Home Video Hovel- A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, by Scott Nye
Defining the word in the title of something you’re reviewing is kind of a hack move, but it’s important to distinguish what exactly we’re talking about here. An “odyssey” could be defined as a physical, intellectual, or spiritual endeavor, as much defined by wandering as by fulfilling a specific purpose, and always by a significant distance or amount of time. With over four hours of material, The Criterion Collection is certainly asking a lot of viewers, and by the type of material, they are asking even more. But their new set (released as one disc on Blu-ray (which is my reference), two on DVD) is as much about avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton’s own odyssey making these films as it is about yours moving through them. In the course of doing so, you’ll be confronted with very different approaches to cinema, but you’ll also discover quite a bit about Frampton himself, not only through his films but through the supplemental material which goes well beyond the ordinary markers of “extra features” and becomes a part of the experience of the disc. They all communicate across and through each other, forming a very complete picture of one man and his obsessions, concerns, and quests. Criterion notes in its description of the set that this is “the first release of its kind,” referring to the previous scarcity of Frampton’s work on home video, but they could just as well be calling out just how unique this is in the general sphere of home video.
Separating and distinguishing the avant-garde from the more general “experimental” tag is important, but also comes very quickly when you start moving through these. “Experimental” denotes a willingness to play with the form with a willingness to let the result divert wildly from what one imagined the final form would take, and that’s rarely what Frampton was up to. His films are intensely, sometimes maddeningly rigorous, as you see with a thirty-two minute film comprised almost entirely of sheets of paper with scene descriptions (Poetic Justice), or an hour-long film in which one-second images New York signs, presented in alphabetical order (in accordance with the Roman alphabet, mind), slowly give way to repeated images of naturally-occurring chaos and labor (Zorns Lemma). These may leave you wondering if Kubrick was really all that exacting after all, but whatever emotional impact these may immediately lack is compounded with the intellectual and aesthetic curiosity they stir.
This rigor is not always played out so dryly, however. Take the more conventionally satisfying (nostalgia), in which Frampton (through the soothing Canadian tones of fellow filmmaker Michael Snow) describes the backstory behind a series of early photographs while he burns them on a stove. I’d if anyone with a passing interest in art or photography, or just This American Life-esque personal tales on bohemian New York living, wouldn’t find something sort of lovely in that, but of course Frampton doesn’t allow such immediate pleasure. Instead, he staggers the audio with the visual, showing us the destruction of one photo while describing the one that will follow. This asks quite a bit more of the audience (and actively demonstrates the “FOCUS” image that opens several of his films), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s doing it just to screw with people (though, hey, that’s fine with me, too). There’s something to the idea of all these stories, images, experiences, and emotions blending together before finally being incinerated.
I think also of Critical Mass, a film about a couple having an argument, except Frampton cuts the footage in very rigorous, rhythmic fashion, allowing the scene to advance perhaps a second, then cutting back two seconds to the beginning of a clip. So, to use an example that’s not in the film, if one character says “How are you?”, the film would then cut, and the clip following the cut would just include the “are you?” along with the beginning of the other character’s response. And so on, resulting in six minutes of footage that stretches to twenty-five, concluding with the argument in full without the cutting regiment. And this is something I can really, honestly mount a thematic defense for, because repeating the same argument over and over to the point of predictability and, eventually, madness is something not unfamiliar to any couple. A fun side note comes in the accompanying booklet – when casting this piece, Frampton asked SUNY Binghamton’s film department to name two students most likely to fly off the handle for no reason, and they unanimously picked his two eventual stars.
His shorter work is no less inquisitive. Manual of Arms presents a sort of active tableau of the New York art world, using his camera to accentuate their physical or intellectual qualities, which works marvelously on a purely visceral level as well. Surface Tension is a sort of meta experiment, a three-part film that begins with a man expressing his desire to make a three-part film, although I’ll really have to take the word of Bruce Jenkins, who writes about it in the booklet, on that. The first part is silent, the second is in German, and the third expresses that artistic desire in English, but Jenkins asserts the same thing was said in each segment, even if a monolingual man such as myself wouldn’t know. It is nevertheless, once again, a perfectly satisfying artistic experience without the answers.
It is worth noting that these films are presented sometimes as parts of larger series ((nostalgia), Poetic Justice, and Critical Mass are three of the seven-part Hapax Legomena), though one need not assess them entirely as such. For starters, they are incomplete, either by design (the set is purposed as an introduction and overview) or by nature (his final project, Magellan, was left incomplete at the time of his death in 1984, and sort of gloriously so – he endeavored to make a series of 720 one-minute “pans” as part of it, nine of which are presented here). Secondly, Frampton admits that much of his work is arranged so as to not “yield up more than the smallest fraction of [their] substance on first viewing,” so any larger assessment will take time anyway. And finally the films are often quite disparate, with the Magellan cycle in particular meaning wildly different things from piece to piece, moment to moment.
There is quite a bit more on this set, and quite a bit more one could say about each film, but at some point you have to call it a day. These are the ones that struck me most profoundly, one way or another. I do want to restate that I received, through this release, an unprecedented examination of an artist, the kind that is very, very hard to come by so completely and compactly. One Blu-ray disc and a booklet! That’s all it takes. This goes deeper than merely laying his films out for all to see. This is carefully curated and lovingly presented.
I take a fairly hard-line stance when it comes to presentations of film on a video-based format, particularly now with the advent of Blu-ray. I won’t restrict myself from watching a sub-par transfer, but when it comes to discussing it and writing about it, I hold my standards very high. I’ve seen what Blu-ray is capable of. I know how closely it can replicate film. So ultimately, any Blu-ray presentation should show respect for the medium, whether you’re dealing with Bresson or Abbott and Costello. This goes threefold when you’re dealing with the avant-garde, with filmmakers whose primary concern is the medium and what can be expressed through it, upon which Bill Brand, the chief archivist for Frampton’s work, elaborates in the accompanying booklet:
“Because new prints of Frampton films call for a type of film stock no longer manufactured, they must be printed on new types of film stock that inevitably transform the image. As 16mm film projection is increasingly replaced by electronic formats, digitization requires even more translation. A film preservationist must have a thorough understanding of film practices and materials to make critical decisions about color, exposure, and contrast, and to know when and when not to ‘fix’ scratches, dust, visible splices, registration, development variations, and other qualities normally considered defects. This is especially true when preserving avant-garde films.”
Filmmakers such as Frampton deserve nothing less than the best, and that is precisely what Criterion has achieved. The black-and-white transfers (in particular Manual of Arms and (nostalgia)) are among the best representations of monochrome I’ve ever seen on Blu-ray, full of grain and sharp contrast and alive in a way few films could or will ever be. 16mm color stock will always be a bit more tenuous, but those pieces are in fine form here, particularly Lemon (a stripped-down study of light) and the pans. As Brand states, one cannot judge these transfers by any ordinary rubric, as they’re defined as much by what isn’t there as by what is, but as representations of something you might see on film, in a theater, they are remarkable.
As previously stated, the special features and accompanying booklet are invaluable, aiding and deepening one’s understanding and appreciation for the work at hand. In addition to Brand and Jenkins, film critic Ed Halter, and scholars Ken Eisenstein and Michael Zryd contribute essays and capsule pieces on each film in the set, making for one of the most necessary booklets Criterion has ever assembled.
I do want to highlight one special feature that particularly a direct extension of Frampton’s work (as informative as his included comments often are, they’re worth discovering on one’s own), because it serves almost as an introduction to and a summation of the set. A Lecture was a performance art piece Frampton did in collaboration with Michael Snow, a 1968 record of which Criterion has here repurposed. In the original staging, Frampton would play a recording of Snow from the front of an auditorium, at which would also stand a projection screen, before going to the rear of the space to run a 16mm projector, which he would manipulate in accordance with Snow’s dialogue (which Frampton wrote) to illustrate a great many points about the fundamentals of cinema. Here, Criterion presents the audio track along with a series of stills they took to, as closely as possible, replicate the experience of Frampton’s show. It is astounding, revealing how Frampton sees the mechanics of cinema informing not only the aesthetics but also the content of cinema and by extension of both its purpose, or at least his purpose for it.
I really can’t say enough how enormously pleased I am with this release. Criterion has accorded Frampton the highest level of respect both in preserving and presenting his films here for all to see, and making the whole thing available for the regular Criterion price. With four-and-a-half hours of material, and an additional hour or so of bonus material, this is something you can buy once and slowly take in over months, even years, drawing infinite pleasure from every nook and cranny. Highly, highly recommended.