Both the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray sets of A Hollis Frampton Odyssey contain an essential special feature: “A Lecture,” a replication of a performance-art piece that Frampton staged in 1968 at Hunter College. Using the existing audio of Frampton’s colleague Michael Snow reading Frampton’s words (from the tape that was used in the original performance), the Criterion team then recreates the visual accompaniment: a beam of light projected onto a blank white screen, which Frampton would periodically alter with filters or with his fingers. The “lecture” in question then asks the audience to contemplate projection, and to consider whether the absence of an image is still, in its own way, an image, and to concede that if what a film is “about” is whatever the viewer sees the most, then the subject of all films must be film itself.
Frampton’s contributions to cinema went beyond the visionary experimental movies he made; he also wrote brilliant essays that explained the medium in enlightening new ways, and he showed a fascination for emerging technologies that likely would’ve blossomed into something astonishing had Frampton not died of cancer in 1984, at age 48, just before the personal computer and video revolutions really got rolling. As critic Ed Halter notes in the booklet that accompanies A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, Frampton felt that committed cineastes have a duty to trace their own paths through the history of film, and then to make the movies that are missing from that history they’ve traced. That’s what makes “A Lecture” the best way for newcomers to begin with Frampton. It helps set up the story that the rest of this disc tells.
“A Lecture” does not, however, make the story any easier to follow. Though frequently witty and poetic—with structures sometimes akin to seek-and-find puzzles, or clever mathematical equations—the films on A Hollis Frampton Odyssey aren’t the most accessible the avant-garde has to offer. Frampton didn’t just conceive bold ideas, he carried them through uncompromisingly, as in his best-known film, the hourlong Zorns Lemma, which mostly consists of short, silent shots of New York street signs, arranged alphabetically from A to Z, over and over, until each letter is gradually replaced by a repeating image. Watching Zorns Lemma is an exercise in distraction and endurance, as the viewer is asked to register pictures that stay on the screen for roughly a second, all while keeping track of the alphabet and watching as everyday processes—such as changing a tire or eating an orange—play out in fragments, every 30 seconds or so. Similarly, Frampton’s conceptual masterpiece (Nostalgia) sees Frampton placing a series of old photographs on the burner of his stove and then filming as they’re slowly consumed by flames, while his friend Snow describes the image coming up in the next photograph. The film is a test of the audience’s memory, and of the ability to divorce visual information from the spoken word. Frampton was a fan of James Joyce, and his films often combined Joyce’s interests in formal play and the detailed documentation of mundane daily life. Like Joyce, Frampton made art for people eager to be challenged.
A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is a bit too confusingly organized, with pieces of some of Frampton’s major film cycles presented out of their intended context. But then, Frampton himself tinkered with those cycles throughout his life, and didn’t get the chance to complete his most ambitious project: a 36-hour riff on life, cinema, and explorer Ferdinand Magellan, meant to be watched over the course of 371 days. And given how hard it’s been for cinephiles outside major cities to see any of Frampton’s work, it’d be silly to nitpick this set too much. A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is a treasure-trove, offering striking films ranging from the simple Muybridge-style nude study of Ingenivm Nobis Ipsa Pvella Fecit, Part I to the elaborate gag of Poetic Justice, which consists of a series of handwritten descriptions of shots for a film, stacked up page by page for over 30 minutes. Frampton worked with sound and with silence, with color and with black and white, with film and with video, with animation and with actors. In all cases, he conveyed his way of seeing, even in a film as seemingly off-the-cuff of Lemon, in which Frampton slowly moves light across a piece of fruit and changes its shape—and thus its meaning—from second to second.
Key features: In addition to “A Lecture,” the disc contains audio commentaries compiled from Frampton interviews, segments of a 1978 Frampton video interview, and a selection from one of Frampton’s Xerographic art shows.