A Hollis Frampton Odyssey: Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come

On Film / Essays — Apr 24, 2012

Among the most widely seen photographs of Hollis Frampton is one of him as a young man, a self-portrait taken in 1959, if we are to trust the narration he composed to accompany its inclusion in his 1971 film (nostalgia). In the image, Frampton sits against a neutral backdrop, looking to his right, as if intently scrutinizing something just outside the frame. His shoulders press forward, suggesting that his unseen hands are resting crossed in his lap, and he sports a neat dark jacket and tie, their conservatism offset by a beatniky beard and hair that would have been considered longish in the 1950s, combed back into a Victorian wave. “As you see, I was thoroughly pleased with myself at the time, presumably for having survived to such ripeness and wisdom, since it was my twenty-third birthday,” the narrator says in (nostalgia). “I focused the camera, sat on a stool in front of it, and made the exposures by squeezing a rubber bulb with my right foot.”

When he took this photo, Frampton was working as an assistant in a commercial photography studio in New York, where he had moved the previous year, and was sharing an apartment with sculptor Carl Andre, who had been his high school classmate at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (as had painter Frank Stella, with whom they would share studio space). Due to his dispute over the necessity of a required history course, Frampton had failed to graduate from Andover, thus forfeiting a scholarship to Harvard and instead attending Western Reserve College in Cleveland. While there, he struck up a correspondence with Ezra Pound, who was then a mental patient at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Frampton—who was writing poetry at the time—left Cleveland to move near Pound, visiting him daily in the hospital, while the older poet continued to compose The Cantos, his sprawling epic, dense with reference and allusion, which would remain unfinished at his demise. Pound’s high modernism would serve as a touchstone for Frampton, as would the parallel modernisms of Marcel Duchamp, Jorge Luis Borges, and James Joyce. Ironically, Frampton, too, would embark upon an ambitious, large-scale project—the proposed thirty-six-hour film cycle Magellan—that would be cut short by his death from cancer in 1984, at age forty-eight.

Another oft reproduced image of Frampton is entitled Portrait of Hollis Frampton by Marion Faller, Directed by H. F. It was taken in 1975 by Faller, the photographer with whom Frampton lived during the last thirteen years of his life. The picture shows him staring, eyes wide and pupils contracted, almost into the lens of the camera, his hands raised beside his head, palms outward. In the darkness, a horizontal slit of light draws a line across his eyes and onto the middle of both of his hands. His hair is wilder than at age twenty-three—the light beam illuminates shaggy bits jutting out from his temples—and his beard is fuller, now flecked with white. The setup cannily alludes to the mechanics of both photography and cinema, of light projected and recorded, but in its alien strangeness resembles a promotional still from a science-fiction movie. It almost appears as if the light is not so much being thrown on him as projected outward from his eyes and hands. In the earlier self-portrait, Frampton seems relatively staid, as if looking toward the past, trying to emulate an early twentieth-century poise. But here, at age thirty-nine, he stares as if into a vision, ready to walk forward into the unknown, ecstatic.

In the time between these two photographs, Frampton had established himself as one of the foremost members of the American avant-garde, part of a new generation of artists who came to fruition in the late 1960s, dramatically shifting the terms of both experimental film and the intellectual thinking on cinema as a whole. By the end of his career, he had completed close to one hundred films (including the individual one-minute Pans for Magellan) and numerous photographic series; helped establish the pioneering Digital Arts Laboratory at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1977; published Circles of Confusion: Film, Photography, Video—Texts 1968–1980, his influential collection of theoretical essays and other writings that had originally run in Artforum, October, and elsewhere; and been honored with retrospectives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At a time when many of his filmmaking colleagues still kept their distance from newer electronic media, he not only embraced and wrote about video but also delved into xerography and computer programming.

In standard histories of experimental cinema, Frampton’s work is usually considered part of “structural film,” a category invented by P. Adams Sitney in a 1969 essay that would later be revised into a chapter of his landmark 1974 study Visionary Film. Sitney coined the term to describe what he saw as a new tendency in the American avant-garde, typified by the films of Frampton as well as those of Michael Snow, George Landow, Tony Conrad, and others. “Theirs is a cinema of structure,” Sitney wrote, “in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape that is the primal impression of the film”—a sharp divergence from the work of an older generation of filmmakers, including Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, who, in his view, had progressed over time toward a greater internal complexity of form. He compared structural film to minimalism in the visual arts and serial composition in music, contemporaneous movements that likewise stressed formal reduction and repetition. Frampton, however, rejected Sitney’s periodization, denouncing “that incorrigible tendency to label, to make movements, [which] always has the same effect, and that effect is to render the work invisible.”

Nevertheless, Frampton did agree that a new sensibility was afoot. Describing his own development, he recalled that “there was something called the [Film-Makers’] Cinematheque in New York, which became a kind of hangout. I met other people who were trying to make films: Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr after a while, although he was somewhat younger. Later on, Paul Sharits, who was at the time living in Baltimore.” These are all figures whose work Sitney classified under structural filmmaking, but Frampton saw their shared project as a more expansive one. “There existed at least for a time, and that time lasted for some years in New York City, a kind of constant contact between us. One might almost—almost—venture to call it a sense of being united in some way, probably by the conviction that there should be good films. Preferably, films so good they hadn’t been made yet. That the intellectual space open to film had not entirely been preempted.”

Regardless of Frampton’s distaste for labels, one can productively think about his films in terms of a simplification of elements in favor of an overall, predetermined shape. This is particularly so in his earliest surviving works, from Information (1966) to Zorns Lemma (1970). In this phase of his filmmaking, Frampton was interested in taking apart cinema by reducing it to its most basic, constitutive parts—sound, image, movement, editing—and then using these elements to construct films whose unfolding takes on the quality of a mathematical formula or puzzle. Later in his career, he would describe his concerns during this formative period as the “rationalization of the history of film art. Resynthesis of the film tradition: ‘making film over as it should have been’” and the “establishment of progressively more complex a priori schemes to generate the various parameters of filmmaking.” His play with the possible relationships between sound and image in works like Maxwell’s Demon (1968), Surface Tension (1968), and Carrots & Peas (1969) would culminate in the abecedarian structure of Zorns Lemma. The films’ titles alone convey his interest in importing concepts from the sciences into art, though never in a straightforward way; he once said, “I’m a spectator of mathematics like others are spectators of soccer or pornography.” His goal was a more epistemological one. “Eventually,” he would later write, “we may come to visualize an intellectual space in which the systems of words and images will both, as [filmmaker, poet, and founder of New York’s Anthology Film Archives] Jonas Mekas once said of semiology, ‘seem like half of something,’ a universe in which image and word, each resolving the contradictions inherent in the other, will constitute the system of consciousness.”

To speak of Frampton’s films as merely structural riddles or philosophical proposals, however, fails to take into account their pleasurable and poetic nature. The gamelike qualities of his films prove playful rather than didactic and always retain a residue of enigma. And he is more of a storyteller than the structural label would suggest. His films are told with an erudite wit, an often stark beauty, and deep emotional resonance. This last quality is one that sets him apart from many of his “structural” fellow travelers and is most apparent in his only completed film cycle, Hapax Legomena (1971–72), a seven-part sequence including three of his best-known works, (nostalgia), Poetic Justice (1972), and Critical Mass (1971). Throughout the cycle, Frampton continually reveals intricate relationships between time and memory, word and image. He called the project “an oblique autobiography, seen in stereoscopic focus with the phylogeny of film art as I have tried to recapitulate it during my own fitful development as a filmmaker.” This aspect is most explicit in (nostalgia) but is also evident, in a more buried way, in Critical Mass, which creates hypnotic rhythms from footage of a woman and a man engaged in a heated argument—completed when Frampton was working through the tumultuous end of a six-year marriage.

The “phylogeny of film art” that Frampton mentions relates to a further concept underpinning his work as a whole, what he called a “metahistory” of cinema, by which he meant the creation of a specific body of films that would serve as an instructive metaphor for the whole history of film. “The history of cinema consists precisely of every film that has ever been made, for any purpose whatsoever,” he wrote. “The metahistorian of cinema, on the other hand, is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent, wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art. Such works may not exist, and then it is his duty to make them.” His unfinished Magellan project would have been his fullest realization of this concept. Planned around the conceit of Ferdinand Magellan’s global circumnavigation, it was to comprise a liturgical calendar of more than eight hundred films, with Lumière-inspired miniatures on most days and longer works on equinoxes, solstices, and other special dates. Within this solar epic, Frampton envisioned numerous “subsections and epicycles,” completing a macrocosmic engine reminiscent of an astrolabe’s nested gears or a computer program’s subroutines—the latter suggested by Frampton’s dot-matrix-printed schedule from 1978, “CLNDR version 1.2.0,” with each day numbered like a line of code.

As Magellan’s algorithmic aspects illustrate, Frampton was concerned not only with cinema’s history but its future as well. In numerous writings, he conjectured that the technology of film had already reached its point of obsolescence, pinpointing this moment at the invention of radar, rather than the more obvious rise of television. The machine age apparatus created by the Lumières and Edison would someday be seen as merely an early phase of an as-yet-unnamed technology of moving-image-making that he would variously term “the camera arts” or “film and its successors” or “photograph-film-video-computer.” And this system was, in turn, an outgrowth of much older forms, like painting and music. He suggested that cinema would endure past its death, albeit transmuted, through this larger trajectory.

Or to put it another way, as Frampton did in his notes on Gloria! (1979), a work dedicated to his grandmother: “The last time I saw my grandmother, she said to me: ‘We just barely learn how to live, and then we’re ready to die.’” The film, however, depicts a story based on the ballad “Finnegan’s Wake,” wherein a dead body rises from its casket to dance at its own funeral. Surely, Frampton would have found wry amusement in this collection of his work, which replicates his films via encrypted lines of code and releases them back into the world as digital ghosts.