Interview. Two or three things about Philip Hoffman’s films

Jun 9, 2018 | Interviews

How did you start to deal with personal things in your films?
I had a teacher, Rick Hancox, who discussed how in order to make a film about the world, your first need to look at yourself. I had a lot of family photographs and I decided that I would go into these photographs to try to understand what was there what had come before. That was the start of On the Pond, that was a student film and I really tried to create a cinematic mechanism that would allow for “real things” happen on screen. So, it was my birthday and I made all these slides from the family photographs and I put two microphones in the room and I had invited my family to come for a slideshow. I didn’t tell them that they were being recorded. They still haven’t sued me! But in fact my family loves being photographed and love seeing themselves in photographs like most people do and so from that I had a soundtrack that I could then go through the photographs and find out which photographs work. From the interaction of the family to the photographs probably the deepest darkest thing I learned was, there’s a picture of my mother with her back to the camera. I’m looking at her trying to please her and my father’s sort of like discovering the world on top of the rock and as the family talks about this picture, what comes up is that this was a walk-on one day in the fall and my dad said “and you were feeling lousy” to my mother, in other words, while she wasn’t just feeling lousy, she had bouts of depression all through her life. This was an opening point for me, looking into family and not just looking at it in a on the surface. It starts there with On the Pond, there’s that little moment of uneasiness in the picture but then I think it grows as I get ten years later to passing through / torn formations, where the family stories are coming out in my mother’s family and their immigration to Canada and the birth of my uncle who is undiagnosed schizophrenia. That set me on a path to always in my work connect to the personal in some way and I think the personal can be direct about your family but it also is just a way of working which is not depending on large budgets or a point where you can not make your film because you don’t have the right equipment. There’s always a possibility to make a film, that’s the path that I chose.
There are other elements in On the Pond,  like these images of the boy playing hockey, and there is a kind of complex editing structure, can you talk about a little bit about this?
I was interested in the new novel, from James Joyce to Robbe-Grillet, and I remember Robbe-Grillet telling, as a screenwriter, the importance in cinema of dealing with time. The conventional film shows you every step of the way: But Robbe-Grillet, he said that the element of time is what they were interested in in the new novel –of course this comes from film, the moving image influences Joyce. In time there might be a hesitation or there might be something that comes into your mind that’s from some memory from somewhere else, so film has that possibility of moving around in time in terms of both the present and the imagination. So I think in On the Pond the skating is a narrative that I shot, where my cousin plays myself as a young boy on the pond with the dog. So that structure of the slideshow and then this sort of reenactment create a kind of division between a so-called reality which maybe comes out of the photographs to this sort of dream memory idea. With passing through / torn formations that sense of fragmentation which happened through the mind, through memory, is strewn through my uncle’s, who’s undiagnosed schizophrenic, through his mind. Mi vision of what it might be. He was a tremendous accordion player, ant taught me accordion, so I have been closely linked to him. I wanted to tell all the story of my mother’s family, coming from what was then the Austrian Hungarian Empire in the 1920s to Kapuskasing, a logging town in Canada, and I wanted to tell that story in a way that mimics the fluidity of the mind, how we can be in many places at one time. So in passing through / torn formations, there is obviously non-linearity but also the family members, they’re not depicted in the traditional sense of a portrait of a person. You will see the young girl running through the field, but here’s a story of the boy. Or my mother talks about her story about looking for the cow and at that point I kind of reenact it with a scene in Czechoslovakia of my second cousin playing my mother. In a family we are one another in some ways. It’s a tumultuous family but in some ways our personalities are fluid. We become each other in some ways and I think that happens in the filming, that is sort of prophetic in the sense of how my uncle sees the world. He can make very fast shifts from one thing to another thing and spontaneously and poetically creates a story that’s fragmented but makes some sort of sense.
There is a sense of “stream of consciousness” in these films, but then Kitchener-Berlin is like more abstract, more visual, layered and complex…
Each project would demand a different form. I try to represent different ways that I saw the world or how I was influenced by the world. And I think what’s a big thing for me is the empathy towards others that can tell me which way to go rather than me having all the answers. So the film is always a kind of canvas where it’s not just what I feel but it’s my reaction to the subject.
In many ways in passing through / torn formations I was embracing my mother’s family and as discussed Kitchener-Berlin is embracing my father’s family. I was born in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which is a German town: it was called Berlin before the first World War and the name was changed to Kitchener because of the war. I see Kitchener as my father in a certain way, as a city. So in this film I use the home movies from that side of the family and I did this portrait of Kitchener and Germany where I traveled. I met Stan Brakhage around 1988. He showed up at one of my screenings in Canada and then he moved to Toronto, because he spent a number of years there. So there was a lot of interaction with Brakhage and I must say that also influenced me. We had trade prints and there were soirées, Toronto was close for him at that time. So in that film there’s even a clip from Blue Moses in this sort of expulsion of found footage that happens and his is one of them. I think I was very much into trancing to some other kinds of worlds to find what Brakhage did with Metaphors on Vision, to find that origin of seeing. So that that’s why Kitchener-Berlin is much more visual and much more trance-like.[:]