Experiments in Disorientation: Chimera
Without wishing to do a disservice to the incredible breadth and depth of the works that comprise a filmmaking career spanning thirty years, I would like to propose that Philip Hoffman is a maker of travelogues. His voyages have been documented in such films as The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984), passing through / torn formations (1988), and Sweep (1995). Even Kitchener-Berlin(1990) can be considered an account of travels, as despite that the voyage taken in that film does not ‘go’ anywhere in the traditional sense of crossing physical geographical borders, it nevertheless stages a journey from home and the present deep into the past and the imagination.
In general, Hoffman’s films have little in common with the conventional forms of travelogue familiar to us like the tourist’s guidebook, with its checklists of requisite stops, suggested itineraries, and catalogues of famous and obligatory sites to visit and sights to see. Nor do Hoffman’s travelogues resemble the typical autobiographical or diaristic travel account, which privileges the witty digressions and egotistical observations of the stranger abroad in a foreign land. Instead, many of Hoffman’s works perform an erasure of recognizable, accessible ideas of ‘place,’ and simultaneously challenge notions of the selfhood or subjectivity of both the traveler and the viewer. Focusing on Hoffman’s 1996 film Chimera, I intend to demonstrate that what connects all of these experiments in disorientation is the pursuit of a new and unverified way of exploring space and time, through an unstable model of the explorer. In short, Hoffman’s films amount to the proposal of an experimental mode of geography.
Chimera is a record of the sights and sounds Hoffman experienced whilst traveling through Banff, Finland, Russia, Egypt, England and Australia over a period of roughly seven years. Neither a narrative of travels nor an essayistic disquisition on travelling, Chimera is more of a poetic flow of images and sounds that represent Hoffman’s experience of simply being where he was at the given moment in space and time, in the fleeting moment of impression. The film in itself represents a series of experiences of aesthetic transportation, of the travelers being ‘moved’ by what they see and hear to take a moving picture. Yet, on account of the formal approach Hoffman has taken with Chimera, we are seeing less of what he ‘saw’ and more of what caused him to ‘see.’ Hoffman shot the film by exposing only a few frames at a time while zooming or otherwise moving the camera forward. The image track was then slowed down by re-photographing it using an optical printer. The effect is something like what would happen if you smeared your thumb across a freshly developed photograph while it was still wet. The images become impressionistically blurred, but not exactly in the typically soft, fuzzy way. Rather, the process causes objects to warp, to take on a flexible or elastic quality, and for places to be either indistinguishable from each other, or to literally blend into one another. Subsequently, the specificity of event and place become less important than the represented intensity of being, in space and time and at the moment.
While some images in Chimera can be more easily ascribed to a certain place and time, the majority of the locations in the film are hard to pin down. Only a handful of locales are immediately recognizable, like an Egyptian sphinx and the CN Tower, and it is at these sites that we see signs of tourists and touristic activities. It is telling that it is the visible presence of sightseers, pointing and taking photographs, that impels Hoffman to allow us a glimpse of something that confirms the image’s geographic identity. This is not to suggest that Hoffman depicts these spaces in a touristic fashion, using the language of the picturesque or the iconography of postcards. It is more accurate to suggest that the presence of tourists points to the way in which these specific sites have already been coded, worked upon, and made ‘universal’ by touristic activities, which enhances their superficial accessibility. Even in cases like these when the immediate context is supplied, however, the film still refuses to fix the bulk of its images into a preestablished cartographic grid of landmarks, cities and countries. How far is it from Finland to the CN Tower? Where does the footage from Egypt end and footage from Russia begin? Chimera does not concern itself with such relativities. It is not so much the case that one image ‘precedes’ or ‘follows’ the other either in geographic space or chronological time, but rather that they mutually coexist on a plane where such distinctions are irrelevant. Hoffman’s filmic technique here formally traces commonalties among the elements it presents, irrespective of the surface differences of place and time that ostensibly separate them. Hoffman claims that Chimera “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 order for spaces to be mapped, in the traditional sense, it is necessary for them to be named and defined by way of successful and ‘accurate’ description and delineation. If an image of a place makes that place legible, and secures the spatio-temporal coordinates that connect place to traveler to text to observer, then that place can be successfully ‘brought back’ home, reconstructed and synthesized, for the purpose of usefully aiding future travelers to coordinate themselves. In Chimera, by contrast, space has the tendency to either deconstruct itself or persistently escape from any attempt to lock it down as soon as it is introduced into the borders of the visible, which has a significant impact upon the imaginative conceptualization and mapping of real spaces. By making the frame itself unstable, the film suggests an inherent limitation upon perspective for representing ‘real’ space, that there are intangible aspects of these spaces that remain inaccessible to representation and cannot be summarized as neatly as picture postcards might suggest. Hoffman seeks out and explores the edges, the unknown or indeterminate spaces and times that resist attempts at containment as much as they sometimes defy description. Chimera’s tendency to abstract its subjects, making their specific context and origin frequently indiscernible, has the effect of making the object-hood of what is shown on-screen less important than the aesthetic vibrancy it generates at the moment of observation. Hoffman is committed to discovering new ways of experiencing and describing space, even at the expense of legibility, and Chimera ekes out a more deconstructive and less linguistically determined approach to making the world accessible to the observer. Chimera insists upon a divestment of presence and an immersion in the moment, but this is not necessarily presented as a problem or a frustration of learning and knowledge. Rather, the engrossing and poetic uses of cinematic techniques here promote a kind of Truth based primarily on sense.
These deconstructions of conventional ideas of space and geography are intertwined with complimentary operations that similarly challenge ideas of fixing, locating and cohering identity and subjectivity, which historically have been equally essential to the travelogue. What we see and experience of the world, after all, only makes as much sense as what we bring to the table about ourselves. This is why so many conventional travelogues push the character and personality of the traveler to the forefront, so that we have a stable ‘center’ in the text against which to measure any foreign, unfamiliar or potentially upsetting input thrown our way. The more secure the idea of the traveler, the more reliable we think the information they can provide to us. Rather than attempting to maintain a fixed ground of observation, Hoffman shows a willingness to relinquish the stable grounds of objective spatio-temporal relations on which empirical observation is traditionally conducted. Not only is there no traveler figure present in the film to guide our journey, but also Chimera simply moves too fast for the viewer to be able to secure a sturdy foundation on which to be able to discern precisely where and what they are viewing. It is not so much that the film’s often breakneck pace casts the observer into some permanent state of chaos and uncertainty, but rather, that it continually oscillates between moments of calm tranquility and shocking disorder. While at times Chimera seems to offer an infinite flow of chaotic impressions, it also regularly halts the picture and sound tracks for a few moments of black leader and silence to provide a brief window of closure and respite. It never allows us to get perfectly comfortable or adjusted to its perspective of the world. Further, the ratio of the spatiotemporal intervals presented on the image track is not set at a fixed rate. The length of shots as well as the relative speed of the frame rate often varies from shot to shot, thereby erasing any sense of stability or constancy in the relation of observer to ‘world’ soon after it is in- troduced. In Chimera, the formal rules of engagement with the external environment at hand keep changing, its operations remain in flux, disallowing possibilities for total apprehension and security, and keeping the process of readjustment open and ongoing.
This is not, however, to suggest that subjectivity is in any totalizing sense radically destroyed by the operations apparent in the film, but rather that an understanding is established that concepts like identity, vision and presence are multiple and heterogeneous. Chimera is chiefly concerned with the production of conditions where perspective and selfhood are kept in an ideally constant state of emergency, always negotiating relations between the body, the text, the object and the world that surrounds them. Instead of imposing universalizing principles on space, time and the observer, Chimera rehearses a mobile set of relations between them that insists upon their fundamental contingency, whose only claim to Truth is based upon their production of wonder and other intensities of experience. The film can be claimed to conduct a set of purely theoretical relationships to space and time, and though this means it works beyond the strict Cartesian mapping of spatiotemporal coordinates, another kind of ‘mapping’ is nevertheless at work. This is an approach to geography that seeks to guide the movements of future travelers, but not in the traditional cartographic sense. It privileges travel above destination, transportation over arrival and departure, and subordinates the securing of ‘knowledge’ to the discovery of aesthetic experience. Truth is only accessible here in the poetic sense, as the deepening of the observer’s sensitivities, and the suggestion of strategies for the enlivening of perception. Chimera functions not only as a poetic evocation of Hoffman’s own travel experience, but also as a primer for the experience of travel itself, instructing us in the art of observation. It shows us not where to go, but how to be moved.
Philip Hoffman, quoted in Landscape with Shipwreck: first person cinema and the films of Philip Hoffman, edited by Karyn Sandlos and Mike Hoolboom. Toronto: Images Festival of Independent Film and Video & Insomniac Press, 2001, pg. 212.