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Blu-ray Review: A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY (The Criterion Collection)

Joshua Brunsting

May 2nd, 2012

Within the world of avant-garde, experimental filmmaking, there happens to be a pantheon of patron saints that young filmmakers become inspired by. Be it something as tame as early Jim Jarmusch (I’m thinking the bizarre and kinetic PERMANENT VACATION), something as breathtakingly simplistic and beautiful as the films of Jean Painleve, or the god of the experimental world Stan Brakhage, experimental cinema carries with it some of the most refreshing pieces one could imagine.

And then there are the films of Hollis Frampton. Now brought to the world thanks to The Criterion Collection, a collection of twenty-four of his iconic, and yet often unsung pieces have been released on DVD and Blu-ray, in what may be one of the greatest and most important releases from the company since their Brakhage and Painleve releases.

Starting off his artistic life as a poet and photographer, Frampton took to the film world in the 1960s, helming a series of short films ranging from photographic exercises (ZORNS LEMMA) to something, almost painterly (the cinematic still life LEMON).  Taking inspiration from his work in and passion for non-cinematic mediums, Frampton become one of the most singular voices within the film world, and now, thanks to Criterion, has been minted as one of the most influential filmmakers of his time.

Collecting twenty-four works of art here, this is very much a litmus test for those not familiar with avant garde filmmaking. There are a handful of beautifully crafted and almost emotionally devastating works (I’m thinking of his series of Magellan films, that encompass the final half of this set), while also including some gorgeously shot, but bewilderingly bizarre works. A film like the aforementioned LEMON, while being nothing more than a camera pointed on a lemon for five minutes, is both wholly bizarre, but also rather telling about Frampton as a filmmaker.

Frampton may be one of the first true mixed-media filmmakers. Not in that he superficially mixed media, but that he took his non-cinematic eye, and turned it directly onto filmmaking.  Blending a painterly and photographic sense of composition, the auteur also had a sweepingly melancholic outlook on the world, as seen in something like POETIC JUSTICE, or the masterpiece, SURFACE TENSION. Creating films unlike any you have ever seen, these are true avant garde masterpieces.

And the best one of the bunch may be one of the most affecting films of the decade.

Entitled (nostalgia), Frampton took to one of his many loves, photography, and created one of the most moving and potent experimental works ever made. A series of short stories told by Frampton from his personal experiences, the voice over is met with visuals of Frampton placing a series of photos, which were taken during the events described or remind him of them, on a stove top allowing them to burn away over the duration of the story. Culminating with Frampton proclaiming and positing “do you see what I see,” (nostalgia) is a blunt and gorgeous meditation on storytelling and the human experience, so affecting that it will leave you enraptured until the very end of the short.

As far as the films as a whole go, you can give or take a few. Some of his work seems almost “too” experimental, in that they feel as though they are interesting shorts to look at, but don’t often offer much in the way of intellectual bounty. As a collection however, this is one of the best releases in Criterion’s history, because it does what this company does best: context. Giving a massive amount of pieces from this one filmmaker, the box set gives the viewers a great look into not only  Frampton’s filmography, but experimental film as a whole. Be it a Factory-like bit of kineticism like MANUAL OF ARMS or the brazenly odd bit of experimentation that is MAXWELL’S DEMON, the box set gives a broad look into what experimental film can truly do, and once truly was. And to think, all of this came from one iconic and insanely gifted experimental auteur.

Transfer-wise, this set is impeccable. SURFACE TENSION is the set’s most impressive feat, giving us gorgeously rendered shots of urban landscapes, featuring some breathtaking photography.  The films themselves were very lo-fi, shot on 16mm, but honestly, they have never looked this damn good.  With 24 films here in this set, the supplements here are equally as great. Commentary is featured on select works, with Frampton himself giving us his thoughts on his work, as he does during an interview given here from 1978. A LECTURE, a performance piece from Frampton is featured here as well, alongside a gorgeous booklet featuring a handful of essays.  The release is finally rounded out by a series of works from Frampton’s series, By Any Other Name.

Blu-ray releases just do not get any better. Joining Criterion’s Brakhage and Painleve sets as the collection’s greatest experimental releases, it also joins that pair as three of Criterion’s greatest releases ever, period. With great context, brilliant transfers of these works, and 24 of the most thought provoking works of art you’ll see, this is, so far, 2012’s most must-own piece of home entertainment. Do yourself a favor, buy this, and then buy it again. It’s that damn good.

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