A girl and a gun? An appreciation of Hollis Frampton’s cinema begins with the admission that a film requires something far simpler than Jean-Luc Godard’s basic recipe. Frampton, who died in 1984 at age 48, thought the perfect film would project a rectangle of white light. “But we have decided that we want to see less than this,” says Frampton’s narrator in his statement of principles/performance piece A Lecture. “Very well.”
Frampton may have decided it was foolish (and, on a basic cognitive level, impossible) to deny audiences the familiar and expected pleasure of narrative–none of his films resemble that Platonic ideal of white light. (nostalgia), his best-known film and a clear masterpiece, presents a familiar autobiographical scheme, as the narrator reminisces over a series of thirteen photographs. But the presentation is dissonant, and the viewer is only gradually taught how to watch the film. The photographs disintegrate into ashes on a hot plate, beginning with “the first photograph I ever made with the direct intention of making art” and ending with something that makes him believe “I shall never dare to make another photograph again.” So explains the narrator, who in the first deliberate act of misdirection is not Frampton but his friend the Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow. (The voiceover gets exceedingly nested when Snow, narrating for Frampton, refers to Snow, saying with resignation, “I wish I could apologize to him.”) He perpetually refers to the forthcoming photograph rather than the one smoldering before the viewer’s eyes, creating a disjunction between sound and image. As soon as a new image appears, we are trying to reconcile it with the previous vignette while simultaneously listening to the narrator’s recollections and regrets. In other words, we can’t help but experience nostalgia. The result is alienating but rarely frustrating. (nostalgia) is a poignant depiction of the elusive nature of memory, even in an age of mechanical reproduction, as well as a deadpan prank. The critic Michael Joshua Rowin has referred to the film’s final sequence–which hints at a terrifying mystery in the next photograph, one we will never see–as a three-minute retelling of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
Frampton’s passions and pranks are on full display in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, edited by Bruce Jenkins, a professor of film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A fitting tribute to the man J. Hoberman called “one of the most erudite characters to ever pick up a camera,” the volume collects a number of theory-laden essays, propositions, blueprints, photographs, mental notes, angry letters to the editor and several misguided attempts at fiction. (Sample sentence: “That one was celebrated, before gravure, for an interminable concatenation of falsehoods about ruined architecture, lethal geography, and ritual mutilation, but exotic or poisonous wildlife was privileged to decorate a prose hospitable to vivid circumstance.”) The book showcases Frampton the belletrist, Frampton the fabulist and, above all, Frampton the essentialist.