Sometimes, when I sit back to take in a collection of short films, I feel as if I might as well be taking a multiple choice questionnaire to see how pretentious I am. This feeling was never more alive in my mind than during A Hollis Frampton Odyssey — a collection of artsy ditties from avant-garde filmmaker/photographer Hollis Frampton. During the course of this 266-minute compilation of the late artist’s surviving works, I felt as if I had been handed a giant placard asking: “Does A Hollis Frampton Odyssey make you feel like A) you have been moderately entertained but ultimately unmoved in any sort of direction, B) you have discovered a gem manufactured by a true artist, or C) you just wasted entirely too much of you’re life by observing an ostentatious artiste’s posturing come to boring life before your disbelieving eyes.”
Sadly, I wanted to choose the latter box almost immediately. But, I decided to give Hollis a break. After all, the Criterion Collection disc starts out with his early (silent) work, wherein Mr. Frampton was obviously experimenting with thing such as lighting, contrast, contours — to say nothing of figuring out how the camera worked. And we’ve all been there, right? Why, I remember making my own movies in my younger years, to wit my friends and I wasted one roll of film after another filming burning hubcaps full of gasoline, killer cardboard robots with dryer hoses for arms attacking a very limp (and always, strangely, headless) Rondo the Stunt Dummy, and midnight recitals of Edgar Allan Poe works on my front lawn attired in cheesy Halloween masks.
The difference, of course, is that we were kids who were just having fun; Hollis Frampton created his visual and aural opuses between the ’60s and ’70s (he died in the early ’80s) and his work was intended as serious. Unfortunately, it’s hard for a cynical and jaded critic like myself to see these efforts as anything but silly and annoying — and I was still inclined to choose option C on my imaginary questionnaire as the complete Odyssey came to a long-awaited close.
Whether it’s the sight of random words shown in alphabetical order, the sound of a telephone ringing non-stop as a man stands there fiddling with a clock, a staged couple’s bickering re-edited in a deliberately stuttering fashion that makes you want to throw something at your television, or a seizure-inducing look at an image of a cloud, A Hollis Frampton Odyssey just sort of dares you to watch it. And there’s more, too. Filmed monochrome computer text. Double-exposed images of colored paper blowing in a breeze. A man at a slaughterhouse cutting the head off of a cow. Close-ups of carrots and peas set to a recording of a man that’s played back in reverse. One of the least interesting nude scenes ever captured on film.
Oh, and let’s not forget my favorite: a filmed script. Not a script filmed, mind you — this is a whole short devoted to filming one page of a script after another. Oy vey!
I wouldn’t say it’s all bad, though. There’s a short where Frampton is heard talking about some of his photos, and we slowly watch them burn up, as they have been placed on a heating element. Hollis discusses what we see in the photos, but he’s talking about entirely different pictures than the ones we’re seeing go up in flames (or rather, crumple into cremation). This, too, becomes a test of one’s patience after a few short minutes — leading one to appreciate the fact that these aren’t feature-length projects. Criterion presents this extended look into the mind of a man who, if he wasn’t already on drugs, surely needed some. Forgive me, Hollis: I had to say it.
Each film is of varying quality, and I believe all have been transferred from 16mm. A few special features — one of which is a condensed interview with Frampton from the ’70s — are included.
Now I know the folks at Criterion like to occasionally dabble in the avant-garde world, but this is one of the most questionable releases I’ve seen on home video from any distributor in a long time. Had I have seen these shorts in my younger, impressionable days when I was busy filming Lego men falling off of cliffs, I probably would have been in awe over it, feeling as though the late filmmaker/photographer was reaching out to me. Today, though, I feel like I’ve been assaulted by a poseur. I’m sure this qualifies as art to some people, but — as the old saying goes: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” And I didn’t like A Hollis Frampton Odyssey. In fact, I would have much rather preferred watching a Peter Frampton odyssey instead.
Again — I’m sorry, Hollis. Rest assured, your work lives on through your fans. I’m simply not one of them.