West Reviews A Hollis Frampton Odyssey [Criterion Blu-ray Review]

Avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton joins the Criterion Collection with a massive retrospective collection of twenty-four films of varying lengths. A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is an ideal and tantalizing treat for those Criterion aficionados who don’t mind spicing up their usual film fare with something more experimental. And yes, that means that this collection won’t be for everyone. To be honest, I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I wasn’t too sure about Stan Brakhage either before I got turned on to him.

There’s about four-and-a-half hours of material packed on to one Blu-ray disc. You have a “play all” option, but unless you’re already a fan of Frampton’s work, I wouldn’t recommend it. The running order is ideal for viewers who want to ease into the films before getting into headier stuff: a half-dozen early films of modest length will give you a taste of Frampton’s aesthetic, such as Surface Tension and Lemon, which consists entirely of a single shot of a lemon as the light plays over its surface for seven minutes. This leads into Zorns Lemma, a one-hour film in three parts that is arguably the best thing on the disc. The heart of the film is a repeating series of shots of signs, storefronts and just about anything Frampton found on the streets of New York with words on it; the images are presented in alphabetical order (never repeating the same word-image twice) until the letter “X” is replaced by a shot of a fire. This shot does repeat until eventually another letter is replaced by a seemingly unconnected image; vague confusion gradually gives way to wonder as you figure out what Frampton is doing, and then wonder gives way to a curious thrill as you begin to anticipate when each letter will be replaced and speculate what imagery will replace which letters.

If this doesn’t sound like your thing, turn back now because there’s only more of it. A trio of films, each roughly half an hour long, from Frampton’s Hapax Legomena series follow next, each one challenging conventional notions of cinema’s function and form in ways that run the gamut from beguiling ( (nostalgia) ) to infuriating (Critical Mass, which depicts an argument stretched out to an unpleasant length in a manner guaranteed to frustrate anyone who has ever been in such an argument and has no desire to relive it in any manner, much less this one). Rounding out the collection are several films from Frampton’s mammoth Magellan project, ending with the unexpectedly poignant but no less unorthodox Gloria!

All of these films are presented in the 1.33 aspect ratio; the occasionally rough qualities of 16MM film are well-preserved on the Blu-ray transfer, and the mono sound (for those films that are not completely silent, which many are) is clear whether presenting sound, dialogue or music. The extras on the disc are very important in terms of giving the viewer an idea of what the filmmaker is up to: some of the films have commentary or separate remarks from Frampton, and there is a video interview with him as well. Also included is A Lecture, a performance piece from 1968 consisting of a few images on a movie screen accompanied by narration by artist Michael Snow, who narrated (nostalgia) as well. A series of images of product labels collected by Frampton under the title By Any Other Name rounds out the disc extras; also included is a really helpful booklet containing essays about the films by various scholars that gives beginners (like me) a clearer comprehension of what Frampton was trying to do.

I won’t lie to you, folks. I cannot claim to understand everything Hollis Frampton was getting at in these films. But I do admire and appreciate A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, and while there are surely some head-scratchers in this collection for me, I was always interested, always curious, sometimes enthralled, occasionally annoyed, and yes, entertained. More adventurous cinephiles will already be on board, but for those who are wary of experimental film, give Frampton a chance. I think there’s something in this odyssey that everyone can appreciate if they’re only willing to meet the filmmaker halfway.

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West Anthony

West Anthony is a film/music encyclopedia in a nation that no longer reads. His experience with the Criterion Collection goes far back to a distant time when laserdiscs roamed the earth, enriching mankind with their large, plattery goodness. He has written about many films, produced one, and seen more of them than is probably healthy for a person who wishes to maintain a significant degree of integration with humanity.

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