A Hollis Frampton Odyssey
An extremely challenging and confusing selection of films that ultimately left me fairly cold. I clearly have some serious work ahead of me if I want to understand or enjoy this level of experimental film, but I’m at least confident that this was a decent start.
Manual of Arms (1966)
This is my first introduction to the work of avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Completely silent, like without even an accompanying musical score, it’s a series of head shots and then small vignettes of a bunch of his fellow New York artists. It comes across like the work of a moderately talented film school student who got his friends together and started filming, which is basically what it is. Some of the shots are interesting and some aren’t, but there’s enough here that I’m interested to see what’s next. I have a feeling this is going to be a complicated learning experience for me.
Process Red (1966)
From what I can tell, this is a film about hands. Another completely silent affair, this one is at least much shorter, and more focused. It’s as series of shots, some of them tinted pinkish red, all showing someone’s hands doing something. Using Hype Williams type jump-cuts the film shows someone peeling an egg, ashing a cigarette, and a bunch of other small things. I’m still not sure what to make of this, apparently this period in Frampton’s work was mostly about learning how to use a camera, and exploring what potential he could find in film. There are some interesting camera tricks and blurs, but this feels like a step back to me.
Maxwell’s Demon (1968)
This film, which is also mercifully short, shows a man doing increasingly vigorous exercise, interspersed with frames of color and a buzzing sound. Over time, the frames of color also seem to depict the ocean, and the buzzing gets longer. Watching the film I had absolutely no idea what it was about, but apparently it’s an homage to the color and gas theories of Scottish Physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and was made with some footage from an instructional video that Frampton bought in Manhattan. I’m not sure how I was supposed to figure any of that out on my own, and knowing it doesn’t really change my feelings about the film.
Surface Tension (1968)
This is, by far, my favorite film so far in the collection. That’s probably because it’s the most accessible entry so far, with much more attention given to some sense of narrative film making. The piece, which is divided into three parts, actually does feature something that resembles a conventional plot. A bit like a 9 minute version of 8½, this film tells the story of a young artist who wants to make a three part film. The first part shows the artist wildly explaining his story, the second part describes the story in German while showcasing a frantic walk through NYC, and the final part tells the story of the proposed film in words overlaying water. That third part might be what sold me on the film, it features a goldfish being overwhelmed but not carried away by the ocean. It’s an amazing visual and it anchored what was finally something I could really enjoy by Frampton, I hope this is a sign of great things to come.
Carrots & Peas (1969)
Well, we’re back to incomprehensible territory for me. I certainly didn’t dislike this film, but I have absolutely no idea what the point was either, or even if there was a point at all to begin with. The film, which takes a very literal bent on its title, shows images of carrots and peas with a voice over of a recording being played backwards. Frampton mentions in a quote that the first person who saw it immediately ran the track backwards, which is exactly what I wanted to do. Supposedly it’s at least partially about the notion that if you’re looking at slides while someone is talking you won’t hear or understand anything they’re saying. Of course the difference here is that when looking at a slide show you’re hopefully being treated to something a bit more dynamic than a static shot of vegetables.
The final film from Frampton’s early period that’s included here, this one is perhaps my least favorite. It’s a single shot of a lemon, that starts somewhat lit, and then gets very well lit, before finally fading into the darkness. I have absolutely no idea why. Apparently it’s often shown in museums in a loop, which makes perfect sense to me as it’s exactly the kind of thing I can picture from incomprehensible museum film pieces. The commentary with Frampton didn’t really illuminate it any further, but then I’m not really well versed in the language of structuralism. Frampton says a lot of things that don’t really make a ton of sense to me, but hopefully I’m learning something by just taking this all in.
Zorns Lemma (1970)
I have absolutely no doubt that there is some serious thought and planning at work here, but I still haven’t found a way into it. This film, which is the longest one I’ve seen so far at around an hour, is almost totally incomprehensible to me. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s not bad, I just have no idea what to make of it. I don’t even particularly care what it’s about, I just have no sense of how I feel about it. We start here with a black screen and someone reading from what sounds like a religious text. Then we get, for nearly the full hour, a rotating collection of shots of the various letters of the alphabet as words filmed on the streets of NYC. Slowly, the different letters get replaced by short vignettes until the entire chain is made of these films, which all end in unison. Then we see a snowy field, with a couple and a dog walking slowly away, and a group of women alternating a reading of some text I couldn’t follow. The various words on the streets were interesting, and it was fun for the graphic designer in me to see the typography of late 60s life. And the pattern, the slow building to all the images was also interesting. But I’m just not sure what to make of any of this. Is it trying far too hard? Am I just not ready to adjust my mind and expectations? I don’t know, but I’m going to keep watching to try and figure it out.
I definitely seem to respond far better to experimental film that is at least somewhat narrative in nature. When there’s no progression or story it’s hard for me to find a way to relate to what I’m watching. When taking film classes long ago, I was one of a very few students who were primarily interested in producing narrative film, as opposed to the trend of the time which was personal story documentaries. All of that is to say that I enjoyed this one quite a bit, and certainly far more than some of the previous entries in this set. What we have here is a narrator, artist Michael Snow, reading prepared stories by Frampton explaining various photos he made during his time as a still photographer. Instead of reading the description of the photo we are currently looking at, however, Snow reads the description for the next one. While he’s reading, the photo we’re actually looking at, which is sitting on top of an oven burner, is slowly lit on fire and destroyed. This film was made shortly after Frampton left NYC for Upstate New York, and after he got divorced. To me the piece seems like an attempt to let go of things from the past, so that he could move into the future. I really enjoyed this one.
Poetic Justice (1972)
This film further proved my notion that I’m much more receptive to experimental film when given some level of narrative. The film, which is maybe my favorite in the whole set to this point, features an entire film that we never see. Instead, we are presented with the pages of the script in order, each one describing the shot we would be seeing if we were watching the finished film. Given the level of difficulty involved in actually making the film that’s being described, I’m not surprised we are simply seeing its script. This one is a bit long; there are two parts where it drags somewhat interminably on the same theme. Frampton seems to believe that repetition is the answer for getting your point across, but even with the over lengthy runtime, this is still a really nice film. The story of the film-within-a-film is compelling, I wish someone would actually make the film as described, although it would really be almost impossible to pull off.
Critical Mass (1971)
I’m honestly not sure why I didn’t enjoy this one more. It’s got that narrative hook that I enjoy, but it just didn’t totally click for me. This film, made on the campus of Binghamton University in Upstate New York, features the two most volatile students Frampton could find, having an argument. He told them to act as thought they’d been dating and living together for six months, the man had disappeared for two days, showed up as though nothing had happened, and the fight started when the woman asked him where he’d been. And that’s exactly what they do. They fight, about where he’s been and the nature of their relationship. Frampton took the sound and looped, cut, and modified it, making it a far more interesting experience than just listening to the talking would have been. It’s an interesting film, and I certainly didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t quite come together for me.
The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I (1977-1980)
This is where experimental film totally loses me. This film, which has no real structure or plot, seems to simply be an almost random collection of images. It’s the beginning of Frampton’s final work, Magellan. He worked on the project until his death in 1984, but didn’t finish its massive 36 planned hours of footage. This snippet, for example, represents only 2 of a planned 14 segments for The Birth of Magellan. But even acknowledging its incompleteness, I just have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to be about. I read the scholarly essay, it’s apparently intended to begin to set up a world of origins and creations. But what I see here is simply footage of a bride and groom taken on a bridge, mixed with footage from an old film involving two men destroying a lady’s dress by pulling one single string. I don’t see the “rationalization of the history of film” that Frampton was intending. I just simply don’t get it, and I didn’t enjoy it all that much either. It feels like the final chapter of this set might be the hardest part yet in my attempt to better enjoy this type of film.
Straits of Magellan: Pans 0–4 and 697–700, INGENIVM NOBIS IPSA PVELLA FECIT, Part I, Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part I: The Red Gate 1, 0, Winter Solstice (1969-1974)
I fully appreciate the notion that my dislike of these films isn’t the fault of Hollis Frampton, but rather simply my lack of ability to perceive what this is all about. Having said that, man this was just so boring. Most of the running time here is made up of endlessly repeated, and boring, shots of some sort of metal factory. Just silent shot after silent shot, many of them used many, many times, of metal being made into liquid. I guess it’s meant to evoke winter, presumably with our need to feel heat against the cold. The rest of the selections were mostly minute long “pans” or panopticons, so named after the 18th century prison scheme of control by assumed omniscience. Finally we get a long sequence of a nude woman doing exercises, and another which is made purely of shots of skulls. There’s absolutely no narrative here whatsoever, nor are any of these scenes particularly interesting or appealing. This one was a real chore to get through, and I’m just glad I’m almost done with the set.
The Death of Magellan: Gloria! (1979)
Well then, that’s a much nicer way to end this collection. This film is made up almost entirely of facts about Frampton’s maternal grandmother, typed out on an early green screen computer. The facts are all fairly interesting, and present a picture of an impressive woman, one who supposedly got pregnant for the first time at age 15, and for the last time at age 55. Frampton intended for this film to be one of the closing pieces of the incomplete Magellan cycle, and he dedicates the entire work to his grandmother, who died 5 years before this film was made. It’s the most touching and sweet film of the entire set, and the use of the early computer adds a nice element of interest to the film. This set was immensely challenging for me, and I definitely remain skeptical about experimental film. I can’t say I enjoyed all of the work here, but, I’m still really glad I watched it. It showed me completely different ideas as to the use and power of film.