“Zorns Lemma” (1970) consists mostly of 2,700 one-second… (Criterion Collection,…)
Half a century ago, the writer C.P. Snow famously coined the phrase "the two cultures," referring to the widening gulf between the sciences and the arts. Few have bridged that chasm of incomprehension with as much verve and ingenuity as the American filmmaker and theorist Hollis Frampton.
"I am a spectator of mathematics like others are spectators of soccer or pornography," Frampton once said. Much of his work implicitly affirms the connections between poetry and mathematics: the mutual interests in form, the role in both fields of imaginative leaps and abstract thinking.
A key figure of the 1960s cinematic avant-garde, Frampton made cerebral, puzzle-like films that would eventually fall under the umbrella term "structural film," a label that encompasses a wide range of filmmakers, including Michael Snow and Tony Conrad, who directed their attention to matters of form and the material properties of the medium.
A poet and photographer before he turned to cinema, Frampton was arguably the most erudite and far-thinking of this group. In his films and writings, he looked back to the founding fathers of cinema, Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumière brothers and to such titans of literary modernism as James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. But he also looked ahead, working with computer programs and digital media, anticipating the future and perhaps the afterlife of cinema.
Frampton was only 48 when he died of cancer in 1984. It's often noted that he never finished his magnum opus, the multi-part Magellan cycle, which was eventually to have been screened daily over a 371-day period (at his death Frampton had completed about eight of a projected 36 hours). But the work that he did leave behind is endlessly dense and resonant, suggesting as yet unexplored pathways in thinking about what he called "the camera arts."
Besides 60 or so surviving films, Frampton, who had a way with words and a flair for manifestoes, also delivered lectures and published essays (mainly in Artforum and the academic journal October). His major writings were brought back into print in a 2009 anthology (edited by the scholar Bruce Jenkins and published by the MIT Press). That same year, the avant-garde edition of the American Film Archives' "Treasures" DVD series introduced a new audience to Frampton's seminal 1971 film "(nostalgia)."
And now comes "A Hollis Frampton Odyssey," a generous sampler of work from all stages of his career, available this month on DVD and Blu-rayfrom the Criterion Collection. The earliest film in the set, "Manual of Arms" (1966), is a fidgety version of an Andy Warhol screen test, with both the subjects and the camera in occasional motion. "Surface Tension" (1968), a key early work, compresses time and space, speeding up a scene with a prominent digital clock and traversing half the length of Manhattan in minutes.
Frampton's deadpan wit was apparent from the start, but it was his first masterpiece, the hourlong "Zorns Lemma" (1970), that showed off his rigor and playfulness in equal measure. The bulk of the film, named for a mathematical axiom, consists of some 2,700 one-second shots of words, mostly signage from New York City streets, organized into alphabetically ordered sets. When Frampton runs out of text-images for a given letter, he slips in a substitute image (fire for X, water for Z) until the alphabet finally disappears, replaced by a new visual language.
The selections from the cycle that Frampton dubbed "Hapax Legomena" (a Greek term for words that appear only once in a text) are among his most lucid conceptual riffs on a central theme: the relationship between words and images. The literal page turner "Poetic Justice" (1972) shows the handwritten pages of a script as they pile up on a table — a film without images, or rather, one whose images take shape in the viewer's head.
In "(nostalgia)," a series of Frampton's own photographs is methodically burned. As each photo, placed on a hot plate, melts and blackens to a brittle cinder, a voice-over describes the next, as-yet-unseen photograph. The effect is multiply paradoxical: Each image is destroyed even as it is recorded, and the disconnect between what we see and what we hear means that the viewer experiences the film as a constant tug of war between memory and anticipation.
In a period of relative intellectual timidity and widespread doomsaying about the death of cinema, the encyclopedic grandiosity of Frampton's ambitions is both startling and refreshing. He spoke of "a metahistory of film," "an infinite cinema" consisting of every film made. He also described cinema as nothing less than "a metaphor for consciousness."
It's a big claim, but also not far from a gut truth that the medium's great artists and thinkers have always understood: Frampton's work endures as a reminder that film is not just an instrument for recording the world but also for making sense of it.