Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

The narrative of cinema’s history is usually wrapped around two poles representing the medium’s competing aims. The first is embodied by the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose work harnessed magic and illusion to depict unreal and fantastical phenomena. At the other end of the spectrum lies documentary realism, embodied by the Lumière brothers, who were content to observe their subjects and capture events without distorting them. Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers are often juxtaposed against one another as the twin sources of the cinema that followed, but there is a third important figure: Eadweard Muybridge, who used photography for explicitly scientific aims. Although the majority of mainstream cinema lies somewhere in the middle ground between these filmmakers, avant-garde filmmakers often find inspiration in the extremes. Hollis Frampton’s films hint at a mind equally enamored with the science behind cinema as it is with the magic cinema is capable of producing. His body of work explores this and other tensions, such as the competition between words and images, and the films contained on the new Criterion Collection compilation, A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, illustrate the way he explored the possibilities of cinema while stretching viewers’ understanding of the medium.

In Frampton’s work, the gap between science and magic is reduced and rendered null. Instead of embodying either fully, his films are somewhat “alchemical”: they repeatedly use the camera and sound recording, each treated like a scientific tool, to transmute words and images into structures that produce effects transcending the rational world of science. This is readily apparent in the earliest film in this compilation, a short entitled “Manual of Arms” from 1966. It begins with a series of black-and-white close-ups of Frampton’s acquaintances, half of their ghostly visages in darkness and half visible, like spectral mugshots. But Frampton seems to want to capture something deeper about the individual, inner personalities unseen by science. Thus, in the next section of the film, each individual is captured in a series of shots that use an internally consistent style, but each individual is given a different stylistic treatment, as if tailored to their personality. Frampton uses the camera as a scientific tool of investigation, like a microscope, yet the metaphysical data absorbed by the camera becomes imprinted on the cinematic style of the shots themselves, in contradistinction to the way science eschews “style” as an impediment to objectivity.

Frampton’s work reveals that even when the camera is merely observing, the medium of cinema encourages us to perceive a psycho-emotional resonance from the textures, movement, and other qualities of the image. This is evident in Frampton’s short “Lemon.” The first shot is a tight close-up of the fruit, observed in a seemingly flat, “objective” manner, but the shot’s lighting changes: the lemon begins obscured in darkness, then the light gradually shifts and illuminates it entirely before slowly fading away again, like a lunar eclipse. The seemingly transparent nature of the image once again recalls the scientific use of photography, but the slow shifting of light provokes a subtle emotional response from the attentive viewer. Through this simple experiment, Frampton reveals an important aspect of cinema and of the human proclivity towards emotional and intellectual interpretation: we may see merely a lemon being illuminated and then obscured, but we want to uncover the gnostic meaning behind this cinematic object.

As descriptions of these two films should make clear, Frampton’s work is strongly processual and conceptual. Many of his films take the act of filming as something of an afterthought, and this idea is most perversely toyed with in the short “Poetic Justice” from the seven-film cycle Hapax Legomena, which consists entirely of successive shots of pages from a screenplay describing images that we never see filmed, except in the mind’s eye. One of Frampton’s masterpieces, Zorns Lemma, takes this processual instinct to poetic and sublime places. It consists of a longer, main sequence bookended by two shorter ones featuring voiceover narrations (the first accompanying a black screen, the second almost all white). This last sequence ends with a fade-to-white, and this visual theme of transition, from darkness to light (akin to what we see in “Lemon”), reverberates throughout the middle section.

The bulk of the film plays out like a game. A series of 24 images showing words (arranged alphabetically according to the 24-letter Roman alphabet), most of which last 24 frames (or one second—a handful last 23 or 25 frames instead) is shown and repeated, using different images each time. The word-images are mostly derived from street or shop signs, photographed throughout New York City, but eventually, the word-images for certain letters expire, to be replaced in future iterations of this series with more conventionally cinematic images, such as a man painting a room or the breaking of waves against a beach. When the word-images for each letter are all replaced, the film moves on to its third and final section.

This may sound tedious when considered abstractly, but the effect is breathtaking and overwhelming. Because the images last only a second, they rush by in a whir. Some of the words stick our sinisterly (“Death”), while others present nominally more hopeful themes (“Live”), but the sequence impresses upon the viewer the sheer scope of the world, not just in the word-images but also in the replacement images. Some of the latter depict cyclical events (a man bouncing a ball), while others show finite tasks (a man peeling and eating an orange), and the tension between these two conceptualizations of time imbues the whole sequence with a strange fullness, as if showing us a catalog of everything in the world. In the playing out of this game-like sequence, there is the unavoidable metaphor of life (and death) itself, and it’s hard not to think of mortality when faced with something like this, a whole system that is given a life of its own and that eventually decays and dies out. Somehow, Frampton has managed to make a rather mechanical process hum with an outwardly spiraling vitality that hints at overarching mystical meanings.

The other clear highlight from this collection is the first film in the Hapax Legomena cycle, a 36-minute short from 1971 entitled “(nostalgia)” that seems even more processual than Zorns Lemma. It consists of 12 shots of photographs (most taken by Frampton himself) being slowly burned, all in an identical manner (on the heating element of a hot plate, filmed in an overhead shot). Over these images, we hear fellow avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow read 12 texts written by Frampton that describe the photographs. Frampton’s stroke of genius is in mismatching the text to the image: every text we hear describes not the photograph being burned at that moment but the one we will see in the subsequent shot.

The effect of this is immeasurably sad, for reasons not immediately apparent. Frampton’s texts focus on describing the events surrounding the act of taking each photograph, including autobiographical details that are wistful or filled with regret: in one text, Frampton describes his desire to apologize to Snow, the very man reading the text, creating a brief, ghostly connection between the two men. At one point, Snow says in his exquisitely dry tone, “I only wish you could have seen them,” a reference in Frampton’s text to photographs he lost: considered metaphorically, this phrase is the very essence of the film’s nostalgia. Photographs represent the concretization of memories, but here, seeing them destroyed, we are reminded, as in Zorns Lemma, of mortality and decay, the impossibility of returning to earlier periods in time. The images of the photographs themselves, burning and twisting into ashen forms, add to this effect, causing us to see in them battered and destroyed bodies: once again, a seemingly objective film style reveals depths of unexpected pathos. In its own surprising way, it is a film that might even provoke in us a feeling of mourning.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey also contains some excerpts from the unfinished Magellan cycle, but these incomplete, often contextless films are only intermittently fascinating, reaffirming that Frampton’s work excels through structure and processes. And that’s something that comes through in all these films, which initially seem overly abstract on the surface yet bubble over with emotion, insight, and even humor in ways that overwhelm—the sheer breadth of imagery in Zorns Lemma, directed at the viewer at a rate of one shot per second, foreshadows such later films as Koyaanisqatsi and The Tree of Life, as well as bearing some similarity to those of Frampton’s contemporary Artavazd Peleshyan. Frampton comes across as a trickster, mystic type of a filmmaker, a throwback to an era when scientists were also magicians and each new discovery seemed to hint at infinitude, and he does this all in a rigorously scientific manner, treating films like hypothetical experiments, which makes the achievement all the more astounding.

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