On the Pond

(16mm, 9 minutes, 1978)

“Hoffman’s film is in the experimental film tradition of the personal diary although in this case a beautifully paced mixture of family photographs and dramatic reconstruction interwoven into a narrative that creates objective distance. On the Pond reveals skills of editing, sound and story-telling which evoke in ten minutes a complex and emotional study of family, its past and present, its young dreams and its affections. Unsentimental, evocative and perfectly pitched in its emotional resonance, it avoids all the pitfalls of personal narrative and is an excellent example of the short film’s power when handled with skill, sensitivity and integrity. (Michael O’Pray)

“Hoffman’s first completed film already bears the traits of his future works: an interest in family history and the reconstruction of memory; a complex temporal scheme that also calls into question the “truth value” of documentary material: a deep feeling for the Canadian landscape; and a certain clarity and honesty about his own position as filmmaker. On the Pond can appear at first viewing as a fairly simple familial reminiscence about a former family home, a dog who has since passed away, and the rituals of childhood play: hockey for the boys figure skating for the girls. Close attention to the film’s form, however, discloses a surprising complexity and richness in its structuring of time, its ambiguity regarding the “documentary” character of much of the material, and its sound-image relations.” (Chris Gehman, Images Festival Catalogue, 2001)

On the Pond is an elaboration of the family slide show, its intimate portraits greeted with squeals of recognition and a generational shudder of light and shadow which elicits a response from its constituents. The slides centre on the filmmaker as a child, his meek and unmarked countenance staring from a variety of outdoor settings, dwarfed by the furry excess of his winter parka; summertime finds him casting flies on the Saugeen River or trekking through forest outside the family cottage. His unguarded expression is an insignia of innocence, absorbing the events of his surround with a comprehension that is made manifest only in his body — in the stern rigours of training that shape his unfashioned masks of dissent into a fleshy assertion of familial rites. Lacking a stable perimeter to cleave self and world, the photograph’s framing enacts this movement of separation and identity, even as it displays the exchange of a casual intimacy. 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.

These photographs are interwoven with dramatic re-enactments of Hoffman’s own 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 a societal voice-over—the exhortations of a coach and the scream of parents increasingly dog his steps. 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. The young boy’s ardour will transport him from the pond to the city; he relinquishes the ties of family in a feverish clamour for success.

But almost as abruptly as the dream has been conjured, it ends: in a long pan over a projector which has 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, intercepted by closing credits, shows Hoffman join his young double, confidently calling for the puck before slipping on the icy sheen, tall enough now to show us his falling. 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.” (Mike Hoolboom)


Thin Ice by Karyn Sandlos

On The Pond dialogue


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