Anamnesis by Attrition: Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down

In a film that consists as a series of displacements, its hard to know where to begin. It would be facile to suggest that time is spatialized (the characteristic of Jamesonian postmodernism) or, conversely, that space registers the vertical imprint of its diachronic totality (Derridean hauntology). But something very like that happens in Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down (2009). So one has to be careful here – the lives of actual people, and their deaths, are at stake.

In fact, for someone described, rightly, as a “diaristic filmmaker,” All Fall Down sets up an initial feint – the film isn’t really “about” Hoffman at all. Or rather, “Hoffman” exists as the framing device insofar as it is his encounters with the two apparent main subjects of the film that constitute the overall scene of the film. (This is the first displacement in what is, as we will see, an involuted series.) Two subjects, separated in time and space, in some ways separated from time and space: the nineteenth-century Métis land rights activist Nahneebahweequa and the twentieth-century British poet George Lachlan Brown who is the aggrieved and possibly schizophrenic father of Hoffman’s step-daughter. As with his earlier films, the ostensible subjects of the film are not captured on film, are not framed by the lens itself: passages of Lachlan Brown’s poetry are cited (and very good poems they are too) and his numerous, increasingly distressed messages left on his ex-wife’s answering machine form part of the soundtrack, but there are very few actual images of him; indeed, the one image we have of him is from a home movie he shot of his daughter, and even here there is a sub-level of displacement insofar as we see him filming his daughter in a mirror, framed as a representation of representation. Analogously, Nahneebahweequa’s presence is registered through historical records – the Library and Archives of Canada maintain a vast record group (RG 10) solely concerning the Federal government’s dealings with aboriginal, Métis and Inuit peoples – as well as through the voices of on-screen historical authorities and interested parties. The distance of history separates Nahneebahweequa from the filmed image so that, even when we do see her photograph (which happens very rarely indeed), we are aware that these are staged representations lacking the alibi of documentary veracity.

What happens instead is that the presence of the two subjects of the film are displaced onto landscapes. This constitutes the second displacement in Hoffman’s film. These landscapes are proximate (shot between Waterloo and Owen Sound, south western Ontario), but are nevertheless incommensurate: the landscapes associated with Nahneebahweequa are those from which she was barred, as an indigenous woman married to a white man; the struggle for her land constitutes her heroic role in Canadian history. (Displacement 3a.) These landscapes are undoubtedly beautiful, but contain a melancholy associated with Nahneebahweequa’s (ultimately failed?) struggle to regain the territory. Her landscapes seem uninhabited, removed from the contemporary world, but filled with the presence of the colonial history of Aboriginal and Métis dispossession – a presence that exists not as an object of engagement, but as part of the frame of the images themselves. These are not liminal spaces where the past and present commingle – they are the actual embodiment of an absence. (Hence they are marked by an emphatic stillness.)

Hoffman offers, by way of contrast and comparison, the testimony of Micheal Schmidt, symphony conductor and land and unpasteurized milk activist. Schmidt’s activism is largely based around his struggle for the preservation of settlers’ farmhouses and his presence in this film is highly ambiguous. Schmidt’s fidelity to the past, to history, is a curiously conservative one: these buildings were here, and we should treat them as though they were always here and always should be. On the other hand, Schmidt is acutely aware of the pernicious history of colonialism and the annihilation of First Nations’ livelihood, culture and history. This, the catastrophe of this history is, for Schmidt, present in the buildings; he preserves them as monuments, as living presences (the souls of buildings), as actuality. To quote Schmidt, “if you take the spirit out of the barn, it falls down.” Hoffman’s treatment of the historical past is, in a sense, to seek what was before this historical past. Not a space and time untainted by the catastrophe of history (Benjamin), but the Ground Zero of history, that (possibly purely imaginary) temporal/spatial location before the past moved from virtual to actual. Hoffman dissolves where Schmidt solidifies; Schmidt’s laudable determination at presentation is generously saluted by Hoffman who, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (“The Snowman”).

The landscapes that do not represent Lachlan Brown but evoke him are more complex in some ways, as they contain an embedded series of displacements. He is and is not extruded from the family scene (Hoffman is quite generous here): he is the former husband and father of Hoffman’s new family, and is therefore included in the scene, but only as a figure who must remain off-wings, as it were. His intrusions (the constant emails and telephone calls) are a desperate attempt to insert himself into a structural position (husband, father) from which he has been extruded. Furthermore, his status as an expat further distances him, as does the revelation that he is homeless and sleeping in a rented car which, as the movie progresses, is repossessed by the rental company for non-payment. Lachlan Brown’s homelessness forms his ontological status in the film and constitute his landscape of empty streets and shadows on concrete walls. As with Nahneebahweequa, Lachlan Brown’s landscapes seem depopulated, but whereas the former’s landscapes are replete with the sense that they are her rightful home, Lachlan Brown’s landscapes are structured around the anomaly of homelessness. (Call this Displacement 3B1.) The fact that he has a tenuous grasp on his reason constitutes Displacement 3B2. Again, not liminal spaces, as there is not sense of their being a threshold to anywhere in particular. They are non-spaces – Lachlan Brown becomes displaced in space as Nahneebahweequa is displaced in time.

As much as the two subjects are landscapes, they are also narratives, lives lived in time and history (national and familial). Both narratives are stable – the life of Nahneebahweequa as activist protesting her banishment from her land and Lachlan Brown’s sense of himself as father protesting his banishment from the life of his daughter – but there are problems here. This is the fourth displacement: the veracity of the subject’s (self)presentation is called into question as the film closes. In the case of Lachlan Brown, his evident mental instability, demonstrated in a series of paranoid rants ranging from conspiracy theories about 9-11 to his insistence that his ex-wife’s lawyers are deliberately avoiding him in an attempt to impoverish him, clearly mark him out as a classic case of the “unreliable narrator”. Nahneebahweequa’s case is more contentious and presented only very briefly by two historians suggesting that the Federal government had, in fact, granted her wish for land (admittedly after much lobbying on her part, including a petition to Queen Victoria). According to the historians, Nahneebahweequa refused to acknowledge the Federal government’s cession of land (as well she might, given the patronizing overtones that always attend the government’s admission that aboriginal peoples might have any land rights whatsoever). The contention lies in the implication by the historians that the myth of Nahneebahweequa as courageous land activist who died disenfranchised is precisely that – a myth. Or rather, a distortion of perspective, as Lachlan Brown’s perspective is distorted by his mental dislocation.

Slavov Zizek points out that the usual understanding of the theory of the dreamwork outlined in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams – that there is a manifest content (what happens in the dream) and the latent content (the unbearable wish-fulfillment that is the true meaning of the dream) – is not entirely correct. The latent content does not express the desire of the dream; the desire expressed in the dream is the agent that distorts the latent content into expressing itself as manifest content. It would be foolish simply to transpose psychoanalytic theory of dreams onto film analysis, but Zizek’s finessing of Freudian dream analysis might prove productive in this case. At the fourth level of displacement we encounter twin distortions in the veracity of Lachlan Brown and Nahneebahweequa’s narratives. So we might leave behind the question of the veracity of the narratives (which is clearly compromised) and ask a lateral question: what are the distorting factors of these features? In one sense, the fourth displacement is a product of the third; displacement in space and time distorts our access to the truth of the subjects’ lives. Or rather, Hoffman’s access to their lives. Hoffman refers to his understanding of Nahneebahweequa in terms of an encounter, of “meeting her.” Obviously, Hoffman did not literally meet a woman who died in 1865 and it is not immediately clear that he ever physically met Lachlan Brown either.) But we might look for the absent distorting factor and refer to this as the fifth displacement.

What is the fifth displacement, other than the desire of the filmmaker himself? And what is the desire of the filmmaker, which is to ask, what draws him to Nahneebahweequa and Lachlan Brown? One could argue that there is a question of guilt here, of possessing that which one does not rightfully “own” (land, a family), but this is too close to banal and uninformed psycho-biographical speculations. This film neither expresses nor attempts to assuage the filmmaker’s guilt, but the melancholy tone of the film with its empty landscapes, dead-end trails and lateral shifts suggest that the film is operating around a traumatic centre. This centre represents the fifth displacement and is torques around the figure of the filmmaker’s step-daughter. She is connected to Nahneebahweequa by virtue of her age and gender, and she is the centre of dispute between Lachlan Brown and his ex-wife. For all of that, she is displaced (Displacement Six) from the film insofar as, in contrast to Nahneebahweequa and Lachlan Brown who are heard in one form or another, we are only shown home movie footage of her at play (skating on a specially constructed frozen pond, jumping on haybails, pretending to be a horse…some of which is shot not by Hoffman but by Lachlan Brown), that is, she is never actually heard. The fifth displacement effects the sixth displacement; one might suggest that the desire of the filmmaker is to displace Nahneebahweequa and Lachlan Brown in order to protect the step-daughter from the trauma of history encoded onto space, time and the family scene.

The step-daughter is displaced, and her displacement motivates and is motivated by all of the other displacements in the movie. And yet, one could argue, she is the actual central subject of the film, with the narratives of Nahneebahweequaa and Lachlan Brown serving as screen memories, as it were. So how is it that she appears at all? Why is she displaced in such a way that we see only home movies – a form that connotes the melancholy of the past and forgotten – of her. What is the status of “the image” here? I would suggest at this point that what we have here is the work of anamnesis: the remembrance or reminiscence, the collection and re-collection of what has been lost, forgotten or effaced. In anamnesis, there is an originary forgetting which is followed by a work of remembrance. Anamnesis stands opposed to Proustian involuntary memory: the latter is haphazard and dependant on unrelated chains of circumstances resonating across time and space. Amnanesis is a mode of intentionality, a labour of making new what has been effaced, restoring the palimpsest. All Fall Down is precisely the result of this labour, its work of remembrance is done in, as we have seen, in a rather curious way. Remembrance and recollection is attempted by making the subject/object to be remembered or recollected as obscure as possible, by enveloping it in six layers of displacement and then by adding a seventh – the displacement of re-collection itself. It is in this sense that we can call All Fall Down anamnesis by attrition. Every possibility of forgetting is attempted down the range of displacements until these possibilities are exhausted, and we are left with no choice but to remember.

What are we remembering? Who is remembering? Perhaps a better question: what does the film remember? The film, in a sense, forgets the step-daughter, who is remembered by the audience, Lachlan Brown and the filmmaker. The film remembers Lachlan Brown and Nahneebahweequaa and remembers their being forgotten in order to open a space of remembrance for the step-daughter. All Fall Down remembers what it forgot and remembers to forget in order to remember. All is forgotten. All is remembered.

At Winnipeg Cinematheque 10/10/09

– Tom Kohut

~ by cineflyer on November 20, 2009.

One Response to “Anamnesis by Attrition: Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down”

  1. I just read this review and could not agree with it more. I am the step daughter, my name is jessie. And although i did like the film the first thing i said to phil was that i did not have a voice at all. I really appreciate that you noticed this as well— the film was obviously very sentimental to me but phil didnt include the fact that i had no idea whatsoever what was going on with my dad! feel free to email me! i really liked your review

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