Thawing Phil Hoffman’s Freeze-up (1979)
Every filmmaker has to start somewhere, except that Phil Hoffman’s debut in the Media Arts Department of Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ontario, was astonishing. His first student effort, the experimental documentary On the Pond (1978) is still in active distribution. In retrospect it was probably a defining moment in the convergence of Canadian documentary and experimental film that has become one of our most critically successful modes of cinema. It is in this context that the student films of this accomplished and internationally acclaimed Canadian film artist deserve a second look. I was privileged to teach Phil Hoffman at Sheridan from 1976 to 1979. The roles have since reversed; after graduation, he became a model filmmaker for me – an inspiration. This is surely the ultimate reward for a teacher.
Calling Hoffman “an independent filmmaker of intricate artistic achievement and philosophical depth,” Peter Harcourt includes his second student film, Freeze-up (1979), with his Canadian Film Encyclopedia entry – a film other references to Hoffman’s substantial body of work omit, including Mike Hoolboom’s extensive text, Fringe Film in Canada, and even Hoffman’s own website. Despite that, this 9-minute narrative anomaly is still available through the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto. Freeze-up is interesting in part for what it says about the ways in which this filmmaker did not develop, yet it flirts with the “exorcism and espousal” Harcourt attributes to all Hoffman’s work.
Freeze-up is about internal conflicts he was having at the time about giving in to industrial models versus the more autobiographical documentary approach he had undertaken in On the Pond (in which he realizes playing hockey on frozen ponds as a kid was more fulfilling than the competitive hockey he played later.) In Freeze-upthe protagonist is ingested by a McLuhanesque electronic mediascape, obscuring his identity, and suggesting – as Phil has warned elsewhere – “if you don’t uncover your past, you freeze up.” This metaphor of freezing, in particular the tension between the imprisonment of ice on the one hand, and the freedom it offers to glide gracefully over its surface, is something that re-occurs in Hoffman’s early films. On the Pond is an obvious example, but so is passing through/torn formations (1988), which begins with a Chris Dewdney poem about moths pressed between layers of stone which a young boy pries apart: “Freed, they flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust-devil,” and in the process escape fossilization. In that film, investigating his mother’s (Czechoslovakian) side of the family, Hoffman said the freed moths represented “the uncovering of family history, making it an open, interactive system.”
Freeze-up begins with the protagonist skating across a frozen pond while a montage of commercial radio sounds gradually intrudes – the beginning of the mediated environment that comes to dominate the film. It’s one of the few occasions where Hoffman ever used an actor, but the fact that he shot most of the skating footage from a subjective point of view suggests the protagonist is really him. Even in this film, seemingly distanced from the autobiographical quest of On the Pond, Hoffman cast his sister Philomene, along with long time Kitchener friend, Donny Fitzpatrick. The protagonist (Fitzpatrick) finds himself driving into the city at night, seeking human contact while listening to the radio montage including a hellfire preacher warning, “we are reaching the time of the end – Lord we pray you will work a tremendous miracle!” As in On the Pond, these represent the beginnings of Hoffman’s signature collection of sounds, images, and other material which make the filmmaking act itself an odyssey that figures reflexively in most of his films. Back in the car, another disembodied voice blames political apathy on the prevalence of discos and disco dancing... “leading young people to a lobotom...” Here Hoffman has cut the sound and switched to the interior of a discotheque, where the protagonist sits mesmerized by strobe-lit dancers, whom the filmmaker has optically step-printed into a dazzling series of freeze frames, all to the tune of “Disco Inferno” – gruesomely slowed down to half-speed. The roars and rhythmic utterings drive the protagonist back outside, where he is met with the blank stares of disco mannequins frozen in dance poses. We see a girl (played by Philomene) surveying the same window frieze, seemingly as lost as he is. The two of them wind up at home surrounded by an array of electronic gadgets distracting them from any intimacy. Hoffman has filmed this scene in a deep-focus long take, foretelling his fondness for the 28-sec- ond “breath” of the Bolex he explores further in films like ?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986). Back on the couch, the protagonist turns on a TV program warning about violence to follow, but his girlfriend wins back his attention playing a recording of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” No sooner do they begin to embrace when a power failure plunges everything into darkness and silence, symbolically killing the couple. When the lights come back on they are nowhere to be seen – until a cut reveals the lovers swallowed whole by the television set, skating hand-in-hand on the frozen pond where the film started.
Hoffman had read Marshall McLuhan by that point, which obviously influenced him in Freeze-up, and while it may not be a mature work (which Phil would be the first to admit), it nevertheless pre-dates David Cronenberg’s McLuhanesque Videodrome (1983) by four years – a film in which the protagonist is literally sucked into the TV set. Cronenberg’s cinematographer, Mark Irwin C.S.C., had seen and admired Freeze-up when he wrote a reference to the Canada Council in support of Phil’s third film, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), another personal odyssey. Freeze-up is important because it explores some of the themes and methods Hoffman fully engages in later films – death and revival, technology and culture, self-referentiality, layers of reflexive meaning. Not a mature film perhaps, but Freeze-up towered above most student efforts. It was a work whose promise of great things to come would still be astonishing for any film teacher to receive today.
PHIL, FILM, AND HOCKEY: A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE
Phil Hoffman not only made us look good as teachers. There was also hockey. His first student work, On the Pond, made for my “Basic 16mm Production” course, revealed just how serious he had been about hockey. After playing Junior B in Kitchener-Waterloo, Phil was snapped up by the Sheridan varsity team, where he played alongside Richard Kerr, equally accomplished member of the so-called “Escarpment School” of experimental filmmakers that emerged from Sheridan. Phil was a digger in the corners – a hard worker with intense concentration and skill. But the competition was too much for his self-effacing and peace-loving nature, so he quit and simply switched his hard work and talent to filmmaking, contented just to play intramural hockey. Somehow I found myself on that Media Arts team. One time, while I was lazily hanging out by the blue line waiting for a miracle pass, he fed me one – right on the tape. Now on a sudden breakaway and unsure what to do with the puck, I weakly backhanded it at the goalie’s pads. Somehow it went through what I later learned was “the five hole,” turning out to be the game winner. Years later, when Phil started teaching at York University, I watched him play in an industrial league with guys fifteen years younger. He was still digging in the corners, coming out with the puck and scoring with imagination. This is what Phil Hoffman continues to do with his intricately crafted films, inviting audiences to join him “on the pond,” where we too can unfreeze our creativity and our hearts.