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.

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