Criterion Corner Review: 'A Hollis Frampton Odyssey' Offers An Experimental Take On Movies About Movies

Criterion Corner Review: 'A Hollis Frampton Odyssey' Offers An Experimental Take On Movies About Movies

May 02, 2012

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#609 A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY (dir. Hollis Frampton) 1966 - 1979

THE FILMS: A Hollis Frampton box set was always going to seem like a random release, but given that movies about movies are so hot right now, perhaps a collection of structuralist films is actually quite timely. Frampton, who died of cancer in 1984, was a pivotal figure of the American avant-garde, a man whose determination to explore the heart of the medium kept positioned him along its fringes.  Frampton’s work is less narratively linear than that of his more familiar contemporaries, but it’s nevertheless brimming with pathos, warm and emotional even at its most violent. Criterion’s set provides a comprehensive overview of his career, spanning from his playful early work in the late 1950s to the digitally inflected and completely insane meta-histories to which he devoted himself at SUNY Buffalo in the years just before his death. This collection of Frampton's films is one of the year’s must-own Blu-rays, especially for those of you who have never heard of him.

Like most artists who are most readily understood by their labels, Frampton despised labels. When P. Adams Sitney coined the term “Structuralist Film” to describe self-reflexive filmmaking in which the mechanics of the cinema itself become a diagetic focus so that their “shape is the primal impression of the film,” he had Frampton in mind. Frampton found the term to be reductive, he had as much use for artistic movements as he did for hair gel (read: not very much), but it’s impossible to deny that from the very beginning his movies expressed a preoccupation with all movies -- their past and future, their effect on us and our effect on them.

He was interested in film as a synthesis of several different arts, and how the various components of the medium (image, sound, editing, etc...) mixed to create something new. In fact, one of his very first films involved what might be described as an Instagram riff on the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, recreating the most iconic example of film editing as a head-on collision in a Brooklyn park. Early films included on this disc such as Carrots and Peas and Surface Tension explore the relationship between image and sound, and how the two forces combine to create vacuums of context. Frampton’s short films tend to have three-act structures, much like any Hollywood blockbuster, dividing them with the blunt instruments of the medium rather than pronounced plot developments. The 7 early films collected here are all eminently watchable, and those that seem impenetrable are illuminated by their relationship to the others. 

In 1970, Frampton created Zorns Lemma, a 60-minute 16mm epic that clocks in as his longest self-contained piece. Neatly divided into three distinct acts, Zorns Lemma immediately crystallizes Frampton’s growing obsession with sound’s relationship to image, as a female voice eerily recites a children’s book over a black screen. The meat of the film illustrates Frampton’s affinity for an art of maths (he admitted that arithmetic held for him a pornographic value), as -- for exactly 24 frames, each -- he cycles through the alphabet and watches as the letters bloom into representative images until a strange harmony is achieved. The blast of lights is so rhythmic and relentless that it can be physically painful to watch, an effect that allows the film’s calm final portion to soothe like a personal catharsis, of sorts. Rarely has the relationship between a film’s various dialectical components felt so lucidly dissected -- you can almost feel the moment at which film leaps from a succession of still images into the stuff of illusion. Zorns Lemma focuses your attention on the associations that we make in order to understand our world, and endows them, perhaps sadistically, with a real weight. The experience anticipates Frampton’s obsession with the Lumiere brothers, as watching it is like a warp-speed journey through the various ways in which the cinema has been understood, forcing its audience from confusion, to attraction, and ultimately complex self-aware association.

Frampton followed Zorns Lemma with Hapax Legomena, a series of seven films, three of which are included here. Frampton’s most transparent and baldly emotional work, the films that characterize Hapax Legomena evoke Chris Marker’s La Jetee, especially the deservedly famous (nostalgia), a tricksy 36-minute work in which photos are ignited on top of a hot plate as voiceover narration provides asynchronous context. Resolving with one of the cinema’s most exhilaratingly maddening cliffhangers, (nostalgia) is a moving portrait of how present interpretation always reforms the past, and how preservation (photos, for example) allows the past to be destroyed. It’s the kind of experience that every cinephile should have, at least once.

Finally, Criterion has included several films from Frampton’s Magellan cycle, which was intended to “Make film over as it should have been.” An ambitious endeavor that Frampton knowingly named after an explorer who died attempting to circumnavigate the Earth, the Magellan clips are designed to work in broken concert to form a meta-history of the cinema, but what was designed in 1970 as a 9-hour, 2-part project, by 1978 bloated into a 36-hour monstrosity that Frampton ideally wanted the viewer to watch in bits and pieces over the course of a 365-day calendar. It was, intellectually speaking, totally nuts.

The dude had lost it, too disillusioned by everything and everyone to make films that could possibly be penetrated. Ironically, in some respects the Magellan stuff is among the most direct or selfless work of Frampton’s career. The project was constructed with such a cosmic sweep (its texts touching on the Lumiere brothers, James Joyce, Stan Brakhage, bagpipes, computers, and literally everything in between), that a comprehensive understanding was obviously unreasonable even to his scholars. As a result, every individual viewer is left to their own devices, as if Frampton hoped to illustrate the infinitude of filmmaking with an excess of force, overwhelming his audience with possibilities. Less than an hour of Magellan has survived to this disc, but it’s more than enough to get the idea. Ultimately, it speaks to the prescriptive value of this collection -- you may have seen better movies, but after watching this you’ll surely see movies better. 

THE LOOK: A Hollis Frampton Odyssey comes with an essay by a guy named Bill Brand, who has made it his personal mission over the last 40 years or so to preserve Frampton’s films as best he can. Brand’s concerns have never been purely aesthetic, and he’s aware that preserving a print doesn’t necessarily mean it, not when certain “defects” are integral to the work. A scratch isn’t always an accident, soundtrack crackle isn’t always an imperfection. Brand knows these films intimately, and knows how they were intended to be screened -- the films here look exquisite (the black & white footage of Manual of Arms looks flawless in 1080p), but they also look intact. There’s no HD gloss, but nothing feels improperly aged. This is what happens when care and precision meet technology, and it’s a truly remarkable illustration of how Criterion does this sort of thing better than anyone else.

THE EXTRA FEATURES: The first thing you’ll want to watch is a 20-minute interview that was filmed with Frampton in 1978. His words can be tough to discern (no subtitles, Criterion?), but between the way he breathes, or fiddles with a cigarette, or runs his fingers through his hair looking like a guy who looks like a balding post-acid Bob Ross, you might just understand him better. Criterion has also included some brief audio commentary from Frampton about a lot of his work, none of which is especially helpful. There’s also A Lecture, the audio portion of a 1968 performance piece that plays like a live version of his Hapax Legomana stuff, and still photos from Frampton’s “By Any Other Name” project.

THE BEST BIT: The booklets that Criterion includes with their releases are always great, but this is the rare instance in which the literature is so essential that it’s one of the set’s key selling points. A handsome collection of writing by 5 different film scholars, the booklet is an invaluable compass through a film world that can be very disorienting, at times. The contextual essays are comprehensive, but it’s the illuminating film-by-film analyses that prove most clutch. Frampton’s work feels a lot less intimidating when you know you have such a resource at hand. 

THE ARTWORK: Given the nature of this release, Criterion really had no choice but to slap one of Frampton’s self-portraits on the cover, but they still chose the right one. A thin beam of light stretches across Frampton’s face, his hands raised in a submissive pose that makes it look as if he’s preparing to board an alien spaceship, prepared to see unknown wonders. It looks real spiffy, and the packaging inside is pure Frampton, quotes and emblematic images hiding in all sorts of places.


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