In the last completed section of The Cantos, Ezra Pound confessed of life and love and art, "I am not a demigod,/I cannot make it cohere." But it is the noble attempt that binds Pound to experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, who, in his youth, sought out and befriended Pound as the poet struggled to complete The Cantos from the psyche ward of Washington D.C.'s St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Frampton's searching, highly personal, avant-garde films have in common with Pound's poetry the expression of a restless intellect and a fertile creativity. The work presses its consumer to share the struggle with the artist, to make the mysteries of time, human connection, life and death cohere.
And good luck with that. Your mileage will vary when it comes to Frampton, newly collected in the Criterion Collection's A Hollis Frampton Odyssey. The collection comprises twenty-four films made between 1966 and 1979, conceptual art that follows a distinct muse. Before succumbing to cancer in 1984, Frampton's ambitious output emphatically announced, "I am here" as they questioned assumptions of existence and perception and form. Presumably, Frampton hoped the films would help his viewers to do the same, but like any conceptual artist, he's bound to be found important by some and self-important by others: brilliant, masturbatory, or somewhere in between. Even detractors may be forced to admit that Frampton was the "real deal" in experimental film, equally capable of maddening and insinuating himself with his audiences.
The Criterion set begins with six "Early Films": "Manual of Arms" (1966), "Process Red" (1966), "Maxwell's Demon" (1968), "Surface Tension" (1968), "Carrots & Peas" (1969), and "Lemon" (1969). These serve as a good introduction to Frampton's aesthetic baseline, which includes the intersection of still photography and film while making muscular use of montage. "Surface Tension," in its name and its content, points the way to some career-long self-reflexive obsessions of Frampton. Frampton invariably began explaining his entry into film by describing his once being told it was effectively impossible, the province of millionaires. "Surface Tension," like the later "Poetic Justice," is a film about the plan to make a film.
Next in set is Zorns Lemma (1970), generally considered to be Frampton's masterwork. Initially charming and ultimately a test of patience, the three-part, hour-long feature teases mathematic theory in its title and indeed presents a distinctive version of Frampton's filmic math. Part one finds Joyce Wieland reading, over a black screen, a Puritan alphabet primer. Part two cuts together alphabetically grouped still shots of words (seen in urban signage), punctuated with repeated cycles of imagery like a dancing bonfire, waving wheat, and rolling tide. Part three depicts a couple walking in a snow-blanketed meadow as women intone one word at a time. Frampton employs the familiar and the banal (including grinding meat and rolling paint) to reframe and challenge the imposed orders and perceptions of daily life.
Criterion also includes three films from Frampton's seven-film cycle "Hapax Legomena": "(nostalgia)" (1971), "Poetic Justice" (1972)" and "Critical Mass" (1971). "Hapax Legomena" cheekily refers to single-use verbal expressions that require using context clues to make presumed sense of them. "(nostalgia)" famously dramatizes a disconnect of self-identity (partly created by the passage of time and partly by the mediation of art) by having artist Michael Snow narrate Frampton's comments on photographs Frampton snapped years before. Now those photos are placed on a hot plate and burned for a 16mm camera to witness. "Poetic Justice" literally shoots the script for a never-made film, cutting together still shots of pages from a screenplay, piling up, one page at a time, between a small cactus and a cup of coffee on a desktop.
"Films from Magellan" represent for Frampton's Cantos, an ambitious project titled Magellan that began in 1972 and ended only by the artist's death in 1984. Included here are "The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I" (1977–1980), four parts of "Straits of Magellan" (1969-1976) ("Pans 0–4 and 697–700," "INGENIVM NOBIS IPSA PVELLA FECIT, Part I," "Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part I: The Red Gate 1, 0" and "Winter Solstice"), and "Gloria!" from "The Death of Magellan." With this massive undertaking, Frampton intended to "[make] film over as it should have been" as a "model for the conscious human universe." So, you know, there's that, culminating in imagery that brings Frampton fearlessly into the computer age.
Those with short attention spans or who are sensitive to pretension need not apply, but others will be grateful for the Criterion Collection's ongoing commitment to showcasing film art that does not flow along the mainstream.
Criterion Collection does its usual peerless work with The Hollis Frampton Odyssey on Blu-ray. I can find no fault with the presentation of the material here, which has been lovingly preserved and rendered under the supervision of Frampton collaborator Bill Brand, who contributes to the enclosed booklet an essay titled "Notes on Preserving and Presenting the Films of Hollis Frampton." Lest there be any doubt as to the scrupulousness of the presentation, Brand's essay puts it to rest. The transfers delicately recreate film stock and color as intended by the artist, and the images are invariably stable and exactly as clean and detailed as they should be. Sound is LPCM Mono that likewise never raises any flags. Both video and audio have been cleaned up and remastered to the Criterion standard.
Bonus features include remarks by Frampton on nearly every film (largely culled from Brand's 1971 recording of an Antioch College presentation). A 1978 "Hollis Frampton Interview" (22:13, HD) derives from the Art Institute of Chicago's Video Databank. This is an excellent place to start in unpacking the artist's formative influences and intentions, and absorbing his public personality.
"A Lecture" (23:10, HD) recreates Frampton's 1968 performance piece at Manhattan's Hunter College using the original audio and video approximating the imagery Frampton would project to accompany the audio.
"By Any Other Name" (HD) is a video gallery of Frampton's 1979-83 series presenting photocopied brand-name labels, specifically those with a dislocation of brand name and product.
Lastly, the keepcase holds a 48-page color booklet with extensive liner notes and artwork.
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