by Philip Hoffman
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…
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.
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.
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…
WHAT THESE ASHES WANTED
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.
ISSUE #91/92. December 1998