Landscape With Shipwreck: The Films Of Philip Hoffman program one, Saturday (April 14), 7 pm; program two, Sunday (April 15), 9 pm; both at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex). Rating: NNNNN
Philip Hoffman pushes the van-guard of personal filmmaking, running the pictures that pass before his eyes through a spring-wound Bolex camera, a hand-processing tank and an editing machine.
The result is a life, collected, distilled and presented as neither documentary nor fiction, but a kind of chronicle of insight.
The centrepiece of this year's iMAGES is a Hoffman retrospective, coinciding with the launch of a new book on his work edited by Mike Hoolboom and Karyn Sandlos. Hoffman's films are compressed and intimate, so the retro amounts to only two screenings. But the emotional complexities resonate for ages.
Hoffman's themes are timeless -- love, death and the responsibility of making images. For his best-known work, ?O Zoo! (The Making Of A Fiction Film) (April 15, 9 pm), he shadowed director Peter Greenaway on the set of A Zed And Two Noughts, and turned in a film that's not only more engaging than Greenaway's, but more truthful. His first film, On The Pond (April 14, 7 pm), finds an intimation of mortality in a memory of pickup hockey.
Death is a palpable presence in Hoffman's films, sometimes literally. Somewhere Between Jalostitlan And Encarnacion (April 15, 9 pm) conjures up the image of a dead boy on a road in Mexico, an image that Hoffman witnessed but would not film. Passing through/torn formations, (April 15, 9 pm) is equally principled about showing Hoffman's grandmother in physical decline, near death.
The heart of the Hoffman spotlight is the premiere of What These Ashes Wanted (April 14, 7 pm), his longest, bravest and surely most heartbreaking film. Like all his work, it's a memory piece. Hoffman's partner, writer Marian McMahon, died in November 1996. I knew McMahon only a little, but well enough to know she was a thinker whose most important work lay in conversations with her intimates. (Each year, iMAGES presents an award in her name.)
The new film begins from footage Hoffman and McMahon shot together, but it succeeds because Hoffman transforms that footage into an unblinking expression of the vast, intangible spectrum of grief. As he admits in the film, "At the instant of her passing I felt at peace with her leaving, a feeling I no longer hold."
Sitting in the fieldstone farmhouse up near Mount Forest where he teaches an annual workshop, Hoffman searches for the words to explain how he transmutes feeling to film.
"It's the study of the unconscious," he says. "If you work with chance, collecting images without a script, things happen and you just film what you want. You're collecting these images on an unconscious level."
Later, "There's a thing that happens in the darkroom when the images start to come. The epiphany of that moment, the excitement of that, is what I try to maintain in my filmmaking."
With What These Ashes Wanted, the process of crafting the film became more important than ever.
"People have different ways of handling grieving," Hoffman notes. "I had this art, or this process that I'd been doing, that was there for me. It was automatic. It was a place to put the pain. And I'm thankful for it."
Hoffman worked with McMahon's image and words over the past four years. The result is tender, bracing and sublime. But for Hoffman, the film's value lies in the act of its making.
"All my work is a ritual," he says. "I do it every day."