The field of avant-garde/experimental cinema is, to put it mildly, a pretty diverse place. No single characteristic applies to more than a handful of its specimens, except the fact of their marginal status in relation to traditional, mainstream cinema. When you get down to it, all other things being equal, warming newcomers to the visceral delights that are found in non-traditional cinema—for example, the work of Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, or any of the other giants—ought to be no more of a challenge than pointing out the distinguishing characteristics of films by Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, or Orson Welles. In all cases, a concerted effort on the part of the viewer to see, attentively, to consider one’s act of seeing, and to attempt to unpack what the artist does with space and objects, repays handsome dividends in the areas not only of expanded perception, but plain, old-fashioned pleasure.
Another titan of the avant-garde is Hollis Frampton, who made some of the medium’s seminal works before succumbing to cancer in 1984. Familiarity with Brakhage has been enhanced by accessibility, granted not only by the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray editions, but also by his influence on some well-known mainstream objects, such as the opening titles of David Fincher’s Se7en. If we can get a handle on Brakhage by thinking of his work as consisting largely of his famous hand-painted films, or Window Water Baby Moving, Frampton’s “flagship” work is either the multi-title “Hapax Legomena,” or the 59-minute Zorns Lemma. Components of “Hapax” include Special Effects, in which a dashed white rectangle rotates against a black background, Poetic Justice, which tells an erotic almost-story through a series of script notes as they are set down on a table between a cactus and a coffee cup. There’s also Critical Mass, in which a couple’s argument is transformed into a Möbius strip of repetitions and backtracks.
Once seen, Frampton’s films, often deceptively simple in concept and setup, become singular and indelible, his uncanny intuition emerging from the most basic ruptures and rearrangements. Manual of Arms, one of his earliest surviving works, pays tribute to a close circle of friends and intimates in his sparsely adorned loft space. Partly a set of image studies, Manual of Arms opens with a series of faces, one at a time, against a pool of black and half-shadow, calling to mind the trope of personality-illustrative cast introductions from silent movies. Eventually, the series of close-ups gives way to full-body portraiture; each friend gets a different editing and camera-movement pattern, recalling Brakhage’s Two: Creeley/McClure, in which the Mothlight filmmaker gave two friends custom-fitted cine-portraits.
There’s an anarchic affection with which Frampton commits violence to forms, and to our gaze—breaking open familiar concepts and putting them back together in odd ways. In many cases, the movie will take place outside the “movie,” in a kind of conceptual dialogue with the viewer using elemental cues, mimetic codes, and memory prompts. One of several great masterpieces is (nostalgia), in which the off-screen voice of confederate Michael Snow narrates a series of Frampton’s photographs (speaking as Frampton, in the first person)—as each picture catches fire on a hot plate. Sometimes the violence is optical, as when Frampton deploys flashes of color and light, the barest, most incidental collisions of photons and emulsion. In The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I, Frampton crosscuts against three radically different progressions of story and/or image (a bride, with or without the groom, on a park bridge, posing for the wedding photographer; a red dot exploding from a white background; a primitive silent comedy where a man surreptitiously removes a woman’s skirt), less to tell a story than to build, in the Eisenstein manner, meaning through discordant juxtapositions. The resulting super-form, as it plays out, suggests feelings as varied as puerile “gotcha!” humor to apocalyptic sadness, the viewer’s metamorphosing response helped along by Frampton’s preferred mechanisms of repetition and rudimentary signifiers—like a canned laugh track.
As autobiographical as a thumbprint, Frampton’s body of work is largely grouped by the various, ambitious projects he worked on—namely the seven-part Hapax Legomena and the Magellan cycle. These projects indicate not only a fascination with calendars and other organizing principles, but an eye for overall presentation, a kind of avant-garde showmanship. He was a cartographer who drew both the map and the undiscovered country, and his work reflects a conscious attitude toward audience contemplation, but also a refusal to let them absorb his ideas passively. In one of the one-minute “Pans” he made to accompany the Magellan series, there’s a frame-by-frame crosscut between a bright, cloudy sky and a dark, cloudy sky that produces a strobe-like flash; in another, a glass bead oscillates before the camera, as if to simultaneously induce hypnosis and shake the viewer awake.
If Peter Kubelka is the kind of structural filmmaker whose effects are produced by the precise mathematical relationships between shots, as well as (equally precise) dissociative relationships between image and sound, the force of Frampton’s structural ideas are balanced by a wanderer-gatherer instinct, and an overwhelming, architectural ambition, a desire to create epic poems, with cornerstones of brief, Lumière-esque pulses, epics that are only in part animated by some kind of systemic algebra. It’s unlikely you will come across a filmmaker whose work creates in the viewer such a strong equilibrium of sudden, brutal displacement with an exhilarating freedom of travel; you are jostled, you contemplate, you wander across a continent in which all is unexplainable, yet familiar.
A frame in Hollis Frampton work may be a classically composed image of natural or scenic beauty, or it may exist in the space of a cut. It may be a flare of exposure as the tail of a film magazine passes through the gate. As with their Stan Brakhage sets, Criterion recognizes that preservation of an avant-garde work's specific character, as it may be traced back to the means of production, is paramount: Almost all of Frampton's work was shot on 16mm, a stock that produces levels and characters of detail and contrast that are utterly unthinkable with any other camera, from 8mm to IMAX to the Red One. One of the great thrills of A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is the fidelity to grain, and all that that entails.
Unlike Brakhage, sound (music, voice, and effects) was often vital to Frampton, and Criterion's set is, in part, a document of the sound recording and editing means available to an independent filmmaker working from the 1960s through the early '80s. Given the limits of technology, Criterion's mono soundtrack presentation is impeccable.
Easily the most serious avant-garde set to get a Blu-ray release since the two-part Brakhage series, Criterion takes their role as guides to Frampton's radical work very seriously. Each work, no matter how small in scale, is accompanied by helpful notes, as well as remarks, commentary, and explanations by Frampton himself. You'll be lost and found for hours. The supplements also contain two rare, non-filmic pieces. First is the "xerographic" series By Any Other Name, which features brand graphics, united not by Warhol-inspired, jokey alienation, but by a like disjunction between the brand's name and the brand's product (e.g. Bumblebee tuna). Also included is A Lecture, another performance collaboration with Michael Snow, with some web interactivity with Criterion.com.
A strong candidate for Blu-ray of the year, Criterion outdoes itself and validates its own brand name: A Hollis Frampton Odyssey will rotate your head on its axis for hours and hours.