Making my way through twenty-four of Hollis Frampton’s films, thanks to the Criterion Collection, reminded me of the time I walked through one of New York City’s contemporary art museums, the Guggenheim. Walking through the winding halls of the Guggenheim Museum, I couldn’t figure out why a completely black canvas, or completely white canvas, was considered “art.” Being only seventeen years old at the time, I figured I just didn’t “get it,” and moved on.
Almost a decade later, that feeling of inadequacy returns. It’s not that A Hollis Frampton Odyssey isn’t filled with an artistic approach to filmmaking. It’s actually the opposite: here are twenty-four films – mostly short films – that present “l’art pour l’art”, or art for art’s sake. The biggest problem with this is accessibility; these films are just not accessible to most viewers. Fortunately the Criterion Collection had to know this coming in, and the films are specifically for avant-garde film lovers, and not for viewers like myself who constantly ask “what’s the point” when watching a film.
Even though Frampton says that he sees his work as “perverse or oblique narratives”, I could find virtually no story in any of these twenty-four films. Most have seemingly random images flashing across the screen in complete silence, while others play with color filters, odd noises, or jerky cutting. One film – Critical Mass – contains two actors improvising an argument about their relationship, but even this potential narrative gets washed away because Frampton wants to play with his film more so than tell a story. That idea of experimentation over story is prevalent in virtually all twenty-four of these films, and all are perfect examples of avant-garde filmmaking.
These films are incredibly difficult to sit through. The shorter films are a bit easier, but the few that ring in near the thirty or sixty-minute mark are true tests of ones patience. For example, Winter Solstice is nothing more than Frampton taking his camera into a metal making shop, filming the extremely hot temperatures that are required to form steel, and playing it back for an extended period of time. The frame is constantly filled with sparks and fire, which is an obvious contrast to the title of the film. Unfortunately this movie continues for over 30-minutes. It’s practically unbearable because there seems to be no point to the whole thing at all.
Ten of the twenty-four movies, which total over four hours of film, contain commentary by Frampton. All but one is an audio track played over a still image of Frampton’s face. The final one is a director commentary played over the short film Lemon. These remarks give the viewer a good idea of where Frampton was coming from, and what he was trying to do with the film. Once he explains the movie, it makes a little more sense, but that doesn’t make it any more worthy of ones time.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is aimed at a niche, avant-garde audience, and only that audience will appreciate what Criterion has put together. These films may have had more success when they were released in the late 1960s/early 1970s when avant-garde was all the rage, but that niche is even smaller now than it was then, and most viewers would find this to be little more than a waste of time and money.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey contains the following twenty-four films (note that each Pan is considered one film):
Manual of Arms (17:13)
Process Red (3:40)
Maxwell’s Demon (3:47)
Surface Tension (9:33)
Carrots & Peas (5:24)
Zorns Lemma (59:57)
Poetic Justice (31:32)
Critical Mass (25:15)
The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I (5:44)
Pan 0 and Pan 1 (2:06)
Ingenivm Nobis Ipsa Pvella Fecit, Part I (4:51)
Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part 1: The Red Gate I, O (5:13)
Pan 2 (1:03)
Pan 3 and Pan 4 (2:06)
Pan 697 and Pan 698 (2:06)
Winter Solstice (32:38)
Pan 699 and Pan 700 (2:06)
The Criterion Collection is one of the best publishers of DVD and Blu-rays on the planet, and A Hollis Frampton Odyssey looks incredible. The 16mm film has been restored to its glory days. Each film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which means black bars appear on the left and right of the screen on widescreen televisions. As explained in the booklet provided, each film was given an HD restoration via a Spirit 2K Datacine from the original 16mm film stock. There are a surprisingly low amount of imperfections throughout all films, and they truly look stunning.
The sound – what little there is – has also been remastered. All are monaural soundtracks that were taken from the original optical and magnetic tracks. All cracks, hisses, and hums were manually removed, and the sound restoration is just as good as the video restoration, but there is so little sound to be had, it isn’t as noticeable as the incredible video quality.
Though these aren’t the greatest set of special features I’ve seen on a Criterion Collection release, there are still some worth the effort:
Hollis Frampton Interview (20:08): This features excerpts of an interview between Hollis Frampton and filmmaker Adele Friedman for the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978. Frampton looks incredibly bored during the interview, and remains emotionless through most of it. This interview is where some of the “Remarks by Frampton” features come from, so there is some light repeating. He mentions that Stan Brakhage – another member of the Criterion Club – was one of his strongest influences. The interview is lax and slow moving, but fans of Frampton will learn a lot about his influences, and where he saw the future of technology heading, which is pretty amusing.
A Lecture (23:04): This is a performance piece recorded in 1968 at Hunter College in New York City, and features the voice of Michael Snow. This feature contains the audio portion of that performance piece, along with still images made to replicate Frampton’s visuals. The piece is about film, projection, and the projector itself. Just like the first time we heard Michael Snow read from a script in the film (nostalgia), he sounds forced and fake. He is definitely not a natural actor. The still pictures add little to Snow’s dry performance, and because Snow says everything in a jilted, jarring, and stiff manner, it’s difficult to even follow what he’s talking about. Towards the end, Snow reads that Frampton wanted the reader to be as mechanical as the projector, but that doesn’t make it easier to understand. Much like the films themselves, this is for someone, but not for most.
By Any Other Name: This is a gallery of artwork from Frampton’s By Any Other Name series, which he created from 1979-1983. These are unaltered photocopies of product labels. He followed two rules when selecting which labels to use for this gallery: the brand name and the product had to be unrelated and the label had to display the brand name and the product in both word and image. This gallery first displays the product and brand name, and then shows the picture. This repeats for around 30 frames, or 14 pictures. The labels are presented with crystal clear quality, but are nothing more than a load of ironic product labels.
Essay Booklet: This is a thick, 43-page color booklet. It contains a complete film listing with year, runtime, whether a film is color or not, and what type of soundtrack it has. This booklet is really special because it contains a mini-essay on virtually every film in the set by different film historians and professors. Each give the viewer a better idea of why Frampton was creating these films, and what each is actually about. There is also a longer essay by film critic Ed Halter on Frampton himself. Finally, there is an essay from Bill Brand, owner and operator of BB Optics, about the preservation of Frampton’s films. This booklet is not only beautiful, but also filled with tons of useful and interesting information.
The Criterion Collection strikes gold yet again with their transfer quality, which makes the fact that so few people will appreciate Hollis Frampton’s films even more disappointing. The essay booklet is easiest the best special feature on this release, where as the other features will not appeal to anyone that isn’t already a fan of Frampton. People who enjoy other avant-garde work, or who already love what Frampton brings to the table will want to run out and buy this Criterion Collection release. Everyone else – which includes the vast majority of film fans – should let this release slide by without another thought.
Criterion Collection presents A Hollis Frampton Odyssey. Directed by: Hollis Frampton. Running time: 266 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released: April 24, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.