by Karyn Sandlos
In my mid-thirties I realized I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood
— Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family, 1982:22
Beginnings can be awkward, because they ask us to do things before we know how. I read somewhere that that we can’t learn our personal histories off by heart. Memory is fickle; it doesn’t fade with time, it shape shifts. And although memory is a central preoccupation in Philip Hoffman’s work, his first film, On the Pond, suggests that telling personal stories requires a certain degree of amnesia. In 1978, while a student at Sheridan College, Hoffman tape-recorded a family gathering as material for a personal documentary film. The occasion was his birthday, and the Hoffman family had assembled for a celebratory slide show. Following on diaristic work in writing and photography, Hoffman recalls that his aim, in making On the Pond, was to begin with what he knew. What could be more familiar than one’s own family history, retrieved from an archive of Kodak mementos? Yet, in On the Pond, tensions between what can be revealed and what must remain hidden behind a veil of propriety, suggest a much deeper layer of prohibition at stake in the telling of personal stories. In this film, pictures of home give provisional shape to an indeterminate longing, and make of the familiar an uneasy place to return to. At our most personal, it would seem, we are never quite at home.
Memory, the thirst for presence…
— Octavio Paz, A Tree Within, 1988:151
In On the Pond, Hoffman brings the truth-making apparatuses of the still and moving image to bear on that most colloquial of historic documents: the family anecdote. The film opens with a series of black and white stills, underscored by a family’s exclamations of delight. A number of voices proffer the details of time and place. There is the cottage and the pond. There are the children going fishing in summer and skating in winter. The photographs are animated by the usual snippets of commentary: “Oh, that’s a good one of you!” “Do you remember when we…?” “I wish I knew you better then…” Amidst the convivial clamor of the soundtrack, a daughter’s wish to have known her mother better then captures my attention, for she speaks with the quiet resignation of one who has arrived too late. In this moment, the family’s exuberance for the factual details of a past life together belies the tones and shadows of their shared recollections. Through fleeting disclosures they tell stories of longing through a past—or at least a version of the past—that might temper all that is unbearable about the present.
I often wonder whether I have any actual memories of my own childhood, or whether access to a past that I have lived through is made possible only by the stories of others. And there are few things I find more frustrating than being left to my own failed recollections. Lost keys, forgotten directions, and misplaced bits of information are the hints that trying too hard to remember makes us forget. Perhaps most images are like tools that relieve us of this kind of difficulty, by giving shape to a past that is largely made up of traces, impulses, flashes of colour, and fragments in need of a structure. Tell me a story that will help me forget what I want from a past that is lost to me. Images aren’t lies exactly, but they may work like screens that shield us from the discards of our lives. To preserve the past, to give meaning to these fragments, is at once the work of a magician and the practice of an embalmer. With a wish to give order to the refractory pull of desire, the archive snatches memory from the flow of time.
On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory.
— Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, 1996:137
But even anesthesia can be administered in uneven doses. On the Pond cuts between family photographs and the recurring scene of a boy playing hockey on a frozen pond; the clamor of the domestic drama and the stillness of a frozen landscape. Apart from the puck-chasing antics of a German Shepherd, the boy plays alone. At night, backlit by the windows of the cottage, his father prepares the ice with buckets of water. With the toss of a bucket, bleeding through the darkness, there appears a vanishing image of water coating ice. The water will be solid by morning, but first it leaves a stain. While most stains have a material presence, this one lifts off of the emulsion of the film and lingers in the mind with a haunting intractability. It is there and not there at the same time. Amidst images of landscape and childhood that beckon with a nostalgia that is echoed in the words of Hoffman’s older sister when she intones “Oh, I want to go back,” traces of uncertainty pierce through ordered time. If there is a true picture of the past, it must be like these fleeting glimpses, when they surface like a photograph that could easily have been discarded, or returned from the lab stamped ‘print no charge.’ In On the Pond, these are moments when, just as the negative image gives birth to the positive print, amnesia gives memory its contours.
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1955:255
In On the Pond there is a strange image of the back of Hoffman’s mother’s head, framed by a figure in motion on the left, and the small face of a very young Hoffman in the lower right hand corner. The voiceover tells us that this photograph was taken on Thanksgiving Day, when Hoffman’s mother was “feeling lousy.” While the emotional tone of the day is admitted, Hoffman’s effort to cheer his mother up becomes the focus of this conversation. But the seconds of silence that surround the tiny image of a child’s smiling face tear at the delicate suturing between meaning and image, between memory and the psychic cost of bringing the past to light. The family gathers in an act of forgetting. It is not the picture itself that leaves a stain, but the layers of affect and meaning that linger unresolved in the silence that follows their conversation about a day that is lost to them. Forgotten, perhaps, but not gone. The image is as permanent and imperfect as the conflicts it serves to disguise, and it glances off the viewer with the tug of retrospective desire. This is, as Benjamin might have put it, a moment of recognition in which the past flashes up as an image, never to be seen again.
If only I had a photograph, so that people could see who I was.
— Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood, 1997:195
On the Pond is a study in still and moving images, and the flow of the past through preserved moments in time. Pictures of home and family are intercut with photographs of Hoffman’s hockey team, as the silence of the pond is broken by the clamor of an audience, a coach’s obsessive words of encouragement, and the encroaching chant of Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da! A young Hoffman surveys a collection of trophies alongside team photographs that herald his departure from the family. Through a labored series of pushups, he measures his stamina against the ice. Photographs of Hoffman’s own childhood provide a measure of the distance between home and the world, and the small rituals of the pond reveal their larger purpose: Hoffman gains strength in order to leave, and distance so that he may one day return.
It is no accident that many of us become fascinated by our family histories long after we have left home. For years after my own leaving, I asked my family not to pose for photographs at our annual reunions. I stopped taking pictures when I realized that we didn’t know how not to perform in front of a camera. Not posing became more awkward than posing. Perhaps this was my way of trying to call attention to a certain distance of my own; to manipulate the conventional time of family portraits as a way of trying to live outside the ordered traditions of home and family. And it may be that going home requires this measure of distance, this lapse of memory, that most pictures afford us. If absence clears a path for our return, a little amnesia may be the price of presence. Like trying to hold light between two hands.
As in childhood we live sweeping close to the sky, and now what dawn is this.
— Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red, 1998:54
It is possible that the process of making a personal film relies more on memory lapses than it does on memory. My own first film began as a disparate collection of stories that were contained in mental images. These were stories that I had been told about my childhood, repetitively, over time, until I was old enough to wonder where the stories ended and my own experience began. The images I had shot didn’t lend themselves to an easy or obvious ordering, and so I experimented with one version and then another, wondering all the while why I felt compelled to tell stories that I had been told; stories that seemed to fill in the spaces where memory failed me. There was a period in which mastery over the film’s unfolding gave way to a strange sense of disorientation. The film began to unmake the maker, like a dream that was nudging me forward in search of artifacts, vestiges, echos. Toward the end of On the Pond, Hoffman, now in his twenties, reclines on a bed flipping the pages of an old hockey album. Next to the bed, a projector reel rotates and a turntable revolves. The film has ended and the music has stopped, but the silence is disturbed by the skip of the needle and the incessant hum of the projector. If memories are like water staining ice, then the best replicas of memory must glimmer even as they disappear. The problem is, we make films when we wake to the knowledge that we have been sleeping, but we also make films in order to help us sleep better. And if we do, in fact, sleep through much of our childhoods, it is not just the familiar that we reach for later on, but the urgent flashes of ourselves that can’t be explained, or understood, or fully retrieved. Hoffman glances intently at the camera as he moves off of the bed, leaving the photo album behind. Emerging from the cottage, he makes his way back to the pond.