Opening Series: an interview with Philip Hoffman


I saw Philip Hoffman's film(s), Opening Series, recently at Cinecycle. The order in which the twelve film segments (silent, Super 8 re-filmed onto 16mm, and each made up of three shots of varying lengths ranging from seven seconds to two and  a half minutes)  were projected was left up to the audience members, who arranged them as they wished, according to abstract coloured paintings on the film boxes. (Phil made paintings, which he colour xeroxed and glued onto the boxes.) So some control was shifted to the audience, who collectively contribute to the order of the final film.


BS: Can you talk about the changes that Opening Series indicate in your work

PH: My first films, On the Pond (1978) through to Kitchener-Berlin (1990), deal with ‘autobiography’ and its relation to history and memory. I was trying to excavate a past that I slept through. It was a way of trying to find out what went on by letting images, both past and present, speak. With Opening Series  I'm trying to deal with what's happening now, even though I've learned that I carry my past with me all the time. I'm no longer setting out, for instance, to make a film about my relationship to my mother and her family as I did with passing through/torn formations (1988). I'm developing an archive of suuper-8 images that can be taken spontaneously, constantly and with little expense. This seemed a good place to start after Kitchener-Berlin. I wanted a method that was less rigid, just to shoot without knowing ahead what I would do with it.

BS: So you could be more responsive in your filming?

PH: Yes, more in the moment. Then I started working with the material to make each a 3-part/3-shot film. At the same time I was painting-that was in Finland—so the connection between the pictures on the boxes and the films is organic, though one is not a direct representation of the other.

BS: So you did edit the film segments. On what basis?

PH: The editing echoes the haiku form I had worked with in Somewhere Between Jalastotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) where the images were drawn from everyday life and the text between the images was inspired by Haiku. Now the three shots relate to the three-line form. I wanted to do something strictly visual. I tried to work rhythmically within a common structure of three shots.

B.S.: In a book on Zen meditation, the author uses a Haiku poem as an example of "bare attention: learning to see and observe with simplicity and directness. Nothing extraneous."

PH: I'm trying to develop my own language or game, like the I  Ching. This is an ‘opening,’ a beginning and a continuing (the stress on the -ing of opening). I could go anywhere from here, sound, narrative etc.  I've done the first twelve and  I'm still collecting and painting. I've screened it mostly with people I know or in small groups. I let people pick the order for each projection, and it's exciting to see the different meanings that come out from the many various combinations. There's an intersection of my energy in the making of the films and the energy of others in the projecting-in their choosing.

BS: You see different things in the films depending on the order...

PH: And people's effect on the screening process. The screenings are more personal because of the individual selections.

BS: The meaning in the images are not so referentially bound, they're open. Coming back to my opening comment that control has shifted to the audience, how is it for an artist making a piece to have it changed? Is it like a sculpture with parts that viewers move around or more like participatory sculpture or is it that each segment is really a film on its own and so the audience is in the role  of programmer/curator, arranging the order that the films are viewed in.

PH: Each viewer finds their own meanings out of the sequences and their various collisions. This is really true of any film viewing experience. People pick up different meanings in films based on their own personal history, perception, cultural background.

BS: Opening Series makes us aware in a concrete or physical way of the process that goes on unconsciously all the time when viewing films.

P.H.: At the Innis screening at Cinecycle, the order worked out well; for instance, the first shot seen of Egypt set up the idea for the others shot there, that is, of a tourist in the Middle East, because the shot was of a foreign (white male) photographer posing a Bedouin man for a picture. And the last one had the film credits!

BS: But really the order is just chance..

PH: Synchronicity Jung would say. Mental energy affects physical energy. This method creates a place where the conscious and unconscious can play. Recently I showed the film in Rotterdam and met that photographer at the screening. So I had him pick the order. The first four images (including the one of him!) were all about the problem of shooting in a foreign culture. He asked after whether I had been making fun of him. But we ended up having a good discussion about exploitation and the power of the photographer. To me, the unconscious works in ambiguity and abstractions that can't be proved or pinned down. Film has this power, it's connected to the unconscious in that both are languages of images and symbols.

BS: How does it feel working in Super 8 after 16?

PH: I've always used some Super 8, but the idea here was to have more freedom..

BS: Because it's less expensive..

PH: To get away from expenses, and to make filming more a part of life. I can keep the small camera in my pocket and shoot every day.

BS: Collecting footage, this is similar to how you've worked previously..

PH: Yes, but I don't have a specific subject when I start, like my family or some biographical enquiry. The Super-8 material is an archive to draw from. Films surface.

BS: Did the idea to work in shorter pieces have anything to do with how screenings of experimental films are organized, or distribution factors?

PH: I was getting tired of seeing my films always in the same way. So this projection idea gives something to the audience and to myself. The screenings don't become repetitive and boring, but keep growing with meaning for me. I hope they resonate for others.

BS: There are certain motifs in Opening Series: light, the natural world, windows.

PH: These seem a fitting opening for a beginning again with film—light and windows. For my previous films, the starting point was autobiographical, now the starting points are basic elements—light, rhythm, colour.

BS: …things that relate to film itself...

PH: …but not in the sense of structural or minimalist film; the films are not sparsely materialist.

BS: But most minimalist or materialist films are experiences, experienced through film, experienced while being viewed...some very intensely, and so might even be thought of as sublime, or experiences of 'presence.' Perhaps what you are interested in is keeping the context, the situational reference for the light. Keeping the everyday context and locating the 'spiritual' in this realm, not 'on high' or other-worldly. In the use of light, this type of imagery, and loose connections between images, I find a similarity to the last section of Kitchener/Berlin.

PH: Yes, it's silent as well.

BS: Why is Opening Series silent?

PH: In this film I'm trying to get back to a way of knowing without words. My films started quite quietly, mostly intertitles. ?O, ZOO! was a critique of the voice-of-god narrator.Then with passing through, I peaked with words, it's filled with words. Then K/B is back to silence. The way I've used language in my films leads to multiplicity as opposed to authority.

BS:  In the Pargiters, Virginia Woolf wrote this opinion about men's books on war, heroism, honour and the like: "I think the best these men can do is to not talk about themselves any more." And Jane Marcus, writing about Virginia Woolf said, "She was weary of words as weapons... male discourse of immense proportions." Of course, documentary/propaganda films have known the value of voice-over in directing the meaning of images and doing the audiences thinking for it.

PH:  For me, the silence in this new work is a returning to the magic of the darkroom—starting up new work.

BS: What is the relation between the Egyptian and the Canadian footage and the rural/ness of both.

PH: I wanted a certain empty feeling; nature can be sparse. The continuing segments can grow and evolve, maybe into narrative sections or city sections or with sound. I wanted to begin simply with quiet contemplation.

BS: But the introduction of 'foreign' footage, the Middle East

PH: It lends a sense of 'here' and 'there,' at least in terms of the landscape and climate.

BS: Why take your camera when you go away, given the problems of filming 'foreign' places. What rights do we have to shoot? What do we take?

PH:  While I was in Egypt I was conscious of being a foreigner and the problems of filming there. This also goes back to Somewhere Between which was shot in Mexico. That film is about NOT filming an event, the ethics involved in the decision to shoot or not. I'm still dealing with that. It's more an internal space that I see in the simple images. The images are not so complex that we start comparing West and Mid-East... though the question is raised in the shot of the photographer.

BS: When you did film at the pyramids you show a close-up shot of the stone with a little bird, like a sparrow, perched on it.

PH: There are similarities between the light, the birds and their rhythms of viewing. In whatever world we live in there are these things.

BS: It’s not an oppositional view...