Tales of Hoffman (Expected Time of Arrival)
looking through the lens
I recall what once was
and consider what might be
Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984)
It seems so often the case with experimental film in Canada and elsewhere that one hears or reads about a film or filmmaker before one experiences any of the work; if one is tenacious or lucky enough to come across the work at all, that is. Indeed, in the Information Age, it is far easier to come across commentary on an experimental filmmaker than it is to see the work, especially in a public screening. One, it seems, is always either too late or too early: if you read about the film first, you have of course arrived after the fact, for textual commentary is only ever secondary, at (at least) one remove, delayed, somehow inauthentic. Ideally, one sees the film first, with fresh eyes and an unbiased perspective, without the taint of someone else’s interpretation; to see the film after a text is to somehow spoil the authentic experience. Paradoxically, one has arrived both too early (interpretation too soon) and too late (always after the screening, after the event, etc.). Too early, too late: this is how I arrive(d) at the films of Philip Hoffman.
The ambivalent nature of my arrival at Hoffman’s films finds an illuminating parallel in what philosopher Giorgio Agamben identifies as the three modalities of human temporality: post festum, intra festum, and ante festum. Agamben focuses his discussion on the subject’s experience of itself - the subject’s body as well as its subjectivity, its “I.” According to Agamben, “Post festum temporality is that of the melancholic, who always experiences his [sic] own ‘I’ in the form of an ‘I was,’ of an irrevocably accomplished past with respect to which one can only be in debt” (125). The melancholic is directed toward the past, ever seeking to reclaim the lost moment of an event only to feel that she is “after the celebration,” always already late, and, therefore, guilty. On the other hand, ante festum temporality “corresponds to the experience of the schizophrenic... For the schizophrenic, the ‘I’ is never a certain possession; it is always something to be attained, and the schizophrenic therefore always lives time in the form of anticipation” (126). The schizophrenic of ante festum only ever looks ahead, experiencing the present in relation to a projected future “celebration,” where she becomes in essence all of her potentialities, without remainder. For this reason, the schizophrenic constantly risks arriving too soon, thus missing the moment. The schizophrenic is poised just before the event, the melancholic, just after.
Does Agamben’s second category, intra festum, reconcile these two poles of human temporality and describe the event of “living in the moment,” however fugitive and fleeting it may be? Agamben says no, for intra festumtakes two shapes: one is a kind of obsessive neurosis, where “the obsessive type seeks through repetition to document his [sic] own presence at a celebration that constantly eludes him” (127). In her efforts to assert and record her self-presence in the moment, the neurotic in fact splits the moment, fractures its unity through the force of repetition. (In terms of media, I would place much of what is called Reality TV in this neurotic category.) Agamben takes epilepsy as his second example of intra festum, where the subject loses consciousness at the moment of self-presence, the result of a kind of “ecstatic excess over presence” (127). The subject’s experience of presence either leads to a physical transformation or death, both cases where the subject is altered irrevocably, where, especially in death, the subject ceases to exist as such. The epileptic of intra festum would then not be a middle point between the melancholic and the schizophrenic but rather a zone of indistinction between the two, an undecidable oscillation between past and future, before and after. Indeed, for Agamben, “man [sic] seems necessarily to dwell in a disjunction with respect to himself and his own dies festus [‘day of celebration’] (128). Ultimately, the “I” is the space of disjunction as such. I am tempted to offer, then, that the film screening itself is such a disjunction, its own “ecstatic excess” flickering between multiple temporalities, light and dark, the image and nothingness. To repeat, this is how I arrive(d) at the films of Philip Hoffman.
For me Hoffman’s films are a beautiful example of the strangest of coincidences and of the absolute workings of inexorable fate. In their having given cinematic shape to the temporal condition of humanity, Hoffman’s films are testimonies to a continued engagement with discontinuity, to a coherent and sustained exploration of life before and after the “celebration.” At risk of overshadowing the specificity of each of his works, I think that if we refer to Hoffman’s oeuvre as a kind of “first person cinema,” we can do so in the (implicit) terms of Agamben’s discussion of the melancholic and the schizophrenic, the obsessive neurotic and the epileptic. Subjectivity, the “I,” caught in the intermedial, ever-changing flux of time, is the disjunctive marker of time itself. The “I” is the contingent and mutable, yet necessary, spectral presence of the body and the voice differentially related in and to a community of speakers and listeners. That is, the performative utterance of the "I" is always struggling to catch up to the body (just as criticism struggles with its object, the film); the "I" shifts from body to body, offering and exchanging its power.
Hoffman’s films stage (embody) the encounter (relation) between the “too early” and the “too late,” which often turns on the function of memory. Indeed, if humanity’s temporal existence is the ongoing to and fro of past and future, Hoffman addresses this by making memory’s workings explicit in the very construction and reception of his films, which meditate on the conditions of cinema as such. Again, Agamben is valuable in setting the terms of the issue. In one of his articles on cinema, he states:
Memory is, so to speak, the organ of reality’s modalization; it is that which can transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real. If you think about it, that’s also the definition of cinema. Doesn’t cinema always do just that, transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real?... Cinema takes place in this zone of indifference. (316)
Often critics writing about Hoffman stress how his films blur the boundaries between experimental and documentary film, and it is to Hoffman’s credit that his work explores both but abandons neither. Rather, the two categories are exposed in their mutual implication: Hoffman shows us how experimental film is also a document of people, places and time; of bodies and voices and breath and gesture; of how it can affect the very stuff of the world in a direct way and is not merely a question of aesthetics. He shows us how documentary is an intervention in and transformation of the world, as much an exploration of the (im)possible as an archive of the known. It is as if Hoffman’s films somehow remember back to when documentary and experimental practice were one, before their solidification and objectification into distinct categories and discursive systems. Against the positivist epistemologies and certainties of state documentary, Hoffman’s experimental documentaries are nonteleological and noninstrumental, open to the wellspring of difference that animates the world. Concomitant with this openness, however, is the avowal of a profound unease and disturbance, a perpetual threat of disconnection that leads to a sort of unreality, a corrosion of all foundation. This is a risk in Hoffman’s films.
This risk is something that never really seems to trouble Canada’s neighbour to the South, at least in so far as its mythology is concerned. In Agamben’s sense, the US is schizophrenic, for in its emphasis on the individual and manifest destiny it looks ahead to the celebration when all things coincide, when one is oneself and no one else, in the moment. In The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), for example, Hoffman meets beat generation filmmaker Robert Frank in Nova Scotia, only to find that he has arrived too late, that the moment (so heralded in the writings of Kerouac and Ginsberg) has passed. The mythology of the beats runs up against what I am reluctant to call a “Canadian experience,” which seems to partake of a melancholic temporality, where one is never fully oneself as they perpetually ask where they are and why and how they got (t)here. Indeed, our (colonial) past weighs heavily on the past/future as an “I was” (I was British, Indian, German, Czech, Chinese, etc...), and the landscape, far from offering itself as the (American) frontier, responds with a kind of echo of the question - an effect, perhaps, of its vast nature. Again, Hoffman’s films navigate these questions by traversing the paradoxical space of intra festum, epileptically traversing the space between the past and the future in their use of the “I.” Allow me to furnish all of this with a couple of examples from two of his films.
Hoffman sets seemingly innocuous images from a trip to Mexico and elsewhere against a poetic text telling of the death of a young Mexican boy in Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984), a travelogue involving 28-second takes with a Bolex camera. The image and text are intimate with one another, not didactically affirming the same point in unison, but maintaining their relative autonomy - together, intimate, by virtue of their difference and disjunction. We never see an image of the dead boy and, in this way, it acts as a kind of absent centre to the film. The event of the death is suspended, apprehended as something past that cannot be grasped, yet continually suggesting the possibility of future meaning in every potential association each viewer constructs. Indeed, the space of intra festum in Somewhere is between, and, it seems to me, the strongest authorial imprint Hoffman makes in the film is his editorial choice to exclude theimageofdeath. Hoffman’s“I,”then,isanabsentcentremanifestinthe suspension of the image.
In one of his most well-known films, passing through/torn formations (1988), Hoffman attempts to take stock of memories from his mother’s side of the family, crossing back and forth between Czechoslavakia and Canada. Histories of birth and death, mental illness and war overlap in the peripatetic trajectory of the film, with Hoffman adopting a multitude of perspectives from which he perceives the fragments of family history. The “I” narrating the film is a singular-plural “I,” a shared signifier of subjectivity. The centre of the film, so to speak, is Hoffman’s description of his mentally disturbed uncle Wally’s corner mirror, which, mirroring itself, is said to show “the real you.” We are told the mirror was constructed for the purposes of restoring Wally’s sense of self, which he believes was fractured in his youth. The central metaphor of the corner mirror, then, embodies the experience of intra festum, at once situated between a past traumatic event and a projection into a future sense of wholeness (doubled, of course, in the super-imposition of past and present in the images and narrative of the film). passing through/torn formations is a sustained attempt to possess one’s own ungraspable nature, to articulate the epileptic experience of the “celebration.”
In this piece I have considered Philip Hoffman’s films in three superimposed, yet ostensibly distinct, levels: one, my own experience of his films within the context of access, exhibition and reception (a situated, historical perspective); two, in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben (an ontological perspective on the human condition); and, three, in terms of his films’ form and content (analytical, critical). For me, the consideration of one illuminates the other, especially in regard to gaining a sense of humanity’s (temporal) condition. Indeed, whether the result of convention or ideology, if we wander through our lives in arrogant bliss or miserably without history or connection, Hoffman’s films help us to clear away our assumptions and readymade conclusions. In his attention to the disjunctive connection between historical and personal memory, between the subjectivity of the “I” and the body, Hoffman’s practice subtracts ossified certainties and adds to our collective spectrum of experience, reinventing our relation(s) to the past and the future. If I arrive at Hoffman’s films in the paradoxical state of too early, too late, so be it: it fits. I arrived. I arrive. I will have arrived.
Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Brooklyn, New York: Zone Books, 1999.
“Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films.” Trans. Brian Holmes. Ed. Tom McDonough. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents (October Books). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002. 313-319.