“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)