The Gift of Dying with Philip Hoffman-Mike Hoolboom

Who has not marveled at the triumph of slow motion? At the end of every sporting event the decisive moments of the past hours float past in a dreamy montage, everything slowed to a crawl, as if it had occurred days, even years ago, part of a past that seems already out of reach, filled with bygone charms. The pages of Vimeo and YouTube have delivered us to a global tidal wave of slow motion magics, where heroines of time are caught in the full thrall of their secret erotic life, their faces filled with hand grenade smiles and arms stretch beyond the horizon with an inflated heroism. In his too familiar essay, Walter Benjamin wrote about slow motion as a way to defeat capitalism. He imagined that hidden within our everyday gestures were a cornucopia of unseen resistances, that our bodies performed a micro-politics of nay saying that the camera would at last reveal. But the digital revolution appears to have unveiled these once hidden intervals as another area of over exposure, bent beneath the first law of digital culture: that everything should be visible, bright, clear, tagged, identifiable. The surveillance state insists: there is no outside.

If slow motion is on my mind, it must be because I’m watching Phil Hoffman’s Aged (45 minutes, 2014). It’s a movie about his old dad. Hell, even the filmmaker and I have grown old by now, so his father is older than old. He lives in a shrunken world, reduced to a few simple pleasures: looking out the window for instance, taking in the birds, the snow, the water. Phil takes the radical stance of allowing us to live in his father’s time. Let’s slow everything down now and just watch his darkened silhouette for a while as he perches by the window. There’s nothing else to do, there’s nowhere else to be but right here.

His helplessness and infirmity, the halting frozen steps along the path, and then the sheer relief of sitting. He is surrounded by Phil’s hovering camera (barely noticed) and his smiling daughters; family provides the first and last community vigil. Curiously or not, his face doesn’t appear square in the frame until halfway through the film. It is kept from us, as if we needed time for it to arrive, as if we needed to make an approach before we could receive this world of a face. But when his caretaker nurse comes with a bowlful of soup for lunch, the camera is planted on the floor craning upwards to catch the remains of his face as he says, “OK.” Even in his last days, his last hours, he is saying yes. Who could hope for anything more than that?

It’s strange to hear Toni Edelmann’s post-glitch electronica seep into the collage of familial recordings. I can’t remember hearing textures quite like this in Phil’s making; in fact, these are roads that have been too well travelled in my own work, so it’s odd to encounter them here, vibrating across a drift of fallen snow as birds float past, or rumbling down a wintry highway, every snowflake an invitation for a new dream.

There is so much that is familiar here, it’s like stepping into an old pair of jeans. So many of the traffic signs of the avant-garde are present, lingering shots of water, for instance, passing metaphorical landscapes eccentrically lensed, as if only one person might have ever seen this mountain, this road, in this way. There are registers of material development, hand-processing marks, film flares and audio hiss, film grain and raster lines, the material residue of the various recording mediums urgently leaving their trace; or else, the maker resolutely bringing them forward, reminding us of the apparatus at work, drawing aside the curtain again and again in order to show us both the beauty of the machine and the costs of recording, and how much is being left out.

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But inside these codes (or is it better to say ‘alongside’ or ‘accompanying’?) there is a deep personal urgency, the sense that here is someone standing at the frontline of their life, recording the inside and the outside in a single gesture, not only rocks and treeline and forest, but also blood and organs, the mysteries of the circulatory system, the way these ancient familial inheritances have taken root and flowered in this new skin. The first collage, the first edit, is the body, patchworked out of family DNA. The filmmaker looks at his father’s once large and capable hands in awe, an old reel produces an unexpected stage for showing off, dad throws some empty truck tires around and then flexes a bicep for the camera’s edification. There used to be no mountain too high, but now getting out of bed is the day’s major achievement. Every meal, every spoonful, every look is a mountain.

There is no guest star parade to assure us of the importance of the subject, and secretly of course, our own importance. There is no one who testifies on his behalf, who fills in his silences with their public recordings. Instead, the artist calls us to bear witness, to sit in his quiet frames, many mapped out via video and then re-filmed, textured and layered like the relationship between artist and subject, father and son. They are perched together in the old man’s last home, a cottage retreat, a place for dying. A last supper, a last look. Can you see what I see?

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Aged is comprised of materially reworked home movies, snapshots, and sound recordings caught on the fly. A clutch of pics show the artist’s father posing in front of his Kitchener, Ontario meat plant: Hoffman’s Meats. Even the portrait shots are made by Phil at his artful best, when he refashions his sisters as viewing frames for example, and they never lose the status of home, of movies sifted from the material of what is happening in his life. The artist never asks his three sisters to weigh in on their father’s singular gifts, there is nothing to mark him as special in any sense, except for the gravity of the shots that cluster round him. And between these familial encounters there are driving passages, the camera staring out at northern Ontario landmarks through the windscreen portal. It’s as if the artist has to make an approach, again and again, to find a way to reach his father, as if they have no choice now but to remake their bond, their family union, their place inside one another.

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The unwanted gift of time, the time of waiting, the time it takes to receive a face, who could bear to receive such gifts? It reminds me of old Derrida’s rule: that every gift is unwanted. Present and poison. I’m so grateful to swallow it here. Films are made of time, they make time material, whether as a floating plastic ribbon, a stretch of videotape, even a digital swarm. But it’s rare, in this moment when our computers have erased time, acting like time bombs (Where did my morning go? Where did my life go?), that movies can grant us the gift of time. And how do they manage the feat? Sometimes because they take time to make. They take the time to look (it has taken me my whole life to cross the room to the bed where my father is dying, my whole life is in every step), and occasionally – it’s rare but it still happens – they can offer the time of their making to the viewer as a gift.

In Aged the home movies return again and we watch the children open their presents, and then a brace of couples kissing, performing their kissing for the cameras and the array of bright lights that ensure proper exposure. Everyone here is properly exposed, and what these home movies show is how even, and especially, these everyday moments are performed, rehearsed, and choreographed, camera-ready. How do I perform my place in the couple, in the family, how can I become a son and daughter, a father even? The camera arrives to remind us of our masks, our winning poses, even as it challenges us to feel the passing moments, to face what cannot be faced. How does the good son meet the end of his father? With golden light, and a pair of empty lawn chairs, a lone swan, long the animal familiar for this restless traveller, the body floats above the water but the head is buried beneath the surface, hunting for clues, for the mysteries of sex and death and family that are waiting there for anyone brave enough to endure them.

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Mike Hoolboom’s new book You Only Live Twice (co-authored by the glam Chase Joynt) will be published in the spring of 2016 by Coach House Press.

A film artist of memory and association, Philip Hoffman has long been recognized as Canada’s pre-eminent diary filmmaker. He apprenticed in Europe with Peter Greenaway in 1985, where he made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1985), which was nominated for a Canadian Genie Award. He has been honoured with more than a dozen retrospectives of his work. Among them was the centrepiece series at the 2001 Images Festival for Independent Film and Video in Toronto, coupled with the launch of a book titled Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman, comprising some 25 essays by academics and artists. As well in 2002 he received the Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival and Gus Van Sant Award from the Ann Arbor Film Festival for What These Ashes Wanted, a diaristic meditation on loss and grief. In 2009 he premiered his feature-length experimental documentary, All Fall Down, at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is a reflection on childhood, property, ecology and love.  In 2013 Hoffman presented his installation, Slaughterhouse in the LandSlide exhibition at the Markham Museum – a 7-channel work which weaves inter-connected stories of loss throughout southern Ontario: of land and agriculture, of property and business, through political, social, economic and environmental slaughter. Hoffman has screened his films in international festivals and galleries in Holland, Belgium, China, India, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, USA and South America. He currently teaches at York University in Toronto, and since 1994, he has been the artistic director of the Independent Imaging Retreat (Film Farm), a 1 week workshop in artisinal filmmaking which occurs on his farm in southern Ontario every summer. He has also given these `Process Cinema’ workshops in Cuba at EICTV, London at Lux, Helsinki, Halifax, and Dawson City. In 2014, Hoffman completed two films: Slaughterhouse (based on his installation for LandSlide), and Aged, which have won awards at Black Maria Film Festival in New Jersey, and Onion City Film Festival in Chicago, respectively. In 2015, Hoffman co-directed By the Time We Got to Expo, with Toronto filmmaker Eva Kolcze.



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