Pattern Recognition: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

Pattern Recognition: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

Pattern Recognition: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

A new volume of essays shows Hollis Frampton leaving behind photography for film.


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.

These Framptons often possessed the filmmaker simultaneously, and as a result his exhaustive catalog of the ramifications of celluloid art can seem cheeky. Tell me, is this reason, literature or parody?

The sociable presentation of film, which is itself a ritual of the right of free assembly, produces some rather odd side effects. I calculated that in the small upstate town that I live a few miles from, one single screening of Apocalypse Now produced, among other apocalyptic figures, the use of approximately three hundred and ninety gallons of gasoline to take an audience of two hundred and fifty people to see it (this is one screening), about seven thousand road miles of travel for those people. If you translate that into the number of times that film will be screened before Francis Ford Coppola gets his money back (it’s a process of infinite convergence, of course) and do the bookkeeping on it, you will cease to wonder why the petroleum industry or indeed the manufacturers of automobiles in Detroit seem to approve of the movies and indeed perhaps understand something of the not-very-secret affinities between those manufacturing processes. There are also, of course, movies that teach you how to drive automobiles, you understand, so there’s some reciprocation there.

Blueprints and notations for experimental films are often as vibrant and disorienting as the films themselves, as anyone who’s read through James O. Incandenza’s annotated filmography in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest can attest. In fact, Incandenza’s The Joke–in which the film’s audience is filmed watching the film, which is itself a film of themselves watching the film; and then the audience members watch each other getting the film’s “joke” “and become increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable and hostile”–is described in the book as a “parody of Hollis Frampton’s ‘audience-specific events.'”

Along with the errata, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters reprints Frampton’s seminal but long-unavailable essay collection Circles of Confusion, divided evenly between logic-driven treatises on photography and cinema. Circles pointedly does not mention any of Frampton’s films. He considered the essay collection a work of philosophy held completely apart from his cinematic endeavors. In it, he expresses kinship with the protean photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who conducted the experiments with animals in motion that provided a foundation for moving pictures. Addressing the pivotal moment of Muybridge’s life–his murder of his wife’s lover–Frampton finds the unfortunate root of the man’s temporal obsession. “I submit that that brief and banal action, outside time, was the theme upon which he was forced to devise variations in such numbers that he finally exhausted, for himself, its significance. To bring back to equilibrium the energy generated in that instant required the work of half a lifetime.”

By putting pen to paper, Frampton was also plotting a course to leave still photography behind. In an interview, he called his critical essay on Edward Weston “the ritual murder of the father.” But he never treated cinema as the endpoint of still photography; nor did he see cinema as photography’s fraternal twin. Instead, “they are both parts of something for which we do not have a name at the present time…which thing, once it is fully constituted, will I expect finally to constitute a kind of counter-machine for the machine of language.”

In “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative,” an essay both allusive and elusive, Frampton distills the work of master storytellers into mathematical formulas. Dissecting Beckett’s Malone Dies, he finds that the title character’s digressions lead us “back to the primal integer of Malone’s consciousness.” Frampton takes Joseph Conrad’s formulation “He Was Born. He Suffered. He Died.” and replaces the middle term–“He Suffered”–with “x.” Gertrude Stein’s work becomes x = x. Kipling is x = c-b/a. Don’t even ask about Henry James. There’s a whiff of nonsense about this whole enterprise, and Frampton concedes, thankfully, that “any discerning reader will be finding this a longwinded, pointless joke in poor taste.” But Frampton is grasping at a serious, if oblique, line of inquiry: if everything is in flux, and a “thing” begins to seem like an impossible construction, then the best we can do is to seek out stable patterns of energy. A story, represented by the algebraic equation ax + b = c, is a stable pattern of energy.

Perhaps his most effective and challenging cinematic representation of this principle is Zorns Lemma, named after a proposition of set theory whereby “every partially ordered set contains a maximal fully ordered subset.” The set in this case is the alphabet, and the film’s central forty-minute sequence is composed of a series of wordless one-second shots, each one revealing a photographed sign that represents a letter of the alphabet. Gradually, as we are taken through this repeated pattern, letters begin to drop out of the sequence and are replaced by unrelated images (a fire, a bird flapping its wings, an ocean wave rolling backward) for the remainder of the film. Zorns Lemma is about replacing the X factor in a stable pattern of energy, and by extension telling a story.

The behavior of living, breathing people was never a burning concern of Frampton’s cinematic counterparts–the structuralists Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, Joyce Wieland and George Landow. Human passion can be so unruly, and Frampton’s decision to engage with it, however abstractly, only underscores the diversity of his interests. Consider the recursive (and apparently autobiographical) Critical Mass, in which Frampton films a half-hour lovers’ spat in front of a blank wall, looping the dialogue, repeating the end of the previous shot before cutting to the next one and throwing the characters’ voices out of sync with the image. Frampton treats the argument as a performance and calls attention to the way that quarrels feed upon themselves. The viewer can choose an emotional side in the argument while admiring the filmmaker’s construction of a closed circle.

A few months ago, the Anthology Film Archives in New York City screened Frampton’s seven-part Hapax Legomena cycle–which includes (nostalgia) and Critical Mass. At the screening I attended, the projectionist announced that because of technical difficulties the films would be shown slightly out of sequence, and the section Ordinary Matter would play without sound. I decided to take the glitch as a sort of challenge, one that Frampton might have staged. In most cinemas, the person who leaves his seat when the film projector loses its focus or the sound cuts in and out, sacrificing a few nuggets of narrative in order to alert the projectionist, would be called a good Samaritan. But Frampton would likely pity this poor soul for turning his back on such a singular and fortuitous experience.

The presentation that afternoon, with its unintentional do-it-yourself quality, made me wonder about how Frampton would navigate our contemporary remix culture and its methods of instantaneous transmission. How would the aesthete who at one point couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “video” deal with the fact that nearly every film I’ve mentioned is readily available for viewing on the Internet? (Frampton did speculate about the uses of video in an open-minded lecture called “The Withering Away of the State of Art,” but he concluded that the medium was “too young…still too young.”) His peers have already taken more-than-tentative steps into these murky waters: Jonas Mekas shot a 365-day video diary for Apple a few years ago. Ken Jacobs is taking apart old films with the spasmodic verve of a schoolboy–stretching, chopping and flipping the frame, using the tools of digital video (and 3-D!) to take us even deeper into the image. James Benning, always in thrall to the limitations of the 16-millimeter camera, has started shooting his enviro-structuralist epics on video. Even Hollywood auteurs like Coppola, David Lynch, Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh have embraced the free-form digital era, vowing never to look back.

If the results of a “Hollis Frampton” search on YouTube are any indication, the man’s blueprints and hypotheses will continue to yield fruit in video form. His films, even the ones that reflect a mathematical precision, are at heart “open-source” projects. “The metahistorian of cinema…is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent, wieldy set of discrete monuments,” Frampton once said. “Such works may not exist, and then it is his duty to make them. Or they may exist already…. And then he must remake them.” Anyone with a series of old photographs, a few memories, a camera and a hot plate can remake (nostalgia), and Poetic Justice could inspire a whole new generation of cash-strapped would-be Godards to write the words “a girl” and “a gun” on pieces of paper and start shooting. Frampton’s original (nostalgia) certainly seems like a celluloid-specific endeavor: JPG and GIF files can’t be grilled on a hot plate, after all. But digital images have their own temporal limitations and can disappear even more dramatically at the touch of the delete button. Maybe the digital adaptation of an existing film is the twenty-first-century equivalent of a filmed novel. If something gets lost in translation, we can call it a learning experience.

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