Kitchener-Berlin as Aesthetic Allegory

Phil Hoffman’s 1990 film Kitchener-Berlin evocatively explores the subtle intersections between personal historiography and shared cultural memory through the layering of multiple image sources. Hoffman’s film can be seen not just as a representation of remembering but, more accurately, as signifying the complex cognitive and perceptual processes by which individuals arrive at constructing memories within culture. In this experimental audio-visual work, ‘making sense’ of the past by bringing together fragmented bits of archival reference in a logical way is rendered a complex endeavour. Consequently, the sense – of history, of memory, of culture – signaled by the dense layers of images throughout the film can be read as aesthetic allegory for the processes that enable cinematic constructs of meaning.

The images in Kitchener-Berlin are allegorical, in that they deal with representations of histories and their socio-cultural implications in a manner that is not easily understood as story. An understanding of allegory here is informed by Judith Butler when she writes, “Allegory is in its most general formulation a way of giving a narrative form to something which cannot be directly narrativized.” The film’s meanings are conveyed not in language, but in aesthetics and appearance; the look, the sound, and the structure of the work itself. As scholar William C. Wees notes in his seminal 1991 study of avant-garde film Light Moving in Time, “Film techniques such as superimposition pose questions about seeing and confront the viewer with a more complex and dynamic experience of visual perception than is normally the case in film viewing.” The formal technique of layering images one atop the other – a visual effect accomplished either in the optical printing lab, through double exposure in camera, or via digital editing (depending on the project’s medium of production) – is curiously positioned as an aesthetic, allegorical device in experimental works like Hoffman’s Kitchener-Berlin.

Certain compelling visual motifs recur throughout the sonically sparse Kitchener-Berlin that sensuously signify what theorist Vivian Sobchack calls an “expression of experience by experience,” although their meanings are ambiguous and never fully explained. Most noticeable to the eyes are Hoffman’s camera’s slow, sweeping, oft-repeated 360-degree pans of public spaces – a city parkade, an urban street, an office building – over which he often lays in footage of expressive faces of people in crowds; images presumably culled from private home movie archives of parades and other staged civic events. Hoffman’s Canadian fringe film peer Mike Hoolboom describes these visual passages in Kitchener-Berlin in his 1997 book Inside the Pleasure Dome, when he writes, “Juxtaposed with images of the past, the Steadicam is filled with a sense of returning. Because its movement isn’t attached to a body or person, and its movement is so uniform, it’s as if the ghost of technology had ventured back to visit what it had occasioned, to look over all that’s been constructed in its wake.”

In terms of the film’s form and aesthetics, the recurring superimposed Steadicam images can be read with respect to the structural strategy of the film as a whole. There are numerous instances where Hoffman uses optical printing to problematize the singularity of meaning evoked at the surface of the screen. Not only are his images unstable at their base, in that his pans are disembodied expressions that register in the body and produce disorientation in the viewer, but the address of the images in the foreground offers merely traces of objects and people that/who are not quite there. Hoffman’s intent is not simply for the viewer to sit in evaluation of the fragile materiality of the film itself. He also provides the audience with coded images – from both a recognizable archival past and those of another time that are rooted in his own autobiography – to look at, to ponder. The images are thus loosely organized in terms of a formal structure, albeit an abstract one that appears motivated by a construction based on theme. Again, the effect on the viewer initiated by way of the layering of particular image sources is more effectively understood as aesthetic allegory than as narrative. The film’s referents of landscape and identity are never entirely connected, nor finitely resolved. In looking upon the pasts visually represented in Kitchener-Berlin, it is as if notions of history and memory – whether collective or personal – may never be fully known. Even when cinema is at its most abstract and materially reflexive, film is not understood by the viewer as merely the sum of its constructed physical component parts unless it is constructed by its maker in order to be experienced as such.

In other sections of the film Hoffman, explores the arbitrariness of expression at the level of the cinematographic image. Early on in the work he incorporates what appears to be a faded archival photograph of a train station bearing the sign ‘Kitchener.’ Mere minutes later, followed by a loosely-bound sequence of underexposed home movie images of an iconic 1950s family at play, the same train station image returns to the screen; however, this time it bears the sign ‘Berlin’. Whereas the audience is able to have access to other sites of knowledge – libraries, museums, and the like – in order to sift out the temporal historical logic implied by the shifting ‘Kitchener-Berlin’ sign, Hoffman’s juxtaposed images appear as a challenge to such ‘rational’ forms of history-making. His visual allegory is not simply a challenge in terms of questioning the finite results arrived at through linearly motivated historical inquiries; it is also a problematization of the way traditional history-making is carried out by an uncritical eye focused through the technological apparatus of the cinema. The film artist’s revisualization of past times and places invites the viewer to review the meanings of historical memory, loosening the chains of traditional logic that bind us to ‘making sense.’ The allegorical layered images of Kitchener-Berlin are thus structured in order to encourage readings of history that are less focused and fall outside of more conventional ways of seeing. The film favours the recognition of a complex audio-visual life that is rarely addressed in more traditional narrative cinema.

John Piekoszewski