The effects of experimental films are always relative to whoever’s watching them. While some can feel elated by the combination of form and style, or praise the filmmaker’s almost political use of the medium, others will most likely accuse them of being nothing but the emperor’s new clothes. This same argument of course, can be made about most forms of art, which tend to exclude more often than they include, leaving some out in the cold, to the point where you can count in one hand all the art pieces that would be considered as such on a universal consensus.
The problem with experimental films, is that they not only have to try and justify themselves as valuable enterprises when compared to traditional movies, but also that they are eternally battling the notions of what comprises a movie to begin with. Cinema is perhaps the youngest form of art, and at one point was thought by scholars to be the ultimate creative outlet; one that combined all the classic art forms and turned them into the epitome of our capacity as creators, not only making new life, but ensuring its proliferation.
Experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton burst into the filmic scene at a time when the work of other fellow artists like Michael Snow and Tony Conrad was just being categorized as “structural filmmaking”, movies that according to P. Adams Sitney, were identified because of the way in which the shape of the film—as opposed to the form—predetermined and simplified its essence.
Watching Hollis Frampton’s movies, it’s quite easy to dwell merely on what brilliant achievements they are as conceptual art pieces, or to admire how he dove into each project with almost scientific passion. Upon a first watching of Zorns Lemma for example, it’s impossible not to be astounded by his tenacity. For this movie, Frampton combined a series of images and title cards and created something that seems to be reinventing language. A seemingly endless sequence of words, letters and quick cuts, the film - often considered Frampton’s masterpiece - reminds us of the way in which language has changed our worldviews. This film could’ve easily turned into strict didacticism but the way in which Frampton organizes and re-arranges the images with utmost musicality, transform him from a mad scientist into a musical director orchestrating a silent symphony.
Music, in the strictest way, is never a predominant element of the movies contained in A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, but there is undeniable rhythm to Frampton’s compositions. If not, see how captivating his Hapax Legomena movies are. This series of films work as a sort of antithesis to the vibrant Zorns Lemma, but also happen to contain emotional undertones that make them much more personal than any other avant-garde movies of the era. divided into three segments, each of the films attempts to play with the notion of how cinematic rules can be bent without relying on traditional elements.
The most famous in the series is (nostalgia), a haunting study of how past and present are subverted by the artifice of narrative and memories. The film consists of how a series of black and white photographs, slowly burn down (changing form) when placed over a hot plate. Fourteen photographs, accompanied by anecdotes seemingly filled with non-sequiturs, are shown up to the enlightening moment where we realize that the voice we’re hearing is only talking about the picture that will appear next. Those who were pleased by their “cracking of the code” might’ve only gotten half the picture, given that you also realize that there are twelve anecdoted and fourteen pictures, meaning that two of those would always remain complete mysteries to us.
Poetic Justice offers a delicious sequence of images in which sheets of paper featuring handwritten text from an erotic screenplay, are changed up until they reach a finale. Even if we never “see” the story in question, there is something intrinsically primal about the way in which our mind fills the gaps left behind by the lack of relatable images. It’s an experiment that highlights Frampton’s great success as a joker. This movie is followed by Critical Mass which uses sound prominently as we see a couple argue over and over. Coincidentally this film was shot around the time when Frampton’s wife abandoned him, closing the magnificent Hapax Legomena cycle.
Perhaps the most impressive feature in this set is Magellan, which was originally conceived by Frampton to be a series of calendarized movies shaped after the famous explorer’s expeditions. The project was meant to encompass over 800 movies (including one-minute “Pans” meant to symbolize the peril of Magellan’s straits) and occupied Frampton’s last decade (he died of cancer at age 48 in 1984). The project’s incompleteness makes it even more epic, given that it promises things it can sadly never fulfill. Frampton was a lover of history and his major purpose with Magellan was to create a metahistory of movies. Even he knew his project was overwhelming to say the least, but the movies that remain from this odyssey are remarkable. The Birth of Magellan is a sweet introduction, made only sweeter by the violence of the Straits which shock, enthrall and seduce like mythical sirens.
Perhaps the most fascinating piece within this project is the lovely Gloria! film within The Death of Magellan. This 9-minute movie encompasses everything Frampton wanted to express with his art; the movie begins with a snippet of a silent movie (evoking Finnegan’s Wake and his own Irish ancestry) and is then replaced by a computer monitor where we read a series of statements. The way in which he travels from the beginning of cinema, right to a future few people believed in (Frampton was a pioneer digital filmmaker) remains haunting and almost romantic.
We learn only towards the end, that Magellan and Gloria! in particular were dedicated to Frampton’s maternal grandmother, giving the film an elegiac subtext. By turning the avant-garde into something so personal we find ourselves in the presence of an artist achieving his apotheosis and embracing immortality.