Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): (set average) *** 1/2
A couple caveats before we dive in here. Firstly, I am out of my depth writing about the avant-garde, and bow to other qualified guides (Michael Sicinski, among others) well-versed in this terrain. I’ll try to split the difference between sounding like a pretentious wanker/a brain-dead rube writing about this, but I’m in vaguely foreign territory here.
Secondly, Frampton’s films require the viewer to engage them in a way that almost makes the viewer a co-creator in the works. Extremely subjective, personal response is, for me, the only way to begin to approach these films, hence, my use of the dreaded first person in the following analysis.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is the Criterion Collection’s solid introduction to the mad, mathematical works of Frampton, a still photographer who began making avant-garde motion pictures in the ‘60s. The images in this set are among some of the most lovingly restored Criterion has released. They represent the efforts of several organizations: Anthology Film Archives, The Filmmakers Co-op, MOMA, the Frampton estate, Criterion, and Bill Brand, who contributed a revelatory essay about the restoration to the disc’s liner notes.
There are twenty-four films included in the set, which runs over four hours long. Some of the films are little more than an ephemeral image or two spread over a thin minute. A few others go beyond the half hour mark, allowing Frampton to unfold his (often simple) concepts over slower-than-real time.
The set’s longest film is the very successful, hypnotic Zorns Lemma, which weighs in at an hour. It’s a three part piece, opening with a woman reading portentously from a Puritan primer, bleeding into an alphabetically motivated second section, and finishing with a single, ten-minute-long shot of a man, woman, and dog traversing an icy field while disembodied voices robotically recite the text of an antiquated philosophy treatise.
The middle, alphabetical section I referred to is perhaps the best window into what Frampton’s up to in most of these films. For about forty minutes, hundreds of second-long images bombard the viewer. Each image is a brief film representing a letter of the alphabet. Once the cycle reaches a “Z” image, it begins again, sometimes with different images to depict the necessary letter, sometimes the same image. Slowly, certain of these images are replaced with a non sequitur. The “X” image becomes a stack of burning kindling. “Q” becomes a smoke stack. “Z” is a group of marsh reeds. Eventually, the entire alphabet is replaced and the film segues into the last section I mentioned: the man, woman, dog, and robotically recited philosophy treatise section.
Just describing these scenes though, is a partial exercise in futility. Because these are almost purely experiential films; the viewer’s brain eventually settles into the metronomic pace of the images and the changes in the pattern become all the more noticeable and, oddly enough, exciting.
It helps that Criterion has supplemented many of the films with audio of Frampton discussing his motivations and aims for the films. In the case of Zorns, he merely set out to explore the paradox of a photograph of a 3D world. The alphabet construct was an arbitrarily chosen restriction, and we see these types of mathematical or systemic structures repeated in many of the films. The disembodied robot voices at the end of Zorn’s intone that “form is not separable and matter can’t be emptied of form,” a sentiment that Frampton seems to have taken to heart throughout his career.
For every Zorns Lemma, however, there’s another film that, to me, is just a matter of Frampton taking a bit of a piss. Carrots and Peas, for example, is a series of shots of the titular objects while a back-masked art lecture plays. He admits that he’s essentially lampooning art school and the film feels like little more than a cheap prank.
Which brings me to the need to quickly list my own picks from the set:
Manual of Arms – the earliest film on the disc. This is Frampton finding his muse; playing with editing, shot composition. It’s a stew of quickly edited, one-second images of his friends (who include Twyla Tharp and fellow avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow) engaged in everyday activities: drinking coffee, smoking, dancing, posing… it’s charged with raw creativity and lacks the self-imposed formal limits of some of the other work.
Surface Tension – This is where Frampton comes into his own, at least on this set. It’s a three parter and, admittedly, the first part – a man rambling whilst standing next to a speed-ramped clock that he keeps resetting – is rather overstated. However, the second part is Frampton’s hand-held, frame-jumping voyage from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park and it’s a revelation. His goal here is to emphasize the passage of space and the film succeeds perfectly. The third part is a gorgeous and playful summation of the piece.
Lemon – For seven minutes, the title object slowly emerges from the darkness. I recommend the Frampton commentary especially on this piece.
[nostalgia] – Frampton slowly burns select images from his career as a still photographer. His narration (read by Michael Snow) reveals a lot about the man, inside and outside of his work. There’s a humorous horror movie finish that nicely pays off the concept. Other than Zorns Lemma, this is the only lengthy piece I enjoyed.
Critical Mass – The anatomy of an argument: Frampton plays a couple’s domestic dispute in half-steps, using the repetition of angry words and phrases to emphasize the discomfort and damage of hateful conflict. The editing is masterful and inventive, a great instance of anti-pacing. The one-step-forward-half-step-back approach to chronology reflects how memory replays conflict and also how painful and warping a negative encounter can be for an onlooker. Critical Mass is probably my favorite film in the set.
Then there are the others, which I won’t go too deeply into. Sadly, Frampton wasn’t able to finish the Magellan cycle before his death. The examples here definitely reveal the ambition of the project (and Frampton’s maturation as an image smith); the Magellan cycle was intended to be a visual encyclopedia, a journey around the world in a few hundred hours of film.
Some of the other films infuriate me. Poetic Justice is a silly, 30-minute shaggy dog tale where – get this! – instead of making a film, Frampton just films the note cards that describe each scene in the film! It’s that kind of stale formalism that makes certain parts of the set really taxing. But the highlights – and there are many – make it all worth it.
While the work of Frampton lacks the genuine wonder of Brakhage or the moral outrage of Ken Jacobs, it’s still clearly the product of an obsessive, fecund mind that dares you to understand it. At their best, Frampton’s films are engaging – inspiring excursions further down the rabbit hole of Frampton’s philosophical and mathematical underpinnings. At worst, they are an enraging waste of time, a cheap trick at the audience’s expense, with what feels like a hollow, joyless laugh on the part of the filmmaker. Luckily, the former films outweigh the latter (and it’s also very possible that there are some great films in the set that I didn’t understand enough to commend).
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