Saturday, 16 June 2012

A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The legendary experimental American filmmaker is given a magnificent platform via the Criterion Collection to showcase the art Frampton created during his tragically short life.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey (1966-1979)
dir. Hollis Frampton


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Experimental movies are cool. Or at least they can be. Like any genre, there's good, bad, in-between and yes, great. Traditionally, experimental film has no real concern with narrative and yet, non-narrative experimentation - at least some of the best work - can be as structured as a narrative film that adheres to the Syd Field or Robert McKee approaches to visual storytelling.

Hollis Frampton, subject of the magnificent and insanely exhaustive Criterion Collection Blu-Ray A Hollis Frampton Odyssey was very much a structuralist. Identified as such by P. Adams Sitney, the foremost academic scholar on experimental cinema, Frampton's films would be, according to Sitney, "predetermined and simplified" and that this overall, almost carved-in-stone minimalist structure was what leapt from the formative pre-shooting stage to the film itself.

When one compares this to traditional narrative filmmaking we see in the best work of directors like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese a not dissimilar approach. All of them will map out precise visual renderings by way of storyboards of the equally worked-out screenplays and, for the most part, adhere strictly to the structure already worked out. While Frampton's work may be structured with seemingly rigid approaches, the final products are often playful and poetic. I'd go so far as to suggest that Spielberg, Hitchcock and Scorsese often utilize elements of play and poetry in their narrative work which, like Frampton, take them well out of the range of machine-tooled cultural "manufacturers".

The road to Hollis Frampton's own odyssey is rooted in the 1920s when experimental cinema began and throughout three decades, seemed to be the exclusive domain of Europeans. Man Ray, Dziga Vertov, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, to name but a few, delivered primarily non-narrative works that were often referred to as avant-garde. These works adhered to movements from the period that included the Surrealists, Dadaists, Lettrists and even, hilariously, Ultra Lettrists.

Whatever movements these filmmakers were part of - the films emphasized impressionism and poetry. At times, the "experiments" revolved exclusively around the medium of film itself, whereas others used the medium to experiment with new ways to express thoughts, ideas, philosophies, political ideology and basic human emotion.

In many cases, especially with Soviets like Sergei Eisenstein, Olexander Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin, experimental technique and narrative were married to provide alternative approaches to cinematic storytelling that departed from the Hollywood Machine.

What's especially important to observe, though, is just how important experimental film has been to the medium, the art, the craft of cinema - period. Slavko Vorkapitch, for example, developed any number of cinematic vocabularies that became part and parcel of the Hollywood Machine - Vorkapitch even became the prime mover and shaker of montage in mainstream American filmmaking.

Even clearly populist filmmakers looked to experimental tradition for inspiration. George Lucas, for example, was an adherent and student of the Canadian avant-garde master Arthur Lipsett. Though Lipsett's influence is more obvious in THX-1138, one can find it healthily on display in American Graffiti and the various Star Wars films.

And though there was a smaller tradition in experimental cinema in America, this changed almost overnight in the 1950s when the likes of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Kenneth Anger took the film world by storm. America became a hot bed of avant-garde cinema and yielded two important streams of academic study in the field of "alternative film". The late Black Mountain College was an early post-secondary institute and counted Arthur (Bonnie and Clyde) Penn as one of its most important teachers and of course, there's the world famous San Francisco Art Institute that became the home of teacher/filmmaker George Kuchar. Penn, of course, utilized numerous experimental film techniques in all of his Hollywood features while Kuchar astoundingly looked to Hollywood melodrama - especially that of Douglas Sirk - and fashioned his own transgressive approach to story that was rooted in the mainstream.

Hollis Frampton began his career as a poet and photographer. He subsidized his art by working in an ad agency. Much like the Kuchar Brothers, who also toiled in advertising, Frampton practised and polished elements of basic craft but at the same time, found ways of subverting these elements in his personal work. When Frampton finally began experimenting with film in the mid-1960s, he was poised to embark upon an artistic journey that would render one of the most important bodies of work in cinema history.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is, without question, one of the seminal achievements in what could be seen as the ART of home entertainment creation, production and distribution. Assembling, restoring and providing a wealth of supplemental materials focusing upon this visionary and highly influential artist has been rendered with such loving care that Criterion continues to maintain their well-deserved reputation of going above and beyond the call of duty in their service to preserving the art of cinema (rivalled only by that of Milestone Film and Video whose recent commitment to the work of Lionel Rogosin and their ongoing restoration of silent cinema also places them in this pantheon).

The Criterion disc places 24 of Frampton's films in three sections comprising "Early Works" (including his groundbreaking feature film Zorns Lemma, films from his Hapax Legomena cycle and several key works from the stunning, though sadly unfinished Magellan cycle.

The early works are probably going to be the most decidedly challenging films for the uninitiated to get through, but in them, we see the beginnings of Frampton's exploration between sound and image that he eventually tackled full force in Hapax Legomena and there are (at least for me) considerable visual and experiential pleasures to be found in Process Red, Carrots & Peas and Lemon.

Watching the disc from beginning to end speaks volumes of the care taken by the Criterion team to curate the films. The cumulative effect of screening the early short works prior to watching the feature length Zorns Lemma ultimately yields the riches inherent in the said early titles, but also delivers a perfect platform to succumb to the sheer, unadulterated joy to be found in Frampton's feature.

Zorns Lemma has the distinction of being the first experimental film to screen at the prestigious New York Film Festival - a tradition boldly continued to this day. The festival is both elitist and populist in the same breath as it showcases a small, exclusive number of works while at the same time aiming, as an "audience" festival to pack the house at Lincoln Centre. Films as groundbreaking as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and as delicate and sensory as the short experimental work URDA/Bone by Charles Officer and Ingrid Veninger have unspooled upon the NY Film Festival's screens.

As a producer myself, my New York Film Festival experience with Guy Maddin and our collaboration on Careful, the wholly insane camp homage to German expressionism, Leni Riefenstahl and the "mountain" films of Dr. Arnold Fanck, was something I'll never forget. Thousands of film lovers eye-balling something so out-of-step with contemporary cinema was utterly goose-flesh-inspiring. So much so, I'd have gladly donated a testicle (or two) to be present for the NYFF's screening of Zorns Lemma.

Frampton's feature is structured in three parts. The first has Joyce Wieland reading from a scary, imposing Puritan text book for young children - used to teach reading and writing with any number of fire and brimstone Old Testament references. The second and longest section is a mind boggling montage of letters and words, bouncing from still frames to moving images and focusing primarily upon a rigid adherence to alphabetical formalism as we're treated to a delightful series of actual New York City signs. The third section, after the first two is heartbreaking and profoundly moving as we see a couple in the distance walking slowly and endlessly through a field of snow.

The Hapax Legomena films are a perfect bridge from Zorns Lemma to the Magellan cycle. The former dives headlong into Frampton's obsession with the relationship between image and sound (and provides an unofficial Frampton autobiography to boot), while the latter presents works of extraordinary poetic lyricism and playful qualities as Frampton circumnavigates the world through the world of cinema, much like the famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe during the early part of the 16th century.

Experimental cinema - especially in this package of Hollis Frampton's works - should always first be viewed experientially. Just sitting back and letting "IT" happen to you is not only pleasurable, but at times becomes impossible to do and you find yourself mysteriously and surprisingly engaged in a form of dialogue with the film. Frampton not only brilliantly EXPLORES the relationship between film and audience, but creates a relationship in and of itself.

Hollis Frampton died at the age of 48 from cancer. He was plucked from us far too early. The Magellan films, once complete, would have provided an epic work based upon the calendrical cycle and as such, would have delivered one movie for every day of the year.

Seriously, if this isn't cool, nothing is.

"A Hollis Frampton Odyssey" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection. The restoration and picture transfers are stunning and happily, the sound is presented in uncompressed mono - the way it should be experienced. The extra features - many of which include interviews, footage and "commentary" from Frampton himself - are a treasure trove of insight into the artist and his extraordinary work. If you've never seen Frampton's work, or haven't for a long time, I highly suggest watching all the films first - from beginning to end before you dive into any of them extras. Let your senses and intellect mingle with his art. Get to know the artist through his work first - THEN get to know him with the terrific additional features. Most importantly, those who care deeply about film should NOT rent this. BUY IT!!!