I know you are, so what am I?: passing through/torn formations

My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s got so bad that we had to put her in a nursing home in 1997. The move devastated my grandfather. They were in their 56th year of marriage. For the first time since 1941, he was alone.

Fall 1990. Sheridan College. I was taking Media Arts. One of the teachers was a guy named Phil Hoffman. I’d never heard of him. After his first (okay, maybe they were his twenty-fifth) words to the class, I never forgot him. “Do what you know,” he told us. That seemingly simple and obvious philosophy was about the only thing I took of value from Sheridan College. I ended up flunking out, more intent to drink and fuck around than to learn industrial cinema. Almost eighteen years later, though, I’ve pretty much stuck (albeit often unconsciously) to Hoffman’s credo.

Grandpa tried to limit his visits to the home, but soon he was making the half hour drive on a daily basis. He’d help feed her, bring movies and music for the residents, and continually care for her. Eventually, Grandpa, tired of the long lonely winters and sleepless nightmares, moved to the nursing home to be with my grandmother.

When I eventually saw Hoffman’s films a few years later, I saw those words come to life. Forget all this abstract/experimental thinking and theory. That didn’t (and doesn’t) interest me. They’re too often tools for fleeing and denying emotions. I’ll let the eggheads address form, structure and all that. No, what lured me in and soiled my socks was the blatant openness of Hoffman’s work. He took deeply personal images and memories and put them right up there on the screen for us to savour, share, and decipher. Through Hoffman’s history I found my own.

A few months after he moved to the nursing home, my grandfather died in an Ottawa hospital. He didn’t want to go this way. He moved to the home to die beside my grandmother. He died alone inside the anonymous hospital walls at 6:30am. An hour later I was staring down at the only real father I ever knew. Now he was the first dead man I ever knew.

He sure had a lot of nose hair.

passing though/torn formations has always been among my favourites of Hoffman’s works. The opening, silent images of his mother feeding her dying mother haunt me even more today. Yes, that is Hoffman’s grandmother up there on the screen, or at least a fragment of her, but she is also my grandmother. In that ghostly, sunken face more dead than alive, I see my grandmother. In the familiar room that could be in any nursing home, there are pictures of the past pinned to the wall. Like WANTED posters, they are putting out a call to someone not there. Desperate pleas from loved ones to help them find the woman, the child lost to them now.

On some Sundays I visit the nursing home and feed my grandmother. To still my discomfort, I think back to when she fed me as a baby. It makes me feel good. I am caring for her, I think, as she once did for me.

“Do not forget us,” the pictures whisper from the walls of Babji’s room.

A few days after his death I drove out to the nursing home with my cousins. Inside a drawer in my grandfather’s room, I found his birthday card for grandma. He was not an affectionate man. Outside of occasional bursts of anger, he did not show emotion. He never really seemed to be enjoying life. So it was a shock to open the card and read: “To my darling wife. I miss you. I need you. I love you. You are everything to me.” He probably never said anything like this to her before. He never felt he had to. Life would go on. There would always be tomorrow.

With his grandmother silent, Hoffman realizes that it’s his turn to go back, to bring the old stories forward. This is no easy task. While the pictures and home movies make it all look “so neat and tidy”, his memories tell him otherwise.

Grandma loved to whistle with the backyard birds. Sometimes she spoke of her love of music. As Alzheimer’s was devouring her, wartime music would, momentarily, call her back to us. Did she live the life she wanted?

Hoffman’s non-linear journey reflects the chaos of history. Voices, landscapes, sounds and memories pass through and overlap as they convey tales of abandonment, migration, and violence. We’re never entirely sure where we are, and that’s okay.

One winter, I went to visit my grandfather's grave. It's in this small village outside of the town. The cemetery was unplowed so I had to park the car near the highway and walk from the road. His grave is way at the back, I think. The grave is unmarked because the family decided that it was best to wait for my grandmother (that was 4 years ago!). In arctic conditions, with no one around, I start talking aloud to my grandfather. As I'm doing this, another voice emerges and takes over as a sort of meta-commentary. Why are you doing this? Shit... if he can actually hear you so can the others here. Good thinking. I say hello to them and then figure... well... if they can hear me then they likely know all that's going on in the world and don’t need me to spell it out, besides, if they're spirits, they probably ain’t here anyway... they’re likely off haunting.

This goes on for about 10 minutes until I say bye and walk back to the car. I sit a bit and wonder what the fuck was that all about.

Being in Hoffman’s world is like doing a shotgun with a friend.

Your turn. You’re it.

John Piekoszewski