find Robert Frank, avatar of Beat romance and adventure, the irascible photographer whose book The Americans undraped a mythic travelogue of naked encounters. But he appears before them on a distinctly human scale, and they stand together as four strangers feebly attempting to speak, their visit inspired by nostalgia over a time they never had. Frank’s visit marks the end of Road‘s first movement, an eastwards passage whose outlook rested squarely in the rearview mirror, as if the burden of memory lay so heavy on the roadside that this was a journey of time instead of topography, the van’s speed unable to outrace the velocity of the past.

Road’s second movement opens with the remark, “Now I look inside the van.” Once again each of the three characters is introduced — the filmmaker lost in a reverie of Kerouac adventures, McMurry obsessed with the wretched condition of the van, and Kerr feeling imprisoned. Hoffman notes, “I expected adventure, but somehow the road had died since the first trip west,” a summary assessment of old ties which have vanished even before the trip’s begun. Today their cross-country dash serves only as a reminder of their differences, the passing of youth, and the end of an exclusively male fraternity. The third movement, entitled The Road Ended at the Beach, features a reprise of the film’s encounters and Frank’s weary responses to questions about his Beat relations of two decades before. “Maybe it was freer because you know less. I never kept in close contact with them. Sometimes I see Allen…” These offerings mark an eerie prophecy for the three travelers, whose time of abandoned locomotion is past. The din of the road can no longer disguise the fact that they never learned to speak with one another. The film ends with the promise of its title: children and dogs moving back and forth across the beach as a massive rocky outcropping peers out of the waters in the distance. These planes of play, passage, and foreboding are a metaphor for the film’s journey. Road is a passage from innocence to experience, cast beneath the paternal backdrop of a Beat mythos, its romantic notions of flight decomposed here in the cold frame of the van.

Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (6 min 1984) is a hand-held travelogue of North America, presented in the unbroken twenty-eight-second shots of a spring-wind camera and the intertitles of a Mexican journey. Hoffman’s pictures show moments of the everyday, drawn from public circumstances and viewed from a discrete distance. It opens with a pair of dirt roads marking an intersection, and beyond them a massive rouged advert for Coca-Cola. As diesel trucks storm past, we wait with the burro, tethered to an adjacent telephone post, as if waiting for the passing dream of technology to dissolve again into the Mexican roadside. Two shots frame street musicians while, on the track, a horn squalls plaintively, the lone aural counterpart to this requisition of the everyday. These pictures form part of an alternating passage of image and text that occupies the body of the film. Homely, hand-lettered haikus relate the story of a Mexican boy lying dead, his passage of mourning and reclamation charged in Hoffman’s blank verse. The filmmaker pointedly refuses to make an image of this stranger, and this refusal is the real subject of this travelogue. Each of his images are suffused with this death, as the words struggle to suggest all that lies beyond representation.

?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (23 min 1986) was occasioned by an invitation from British filmmaker Peter Greenaway to observe the shoot of A Zed and Two Noughts. Hoffman’s diary excerpts are rife with a Greenaway-esque fiction which pits two English fathers as competing heirs to the originary mantle of Canadian documentary practice. The first is Greenaway himself, linchpin of the structuralist mockumentary. His employment of BBC baritone Colin Canticle and serial musician Michael Nyman lent his early work an authentic documentary feel, although his voice-over texts are patently fabricated — speculative fictions which often catalogue an inexorable progression towards death. This willful play of documentary forms is set against the second father in Zoo’s lineage — John Grierson. Grierson was the British cultural czar who founded the National Film Board (NFB), a federal institution whose documentary praxis was designed “to show Canada to Canadians.” His sternly realist conventions undermined Canadian dramatic aspirations; the NFB’scolonialist perspectives would remain the most public expression of Canadian film for decades. For many years a documentary seminar bearing Grierson’s name gathered makers from around the world, and it was there that Hoffman and Greenaway met, and where the invitation to observe Greenaway’s shoot was extended, as Hoffman explains in his film.

Hoffman’s rendering of the Greenaway production focuses on its apparatus of shaping, on the efforts of an elephantine crew to produce light where there is none, hang invisible cords, lay track, and gather some of the dissembling flocks that crowd Greenaway’s zoo allegory. Interposed with fables of construction are a number of diary interludes which are captioned in a hilariously understated voice-over read by an actor. Alongside an image of a large wooden apple overlooking an empty park, Hoffman spins a tale of lovers who look to its girth for privacy, the approach of a voyeuristic teenager who is eventually joined by his romantically troubled companion, and finally a group of boys who arrive, pitching sticks for their dog in an effort to disturb the couple. The narrator recites, “I crossed the river and this is what I filmed after they all left.” This narrative construct of extra-filmic events, of all that lies outside the frame, points to the meek rectangle of the apparatus, its soft enclosures pregnant with syntax. By framing his diaristic intentions within a tradition of Canadian documentary practice, Hoffman underlines the radical contingency of the image — its status as truth and guarantor of experience lost in the runes of a text that may shape it to any end whatsoever. The truth of an image lies outside its frame, in the restless constellation of discourse and ideology that surrounds any image and its reception. This observation is especially pointed in a Canadian setting, where the bulk of early Film Board productions was comprised entirely of newsreel footage culled from abroad. The act of documentary lay in their ordering, and in composing the inevitable voice-over text that would grant these pictures coherence. Adopting the Greenaway strategy of fictional ruses applied to documentary settings, Hoffman decomposes the Grierson legacy, unmasking its alliance with state control, class hierarchies, and mythologies of the noble poor. He insists that documentary practice is a fiction after all, a construction of fragments aligned to the ends of its maker.

Nowhere is the reliance of cinema on a meta-narrative more pronounced than in the film’s mid-section. The narrator recounts a visit to the zoo where one of the elephants suffers a heart attack. He agonizes over whether to film the scene, and finally does, but after the animal’s death he exits ashamed, leaving the footage in the freezer, untouched and unprocessed. This is all declaimed over black — the blank passage representing the footage never developed. But after the credits seal the film, a final image appears — it shows the elephant falling and flailing, and then being helped to its feet by an attendant. So the filmmaker has processed the film, after all. And the elephant did not die, but merely fell. By displacing the film’s centre and leaving it to protrude past the film’s close, Hoffman invites the viewer to fold it back into the film, to join the blank recital of the heart attack with the silent pictures of its recovery, and so to retake the film’s journey, and skeptically overturn its assertions and statements of fact. At once an essay on the Canadian documentary tradition and a long fraternal riddle, ?O,Zooscans a flock of red herrings with a luminous photography and rare, reflexive wit.

Hoffman’s sixth film in ten years, passing through/torn formations   (43 min 1987), 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, and migration. An extract from Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration begins the film in darkness. The poet narrates the story of “you” — a child who explores an abandoned limestone quarry. Oblivious to the children who play around him, it is the dead that fascinate, pressed together to form limestones that part slowly between prying fingers before lifting into a lost horizon. After this textual prelude in darkness, the following scene is painfully silent. It shows a woman feeding her enfeebled mother in a quiet reversal of her own infancy. The older woman is clearly nearing death here, and Hoffman’s portrayal of his mother and grandmother is tender and intimate, the camera caressing the two of them slowly, in a communion of touch.

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, but also the burden of all that could not be said or carried, 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 later. Unable to comply he breaks down instead, poised between death and its representation. The murderer’s Canadian double is the uncle,  outcast whose wanderings are at the heart of the film. It is the uncle who builds 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. His accordion playing provides inspiration for the accordion heard on the track, and produces another image of unity within division, the left and right hands operating independently.

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.     (from passing through/torn formations by Philip Hoffman)

This connection between things made in the dark — doesn’t it lie at the heart of every motion picture? We can say for certain that this darkness has occupied the centre of Hoffman’s film work since Somewhere Between Jalostotitlian and Encarnacion. 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 the death in a series of printed intertitles that punctuate the film. Similarly, midway through ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film), an elephant’s heart attack is related in voice-over while the screen remains dark, and the voice explains, somewhat abashed, that showing the animal’s death could only exploit the subject.


In each instance the missing centre turns around death, and this trope of absence is further complicated by the “missing” centre of passing through. While the film performs a series of balletic turns around the filmmaker’s uncle — showing as many as three images simultaneously, in a counterpoint usually reserved for music — he is usually present only in Hoffman’s narration. Because he is the family’s outsider…. lensing him would show only his infirmities…So Hoffman makes a radical move and both absents his image, while at the same time figuring him as the central character in this familial drama. He represents, for this family…. the dark heart at the centre of this migration to the new world. The cost of traveling, and of forgetting. In a series of fragmented anecdotes, recollections, images and voice-over, we learn of his life…. his affinity for pool and the accordion, his building of the corner mirror…Hoffman searches out the reasons for his uncle’s wandering in the Czechoslovakia they left behind, the place of his conception ravaged by plague and occupation. That he should bear the stamp of this history, this sickness, without a glimpse of the death camps which would claim his ancestors, recalls for us the movement of the film around a figure 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 the perfect pool 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 practise. The music was a vacant place to return to. Over and Over. His playing gave him passage.  (from passing through/torn formations  by Philip Hoffman)

Kitchener-Berlin (33 min 1990) is a tale of two cities divided by history, language and geography. Their alliance stems in part from a German migration that would settle on the small Canadian town of Kitchener as the locus for dreams of a new world. Before its re-naming after the catastrophes of WWI, Kitchener was called Berlin, so the film’s title re-asserts this historical relation, in an uncovering typical of Hoffman’s oeuvre.


Kitchener-Berlin is a movement into the city’s Germanic traditions, and its rituals of memory, bereavement, and technology. It is a voyage at once personal and political, begun with movies of home, of children unwrapping war toys with unbridled delight as rockets flare over Germany, reducing its domestic interiors to a shatter of rubble and blood. Hoffman introduces archival photographs of old Kitchener, showing men on the hunt and the building of the main street, while inside the cathedral, candle-lit processions prepare a child for baptism. The only accompanying sound is a church bell inexorably tolling. It is a call to witness, a plaintive demand for gathering, asking that we stand once more before the wounds of the past.

Hoffman enters present-day Germany armed with a Steadicam — a gyroscopic device that permits the camera to float smoothly through space. He guides its disembodied presence over the cobblestones of Berlin, their mortared rectangles forming the foundation of centuries. It floats past tourists lying in wait, cameras at the ready, caught in a slow-motion stare of anticipation in locales previewed in travel guides and brochures. They wait before a massive church front as if for history to materialize, all the better to turn it into souvenirs, proofs of travel, and of identity. As these sites have been photographed so often, these pictures serve only to identify their makers. They state: I was there. Or more simply: I exist. Hoffman’s meta-tourism collects these moments in multiphonic exchange, two and three images appearing simultaneously, as the camera floats past, ghost-like, through those remains of the past we call the present.

Kitchener-Berlin is interrupted midway by a Canadian film made in the twenties entitled The Highway of Tomorrow or How One Makes Two. It shows a dirigible leaving England forCanada, its airborne phallus promising the technological fruits of empire. After landing, the filmmaker/pilot steps into the editing room with his double — a twin manufactured through trick photography — and together they pore over images of the trip. They thread a projector and turn its historical spotlamp into the waiting lens of the camera, marking the beginning of Kitchener-Berlin’s second movement, entitled A Veiled Flight. This movement is marked by discontinuity and an apparent random succession of events. It is begun by miners working underground, who unearth bridesmaids and horses, family rituals of touch, an Imax film-shoot staging native rituals, and the filmmaker himself, crouched over his desk in contemplation. It closes with a cave ceremony lit by candles; the furtive rock etchings a reminder of private manufactures where the division of signs and the events they depict seem less inevitable than today. A Veiled Flight is also comprised of marks like these, expressionistic outpourings that represent an unconscious flow. It is an expiration of memories redolent with mythology and association, a rite of purification that looks to begin again beneath the earth’s surface, in the shadowy enclosures of histories that may be shared without being understood. This film asks that its two halves be brought together like the two names of its title — the haunting historical stalk of its opening movement joined with the unconscious lure of the second, both combining to frame a portrait of ruin and restoration.

river (15 min b/w 1992) is a geographical portrait. Photographed over the course of a decade in three distinct styles, it is a meditation on the way technology mediates encounters with the natural. It marks, above all, a return to a childhood pastoral retreat; its slow moving rhythms bear its observer in a contemplative embrace of overhanging wood and summery intentions. river’s first movement reveals a fishing excursion, the lush hues of a sun-inspired afternoon drifting easily in the glassy mirror of the river’s flow, its restful solitude untroubled by the ravages of an industrialized south. Humanity is glimpsed in edges and peripheries; a paddle drips concentric rows along the water’s surface, a hand lowers anchor; a fly is cast against a soaring treeline. These passages are silent, meditative, and idyllic — a chained series of lap dissolves easing the passage of an afternoon’s watchful rest. The second scene is markedly different. Photographed in black-and-white video, it continually treks downstream, its overexposure granting an unearthly quality to the surroundings. But because the boat is rudderless, left to follow the river’s current while Hoffman stands filming on the prow, it soon encounters a variety of natural obstacles — trunks and rocks arise from the river’s surface to impede passage. The microphone rests on the boat’s bottom, so each obstacle occasions a loud and often hilarious track of scraping and bumping. This sound contrasts with the sublime pictorial record of the scene. Together, image and sound produce a kind of pastoral slapstick, the journey’s romantic inclinations betrayed by the physical evidence of the voyage itself. river’s third movement draws its opening sections together, refilming the lyric impressions of the opening off a rear screen, employing the same crude black-and-white video camera used to photograph the flotational trek of the second movement. The final movement runs inside the river itself, diving below water to glimpse the sunstroked grounds of its descent, aqueous fronds waving in the light of afternoon. Sharp movements abound here, in contrast to the stoic solidity of the first passage or the slow-moving drift of the second. The camera darts beneath the waves in a gestural cadence finally extinguished by a blinding white light, then seeks its source of illumination in a blank passage that signifies beginning and end, the addition of colour, the simultaneous occurrence of all experience, the filmic equivalent of the sublime.

Taken together these seven films constitute a remarkable journey of first person cinema. This cycle marks a life from its beginnings to middle age, from photographs used to hide as much to declare, towards a showdown with imaging technologies. Throughout, Hoffman’s impulse is to unearth and lay bare, to share secrets, so long buried, which separate past and present. To re-animate the dead world in order to mourn it more perfectly. To re-member.

Phil Hoffman Interview

(Originally published in Media News, Sheridan College, 1988)

by June Hodgson and Mike White

Rated amongst the best Canadian Indepen­dent filmmakers, Philip Hoffman has ostensibly been classified as a documentary filmmaker. However, his unique style transcends negative stereotypes once thought to be inescapable.

Speaking to Vox Magazine in November of 1989, Hoffman said, “As someone born and raised in Canada, the films that I saw when I was growing up were documentaries. However, I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians make films. On the other hand, I can’t pretend that it is not important to me or it hasn’t affected me. So, I work in a sort of blend of documentary and experimental.”

Currently teaching film in the Media Arts Program of Sheridan College, Hoffman is entering his thirteenth year as a filmmaker. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Hoffman nurtured his youthful interest in photography and writing by building his own darkroom. Receiving a Bachelor of Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University, he then studied at Sheridan with filmmaker Rick Hancox.

His 1978 film debut, On The Pond, runs nine minutes and is largely a collection of black-and-white still photographs. It is the first in what Hoffman calls a “cycle of films” – all of them autobiographical and none of them derived from a script. To produce a film without a script is a Hoffman trademark. Instead, he pieces together images filmed over a period of time and connects them through a personal narrative. For example, The Road Ended At The Beach, finished in 1983, compiles events in Hoffman’s life over eight years. Remarkably, his films are cohesive and complete state­ments, in spite of his seemingly undisciplined approach. Hoffman calls this “controlled chaos”. He carries a Super 8 camera with him always and what he films may eventually become part of a future production. It is a slow, labourious process. Hoffman believes it is the little things in everyday life which are the most important and most worthy of being documented. “Filmmaking becomes a process of things that happen in life,” he says.


Hoffman’s latest film, Kitchener Berlinconcludes the “cycle”. Here he examines his father’s German heritage via comparisons of Kitchener, Ontario (named Berlin prior to World War II), and Berlin, Germany. Hoffman says, unlike his previous films, Kitchener Berlin has more to do with the times than with people. It is less personal than passing through/torn formations (1987).  Completed in 1989, Kitchener Berlin was produced with the help of Sheridan graduates. Steadicam work was done by Colleen Graham and Bruce Johnson did the sound. Prior to returning to Sheridan in the fall of 1990, Hoffman took his films and Super 8 camera globe trotting. He led a two-week-long workshop at Finland’s Helsinki University of Art and Design. Hoffman also attended screenings of his work in Germany, England, and at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. Of all of his excursions, Hoffman says Finland left the most indelible mark. Not because the people there are similar to Canadians, but because their primary struggle is similar to ours. “(Finnish) people live in the shadow of the USSR, dwarfed like Canadians are by the US. Finland’s history has been grappling with the USSR.

Disenchantment with the United States is a recurring topic in conversation with Hoffman. He believes that young people do not see enough shorts, experimental film and documentaries and he is disappointed by the predominance of American television in Canadian homes. Hoffman predicts that this situation may lend itself to creating a stronger film underground. “When the voice is taken away, people will go underground.”

To date, Hoffman does not need to work on an underground level. While he would like the National Film Board to put more of its budget towards independent filmmakers, he has managed to go from strength to strength over twelve years of filmmaking and he shows no sign of losing interest.

Colleen Graham on Steadicam, and Hoffman in Germany 1987
Colleen Graham on Steadicam, and Hoffman in Germany 1987

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: biographical notes

by Peter Harcourt

While a student at Sheridan, Philip Hoffman was part of that burgeoning group of filmmakers, including Richard Kerr and Mike Hoolboom, who came to be known as the Escarpment School. He returned to Sheridan Collegeas a full-time instructor in 1986, and later, joined the film and video department at York University in 1999. Every summer since 1994, Hoffman has run his own craft-centered film workshop at Mount Forest, Ontario.

If, according to Mike Hoolboom, “the Escarpment School typically conjoins memory and landscape in a home-movie, documentary-based production that is at once personal, poetic and reflexive,” Hoffman inflects these priorities in a distinctly personal way. If the works of Rick Hancox repeatedly return to the sites of his youth, Hoffman’s entail an archaeological journey toward unknown places and unfamiliar times.

Almost without exception, Hoffman’s work involves exorcism and espousal, from the shuffling off of inadequate ideas concerning his sense of self in the early films (On the Pond, 1978; The Road Ended at the Beach, 1983) to a Buddhist-like reconciliation with the inevitability of loss and death that characterizes his later works: Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan & Encarnacion (1984); ?OZoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986); Kitchener-Berlin (1990) and What these ashes wanted (2001). Hoffman contests the claim to the truth characteristic of conventional documentaries; ?O, Zoo! handles these themes with great playfulness, whereas both passing through/torn formations (1998) and What these ashes wanted confront them directly, without irony. passing through/torn formations took Hoffman to Europe in a search of the origins of his mother’s family. If a sense of doubling occurred in ?O, Zoo! and in the very title of Kitchener-Berlin…

And if death and dying is a presence in many of these works, it arrives unexpectedly at the end of Destroying Angel (1998), a film co-directed by Hoffman’s friend Wayne Salazar that celebrates Salazar’s homosexual marriage in spite of his ongoing struggle with AIDS. Suddenly there is a phone call. A candle flickers out. Hoffman must hurry home because of the imminent death of Marian McMahon, his companion of many years who is ill with cancer. The full exploration of this relationship and its sudden loss become the poignant affirmation of What these ashes wanted. Hoffman has stated that his desire was “to illuminate the conditions of her death… the mystery of her life and the reason why, at the instant of her passage, I felt peace with her leaving… a feeling I no longer hold.” The catalogue for the Toronto Images Festival described the film this way: “What these ashes wanted is not a story of surviving death, but rather of living death through a heightening of the quotidian moments of everyday experience.”

The complete works of Philip Hoffman incontestably establish him as an independent filmmaker of intricate artistic achievement and philosophical depth.

In/Between Spaces

by Darrell Varga

Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice.
For this reason, spatial practices concern everyday tactics.

-Michel de Certeau

I think childhood is so traumatic we sleep through most of it.
-Phil Hoffman

The play of light and dark in Phil Hoffman’s river (1978-79) is formed in a tension between film and video, water and land, silence and sound, nature and culture in an invocation to awake from the trauma of personal history. These tensions are not simple dualisms but are dialectical processes enmeshed in the experiences of space and time suggested in my opening quotations. river opens with a series of images shot on film from a small boat drifting down the Saugeen River, a suggestion of tranquility even as the calm flow is unsettled by the absence of sound.3 We are presented with the frame as signifier of absence rather than window onto the world. The subsequent sequence realizes this landscape surface in the altogether different texture of black and white video, but now our relationship to this framed space is overdetermined by the presence of sound. While the technology of reproduction shifts from tactile and mechanical photography to its electronic counterpart, there is no longer human intervention in the steering of the boat, which now drifts according to the riverís current. The boat’s surface amplifies the sound waves as it floats over the water’s surface in a movement of becoming simultaneously free and confined. The microphone rests on the boat seat recording the bump and grind of collisions with tree branches jutting out from the riverís edge. The sound is both jarring in exaggeration while hollow in artificiality. Likewise, the images are at once tranquil and interlaced with sudden reframing movements.

The camera enframes the liquid surface which in turn reflects the clouds floating in the sky above, at once an opaque sheen and permeable depth always mediated by the touch of photo-mechanical process. The easy contrast of the human intervention in nature is complicated by the subsequent scene in which the first segment is rephotographed. Here, the edges of the frame are evident and the space on-screen where the dissolve sutures together transitions from one shot to another is effaced. Instead, we see the white screen on which this re-photographing process is projected. This deferral of meaning is further destabilized in the final segment, a return to the river to film underwater. In this sequence, silent images move quickly between lightness and dark in an onward flow through the liquid surface and across the textures of sand, rock, and light, marking areterritorialization of our relationship to this space in front of the camera. Movement no longer confined to the shape of the boat merges with the object of the image, the water as both surface and depth, recalling GillesDeleuzeís commentary on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934):

On land, movement always takes place from one point to another, always between two points, while on water the point is always between two movements: it thus marks the conversion or the inversion of movement, as in the hydraulic relationship of a dive and a counter-dive, which is found in the movement of the camera itself…Finally, a clairvoyant function is developed in water, in opposition to earthly vision: it is in the water that the loved one who has disappeared is revealed, as if perception enjoyed a scope and interaction, a truth which it did not have on land.4

In drawing out the relationship between Deleuze’s thinking and Phil Hoffman’s film practice, it is important to recall that for Deleuze, philosophy is not theoretical abstraction but is vital conceptual practice, a kind ofassemblage in which the engagement with cinema reveals the practice of thought outside the confines of Cartesian dualism. Hoffman’s filmmaking practice similarly depends upon the immediacy of intuitive and physical response. For Deleuze, cinema is a primary determinant of our understanding of space and time, and must be met outside of the constraining technical-interpretive methods of psychoanalysis.5 Like the hollow sound of the boat bumping into the shore in river, Hoffman’s films grind against normative conventions of documentary and genre categorization. They offer a reconfiguration of indexical presence emerging against assumptions of fixedness: of the borders of the frame, of order, finality, Truth. They can be understood, following Deleuze’s fluid metaphors, as experimental process: “no longer measured except in terms of the decoded anddeterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence…embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of means and aims.”6 By disrupting the ordered measure of images toward a coherent teleology, cinematic experimentation serves a necessary critical function. But its function is not simply as corrective to the positivist tendency of realist narrative and critical discourse; instead, it is the creation of an alternative space in-between that which is simply given and the idea of art as transformative and in which the act of seeing cannot be made co-extensive with believing.

That which is within the frame is never fully known and always points to absences beyond the border, and it is this space which is both celebrated and mourned as simultaneous site of possibility and nothingness. While the commonplace understanding of space, of the landscape around us and within our movie frames, is as something which is simply a location for action and in itself simply given and neutral, it must be better understood as something which is socially produced and which can only be understood through our systems of cultural encoding. This image-making no longer presumes to offer an unmediated window onto the world. Deleuzedescribes the importance of contemporary cinema as engaging a new realization of thought in three ways: “the obliteration of a whole or of a totalization of images, in favour of an outside which is inserted between them; the erasure of the internal monologue as whole of the film, in favour of free indirect discourse and vision; the erasure of the unity of [hu]man and the world, in favour of a break which now leaves us with only a belief in this world.”7 What cinema offers, when it breaks free from the relentlessness of the culture industry and systems of measure, is an image of thought outside of the commodified containment of difference.

Hoffman’s films engage this thought-movement by confounding easy distinctions between documentary and experimentation. These films exist in the spaces in-between film forms, in between image and text, place and space, the body and its absence, photography, history, and memory. As Blaine Allan indicates of several films, including Kitchener-Berlin (1989): “The slash and the hyphen in the titles suggest both a severance from the past and connections to it, an ambivalence that is especially poignant for the descendants of the areaís German settlers. The history of the area underpins the film, but refuses to bind it or restrict it from free association.”8 The landscape which is the surface texture of Hoffman’s films is overlaid with a discourse of territorialism, of personal and political struggles over the domain of space. The Canadian town of Kitchener was, prior to World War I, called Berlin. The juxtaposition of war images of home-town in peacetime elicits a desire to uncover and transform the complicit relation between the name, the regimentation of territory, the onslaught of time, and technologies of mass destruction. This process is not nostalgia for a pre-war law of the father; throughout these films, and especially in the later Sweep (created with Sami van Ingen,1995), there is a realization that the bounding of place by name is an effacement of earlier cultures. The film’s title evokes the brutal gesture of erasure which is the legacy of colonization under which a discourse of Canadian space must begin.

The performative hyphen of Kitchener-Berlin both links and keeps apart these spaces, and it is here that personal history is uncovered through  film images which play against the borders of static photography, the moving image, memory and forgetfulness, and the creative process of immersion engaged by the multiplicity of overlapping images. The personal is complicit with instrumentalized destruction whereby the silence institutionalized by the change of the townís name is voiced through cinematographic technology, itself enmeshed in the brutality which is the history of the twentieth century. Hoffman explains this unresolved contradiction in his use of theSteadicam for present-day images as both free-floating spirit and masculine aggression:

…you’re floating in a world where the sky and the ground are equivalent. It’s something we can’t do with our bodies, except through technology. So it’s a metaphor for the spirit released. I wanted to contrast that with the low technologies—the home movies which take a familiar form and subject. The Steadicam provides a solitary and other-worldly stance, an emptiness and separation from anything it shows. There’s something that separates the people sitting in front of these old buildings, that separates the remnants of German history from the present, and the camera signals this. This relates to masculinity. The Steadicam is part of the technology that can take us to far-away places or destroy the world. I wanted to show different aspects of technology through the century, using the Steadicam to create a feeling of introspective space where one can look back and account for what’s happened.9

This process of movement is not a re-writing of history but an evocation of its absences following Walter Benjaminís demand that we “brush history against the grain.”10 The relation to Benjamin is not incidental as his writings are filled with the concept of the shock effect of images and experience which flare briefly and then disappear but which, if recognized, fundamentally transform spatial and temporal understanding. Hoffman’s archeological process is a Benjaminian translation of the past and casting forward into an unnamable future. There is no synthesis of this dialectic; instead, it is an offering which includes the necessary absences of forgetting and misconception haunting the reconfiguration of memory, realizing Hoffman’s assertion that “the possibility of mourning lies in the unseen”.11 To think critically about Berlin is to look into the disaster of history and, in this case, to recognize the silent complicity founded in such acts as the erasure of the name Berlin from what is now called Kitchener. The art process which takes memory as canvas requires the failure of recognition (which is not the same as the absences of official history) to suspend instrumentalization and engage thought, as Deleuze describes:

When we cannot remember, sensory-motor extension remains suspended, and the actual image, the present optical perception, does not link up with either a motor image or a recollection-image which would re-establish contact. It rather enters into relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of deja vu or past ‘in general’…[as in dream and fantasy]. In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical-sound image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.12

Hoffman’s use of silence and the abrupt stasis of still photography disrupts the flow of movement as teleology of action and reaction and acknowledges the unsayable: a mourning which cannot be reduced to the awkward gestures of language, but instead emerges in chance relations.

The overlap of image and experience in the opening segment of Kitchener-Berlin confounds the instrumentality of space. Under the simultaneously hypnotic and menacing drone of church bells mixed with intermittent construction machinery sounds, images of nighttime bombing in Berlin are juxtaposed with home-movie footage in Kitchener. The first image we see is of children opening Christmas presents, suggesting, however innocently, the commercial-commodification of home space while the following war images indicate the brutal contestation for the control of nation-state territory—the bloodbath over who gets to name this space as “home.” Intercut are still photographs of public spaces in the earlier days of Kitchener, and prominent among these are snapshots marking a “successful” hunting expedition in which we see a row of deer carcasses inverted to bleed dry. Violence looms even in so-called peace time. Our attention is drawn to both the violence which underpins homosociality and the way photography similarly frames, confines, and captures the subject while signifying absences beyond (and within) itself.

The photographs are ordered in temporal reverse (images of Kitchener appear first, and then those of when the town was called Berlin), while the film images move forward in time. A young boy steps forward to look into the camera and into a future which he cannot see except in fragments of the past. These images overlap the flow of present-era Steadicam shots which suggest a wandering and free-floating quality while also drawing attention to the relentlessness of Western notions of progress. Frequently, we see the camera operator’s shadow floating through the collage as reflexive presence engaging a link between past and present, betweenKitchener and Berlin. But the shadow darkens the image, making it indistinct and the past irrecoverable.

Hoffman’s films circulate with documents of a past which can never be wholly known, and are overlaid with a present which itself has already begun to fade. Out of what Bruce Elder, in his description of a tendency to investigate the nature of the photographic image in Canadian experimental film, calls this”double-sided nature of the concept of representation”13 in which presence is always bound to absence, Hoffman’s film practice brushes assumptions of photographic indexicality against the grain. Our relationship to these temporal and spatial domains is determined by structures of power out of which emerges the photographic trace. The towering trees of the Canadian forest circulate beneath images of imposing European cathedrals. Tourists gaze upward while their bodies legitimize the commodity-conquest of space. Simultaneously, First Nations peoples gaze into the camera as the Pope moves through the crowd, an image reproduced from television from which the relentless flicker of video transferred to film reminds us of the invasiveness of systems of power even as the seduction of the image evades naming it as such. The dialectical process of negation in the overlap of these images forces recognition of absence without reconciliation.

The notion of cause and effect, of a teleology of history, is blasted apart and recognition is forced in the space of absence. There is no longer a totalizing unity in which thought is contained and experience is managed.Deleuze describes the importance of montage in the contemporary film as engaging the new by evading causal association of images:

What counts is on the contrary the interstice between images, between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it. …Given one image, another image has to be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.14

Where the cinema frame, for Deleuze, once allowed a stable system of measure in which disparate elements are brought together, the contemporary screen is one of chance and simultaneity. Like the overloaded frames of experience and detritus of Robert Rauschenberg, it arises out of a social and historical context in which faith in grand narratives has dissolved. Where we may see something new, it is in the unfixed, unstable terrain of the in-between.

The final section of Kitchener-Berlin is titled Veiled Flight, evoking the recurring tension of simultaneous movement and the obstruction of vision. The final image of the film is of an unfocused figure bathed in washed out red, a home-movie image superimposed over the cave walls and appearing at first glance as an irregular beam of light. That which is given in memory and history has dissolved into waves of colour and a deferral of narrative mastery. This image follows a sequence in which the camera moves into a darkened cave where candles and a flashlight illuminate wall carvings, photographs, and other static images. Some of these images are similar to those found in primary school history texts, such as drawings of dinosaurs and early explorers, but from which the concluding dissolve of light sets us free. If we are bound in chains within this Plato’s Cave, they are chains of our own making, images of power and discipline cast onto the earth.

This cave, in a town called Maastricht on the Dutch-Belgian border, is a quarry for the local community and while material is extracted, local people bring images inside to affix onto the walls. This space of found objects in turn reflects the collection of material with which the film itself is composed, and likewise reflects Hoffman’s cinematic practice of free-moving immersion in the everyday. Following the collage of technocracy in the first half, this section can be understood as an inward journey, but it is a journey likewise bound up with the social process of mediation and materiality. The section begins with an inverted rural landscape and hydro-electric structure. The camera arcs downward and the hydro tower penetrates into the earth. Superimposed over this movement is the archival footage of an old man awakening from his dream of technological progress, the trans-Atlantic Zeppelin flight of the middle prologue discussed below, to gaze into the disaster of history. What follows is a montage of underground mining footage with home-movie images of Christmas gift-giving, a horse-riding competition, and footage of the making of an Imax film which stages aboriginal communal life. In this film within the film we again see the image of animals dead from the hunt, staged for the surveillance eye of the looming authoritarian camera.

Hoffman has called this complex image-collage “polyphonic recitations”,15 evoking an aural contrapuntal multiplicity in the telling of stories through the entanglement of personal memory and history. It is interesting that the term privileges sound within this complex layering of images, perhaps to suggest an ephemeral musicality to the visuals in order to circumvent the instrumentalized relation between word and image common to conventional film reception. Likewise, it evokes another kind of absence. If the images from old home-movies are obscured by the fading of the film surface and the scratches from many passes through the family projector, they speak as well of the impossibility of figuring the family as united by the law of the father, even as the film is explicitly described as marking the paternal side of the Hoffman family, its patterns of dispersion and settlement.16 It does not present a simplistic nostalgia for a prelapsarian age, for it is a movement caught up in the blinding gust of the present combined with a masculinist desire to both know father and get out of his house.

The middle “Prologue” of Kitchener-Berlin is in fact a masculinist journey/progress narrative. It is composed entirely of edited material from an archival film called The Highway of Tomorrow or, How One Makes Two made in the 1930s by a Canadian businessman named Dent Harrison. Hoffman describes being moved by the inventiveness of this film which depicts a dirigible flight across the Atlantic in which Harrison photographically creates a double of himself to facilitate photography from both the inside and the outside of the airship. Harrison then falls into dream in which we see the double moving out of Harrison’s body as the final title card asks: “Have you people seen all that I have in my dreams?”17 The question raised by this quirky film is complex; while serving as document of flight it freely embraces non-realist representational strategies as if to signal the dream of mobility as co-extensive with an alternative imaginary. It is neither newsreel nor museum piece and the opening title announces Harrison’s membership in the “Amateur Cinema League: The Worldwide Organization of Amateur Movie Makers”. As if to signify legitimacy through this internationalism, the title appears over a circulating globe similar to the opening of commercial newsreels. Yet “amateur” indicates a break from commercial or “professional” image-making, and the use of the title here signals an affinity with experimental practices in the true spirit of the term: an energy and practice of discovery unconstrained by commerciality.18

Experimental practitioners are likewise accustomed to having their work derided as “amateur” by some elements of the mainstream. Harrison’s film is a story about travel and technological achievement, engagingDeleuzeís understanding of movement as the central concern of pre-WWII cinema, a reflection of technocratic will to mastery combined with a belief in the possibility of unity: “The mobile camera is like a general equivalent of all the means of locomotion that it shows or that it makes use of—aeroplane, car, boat, bicycle, foot, metro… In other words, the essence of the cinematographic movement-image lies in extracting from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance, or extracting from movements the mobility which is their essence.”19 The use of this footage here is to embrace the everyday and the idiosyncratic personal experience of time and space, but it likewise asks whether Harrison’s dream recognizes the collapse of order which is the consequence of our uses of technology, as reflected in Hoffman’s earlier comments on the use of the Steadicam.

Travel is a recurring motif in Hoffmanís films. His first, On the Pond (1978), is a reflection on childhood memory engaged after having moved away from home and how photography provides traces of the past whileenframing absences impossible to recover. His next, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), is the failure to enact Kerouac’s On the Road in the unfreedom of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, as Hoffman explains: “We’re all waiting on an experience that isn’t coming and no one’s sure why. It has a lot to do with how men relate to each other, dealing with outer realities, getting the job done …The guys on the road are caught in dead-end jobs, and nobody’s relating to each other in the van. …The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip, but their roads are closed now.”20 One thread of their destination is a meeting with Beat-era photographer Robert Frank to ask about the spirit of those times and the nature of his images. They end up, instead, talking about his living life beside the ocean, and lend a hand with the renovations to his cabin. Frank admits to an earlier innocence of the Beats which allowed a sense of freedom, but then bluntly states that Kerouac is dead. Memories of other journeys intercede. The travellers encounter a man who has been continuously cycling since 1953 and has spanned the world numerous times with only the material baggage he can carry on his bike. In contrast, the van these friends are driving in is cercarial and subject to frequent breakdowns. Yet the film persists with the question of what it means to travel, to document, and to exist within homosocial structures of power.21 Spontaneity and the poetry of free movement emerges when Hoffman is alone with the camera dancing on rocks at the waterís edge. Here, the images swirl, making tactile the visual plane in a celebration of looking unencumbered by obligations of language and social discourse. Yet the film refuses an easy privileging of this image, while it offers a moment of pleasure and intensity it exists within the borders of the social.

Sweep sifts through the imperialist legacy of travel. It is a journey north to the remote Ontario town of Kapuskasing and then to Fort George, a destination for Robert Flaherty, who was the great-grandfather of Sami vanIngen, Hoffman’s collaborator. As the author of a foundational film in the history of documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), the spectre of Flaherty is also collaborative, like it or not. But where that cinematic father journeyed north with the belief that the cinema can unproblematically capture and thus museumize northern people, Hoffman’s desire is to shake off this legacy of colonialism, as he describes the problematic homosocialcontext of the film: “Two men, on the road AGAIN, sifting through past worlds where there is everywhere, dusty remnants of the ‘great white father’. Colliding head on with the passing present we see him living in us.”22 Past and present, fathers and sons: again, desire exists in-between these limits. This gap is filled with invocations of the everyday, in the gestures of home-movies (another kind of hyphen), drawing us to the brink of representation and then dissolving in an overlap of experience.

The camera gazes at the spaces in-between image and text, photography and memory, body and place. The surface texture of the film, like the land north of Lake Superior, is overdetermined by the discourse of territorialism, the cultural divisions of space and place framed and divided amidst the ruins of history. An irritating buzz overlays much of the soundtrack, signifying the hydro-electric development which has irreparably disrupted life in the north, while at the same time extending a modicum of material benefits. The filmmakers understand themselves as embodying this southern technocracy, and choose to turn the camera onto their own presence and process of looking. Here, they work against the tendency, since the days of Flaherty and in his more recent imitators, to objectify First Nations peoples within an unnameable (and thus exploitable) landscape.

The colonial project requires the landscape to be empty and unnamed in order to legitimize the narrative of discovery, conquest, and exploitation. This counter-narrative displaces that prescriptive and exclusionary project of imagining community in which difference is displaced by the construction of unity under the banner of tradition. In this way, my use of the concept of in-between spaces intersects with Homi Bhabhaís use of that term to describe the intersection of theory and practice. For Bhabha, the hybrid subject position within colonialism, where the act of production is overdetermined by the spectre of the West, at the same time subverts these hegemonic and binary assumptions. As Bhabha states: “Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological manoeuvresthrough which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities. For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of the irredeemably plural modern space.”23

Sweep opens with a silent archival film of white explorers interacting with the indigenous Cree people. They are on the deck of a ship posing for a photo when the white men begin to playfully fight with each other. The image fades to black but this spectre of homosocial aggression continues to hang over the landscape as the camera pans in a sweeping gesture of our technological view. The final passage of the film weaves together images of the landscape with that of a cultivated flower garden, memories of family and childhood experiences, the looming hydro-electric structures, and archival footage of the Cree in front of which stand the filmmakers in silhouette. This intertwining of history, structures of settlement, of looking, and landscape suggest how all of these spaces are produced within a given cultural context and how they overlap and change in the process of engagement.

In-between framed space are the desires and betrayals of the body—caught in the photographís decisive moment and in the relentlessness of time. Destroying Angel (created with Wayne Salazar, 1998) is, on the one hand, a mourning for the death of Hoffman’s life partner and collaborator Marian McMahon, while also a celebration of Wayne’s gay marriage. In an early scene, Wayne and Marian are cooking dinner while Hoffman, from behind the camera, implores: “Come on you guys, act.” The photographer-subject power relationship is inverted as Marian asks Phil to explain how he would “act”. The dialogue merges this gap of presence and absence while revealing the performative nature of representation and confounding the possibility of verisimilitude—that which is true is transformed in this process of seeing, remembering, and making into film. These are intensely personal images, which raise questions over the representation of self. The scene follows Wayne’s introductory narration which reflects on his childhood travels through the American mid-west with his insurance-salesman father, while foregrounding the role of memory in Phil and Marian’s work. This reflection is triggered by the spatial similarity of Phil and Marian’s home to those farms visited by Wayne during childhood. Childhood is embraced as place of wonder, but this process of memory simultaneously brings forth an archeology of tyranny. It is the convergence of space through the figurations of memory that allow the emergence here of both art and mourning, following de Certeau:

“Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position. Its permanent mark is that it is formed (and forms its ‘capital’) by arising from the other (a circumstance) and by losing it (it is no more than a memory). There is a double alteration, both of memory, which works when something affects it, and its object, which is remembered only when it has disappeared. …Far from being the reliquary or trash can of the past, it sustains itself by believing in the existence of possibilities and by vigilantly awaiting them, constantly on the watch for their appearance.”24

What de Certeau asserts for memory follows his understanding of space as a network of transformative possibilities which emerge in movement rather than in the fixedness of property, casting back to the treatment of space and travel throughout Hoffman’s films.

What is necessary for Wayne is a movement of reconciliation which requires confronting and moving away from father. The camera holds on a close-up of his face against a black background as we hear (but do not see) him read a letter to his father in which he expresses his anger for childhood physical and emotional abuse while understanding that in spite of this pain, there remains love between them. The close-up at first appears to be a still image, but the subject blinks a few times and his presence is felt. The purpose of Wayne’s letter is to gain control over his life, to set himself free from the constraints of family by controlling the terms of contact. Here,Wayne tells his father he has AIDS. Earlier shots expose the litany of pills he consumes each day. A later scene, again in the kitchen, has Wayne explaining to Marian the purpose of the various medications as a series of quick cuts of close-ups relate the everyday pleasures of cooking and the sharing of food. The subject of disease is integrated into the everyday, and formally Hoffman is, in his words, “cooking with the camera.”25 These ritual gestures recur throughout Hoffman’s films, as if what can no longer be found in the fixed assertion of language or the disciplinary boundaries of space exists in the margins, in the fluidity of the everyday. The discussion reflects on the need to exercise individual control in confrontation with disease. It is the flipside to the more formal ritual of Wayne’s gay marriage  which, while celebrating and affirming love, is also a public demand for social recognition and legitimacy in confrontation with homophobic patriarchy.

The father, in a moving speech during the wedding reception, celebrates Wayne’s marriage while at the same time reasserting his own sense of authority, even if only to himself. Wayne’s father claims that he has learned to be “liberal-minded”, while earlier the film has detailed the tyranny of control hanging over his relationship with Wayne. These gaps are not reconciled in a negation of the past; rather, they acknowledge the co-existence of contradictions which is the context for self-discovery and social transformation The father’s speech and its inclusion in this film is a means of passage out from under the difficult memories of childhood. This movement is, unfortunately, met by the painful news of Marian’s fatal cancer, a tyranny of the body caught like Walter Benjaminís angel of history:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.26

As tragic as the news of Marian’s death is, the film does not sentimentalize or mystify. It is instead put in the context of life as a process which necessarily includes struggle and suffering beyond individual control. The title,Destroying Angel, recalls Theodor Adorno’s interpretation of Benjamin’s angel as caught up in the destructiveness of the present: The Angelus Novus, the angel of the machine…The machine angel’s enigmatic eyes force the onlooker to try to decide whether he is announcing the culmination of disaster or salvation hidden within it. But, as Walter Benjamin, who owned the drawing, said, “he is the angel who does not give, but takes.”27 I have made earlier references to Hoffman’s use of images “caught up in the blinding gust of the present” to evoke what is a central concern of his work so well encapsulated in Benjamin’s angel: the impossibility of totality and reconciliation in any move into the future.

Like the history of territorialism which constrains the potential for freedom in travel, memory harbours suffering, and its presence can unwrap the protective veil of forgetfulness. Destroying Angel concludes with Waynereading from Marian’s journal. In this writing, Marian works through the possibility that her desire to retrieve painful memories has triggered disease: “How can we reclaim memories without them becoming burdensome? I traveled to a forgotten past in order to understand a fragment of the present. What I retrieved was a pent-up history of abuse and violence that I sometimes, usually afterwards, thought best left hidden. What I am beginning to understand is that insight does not come suddenly but rather slowly and repetitively.” As we hear Marian’s thoughts and accept her absence, we see still images of her walking along the edge of a body of water. The photograph grows larger as it moves through a tunnel-like black frame (recalling the background black void of Wayne’s close-up cited earlier) toward the camera. The body and landscape are frozen by technologies of looking, transforming earlier images of the shore and the water in motion, forever shifting in form and direction even if understood only through the fixed perspective of the frame. These questions of the space of nature and the place of mourning are forever contained within the structures of the living.

  1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.
  2. Phil Hoffman, interview, “Pictures of Home,” Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom(Toronto: Pages-Gutter Press, 1997), p. 140.
  3. I am indebted to the published description of the making of this and other of Hoffman’s films in: Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 79.
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). The concept of ‘assemblage’ comes from the translator’s introduction, p. xv, while Deleuze’srelationship between philosophy and cinema is best articulated in his conclusion, p. 280.
  6. Gilles Deleuzeand Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 370.
  7. Deleuze, Cinema 2,p. 187.
  8. BlaineAllan, “Thought-Riddled Nature,” Program Notes: New Works Showcase, Part III (Kingston, Ontario: Princess Court Cinema, February-March 1990).
  9. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
  10. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn(New York: SchockenBooks, 1968), pp. 256-257.
  11. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 142. The comment refers to the decision not to photograph the body of a dead boy encountered during the filming in Mexicoof Somewhere BetweenJalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) and prefigures the need to reconcile the tragedy of loss which underpins Destroying Angel (1998).
  12. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 54.
  13. R. Bruce Elder, “Image: Representation and Object—ThePhotographic Image in Canadian Avant-GardeFilm,” in Take Two: A Tribute to Film in Canada, ed. Seth Feldman (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984), p. 253.
  14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 179.
  15. “An Interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations,” Cantrill’sFilmnotes59-60 (September 1989), p. 41.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The film is from the Dent Harrison Collection of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. See Hoffman’s description in Pleasure Dome, p. 146.
  18. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  19. Deleuze, Cinema1, p. 23.
  20. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 141.
  21. The place of desire in the relationship between homosociality, homosexuality, and homophobia is explored in Eve KosofskySedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male HomosocialDesire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  22. Phil Hoffman, Sweep catalogue description, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, <>.
  23. HomiK. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 149.
  24. de Certeau, Everyday Life, p. 86.
  25. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
  26. Benjamin, “Theses”, p. 257.
  27. TheodorAdorno, in Ernst Bloch et. al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor (London: NLB, 1977), p. 194.

The Landscape Journal

by Ronald Heydon

Day One
Writing the first words, always something of a mystery. Might as well begin at the beginning. Michael Sprinkler in The End of Autobiography traces the history of the word ‘autobiography’ to the end of the eighteenth century. The Oxford dictionary credits Southey with the first usage in 1809, and the French Larousse attributes the French form to a derivation from the English. Prior to the eighteenth century, works that are today labeled autobiographies were known as confessions, memoirs, journeaux in times.

Autobiography, the inquiry of the self into its own origin and history, is always circumscribed by the limiting conditions of writing, of the production of a text… Autobiography must return perpetually to the elusive centre of selfhood buried in the unconscious, only to discover that it was already there when it began… The origin and end of autobiography converge in the very act of writing… for no autobiography can take place except within the boundaries of a writing where concepts of subject, self and author collapse into the act of producing a text. (Sprinkler, p. 342)

Day Two
My first conscious encounter with landscape came in Saskatchewan, when I was nine or ten. On a bright, mid-summer day, I crossed the highway that encircled the city and entered the wheat fields. I walked for hours, gradually removing my clothes because of the heat. I remember the wheat scraping slightly the child’s flesh. I remember seeing no one and nothing but wheat and golden sun for miles. People have been known to panic in such conditions. In such solitude (and in each direction the same view) one either feels incredibly importance or insignificance. The feeling I had was communion.

In The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes D.W. Meinig writes that landscape is a technical term used by artists and earth scientists, architects and planners, geographers and historians. It is an ambiguous term, elusive. Landscape is, first of all, the impressions of our senses as well as the logic of our sciences. It is related to, but not identical with, environment. Landscape is defined by our vision, and interpreted by our minds.

In one of the books I recently read (was it New and Naked Land by Ronald Rees?) describing the frontier landscape of western Canada, the author referred to early survey expeditions undertaken to determine if the prairies were habitable. The Plains Indians had roamed there for centuries and one of the surveyors (1857) wrote in his journal: “Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”

The land, after first having been ignored (by earlier expeditions), explored and then appropriated, was later treated as a commodity. It was surveyed, sectioned off and given away in parceled bits to incoming Europeans.

“Apart from various trails, the Indians left the prairie unmarked.”
Does the landscape remember? Can we talk of land and memory?

Day Three
Heard trumpeter Lester Bowie’s jazz interpretation of It’s Howdy Doody Time. Great title for an autobiography! Went to a party at Steve’s (from sound class) last weekend. Most of the MA students were there. I started asking others about ‘referential productivity’ (from one of Nichols articles) but no one had a clue. Rick has given me a video copy of the Philip Hoffman films to view for class presentation on the 10th of November. Now I must find a friend with a VCR.

Day Four
The closer I look at ‘autobiography,’ the more infinite it appears.  There are four hundred years of it! Rick has set up the agenda so that I’m to defend the notion of autobiography in film. Does it need defense? Do the others understand? Does documentary only promote a cause? Expose malfunction? Couldn’t all this be applied to self? What about autobiographical documentary as therapy?

Day Five
In an interview, Hoffman says his experience taught him the value of the filmmaking process as much as the finished work. He gathers ‘pieces of evidence’—films, videotapes, audio recordings, written diaries—which are reworked to create a meaningful understanding of past events. It’s only while editing that patterns emerge. But this process of reflection and revision is extended to the viewer, who is asked to witness both events and their re-construction. This ‘experimental’ work allows an ambiguity which permits the spectator to bring in remembrances from their own lives.

I view On the Pond (1978) his first film. Family album photos are juxtaposed with images of a young boy playing a solitary hockey game, on the pond. Still photos of hockey teams appear in succession  as the boy becomes a teenager. Like my older brother, it appears the filmmaker lived his youth as part of a team. In the teen’s bedroom, a slow pan takes us from a projector and record player, the instruments of reproduction, to a book-shelf, a row of hockey trophies, and finally to the boy in bed, looking over a hockey scrapbook.

It’s the trophies that trigger my own personal flashbacks. Already the associations begin. I am from a family immersed in sports, a family of professionals. My older sister is a gym instructor and has played on Canadian volleyball teams for years. My older brother played every sport, won many trophies and now coaches football. My younger brother settles into karate and badminton (he was with Ontario’s Champions last year). Even my mother has trophies from her younger, basketball years. ‘Star’ they used to call her. I look over at the wall next to my desk at the picture of my father, taken just before his marriage. He played basketball for the Canadian team at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. (I look for him walking with the teams whenever I see images from the Riefenstahl film, but have never yet found him.) They came in second after the Americans. In the photo, he is seated at a desk, wearing his Olympic leather jacket, pen in hand, about to sign some register or other. There are many trophies in my parents home, but none of them bear my name. I never won any. Obliged, like all the children, to play every sport (I could swim and skate before I could read) my own ‘boy’s landscape was outside the team.

Day Six
Autobiography is a cultural act, where language acts as a focusing glass. Eakins quotes Spengemann who insists that the autobiographer brings together the personal experiences of the writer with the shared values of a culture. He discerns a core belief in ‘individual identity’ which he conceives of as “an integrated, continuing personality which transcends the limitations and irregularities of time and space and unites all of one’s contradictory experiences into an identifiable whole.” (Eakins, p. 73) Do all cultures compress essential values and convictions in human models? Is ‘self-conception’ a problem in most cultures? Autobiography comes into its own at the end of the eighteenth century “in conjunction with the rise of individuality as the dominant ideal of personality.” This in itself is a complex issue—that we all possess unique selves, continuous identities which develop over the course of a lifetime. Eakins calls belief in individuality an anti-model sort of model:

In the opening lines of his Confessions, Rousseau captures the paradox at the heart of the notion of embracing individuality as a model, for he claims for his identity an absolute value of singularity.” I am like no one in the whole world,” he writes, while enjoining others to confess the uniqueness of their own selfhood with an equal candor.” I have displayed myself as I was.” His uniqueness, in other words, is exemplary, a model for others to follow. We must recognize accordingly that the very generality of such a model engenders problems of self-definition that every autobiographer and critic must face anew: what do we think our experience is really like, and how do we conceptualize the experiencing self? (Eakins, p. 74)

Day Seven
“Oh, you write? You keep a journal?” a school chum asks. “Yes, and hand-written too. Not in the computer,” I am quick to add. I’m old-fashioned. I like the texture of the page, the written word. Sure it’s ‘time consuming,’ but so is watching television. Handwriting is like a snapshot, it conveys mood through style. My writing is sometimes harried, sometimes slow and methodical; sometimes in black ink from my father’s fountain pen, sometimes in spur-of-the-moment ball point.

“Oh, you write? Are you so important?” I have been asked in the past, for I have kept a journal since leaving Saskatchewan. But journal writing is so much more than this. It has little to do with fame, importance, ‘posterity.’ The journal is a work place. Asked by CBC’s Brave New Waves to join a panel on journal writing, my initial response was yes, of course. Asked to read from my journal I quickly changed my mind. “But why not?” asks the organizer. “It’s my own personal working out of private dilemmas,” I answer, “not always for another’s eyes, let alone ears!” Then I wrote a piece in the journal, a ‘working out’ of the dilemma of a public text. I decide I could present this piece on the CBC (though probably they’ll want something more revealing.) Katz, in the Art Gallery of Ontario catalogue on autobiographical film, says that a journal brings one face to face with the meaning of one’s personal existence—there, before one’s eyes, and collected in one’s own handwriting. A journal helps to put one’s life in focus. Can I present this? I consult my agenda and see that I have an art history presentation the very next day—my most ambitious project and the one for which I’m least prepared. I decide I can’t do both so I cancel the radio show. Missed opportunity? Story of my life.

“Oh, you write?” Remembering that time in New York, summer of 92, just after Raymond Carver passed away. There was an obituary in the New York Times which I quickly copied out before my taxi arrived to take me to the Port Authority terminal. The friend who had showed it to me, not realizing I had already copied it by hand, said he would photocopy it and mail it to me. “It’s OK, I already have it,” I told him. “You wrote it out?” he nearly gasped, as if I’d wasted so much energy. Of course his vehement reaction might seem relevant if the obituary had been a full page of text, but it was just the following:

I don’t know why people write stories.

Raymond Carver said he wrote them

because he was drunk a lot, and his kids

were driving him crazy, and a short story

was all he had concentration for.

Sometimes, he said, he wrote them in a parked car.

Day Eight
Should a camera record death? There is no narrator in Hoffman’s Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) but there is a narrative in the form of intertitles that resemble Japanese haiku poetry. This story takes place in Mexico where Hoffman chances across a dead Mexican youth surrounded by children. It begins:

Looking through the lens at passing events

I recall what once was and consider what might be

We never see the dead youth, but read via intertitles that the filmmaker has put his camera down. While the intertitles tell the story of this encounter, the ‘walking’ camera enters a village landscape, follows a textured wall overlaid with religious icons and paintings, and then a street procession (are we back in Ontario or still in Mexico?). A lone saxophone wails as if recounting the sad, difficult emotions. The hand-held camera pulls the spectator into the scene.

The little girl with big eyes waits by her dead brother

I am suddenly in a different scene. I am eighteen years of age and hitching around Europe. I am somewhere between Modena and Florence, seated in a medium-sized truck with a young Italian of about my age, who also prefers the back roads to the autoroute. He speaks no English while I manage just a smattering of Italian and French. With much hand gesturing and laughter he tells me that not only does he have a girlfriend, but that she is pregnant (la luna, la colline, capische?). Just ahead of us on the narrow road, an older man on a bicycle. We try to drive around him but the man turns left (doesn’t he hear the truck?) and we drive right over top of him. We sit there, immobile and white. There is not a sound. I get out of the truck and see children running from a neighboring farm. The man is dead. The young Italian can’t face him, he stands and weeps. I hold him and watch the children’s silent faces that look at us as if we were murderers. “It was an accident,” I want to say, but don’t even know the words. I thought I would never forget the look on those young faces, but I did forget until Hoffman’s film brought them back. I understand his ethical dilemma at filming death. What amazes me is his ability to make a thing of beauty from his coming to terms with it.

Day Nine
“Maybe I’m just more observational than the average person,” I say to myself, trying to find some context for the constant cruising, the way I engage others on the street. I don’t just look at people as I ride by on the bike but rather provoke a response. Maybe I’m spending too much time alone.

I did get to see a Dutch documentary film entitled The Ditvoorst Diaries. Back in the early 70s, Ditvoorst, the filmmaker, had been compared with Godard. Not long after his last film Witte Waan (White Madness) he returned to the town of his birth and drowned himself, exactly like a character in his first film Paranoia. It was a strange film to see on a Sunday afternoon, and we were only six people in the whole cinema. Much of the text for the film was taken directly from his diaries.

An incredible snowstorm the first of November. The following day the tree branches are laden with snow in the bright early-morning sun. Orange and black balloons remain tied to a tree in the neighbor’s yard. A little snowman now stands by the sidewalk, next to a discarded jack o’lantern.

Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears in tangible, visible form… The cultural record we have ‘written in the landscape’ is liable to be more truthful that most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves… There are no secrets in the landscape. (Peirce F. Lewis, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes)

Day Ten
The idea ‘to defend’ Hoffman’s methodology leads to other questions: what is documentary film anyway? Can it be experimental? Can something become so personal it’s no longer documentary? Who decides these things? Most docs unwrap issues: poverty, racism, child abuse, hunger. These are worthy topics, so why in my communications MA, have I steered away from TV news and opted for documentary film, sound, art and identity? Art demands becoming more of who you really are. Not just the exposure of an issue, some ‘master narrative,’ but allowing local concerns, personal issues, to surface. And if some of that’s labeled ‘experimental’ well, I’ll deal with labels later. What was it Cocteau said while adapting George Auric’s music to one of his early films? Something about scrambling the pages and using the notion of chance, which might reveal another way of interpreting the material. In that tension, some new aspect might arise. What is learning if not a sense of discovery?

It was in Claudia Gorbman’s book, discussing film music and image, that she called the relationship between music-image and music-narrative “mutual implication.” Could any music accompany a film? Of course!

Whatever music is applied to a film segment will do something—will have an effect—just as any two words will produce a meaning different from each used separately. Kracauer’s reactions to a drunken movie-house pianist from his youth, whose inattention to the screen resulted in pleasingly unorthodox audiovisual combinations, recall the Surrealist’s delight in the fortuitous encounters between two unlikely entities. Jean Cocteau actually scored some of his films on the principle of what he called ‘accidental synchronization.’ He took George Auric’s music, carefully written for particular scenes in the film, and applied them to different scenes entirely. Whether the relation between sound and picture is deliberate or not (surrealist word-games vs. traditional poetic activity, the drunken pianist versus a score by John Williams), their collaboration will generate meaning. Image, sound effects, dialogue and music-track are virtually inseparable during the viewing experience; they form a combinatoire of expression. (Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies)

Why can’t learning be like the viewing experience? It was Jim Lane who equated the ideology of ‘the personal as political’ with autobiographical documentaries. He said they moved between life and representation, and were as much about the genre itself, as the people who made them.

Even Eakin equated the writing of autobiography (the “art of self-invention”) with culture, in the sense that no writing, no matter how private, exists in isolation. It is made up of shared words. It exists “in engagement with the pressures that life and culture entails.”

Day Eleven
Hoffman’s early interests related to photography and place. His pictures are the establishing shots of his life. The landscape sequences in passing through/torn formations were places he traveled in his youth. The remembering of that time, he says, is essential to his work. “Only now I must deal with those moments of discovery using the camera.” The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) was the result of several years of hitching back and forth across the country, not only experimenting with image making, but also struggling with the conventions of documentary. One reviewer wrote that he uses failure (in that film) to make his strongest points about the convergence and intermingling of anticipation and event. He was apparently spurred on by Kerouac’s life “on the road.”

I remember the jazz essay I wrote—the one based on Pierre Bourdieu’s The Aristocracy of Culture, in which he expounded on taste (“manifested preferences”) and the way, according to “educational capital,” cultural products were consumed. I was trying to relate all this to the jazz fan—The Construction of a Jazz Fan in the Post-Bop Era of the 1950s or: Jazz is a Language/Culture is a Game. Ambitious kid! Trying to adapt Bourdieu to the Beats. More interested in the music and those tapes of Kerouac’s poetry.

“…tortured by sidewalks — starved for sex and companionship — open to anything – ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.” (Kerouac, The Beat Generation)

“Miles Davis, leaning against the piano, fingering his trumpet with a cigarette hand—working—making raw iron sound like wood – speaking in long sentences like Marcel Proust.” (Kerouac, The History of Bop)

Day Twelve
I go to Vanier Library in search of the Katz book on film and autobiography. I notice that it has been checked out until the end of November. At the front desk, I ask the fellow if he can let me see who has the book, as it may be someone in my class. “We can’t do that!” he says. “It’s against our rules.” “Well, just look the other way”, I said, “It’s happened before.” He types in the number of the book, and then my ID, then nonchalantly shows me the screen. “Seeing is believing,” he smiles. “The book is checked out… to you!” All the books I have are entitled autobiography anyway. And I have so many. But this is the height of absurdity, running after books I already have. Must slow down.

Day Thirteen
I prefer to write at sunrise. It’s quiet and I can greet my ideas, reflections, impressions (the state of mind to write this) like an old friend. I think that if I wrote at night I would sound desperate. In the morning I reconstruct and face another day.

Day Fourteen
“Art is not a mirror but a hammer,” John Grierson wrote in the early 1930s, though it is his definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” that is most often quoted. Bill Nichols in Voice in Documentarydiscusses the evolution of documentary, how it organizes the materials presented to us, and how the interaction of filmic codes produce meanings. Nichols suggests that contemporary filmmakers have lost their voice (i.e. replaced it with mere observation and unquestioned empiricism), and sets out to fashion his historical overview in order to advise filmmakers how to make documentaries that will more closely correspond to a contemporary understanding of ‘our’ position (whose?) within the world so that effective political/formal strategies for describing and challenging that position can emerge. His concern is how to understand images of the world as speech about the world, and how to place that speech within formal, experiential and historical contexts.

Now let’s face facts—the number of filmmakers who actually work this way can probably be counted on one hand. And though he gives an excellent summary of the four types of documentary film (only four?)—expository, observational, interactive and self-reflexive—I can’t seem to place Philip Hoffman anywhere, save the self-reflexive, and then only up to a point. Nichols defines the self-reflexive as a strategy (right away a problem), where the representation of the historical world becomes itself the topic of cinematic mediation.

It’s odd, that Nichols skims over the expository, voice-of-God mode, as his article exemplifies this approach. All his arguments lead to the self-reflexive mode as the only one worth pursuing. So why is television news and most documentaries still caught in the expository mode? I think the best line in the whole article comes right at the beginning: “The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next.”

Day Fifteen
Today I only feel like quoting.

“The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind.” (Patrick Keiller, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape, p. 43)

It seems, then, that making moving pictures of spaces and places involves the same sort of consideration as any other picture making – perspective, framing, proportion, left and right, and so on – even when the camera is moving, and especially when it is not. The virtues of this approach can be seen in those of Vermeer’s paintings where there always seems to be more shown of the corner of the room than there actually is. In other words, the picture of the corner of the room is so good that we can infer the rest of the room from it. (P. Keiller, ibid, p. 47)

The deeper I delve the more complex it becomes. What was it Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Day Sixteen
Fellini passed away last week. Big state funeral on the news. I notice, on a record jacket I have of selected music from his films, some quotes from Fellini on Fellini. “I am my own still-life.” “I am a film.” “Everything and nothing in my work is autobiography.”

Last week I gave my class presentation on autobiography and documentary film. As if I wasn’t nervous enough, Phil Hoffman was also present. He was very relaxed though, and afterwards, we had a good talk. But trying to cogently present the complicated theories surrounding autobiography was another matter. I started skipping paragraphs, darting across the page, scanning for the essential, unsuturing. I felt I was watching the paper crumble before my eyes.

After passing through/torn formations most of the class left on break and I stayed to speak with Hoffman. I told him the story (which suddenly jarred in my memory during his film) of my own grandfather. Originally from a tiny hamlet of a place in England called Hook Norton, he emigrated to Canada with his family and never returned there. I never knew his wife, my grandmother. She was a French woman, and died shortly after giving birth to their sixth child. My grandfather raised his six children alone. When I was hitching around Europe as an eighteen year old I decided to visit Hook Norton, which is just north of London, though the only Heydons there were on the gravestones. I took a few black and white photos, staying for a few days, and spoke with the oldest woman of the village who remembered my ancestors. I even copied out the record of christenings at the church going back over two hundred years. The next year, back in Canada, I visited my grandfather, who still lived in Windsor with two of his unmarried daughters. I showed him the photos—silly, Instamatic pictures—and told him of my adventures there. My grandfather was a big man, and watched me with steady eyes as I spoke. I spent three or four days there and then left on a Sunday evening for Toronto. The next morning I received the telephone call from my aunt: “Come back. Your grandfather passed away last night in his sleep.”

There were a few students who also listened to the story and one of them (Carolyn?) suggested that it was my fault that he died! “You probably triggered something in memories long buried.” Philip found it interesting but only said, “Looks like you’ve got enough there to make a film yourself.”

Day Seventeen
Hoffman made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) ostensibly to document Greenaway’s making of A Zed and Two Noughts. The film however (as Nichols suggests as the purpose of self-reflexive documentary) is concerned with the conditions of how it was made. He connects Canadian film history with references to Grierson (“that old battleaxe”) to a personal, diaristic travel experience. Landscapes vary from a small square in a Dutch city to a static shot of one of Greenaway’s outdoor locations to lion cages in the Rotterdam zoo. Like his Mexican film, a death occurs, only this time it is an elephant that is dying. The question of filming this death is the same however. The screen is left blank as the narrator describes the event. How to categorize a film that pokes fun at conventions while seriously searching for new forms; and asks us to create these forms with him.The spectator is part of his ethical dilemma. His dilemma is also ours.

Day Eighteen
Some years ago, while preparing a demo tape of a radio broadcast (which turned out well, as I was hired immediately at CKUT), I included several quotes from an autobiographer who has influenced me greatly. PeterHandke’s The Weight of the World is a text made of reflections, observations, self-inventions.

Washing a shirt in the washbasin when all is still and the heart is heavy.

Someone has written me a letter in which he apologizes for not having phoned me instead.

A television talk-show host laughs aloud at something, quite spontaneously—but all the same he forces himself to laugh into the microphone.

A little while ago (evening) for the first time in ever so long—while standing at the kitchen sink eating grapes and spitting the seeds into my hand—I managed to think of a future.

Independent film and video artists, Renov tells us, are asking themselves questions about the representation of their own subjectivity, in which history and subjectivity become mutually defining categories. Renov calls this “embroiling of subject in history” the new autobiography.

Day Nineteen
“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light-grey devonian limestone in southern Ontario. A powdery luminescence oscillates between rock and sky…”

I can see through Chris Dewdney’s words, through the text, the poem, through the words on the page. I am a spectator. I am also a reader. I am the viewer in the dark, before a black screen, listening to these words, theintroduction to passing through/torn formations. And I am glad Hoffman left the screen black. Some things are better left unshown, where the landscape of imagination and memory can more easily reside.

Hoffman describes the peopled landscape as “an inevitable collision between the old and new worlds, like two great landscapes colliding, erupting… Some people in my family just got caught at the epicentre…”

Day Twenty
There are many family voices in passing through/torn formations, as well as a relentless movement of overlapping images. Sometimes we see the same image/scene from different angles. This restatement of imagery (never exactly the same) Hoffman compares to oral history (which changes through the retelling), or to the literary method of Gertrude Stein.

It was Stein who said, back in 1934, that to understand modern painting, one had to fly over the plains of the Mid-West.

With the many changes in the dominant systems of communication that affect our culture as a whole, will film and video replace writing as our chief means of recording, informing and entertaining? Is there a cinematic equivalent for autobiography and, after four hundred years, is it close to extinction? Should I be angry with Philip Hoffman? Is writing to be formally displaced? “The unity of subjectivity and subject matter,” Elizabeth Brusswrites in Eye for I (Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film, “seems to be shattered by film; the autobiographical self decomposes, schisms, into almost mutually exclusive elements of the person filmed (entirely visible, recorded and projected) and the person filming (entirely hidden; behind the camera eye).” What is there in language to explain its peculiar fitness for autobiographical expression? Can the autobiographical ‘I’ survive the move from text to film?

Again I’m faced with Descartes, as Bruss begins her search: “The more radical his doubts (in the Meditations) the more certain the being of the doubter—he never considered whether the ‘doubter’ might not be the product rather than the producer of the doubt. (p. 298)”

She offers three parameters to autobiography: 1) truth value (autobiography is consistent with other evidence; it is sincere); 2) act value (autobiography is a personal performance); 3) identity value (the logically distinct roles of author, narrator and protagonist are conjoined).

Like the sentence I have been composing, language allows the same individual who plays the role of speaker to serve as his own referent as well—the speaking subject and the subject of the sentence are conflated—which is crucial to autobiography. In film, Bruss notes, the autobiographical self begins to seem less like an individual being and more like an abstract ‘position’ that appears when a number of key conventions converge. Film, in other words, offers a new variable—the choice between ‘staging the truth,’ or recording it directly. Can we call a film sincere, she asks. Can a film shot (apart from vocal accompaniment) express doubt?

But all film is manipulation, I want to cry out at her. And hasn’t Hoffman overcome this very thing?

I look at Kitchener-Berlin (1989), Hoffman’s latest film. I am immersed in family history—landscape, memory, time—and I go for a long bike ride afterwards to ponder. I think of my grandfather, who came to Canada from the Ukraine many years ago. He came to our house one day and dumped my grandmother at our front door. “Here,” he said to my mother in Ukrainian (he never did learn English), “Take your mother. She’s sick. She can’t work anymore.” Or at least, that’s the version my mother tells, not in anger, but in the hopes I’ll understand. “It’s their way.” Three weeks later, my grandmother was dead. I know it had something to do with cancer, but what I remembered most (as a young child), is that she died in my bed. I had to sleep in my sister’s room. Why do I think of this grandfather who couldn’t even talk to me, who could only say “hello” (in English) and pat my head?

I go out for a drink. Filled with books, papers and ideas. I stop at a singles bar in the Plateau where there are many people, voices, music, smoke, shouting and laughter. But tonight, there’s no one here I know. Standing alone, watching other casually cruise and flirt, I remember my teen years on the prairies.

Tonight, in the sky

Even the stars

Seem to whisper

To one another.

(Issa, Oraga Haru/The Year of my Life)

Day Twenty-one
Last day. One final glance to that Bruss article. In studying, we don’t just read the things we want to hear.

It is doubtful, she remarks, that the effects of shooting, editing and lighting are capable of expressing what we conventionally call ‘personality’ to the degree that language can. Mieke Bal has recently proposed a separate category (to represent point-of-view) of ‘focalizer’, as distinct from ‘narrator,’ to make the different qualities of these vantage points clearer.

There is a total absence of ‘identity-value’ in film. While speaking, ‘I’ merges easily with another. But the film spectator is always out of frame, creating an impassable barrier between the person seeing and the person seen. Viewing films could relate to our sense of privacy, anonymity—viewing, yet feeling unseen. She quotes Cavell: “We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, from behind the self.”

As Hoffman himself noted, “when photography was invented, painting changed; but photography never replaced landscape painting. If avant-garde film is dying in its struggle to survive, let’s celebrate its death and make it into something else.” Film could offer a new way of experiencing ourselves. Bruss concludes:

Film simply shares-or better, articulates—the dilemmas of an entire culture now irrevocably committed to complex technologies and intricate social interdependencies. To make the means of film human without falling back on outworn humanisms, to achieve more fluid modes of collaboration and diversity rather then the standardized expression, to establish practices in which ‘I’ may no longer exist in the same way but nonetheless cannot escape my own participation—these concerns are not unique to film but among the most fundamental problems that confront ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ as a whole.

The Spy Who Knew Too Much

by Richard Kerr

Let me begin with a confession: I have known Philip Hoffman for more than thirty years. We used to travel together, play hockey, make pictures. An old friendship demands loyalty and discretion, a respect for the line between the stories only the two of you can share, and those fit for print. Phil is an autobiographer, that is his muse, his stock in trade. His life is his material, and any pulling back the curtains or insider exposé might threaten this project. Rarely has someone’s life and work been so interchangeable. In place of hyper-biography I’ve relied on exchange and process, a terrain as practitioners we are both comfortable with. We wanted to keep it on the lighter side, there’s enough angst in our work after all, and rely on a faux interview dialogue. I wanted to touch on the broad stokes that lay at the heart of Phil’s work and process. More importantly, I wanted to know what he is thinking these days, in order to reflect on the consistencies and changes in his thinking over the years. This dialogue is necessarily incomplete. What is said is important, but what is left unspoken is more important. But that is the way these old friends would have it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It changes daily.

What is your greatest fear?
Hospitals (in Ontario).
Lightning (everywhere else).

What is your greatest extravagance?
400’ loads of Double-X negative.

What is your favourite journey?
Inner. It’s cheap, fast and out of control.

What do you consider the most over rated virtue?

What is your current state of mind?
It changes as I write.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Most Gentlemanly Player, Waterloo Siskins—1974.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Imprisoned in your own life.

What quality do you most like in a man?

What quality do you most like in a woman?

How would you like to die?
At home.

What is your motto?
It changes.

August 31, 2000

Hi Richard,

It seemed as Monday morning rolled around there were just too many pressures with J’s family visit outside of Montreal, and the little girl’s needs (you know all about that, kids are new for me).  Anyway, it seemed too much. I’m very moved that you are contributing to this book because in my mind,  you are my brother. Our drifting apart was quite painful for me, so your gestures to reconnect are touching. I want to do the same and am really sorry our meeting didn’t work out.


In the mid-1970s, when Phil was gearing up the grand project of autobiography as his life’s work, the times were less than encouraging. Especially for a middle class white male. And there was a considerable canon of experimentalists who had already forged significant works of cinematic autobiography. Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Robert Frank come to mind, but you can make your own list. This received history can be heavy for a young maker trying to sort it all out.

The mid-70s also marked a sea change from modernism to post-modernism with its libraries of cultural theory and prescriptions of political correctness. It was uncool, if not politically dangerous, to reflect on the self. These pressures of influence could easily lead a young filmmaker away from their muse. But Phil’s clear thinking and thoroughness, his wait and watch style and deliberateness, separated him from the rest of us. Day to day discipline created his body of work. As Yogi Berra put it, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Memories that won’t be made into films

Teenaged Phil alone in his room, listening to Dylan while family life reverberates around him.

Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.  —Jack Kerouac.

Phil always looked like his Father. He was the youngest, with three triplet sisters, but was always the man around the house, possessed of an early quiet confidence and responsibility.

There is no decisive moment. It’s got to be created. I’ve got to do everything to make it happen in front of the lens.  —Robert Frank

Phil was small, wiry, strong and tough. He got bigger every year. He was a natural athlete, competitive but clean, and he never backed down. He was a crafty pool player, a game he sharpened in the basement with hispoolshark uncle Wally. The darkroom was next door.

I’ll play it first and tell you what is later.  —Miles Davis

Things happened fast once we built our first darkroom. Enterprise and imagination. Dylan sings, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

No poet, no artist of any art has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. —T.S. Eliot

Young Phil at his lake a.k.a. On the Pond. Another classic setting in the young man’s life. I always imagined he did his big thinking there. The river served a different purpose…

Ideas are one thing and what happens is another.  —John Cage

On the banks of the Saugeen River, sixteen year-old Phil guts a brook trout. Every year the same scene on a different river: Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Alberta… but never Saskatchewan. I lived in Regina for fifteen years. Final note about fishing: I suspect Phil enjoyed fishing by himself, as opposed to groups. Too much bonding in a boat will drive a young man to the river.

It is a mistake for an artist to speak too often about their job. It releases the tension needed for work.  —Jemina Knowles

Phil Hoffman’s father is proud of his son. I saw that look in his eye thirty years ago, on the (backyard) pond. I saw it again fifteen years later at the Toronto debut of passing through/torn formations. I hope to see that look one more time before I go.

I never heard much about Phil’s days in his father’s meat packing plant, they were overshadowed by his father’s stories which were fantastical. His roots were German, hardworking, filled with personal sacrifice and just rewards. But it was always clear that the son would go his own way. Solo is vertical. The Hoffman team has the most refined sense of father and son I can imagine.

I always say keep a diary and someday it will keep you.  —Mae West

There was always cold beer, reefer and a loaded camera on the road trips. But Phil was the only one who could fix a flat tire in the middle of the night.

I write for myself and strangers… The strangers, dear reader, are an afterthought.  —Gertrude Stein

The more Phil travels, the more verbal he becomes. He may be the best life observer I know. We took some important (R+D) trips together. In 1976 we drove to the Allan Ginsberg archives via Ginsberg’s New Yorkapartment, a good story, but I’ve forgotten too much of it to tell properly. Phil would be able to though. Four years later we drove east to find Robert Frank in Mabou, chronicled in The Road Ended at the Beach. We took a sci-fi type journey to Love Canal. Countless rages into the night that I can barely remember. Once again, Phil’s memory is better than mine … of the details at least.

I know with certainty that a man’s work is nothing but the longing to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which gained access to his heart.  —Albert Camus, 1960

In the restless years between high school and university, Phil looks for the way through. We stay tuned in. One day, he showed up at Sheridan College. Things happened fast again. We are living our movies. Here are the first signs of Phil as an image and sound collector, so organized and methodical. His obsessive work patterns were already established, a life of consistent film creation lay ahead.

All art is a more or less oblique confession. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced to tell the whole story, to vomit up the anguish.  —James Baldwin, 1961

Before photography: many nights out with Phil where nothing is said but much seen. After photography even less is said, but pictures are taken, sound recorded. We are pecking, hunting and gathering. Process is process, but where are the negatives? It was never about copyright, but archive. Memory counts. Phil would have taught me that.

Part of our work is to make what is strange more familiar. The vomit’s always kept hidden away like idle chatter at a funeral.

Marian comes to my wedding in Toronto. It becomes a late afternoon lawn party. As a jet passes overhead, I say it’s Phil on his way to Holland and Greenaway’s zoo. We smile.

We teach together at Sheridan College, huge hours, the beginnings of our second careers. We are dragged into our first academic mutiny, always learning on the job. Today we’re still teaching, keepers of some sort of flame.

There are a few industry freelance ventures, promos for Women’s College Hospital. I direct, Phil shoots, the piece wins awards, good start!  Kevin Sullivan’s first effort  Krieghoff which is really Phil’s story, maybe one of his best. I often wonder if he tells his students about his freelance days. There was a Parachute Club video called Sexual Intelligence, good work if you could get it.

The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you’re an artist.  —Max Jacob, 1922

I moved to Saskatchewan to take a teaching job after Phil turned them down. Phil referred me, I made a cold call, and once again it all worked out. Phil and I weren’t seeing much of each other by then, both trying to look after our separate lives.

Personal history (autobiography) is an effort to find salvation, to make one’s own experience come out right.  —Alfred Kazin

In Saskatchewan I sit with my young family glued to CBC watching the Genies. Phil is up for Best Documentary with ?O,ZooHe wears his comfortable brown cardigan. He has a winner’s look.

Autobiography provides insurance against oblivion. But without publicity, oblivion endures. I believe that all careers end in failure, that each of us manages a certain coherence manifest in a particular work, granted by personality, hard work and luck. But after that moment our later years are spent in decline. If we are fortunate, we are able to do so with dignity. Life is diamond shaped. In the beginning, opportunities expand, later they contract. Unfortunately, none of us knows where the widest point of the diamond resides until we’ve already passed it. The big bang theory of careers? This contracting might not be as negative as it appears because one may retreat from career into home life, perhaps to take care of elders or make gardens. But perhaps there are several diamonds expanding and contracting at different times in your life. Like those party hats you get as a kid, excited to find as you unfold each hat, that one is connected to the other, and you discover that they go on and on, forever.

Book Review Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman

by Elizabeth Johnston, edited by Karyn Sandlos and Mike Hoolboom

Book Review

image002LANDSCAPE WITH SHIPWRECK is a book that acts upon the reader with an uncanny ability to engage both the emotions and the intellect. Quotations from diverse sources are liberally sprinkled throughout thebook, point and counterpoint, making a sort of contrapuntal music. Lifting you up, confirming, lulling, exciting and sometimes terrorizing you. So many times I had to stop and pluck a quote from this rich veinand write it into my journal for safekeeping. What Hoolboom and Sandlos say in their introduction is true:”By reading this book, you risk making this story your own.”

The story of a third-generation Canadian experimental filmmaker, Philip Hoffman, is literally (or academically) told to us in Peter Harcourt’s informative look at one member of the so-called Escarpment School. (Included in this school are filmmakers such as Rick Hancox, Carl Brown, Gary Popovich, Marian McMahon, Steve Sanguedolce and Richard Kerr.) “Born and raised along the craggy slopes of theCanadian Shield, their work typically conjoins memory and landscape in a home movie/documentary-based production that is at once personal, poetic and reflexive.”

A self-styled autobiographical filmmaker, Hoffman has been using 8 and 16 mm cameras to film his family since he was in his teens. Despite the very personal subject matter, Hoffman’s work is a testament to how the specific can be the universal. One of his first “assignments” was to film the corpse of his dead grandfather. (Although he did the filming, it was years before he could develop the film.) Death, and theabsences created by death, including the loss of memories, permeates Hoffman’s work as it does this anthology.

All of us struggle, at some level, to some degree, with identity, memory and the challenge of living in a world where every second all around us things are dying – every second dropping beyond our grasp. Simultaneously, Hoffman’s work performs the double role of magician and embalmer – recre­ating memory and in the very act of recreation fixing that memory as an embalmer fixes a body. This idea is beautifullyarticulated by various writers, but particularly in “Thin Ice” by Karyn Sandlos,”Notes on River” by Philip Hoffman, and Brenda Longfellow’s “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida.”

Ronald Heydon’s “The Landscape Journal,” is indicative of the emotional responses in Landscape. Using Hoffman’s films as a springboard, Heydon ruminates on his own connec­tion to land, memory, and autobiography. In a particularly moving entry, Day 8, Heydon discusses whether a camera should record death, which is for Hoffman a central preoccu­pation. Hoffman’s film Somewhere between Jalostotitlan andEncarnacion is the source of this entry. In this film, there is no narrator, but intertitles tell us the story. At one point, the bus Hoffman is on stops because a boy has been killed in the road. Hoffman thought about filming the death, but decided not to and the resulting film is, in some measure, an attempt to come to terms with that decision and the lacuna it creates in the film itself. Heydon, watching the film, remembers his travels in Italy as an 18-year-old. He’d hitched a ride with a jocular man who preferred back roads to highways.

Just ahead of us on the narrow road, an older man on a bicycle. We try to drive around him, but the man turns left (doesn’t he hear the truck?) and we drive right over top of him. We sit there, immobile and white. There is not a sound. I get out of the truck and see children run­ning from a neighbouring farm. The man is dead. The young Italian can’t face him; he stands and weeps. I hold him and watch the children’s silent faces that look at us as if we were murderers… I thought I would never for­get the look on those young faces, but I did forget until Hoffman’s film brought them back.”

To film or not to film death, that is the ethical question that resurfaces throughout Landscape. In slightly more comic (or objective?) tones, this question is revisited in Hoffman’s documentary of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts dur­ing the filming of which an elephant died on location at the Rotterdam Zoo. In Hoffman’s documentary, the story of the elephant dying is told over a black screen. The narrator says he filmed the elephant, but couldn’t bring himself to develop the film and so put it in the freezer. Yet, after the credits, there is a shot of an elephant getting up from the ground that throws into question the veracity and authenticity of the film.

While there is no doubt such treatment of actuality gives rise to ethical questions, the consensus seems to be (exempli­fied by Michael Zryd’s “Deception and Ethics in ?O, Zoo!,” and Polly Ullrich’s “The Workmanship of Risk” among others) that the censorship of such methods would deny filmmakers and viewers the opportunity for questioning the ways of the self. Hoffman explains it this way:

By means of the personal content of my films I seek to uncover subjective aspects of the way events are record­ed. Focusing on the way that l, as afilmmaker, can and do influence both form and content allows room for the viewer to reflect upon ways in which meaning is con­structed in film. Using the processes of reflection and revision, I seek to examine and express how we bring meaning to past and present lived experiences.

Hoffman’s films demand a sophisticated, or at least an open-minded viewer, one that, given the recent documentary scandals in Britain, does not yet exist in the mainstream.

In the act of reading this book, an open mind, a self­reflexive mind, will find itself transformed and changed. The old self will no longer exist. And, only after reading to the end will some things at the beginning become clear like the nature of this change and, also, the meaning of this rather odd statement:”In biblical times,” write Sandlos and Hoolboom,”there circulated rumours of a book so fearsome, so awful, that its reading would occasion the events it described, and end the world as it was known. I have no doubt that for Phil, this is that book. I pray he never reads it.”

I was nearly put off by that apocryphal introduction. It seemed too large a statement for any book to live up to let alone a ragtag anthology of”critics, architects, and builders.” I tell my students of fiction writing: You have to earn the right to use abstractions, cliches or exaggeration.To my delight, Sandlos and Hoolboom have earned that right. But, I don’t know that Philip Hoffman would feel things were over for him after reading this book since in the early nineties, he killed off the author in his own work and moved into collabo­rative installations, thereby rising from his own ashes. I sus­pect that Hoffman could use this book as confirmation of that transformation or at least keep it handy to stoke the fire needed for the next transformation.— POV

Elizabeth Johnston is POV’s resident book reviewer. She also freelances for major newspapers and teaches cinema in Montreal.