In/Between Spaces by Darrell Varga
Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice.
For this reason, spatial practices concern everyday tactics.
-Michel de Certeau
I think childhood is so traumatic we sleep through most of it.
The play of light and dark in Phil Hoffman's river (1978-79) is formed in a tension between film and video, water and land, silence and sound, nature and culture in an invocation to awake from the trauma of personal history. These tensions are not simple dualisms but are dialectical processes enmeshed in the experiences of space and time suggested in my opening quotations. river opens with a series of images shot on film from a small boat drifting down the Saugeen River, a suggestion of tranquility even as the calm flow is unsettled by the absence of sound.3 We are presented with the frame as signifier of absence rather than window onto the world. The subsequent sequence realizes this landscape surface in the altogether different texture of black and white video, but now our relationship to this framed space is overdetermined by the presence of sound. While the technology of reproduction shifts from tactile and mechanical photography to its electronic counterpart, there is no longer human intervention in the steering of the boat, which now drifts according to the riverís current. The boat's surface amplifies the sound waves as it floats over the water's surface in a movement of becoming simultaneously free and confined. The microphone rests on the boat seat recording the bump and grind of collisions with tree branches jutting out from the riverís edge. The sound is both jarring in exaggeration while hollow in artificiality. Likewise, the images are at once tranquil and interlaced with sudden reframing movements.
The camera enframes the liquid surface which in turn reflects the clouds floating in the sky above, at once an opaque sheen and permeable depth always mediated by the touch of photo-mechanical process. The easy contrast of the human intervention in nature is complicated by the subsequent scene in which the first segment is rephotographed. Here, the edges of the frame are evident and the space on-screen where the dissolve sutures together transitions from one shot to another is effaced. Instead, we see the white screen on which this re-photographing process is projected. This deferral of meaning is further destabilized in the final segment, a return to the river to film underwater. In this sequence, silent images move quickly between lightness and dark in an onward flow through the liquid surface and across the textures of sand, rock, and light, marking a reterritorialization of our relationship to this space in front of the camera. Movement no longer confined to the shape of the boat merges with the object of the image, the water as both surface and depth, recalling Gilles Deleuzeís commentary on Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934):
On land, movement always takes place from one point to another, always between two points, while on water the point is always between two movements: it thus marks the conversion or the inversion of movement, as in the hydraulic relationship of a dive and a counter-dive, which is found in the movement of the camera itself...Finally, a clairvoyant function is developed in water, in opposition to earthly vision: it is in the water that the loved one who has disappeared is revealed, as if perception enjoyed a scope and interaction, a truth which it did not have on land.4
In drawing out the relationship between Deleuze's thinking and Phil Hoffman's film practice, it is important to recall that for Deleuze, philosophy is not theoretical abstraction but is vital conceptual practice, a kind of assemblage in which the engagement with cinema reveals the practice of thought outside the confines of Cartesian dualism. Hoffman's filmmaking practice similarly depends upon the immediacy of intuitive and physical response. For Deleuze, cinema is a primary determinant of our understanding of space and time, and must be met outside of the constraining technical-interpretive methods of psychoanalysis.5 Like the hollow sound of the boat bumping into the shore in river, Hoffman's films grind against normative conventions of documentary and genre categorization. They offer a reconfiguration of indexical presence emerging against assumptions of fixedness: of the borders of the frame, of order, finality, Truth. They can be understood, following Deleuze's fluid metaphors, as experimental process: "no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence...embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of means and aims."6 By disrupting the ordered measure of images toward a coherent teleology, cinematic experimentation serves a necessary critical function. But its function is not simply as corrective to the positivist tendency of realist narrative and critical discourse; instead, it is the creation of an alternative space in-between that which is simply given and the idea of art as transformative and in which the act of seeing cannot be made co-extensive with believing.
That which is within the frame is never fully known and always points to absences beyond the border, and it is this space which is both celebrated and mourned as simultaneous site of possibility and nothingness. While the commonplace understanding of space, of the landscape around us and within our movie frames, is as something which is simply a location for action and in itself simply given and neutral, it must be better understood as something which is socially produced and which can only be understood through our systems of cultural encoding. This image-making no longer presumes to offer an unmediated window onto the world. Deleuze describes the importance of contemporary cinema as engaging a new realization of thought in three ways: "the obliteration of a whole or of a totalization of images, in favour of an outside which is inserted between them; the erasure of the internal monologue as whole of the film, in favour of free indirect discourse and vision; the erasure of the unity of [hu]man and the world, in favour of a break which now leaves us with only a belief in this world."7 What cinema offers, when it breaks free from the relentlessness of the culture industry and systems of measure, is an image of thought outside of the commodified containment of difference.
films engage this thought-movement by confounding easy distinctions between
documentary and experimentation. These films exist in the spaces in-between
film forms, in between image and text, place and space, the body and its
absence, photography, history, and memory. As Blaine Allan
indicates of several films, including Kitchener-Berlin
(1989): "The slash and the hyphen in the titles suggest both a
severance from the past and connections to it, an ambivalence that is
especially poignant for the descendants of the areaís
German settlers. The history of the area underpins the film, but refuses
to bind it or restrict it from free association."8 The landscape which is
the surface texture of Hoffman's films is overlaid with a discourse of
territorialism, of personal and political struggles over the domain of space.
The Canadian town of
The performative hyphen of Kitchener-Berlin both links and keeps apart these spaces, and it is here that personal history is uncovered through film images which play against the borders of static photography, the moving image, memory and forgetfulness, and the creative process of immersion engaged by the multiplicity of overlapping images. The personal is complicit with instrumentalized destruction whereby the silence institutionalized by the change of the townís name is voiced through cinematographic technology, itself enmeshed in the brutality which is the history of the twentieth century. Hoffman explains this unresolved contradiction in his use of the Steadicam for present-day images as both free-floating spirit and masculine aggression:
...you're floating in a world where the sky and the ground are equivalent. It's something we can't do with our bodies, except through technology. So it's a metaphor for the spirit released. I wanted to contrast that with the low technologies—the home movies which take a familiar form and subject. The Steadicam provides a solitary and other-worldly stance, an emptiness and separation from anything it shows. There's something that separates the people sitting in front of these old buildings, that separates the remnants of German history from the present, and the camera signals this. This relates to masculinity. The Steadicam is part of the technology that can take us to far-away places or destroy the world. I wanted to show different aspects of technology through the century, using the Steadicam to create a feeling of introspective space where one can look back and account for what's happened.9
This process of movement is not a re-writing of history but an evocation of its absences following Walter Benjaminís demand that we "brush history against the grain."10 The relation to Benjamin is not incidental as his writings are filled with the concept of the shock effect of images and experience which flare briefly and then disappear but which, if recognized, fundamentally transform spatial and temporal understanding. Hoffman's archeological process is a Benjaminian translation of the past and casting forward into an unnamable future. There is no synthesis of this dialectic; instead, it is an offering which includes the necessary absences of forgetting and misconception haunting the reconfiguration of memory, realizing Hoffman's assertion that "the possibility of mourning lies in the unseen".11 To think critically about Berlin is to look into the disaster of history and, in this case, to recognize the silent complicity founded in such acts as the erasure of the name Berlin from what is now called Kitchener. The art process which takes memory as canvas requires the failure of recognition (which is not the same as the absences of official history) to suspend instrumentalization and engage thought, as Deleuze describes:
When we cannot remember, sensory-motor extension remains suspended, and the actual image, the present optical perception, does not link up with either a motor image or a recollection-image which would re-establish contact. It rather enters into relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of deja vu or past 'in general'...[as in dream and fantasy]. In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical-sound image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.12
Hoffman's use of silence and the abrupt stasis of still photography disrupts the flow of movement as teleology of action and reaction and acknowledges the unsayable: a mourning which cannot be reduced to the awkward gestures of language, but instead emerges in chance relations.
of image and experience in the opening segment of Kitchener-Berlin confounds the instrumentality of space. Under the
simultaneously hypnotic and menacing drone of church bells mixed with intermittent
construction machinery sounds, images of nighttime bombing in
photographs are ordered in temporal reverse (images of
Hoffman's films circulate with documents of a past which can never be wholly known, and are overlaid with a present which itself has already begun to fade. Out of what Bruce Elder, in his description of a tendency to investigate the nature of the photographic image in Canadian experimental film, calls this"double-sided nature of the concept of representation"13 in which presence is always bound to absence, Hoffman's film practice brushes assumptions of photographic indexicality against the grain. Our relationship to these temporal and spatial domains is determined by structures of power out of which emerges the photographic trace. The towering trees of the Canadian forest circulate beneath images of imposing European cathedrals. Tourists gaze upward while their bodies legitimize the commodity-conquest of space. Simultaneously, First Nations peoples gaze into the camera as the Pope moves through the crowd, an image reproduced from television from which the relentless flicker of video transferred to film reminds us of the invasiveness of systems of power even as the seduction of the image evades naming it as such. The dialectical process of negation in the overlap of these images forces recognition of absence without reconciliation.
The notion of cause and effect, of a teleology of history, is blasted apart and recognition is forced in the space of absence. There is no longer a totalizing unity in which thought is contained and experience is managed. Deleuze describes the importance of montage in the contemporary film as engaging the new by evading causal association of images:
What counts is on the contrary the interstice between images, between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it. ...Given one image, another image has to be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.14
Where the cinema frame, for Deleuze, once allowed a stable system of measure in which disparate elements are brought together, the contemporary screen is one of chance and simultaneity. Like the overloaded frames of experience and detritus of Robert Rauschenberg, it arises out of a social and historical context in which faith in grand narratives has dissolved. Where we may see something new, it is in the unfixed, unstable terrain of the in-between.
The final section of Kitchener-Berlin is titled Veiled Flight, evoking the recurring tension of simultaneous movement and the obstruction of vision. The final image of the film is of an unfocused figure bathed in washed out red, a home-movie image superimposed over the cave walls and appearing at first glance as an irregular beam of light. That which is given in memory and history has dissolved into waves of colour and a deferral of narrative mastery. This image follows a sequence in which the camera moves into a darkened cave where candles and a flashlight illuminate wall carvings, photographs, and other static images. Some of these images are similar to those found in primary school history texts, such as drawings of dinosaurs and early explorers, but from which the concluding dissolve of light sets us free. If we are bound in chains within this Plato's Cave, they are chains of our own making, images of power and discipline cast onto the earth.
in a town called
Hoffman has called this complex image-collage "polyphonic recitations",15 evoking an aural contrapuntal multiplicity in the telling of stories through the entanglement of personal memory and history. It is interesting that the term privileges sound within this complex layering of images, perhaps to suggest an ephemeral musicality to the visuals in order to circumvent the instrumentalized relation between word and image common to conventional film reception. Likewise, it evokes another kind of absence. If the images from old home-movies are obscured by the fading of the film surface and the scratches from many passes through the family projector, they speak as well of the impossibility of figuring the family as united by the law of the father, even as the film is explicitly described as marking the paternal side of the Hoffman family, its patterns of dispersion and settlement.16 It does not present a simplistic nostalgia for a prelapsarian age, for it is a movement caught up in the blinding gust of the present combined with a masculinist desire to both know father and get out of his house.
"Prologue" of Kitchener-Berlin
is in fact a masculinist journey/progress narrative.
It is composed entirely of edited material from an archival film called The Highway of Tomorrow or, How One Makes Two made in the 1930s by a Canadian
businessman named Dent Harrison. Hoffman describes being moved by the
inventiveness of this film which depicts a dirigible flight across the Atlantic
in which Harrison photographically creates a double of himself to facilitate
photography from both the inside and the outside of the airship. Harrison then
falls into dream in which we see the double moving out of
practitioners are likewise accustomed to having their work derided as
"amateur" by some elements of the mainstream. Harrison's film is a
story about travel and technological achievement, engaging Deleuzeís
understanding of movement as the central concern of pre-WWII cinema, a
reflection of technocratic will to mastery combined with a belief in the
possibility of unity: "The mobile camera is like a general equivalent of
all the means of locomotion that it shows or that it makes use of—aeroplane, car, boat, bicycle, foot, metro... In other
words, the essence of the cinematographic movement-image lies in extracting
from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance, or
extracting from movements the mobility which is their essence."19 The use
of this footage here is to embrace the everyday and the idiosyncratic personal
experience of time and space, but it likewise asks whether
Travel is a recurring motif in Hoffmanís films. His first, On the Pond (1978), is a reflection on childhood memory engaged after having moved away from home and how photography provides traces of the past while enframing absences impossible to recover. His next, The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), is the failure to enact Kerouac's On the Road in the unfreedom of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, as Hoffman explains: "We're all waiting on an experience that isn't coming and no one's sure why. It has a lot to do with how men relate to each other, dealing with outer realities, getting the job done ...The guys on the road are caught in dead-end jobs, and nobody's relating to each other in the van. ...The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip, but their roads are closed now."20 One thread of their destination is a meeting with Beat-era photographer Robert Frank to ask about the spirit of those times and the nature of his images. They end up, instead, talking about his living life beside the ocean, and lend a hand with the renovations to his cabin. Frank admits to an earlier innocence of the Beats which allowed a sense of freedom, but then bluntly states that Kerouac is dead. Memories of other journeys intercede. The travellers encounter a man who has been continuously cycling since 1953 and has spanned the world numerous times with only the material baggage he can carry on his bike. In contrast, the van these friends are driving in is cercarial and subject to frequent breakdowns. Yet the film persists with the question of what it means to travel, to document, and to exist within homosocial structures of power.21 Spontaneity and the poetry of free movement emerges when Hoffman is alone with the camera dancing on rocks at the waterís edge. Here, the images swirl, making tactile the visual plane in a celebration of looking unencumbered by obligations of language and social discourse. Yet the film refuses an easy privileging of this image, while it offers a moment of pleasure and intensity it exists within the borders of the social.
Sweep sifts through the imperialist
legacy of travel. It is a journey north to the remote
gazes at the spaces in-between image and text, photography and memory, body and
place. The surface texture of the film, like the land north of
The colonial project requires the landscape to be empty and unnamed in order to legitimize the narrative of discovery, conquest, and exploitation. This counter-narrative displaces that prescriptive and exclusionary project of imagining community in which difference is displaced by the construction of unity under the banner of tradition. In this way, my use of the concept of in-between spaces intersects with Homi Bhabhaís use of that term to describe the intersection of theory and practice. For Bhabha, the hybrid subject position within colonialism, where the act of production is overdetermined by the spectre of the West, at the same time subverts these hegemonic and binary assumptions. As Bhabha states: "Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which 'imagined communities' are given essentialist identities. For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of the anxiety of the irredeemably plural modern space."23
Sweep opens with a silent archival film of white explorers interacting with the indigenous Cree people. They are on the deck of a ship posing for a photo when the white men begin to playfully fight with each other. The image fades to black but this spectre of homosocial aggression continues to hang over the landscape as the camera pans in a sweeping gesture of our technological view. The final passage of the film weaves together images of the landscape with that of a cultivated flower garden, memories of family and childhood experiences, the looming hydro-electric structures, and archival footage of the Cree in front of which stand the filmmakers in silhouette. This intertwining of history, structures of settlement, of looking, and landscape suggest how all of these spaces are produced within a given cultural context and how they overlap and change in the process of engagement.
framed space are the desires and betrayals of the
body—caught in the photographís decisive moment and
in the relentlessness of time. Destroying
Angel (created with Wayne Salazar, 1998) is, on the one hand, a mourning for the death of Hoffman's life partner and
collaborator Marian McMahon, while also a celebration of
"Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position. Its permanent mark is that it is formed (and forms its 'capital') by arising from the other (a circumstance) and by losing it (it is no more than a memory). There is a double alteration, both of memory, which works when something affects it, and its object, which is remembered only when it has disappeared. ...Far from being the reliquary or trash can of the past, it sustains itself by believing in the existence of possibilities and by vigilantly awaiting them, constantly on the watch for their appearance."24
What de Certeau asserts for memory follows his understanding of space as a network of transformative possibilities which emerge in movement rather than in the fixedness of property, casting back to the treatment of space and travel throughout Hoffman's films.
in a moving speech during the wedding reception, celebrates
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.26
As tragic as the news of Marian's death is, the film does not sentimentalize or mystify. It is instead put in the context of life as a process which necessarily includes struggle and suffering beyond individual control. The title, Destroying Angel, recalls Theodor Adorno's interpretation of Benjamin's angel as caught up in the destructiveness of the present: The Angelus Novus, the angel of the machine...The machine angel's enigmatic eyes force the onlooker to try to decide whether he is announcing the culmination of disaster or salvation hidden within it. But, as Walter Benjamin, who owned the drawing, said, "he is the angel who does not give, but takes."27 I have made earlier references to Hoffman's use of images "caught up in the blinding gust of the present" to evoke what is a central concern of his work so well encapsulated in Benjamin's angel: the impossibility of totality and reconciliation in any move into the future.
history of territorialism which constrains the potential for freedom in travel,
memory harbours suffering, and its presence can
unwrap the protective veil of forgetfulness. Destroying Angel concludes with
1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.
2. Phil Hoffman, interview, "Pictures of Home," Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom (Toronto: Pages-Gutter Press, 1997), p. 140.
3. I am indebted to the published description of the making of this and other of Hoffman's films in: Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 79.
5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). The concept of 'assemblage' comes from the translator's introduction, p. xv, while Deleuze's relationship between philosophy and cinema is best articulated in his conclusion, p. 280.
6. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem,
7. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 187.
9. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 145.
10. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 256-257.
Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 142. The comment refers to the decision not
to photograph the body of a dead boy encountered during the filming in
12. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 54.
Bruce Elder, "Image: Representation and Object—The
Photographic Image in Canadian Avant-Garde
Film," in Take Two: A Tribute to Film in
14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 179.
15. "An Interview with Philip Hoffman on his film, passing through/torn formations," Cantrill's Filmnotes 59-60 (September 1989), p. 41.
film is from the Dent Harrison Collection of the National Archives of Canada in
18. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
19. Deleuze, Cinema 1, p. 23.
20. Hoffman, Pleasure Dome, p. 141.
21. The place of desire in the relationship between homosociality, homosexuality, and homophobia is explored in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
22. Phil Hoffman, Sweep catalogue description, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, <http://www.cfmdc.org>.
23. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 149.
24. de Certeau, Everyday Life, p. 86.
25. Phil Hoffman, personal interview, August, 2000.
26. Benjamin, "Theses", p. 257.
27. Theodor Adorno, in Ernst Bloch et. al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor (London: NLB, 1977), p. 194.