"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 of 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.