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Duets: Hoffman in the 90s: an interview (by Mike Hoolboom 2001)

An interview by Mike Hoolboom (2001)

Philip Hoffman: After finishing the autobiographical film cycle I wanted to play again. I brought a super-8 camera along with me to Banff in order to do some sketching. I began exposing a frame at a time while zooming, or moving the camera. The result was a Cubist kind of taking apart of the world. It splays the frame, making the image move. Because of its extreme speed, it is necessary to slow the image down afterwards, controlling the speed via re-photography on the optical printer. The lightness of the camera allowed me to play along with my subject in a musical way. This kind of shooting, or being in the world, marked the end of one kind of working, which was much more personal and traditionally ‘documentary.’

MH: Why was it important to break the space up?

PH: It was in the air. The Berlin Wall had fallen, film had become media, computers were everywhere and fragmentation ruled. The cycle of personal film work I’d finished allowed me to travel and show the work, and Chimera (15 minutes 1996) was the result. It was photographed in Banff, Finland, Russia, Egypt, England and Australia.

MH: Despite lensing for years all over the globe, your shooting style is very consistent.

PH: I felt electric. Like I was touching eternity. These camera gestures create rhythms at the speed of light following an inner-outer sympathy. I was doing a fair bit of inner work at that time—trancing, meditation, yoga—so what was coming to me in image was symbolically meaningful. I had my own narrative, no matter how abstract it might appear to others, but instead of people and places which are a part of a social world, it became another kind of journey. Chimera  began in 1989 during the Banff residency and took seven years to shoot and edit.

MH: The shooting blends one place into another.

PH: It shows a world breaking down, and the images express the energy of change. The film doesn’t insist that market people in Cairo’s Khan Khalili and London’s Portabello are the same, but that they share an energy related to colour, shape and form. That’s why some of the film is abstract, to evoke these pleasures of sharing.

In Technilogic Ordering (1994), by contrast, the fragmentation is political, re-working media images of the Gulf War. The collisions mean more because lives are being lost, along with their representation. This sketch of Chimera is simply one way to experience the world. As a viewer you’re only moving forward, like the stream of images that come to us through TV, or the Web. Chimera is a representation of that way of being in the world. Gathering speed. But in the third and concluding part of Chimera I finally go back, and this return offers a critique of the first two sections where each image replaces and erases what’s gone before. In the final section a man plays electric piano in a Russian square, and this is intercut with scenes from a Finnish rave, and the great rock Uluru. Uluru is a sacred aboriginal site which I photographed from a distance. It stands boldly through it all. This movement finally brings us back to making pancakes in the kitchen, because despite virtual velocities and cyberspace, at the end of the day you have to go home and make supper.

I had a lot of trouble finishing the film, in finding the shape for these sketches. I finally returned to its original idea, which is contained in the title. Chimera is an animal in Greek mythology which combines the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. For the first time in my making, I didn’t have a narrative to hang the structure on, so I was guided by myth, and the beast’s embodiment of diversity and fragmentation. The first section begins with a roar on the soundtrack and proceeds with an accelerated drumbeat and a scream, which I associate with the roar of a lion. The second section has a very ethereal soundtrack, which is the goat on the mountain, ‘up in the clouds,’ where he finds his place. The final section is the serpent. It is filled with sibilant chanting which brings on transformation.

There were many things in my life that I pinned to these scenes. They are returning now in my making because I couldn’t deal with them at the time. I encountered three deaths while shooting this way. The deaths are not shown or even alluded to in these films, but they lie underneath each of them. Waiting.

Chimera‘s original super-8 footage was being blown up to 16mm by Carrick Saunders in Montreal. I gave him a call to see how it was going and his wife answered. There was some commotion—she left the phone and didn’t return. I phoned later that night and discovered he’d had a heart attack and passed away.

MH: He died while you were on the phone?

PH: Yes. And you don’t know why you’re part of it. Of course this is an awful tragedy for Carrick’s family, but I didn’t know him. As a witness to his death, I felt I was being given a gift, and that I had to do something with it. I just wrote it all down in my journal, but couldn’t figure on how it would become part of Chimera.

In the second instance, I was crossing a bridge over the Thames, just coming out of the Moving Image Museum where I’d shot their history of cinema exhibit. I was blurry eyed. I stepped out on the bridge where a stranger looked me in the face, got up on the bridge and jumped. I spied him through the cracks, already going underwater without a struggle. Dazed, I wondered if I should film him. And didn’t. A man came by and asked if he’d jumped. A woman arrived from the other side of the bridge and said she’d call the police. That’s when I came round. I’d been stuck in that existential moment where you see someone who wants to die. Do you let him? Should you do something? Can you? I ran to the other side of the bridge and met up with a policewoman who didn’t have a walkie talkie. I kept running until I found another cop who said they’d got him. A pleasure boat had come by and picked him up. What a coincidence, this man wants to die but a boat chances along. I asked the cop if he could let me know what happened, and that night I got a note: “The bloke who jumped in the creek is alright.” Both these events made me think about death, and how little control we finally have.

MH: Tell me about Technilogic Ordering (30 minutes 1994).

PH: The Persian Gulf War was a made-for-TV affair which filled me with anxiety. I watched the war with some of my students at Sheridan College where I was teaching. A couple of them—Heather Cook and Stephen Butson—began to collect images as a way of thinking about the broadcasts. It’s like when you have a lot of nervous energy you go for a skate. You have so much anxiety watching this stuff and you have no control over it.

During our gathering I found a VCR with a computer chip that fragmented the image into Muybridge-like box-frames. This machine allowed you to play the image, changing the size and number of the boxes onscreen—do you want 9, 400 or 1600?—and scroll them from left to right, like reading or media literacy.

We collaged some of the different footage we’d collected, inserting commercials, movie fragments and sports into news broadcasts of the war. Among other things, we wanted to show the difference between Canadian and American coverage. While many Canadian commentators questioned the necessity of the war, the Americans were blindly patriotic. As we discovered later, all the war footage had been cleared by the Pentagon, so it appeared bloodless and techno-centric. It was mayhem at a distance. The boxes were a visual way of commenting on the reports, making patterns out of this destruction, and allowing the pictures to critique themselves.

The montage featured many heavy-handed collisions. Kitchen cleaners were juxtaposed with images of the Iraqi army being ‘cleaned up.’ Airplanes from the Wizard of Oz smoked messages across the sky: “Surrender Dorothy.” There was a nationally televised football championship going on at the same time which blurred the line between sports and war. Both featured the same mass hysteria. Once the editing was done, the video footage was transferred to film because in order to really see television you have to look at it somewhere else, in a movie theatre for instance.

MH: Like much of your work in the nineties, this film began as a collaboration.

PH: After my personal work in the eighties it was time for the author to die. I wanted to relinquish control, explore ways of making that would expand the palette. In the early nineties I started three projects that had in common sketching, collaboration, and smaller format technologies (other than 16mm). With the help of Vesa Lehko and other friends in FinlandChimera was turned into an installation. Technilogic Ordering was made with Stephen Butson, Heather Cook and Marian McMahon, who naturally helped with all of them.

In Opening Series I collaborate with the audience by offering a film in parts, each in its own painted box. I ask them the audience to arrange the boxes in the order they would like to see them on screen. The film not only runs differently each time, but provides a picture of its audience. Opening Series arose out of questions of inter-activity, which too often means people watching computer screens instead of relating to one another.

Following Opening Series are three collaborations: Kokoro is for Heart with Gerry Shikatani, Sweep with Sammi van Ingen and Destroying Angel with Wayne Salazar. By the mid-90s, I’d committed to hard-core collaboration.

MH: Kokoro is for Heart (7 minutes 1999) has a feel of daily ritual and naming.

PH: I met Gerry Shikatani at Sheridan College where he worked in the writing department. Gerry’s a poet, a Nichols protegé. He writes sound poetry, novels, and food reviews for the dailies. One morning Gerry came up to the farm and we went for a drive, not thinking about making a film at all. We wound up at a gravel pit, and I pulled my camera out of the truck while Gerry interacted with the space of the pit, moving rocks and branches around. I shot two rolls of 16mm reversal. When I got the footage back I noticed the registration pin was slipping, so there were periodic stutters in the image. Trained as a cinematographer, I saw these as flaws, though Marian said they were like Gerry’s voiced poetry. He works with the structure and gestures of language, and the flipping frame reveals the structures of vision strained through the machine.

I optically printed the whole film one to one and two to one. So each picture had a double, one for each of its makers. Then I cut the film into twelve parts, and put them into twelve separate boxes for Opening Series 3 (7 minutes 1995). The audience would choose the order they’d be screened in. I made the paintings for the box covers by using natural materials like seeds and sunflowers, along with family photographs and paint. Then I put a blank canvas on top of the painted ones, laid them on the ground and drove over them with my truck, so every picture is doubled as well.

As an interactive work, the film began its life as part of the Opening Series experiment where the audience effected the order of the film by arranging the boxes. We also ran it as a performance at Cinecycle where Gerry sat in front of the projected image rapping out his sound poetry. Later, we fixed the order of the film, made a final print and renamed it Kokorois for Heart. The performances served to find a satisfying, fixed order. But it can still run as an open ended work in the performance setting.

‘Kokoro’ is the Japanese word for heart, or life force. Here, it’s the heart of the land, speech or breath. Gerry is shown as part of the landscape but separate from it, and his words on the soundtrack (a blend of Japanese, French and English), are a way of knowing or naming the land. They’re the language of the land or a landscape of language.

MH: Tell me about Sweep (30 minutes 1995).

PH: One of my interests in making the film was to go to Kapaskasing because that’s where my mother settled when she first came to Canada. My grandfather, Driououx, came toCanada to work as a lumberjack, eventually ran a poolhall and pushed moonshine on the side. The area they lived in was actually called Moonshine Creek. My grandmother, Babji, ran a rooming house. I asked my mother to recollect Babji’s stories for the film, which she does while looking at family photos. One of these shows the family gathered for Christmas dinner. Mom says this picture makes her feel happy, because at Christmas everything would go well. But I knew from my own growing up that visits to Babji and Driououx’s would always start in fun but often end with a plate of food hitting the kitchen wall. I pose these questions to my mother through narration, and her answer is evident in the grain of her voice. The violence and abuse in the household remains in her trembling speech. This is where our forgetting, and the things we care not to tell, come to reside.

This makes me think of Marian’s work, how the past lives in the present. The fears we don’t get over become part of our everyday life.

My mother’s image returns at the end of the film when I zoom in on her, followed by a zoom on me, as a reminder of that repressive pain, which flashes forward from the beginning of the film to its end, as suddenly and ferociously as the past takes over the present.

MH: Your collaborator is Sami van Ingen and his journey is also a personal one.

PH: Sami’s great grandfather was the American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. He’d made ethnographic ‘classics’ like Nanook of the North, which was shot in Canada. While it is considered one of the first verité documentaries, most of the scenes were staged and rehearsed. And it offered a particularly white view on native practices, made in a time when white meant ‘objective.’ Sami wanted to return to some of the places that his grandfather had been in order to deal with this part of his family’s history.

While we were making the film, a feature-length drama was released about Robert Flaherty, which reveals a love affair he had with a native woman. Everything was suddenly out in the open. Sami and his family already knew this, but no one dared to speak about it. They were keepers of the legend, the great genius, the family name. Our film begins with a suggestion that we will hear details of family history, but Sami didn’t want to go further in that direction, so the film arrives at more general conclusions. We used archival home movies showing white men’s journeys to appropriate the north. Sami’s great-grandfather, Robert Flaherty, was just the most famous person who went up there. So while we couldn’t speak of the family legacy, we could show white men hanging around the native camps, and the effects they had. These scenes are intercut with shots of Sami and I dozing around a pool on our way home amidst spring blooms, implicating us as part of another wave of white explorers. The film has a strong visual thesis, but parts are missing. It’s like the deaths I encountered while making Chimera, real life overwhelmed its representation.

MH: The film shows the two of you traveling north by car, meeting people along the way, and entering a Cree reservation. This journey ends when one of the native guides takes you across the water to Fort George.

PH: Fort George was one of a series of British forts built in the North, and Flaherty would have traveled through there. The Fort is gone, but we found an old Hudson Bay Company trading post still standing which we filmed. I say in voice-over, “You’re not going to find your grandfather here. It’s gone now. It’s over.” Around the building we discovered a lot of beautiful driftwood. Earlier in the film we showed the dam, and talked about how the need for hydro-electric power overwhelmed Native protests, and how their burial grounds were flooded because the dam raised the water level. This driftwood is also a result of the dam. These are the bones of the forest, the ruined culture. The driftwood was shot in high contrast stock, with the haunting call of Canada geese in the distance. Then we have a lunch of canned fish and tomatoes which we film, because all we can do now is film ourselves. We’ve come all this way to shoot the making of a sandwich.

During the trip all of the native people we met asked us to film them. During the dam protests so many white journalists had been up to visit they were used to it. They’d even built a motel just for visiting politicians, and had a huge teepee as the local supermarket! We always refused, saying we don’t want to tell your story, this is up to you, and it always has been. So the film’s critique of ethnographic filmmaking shows the failure of white culture to integrate, proposing a movement alongside instead of the usual pictures of control.

At the end of the film, during dinner, I showed our native host Christopher Herodier how to use the camera, and he shoots us eating. I left him with the camera, saying, “Give me a surprise.” When we got back to the city and processed the roll we discovered that Christopher had filmed a teepee against a backdrop of new housing, and then the two of us against a sunset, slightly out of focus.

When the film was finished, Petra Chevrier invited Sweep to screen at the YYZ Gallery. I called Christopher and asked if we could show our work together. He had made a videotape called Chiwaanaatihtaau Chitischiinuu (Let’s go back to our land). It shows a Cree protest against the building of another dam, the canoe voyage from Fort George to Great Whale, the singing and the outrage. The two pieces played together for a month and it was very satisfying. It reflects our approach of living cinema.

MH: Can you tell me about the title Sweep.

PH: To shoot the drive northwards we rented a motor that ran the camera very fast, giving us super-slow motion. At the head of the shot the motor’s still gaining speed, so you get a fast motion which is overexposed, which then turns into slow motion at a regular exposure. This gives a sweeping motion to the image, a sweeping of landscape and driving. ‘Sweep’ is also sweeping the road clean, trying to start over again, sweeping away Flaherty.

MH: Destroying Angel (32 minutes 1998) features another collaboration, how did that begin?

PH: I met Wayne Salazar in Australia in 1991 at the Sydney Festival. The curator Paul Byrnes had invited me show all my work. In Sydney, Paul would take you to supper every night, with a small group of filmmakers and curators, and Wayne was party to that. It was a marvelous time. Soon after the festival I visited Wayne in New York, and a while later he called to tell me he’d contracted AIDS and was very sick. He was going to tell his mother who lived in New York State, so I invited him to come up to the farm and relax and meet Marian. That’s when we started shooting. I don’t know how these things start. Maybe it’s just that you’re always shooting film, and when people come you keep shooting and then films start.

The farm reminded Wayne of his rural youth, the day trips he used to take with his father who worked as an insurance salesman. Wayne’s bad health made him wonder how long he was going to be around, and he felt compelled to deal with his father who had abused him as a child. They hadn’t seen each other for years, but Wayne decided to go see his father and tell him he had AIDS. This all became part of the film. The first weekend he came he got along well with Marian, and they spoke about personal histories, and her themes of remembering and forgetting. He was very sick then, and taking a lot of pills. The drug cocktail hadn’t been introduced yet, so he was tired and depressed. It was Wayne’s idea to make the film and I felt my role was to assist. He’d made a short video about Cuban artists, had seen a lot of films as a curator and had been painting since art school, but really had no experience making personal film work. Which is fucking hard. During the making, I felt I was back working on Road Ended because the struggles were the same. Road Ended took seven years to make, trying to give shape to these concrete bits of memory, working without a script, and letting the camera respond to experience as it’s happening. I stayed patient, trying to help give Wayne an outlet. I learned more about his struggles of growing up gay, dealing with his macho father’s disappointments, and how he and his lover Mickey were finding a way to live.

It began as a film about our fathers, but it quickly became clear that mine was no match for his. The stories of Wayne’s abuse created too much of a contrast to my father’s sympathetic parenting. I shot sequences and told stories which were part of an early cut, which might one day join another film. But there was so much anger and need on Wayne’s part that I had to withdraw. The decision was made when my partner of twelve years, Marian McMahon, was diagnosed with cancer, and a week later, during a biopsy, she died. We stopped making the film, and when I climbed up out of the hole, that’s when I moved my voice out of the film. I needed to make my own film about Marian, her life and the grieving. Marian was already part of Destroying Angel, asking Wayne questions on video about his meds, and AIDS, and everyday life. Wayne felt close to her and asked if her story could be developed more in the film, if we could show this passing, and I felt that would be right.

MH: You show Wayne and Mickey getting married.

PH: Back in San Francisco, Wayne got healthier, which was partly the drugs, diet and exercise. But the film had a lot to do with it as well. Wayne and his partner Mickey decided to get married. Mickey is Austrian, so an Austrian TV crew arrived to shoot them for a news program on San Francisco gay life and marriage. And I thought, yes, we have to have this in the film. Their reportage was typically television. It opens with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, then moves into the gay bars, and sexual activity and dancing and high pitched screaming, but in our film, we inserted a shot of Wayne and Mickey walking down the street buying flowers. Very everyday. It’s a nice moment because it shows how television creates stereotypes.

MH: Why did they want to get married?

PH: They were in love of course. But I think it was a political decision as well. In a culture that doesn’t accept their sexuality, it was a step towards gaining the same rights as heterosexual couples.

MH: Wayne speaks to his father surrounded in darkness, directly to the camera, outlining a history of ignorance and abuse. But when we meet his father at the wedding he looks so benign.

PH: The film reveals how the monsters of our past live in us. He’s become an old man, no longer shouting abuse at Wayne. But it doesn’t change what he did. He hurt Wayne, and neither of them could deal with it. They held onto this pain for years. At the ceremony, Wayne says it hasn’t always been easy with his father, who then breaks in and proposes a toast to Wayne and Mickey. He says that he’s from Guatemala, a culture where gay people exist only in the closet. And then he wishes Wayne and Mickey happiness in their life together. But it took the making of our film to release this fear. It’s Wayne that’s done the work to recover his past, and the evidence of this work is Destroying Angel. While the early passages of the film are drawn from Wayne’s point of view, the ceremony at the end is shot in a verité style by the Austrian video crew. Finally, we’re seeing something outside ofWayne’s frame. He’s no longer telling his story using voice-over. We enter another side of him, and this adds in a profound way to the information we get about his relationships.

Wayne called me last week, a year after his father died. He said, ‘I don’t recognize that guy in the film.’ He was referring to himself. People use different tools to create change in their lives. Some use work, or alcohol, or art. Wayne doesn’t need to talk about his father that way anymore. This is a familiar feeling for me. passing through, for instance, was a grieving for my grandmother Babji. You hope these rituals of filmmaking resonate for others.

Marian’s death is revealed in Destroying Angel and people say, ‘you must find that hard to watch,’ but I don’t. I love her images, her voice and her writing. After Marian’s death, while looking up references to bring her Ph.D. thesis to completion, I dwelt for hours on the small hand-scribbled writings she left on the texts she was reading. No matter how esoteric or academic the text, her response would always tune in the personal, the everyday. She came back to life for me through her writing. The film I’m working on now attempts to deal with the traces she’s left behind, so that I might better understand our time together and learn something about death and life. The dead carry on longer than the living, and it seems that the force of a life lived is stronger once it ceases to exert itself… its silence and mystery.

MH: The title Destroying Angel suggests an angel that returns to wreak vengeance, a once purity that’s now armed.

PH: It’s also a mushroom, one of the most deadly and poisonous. The poison is the virus, which brings pain and suffering, but also transformation and change and growth. There’s an eating sequence in the film shot up at the farm where Wayne is making us dinner. In the early nineties there was still such a fear of casual infection, you know, he could cut himself and infect us, but instead there’s only celebration. We’re living right now, the camera’s floating around the food and we’re having a ball in the face of it all.

MH: Much of your work in the 90s is more hermetic and difficult than your autobiographical cycle. What would you say to those who feel your work, along with others in this small field, is willfully self enclosed, unnecessarily obscure, interested in formal issues in a medium which itself is coming to an end, and on the other hand suffers from solipsism andnarcissism.

PH: Yes and? It lives with me and that’s what is important. Often circumstances collect around you and you have to make the film as well as you can without knowing why until later. Sometimes you get a song out of it, sometimes a mumble.

MH: Is it important to finish work or is it just the process that’s important?

PH: I need to bring everything to some kind of completion. I learned from my dad how to start and finish things in the factory when I used to make boxes every day. Screening your work and receiving feedback is an important part of the process. We experimentalists may not get the TV audience but that’s alright. Our work has a different purpose. We’re the people behind the stage sweeping up the old act and getting it ready for the new show.

People who try and push boundaries are part of a lineage that’s a much thinner thread than CNN or Cineplex, but it’s continuous, it’s a living history. We’re carrying this on, and maybe I’ll make just one film that’s important, that will have an effect on people. I hope I haven’t made it already. If I’ve always held on to the personal it’s because I believe that what I’ve lived has a shape, an organic world that can be shared, through film, with others.

Hand-Made (in the digital age): an interview with Phil Hoffman (by Aysegul Koc 2002)

by Aysegul Koc
March 2002

AK: When we say hand-made I think of the craft as well as the art using the hands and the labor involved.

PH: It’s sort of having control of the whole process and at the same time you are out of control. You have a pact with the process… with the world, that it has some say in what the film will be. You have great control in, for example, hand processing the film yourself… you don’t have to give it to the man with the white lab coat any more… and all your money along with it.

AK: When we talk about hand made film it’s not necessarily hand- processed film.

PH: No but it’s kind of a nice metaphor for it. In the hand processed film you are actually putting the film in the developer, swishing it around and putting it into different processes. What’s great about hand processed film is that you are never in total control. So it’s again being in control and at the same time relinquishing control because within a few seconds you can lose a beautiful image you love by leaving it in a chemical too long or not long enough.

AK: Has that happened to you?

PH: Oh sure, it happens all of the time. …it’s odd because that image still lives on in your memory. I have a lot of those… That beautiful image you saw in the dark room… gone… That’s life, right? These things move in time and when they’re gone they’re gone. This way you go against the idea that the film is precious and understand that the process is more important.

AK: But when you make a film you keep something as opposed to losing it?

PH: Well the film’s the residue. I’m talking what excites me. When I am not in control and I don’t know what’s going to happen and something does… that’s the fuel.

AK: Is there a project about which you would think ‘This can only be handmade’?

PH: It’s the way of living, the way of working, I think in the beginning I thought someday I’d make a big feature with real actors and all that, but then I came to realize that this is not the way that I work. The project that I am on now is called Commute. I can’t say anything useful about the film at this point. I started working on it in 1995… and in 1996 Marian died. I put Commute on the shelf. And now it resurfaced and it’s funny because now I am clear on how I want to work with it, whereas in 1995 it was vague. So I think after finishing Destroying Angel and What these ashes wanted, I was reminded of the way I want to work …it may be with some actors, or at least friends, but it will still be hand made. We’ll probably get a pile of people together and a pile of film and video together and start working. I’ve got the structure somewhat worked out, and the various threads of the story, but I’m not always sure what road will get me home…

AK: What exactly is hand made film? What would you consider a hand made film?

PH: I wouldn’t limit it to anything. There are many different ways.

AK: If you make a totally digital film would it still be a hand made film?

PH: I haven’t done that yet. I don’t know what that would look like. I would like to say no in some ways. And yes in other ways. I can’t really give you an answer to that. I haven’t made a completely digital film so I don’t know. But I do know that the incorporation of different elements like film footage, video footage, working on a Steenbeck, then working on a computer digitally for the editing then going back to the Steenbeck is a process I know from making What These Ashes Wanted. So because of necessity, because it’s so wonderful to work with almost seventeen, maybe twenty years, of material as I did with Ashes, on a computer, because you can call up things so fast and so easy, I’d like to think that handmade film incorporates different materials. With digital editing you have some headaches of course but… it works just like memory… boom it’s right there… I want it. In What these ashes wanted I was working on a Steenbeck and on the computer at the same time… shooting with a digital camera off the Steenbeck screen and then dumping it into the computer to work out my ideas… back and forth. It was a bit crazy because I had footage which was processed and printed way before digital editing was invented and so it wasn’t reasonable to do a keycode transfer.

I worked out my whole soundtrack, including many adjustments to the narration, on the computer which was wonderful. I found all the images I needed (super8, 16mm hand processed, still photos, video) by working out the ideas on the computer, and then I just had to master, through optical printing and video to film transfers, all of the material back to 16mm neg. In the early 1990’s I used a similar process for Chimera, using digital editing to work out the flow of images, and the frame rates, and then I went back to the optical printer and step printed the super-8 up to 16 mm negative.

AK: And you wouldn’t call that hand made?

PH: Sure, I suppose, but there is something about the physicality of hand processes that is different than mouse-made works.

AK: It wasn’t an aesthetic choice it was something that helped you work out the material.

PH: To me it was great to blend these different ways of working, these different tools. You learn something at the intersection. I think when we cross boundaries we bring what we have learned from one medium and apply it to another, and something new is discovered. Within independent film, experimental film, video art… there are many practices…ways of working. Artists find things out in their work, pass it on…this movement expands and contracts. Old movements influence new movements, new movements influence old ones…and bring it along. I remember when Jeffrey Paull was first asked to teach Photoshop, to basically move out of still film and onto computers….he was sort ordered by the administration to make the transition, and he had to teach in one of these computer labs… very un-Jeffrey Paull. So what he did was turn off all the florescent lights and bring in some nice lamps and placed them around the room… to me that’s a hand made solution. He just said: “Well wait a minute let’s not just take what’s being shoved down our throats… resist this corporate way of working…”

The term that came to being in the 60s was “living cinema” and that’s like hand-made film. In hand made making you don’t light the breakfast table… you film your loved ones, or they film you on the spot… you don’t make them pour the orange juice again… and again… and if you miss a shot, you get the next thing that comes along… light glistens off the apples on the table… the kids playing…

AK: Is this not more possible with the video camera? More people have access to it now and can do amateur work.

PH: I would say that it is but it’s different because there is usually the sound attached whereas with a Bolex it’s always just the image. In video it’s, ‘What are you doing with that toy, Jessie?’ The words become important so there’s a difference and I don’t think it’s always better though it can be… it’s how one works with it. Access is great of course, yes. For me it has less to do with technology and more about working ‘from your hand’…working ‘from your heart.’

AK: What about all the difference between mouse and hand?

PH: We have to develop ways to work with computers that isn’t so draining. For myself I find it just as exciting but sometimes I get a hollow feeling when I sit in front of a computer for ten hours whereas I just feel exhausted sitting in front of a Steenbeck… to me there is a difference. We have to work out how to get the best out of the various technologies and practices…. My body of work contains video all the way through, though it often ends on film but I try to use video and film for good purposes. So I think that integration is sort of happening and will continue to. You can take ‘a hand made perspective’ on it.

AK: When you use mixed media video, film, Steenbeck, media 100 AVID…. Instead of the actual process it shifts to a mentality.

PH: Let me ask you. You started shooting film and fell in love with it. So tell me why.

AK: It smells, it’s the very basic things. The way you like food or sex, it’s the same thing. Like sweating over the dark bag. Dealing with film macaroni when you open the magazine lid, the reward of capturing moments.

PH: (laughs) Yeah it’s good. We make a trade off. We get this wonderful memory machine, the computer. We use it. But we don’t give up the hand made philosophy and the hand made techniques you know.

AK: What you are doing, mixed media, is very important. Is this unavoidable in the future? Is this the path your work is going to take? Somehow it makes our life easy, you’re sitting in front of a computer now. You can’t go back?

PH: You hate it and you love it. I hate it and I love it. I think it’s a matter of how to make it palatable. You have to say ‘enough is enough.’ It’s like too much sugar. It’s seductive. It’s become this octopus with arms all around you, this open access. I get hundreds of e-mails a week from students, admin, strangers, filmmakers…. It’s all wide open. I think in the next five years I will be working out how to deal with this incredible communication overload. Everybody needs to do that or else there’s going to be a lot of sick people around.

AK: Is it why there is so much interest in the projects like film farm?

PH: First off it’s a retreat… you have people staying together, talking to each other about film & ideas… for a full week… quite intense… we create a very powerful energy.

AK: Don’t they come to the farm to learn hand made?

PH: Yeah, but they could do it in LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) workshops as well. I think it’s something else… a few years after the film farm began, some guys from a television station asked if they could come and follow the workshop for the week, for some kind of cable broadcast… and I said no because the taping process …the crew and all that… would create a rupture in the space we try to make… the workshop would become something else so I try to protect this little thing that’s kind of grown, but is still pretty small and intimate… the problem that we get into at film schools is that everything needs to be big… We need the newest technology so we need more money….so we need more students… so we get government cuts… and we can’t run this big thing that’s been created. It gets out of control. So we started the Film Farm, tore away some of that film school infrastructure so we could get back to the things we like about working in this art form The film farm is democratic… here, Karyn Sandlos and Deirdre Logue do the tinting and toning cooking show.

AK: Do they call it that?

PH: That’s what I call it.

AK: How did you start making hand made films?

PH: It came out of photography. I had a dark room.

AK: So you were already close to the chemistry.

PH: I was close to the idea of an image coming out of nothing. It’s magic you know. It’s now you see now you don’t. The image appears in the developer and that’s enough for me. I can stop right there. That moment when something is appearing you get a kick. That’s what I try to maintain in filmmaking. I don’t get a kick out of it as much when I know what’s going to happen.

AK: And video in a sense is very predictable?

PH: With video you get these moments where there is interactions with people. You get sound and you get people saying beautiful things. That’s why I use video in my films. In What These Ashes Wanted Marian is in the car talking about what she just saw behind the closed doors along the roadway during her visiting nurse calls… There is no way I could have received those moments, in the same way, with a film camera. I would have controlled it, if I used the film image, without sound. She is kind of in charge there, not me, even though I might have thought I was in charge. She is performing, and she turns things around by making me look at what I’m doing.

AK: Directly addressing you or ignoring you or looking at the traffic.

PH: Yeah, and even so much as saying, ‘This really feels uncomfortable, you’re pointing the camera at me.’ Suddenly the lens shatters because it makes you aware of the apparatus, makes you look at the construction… the filming process. Marian was so good at that, always stepping outside of the frame. That’s fantastic… I was just learning from her in some ways.

AK: It’s a process of learning handmade film… I just want to know more about the limitations and the freeing aspects of the hand-made. It sounds good to make a hand-made film but it must have limitations.

PH: It’s hard… maybe harder than working with a script. I collect images, over a long period of time, and then I have to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It’s a long process, What These Ashes Wanted took nearly five years, but actually I used footage dating back almost 20 years. passing through took six years. Road Ended at the Beach took seven years. Chimera took six years. I usually need time to think about it.

AK: One more thing, the hand made films (I’ve seen) tend to be experimental, do they always go together?

PH: There are some filmmakers working hand made and their films are more narrative. They’re working with actors. It depends… I think anything can be hand made. It’s just that hand-made is likely not to be on TV, although you say Carolynne Hew’s Swell was on TV… that’s was shot at the Film Farm… great! Just think …a hand-made film channel…

AK: (laughs)

PH: Put that at the end… ok?

AK: But what if next year at the film farm there are TV cameras wanting to watch you twenty-four hours…

PH: I won’t let them in. They have to stay at Tim Horton’s in town …they have to wait there….and we will make daily appearances when we come for coffee….(laugh) But anyway, we protect what we have. It’s really a matter of how you work and good work comes out of that. You work in a way so that you are still having fun…. you’re with people you want to be with… if the pressure gets so great that you’re not having fun, that’s not hand-made film. (laughs). Actually, it doesn’t always have to be fun but you’re learning and you’re sharing these things with people.

A Play of History

by Philip Hoffman

What does it mean for me and my work to have been in this place, Toronto?

Looking back over my film work of the past ten years, I see few traces of the city I choose as home… I notice my journal entries laden with references of people and places of the past.

August 19, 1979 – left Kitchener-Waterloo for the Toronto airport but first, goodbye to Mom and Babji, lying side by side. Babji speaks to me in her Polish, “Nie rozumiem…,” then, “I was think you were from the other place.” The old country is still with her, in her morning dream… to our dreams she taught us to listen… 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.

January 1977 – I’m on a great flat houseboat, like the one old Roy Girdler used to ride on Lake McCullough, picking up cottagers on trips around the lake… I sit on the flat deck amidst peo­ple’s frantic legs. I’m six—I write everything down in my black book.

When have I turned the camera on Toronto?

In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984), a storefront, John’s Religious Painting, Bloor and Bathurst, a glimpse through the window, through the wall, an artist copies a painting of Christ, the paintbrush careful to match the lines of the original, the camera careful, superimposing the image of the artist, a reflection on glass… Again from the same street, the same film, a procession up Bathurst Street, the Feast of Fatima, a questioning angel amongst many leaves her procession to smile for the camera. Mary is lifted up high, mingling with second-floor and third-floor rental flats. It’s an unusual day in the streets of Toronto when the grinding streetcars of commerce are replaced.

Near the end of The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), the basement on Bathurst Street is shown for a few seconds, with me, slumped over a light table editing film. At the time it seemed necessary to put myself in frame, fingers on film, trying to put an order to and make some sense of the seven years of collected film images… I learned about time, cutting film in that damp brick basement.

January 8, 1978 – I drive away from Toronto, the 401 again, passing through frozen fields, the harsh light cuts through the windshield, stops time on the road. On my way to Kitchener-Waterloo and Grampa’s funeral… in my frozen hand, the weight of my grandfather and the family procession, orderly disciplined, a strange German march echoes from his gramophone—seems like a dream.

In ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986), some camera report sheets filmed on the kitchen table in the Dovercourt Road apartment were made to look as if they were shot in Holland. The report sheets were carefully forged, made to look as if my shooting procedure is systematic, made to look like I’m in complete control, like Grandpa.

Toronto is a place to find work, to make and look at movies, to talk with people about movies. But I’m still not persuaded to shoot film in Toronto. I keep wanting to dig down into a past which is impossible to retrieve. Place is impor­tant to me but my work has little to do with concrete places like Toronto, Kitchener or even Lake McCullough. Place is where I am, what I think and feel, and for the time being I continue to find my place in Toronto.

(Originally published in A Play of History Catalogue (Toronto: Power Plant, February 1987)

Carte Blanche

The Ontario Cinematheque is a wonderous screening facility in Toronto which ran, for many years, a program called Carte Blanche where invited filmmakers were asked to show their own work along with others who have influenced their practice. The following notes were published in the Fall 1992 guide of the Ontario Cinematheque. All notes by Philip Hoffman.

 

Philip Hoffman Carte Blanche

Films alone most often do not deeply touch me. But spending time with the maker(s), breathing their practice – this is the space in which I find real growth and sharing. In this light, I present a program that expresses an archaeology of vital meetings for me in film and life.

At the fiery 1984 Grierson Seminar, I met Peter Greenaway and his ‘anti-documentaries’  THE FALLS (1980) and its formal reverse, ACT OF GOD (1981). Where THE FALLS stages interviews, ACT OF GOD evolves through a series of `real’ interviews. Meeting Peter and seeing these two works swept away whatever realist tendencies I still had left in my work, the effect of far too many documentaries purporting objectivity, order, truth, in contemporary times of raging chaos. My response, following a sojourn to the set of Greenaway’s feature A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, was ?O,ZOO! (1986), a testament to making `the real’ disappear.

In 1978 the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted `Autobiography: Film/Video/ Photo’, another event that helped bring to light elements of a practice and vision which were beginning to shape my own. Jonas Mekas stood spot lit, Bolex in shopping bag beside him, DIARIES, NOTES AND SKETCHES on the screen – a passion for collecting images of the `everyday’,  every day, and a process for `living cinema.’ CASSIS (1966) by Mekas is a quiet cine-poem, a haiku of a small port in the south of France; all day and into the evening boats pass as light and color go through their changes.

Maya Deren’s work turns the program inward, her enchanted landscapes speak to the ineffable qualities of dream and trance. In AT LAND (1944), Deren finds new temporal structures through repetition, and an advanced narrative form using ‘dream-time-space’  as a beginning.

There isn’t time to have some films in this program, for example my favourite film, Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL, is a regular at the Cinematheque and is again this season in the Marker retrospective. Besides that there are many more works and makers that have touched me. Like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, NUIT ET BROUILLARD, WAVELENGTH, THRILLER, THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION, NURSING HISTORY, HIGHWAY 61, Melies, Lefebvre, Jarman, Epp, Kerr, Sternberg, Watkins, Popovich, Chambers, INSIDE SILENCE, HAMMU, HART OF LONDON, STEPS TO THE HARBOUR, McMahon, Snow, Lipsett, Lock, Cook, CHRONIQUE DE LA VIE QUOTIDIENNE, Egoyan, Cartmell, Frenkel, McGowan, SIFTED EVIDENCE, 11 X 14, NIGHT MAIL, ELEGY, THE JOURNEY, FAMILY VIEWING, THIGH LINE LYRE TRIANGULAR, MATERNAL FILIGREE, RESONANCE, THE GARDEN, GHOSTS BEFORE BREAKFAST, 1857 (FOOLS GOLD), HAWKESVILLE TO WALLEN

STEIN, CITY OF GOLD, ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM, OL’ YELLER, Hoolboom, Thorne, Rimmer, Razutis, Brown, RE: ENTRY, YOU TAKE CARE NOW, Porter, Mettler, Gronau, Leduc, Lebeau, Sanguedolce, CANAL, WILD SYNC, THE BOYS, Soul, Brakhage, Godard, Camus, Kerouac, Stein, Basho, Cage, TECHNOLOGY OF TEARS, Frank, Dewdney,Shikatani, Glass, AT PRESENT, WORK BIKE AND EAST…”

Program:

?O,ZOO! (THE MAKING OF A FICTION FILM)
Canada 1986  23 minutes
Director: Philip Hoffman

ACT OF GOD: LIGHTNING
Great Britain 1981, 25 minutes
Director: Peter Greenaway

CASSIS
USA 1966, 4 minutes (NEW PRINT)
Director: Jonas Mekas

AT LAND
USA 1944, 14 minutes
Director: Maya Deren

Canadian Premiere!

OPENING SERIES
Canada 1992 – ongoing, 10 minutes
Director: Philip Hoffman

ISIS
Canada 1988,12 minutes
Director: Stephen Butson

PLEASE DON’T STOP
Canada 1988, 5 minutes
Director: Stephanie Maxwell

Images Talk (April 2001)

DARKROOM

Thirty years ago Richard Kerr and I set up a darkroom in my basement and I suppose it was there where I became drawn in to photographic processes… I have always been excited by that moment when the print is put into the developer and the image begins to appear. It’s a fleeting moment when change is most focused and visible and I suppose I’ve continued to dwell in that moment of transformation in my filmmaking…

Here’s an excerpt from passing through/torn formations, it’s Christopher Dewdney’s poem Out of Control: The Quarry:

“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light grey Devonian limestone in Southeren Ontario. A powderery luminescence oscillates between the rock and sky. You feel sure that you could recognize these clouds (with their limestone texture) out of random cloud photographs from all over the world. You then lean over and pick up a flat piece of layered stone. It is a rough triangle about one foot across. Prying at the stone you find the layers come apart easily in large flat pieces. Pale grey moths are pressed between the layers of stone. Freed, they flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil. You are splashed by the other children but move not.”

(from Preditors of the Adoration, Out of Control: The Quarry by Christopher Dewdney)

In passing through/torn formations I tried to create a form that wasn’t frozen or fossilized (as film tends to do)… and this was accomplished through the layering of dialogue and collected sound, the layering of story, the repetition of story, superimposition (sometimes three separate image systems on the screen at the same time)… It is my hope that this polyphonic form allows for participation from the audience, and at the same time suggests that all family stories have several perspectives,  there is no such thing as one objective fact/truth, or way of looking at things…

I suppose this open form is taken up further in Opening Series where the audience orders twelve boxes like this and determines an order (there is an interrelated film in each box)… each time the film gets played there is a new order, and I track the various orders as the film screens… What I learn through Opening Series often finds itself in other films. For example, some sections in  Opening Series 2 and 4 find themselves in What these ashes wanted, a somewhat more narrative driven film, so it’s a kind of testing ground for images as well.

I have taken up a method borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s feminist dictum: Collect Reflect Revise. The method of collecting is spontaneous and non-scripted, in which I try to dwell in that fleeting moment, watching time through the lens…

 

GINSBERG

In the early 1980’s,  Allen Ginsburg gave a talk and led a meditation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and recently I found the tape I had recorded and played it for Janine and she bounced it into Public’s recent Lexicon issue. Here it is.

“It is possible through mindfulness practice, to bring about some kind of orderly observation of the phenomenology of the mind and to produce a poetics. From that instant by instant recognition of thought forms comes a notion of spontaneous poetry which Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein practiced. And that form of poetry is a form of Oriental form that is composed on the tongue rather than on paper. It is also a Western form, a very American form. Blues and Calypso poetics were always made up on the spot. There always was a formulaic structure as in all Bardic poetics but it was dependent on the Back blues singer to get it on and make up on the spot all the rhymes and all the personal comments, all the moaning, empty bed samsara lamentations of the moment while singing. So that Tibetan poetics and American poetics are based on the spontaneous. The key to this is that you have to accept that the first thought is the best thought, you have to recognize that the mind is shapely. Because the mind has  shape, what passes through the mind is the mind’s own, so that is all in one mind, it is all linked connectedness and consequence. Observe your mind rather than force it, you will always come up with something that links to previous thought force. It is a question of trusting your own mind finally and trusting your tongue to express the mind’s fast puppet… spitting forth intelligence without embarrassment.”

 Ginsberg’s method may sound familiar to people who follow the work of Brakhage for instance, where his muse directs him through his work… I appreciate this link with the Muse but my background has directed me towards seeing it in a less individualised state. Through the 1990’s I have come to appreciate the way other people can contribute to my projects… that there is an energy around the making of a work that can create a more participatory model during the making… in other words, I get a lot of help from my loved ones, friends and assistants and I see them as part-makers of the film. Chance elements come into play when this kind of energy is set up around a project, and through people, these chance elements often help direct the film. The film is a tuning fork, resonating through people and events.

 

EDITING

Whereas the spontaneous is most connected to the shooting of films and is quite light and free the editing process has been tortuous, these collected concrete forms of memory do not always go together, and it can take a long time before I sculpt them into shape, blending story and form. Maybe this is why some of my films take five to seven years to complete.

 

FILM FARM

This process-oriented approach to making was used when I and my late partner Marian McMahon set up a Filmmaking Retreat in 1994, in Mount Forest. Participants are urged to shoot without scripts, letting the camera’s confrontation with the world be the first place to start, rather than the written word …the camera meets the world. Since hand processing facilities are available, participants can shoot and re shoot, experiment with various photo-chemical processes and gradually films surface. My motto is, if you can write a poem in a day, you can make a film in a week. Participants do not need to necessarily come to the film farm with an idea… my sense is that there is a film in everyone which can be drawn out anywhere… The atmosphere created at the film farm by the  assitants/teachers who help out every year, make it conducive to creative expression.

 

DIGITAL VS VIDEO

I am more interested in passing on a way of working than a medium(for example celluloid), in the so called digital age….

What these ashes wanted was finished on film but it makes use of high-8 and 3/4″ video, digital video, 16mm reversal, 16mm high contrast and negative, digital to film transfers and so on… It’s a way of working that I would be more concerned about losing during the corporate mandate of this millennium. Film has a beauty we should use when we need it, even if we have to get into making our own emulsion up at the film farm…

A Dream for a Requiem


Filmmaker documents pure emotion

REVIEW
WHAT THESE ASHES WANTED

Peter Vesuwalla

Philip Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted is one of those films that forces you to rethink the medium. There are pictures, yes, and movement, light, and sound. There is, however, no narrative, and yet there is emotion. Both of these last two points are remarkable.
To make a film that is genuinely non-narrative is no small accomplishment. At a recent exhibition of short films, I listened as budding visual artist Victoria Prince attempted to explain that there was no narrative link among the images in her latest experimental video, despite an audience member’s insistence that he had been told a story. Last year, soi-disant “guerrilla projectionists” Greg Hanec and Campbell Martin were forced to concede that people will find a story in their work provided they look hard enough: audiences tend to do so. The fact is, there is something hard-wired in the human psyche that forces us to find continuity where there is none.
What makes What These Ashes Wanted unique and interesting is Hoffman’s ability to override our inherent expectation of being told a story. We learn that his longtime partner, Marian McMahon, has died of cancer, and that the film is an expression of his grief, but that’s only what it’s about. Nothing actually happens in it, just as nothing in the physical universe happens to us while we’re sitting and reflecting on the past. It’s assembled from nostalgic pieces of video footage, bolex film, still pictures, words, music, poetry and seemingly random micro-montages that fade into obscurity like fragmented memories.
“In times of great grief, it was important to go through the motions of life,” he narrates, recalling author Henry James. “Eventually, they would become real again.”
Hoffman edits these motions together the way that Jackson Pollock paints. He expresses his grief over his lost loved one not through the images themselves, but through the physical act of filming them. The images such as an empty room, an inventory of mementoes, and a field of sunflowers, coupled with a mournful monologue and a montage of unanswered voice-mail messages, carry all the weight of emotional brush strokes. If Pollock was an “action painter,” then Hoffman, I suppose, ought to be called an “action filmmaker;” that label, however, might cause confusion. Instead, call him a documentarian of the human soul.

Philip Hoffman will be on hand to present What These Ashes Wanted, along with his pupil Jennifer Reeves’ We Are Going Home, on Thursday, May 17, (2001) at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St.