A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (Criterion Blu-ray)

The avant-garde in film has always had an uneasy relationship with home video. Grainy old VHS tape of works by luminaries like Bruce Conner or Kenneth Anger might have made the texts themselves available for more careful study by a larger audience, but the picture quality compromised the work tremendously. The arrival of DVD technology allowed for a better visual representation, yet brought with it certain dangers. For one thing, there’s a moral issue: Filmmakers who had objections to the commodification of art and culture were put on the spot as their once-ephemeral films were transferred to a new medium that was easy for an individual consumer to purchase and own. There’s also an aesthetic issue. No matter how close a video transfer gets to the visual qualities of a projected film–and a good transfer to Blu-ray can get very close indeed–a video image is not a film image. For avant-garde filmmakers, and especially for so-called “structural” filmmakers like the late Hollis Frampton, for whom film itself was subject, text, and subtext, the difference is key.

The Criterion Collection kept the distinction at front of mind in its creation of A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, its new DVD and Blu-ray release presenting a sample of Frampton’s work for home-video posterity. Open the case and slide out the thick, 44-page booklet and you’re greeted by an inside-front-cover spread displaying a Xeroxed scrap of paper on which is scrawled the declaration, “A film is a machine made of images.” Read on, and you’ll find a short essay (by film preservationist Bill Brand) on the challenges of translating Frampton’s films to video masters, explaining how a first-generation print of Zorns Lemma was used to generate a noise floor* for the too-silent video presentation and describing the decision-making process that goes into allowing a scratch to be a scratch. Dig into the supplements and you’ll find a recreation of a Frampton piece designed to be delivered in a room with a movie screen and movie projector called “A Lecture,” in which Frampton–speaking through the recorded voice of fellow experimental filmmaker Michael Snow–describes the film projector as an “infallible,” “flawless” performer of “a score that is both the notation and the substance of the piece.” The setting will be familiar to anyone who’s ever sat in the dark, luxuriating in the strobe of images flashing on the screen, revelling in the clackety-clack of the projector at the back of the room.

Frampton didn’t arrive in that dark room by fiat. He first tried his hand at painting, then still photography; it took him a while to settle on filmmaking. A Hollis Frampton Odyssey begins with the first of Frampton’s films to be publicly screened (a handful of earlier films were “projected to death” but not shown to the public, according to liner notes by Bruce Jenkins) and ends with selections from Magellan , the massive, ever-growing film cycle Frampton left incomplete upon his death from cancer in 1984, at the age of 48. In between, it proffers a sampling of Frampton’s work, framed with generous supporting material–various text-based essays as well as audio recordings of Frampton himself discussing each of the films here–that presents it in the context of Frampton’s career and his intense, theoretical style.

Let’s go back to that term, “structural film,” and to Frampton’s place in the canon of American avant-garde filmmakers. Criterion first dipped its toes into the avant-garde with the release of By Brakhage, a DVD collection of Stan Brakhage’s films later expanded for Blu-ray, and the decision to follow Brakhage with Frampton isn’t simply one of convenience. Brakhage and Frampton were contemporaries, although Brakhage was making films in the 1950s and Frampton didn’t start until 1962. Nevertheless, P. Adams Sitney, whose Visionary Film is quite literally the book on the subject, saw the two men as coming from quite different traditions. In Sitney’s eyes, Brakhage came from a Romantic tradition established by Maya Deren and eventually created the “lyrical film.” One response to Brakhage’s lush, everything-in-its-place lyricism was Andy Warhol, whose strategy of putting his camera on a tripod and letting it run until it was out of film could be read as a gentle mockery of Hollywood conventions or as an infuriating parody of the avant-garde. And it’s out of Warhol’s long-take, fixed-camera provocations that what Sitney dubbed structural film was born.

You can see Warhol’s influence in the earliest Frampton films collected here. His first publicly exhibited work, Manual of Arms (1966), which animates some of Frampton’s talented friends (such as dancer Twyla Tharp and filmmakers Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland) through elaborate montage techniques, can be read as a pointed back-at-ya response to Warhol’s famous screen tests. And his wry Lemon (1969), which documents the play of light cast by a lamp being moved around a plump yellow fruit, feels like a miniaturized burlesque on Warholian endurance tests like the six-hour Sleep or the eight-hour Empire. Actually, I read it first as a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is something truly grand about Lemon in a declaration-of-principles sense. I imagined Frampton raising a middle finger to the commercial film industry and declaring, “Hey fuckers, I’ve got sex and death and the whole shebang in my film and it’s just a goddamned lemon.” (In the supplementary material, Frampton admits he selected the most voluptuous lemon he could find at the grocery. He says it looks like a breast, and some viewers apparently see a phallus just before the skin of the fruit vanishes in the darkness.)

I like Lemon a lot, but it doesn’t suggest the rigor that is to come. The early Frampton film that most portends the occasional opaqueness of his approach is Maxwell’s Demon (1968), named after a thought experiment created by the Scottish physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. Essentially a found-footage piece, it intercuts snippets of an exercise film with flashes of pure colour and tinted shots of ocean waves underscored by the sound generated by the physical passage of film sprocket holes over a projector’s audio pickup. The titular demon is a tiny character who regulates the movements of gas molecules (in contravention of the second law of thermodynamics, which claims that entropy always increases), and Frampton describes the piece in his comments as “an homage to the notion of a creature who deals with pure energy.” Maxwell is also, as it turns out, the father of modern red-green-blue colour theory, and the first to demonstrate the connection between light and electromagnetic waves.

I’m not sure what an audience would make of this sans context. Even with Frampton’s explanatory comments on the Blu-ray (where he compares Maxwell’s gas molecules to excited pigs), Maxwell’s Demon sent me scurrying to WIKIPEDIA, where I learned a wealth of information about 19th-century physics that may serve me better in the long run than Frampton’s film by itself. But that’s his mode of expression. Brakhage had the sensibility of a poet taking as his great subject the human visual system. By contrast, Frampton comes across as more of an engineer.

Another early film, Surface Tension (1968), is quite charming. It opens with a title superimposed over an ocean wave (a leftover from Maxwell’s Demon?), followed by a slightly difficult introductory section featuring sped-up footage of a gent decked out in button-up shirt, vest, and scarf leaning against the sill of an open window, gesturing and speaking, although the soundtrack carries only the shrill sound of a telephone ringing in an otherwise quiet room–the repetitive, unsettling noise reminding us of what we’re not hearing. The moving image drops to a normal speed briefly whenever the chap briefly stops speaking and reaches down to shut off and set a timer. Next, a time-lapse walking tour of Manhattan begins on the Brooklyn Bridge and ends, two-and-a-half minutes later, in the middle of Central Park. It’s soundtracked by spoken German, something I took to be part of the missing speech by the well-dressed chap from the first section–a feeling confirmed by the sudden interruption of the narration by an obnoxious buzzer. The third section depicts a goldfish in a tank on the beach, waves lapping at the glass as text fragments appear on screen, apparently snippets drawn from the German monologue heard during the previous chapter. The mismatch of sound and image seems to be the primary subject here–the distance between the visual of the German speaking in the first section, the (presumably) incomprehensible audio of his speech in the second, and the appearance of a few of his words as fragmented signs in the third. Two more “early films” are collected here: Process Red (1966), another experiment with highly caffeinated montage techniques, and Carrots & Peas (1969), an exercise in stop-motion animation and colour manipulation.

These works are thought-provoking to greater and lesser degrees, but it all amounts to throat-clearing before the appearance of Frampton’s first major work, Zorns Lemma (1970). Named for a principle from set theory I can scarcely wrap my poor head around, the film echoes Surface Tension in its three-part structure but is far more expansive in its scope and strategy. It begins with readings from a Bible-derived, alphabet-oriented young-readers text called the Bay State Primer and closes with an image of a couple and a dog walking across a snowy landscape, away from the camera, accompanied by a reading from Robert Grossetete’s “On Light, or The Ingression of Forms”. In between, there’s a longish (~45 minute) segment in which single words, each one part of a moving picture of a sign taken by Frampton somewhere on the streets of New York City, appear on screen for one second each. The overall effect is dizzying (this segment of the film contains 2700 cuts!), but not unpleasant, especially as you figure out what the movie’s up to. With Surface Tension, Frampton spoke of his desire to avoid merely displaying an ordered collection of still photographs (his printed photos appeared “perfectly dead” when rephotographed with a movie camera, he noted) or to create “a poem” (by deliberately placing images in provocative juxtaposition). Instead, he employed a randomizing technique to assemble the images that reminded me a little bit of the “cut-up” literature popularized by William S. Burroughs in the 1970s. I gather there was quite a bit of critical eye-rolling when Zorns Lemma screened at the New York Film Festival (it elicited a hilariously stodgy NEW YORK TIMES review that concludes with a shout-out to the Andrews Sisters), but the film seems pretty accessible by avant-garde standards.

Viewers who may be baffled by Zorns Lemma’s semiotic ambitions–it ponders the possibilities of a visual alphabet, images replacing letters in a kind of cinematic iconography–may still find pleasure in its elaborate construction, or just in Frampton’s evident skill as a photographer and incidental documentarian of vintage New York City signcraft. But for filmmakers in the purely visual tradition of Brakhage, Zorns Lemma was a salvo. Frampton’s fastidious randomization of his own work was a repudiation of the meticulous visual sense and intellectual montage that drove much of the American avant-garde, and Brakhage himself was inspired to repudiate it with an answer film, The Riddle of Lumen (1972), with looser, free-flowing visual and editorial rhythms that offered a shambolic counterpoint to Frampton’s staccato lockstep. (Sadly, Lumen is absent both here and in either volume of Criterion’s earlier By Brakhage release. It can, however, be found on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s two-disc Treasures IV: American Avant-garde Film, 1947-1986.) Another issue separating Frampton from Brakhage was that, among the standard-bearers of structural film (see also: Snow and Ernie Gehr), Frampton was the most interested in language. Indeed, in words that suggested a typically playful double meaning, Brakhage once said Frampton “strains cinema through language.” The attention he paid to words, letters, signs, and symbols, and the elaborate and essentially randomizing systems he devised for dictating how a film would be edited, were anathema to filmmakers of the Brakhage school, for whom human instincts and imperfections (the wobbly handheld camera, the shaky mark scratched by hand in a film’s emulsion) were crucial components of hand-crafted visual expression.

On a more personal note, it turned out that the film functioned as broad autobiography, with the first section representing Frampton’s Protestant upbringing; the second section representing the long process of creative evolution and interaction with his urban environment; and the final section functioning as a prophecy of his coming move out of the city in 1974, after accepting a job teaching in Buffalo. Those who are skeptical of the pretensions evident in the title may, perhaps, enjoy it on this level. But it’s very pleasurable, still, to sit quietly through the film’s duration, watching the edit fall into place with the sure rhythms of a powerful machine. In its carefully-engineered simultaneous conjuring of entropy and orderliness, Zorns Lemma might be the quintessential structural film.

It was in the later Hapax Legomena series that Frampton’s paths of inquiry extended into utterly new territory. The title itself refers to that sense of not knowing what the hell to make of something–it’s Greek for words that appear only once in a given text or set of texts. In the case of an ancient text or translation from a forgotten language, a hapax legomenon can pose a special challenge for scholars and translators, who may be unable to discover the meaning of the word based on its appearance in only one context. Frampton’s Hapax Legomena begins with (nostalgia) (1971), an apparently autobiographical work that folds perceptions of time in on themselves by returning to the discontinuity of sound and image he explored in Surface Tension. The film depicts a series of Frampton’s still photographs placed on a hot electric element that slowly disfigures, chars, and destroys them as the camera rolls. On the soundtrack, a voice describes a different image–actually, the image that will appear next in the series. Once you figure out what Frampton is up to, the piece becomes an unusual brain exercise. You’re listening to the voiceover narration because you know it will tell you something about the picture you’re about to see. At the same time, you’re scrutinizing the picture on screen, trying to remember what you’ve already been told about it. (There are other nooks and crannies in the structure Frampton builds here. For one thing, the ostensibly first-person narrative is not read by Frampton but by his friend Michael Snow–at one point, Snow reads Frampton’s description of a poster he made for one of Snow’s shows, part of a passage that concludes with Frampton’s lament, which becomes more poignant in this context: “I wish I could apologize to him.”) And, by taking the immolation of Frampton’s own work as a subject, (nostalgia) made me wonder if he was inspired by John Baldessari’s conspicuous act of burning everything he had made pre-1970 as a statement of dissatisfaction with his own art.

Equally mind-expanding is the next film in the Hapax series, Poetic Justice (1972), the concept of which at first seemed unbearably trite to me. It opens on a round, wooden tabletop featuring a cactus, a cup of coffee, and a stack of paper. After a cut several seconds in, the stack of paper disappears and single sheets, consecutive pages of a screenplay, start appearing on the table. As I watched, I couldn’t help but start to imagine the film described by the screenplay being made. The pages insist that the film is about “you” (meaning me, the viewer) and “your lover” (meaning, well, whomever I’d like, I suppose). But there’s also a “me” in this screenplay–references to “my hand,” holding a variety of photographs–that brings the script’s author into the picture.

The script has me climb on a chair, and suddenly I’m worried. Am I going to hang myself? Soon, my lover puts a blindfold over my eyes, and I wonder what sort of movie this is, anyway. Several more pages, and the bedroom door is closed, my lover lies supine on a bed, and I’m starting to panic. A few more pages. Why is Hollis Frampton watching me fuck?

I can’t think of any film that seems to work on more layers at one time: there is the film itself, there is the image represented by the screenplay pages, and then there is the image their words suggest, which lives only in the mind of the audience and will be different for each viewer. There are references to photographs that become frames within the frame of the imagined film, and later the script describes a large bedroom window, outside of which are, variously, hyenas, wrestlers, mountaineers, and (magnificently) the rings of Saturn, looming–more imagined images framed within an imagined image. Using photographed words to conjure a never-to-be-photographed image, Poetic Justice is just about the most conceptually perverse art film I can imagine–and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dreamy, nightmarish moving picture I fashioned for myself as it unspooled. I don’t know whether Frampton found himself in a particularly generous mood when he made this, but I’ll always think of it as a work that unlocks the imagination of the audience in a tremendous way.

I’m less enamoured of Critical Mass (1971), largely because I find it unbearably unpleasant to sit through. A filmed record of an improvised argument between two actors playing the role of a couple, it’s a showcase for Frampton’s editorial technique–he cuts up three different copies of the scene, then edits them linearly to give the scene a repetitive stutter-step quality that extends the already nigh-intolerable duration of the shouting match. I felt about Critical Mass much the same way I feel about the neighbours just past paper-thin sheet rock having a knock-down drag-out after 11 p.m., and it makes me want to pound on the walls and/or drink myself into a stupor. This may be the intended sensation. As a work of pure vision and craftsmanship, I’ll bet it made the grade in 1971, when every edit had to be painstakingly made by hand. Frampton, whose wife left him in the months between the shooting and the editing, must have felt each cut in his bones.

Frustratingly, the four films that make up the rest of Hapax Legomena are not included here. Granted, these first three are the ones that generate all the attention, but Kenneth Eisenstein’s liner notes for Criterion offer a tantalizing glimpse of works said to employ “television, video, and…electronic music.” Still, we do get an indication of where Frampton’s head was going in the final section of the disc, which collects films from his mammoth unfinished Magellan project. In his essay included in the Blu-ray booklet, Magellan expert Michael Zryd says the project was to involve “roughly 830” separate films shown on a special screening schedule covering 371 consecutive days. (Critic Ed Halter, who has his own booklet essay here, has written elsewhere that Magellan would be made up of “about 1000” films.) Frampton had barely gotten started on Magellan before he died, completing something like eight hours out of a projected 36. The sampling chosen for Criterion’s disc includes 17 separate films totalling a little over an hour, but 12 of them are tiny little one-minute vignettes called “pans” (three of these are only visible when they appear as part of the disc’s menu animations, but you can dig out clean versions if you rip the disc). One of them features three coloured slips of paper tacked to a wall, another shows a cornfield, another depicts the beheading of a farm animal, etc.

The five other films range from around five minutes to a half-hour in length. The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I (1977) is the first instalment of Magellan and thus functions as a sort of overture for the entire project. It opens with the image of a letter A carved into stone, followed by the sound of an orchestra tuning, then incorporates footage of a wedding Frampton shot in a park in Puerto Rico–the sound, again, of sprocket holes–and scenes from an American Mutoscope and Biograph silent film, A Little Piece of String. Sitney sees in this formulation one of Frampton’s occasional embedded nods to Duchamp via his famous artwork The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. Speaking of bare, Ingenivm Nobis Ipsa Pvella Fecit, Part I (1975) consists of motion poses by a nude young woman (reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photography), edited in a repetitive, forward-and-back stutter-step style that immediately recalls Critical Mass but feels to me unmistakably like the image from a videotape being wound back and forth with a jog-and-shuttle wheel. (I have no idea if Frampton had access to that kind of video-editing machine in the mid-1970s. Perhaps he was simply prescient of new ways of looking at footage.)

I’ve mentioned Brakhage repeatedly, and that’s partly because that’s where A Hollis Frampton Odyssey ends up–Brakhage positively haunts the following two Magellan selections here. Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part 1: The Red Gate 1, 0 (1976) was shot at a human anatomy lab at the University of Pittsburgh and clearly functions in part as a response to Brakhage’s famous autopsy film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, which was shot at the Pittsburgh coroner’s office. (Sally Dixon, a curator at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, was a friend of the avant-garde and worked as a liaison between Brakhage and Frampton and various public institutions.) Where Brakhage’s filmed encounter with death itself was harrowing and profoundly humane, Frampton’s images of body parts seem, to me, more morbid and grotesque. (For his part, Frampton once noted a certain “didacticism” in Brakhage’s film–an odd way to think about The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, if you ask me, but maybe that’s why the Brakhage never gave me nightmares while Frampton’s version squicks me out completely.) Next up is Winter Solstice, which assembles images photographed at a U.S. Steel facility in Pittsburgh into a cascading series of essentially abstract compositions in fiery red, yellow, and black. Although Frampton still has a great artist’s eye for shape and colour in motion, the harshness and relative monotony of Winter Solstice made me long for Brakhage’s more lyrical facility with texture and light.

It’s all redeemed, however, by the final film completed for Magellan, Gloria! (1979). Gloria! quotes from two different silent films referring to the 19th-century ballad “Finnegan’s Wake,” about an Irish drunkard, presumed dead, who wakes up during his own funeral. Those scenes bookend Frampton’s observations on his relationship with his grandmother (“She kept pigs in the house, but never more than one at a time”; “She gave me her teeth, when pulled, to play with”) typed out on a green-and-white computer screen. The penultimate image is that of a “resurrected” Finnegan dancing the exuberant jig of the undead. It’s followed by a close-up of a computer screen, on which appears, in glowing letters, a sober dedication to Frampton’s maternal grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth Catlett Cross, who died in 1973. Like Frampton’s best work, Gloria! looks simultaneously backwards and forwards. It’s excited about the kind of image-making that will come to pass in the future, though it clearly understands that death lives there, too.

Given the fundamental differences between projected film and home video, is Blu-ray an appropriate medium for a first encounter with this material? If nothing else, Zryd’s liner notes indicate that Frampton was excited about the opportunity the then-emergent LaserDisc technology potentially afforded for personal consumption of the Magellan series. It’s also interesting that DVD and Blu-ray allow viewers to fundamentally reshape his work, on a whim, allowing them to remake the films to their preferred specifications. About the first thing I did after watching Lemon was replay it at 120x speed, so I could get a better sense of how the light source was moving in its slow orbit around the fruit. And I’m hardly the only one to have pored over the middle section of Surface Tension, turning its frames into images rescued from a downtown Manhattan time capsule. Earlier this year, a NEW YORK TIMES writer blogged about it, transforming it into a viral sensation among cosmopolitan web surfers who would never otherwise stumble across Frampton’s stuff. To this day, it’s almost impossible to Google usable information on Surface Tension without getting caught up instead in one of several dozen reveries by aging baby boomers and others who get a nostalgic kick from the images. (Speaking of which, the images from the xerographic series excerpted here, By Any Other Name, are catnip for nostalgia buffs, featuring art from interestingly-branded grocery labels of the late-1970s and early-1980s.)

This isn’t what Frampton intended, any more than it occurred to a 30-year-old Stan Brakhage that one day anyone with a fancy videogame console would be able to step through Mothlight, looking at the component bits of Rocky Mountain plant and insect life he assembled on splicing tape. But I think Frampton is likely to have anticipated it, and he might even have welcomed it. The long interview with Frampton that closes out this disc (it’s a 20-minute excerpt from a 42-minute Video Data Bank interview conducted by filmmaker Adele Friedman in 1978 or ’79) concludes with his observations about the coming transformation of visual media that would be ushered in by computer technology. The computer portended a revolution in “the image machine,” he said, that would have farther-reaching consequences than the changes wrought by television, that most world-altering of early 20th-century technologies. At the time, he must have sounded like a starry-eyed crackpot. The digital video revolution didn’t really begin until after Frampton’s death, and that’s a shame. He seemed well-equipped to, if not make something truly new out of DV, at least have a profound influence on video artists. (You could argue that Peter Greenaway’s pioneering use of the Quantel Paintbox on Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book was a fairly straightforward extension of Frampton’s legacy into narrative film.) That’s just Frampton as prophet, instinctively understanding and anticipating the drastic transformation that moving pictures reeled towards as they approached the end of their first century.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is a definitive but necessarily incomplete overview of Frampton’s work–definitive because the films clearly got The Criterion Treatment and it feels like a miracle to see them at home with such clarity and with so much attention paid to maintaining the correct look. The 16mm source material was scanned at 2K, enough resolution to effectively capture all of the picture information; the image has soft edges, grain is obvious but muted, and many artifacts of the elements themselves have been tactfully left unmolested. Audio has received a 24-bit remaster from the original source elements in addition to being worked over with Pro Tools, but, again, with care not to alter the aural quality of a screening from film.

Because I’m greedy, I want more material–at the very least, it seems like a shame that Criterion couldn’t squeeze in the rest of the Hapax Legomena cycle–and trying to come to terms with Frampton is like falling down a rabbit hole as you discover the breadth of the man’s intellectual concerns. I’d argue for an ideal release to be spread across two discs, allowing Hapax Legomena to be complete on the first one and for more of Magellan to be presented on the second. Then again, that would increase the financial pressures on both Criterion, which would be investing even more in an unknown commercial property, and on the Frampton estate, which has to be concerned about the dive in 16mm film rentals that any avant-garde filmmaker’s DVD release portends, especially if it includes their most famous works in toto. And, of course, this platter already contains more than four hours of prime Frampton. I have no idea how the market has reacted to A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, though I hope sales are strong enough to encourage Criterion to keep assembling programs of this type, and to convince filmmakers that it’s worth allowing their work to be released for home viewing. I know these digital images aren’t film prints–and I can’t be the only one who still misses the whirring of that movie projector–but they get us a good portion of the way there.

*The term “noise floor” refers, in this case, to the unintentional, incidental hissing sound made when a movie projector reads and amplifies the ostensibly silent optical audio soundtrack on a piece of film; one of the advantages of magnetic or digital film soundtracks in 35mm film is the dramatic reduction or elimination of the noise floor. return

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