A Hollis Frampton Odyssey [Blu-Ray]
Director : Hollis Frampton
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966–1979
Hollis Frampton never graduated from high school or college. He forfeited a full scholarship to Harvard when he failed to graduate from Phillips Academy after taking a bet that he could pass a history course without reading the book. He didn’t really need it, anyway, as he was a voracious autodidact who was conversant in everything from philosophy, to literature, to history, to physics, to theoretical mathematics. In the late ’50s he befriended Ezra Pound while the poet was finishing The Cantos while a patient at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital. He experimented with being a painter and a poet and a still photographer before developing an interest in cinema in the early 1960s (although his artistic endeavors continued to range elsewhere, including serial photography, performance art, video, computer programming, and xerography). In addition to his filmmaking, he published a number of theoretical essays in the prestigious art journals Artforum and October. He died young, of cancer at age 48, leaving behind a substantial body of innovative and challenging film work, although his epic goal of completing a 36-hour film cycle called Magellan, like Pound’s Cantos, was left unfinished.
Although Frampton was labeled in 1970 by avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney as being part of the new “structural” movement—suggesting that Frampton, like other “minimalist” artists, was interested primarily in formal reduction and repetition—his work is incredibly varied, even as it is all immediately recognizable as avant-garde. Frampton’s initial work as a still photographer and his wide-ranging interests in philosophy, science, and mathematics inform his films, particularly his early efforts, which tend to be shorter and more directly focused than his later films, which reflect his increased daring as an artist and tendency to allow what began as simple ideas to spiral into projects of grand scope and ambition. Befitting someone of a mind both artistic and scientific, his films are often interlocking parts of a larger whole that nevertheless can function autonomously, like machines that perform one function by themselves but then act in an entirely different manner when combined.
His earliest films are mostly experiments in combining sound and image and testing the limits of both montage editing and changes within the frame. One of his earliest surviving films, Manual of Arms (1966), catalogues 14 of his New York-based artist friends engaging in everyday activities; the opening close-ups of each subject and the use of silence makes this film an interesting bridge between his days as a still photographer and his newfound work in cinema. Process Red (1966) and Maxwell’s Demon (1968) are both experiments in editing, the latter of which is composed primarily of footage from a Canadian exercise film intercut with still frames of pure color. Similarly, Carrots & Peas (1969) plays with both stop-motion animation of the eponymous vegetables and the interplay of sound and image, as he overlays a jumbled soundtrack that is most likely the voice-over narration from the aforementioned Canadian exercise film played backwards. Lemon (1969), which appears to be a single-shot film, explores the incredibly varied visual possibilities of a single lemon altered only by a shifting light.
Frampton increased his ambition substantially with Surface Tension (1968), which is one of his first films to be divided into parts (often three). It employs a number of devices that became hallmarks of Frampton’s work, including an undercranked camera (creating the illusion of sped-up motion, or what Frampton called “pixilation”), intentional disparity between sound and image, location work in New York City, and a self-reflexivity regarding the nature of filmmaking itself. That ambition led him to Zorns Lemma (1970), his first feature-length film and probably the one for which he is best known. Again divided into three parts, its middle section employs literally thousands of edits to stitch together handheld shots of various signs in and around New York City to create a constantly shifting play on the alphabet, with each letter represented over and over again by a word captured in physical space before being replaced by repeating images. The effect is both hypnotic and a bit maddening, while also playing as a fascinating catalog of the prevalence of writing in an urban environment—everything from street signs, to billboards, to shop marquees, to graffiti. Zorns Lemma was the first feature-length avant-garde film to play at the New York Film Festival (the same year that a young Martin Scorsese was there with his documentary Street Scenes 1970, which he made as part of the New York Cinetracts Collective), and its reception, as might be expected, was mixed.
Frampton spent the early 1970s working on the seven-part Hapax Legomena series, the title of which is a literary term, taken from Greek, referring to a word that is used only once in an author’s body of work. Frampton saw Hapax Legomena as “a single work of detachable parts,” with each of the seven films working both singularly and together. Moreso than his previous films, the films of Hapax Legomena are often clearly autobiographical, never moreso than in (nostalgia), a fascinating, perplexing bit of direct autobiography in which Frampton films a dozen of his still photographs burning on a hotplate while fellow experimental filmmaker Michael Snow reads Frampton’s first-person description of each photo and how it came to be. The film’s experience is shaped by both the destruction of the photos—which has its own aesthetic appeal as the paper begins to smoke and flame, curling at the edges before blackening and shriveling, each in its own unique way—and the fact that the voice-over narration is temporally off-set so that it describes not what we see on screen, but rather what we will see on screen, forcing us to deal simultaneously with the present, past, and future.
Frampton’s goals for the Magellan cycle, named for Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the world, were nothing is not daunting—the kind of project that almost begs to remain unfinished so that its grandiosity can forever reside in its imagined potential, rather than its physical actuality. In a 1976 interview with Deke Dusinberre and Ian Christie, Frampton described it as having been born of his desire “to make a simple inventory or catalogue of the appearances of the world, which I imagined might run to a few hundred short films,” each a minute in length. That concept developed into something much larger, as Frampton immersed himself in the ideas of montage and time, eventually describing the work-in-progress as “composed of parts, not all of which consist of one-minute segments, not by any means. It’s not a work that can be diagrammed in linear fashion, since it uses the grid—among many others—of the cycle of the solar year. In other words, it’s a calendar. That is to say, it rotates like a wheel, or rather like a series of wheels that rotate within one another.”
As these thoughts indicate, Frampton was fascinating by the idea of cataloging and indexing, and he was not a stickler for how his films were to be screened, unlike so many modern artists who had sharp rules regarding their works. Frampton, as many of his films attest, was more playful and open, often suggesting ways to see his films (his “utopian” idea was that the completed Magellen cycle would be best viewed consecutively over 371 days, but under no circumstances was it to be viewed as a Warhol-like 36-hour endurance test), but never dictating. Not surprisingly, near the end of this life, which coincided with the growing influx of home video, he professed excitement about the possibilities of home viewing of his films. One imagines that he would be thrilled by the prospect of us watching his work on digital video, creating new life for his films even as it transforms them in ways he foresaw, but didn’t live to experience.
|A Hollis Frampton Odyssey Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 moanural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 24, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s A Hollis Frampton Odyssey includes 24 of his films, made between 1966 and 1979. The films were selected by film preservationist and close Frampton friend Bill Brand (who also supervised all the of the transfers and made decisions about when and when not to “fix” something like scratches or color correction) and Frampton scholars Bruce Jenkins and Michael Byrd, in collaboration with Frampton’s partner Marion Faller. The 2K 1080p high-definition transfers of the films were taken from a variety of sources, including original 16mm A/B/C/D rolls, internegatives, and prints, while the monaural soundtracks were remastered at 24-bit from original optical and magnetic tracks. As might be expected, the quality of the image varies considerably from film to film, although the liner notes by Brand go a long way toward assuring us that this is the best possible presentation outside of a retrospective projected on newly struck 16mm. The presentation maintains an excellent filmlike appearance, allowing us to appreciate the interplay of grain in the image. It appears that only moderate amounts of digital clean-up were used, as Brand notes specifically that some “defects” were left because they appear to have been inherent to the film. Overall, it is hard to imagine a better presentation of these films, and we can only hope that Criterion will put together a second volume of Frampton’s work, as they did with Stan Brakhage.|
|Selected films on the disc include audio remarks by Hollis Frampton taken from different recordings of his lectures, presentations, and Q&A’s over the years. There are also 20 minutes of excerpts from a video interview with Frampton at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978, as well as A Lecture, a recreation of a performance piece by Frampton recorded in 1968 with the voice of Michael Snow, and a gallery of works from Frampton’s xerographic series By Any Other Name. The thick insert booklet is required reading, as it helps immeasurably in making sense of the films and understanding their various levels of meaning. The booklet opens with a thorough introduction by film critic Ed Halter, and then moves onto essays and capsule summaries of the films by Frampton scholars Bruce Jenkins, Ken Eisenstein, and Michael Zryd, finishing with an essay by film preservationist Bill Brand about the specific decisions made while preserving and transferring the films.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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