By Adam Nayman Before it’s even begun, Cannes 2013 is off to a dubious start with The Great Gatsby. Even More →
Most films address the viewer rather unambiguously from a rhetorical standpoint of either great ambition or relative modesty, a formal speech-act of sorts that inevitably molds our responses and expectations. Such signals are like the filmmaker setting up an implicit contract with our receptiveness. Philip Hoffman’s new film All Fall Down is highly unusual, even downright odd, because the course it navigates between ambition and modesty is complicated, and only becomes more convoluted the more you examine it. Hoffman, probably Canada’s premier diary filmmaker and an axiom of the Canadian experimental film scene, has made several bold moves with this new film, and they change the terms on which we, his audience, have to learn to make sense of his project.
The chief narrative voice of the film is not, for once, provided by Hoffman. In fact, to a large extent All Fall Down is not a first-person film, partly because of the nature of the material Hoffman is exploring. His stepdaughter Jessie was to all intents and purposes abandoned by her drifter father, George Lachlan Brown, a man whose rambling, semi-coherent answering machine messages form the film’s dominant organizational refrain. He rationalizes his failings as a father, begs for help, and conveys a thoroughgoing self-involvement. But Hoffman’s treatment of him in the film is remarkably even-handed and even sympathetic, depicting him as a troubled man who may have simply been constitutionally incapable of existing in a family structure, or as a social being. Hoffman’s look at Brown is, unsurprisingly, both intimate and distanced, since he is a man who was a figure in his love one’s lives but not his own.
This heightened distance is the chief feature that marks All Fall Down as a departure from such earlier works as ?O, Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986) or What These Ashes Wanted (2001). These films were anchored in a kind of personal absolute—the discovery of the private films of Hoffman’s grandfather in ?O, Zoo!; the death of Hoffman’s partner Marian McMahon in Ashes—around which digressions and secondary inquiries orbited in a kind of centrifugal/centripetal give and take. These earlier Hoffman films were indubitably diary films, but ones that followed the trajectories of Hoffman’s thinking in a manner that (especially with Ashes) often achieved the essayistic. By contrast, All Fall Down’s personal material remains at the centre of the film, but Hoffman’s relative absence tends to give it equal weight with the other material with which Hoffman wishes to draw parallels and connections. Like the absent father, All Fall Down circles and absent centre. Its main trope is a void.
And partly, Hoffman places other forms of negative space around George Lachlan Brown. Bringing in material he had been researching for a related project on this history of Normanby Township, Ontario, Hoffman provides contrapuntal text and image data regarding the area’s contested political past. In particular, we learn about the life and struggles of Nahneebahweequa, a 19th century member of the Ojibwe tribe and an Aboriginal land-rights, who tried to fight the expropriation of Southern Ontario. Although Hoffman does not make the connections explicit, part of what All Fall Down accomplishes is the provocation of a gendered and culture-based dialectic regarding place-bound identity. Nahneebahweequa fought to preserve the integrity of her Nation, and was derided as an “Indian Princess.” Her very identity placed her in double jeopardy, since, married to a white man, she had no tribal support for her land claims, and, as an Indian, was barred from owning property by 19th century Canadian law. By contrast, Brown’s rootlessness, while equally desperate, also bespeaks a form of European privilege that, eventually, runs out in the face of destitution.
All the same, Hoffman’s attempt to ground his film and its disparate strands of thinking upon a particular place (specifically a farmhouse standing in the Southern Ontario landscape, a synecdoche for the shifting fortunes of the English Canadian landscape) often means that logical links are unclear and intuitive at best. What do these two people really have in common, when compared with the tight-knit mental universes of Ashes or the family-diary Passing Through / Torn Formations (1988)? And, by the same token, the film is replete with sensuous landscape imagery, remarkable high-contrast winter sequences, rural vistas, and vast, distant roads to somewhere. But in context, they seem to be performing a kind of rhetorical double-duty, their beauty both an unfolding and a concealing. If Hoffman were better able to articulate the personal with the political, or if he were able to channel all of the film’s data through his own fiercely subjective engagement, All Fall Down wouldn’t at times feel stranded, like a documentary about a diary film, with documentary elements riding shotgun at irregular intervals.
All Fall Down is Hoffman’s first feature-length film, and only the second work on his official filmography to have been completed in digital. (Prior to this, Hoffman experimented with DV for some installation and performance-based work.) While All Fall Down retains many features of Hoffman’s previous films, the major shift is the fact that, in the strictest sense, this isn’t a diary. Or, if it is a diary, it represents Hoffman’s vicarious attempt to posthumously construct one for a man he never knew. The essayistic element that has been a thrumming energy through his best films has now becomes the dominant structuring element, but an essay with an unusually removed, ghostly orator. This results in certain pitfalls, but also in the compelling tension I describe above: Hoffman presents intimate stories and combines them with national foundation myths, resulting in something both handmade and epic, often within the same shot. There’s also considerable comic relief in the film, when Hoffman exacts due payment for an old job by repossessing footage he shot for a cheesy Heritage Canada piece about 19th century Scottish and Irish settlers in Ontario. These passages directly allude to the Nahneebahweequa storyline and its political flipside, but do so, knowingly, in the manner of a Hallmark greeting card. Hoffman clearly wants to say something grand about Canada, but restricts himself to what he can know: his own family, his own backyard. In this regard, it could be said that All Fall Down is another quintessentially Canadian film, in that it sings its troubled national song in a hushed, self-deprecating whisper.