Case Number 23863: Small Claims Court


Criterion // 1966 // 266 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 24th, 2012

The Charge

"A film is a machine made of images" -- Hollis Frampton

Opening Statement

When most of us go to the cinema, we go to see a movie. By "movie" we generally mean a film that's roughly 90 minutes in length, fits neatly into a predetermined genre, and doesn't draw too much attention to itself. Cinema, of course, didn't start out this way. The first films incorporated everything from mini-documentaries to "phantom rides" where the camera was placed on a movie train. Eventually, once technology allowed, 90 minutes was cemented as the typical length for a feature, and narratives became the standard. However, the moment Hollywood-style narrative storytelling became the norm, artists of various stripes began challenging status quoa. During the 1920s, various avant-garde movements sprung up in Europe, and there have been numerous movements since which have expanded our notion of what film could accomplish beyond telling a generic tale.

One of those avant-garde movements was the so-called "structural" filmmakers. A loose group of friends and co-conspirators, these filmmakers made art that drew attention to the material of cinema, by focusing on things like camera movement, flicker effect, different kinds of printing, and rephotography. Their work was often minimalist in nature and explored the many features of film Hollywood tried to hide. One of the most famous filmmakers from this group was Hollis Frampton, whose work is finally released on Blu-ray thanks to the ever-dependable folks at Criterion. Though this set will likely not appeal to a wide audience, fans of Frampton's films will appreciate the attention lavished on them here.

Facts of the Case

Hollis Frampton made numerous films (many of them shorter than a minute) during a career (from 1966 until his untimely death in 1984) that took him from burgeoning poet and still photographer into filmmaking. A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (Blu-ray) collects 24 of those films, divided into three categories:

Early Films (what Criterion refers to as "pre-critical")
* Manual of Arms
* Process Red
* Maxwell's Demon
* Surface Tension
* Carrots & Peas
* Lemon
* Zorns Lemma

Films from Frampton's series Hapax Legomena
* (nostalgia)
* Poetic Justice
* Critical Mass

Films from Frampton's epic cycle Magellan
* The Birth of Magellan: Cadenza I
* Pans 0...4 and 697...700
* Magellan: At the Gates of Death, Part I: The Red Gate 1
* Winter Solstice
* Gloria!

The Evidence

Speaking broadly, Hollywood films are about feeling. When the hero is scared, so is the audience. When the hero is excited, so is the audience. When the hero laughs or cries, so does the audience. With few exceptions, Hollywood-style pictures are not about thinking, except at the most basic level of "what happens next." We certainly aren't encouraged to think we're watching a film. Some avant-garde film is about feeling (like the work of Maya Daren or Stan Brakhage), but those referred to as "structural films" are much more about making the audience think rather than feel.

Take, for instance, Frampton's (nostalgia). It appears to be a simple film. A stationary camera looks on as hands place a photograph on a hotplate. An off-screen voice reads a description of the photograph. When one photograph is burned up, another is placed down. What makes this interesting is that the off-screen description doesn't match the photograph we're seeing. They're out of sync. The first reaction is one of confusion. Once we've caught on, it's a question of remembering the previous voiceover, as we see the new photograph. Because it takes a while for the pictures to burn we have plenty of time to consider photographs and their relationship to memory, the extent to which we take film's sound/image relationship for granted, and how past and present mix in cinema.

That might make this sound like a dry intellectual exercise, but for all its thought-provoking power, Frampton's films are not dry and boring. No, even (nostalgia) with its stationary camera is beautiful. The burned photographs are cool to look at, and when the heat causes them to shrivel and burn they take on even more interesting presence. There's also a playfulness to the setup, like we're watching a game unfold. Many of Frampton's films tackle other subjects -- Lemons is about light, color, and composition...but they all share a sense of curiosity. Watching these shorts is akin to following a seasoned explorer on an adventure through cinema.

Until much later life, Frampton worked exclusively with 16mm film, a medium which can present significant challenges for any home video format. Luckily, Criterion had Bill Brand on hand, Frampton's friend, archivist, and fellow filmmaker. He helped the company find the best elements and make decisions about what "problems" with the image were actually problems and which were Frampton's choices. Though a scratch through the print might detract from a Hollywood blockbuster, it can be the most important visual element in a film by an experimental filmmaker. That said, this is probably the best way we can watch Frampton's work without direct access to his elements or a time machine.

Presented in 1.33:1/1080p high definition full frame, these shorts look amazing, despite cramming all 24 of them on one disc. Detail is strong, colors are accurate, black levels consistent, and an appropriate amount of grain gives them a natural sheen. For those who've been putting up with VHS copies or DVD bootlegs, this Blu-ray will be a revelation. The LPCM 1.0 Mono tracks are similarly impressive, though not as flashy. Many of the films are silent, but those with soundtracks accurately render Frampton's original sonic environments.

Extras begin with a collection of commentaries culled from interviews with Frampton. Though dying before commentary tracks became a reality for home video, he was an artist who regularly recorded his lectures and interviews. This provided Criterion with quite a bit of material; the discussions ranging from process explanations to more thematic analysis of what the artist was trying to achieve. Also included is an extended interview with Frampton that ranges over his work; a Frampton performance piece re-creation, "A Lecture" that includes visuals and Michael Snow reading Frampton's words; and "By Any Other Name," a visual piece that includes photocopies of contemporary advertising materials. The booklet is fatter than the usual Criterion release, including a roving essay on Frampton's work, short descriptions of each of piece, and an essay from Bill Brand on preserving and transferring these films.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The main problem with A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (Blu-ray) is that it might prove addictive. If the initial exposure to experimental work doesn't turn the viewer off, it's highly likely he or she will want to see more. Criterion has done a fine job with Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, and this set will only whet the appetites of those waiting to consume the work of everyone from Michael Snow and Ernie Gehr to Phil Solomon and Janie Geiser.

True purists might object to viewing these pieces as "films." While I'm sympathetic to this position, there's nothing like seeing an avant-garde work in its original medium. It's much more likely this Blu-ray set will cause viewers to seek out 16mm screenings, leading to even greater preservation efforts and increased screenings, rather than diminishing the value of Frampton's work.

The nit-picky might also quibble about the selection offered here. I can see arguments for ditching some of the earlier stuff and substituting the entirety of the Hapax Legomena series. Similarly, it would have been great to hear more in the extras from scholars and Frampton's contemporaries. However, Criterion went with a "greatest hits" approach which is sure to please everyone but the most ardent fans.

Closing Statement

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (Blu-ray) is not for everyone. However, fans of experimental cinema will see this set as a god-send and should purchase it immediately. Those unfamiliar with Frampton (especially those unfamiliar with 1960s/70s avant-garde) should rent his just to see (nostalgia), one of the moss accessible experimental films available.

The Verdict

Not Guilty, but the court remands Criterion in custody, until they release more avant-garde cinema.

Review content copyright © 2012 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile
Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
* Full Frame (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)

* None

Running Time: 266 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentaries
* Interview
* Featurettes
* Booklet

* IMDb: Process Red

* IMDb: Manual of Arms

* IMDb: Maxwell's Demon

* IMDb: Surface Tension

* IMDb: Carrots & Peas

* IMDb: Lemon

* IMDb: Zorns Lemma