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.

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