“We propose another, radically different morphology … one that views film, not from the outside, as a product to be consumed, but from the inside, as a dynamically evolving organic code directly responsive and responsible, like every other code, to the supreme mediator: consciousness.” — Hollis Frampton, “Notes on Composing in Film,” October Spring 1976
Hollis Frampton’s career as a filmmaker was somewhat brief: His earliest works were made in 1966, and he continued making films consistently until his untimely death from lung cancer in 1984, when he was only 48. Nonetheless, few figures loom as large in the history of American avant-garde cinema, proliferating ideas about and through the cinema that continue to reverberate among today’s practitioners. Echoing early film theorists like Hugo Münsterberg, Frampton liked to say that cinema was unique in its capacity to mirror human consciousness, and his films demonstrate a desire to put film’s artificial intelligence to work—thinking through cinema.
Despite the breathless range of Frampton’s film practice—and his polymath activity in photography, poetry, computer art, video, and music—he is now most widely remembered for only a few works. This makes the Criterion Collection’s home-video release of more than two dozen of his films—spanning his career from his earliest films to those he intended for his epic film cycle Magellan —a long overdue corrective for those multitudes whose only experience of Frampton was a single, baffling undergraduate screening of Zorns Lemma or (nostalgia). This broader sampling, while far from complete, offers a sense of the universe of ideas, ideologies, and fields of study that inform Frampton’s encyclopedic reflections: mathematics and linguistics, mythology and mysticism, music and literature, physics and philosophy, celluloid and video, painting and photography. Second only to his wit, Frampton’s unique erudition placed him—literally and figuratively—in the company of Ezra Pound, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp. It also made him a natural (if idiosyncratic) educator. In 1973, Gerald O’Grady hired him (along with Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad) to help found SUNY Buffalo’s legendary Center for Media Study, where Frampton taught for the last decade of his life.
This pedagogical, if slightly off-kilter, impulse is especially felt in Frampton’s writing—his arcane diction, his esoteric references, his grandiose claims for the ontology of cinema. (These writings, often appearing in Artforum and October thanks to his friend and editor Annette Michelson, were first collected in 1983’s Circles of Confusion and then again in 2009 in an essential collection edited by Bruce Jenkins.) His exploration of cinema’s origins is particularly notable in the early films, which the Criterion set has fortunately, if somewhat unexpectedly, prioritized. Manual of Arms (1966), with its evocation of Warholian portraiture and the zoopraxiscope work of Muybridge,suggests a kind of degree-zero of the cinema. But it also opens up the possibility of narrative in a way that one doesn’t often associate with the so-called Structuralist filmmakers, and features cameo appearances by an array of notable friends like the painter Robert Huot, dancer Twyla Tharp, and filmmakers Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland.
This fascination with the proto-cinematic reappears throughout Frampton’s early work, which frequently engages in the chronophotographic measurement of human (and non-human) motion. In Process Red (1966), fast magenta-tinted images show hands performing small, everyday gestures—holding a cigarette, peeling a hard-boiled egg—a rhythmic taxonomy of abstracted, often delicate body language randomized in Frampton’s shuffle of elements. Similarly, the astonishing Maxwell’s Demon (1968) rarefies color, motion, and sound to their most basic states: excerpts from a Canadian Air Force training film of an athlete in various poses (face down, prone, akimbo, jogging in place); frames of pure color (magenta, red, yellow, green, cyan, blue); and images of the ocean, similarly tinted. Each time the sea appears one hears the rhythmic buzz of sprocket holes on the optical soundtrack.
Frampton further expounds on these elemental admixtures in Surface Tension (1968), a film that neatly captures its maker’s eccentricity, mixing time- and space-lapse photography, wordplay, and a canny narratological deconstruction. In the first two parts, Frampton makes use of pixilation, a mode of stop-motion animation deployed, in the filmmaker’s own words, to collapse time and flatten space. (But not without objection to the terminology: “God, I hate the word pixilated; it sounds like a cross between titillated and pixie.”) First we see the artist Kaspar König mouthing silently at the camera while a digital clock ticks the minutes speedily away next to him and a telephone rings urgently on the soundtrack; next, we hear König’s disembodied voice in German while Frampton’s camera zips across the Brooklyn Bridge and up the spine of Manhattan in a breathless two-and-a-half minutes. (This portion was a viral hit when it was excerpted on the New York Times City Room blog over the summer.) The last portion presents yet another incongruous image: a trick shot of goldfish swimming amid the insistent waves on a beach, while disjointed words hover around the frame, suggesting yet another three-part film, featuring a retelling of Leda and the swan, monkeys playing, and hippopotami in the Sudan.
These early works, with their careful calibration of finicky minutiae and grand, compulsive orderliness, find Frampton enthralled in the vast apparatus of cinema, which he defines as a widespread, even universal, machinery of representation and replacement—a virtualizing machine. As he states in his essay “For a Metahistory of Film,”
We are used to thinking of camera and projector as machines, but they are not. They are ‘parts’ … Since all ‘parts’ fit together, the sum of all film, all projectors and all cameras in the world constitutes one machine, which is by far the largest and most ambitious single artifact yet conceived and made by man (with the exception of the human species itself). The machine grows by many millions of feet of raw stock every day.
Frampton’s cinema machine engages in an exponential virtualization of the world—first through language, then through images. And this is precisely what happens in his 1970 film Zorns Lemma, whose famous middle section operates via a system of double replacement by which words take the place of concepts and images the place of words. All of this makes for a curious prefiguration of the Internet—“an endless film archive built to house, in eternal cold storage, the infinite film”—which would inform much of his later work, including his experiments with computer programming.(For a more thorough exploration of Frampton’s work in this field, see Andy Uhrich’s essay, “Pressed Into the Service of Cinema,” in the Spring 2012 issue of The Moving Image.)
Frampton’s deepest investigations into the particularity of the cinema machine—his gesture toward “the infinite film”—are to be found in his two great series: the seven-part Hapax Legomena (1971 – 1972) and the unfinished Magellan, which occupied at least the last decade of Frampton’s life. The former is the more widely known, which makes it all the more regrettable that Criterion’s selection of films from the series is incomplete: We only have the first three parts ((nostalgia), Poetic Justice, and Critical Mass) and lack the final four. These include an important early video experiment (Traveling Matte) and the exhilarating Ordinary Matter, a masterful, skittery quasi-time-lapse journey through the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral, along the Brooklyn Bridge, around Stonehenge, and across a cornfield, set to a mesmerizing soundtrack of Mandarin phonemes, read by the filmmaker. The omission of these films is especially lamentable given that they’re unlikely to appear in any other home-video context.
Still, those films in the series that are included further expand Frampton’s deconstruction of the machine: (nostalgia)’s disjunction of image and narration makes vivid cinema’s temporality as it parses the still from the moving image; Poetic Justice wittily unfolds a screenplay (written on sheets of paper modestly situated between a cactus and a cup of coffee) fraught with vagaries and narrative impossibilities (e.g. the script is narrated in the second person—“you and your lover”); and Critical Mass offers a split into two competing levels, the crazy diegesis of improvised New Yawk couples’ bullshit and the sliced-and-diced dialogue, which forms a kind of proto-Martin Arnold abstraction of phonemes in gesture, curse words, and hair. (It’s also hilarious, despite being painfully autobiographical: Frampton’s wife, Marcia Steinbrecher, left him the year he made it.)
While the Hapax Legomena selection is unfortunately curtailed, the disc’s sampling of films from Magellan is unexpectedly rich—although, of course, we will never get the opportunity to experience all of Magellan’s proposed 36 hours. Intended as a calendrical cycle, Frampton’s ambitious series of film was to be, in his words, “an hypothetically totally inclusive work of film art as epistemological model for the conscious human universe” and was loosely based on Magellan’s five-year circumnavigation of the globe. Indeed, the cycle functions as a type of metaphorical circumnavigation of the human imagination, which in part accounts for its multiplicity of techniques and images. These include about a dozen of the short one-minute studies he called “pans,” short for “panopticon” and a nod to Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault.(According to Michael Zryd, Frampton planned to make 720 pans, but only 49 survive.) These include mesmerizing images of flickering clouds, a swaying red amulet, dripping streams of liquid, a pixilated run through a cornfield, the grisly beheading of a cow, and a child gleefully, if maliciously, dangling a (living) frog from a fish hook.
These shorter works punctuate a breathlessly varied series of longer films in the series, which at their best stand alongside Frampton’s more famous works. The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I (1977 – 1980) finds the filmmaker among a host of fellow artists and thinkers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze, Bryan Ferry, and Hong Sang-soo, in invoking Marcel Duchamp’s 1923 work “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” Defiantly, eternally weird and impervious to criticism, Duchamp’s work is itself an exercise in montage, a work of assemblage that forces a complementary process of imaginative and logical assemblage on the part of an active spectator. Frampton’s work offers a set of puzzling juxtapositions whose very randomness seems to stand in for the logic of the world: bursts of canned applause and sprocket-hole hums on the soundtrack, alternating red and white irises expanding to fill the frame, excerpts from a bawdy old silent vaudeville comedy of two men comically harassing a woman, and footage of a wedding in a park, shot on the fly by Frampton himself. Between these images, there are large sections of black leader, suggesting the filmmaker’s interest in the basic alternations of light and darkness, still more gloriously evidenced by Winter Solstice (1974), a set of shuddering images of the white-hot infernos of an iron forge, complete with oozing molten metal and torrents of skittering sparks. Similarly, Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part I: The Red Gate (1976), with its vivid green and red dexagonal honeycomb patterns (which Frampton saw as symbolic of the Magellan structure overall) and images of dissected cadavers, offers striking contrasts and now looks strikingly like a (silent) death metal music video avant la lettre.
A more subdued meditation on death can be found in the cycle’s enormously touching coda, Gloria! (1979), which, according to Frampton’s epigraph, is “given in loving memory of Fanny Elizabeth Catlett Cross, my maternal grandmother.” Frampton here once again collapses time and space, intercutting between recollections typed on a green monochrome computer monitor and two early films based on the 19th-century Irish ballad “Finnegan’s Wake.” The gesture of weaving together a grand Joycean reference, drunken, ribald slapstick, and intimate reminiscences is nearly as bold as the implicit blending of media—folk balladry, oral history, literature, cinema, and digital art. And while it’s difficult not to see the film as prefiguring Frampton’s own death just a few years later, it also anticipates the rebirth of his films in a new format—indeed, down to the very granular materiality of celluloid itself, swimming across a richly preserved image.