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DVD Review: A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (Criterion Collection)

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“I didn’t really like the work I thought was my best work. I liked the stuff I didn’t like a lot more.” — Hollis Frampton, in a 1978 interview.

The films of Hollis Frampton can be boring, fascinating, and hilarious, and somehow all of these at once. The artist began his creative career in painting and photography, but in the early 1960s, he realized that sequencing and timing were essential to what he was trying to achieve. He couldn’t force a viewer to “go back to photo number 13 and look at it for eight seconds.” Thus a career in avant-garde cinema was born, the scope of which is expertly condensed in a two-disc set from Criterion, A Hollis Frampton Odyssey

Frampton’s first film, “Manual of arms,” was a silent study in lighting and portraiture that was simply a sequence of half-lit faces, but a similar modus operandi can be seen in more successful works like “Lemon,” a light and space study of the titular fruit.

His real strength became subverting expectations of film – taking basic concepts of sound and sequencing in different directions and literally creating a new language of images. He achieves all of this in the frustrating and funny “Zorns Lemma,” a 60-minute film that in 1970 was the first avant-garde title to be featured in the New York Film Festival, where its reception was mixed. The film’s three sections sandwich imageless sounds and a snowy landscape around a long but intermittently fascinating series From "(nostalgia)" Courtesy of the Criterion Collectionof hand-held shots focused on single words for each letter of the alphabet, a sequence which goes on for hundreds of iterations. Frampton would sometimes creatively crop commercial brand names when he needed to form a new word – Mustang takes care of Must and Mustang, Mobil becomes Mob, Woolworth’s becomes Woo. Students of old commercial typography will be intrigued enough to fast-forward through these, but the more patient viewer is rewarded when Frampton runs out of words. As letters drop out of the sequence, the filmmaker replaces them with stock images – Q becomes a smokestack shooting exhaust, X a bonfire, Y a field of wheat, Z the tide coming in to shore. By the end of this section, the alphabet is represented entirely by these replacement images, which sends the viewer out into the world dazed, but with a new symbol set.

The Criterion set also includes excerpts from his series of films Hapax Legomena and his epic unfinished Magellan Cycle. From the former series comes “(nostalgia),” which along with “Zorns Lemma” is one of Frampton’s best known films. It’s a simple set up. The film begins with a black screen as fellow avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow reads Frampton’s narration about an unseen photograph. Snow proceeds to talk about a subsequent image, while the image he’d previously spoke of slowly burns to ash atop an oven’s radiating heat coils. This continues until Snow speaks of what is supposed to be a terrifying image – which we never see. Frampton’s drollest punch line, if you can call an image at the end of a 32-minute silent film a punch line, comes at the end of “Poetic justice,” in which a static camera is held on a coffee table while 240 pages from a film script appear one by one. It’s a lot funnier, and more surreal than it sounds.

Frampton’s final and most ambitious project was The Magellan Cycle, which he intended to encompass all of human experience in a projected thirty-six hour film cycle. He died before he could complete the project, but its unfinished nature is of a piece with an aesthetic that appreciates failure more than success. Frampton celebrated the failures not only of conventional narrative but of the cinematic medium itself, incorporating emulsion scratches, camera hiss and other flaws inherent to filmmaking. But this does not make his work seem like failed art. Rather, it inspires the viewer to work out their own solutions to the cinematic equations Frampton proposes.

Bonus features include an interview and lecture with Frampton in which his pretenses come off stronger than his wit. But as the opening quote indicates he still says plenty of interest. Also featured is a gallery of images from his Xerox project  “By any other Name,” which finds a strange symbolism in the ordinary world of product labels. Some artist smay find beauty in the ordinary. Hollis Frampton’s finds a challenges in it, and challenges the viewer to reconsider ordinary concepts of image and sequence.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.