Hollis, I hardly know you

20th April 2012

Tuesday sees the release (in the States only) of a DVD and Blu-ray for which, it is only slightly hyperbolic to say, I have been waiting for all my life. The great and good Criterion Collection have collated A Hollis Frampton Odyssey with twenty-four films made by the avant-garde artist between 1966 and 1979. I have seen just two of these, in large part because almost all of Frampton’s films have for the last three decades been all but inaccessible – at least legally. Yet the two films that I know, Zorn’s Lemma (1970) and (nostalgia) (1971), would be close to the top of my desert island essentials list (and I’ve also read a good deal about the films). So you can imagine how keen I am on a journey through another twenty-two (a clip of one of which is included below).

Here’s the Criterion intro to Hollis Frampton (1936-84):

An icon of the American avant-garde, Hollis Frampton made rigorous, audacious, brainy, and downright thrilling films, leaving behind a body of work that remains unparalleled. In the 1960s, having already been a poet and a photographer, Frampton became fascinated with the possibilities of 16 mm filmmaking. In such radically playful and visually and sonically arresting works as Surface Tension, Zorns Lemma, (nostalgia), Critical Mass,and the enormous, unfinished Magellan cycle (cut short by his death at age forty-eight), Frampton repurposes cinema itself, making it into something by turns literary, mathematical, sculptural, and simply beautiful—and always captivating.

Which is about as good a brief summary as you might want, touching on many of the qualities that distinguish his experimental films: their intelligence, their engagement with language, with ideas and with the materiality of film, their humour and playfulness, their absolute distinctiveness and indeed their beauty.

I first saw Zorn’s Lemma in the mid-1970s at what was then the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. This was probably when Tate’s Sir Nicholas Serota was running the gallery (the  knighthood came later). It was a focus for avant-garde art, events and screenings, and I was a curious student with little sense of what was in store one Saturday night. I vividly recall being initially puzzled, then engaged as the film’s games with images and language unfolded, and finally overwhelmed by one of those rare epiphanic moments as I reached an understanding of what was going on.

My encounter with (nostalgia) came over a decade later when I was planning a late-night series of experimental called Midnight Underground for Channel 4 (those were the days, eh!). I was working with David Curtis, a curator and critic with an unparalleled knowledge of and sympathy for avant-garde film, and to make our selection we borrowed a bunch of 16mm prints from the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. These we projected onto a sheet hung in his front room, on which flickered images by Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, Tony Conrad and others. But by far the most profound experience for me was watching (nostalgia), a simple yet gloriously complex film that it is almost impossible to describe without in some way spoiling. So I shall not even try – and instead encourage you to experience it yourself thanks to Criterion.

(Uniquely, I think, among Frampton’s films, (nostalgia) has been available for the past few years on Treasures IV: American Avant-garde Film, 1947-1986.)

The Criterion discs feature newly restored copies of Frampton’s early films, including Zorn’s Lemma, three of the group titled Hapex Legomena, including (nostalgia), and then a meaty selection from the Magellan cycle made in the later 1970s. One of those early films is the nine and a half minute Surface Tension, shot in New York in 1968, of which this is an extract:

Reviews of A Hollis Frampton Odyssey:

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey: Gary Tooze does a good job (with some wonderful images) of reviewing the disc for DVD Beaver: ‘quite overwhlming – if you open yourself up to viewing it’.

A second look – ‘A Hollis Frampton Odyssey’: a short piece by Denis Lim for the LA Times: ‘Frampton’s work endures as a reminder that film is not just an instrument for recording the world but also for making sense of it’.

Additional links for Hollis Frampton:

hollisframpton.org.uk: a compendious site with a great deal of information and analysis, together with further links – although it’s far from clear what, if any, relationship the site has with the filmmakr’s estate and other copyright holders.

Hollis Frampton: an extended interview the filmmaker by Scott Macdonald from his book A Critical Cinema, posted online by the Making Light of It blog.

A Hollis Frampton slide show in New York: three slides (together with an explanatory note) from a collection of his images donated recently to Anthology Film Archives.

Hollis Frampton – words and pictures: an extended review by Matt Packer for Experimental Conversations of the essential MIT Press anthology, edited by Bruce Jenkins, of Frampton’s writings, On the Camera Arts & Consecutive Matters.

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