What keeps you going as a filmmaker?
There’s a moment in the darkroom, when the paper or film is put into the developer and the image starts to come....a kind of magical moment where I’m transfixed by what is surfacing...
It’s the same moment that’s described at the beginning of passing through/ torn formations (1988). Christopher Dewdney narrates his poem from “Predators of the Adoration, Out of Control: the Quarry,”
It is a warm grey day in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light grey Devonian limestone in Southern Ontario. A powdery 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 piece. 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.
This kid is transfixed on this piece of sedimentary rock... and I think that’s me... I’m always trying to get to that moment when I’m filming and I’m not thinking of anything but what’s before me. I stop thinking about myself or others... I just get into the process...
The director told me that the production was a slow massive wheel. All you could do was get on it, and let the momentum of the wheel carry you where it would. FROM ?O,ZOO! (1986)
Is that the same reason you still play hockey?
Yes, I’d say so.
You’re outside of yourself.
It all happens so fast you’re not really thinking... you’re in the game.
It’s a Zen kind of thing. You dissolve into it with your team, dissolve into something larger than `you’.
I think when I collect images, in this way, without a script, just the camera reacting to what is happening there is a sense that the world is a partner in making the work... it’s partially leading me... so rather than using script as blueprint, rather than preconceiving what the film will be, I try to stay open to what comes at me...like in hockey I have to react with my reflexes... and when the images are gathered and I start screening them, I discover all kinds of connections, all kinds of little gifts!
And then, the second thing that keeps me going is my connection with others while I’m working on a film... I like to show my work to people who are close to me through the long torturous editing process... For my new film All Fall Down, my partner Janine Marchessault has been working with me and it’s been wonderful... she reflects what I’ve done, back to me, in ways I wouldn’t see on my own. It’s been about 6 years in the works and its almost completed.
If you were to use a literary analogy for your work, would it be poetry? Would it be prose-poetry? Does it really mean anything to have those analogies, or when people try to locate your work verbally, how do they, how would they talk about it, and is that really the point of it?
When I went into film, I thought it was the most effective medium to bring together all my passions: photography, poetry, music, first person filmmaking. I think it’s the connections between these forms, the poetic connections between words, images, music, experience, that moves me. I suppose it is a poetic process overall.
Do you have favorite filmmakers? Influences? They don’t have to be experimental, necessarily. Do you have people who get access to that zone that you admire, maybe have, in some way, nudged you to do what you do?
There were a lot of things affecting me, all at the same time in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Jonas Mekas came to Toronto, to the Art Gallery of Ontario for the Autobiographical Film Series. He just walked up the stairs with his Bolex in a shopping bag, and spoke about film from the heart, like a long lost uncle or something. His diary films made sense to me and I had already been collecting photos of family and friends and trips, since I was in my teens, so he fit like a glove. Later, he saw passing through / torn formations and he said it was a cousin of his Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972).
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) was a huge film for me. I remember a bunch of us experimental filmmakers, maybe Gary Popovich, Mike Hoolboom, Mike Cartmell walking out of a screening of it in Toronto, kind of stunned... so sublime and riveting. I think I probably connected to the literary nature of Marker’s narrator; that the narrator could be personal, but clearly still a literary force weaving through the film, asking the audience questions...Brechtian techniques, which I think I picked up on in ?O,Zoo!. And than there’s all the Canadian influences Jack Chambers, Arthur Lipsett, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, David Rimmer, Rick Hancox, Bruce Elder, Al Razutis, Vera Frenkel... Jean Pierre Lefebvre on the fiction side, and then documentarians like Jacques Leduc and Boyce Richardson.
You’ve given the Canadian context of your work that, while not the starting point, the documentary tradition is a productive departure point for avant-garde filmmaking.
And I think at Sheridan College when Rick Hancox showed us all that New American Cinema (avant-garde films), he was also showing us at the same time National Film Board films. We’d see Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving alongside the NFB’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street Railway Switchman, you know... those two in the same program ! [laughs] Rick was just connecting us to what was here, a film about the guy that works on the train tracks in downtown Winnipeg. I appreciated getting those films alongside the more esoteric... he didnt just show us what was new in art film. The the other important teacher was Jeffrey Paull. He pushed us to dive deep inside, reflecting on where our ideas were coming from. For me, that was important, because it pushed me to thinking that there’s something I’m not seeing, something in the shadows to uncover. So a strong group of filmmakers and artists came out of that time and place: Richard Kerr, Holly Dale, Janis Cole, Allan Zweig, Lorraine Segato, Mike Hoolboom, Carl Brown, Steve Sanguedolce, Gary Popovich. I met them all at college, all independent spirits!
And were you ever attracted, or are you, as you age, attracted to a more fictional narrative form, or is that something you never thought was necessary?
I think several times I’ve kind of had that in mind and it always turned into something else. I’ve used actors in my films, but they are usually relatives or friends in passing through, the girl running through the fields is my mom’s niece from Czechoslovakia. The scene could be picked out of a European art film or something, and in my new film All Fall Down Mike Hoolboom plays `the walker,’ more at a distance but he walks through the film. So, there are definitely fictional mechanisms in my films, but I don’t really have an interest in organizing some kind of big fiction film. Richard Kerr tried it and it almost killed him, and then there is Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore, which I do not think worked out very well for her. I think fiction feature filmmaking is very different than what I do; my process is more akin to a painter or something.
Peter Mettler’s work, although he has done more feature films, is still more like yours. He did do the narrative feature, The Top of His Head, but even its style is experimental and exploratory, in the way that you construct your films.
He makes films over long periods of time too, in that way. While he’s making the film he diverges from the script. If something interesting comes up it’s fair game! He’s tried for bigger budgets, and that’s kind of more painful then what I’m doing. I know the limitations of working in that way. I don’t want to spend time chasing money for larger budgets... but he’s good at that, though I don’t think he likes it that much. I like to stay within the realm of something that I can control. I like to be in a process where someone else isn’t setting my deadlines. Also, since the other half of what I do is teach, I’ve developed a way to work over long periods, and somehow the teaching, the filmmaking combine and affect each other.
Let’s talk about your process of creation. What gets you started on an idea to make a film? Is it an image? A sound?
It’s usually thought of years ahead. Between 1976 – 1983, when I was mak- ing my early road film, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), I knew I would be making a film about my mother’s side of the family in the future, which turned out to be passing through / torn formations. I started shooting that film in earnest in 1984, but there is footage in that film that was shot in the early 1980s. Since I’m always collecting, there’s a kind of well or archive I draw from to make my films.
So these are ideas in your head, thoughts that recur, and you think, ‘well, that thought deserves a bit more expression or exploration’...
Well, sometimes it feels like it is already made, it’s sort of predestined or something. Most poignant to this is in the making of What these ashes wanted (2001). As I was shooting film in the early 1990s, incidents of death ap- peared before me, once on a train, another on a bridge and when on a telephone. I was traumatized, wondering why this was happening and it sure shaped what and how I was filming. Then Marian died suddenly in 1996 and the filmmaking was a place to go, during that time. It was pathetic. I was just watching images of her over and over... video, film, photos. I felt better in that world, than with people, but gradually I surfaced. When I finished the film in 2001, those three stories of death ended up in the film, along with many of the images of Marian and our life together. So, I mean that’s where I think somehow past, present, and future are kind of melted within the art; slipping, as if the future is already with us. That was a good question you asked, because it made me think of how these films seem to be already planned, already in the unconscious, when you work in a process-driven way, I think it’s more apt to happen in that manner. Like I said earlier, the world has a say in what the film will be when your method partners with it.
And has that approach to the process changed over the years, even as you move into new media? Is the process of exploration motivated in the same kind of way?
All the processes of new media make things faster and easier; celluloid editing, and with sound in particular, is much more cumbersome. The mind works non-linearly, of course, so we’ve just built machines now that work closer to the capabilities of the mind, but experimental filmmakers were developing these forms way before the computer was being used. Think of DzigaVertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, and of course the Avant-Garde of the 1960s and so on.
I’ve always liked the idea of you working with the materiality of the celluloid, with all of the optical printing that you do. It’s so physical in a way, and now you have this other way of constructing that has another effect.
Yes, and I still work with hand processing of celluloid. The Film Farm workshop I do in the summer is exclusively film oriented, because people like the physicality of film and it is different. I just came from the 2008 Rotterdam International Film Festival, where a whole section of the festival is devoted to handmade filmmaking. It is called `Starting from Scratch’, and it was hugely popular, with everything from hand-processed work to 16mm projector performances. As a new art form comes in governed by the digital realm and of course fueled by the commercial film industries, the old forms like 16mm and super-8 are used entirely as an artistic practice, not driven by commerce. People are even making their own emulsions, I suppose readying themselves for when celluloid is gone altogether. I think this is all happening because people realize that film is different from the digital. So it’s not going to disappear. It would be like, in the late 1800s, saying that painting will disappear because we can now make our pictures with photography. I like to work in what ever is around and use it for its own inherent qualities, what the medium offers. At the same time, it’s exciting to use all these possibilities and see what happens when they rub up against each other. But the computer can be uncomfortable to work with.
There’s a lot of energy going into your hands through the mouse and alot of shoulder work, and of course the TV screen shoots light at your eyes, rather than the softer reflected light of the film screen. That’s the McLuhan hot cool medium thing.
But you find it productive, though, in a certain way. I mean there’s no alternative at some level, technically, but you do find a way, right?
Yes. I mean, I’m an archivist in a way, an archivist of the everyday, experiences that I collect. It’s fantastic to be able to organize everything on hard drives and have it all there at your fingertips. I think there are good things about the digital medium. It gives you so many choices. It’s easy to make more than one version of your work, and of course this can be an asset but also a hindrance.
Well, I think now we can talk about other interesting things. That’s interesting too, don’t get me wrong. [Phil laughs] But a larger question, Phil, the big question. The idea that your work is an extended form of autobiography, does that mean anything, or...
By extended, do you mean like...
Like it’s a long, fragmented, interwoven...
...set of autobiographical explorations. Do you see the work in that way?
Definitely. I mean, I think any artist does anyway because what ever you do is a reflection of the time in your life, when you are doing it. But as a filmmaker I am collecting reflections of `the real’ in motion pictures and in sound – everyday moments. And in a way this is the residue of where you’ve been, what you’ve done.
I use this practice not just to document my life, but to help me through it... how to get out of this mess and into the next one. [laughs] So over time all these films go together and can be seen as a grand autobiographical project, with each film looking at things from a different angle, mostly through a different lens... and then I think there are threads that connect one film to the next, for example ?O,Zoo! the dark centre of the film is a scene of an elephant falling down, unable to get up and then its subsequent death. In the film the narrator talks about his trauma of filming the death of the elephant, and so he consequently put the film into the freezer, into limbo. But it wasn’t till later that I realized that what I had written (and experienced in Rotterdam in 1985) was a replay of what had happened to me in my late teens when my Grandfather died and I was asked to take pictures of him in the casket ! I took the pictures, and then put the film in the freezer... I repressed the images for a number of years but then during the shooting of ?O,Zoo!, it all surfaced again, through my experience and by working through it with the elephant story....after I finished ?O,Zoo! I took the film out of the freezer and developed it... those images of my grandfather in the casket found their way into What these ashes wanted in 2001, which is another meditation on death. So you see, there are threads that connect films over the years, and I guess the more threads, the stronger it all holds together as a kind of life long project.
I think the use of family footage, or of that kind of intimate, strangely intimate imagery, that is ghostly on the one hand, is embedded in ideas of time. Jack Chambers explored that idea of time, too, and that really comes through in your work.
Yes, I saw Hart of London at college and it really blew me away. Really, Chambers was important for me in my beginning years because he dealt with death as an everyday part of life, and I was thinking about that a lot.
It is an incredible film. It doesn’t necessarily remain autobiographical in the sense of the use of that footage of the family, but it does have a very powerful and strange, eerie quality. Both in Hart of London, and obviously in your films, that it is connected to you and your family history. Like you said, the meaning of the images transcends that as years go by.
Yeah, I mean there’s some that I often come back to myself, how I watch and all that kind of, the community notion and the idea of place and where you’re from, all that stuff is so vivid in that film, in so many ways, and so haunting and moving as well.
What else was influential about Chambers’ work?
Well, he uses public records, the found footage from the television network and turns it into a meditative form through repetition and through the meditative soundtrack... within that form we see people jumping into the creek in winter, and it’s very strange without the usual TV commentator. This `makes the familiar strange’.
That’s right, absolutely. That’s a perfect thing, everything seems strange all of a sudden if you look at it in a particular way. But that’s the power of experimental cinema in general.
And I think with regards to making a grand autobiography project, I think I connected to Jack Kerouac’s project. I read On the Road while I was hitching out west, in the days when that seemed alright, and that led me into all the other Kerouac books, and then Ginsberg, and all the Beat Poets. Even though at the time in filmmaking there weren’t that many people working in `First Person’, and I remember a lot of criticism of putting yourself into films in the 1970s, which is the time when Rick Hancox was starting to do it, and influenced a number of us. But it wasn’t really until the 1980s, later in the 1980s that it sort of became more acceptable. I think it came in stronger with the feminist idea that the personal is political. Now, of course, that idea is everywhere.
I hadn’t thought of it that way. And your whole generation of experimental filmmakers, using this form, like Rick Hancox, and others, were few and far between.
Here’s a question that might connect up with the idea of autobiography: how would you describe the impact of Canada on your films, and what is Canada in your films? Do people ask you that at foreign festivals about your Canadianness? What is Canada to you, and how it might be translated in your work?
Yes, well...that’s a big question.
While you’re thinking about that, I’ll ask you another question. [laughs] Film scholar Peter Harcourt had this great phrase, which goes something like: what is inside the frame is only meaningful in as much as it has a relationship to what is outside the frame. How does that question resonate for you?
Maybe that’s being Canadian... being outside the frame... or at least showing that what is outside the frame, outside of the big (American) event is something of what is Canadian. I think that’s been a big part of both my filmmaking and the screening of my films, because I think the way that I work, the way I collect image and sound, often not synchronous results in a form that is anti- realist and strengthens the contrapuntal aspect of my work with image and sound... and of course this means that as a viewer you have to put the two together and the new meaning that arises is that thing that is outside of the frame... in our imagination. It breaks with a realist connection to the world of what we normally see and hear physically. Again like in ?O Zoo! there are stories being told about what’s outside of the frame throughout that whole film, and I think that it’s not just that I didn’t film it, I think it’s that it allows the viewers to participate and have this image surface in their own mind that comes from let’s say the story of the elephant trying to get up, narrated over a black screen. And there’s a kind of crisis that happens at the end of the film when the elephant shot is shown, because the viewer has an image in their head, probably stronger, or at least different, than the one that’s on the screen.
And I’ve really learned in showing that film the power of that darkened screen for the viewer, and I think there’s always a sort of space between the screen and the viewer, right in the middle, right where you bring your own experience to the screen, and this tells us that every film is different for every person... the black screen sets that realization up. And that idea ad- vances in passing through / torn formations and Kitchener-Berlin, because there are huge black spaces with just maybe dialogue or no words at all, but time for the mind to rest from the visual, and to go into other imagined images. I remember in Sydney, Australian, Canadian filmmaker Gail Singer said how the meditative nature of Kitchener-Berlin suddenly flung her back into some deep past memory of her childhood that she had forgotten, and Ann Marie Fleming said that passing through made her hallucinate... [laughs]... so what is this but cinematic processes that engage the viewer to look at their own mind... once you break that normal link of synchronous, use of picture and sound you create the possibility for the imagination to do its work.
And the cinema has a very peculiar ability to allow you, as you say, to engage with it in that way. You are looking at reflected light, but you’re also projecting into the image as well. The ‘dark spaces’ you mention are an apt good metaphor for that, because they’re not really dark at all.
And the fact that it’s a medium that can represent so well what we see.
So it certainly is like the mirror, or my uncle’s `corner-mirror’ which Leesa looks at in passing through / torn formations. She actually uses the fragmented corner mirror, `two mirror slabs that fold into each other’, and sees something she wouldn’t see with a normal mirror. I use film in the same way, to see something I normally can’t see. Vertov called it Kino Eye. By slowing down the footage of himself jumping off a building, he was able to see his hesitation...something he didn’t notice at the normal frame rate. Film and photography are often used as evidence for the `real’ but it’s a construction. At a dinner party someone showed Picasso a picture, saying ` this is my wife’, and Picasso said ‘my, she’s awfully small and very flat.’
Let’s tackle the Canada question again. I wonder if there’s something about your relationship to space and time and Canadian landscapes that can somehow account for the poetics of your work.
I think Bruce Elder kind of exhausted one side of that topic, and I agree with him and others who look at the way the harsh Canadian environment effects our psyche. I think the idea of being outside the frame mentioned earlier is a good one, because of course as a child of immigrant parents I was brought up in the atmosphere that maybe we don’t really belong. My grandfather used to say the Hoffmans are ‘a little bit on the other side.’ And even in the family meatpacking business, we were kind of the `little guy’ that offered good unique product until we were gobbled up by the bigger multi-nationals. I think my dad’s workplace was unusual too, as I look back on it. My dad would arrange the work schedule so that the factory would close down by Friday morning which would allow the guys to get up to the cottage, ahead of Friday evening traffic (!), and on Thursday afternoons he would buy cases of beer and there’d be a little party at the back of the plant, which usually ended with somebody socking somebody, but you know that was all part of it... So there was something about resisting the status quo in favor of an independent spirit. I don’t think I ever equated this background to my own independent filmmaking practice because I sort of put the family business into another category, but of course my dad had a great effect on me and who I am. This all makes me think that these are Canadian attributes, being a little bit on the other side, which makes me think of our Canadian experience of being in the shadow of Goliath... as Harcourt suggests, outside the frame.