by Mario Falsetto (1989) (unedited)
Mario Falsetto: Why don’t we start at the beginning then, tell me something about your background, and how you ended up in film. I understand you were in other disciplines before you went to film school.
Philip Hoffman: That’s right. Let me start off with my university education, and then I’ll go further back. Actually I started in business. The family is very business-oriented on my father’s side. I went into business for one year, and that was enough. I switched quickly into English, which I had liked a lot throughout high school. In high school I had a great interest in Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth. At Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario I combined English literature courses, Modern fiction and poetry—Elliot, Robbe-Grillet, Joyce—with cinema studies, primarily Russian, German and American silent films.
MF: This would be the mid-seventies or so?
PH: Yes, but before that I’d always had an interest in photography, and writing, sort of secret doodling and things like this. It was a way to deal with what was going on.
MF: Did the interest in photography have something to do with the film diary you were keeping?
PH: Yes. The photography goes further back to when I was thirteen or fourteen. That was the time I was first acquainted with Richard Kerr [Canadian experimental filmmaker]. He was more like an older brother to me then. We made a darkroom in the basement of my house and he showed me how to develop and print pictures. He got me interested in the magic that happens in the darkroom.
MF: So you were taking still photographs as well as film at this time?
PH: Mainly photography then. Just learning the process, and basically what you do with a camera. I was interested in having a record of things that happened in pictures and audio recordings.
MF: Was this a general thing in your family, or was it something unique to you?
PH: No, I think this was something unique to me. It wasn’t only family things I would photograph. I would go and photograph different places. In PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS, a lot of the landscape sequences which were shot in Canada were places I used to go to in my youth. Those places, in a way, were the beginning. Fields, forests and streams. Christopher Dewdney, the writer, deals with these kinds of places in his work. He says that the land and its embodiment was his education. The remembering of that time of discovery is essential In my work. Only now I must deal with those moments of discovery using the camera.
MF: If your Initial Interests were In photography and poetry, how did you find yourself in the filmmaking program at Sheridan College [Oakville, Ontario]?
PH: When I realized that my interests in poetry and photography could be best served in filmmaking, I decided to look for a film course. Sheridan had a good atmosphere and they seemed to shy away from the “Hollywood” approach to film. Richard [Kerr] had already gone there for one year, and he brought back good reports!
MF: Did you have it In mind to work in something like a diary film format?
PH: That really didn’t come about until I began taking courses with Rick Hancox and Jeff Paull at Sheridan. We saw a lot of their work, which was very personal, autobiographical films, as well as New American Cinema, such as Brakhage, Snow and Mekas. These filmmakers got me thinking about the diary film. I had all this material ready to work with, and to look back at, which then became part of some of the films, such as ON THE POND and THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH.
MF: Were you primarily doing still photography before you went to Sheridan?
PH: In my early teens, I worked exclusively with still photography. I started working in Super-8 when I was around 17 or 18, especially in my late teens when I’d go hitch-hiking and traveling through Canada. That was the starting point for THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH (1983), which deals with experiences during seven or eight years of Interrupted travel through Canada. The film covers the time from before I went to film school at Sheridan to after that period. So the film deals not only with the traveling, but with the eruptive time of first learning about image-making. That was a unique time in my life so the film is important to me.
MF: I sense that the film was something of a rite of passage for you. Do you see it that way?
PH: During the making of that film I think I was shaking off some life long influences, for instance, the influence that documentary practice In Canada has had on me. I think thatmuch of my film practice in the last ten years has been concerned with, coming to terms with, the “realist” image in photography and filmmaking— purging the ghost of John Grierson. ?O,ZOO is the most obvious example of that, but THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH represents the place where my initial struggles with the conventions of documentary began. So that was an Important time, a time when I was first grappling with expression in film, and that grappling is evident in the film as seen through the textural tensions that run through it. The wide variety of image strategies in the film represents the different ways I was looking at film over the seven years of Its making. This multiplicity of form, as opposed to a more purist model, is something I’ve further developed, especially In PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS. So these films are like multi-texturedtapestries.
MF: The biggest Influences for you then at Sheridan were Rick Hancox, Jeff Paull and New American Cinema. You were there three years and made several student films?
PH: Yes. That’s where I made ON THE POND, in the second year.
MF: Which you consider your first “real” film? If I remember correctly, that film is pretty much centered around your family, and the lyrical form.
PH: It is a film that tries to tell a story, primarily without words, although It does contain the family’s voices describing pictures from the family photo album. It also deals with my Involvement with hockey. At the time of making the film, I had stopped playing competitive hockey, and so this reservoir of energy that I had, went towards filmmaking. The starting point for ON THE POND (1978) was looking at old photos of the family. They triggered memories, and I thought it was Important to try and deal with the photograph as a concrete form of memory. My teacher, Rick Hancox, talked about something the American filmmaker George Semsel told him which Is that you cannot make a film about anything or anyone else until you deal with yourself on film, and your own relationship with the camera. You have to get to know the way you uniquely deal with the camera, your eye, and the editing process, your mind. I also try to pass this on to students in the film classes that I now teach.
MF: When you say that, do you feel that making a film has to necessarily involve the Idea of trying to understand yourself, or know yourself better?
PH: Well, to some extent, I do. Even an artist like Michael Snow, whose films are not seen as autobiographical, has found a way to deal with his own being, his own way of seeing, as he works through his various film projects. I think that students have to confront themselves directly, in the creative process of filmmaking. When this does not happen, the result is a lot of docu-dramas or whatever Is the current rage, and these films only mimic the feature film industry or television, or even experimental film. The productions are empty because, in most cases, the student has only experienced the content of her or his film through other films they’ve seen. A personal film, as a first film, might end up being a bit self-conscious, sometimes even embarrassing since the maker is struggling with some pretty difficult issues, along with trying to come to terms with the technology. Yet, to me, Its still abetter first step then mimicry.
MF: But how does a 19 or 20 year-old student get to know themselves or understand themselves in a film class? Its not a psychology class or a therapy session. How do you get them to specifically think about who they are when they make a film?
PH: Well, at times, I think It is a psychology class or a therapy session. Only It Is the making of images which is used as a point of entry to looking deeper inside. This Is my way of teaching film and, of course, some students rebel against this approach. Yet, I think it is something every filmmaker, no matter what kind of filmmaking they do, has to come to terms with, on some level. I encourage students to deal with the materials of their craft In relation to their own life experiences.
MF: I guess its getting students to understand that when
they’re making a film, they’re making a film about themselves, on some level, and if they don’t understand themselves, the film is not going to be very revealing. This is kind of interesting to me because your work is so personal; it uses the diary format, even non-fiction material. It uses very personal material: Phil Hoffman’s friends, Phil Hoffman’s family. The question I could ask of you is what makes you think your family and friends will be interesting to me, or to someone else watching such personal films? Is that an issue when you make a film?
PH: I think I’ve found that It can be, but I try not to let that interfere with the making. In PASSING THROUGH, the characters are obviously not feature film stars. They are not put in the films because they are interesting characters. The film’s formal strategies de-emphasize personalities. So I do not feel it important that people know who the characters are outside of the film.
MF: How do you generalize the material, or how can you make the experience of confronting that material relevant to someone who has no conception of who you are?
PH: I try to make a form that allows and encourages ambiguity. In PASSING THROUGH, although there are many images of the family, and many family stories on the soundtrack, the layering of picture and sound makes it very difficult to follow a story-line, I think Its very self-oriented, Its self-centered. Its saying that these are the things I have done, and they’re important.
MF: But, I don’t think you’ve ever made “pure” diary films. Your films aren’t like those of Jonas Mekas or Howard Guttenplan. You seem to be playing with the form of the diary film, or somehow wanting it to be many things at once, to be less pure. In the process, the films may have diaristic elements, but they cease to be diary films, in the strict sense.
PH: I think that whole notion of the pure film form Is something that I’ve tried to stay away from In my work, though I’ve been influenced tremendously by it. It was important for me to have seen diary films and structural films. I’m not interested in repeating the work done by Mekas, following exactly his way of working with the diary film, for instance. I’m trying to evolve my own way of working with the diary concept, taking into account the work that has already been done In that area, what has been learned so far.
MF: You have difficulty with this concept of purity and the categorization of the experimental film. Your work always seems to be about other things as well, such as the relationship of fiction and non-fiction, or experimental documentary or experimental narrative. I’ve noticed this in Rick Hancox’s work too. I think Rick is dissatisfied with this notion of a pure experimental film.
PH: There are experimental film conventions, as well. What I’m trying to do is turn that inside out, to say “oh, well, why can’t I do that?” These things do relate, they all do. The world that we live In Isn’t so pure that you can look at It from only one perspective. I really feel strongly about looking at things from different angles, almost like light coming through a kaleidoscope or a crystal. You know Its the same light, but It turns into all these different configurations.
MF: I think most people who are concerned with the avant-garde know that the Idea of boundaries or limitations shouldn’t be a significant part of what the avant-garde Is about. Which Is not to say that films shouldn’t have shape and form. I mean limitations In the negative sense. The best work is always about striving for a new voice, or a different voice. Maybe asking some of the same old questions, but in a different way. When we get really lucky, and encounter a profoundly original artist, say someone like Brakhage, then we are exposed to a completely original way of looking at the world. But he is very rare. What are some of the other Issues In your work, apart from the diary, that you’ve thought about In the last while?
PH: I’ve lately realised that my early involvement with photography has very strongly colored my approach to process. Even though as a youngster my photo work was largely representational, I was always, and still am, excited in the darkroom when the Image starts to appear, that time right after the exposed print gets put Into the developer. I think my fascination for that fleeting moment, when change is most visible, carries through all of my work, but is most evident In PASSING THROUGH. The lyrical passages in my work, mostly in PASSING THROUGH and THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH, are rooted In that special time in the darkroom, the moment of transformation. But the films are not “purely,” as you have said, lyrical. There are other things happening related to the questioning of the process, the questioning of my own methods, within the films. In an essay on ?O,ZOO!, Mike Zryd called this part of my work “tentative probings.” I work with the images that I make for a long period of time, and during that time, I probe the problems of representation. In ?O,ZOO! and in SOMEWHERE BETWEEN JALOSTOTITLAN AND ENCARNACION, amongst other questions about representation, the most central one is: whether or not the camera, my camera, should record a death? Earlier in THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH, on trips through Canada, I question the way that the camera mediates experience or transforms experience. But this all leads back to the beginnings in the darkroom, making photographs of what I thought at the time was my reality, documents of friends and places and the inevitable question arose: How are the pictures different from the reality they claim to stand in for? Bruce Elder’s article “The Photographic Image” deals with this in the context of being Canadian, though I don’t think he means It’s exclusively a Canadianism. He suggests that we use the photograph to assure ourselves that we have control of our harsh surroundings. But I think you can get tricked if you use a photograph to experience the world.
MF: So your work is primarily centered around questions of representation. How did you arrive at these preoccupations?
PH: I didn’t understand these questions of representation on an intellectual level when I made my first three films. The questions confronted me through the experience of making, perhaps on a more Intuitive level. In 1984, I saw Greenaway’s THE FALLS (1980), and some of his other short films, at the Grierson Documentary Film Seminar. This led to my experience In 1985 of making a film around Greenaway’s A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS (1985). Peter Greenaway’s films, and the whole experience of making a film around his film, was an Important step for me In dealing intellectually with the issues around photographic representation, and I needed to get passed that to do what I did in PASSING THROUGH.
MF: Hadn’t many of those issues been confronted by others, Frampton, for example, fifteen years earlier?
PH: Sure, but I had to deal with them in my way, and that was important for my development. In a way, PASSING THROUGH feels more like me … well, right now anyway.
MF: ?O,ZOO! is concerned with other Issues apart from the Issues of the photograph. It seems to me that the question of the reliability of the voices that we hear, and the manipulation of the filmic material…
PH: That’s still something Frampton dealt with.
MF: And others as well, but I think O?ZOO! Is a highly accomplished work, nevertheless, and it deals with those issues in interesting ways.
PH: Where ?O,ZOO! does break different ground in the eighties is
in its direct connection to mass media. The question of whether or not to film the death of the elephant in the zoo, expands to more questionss like what will I do with the footage after its developed? Would the TV networks want it? How would the TV producers change my story, minimizing this traumatic experience of seeing this enormous beast rolling in pain, close to death? Why do I even want to film this? How does mass media mediate my experience, just by its prominent existence in the landscape? and so on… and finally, the last question that comes back at the end of the film when the footage somewhat miraculously appears. These questions about the power of mass media are some of the most important questions of our time, and ?O,ZOO! was my contribution to confronting these issues. I think some experimental filmmakers sort of scoffed at me when I entered the film in the Canadian Genie Awards, and it was nominated in the Documentary category. It seemed bothersome to some people that the film wasn’t, and I’ll use the term again, a “pure”experimental film, or a “pure” documentary. But nobody saw the
irony of the nomination, in that the film exposes and pokes fun at the tiresome workings of conventional documentary practices, yet it still got a nomination. That tells me that the status quo itself Is having a hard time with the rigid definition of documentary that, for instance, the National Film Board is still basing their funding on. So I saw the entry as more of a political act, no matter how little an overall effect it had. An attempt to stir up some dust. It’s just too bad I didn’t get a chance to give an acceptance speech.
MF: I did have one question specifically about ?O,ZOO! before we delve further into PASSING THROUGH, and some other issues in your films. The film obviously has a lot of meaning for people who have seen Greenaway’s A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS. It conjures up and brings back particular memories, and has certain resonances if you’ve seen Greenaway’s film. I’m wondering whether you felt, in some ways, that you were using Greenaway’s material? You were able to appropriate, in a certain sense, this very interestingand elaborate setting for your film.
PH: Yeah, it cost a lot of money for him to make his film, but it didn’t cost me a lot of money! $3200!
MF: But I mean, in some ways, your film is more interesting because of Greenaway’s film. I don’t know if there’s an issue there at all for you. I was just curious if you felt any kind of ethical question?
PH: Obviously, people are going to say that the filmmaker is taking advantage of the situation. I think those questions are always going to arise. I decided to put myself right in the middle of that. If I really wanted to cash in, I would have interviewed Greenaway, and made it more about him and his filmmaking. Yet, I think it deals with him and his work with integrity, and In a way that carries on my own work with the diary film, and questions of representation. That particular setting, a feature film set, was important in order to compare two methods of filmmaking: personal filmmaking practice and feature filmmaking practice. I have used the situation, but I hope the film Invites other kinds of analysis. I know It has so far. Some people heard about the film and were disappointed because it wasn’t a straight-ahead documentary on Greenaway. If the question is whether the film works as an integral piece on its own, without knowing or seeing A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, I’m not really that concerned. I know that ?O,ZOO! would not exist without the experience of being there when Peter was making his film, so for the two films to co-exist is kind of unique. Two people put a tremendous amount of work into two projects which were shot In many of the same locations. One, ZOO, was first imagined, written out in script form and shot using the script like following an architect’s plans; the other, ?O,ZOO!, is a kind of improvised reaction to the former, to the experience of the feature film shoot, and actually to the director’s whole body of work. The way I’ve chosen to work, as far as I know, is to put myself In a situation and deal with the situation at hand, and how that surrounding affects me. That’s why all the films look different. The form comes out of the interaction with the situation. In my films, I try to work in response to a situation, to move forward in my own way.
MF: ?O,ZOO! is a very effective and compelling film. I show it in my film course, and most students haven’t seen A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, and it makes them want to see it. I don’t know if they’re disappointed or not. So, It obviously works on different levels for different people. Since you brought up this question of process, Its probably a good idea to talk more about PASSING THROUGH, which is certainly your most complex film. I know there are issues in there which have to do with how the photograph, how the apparatus and the process of making the film helps us understand our experiences, both from the past and in the present. The film took you a long time to make. How much
structure and how specific were your ideas when you actually started making the film, and how much of it evolved for you In the process of making?
PH: All the films, and PASSING THROUGH Is a good example, begin without a structure. The Interaction of the camera and the subject, and what comes out of that, is the start of the process. I may have some ideas about the way, for instance, the sound might work, or the way images might go together in superimpositions. Though it Is still part of a process of what I’ve learned from the last film. Sometimes I make a couple of films at the same time. So that’s having an effect on the outcome. Anyway, I start collecting the images, and, as always in my work, I let the images tell me what the overall structure is going to be, or better yet, the structure evolves out of looking at the images, writing about the images, writing about the experience of shooting the images, which Is a totally different thing than the actual images shot. I may spend a whole evening with someone, and shoot only two minutes. But other experiences during that whole evening may find a place in the film. Anything goes. Not just what is filmed. All experience is treated as equal. Some may surface through the voice-over, or through the sound recording, or through conversations, for instance. Some things may surface after I show family members or others what I have shot. The direct interaction with the process may find a place in the film. The experience of working on the film is integrated into the content. Gradually the structure evolves.
MF: Could you talk about how the music for PASSING THROUGH was created, as an example of how you work?
PH: Tucker (Zimmerman) had done the music for ?O,ZOO! He’s American and has had classical training as a composer In the USA, and later in Italy during the 60’s. He lives In Belgium. I had a rough version of PASSING THROUGH worked out, and on a trip to Europe, I visited Tucker in Belgium. A great place, by the way. I had about five days to spend with him, and by the fourth, we had played a lot of baseball, listened to a lot of music and talked about my mother’s family and some of the things that had happened to the family. But we still hadn’t looked at the film. I was getting nervous because I thought Tucker had forgotten, or maybe I had miscommunicated the purpose of the visit to him. Now I understand that his way of working is that he really needs to get to know the person, and where they’re at, before he can compose music for them, which to me is a fine way of working. At the end of the fourth day, we went to the Liege TV station and managed to get on a rickety old flatbed editor. Tucker saw the film once, and that was enough. We mapped out the movements of the film, and the lengths, and six months later the sound was in my mailbox. I remember listening to the tape for the first time. The way he managed to hold onto the ethnic flavour, what I’ve experienced through my Grandfather’s (Driouloux’s) singing as a Polish lament, amidst the relentless repetition of the composition. It is a very powerful combination to me. I’ve grown up with Eastern European music, so to hear it in a fresh new way, with a more deterministic bent to it, moved me very much.
MF: Did PASSING THROUGH begin with the idea of making a film about Babci?
PH: Well, it was focused on, inspired by, certain people on my mother’s side of the family, especially my uncle. People who have a lot of passion, and have meant a lot to me. That was something I wanted to do even when I made ON THE POND ten years earlier.
MF: Had you been to Czechoslovakia?
PH: No. 1984 was the first time. I brought them the bad news of Babci’s sickness. Parkinson’s disease. I got to know Babci’s sister, Aunt Hanna, In Czechoslovakia. There are some shots of her In PASSING THROUGH. Sort of home movie style shooting, outside the family home in Jablunkov, and at the place where my mother was born in Yachini. There was this big pile of stones which was all that was left of the house where my mother was born. In the film my mother translates Aunt Hanna’s messages from Polish into English, near the start and at the end of the film. The story is told of the dispute over land, which resulted in the death of her brother. But this information is not forefronted in the film because of the way the picture superimposes, sometimes two or three different images at a time, and the way that two or three stories overlap on the soundtrack. For instance, as the translation of the dispute over land In Czechoslovakia is taking place, another story is starting up in Canada: the narrator/diarist (me) introduces his uncle, who’s a kind of pool and accordion-playing vagrant—another tragic story, but on this side of the Atlantic. These sorts of dualities run through the whole film. At the beginning there is a poem by Christopher Dewdney of a boy by water, opening up a piece of layered stone, and at the end of the film there is a poem by Marian McMahon of a girl who skips a flat stone across the surface of a lake. Both stories in Canada, both simple but magical, I think. And then there’s the duality of the corner-mirror, and the multiple meanings I’ve found in working with it.
MF: The film seems to be structured around various dualities, such as old world/new world, stillness (stasis)/movement, silence/sound, single voice/multiple voices, past/present, fiction/non-fiction, still photographs/moving images, darkness/image, and the progression from darkness to a single image through superimposed, layered Imagery and finally to fractured, abstracted imagery. Can you explain your use of the metaphor of the corner-mirror in PASSING THROUGH.
PH: The corner mirror was something that my uncle showed me. He said he used it to save himself. That story is on the soundtrack of the film. A corner mirror is made by placing two mirrors side by side, at right angles. When you look into the centre of this dual-mirrored configuration, “you see yourself as others see you,” as said in the film. The image you see of yourself is not reversed as it is when you look into a normal mirror. We just get used to seeing our own image reversed when we look at ourselves in the mirror, and take it for granted this is the way we look to others. In the film, the voice of the narrator, me, as a stand-in for my uncle , says that by looking into a corner-mirror you see “the real you.” The irony of it all is that, the corner-mirror, like photography and film, can only be a representation of someone, it can’t be “the real you.” On the other hand, and in the case of my uncle, the corner-mirror, like photography and film, can be used to work through life, to understand the way we see. It helped my uncle to look at himself differently. He would shave in front of his full length corner-mirror, which, as you might imagine Is a difficult task after years and years of shaving in a normal mirror. But it was a kind of visual exercise for him. He had all these exercises that questioned the status quo. Gradually, as he (I) says on the soundtrack “my mind started to connect up with my hands again.” So he transformed his everyday shaving routine into an exercise for his mind. The practice was an emblem for his philosophy of not taking anything for granted, and to review the way he had been taught to see. These are also main concerns regarding the way I work through film. I like to question conventions in fiction documentary and experimental film. I like to explore issues of representation in my films. I learned this way of being from my uncle.
MF: Can we get back to the film’s music, for a moment. I think its quite important to the film’s rhythm, and how you get swept along as the film progresses. What other kinds of material went Into Its construction?
PH: I had also recorded some accordion music played by my uncle, as he watched the footage that I shot in Czechoslovakia. Some of It gets pretty wild, some strange repetitions of folk songs mixed in with jazz. Then Bruce Johnson, who has worked on some of my films in the area of sound, took some of my uncle’s accordion music and made some tape loops. This all got Integrated into the rough version which Tucker saw. Come to think of it, I left Tucker a copy of that version of the soundtrack so he could use It while he was composing the score. So there’s a mix in the film of this kind of documentary music, stuff I recorded with my uncle, and Tucker’s composition.
MF: PASSING THROUGH has an interesting movement and progression. It basically starts with a fairly lengthy sequence of silence after the brief, opening voice-over, but as the film moves along It adds on all these layers of image and sound, layers of complexity. What someone might call polyphonic voices and layers of image. I was curious how you felt this form allows you to investigate a subject in ways that a different form might not?
PH: The film works as a kind of metaphor for the way memory or thought processes may work. Since film Is an art that deals with time, and the brain’s memory function can only work through time, it seems that film can best deal with thought processes such as memory. So even though there are subjects, people, in the film, the real focus of the formal investigation In PASSING THROUGH is time and memory. The people exist In that time and are used to carry out this investigation. At the same time, I’m also working through personal family Issues. I think the music and the relentless pace of the Interweaving stories and images, is what pulls the film along. This movement, as you put it, is an upward movement through about two-thirds of the film.
MF: What do you mean upward movement?
PH: Well, the music rises to a peak, the pitch actually gets
higher and the pacing becomes more rapid. As well, the images start off in the film, as if from beneath the earth, a slow upward movement of the camera through the sedimentary deposits of rock. This rock serves as the backdrop on top of which are laid home movies, the trip to Czechoslovakia, the pool hall sequences, and other “concrete forms of memory,” sort of fossilized in this film.
MF: So, as you’re climbing this peak, the film Is taking on more complexity.
PH: Yes. The film progresses upward until the images break through the surface of the lake, staring at a rock face at Bon Echo, which Is near Peterborough, Ontario. A series of movements, I would call upward spinning, reveal themselves: the Indian pictograph, which is named “fighting monsters,” the scratching on the film, the home movies, a child’s frozen scream, which brings about a return to the nursing home and Babci. Again, there is a kind of breaking through the surface as the troubled image of the young woman reappears, looking Into the corner mirror, as the mirror folds into itself the now single eye of the young woman matches the tunnel-like passages embodied in the olive trees. This sort of camera dance with nature releases the young girl who’s asleep in the field, she rises and runs through the field until she is confronted by the charging cow—which suggests a nightmarish return to the story of my mother looking for the cow. After this, the movement is downward.
MF: So there’s a point in the film where you reach the peak, and then you start coming down the other side?
PH: Yes. Its sort of like awakening after an Inward journey. The camera now moves down, but not back down into the rock from where It came at the start of the film, down the walls of the nursing home. Shots that I took when I left Babci, after one of our visits. The whole film is constructed like a corner mirror, with this upward and downward movement, and with these repetitions occurring, reflecting what had taken place in the first part of the film. But it’s never exactly the same when It’s repeated. Gertrude Stein made use of repetition in this way. She showed how when a phrase or idea is repeated, the meaning is changed because of what came before it. So repetition, in a sense, is not repetitive. And Stan Brakhage uses repetition of images in a similar way. Every time an image repeats, it’s a bit different from the previous image, and you start to see details of those differences, even though the Images are all very similar. You are invited to look closer at the unique qualities in each repetition. During the making of PASSING THROUGH, I became very interested in the Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch. When I read his book, The Stud Horseman, I noticed that I was always getting the feeling that an event that was unfolding in the narrative had already happened before in the book. It seemed illusory. I couldn’t tell whether the flavours in the book that were familiar to me, were coming from outside the book, sort of like deja vu. When I went back and studied Kroetsch’s writing, I discovered many of the same phrases repeated throughout the narrative. So when he described one character, a woman for example, he might describe a shoe she is wearing. That brief description of the woman’s shoe was first introduced eighty pages earlier, but described as a shoe belonging to the narrator’s mother. These minuscule, somewhat abstract details, which should seemingly have little to do with the content of the story, are the very details which connect one character to another and transfer meanings, flavours through the book. And this transference of meaning happens continuously with the Images conjured up by the narrator of the story creating a labyrinth of connections and meanings. Actually, there is a book of Kroetsch’s Interviews called Labyrinths of Voice.
MF: This recalls Maya Deren’s film RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME (1946), do you know it? You know the party sequence where things get repeated but they’re repeated with variations, and only parts of them are repeated, and they end in different spots or they begin at different spots. She talks about that peculiar sense of recognition when you think you know something, but you don’t really know it in the way you thought you knew it.
PH: And the photograph is interesting because It’s the other side of it in a way. A photograph purports to say that now you’ve got it, but of course you don’t have it because Its something that happened before, and it was very different back then. The only way you can get it is to make It new, and make it relate to what’s happening right now. Within PASSING THROUGH there are quite a few uses of the still photo that keep coming back. There’s a still photo, supposedly of my mother as a child with a cow, which was later revealed to be just a re-enactment, but it keeps coming back In different forms, different film stocks, even, displaying It, different ways of looking at that cow story of my mother going through the fields looking and calling for her cow. As if its the same cow story. Superficially it is. In each telling and showing there Is a change, like the changes with each telling in the tradition of oral history as these stories get passed down from generation to generation. There’s an analogy in the film in that the story’s form is changed, from a still photo to a lyrical, almost mid-century, Eastern European sequence of my mother looking for the cow.
MF: But you filmed it being re-enacted by a little girl…
PH: Yes, of course, her great-niece. Then it comes back again to the photographs that reveal the filming. My mother’s great-niece describes on the soundtrack the day we went and filmed the story of my mom looking for the cow. I find it Interesting that the story that was passed on to me will be passed on to the next generation, not as my mother’s cow story, but as the day we went and filmed my mother’s cow story. The meaning gets changed from generation to generation.
MF: What is it about memory that makes you want to explore it so much In your work?
PH: Well, memory can only work through time, and film is the best medium, of course, to deal with time. For instance, I think Chris Marker’s films, which are all about time and memory, are very important for our time.
MF: What do we discover about memory through films such as Marker’s, apart from it being unreliable, and distorted in some ways. We know memory colours our experience of the world, and helps shape who we are….
PH: I think memory is an important area to be working in right now because the threat mass media poses to memory—to a continued freedom of having our own unique memories of the past. We all see the world differently, but mass media, for Instance, In the form of news is packaging reality for us, a reality which quickly becomes the official history. And advertising, for instance, sets up models for the way to live if one wants “success.” Its not as if there’s a conspiracy, its much more dangerous than that. It seems that this new electronic landscape that we find ourselves in, in the late 20th century, is a kind of organism onto itself and in the west, capitalism is perpetrating its rapid growth. It’s all market-driven, out of control.
MF: So because we live in an apocalyptic, late-capitalist era, we need to understand our past better, and we need to understand how memory works.
PH: Yes. This reminds me of Marian McMahon’s memory work and autobiographical research, which is informed primarily by feminist writers. It has been important to me. In her film, NURSING HISTORY, Marian re-works the family’s home movies, images her father made in her youth, so they can be meaningful to her in the present. The home movies change from a barrage of weddings, parades and family outings, to a lyrical lament of remembering ones past, and finally re-shaping it. The way that so much broadcast television fixes our history into a homogeneous package, omitting different lifestyles and unique ways to look at the world, it seems essential that films like this get made and get shown. I see it as the most important contribution one can make as a filmmaker at this time. Where at one time the so called avant-garde needed to be further outside of the mainstream, I think now its time to circle back around. To close the gap somewhat. That’s a tough thing to do because the mass media is spewing out all this life style propaganda, and the work that artists do seems to have little effect. I probably sound incredibly idealistic, but I see no other goal to work towards that makes more sense. The effect that mass media is having on people is tremendously powerful. I was down south, in Florida, and they had all this crazy stuff about Bundy’s execution on the airwaves, and this very violent public, and one small station that I was listening to on the radio was [talking] in the midst of all this about the eighties being the age where mass communication really did take over in a frightening way.
MF: Yes, I found the reaction to the Bundy execution very frightening myself.
PH: It’s a pretty scary place there, and I don’t think Canadian society Is very different. This is discouraging many artists. For instance, I was talking to Stan Brakhage, and he said he was saddened to come to the realization that, the way things are, he has little hope of having any substantial influence on the culture in which he lives. And this is someone who has contributed so much to the understanding of the inherent qualities of film, and its relationship to perception.
MF: How has your relationship to the process of making art been altered or changed in the ten or twelve years you have been making films? Do you feel that the issues and the questions that concern you now are pretty much the same ones you were preoccupied with when you started making films?
PH: I think its more important for me now to move into a new way of living with film, and living with filmmaking. It’s something I’ve been working out since finishing PASSING THROUGH. PASSING THROUGH was a little like struggling in the birth-tunnel. And coming through that, I’ve developed as expanded and different way of looking at family…
MF: Do you mean that the concept of family will no longer be subject matter for your work?
PH: I’m not sure, because I’m still in the midst of the change. I feel that now I can step outside of it. In my own working out of this, it’s been a kind of realization that there’s a new life ahead or a new world ahead, and I’m in the midst of working that out in my present project, KITCHENER-BERLIN, which was started a couple of years back.
MF: You always seem to have different films overlapping, In different stages of production?
PH: Yes, they overlap, so I’m pushing ahead slowly, like Gertrude Stein’s writing, where she moves forward in a sentence and then repeats the last part of a sentence and then moves a little bit more forward with these continual repetitions and one sentence is affected by the other and Is part of the other but then there Is gradually a movement.
MF: So your relation to the film that you’re working on now, and which you started a couple of years ago, has changed because of PASSING THROUGH?
PH: Yes. KITCHENER-BERLIN is still about family, but not directly dealing with members of my family. The film deals with my father’s German heritage, or rather the German Influence that is In me. Kitchener-Waterloo [Ontario] Is where I was born, and where my grandparents settled once they came to Canada before WWII. Kitchener was called Berlin just before World War One—they changed the name.
MF: And do you think this film will look different than your previous films?
PH: Yes, but there’s still a lot of superimposition. It’s more the outlook of it which is different. It will not be specifically about certain family members. The making of this film seems less pressured. It feels like the last few pages in a chapter. I suppose it’s the end of an 11-12 year cycle of films. It started with ON THE POND(1978), which was essentially about family, next I started RIVER (1978-89), which is an ongoing project now coming to an end, in which I return to the same river, the Saugeen. Each time the river is dealt with in a way that I am thinking about film at that specific time in my life. Last summer the underwater sequence was filmed, the last section of the river for now. The next group of films THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH (1983), SOMEWHERE BETWEEN JALOSTOTITLAN AND ENCARNACION (1984) & ?O,ZOO! (THE MAKING OF A FICTION FILM) (1986), are essentially diaristic films of travel, and coming to ,terms with the apparatus. With the last two films of the cycle,PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS (1988) and KITCHENER/BERLIN (1989), I return to the family, and deal with my mother’s and father’s heritage.
MF: And you feel that the films you’re going to make after this one will not rely on the idea of family, at least so extensively?
PH: Well, I just have the sense that my dealing with autobiography is changing. The autobiographical project that I started In 1978 with ON THE POND feels very much complete. I’ve always known exactly what project I’d be working on in advance, but not this time. There’s sort of a hollow space in the near future which feels a bit unclear. A time to work a bit looser with film. Maybe not think of projects as being so specific, as I have in the past.
MF: Let me just move this into another area that I want to talk to you about, which has to do with the current practice of experimental filmmaking. Are we in a good or a bad time?
PH: I think right now in Toronto, from my own experience, there’s a good strong group of people working together. I wasn’t around in the 60’s to see it but I know that, because of the availability of super-8 and the cheapness of film, and because of the attitude towards the arts, that time was much stronger than what we have now. But now, in the community to which I belong, there are quite a few people who seem to have decided to dedicate their lives to experimental film. That feels good. It’s essential to have a community right now In the arts, not so much for the reason of people getting inspired by each other, more for the reason to maintain the arts in light of its current erosion. If you have a group of artists that are continually fighting with each other, it will be difficult to maintain the little we have.
MF: That’s always been the fate of the avant-garde.
PH: It always has, but It is time we realize that this or that person makes films differently, and we’re In the same business, so let’s stay together on some level. There are much bigger forces to fight.
MF: Let me just ask you something. Some people have argued that the avant-garde film In the eighties reached something of a dead end. I’m thinking of Fred Camper’s article inMillennium a couple of years back. I was talking to Brakhage last year and he was saying there are only about ten or twelve American filmmakers who were really active In the Sixties who are active now. You start thinking about it, and in some sense its true that in the last ten years many formerly active filmmakers have been fairly inactive. I’m thinking of people like Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Peter Kubelka, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs; the list goes on. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with him, but it’s certainly true that some of the players don’t seem to be very active. Some people would say that may be true but there are many more people making films now, thousands of people making films. You could argue that having all these people making films does not mean that there is a lot of good work around. So having many more filmmakers around does not necessarily mean that the movement is healthy. I think that there was a fair amount of mediocre work produced in the last ten or fifteen years. And in thinking about tremendous difficulties in being an experimental filmmaker, the fact that the audiences are still quite small for experimental films, and that people would rather watch television and videos than a challenging experimental film, it’s easy to get discouraged.
Iguess I was referring to a more direct interaction with a people in the smaller community I belong to. I tend to a place for possible development of work. I don’t think a lot of people making experimental films, but I think a number of people who are very dedicated, and who are deal with the history of the New American Cinema, for and try to make it new, but not ignore this history.
I’m looking at it from that point of view. I think all the things that you’ve said, and that we’ve already talked about, really have to do with mass communication and how that has heavily conditioned audiences, that’s quite a sad state. So my answer qualified. I know what Brakhage is saying because I’ve heard that, and I feel somewhat the same. Other people who have made films in the past ten years are saying we didn’t live through the 60’s, so we don’t care about this “death of film” threat. Whether the films are liked or not, there are still a number of people dedicating a lot of time and energy to it. They are committed to it.
MF: But why is it when you look at work from the Canadian co-ops— there are all these co-ops around—and you look at this work, and try to find really strong, genuine avant-garde work, it’s very difficult to find? A lot of it is not very good work, at least to my way of thinking it’s pretty weak stuff.
PH: Well too many people in the co-ops are getting ‘star-struck’! They make one or two films and they think they’re ready for feature length narrative. Young filmmakers hear about a few success stories, people who have made it internationally with their low budget features, and they figure that is the route to go. There is so much press and support for feature films compared to short, Independent films that, again, young filmmakers strive for the big project. A number of years back, process and development was the tone of the time. Especially with regard to the development of young filmmakers. Seems to me product is what people are striving for now, and I feel this to be an unhealthysituation. But I think there are some places where process and development are emphasized.
MF: Where there’s a tight community of people who are dedicated and care about the avant-garde?
PH: Yes, and that’s very small but energetic. I’m going to be going out west, Vancouver and hopefully Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina, to visit some co-ops and see what’s going on out there. I know that In Toronto a number of people are working hard in the area. I think in the mid-seventies and eighties there was some good work… It happened in a different way. Camper said that the institutionalization of experimental film killed it. Certainly it has changed it into another animal and it’s not going to be the same animal as we had in the sixties, and who wants it to be, it’s a different time. I see some experimental filmmakers that have come out of Sheridan, some that have come out of Ryerson, Simon Fraser or Concordia. These people were influenced by the teachers who were there at the time, by the many theories floating around at the time. It’s different than being effected by what’s happening on the street, as in the 60’s. Now, all that’s happening out there is rock video.
MF: But will those people that you’re thinking of be making experimental films ten years from now?
PH: I hope so. I don’t know. I think so. I mean, I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of huge movement. Some people will continue to work in the area of experimental film as long as it is physically and economically possible.
MF: I guess what I’m getting at is there are so many obstacles in terms of funding, in terms of audiences, in terms of distribution, in terms of the threat of video… I mean people don’t even want to sit, they will not sit for anything that’s very challenging, that’s very long, even people that should care about the avant-garde don’t want to do that. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those things beating people down to the point where they just say forget it, it’s too hard to make experimental films, I’ll do something else.
PH: What’s happening is that people get their jobs and on the weekends they work on their films. People have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like just to get by. I don’t think this is happening only In film. It’s happening in all the arts. It’s a time we’re heading into as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t want to spend the time complaining about it …
MF: But you feel that there’s enough good work around, or people who are capable of good work. You feel that people in this community will support each other and keep making films? You’re not discouraged?
PH: No. For me its been ok. Lately I’ve been teaching at Sheridan’s Media Arts department, and even though some of the people in the department do not understand, or care to put the time into trying to understand new forms of innovative film, experimental film students are still seeing and making this kind of work. Some good filmmakers have come out of that department. So even though the times are not so good for experimental film, I think that vital work can come out of a period of oppression, as this one. Work that could be very Important to the creation of the next visual medium, as well as contributing meaningfully to the culture.
MF: But you don’t feel that you’re working in a dying form, being an avant-garde filmmaker?
PH: When photography was invented, painting changed. I expect a change In the uses of film, as video becomes more prominent. If film gets too expensive, I’ll process my own. People like Carl Brown and Gary Popovich are doing that now, not only because it’s cheaper, but because of the great control they have in the developing steps. I know how to process and print film on my own now. If it comes to that, I’ll adjust. I’m not going to spend my time worrying about it. You can’t pretend that everything is rosy, but you can’t sit in your room and sulk that film is dying either. I don’t see the community I’m involved with doing that. I find they’re making work. This is the time I want to be working in.
MF: I get a sense that the avant-garde film movement may be at a crucial juncture. Do you agree?
PH: Let me make an analogy, a kind of far out analogy, which will bring us back to PASSING THROUGH. My grandmother, Babci, was on her deathbed, but none of the family would go up to see her. Well that’s not true. My mother did, and a number of people, but some of the relations said “no, I don’t want to go up to see her because I want to remember her as she was.” To me, her life was the reason for going up and filming. Her life, at that time, was as vibrant and real to her and important as any moment in life is. It was a sad thing, and there wasn’t much communication, but she had her life. This sounds optimistic, but we go through processes; things change, things rust, things become something else. If avant-garde film is dying, then let’s celebrate its death and make it into something else.
MF: So you think that certain people are unwilling to deal with the fact that avant-garde film is different now, and there are different players and different kinds of films that need to be made, and one can’t keep expecting the same kinds of work to be made?
PH: Yes, the whole social order is different than it was in the Sixties. Maybe that period will be looked on as a golden moment. It was a great period, no question. But, it’s as important a time now in experimental films as it was in the 1960’s. Some people just can’t see it. Lots of people feel passionately about experimental films, and those dedicated to making them will always find a way to make their films.