“A film is a machine made of images.”
“Necessarily, what I have to say will be difficult to apprehend, if it is original enough to be worth saying at all. That is my half of the communicative process. Yours must be to sensitize and educate yourself fully enough to be able to understand. It is only when two people – filmmaker and viewer in this case – can meet as equals that true communication can take place.”
Born: 11 March 1936, Wooster, Ohio, USA.
Died: 30 March 1984, Buffalo, New York, USA.
Film-making Career: 1962 – 1984.
Movement: Structuralist cinema. Post-war renaissance of experimental cinema.
Traits: Experimental films exploring the possibilities of the medium. An interest in the mechanics of film-making and how it creates meaning through its individual elements. A sensitivity that is at once literary, philosophical and mathematical applied to image-making that could only be filmic.
Collaborators: Michael Snow (as actor, fellow artist and friend).
Surface Tension (1968)
Writing about films as conceptual as the works of Hollis Frampton is no easy task — the whole point is to experience them, let them pull you into their game of working out your own responses to them. Nevertheless, not having written at all on this blog about avant-garde or experimental filmmakers is something which needs to change. So perhaps a few notes and thoughts on Frampton’s films can encourage those unfamiliar with him to take the plunge, or provide those curious with a little more context. Frampton’s films push the boundary of what we can even think of as a film, but more than that they examine the very processes at work in our act of viewing and perceiving, and making sense of what we see. In other words, they also push the boundary of our definition of what we can think of as watching a film. The ethos in his work goes to the heart of what watching or looking at art in its purest form is primarily about: how to see and how seeing connects us to the world around us.
The 9-minute long Surface Tension counts as one of his early works, but it sees him first beginning to weave together the various interests that preoccupied him: narrative structure, language, and self-reflexively drawing attention to the fundamental building blocks of film. That means image, sound, onscreen text and especially space and time, all entwining to create multiple possible layers of meaning. Between book-ending shots of ocean surf crashing on the shore (the same image flashes by in Frampton’s film Maxwell’s Demon made the same year), Surface Tension is split into three separate parts.
The first is an accelerated scene of a man talking while leaning on a windowsill on which rests a digital clock, and whose gesticulations are heightened by the sped-up motion. We don’t hear what he says as the soundtrack instead consists of the (normal time) sound of a phone continuously ringing. Throughout, Frampton sets up a strategy of openness to the viewer, letting us decide which of the multiple things going on we wish to pay attention to at different times — it might be the human figure naturally, but there’s also the accelerating clock which behaves in odd ways, jumping backwards at times before the man stops talking to set it going again. Our attention is thus often directed to that clock’s digital face, trying to work out how and why it is behaving in this way. By the time this part is over, one hour has ticked by in just three minutes of film time and we’ve experienced a quite literal sense of the passage of time, in which we are all trapped and which is after all the raw material of cinema.
The second part is once again an accelerated scene, consisting of a single take, albeit with a low frame-per-second ratio; it takes us on a trek through the streets, buildings, crowds and parks of an afternoon in New York City, filmed presumably by Frampton himself with a handheld camera while he walked around. The fast-motion of these staggered images remind us, from today’s perspective, of the contemporary trend for Vine videos and the like, but also of a much earlier, and far ahead of its time, experimental short by Oskar Fischinger: Walking From Munich to Berlin (1927). Both still operate as neat time-capsules of the real-world locales they accelerate through. Meanwhile on the soundtrack, a German-speaking voice dislodged from its body narrates ideas for a film — it’s not immediately obvious, but this is in fact the man seen speaking in the first part, the corresponding soundtrack coming in late in a delayed structure Frampton would use even more productively in his film (nostalgia).
The third part is at once the simplest and the most mysterious. It is a fixed shot of a fish trapped in a water-tank, which ironically is on a beach with the waves crashing against its walls, so near but so out of reach for the fish in its plastic prison — imagery which had a certain resonance for Frampton since he used it again for Pas de Trois in 1975. At the same time, various Godardian intertitles appear fleetingly onscreen to present translated snippets of the previous German commentary — so we’ve gone from delayed sound to the memories of the sound randomly attacking the screen. Thus the three parts of the film, on first glance totally unconnected, are linked by, respectively, the absence, reappearance and textual reverberation of the soundtrack. This is Frampton playing with all the potentialities of the sonar dimension of the film medium, while constructing visual and aural representations of his ideas, ideas about being trapped in space or in time, like the narrating German wannabe-filmmaker or the fish, or trapped in words, sound and images, the ways in which we are forced to communicate and interact, as is film.
Whatever Surface Tension is supposed to be about, or more accurately whatever the viewer experiencing it deems it to be about (because that is what is more important), there’s no doubt it lies on the outskirts of what most consider as film or cinema. But for that very reason we should be thankful of its existence and of a mind as original as Frampton’s having worked with film to create experiences stimulating both to senses and mind.
This early work may not rank among his masterpieces yet, for that we must wait for the conceptual brilliance of Zorn’s Lemma and (nostalgia), to be reviewed on this page in the near future. (August 2017)
Zorn’s Lemma (1970)
Imagine for a moment, that in some parallel universe, cinema had not become a tool of commerce and mass entertainment, but instead served more primordially educational purposes, to enquire, to delve deeper inside layers of knowledge and perception, an epistemological cinema. In such a hypothetical scenario, cinema would look much like the films of Hollis Frampton, and most especially the one work he’s best known for, Zorn’s Lemma. Frampton had an obsessive interest in reducing cinema as a meaning-creating medium down to its fundamental building blocks, exploring how the way we watch (both films and the world around us) is a process of finding patterns and making sense of them. Zorn’s Lemma is a fascinating conceptual exercise in perception, whose 60-minute runtime goes by in a flash if you get sucked into its potentially infinite games.
The film opens its intentions with a visual palate cleanser, only sound reciting basic English phrases over an empty black screen. The words recited are from an English primer and fail to add up to any overall meaning beyond random individual sentences. Soon we’re going to discover that this brief opening is there to make us forget the meaning of sentences, words and letters, so that we can build it up again. The main section of the film, about 45 minutes in length, begins with a series of letters flashing across the screen in alphabetical order, one second being attributed to each letter before the next one shows up. Inquisitively we watch and our brains try to make sense — a film has to have something to tell us, so what’s this one trying to communicate, what’s it doing?
After one cycle of the alphabet, photographs of words or street-signs starting with the corresponding letter begin to replace the letter’s position in the sequence. We’ve gone from symbols (the letters) to signs representing words with actual meaning. Each time the alphabet cycle runs its course, the sequence starts again with new images, new words and signs, and we play along in our heads with the game of patterns that Frampton is seemingly engaging us with. Each viewer will engage differently in trying to find something to hook onto. Personally, I started to notice that the letter U is missing from the sequence, then I (mistakenly) note that I is missing — why are U and I missing, is it a code, ‘you and I’, what does it mean? What’s Frampton playing at? I’m wrong and not until the next cycle do I see that the I isn’t missing at all, in fact it is U and J which are missing, for this is the Romans’ 24-letter Latin alphabet. But no time to worry too much about that, the cycles keep coming and many more hidden codes or secret patterns teasingly call out waiting to be found.
The brain is an ever-inquisitive organ and if served up something which is just intriguing enough not to be boring, it will meet the game halfway and look out for similarities, differences, patterns — whether really there or not. Every film, including of course narrative ones, induces us into figuring out patterns of meaning (we very quickly make sense of various types of cuts for instance), but in the average storytelling film this is done seamlessly, without attracting attention to itself, so that we take the flow of narrative action for granted. Here though, Frampton’s repetition of alphabetical montages is self-consciously revealing cinema’s dependence on enticing the viewer to make sense out of meaning-making patterns on-screen.
And it gets even more semiotic, and this is when things get really interesting. Gradually, after a few 24-second long iterations, the photographs of signs beginning with a specific letter come to be replaced with moving images of things, one-second clips of: fire, smoke, a wheat field, water, and so on. Once a letter is supplanted by such a clip (which has no relation whatsoever anymore to its original letter) it stays fixed in that position every repeated sequence. For example the letter K becomes a guy painting a wall, and this remains in the position of K every cycle, with the wall being slightly nearer to being covered in paint with every iteration as if time has moved forward in between cycles.
The hypnotic effect of repetition, the same basic principle of rote learning which is how we came to learn our own alphabets, comes to make its stamp on your memory as you keep watching 10, 15, 20 minutes of these cycles, and increasingly more letters making the switch from photo to clip. Each of these random images come to be associated in our mind with that letter, and not with any direct connection like the signs in the photos had (by showing a word beginning with that letter) but now completely independent of any link to that letter. At first we try to find links, but there’s none whatsoever between the letter K and a house-painter, or any of the other clips that come to stand in for their letters.
Letters are the most basic building blocks of language, that is to say of what we use to make sense of the world. But Frampton is deconstructing all of that. Look again at the symbols and patterns that shape our perception, he says — aren’t they all in a sense totally arbitrary? Couldn’t we just as well have a visual, imagistic alphabet where K is a house-painter, U a clementine slowly being peeled, Y a tracking shot of a wheat field, or Q a waft of smoke? By the time all 24 letters have been taken over by these clips, each time in the right order, and without a letter or word in sight anymore, we could probably recite Frampton’s new semiotic alphabet by heart. He’s managed to make us look anew at something as basic as the ABC, and not take for granted the fact there’s no direct correlation between sign and signified, between the patterns of lines and squiggles we turn into ‘words’ and what those words represent to us. The meaning-making happens in between that process, through our eyes and in our minds.
On top of this, and on top of the actual fun and pleasure of finding your own patterns, your own word associations, your own mnemonics to remember the order of the images, there’s also the fun in seeing the images gradually move towards completion with every new iteration of the sequence. What will happen once the painter has covered the entire wall or that clementine is finally done being peeled? Here Frampton is, once again, unveiling the magic not only behind the building blocks of language but behind those of the film medium itself, making a conceptual connection between verbal literary language and visual filmic language, between letters and shots, sentences and reels. That Frampton (a self-claimed “spectator of mathematics”) takes his title from a touchstone of 20th century mathematics and its internal obsession with structure, logic and categorising, only confirms these concerns and connections.
Finally, for the last few minutes, we have another palate cleanser, a warm-down of our perception muscles. We hear an audio recording once again, this time over a static long-shot of a couple and their dog in a white, snowy landscape. The speech is fragmented, as if recorded word by word, once again language being divided into its building blocks. For those who have engaged with it, Frampton’s film will have more than succeeded in its intentions to instruct without instructing, to playfully bring back to us a sense of curiosity about something as ingrained as the alphabet. Although Frampton’s exploration is in sync with Structuralist Cinema and its interest in the then highly active field of semiotics studies, it reminds of the basic tenets of the early Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou regarding language: it is not an accurate reflector of reality and yet everything we know is based on categories which are described by it. It is perception and the way our brain is wired to make sense of patterns and connections that defines this. (January 2018)