(nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, 1971)

New review below added to Hollis Frampton director page.

(nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, 1971)

(…A philosophical treatise on time and memory…)

(…An avant-garde work deconstructing film’s structural blocks of image and sound…)

(…A witty, humorous, and personal remembrance of a life lived through still photographs…)

(…A reflection on the reproducibility and destructibility of images and, as a result, also on the fragile nature of visual memory…)

(…A beguiling half-hour of aesthetic pleasures, especially if you think seeing intricately different iterations of things incinerating is kind of cool…)

(…And even, come the end of it, a shaggy-dog story…)

Hollis Frampton’s 1971 experimental short (nostalgia) is all of these things and the greater sum of its parts. If how multi-layered a film manages to be is a criterion for artistic greatness, then it goes down as one of the most successful audio-visual texts created. And yet the means it uses could hardly be any simpler, for as with Zorn’s Lemma here too Frampton is fascinated by the reduction of film language to its bare fundamentals: images, sounds, and editing to link them.

(nostalgia) is a half-hour long film consisting of only 13 shots, each lasting under three minutes, each a static view of a different photograph (11 of the 13 were taken by Frampton during his time as a photographer years before), each revealing to us the photograph on a hot grill plate slowly burning, inexorably turning to ashes in real time. Thirteen photographs and their incendiary demise accounts for the images, bracketed from each other by Frampton’s editing choice of black screens (an editing rhythm implied by the film’s parenthetical title) separating the 13 shots into individual ‘building blocks’ of his film.

Where the conceptual ante is truly raised is through the sound. Over each photograph, a voiceover reads out Frampton’s recollections and anecdotes around the taking of the photographs, but with certain crucial gaps and mismatches. For a start, Frampton’s script is read on the soundtrack from Frampton’s first-person perspective (“I photographed several drawings of Carl Andre”, “The face is my own… or rather it was my own“), and yet it is read not by himself but by his friend and fellow avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow. At times, this creates some comic irony, such as Snow reading out Frampton’s scripted apology to Snow as if he were Frampton, meaning he is essentially apologising to himself.

But the most significant mismatch is the film’s jet-lag between image and sound: the voiceover is not synchronous to the image we are currently seeing. Rather, each voiceover is actually describing the next image in the series of 13, not the image we are currently seeing but the next one to come. Frampton, ever the mischievous avant-garde trickster, deconstructs the rule-book of film language to make us look at it afresh by having to re-interpret the rules. We soon get the hang of the game Frampton is playing with us: we must remember the previous voice-over and (in our own heads) transpose it back onto the following photograph, while also making a note of the current voice-over so we can do the same thing again next time, and so on. But as we do this, not only is our memory of the previous voice-over dimming but so too are the images quite literally fading, decomposing before our eyes.

Just as the camera, unflinching mechanical eye, mummifies these instants forever (okay, forever is a big word, but 50 years on these images still flicker across the decades in high-definition no less), at the very same time those images are being destroyed before us. The past is being exorcised, purged in a bonfire which simultaneously cleanses and allows a fresh start with every new shot. Frampton’s incinerating photographs, representations of the past burnt into wrinkled layers of decomposing soot, visually connote the physical shedding of skin and the erasure of memories. What is this past, what are these memories, what kind of mental baggage is Frampton so adamant on peeling away layer by layer?

It is interesting on a biographical layer to note that (nostalgia) was made at a personally difficult time of Frampton’s life, just as he was breaking up with his wife and leaving Manhattan after having been settled there for a long time. A new start then perhaps, and the transience of a former life whose effigy he is metaphorically burning away (remember the photos were taken by him years prior) — and yet while recording the process of that past’s incineration he is at the same time immortalising that past on film. On another layer, there is a cyclical structure to the film: the very first image has no voiceover attached to it (since what we hear over it is already referring to the 2nd photograph) and the 13th and final piece of voiceover speaks of a photograph we never see. Do they form a loop somehow? Upon first viewing, in an era where we can now instantly replay the film with one click or one button, we are tempted to go right back and watch it again to find out. These are the kinds of structural games Frampton rejoices in.

If this all sounds too conceptual, too intellectual, well… yes and no. Frampton was after all a leftover of modernism, a man who befriended Ezra Pound and claimed the great poet as a mentor, an artist who unabashedly claimed the audience had to actually do work to decipher his films if what he was expressing in them was worth communicating at all. So one watches (nostalgia) with one’s brain as well as one’s senses (although, what exactly is the difference anyway?): the deceptive simplicity of the film allows us to be entranced by the layers upon layers of ideas behind it. Our memory is tested. Our trust of the relationship between what we hear and what we see is challenged. Cerebral ideas about the act of forgetting, the fog of memories, the reproducibility and fragility of photographs (Walter Benjamin would have dug this film), the fugitive nature of time, the longing for times and friendships bygone, are all cascading into our thought process.

However, to dismiss this as un-cinematic or anti-film because of some preconception that all film should be narrative or grabbing us by the emotions, is to miss out on the rush of watching this and having so many thoughts, ideas, connections triggered. This too can be an emotional experience; after all, not letting go of our critical faculties does not dispel the chance for emotional simulation. Just as Frampton’s personal recollections take the film into a wormhole of memory, so too are we allowed to ponder on time and the past, on how we are all creatures consisting of our memories which we are continually shedding. Something beautifully cosmic lingers in the relationship between (nostalgia) and the viewer, and something fragile as well. Each incidence of a photograph burning is also a cinematic memento mori. Why else does the voiceover make so many references to death, decay, and mould?

And, finally, no, this film’s pleasures are not purely conceptual. There is a visually hypnotic quality to its simple repetition of the same process, through which we observe the subtle differences between how each photograph burns, some looking more like islands as they endure on the hot plaque, while others fizzle away into bubbling ashes more immediately. There is also Frampton’s undying wry wit. He takes every chance to use the mismatch between image and audio for amusing touches: at one point Snow reads out the line “If you look closely, you can see Michael Snow on the left,” prompting us to examine the image but see nothing other than a picture of mouldy spaghetti (the appearance of Snow occurs in the next photo in the next shot). What other film combines death, memory, an investigation into the grammar of film, and a visual gag aimed at the filmmaker’s friend all in the one same shot? (February 2022)

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