Beginning in the late ’60s, American avant-garde film achieved its intellectual apex with a congeries of practices later dubbed structuralist cinema. Filmmakers began to explore not only the material properties of film, but also the contours of consciousness. They eschewed Emersonian subjectivity in favor of a phenomenological investigation of perception and cognition, peppered with dry doses of Augustan wit. Unhinged from mere representation, the constellation of celluloid, projector, and light beam became a metaphor for the workings of the mind.
Had it been completed, Hollis Frampton’s 369-day-long megamovie Magellan could have been the ultimate structuralist monument. Planned around the conceit of Ferdinand Magellan’s global circumnavigation, Magellan was to comprise a liturgical calendar of approximately 1,000 films, with Lumière-inspired miniatures of just a few minutes screening on most days, and longer works on equinoxes, solstices, and other special dates. Within this solar epic, Frampton envisioned numerous “subsections and epicycles,” completing a macrocosmic engine reminiscent of an astrolabe’s nested gears or a computer program’s subroutines—the latter suggested by Frampton’s dot-matrix-printed schedule created in 1978, “CLNDR version 1.2.0,” each day numbered like a line of code.
Like his project’s namesake, Frampton died before reaching his goal, completing only eight out of the proposed 36 hours of film. But these fragments evoke the whole. Magellan‘s “metahistory” of cinema is conveyed in Public Domain (1972), created from silent films dislodged from the Library of Congress: shots of turn-of-the-century toddlers flicker as cinema takes its first steps. Others take on primeval pulses of life and death; in Autumnal Equinox (1974), slaughterhouse images transform carcasses into rippling organic landscapes. In Gloria! (1979), scheduled as the final film, human mortality meets cinema’s apotheosis. A tribute to Frampton’s deceased grandmother, Gloria! starts with early-20th-century footage of a Finnegans Wake gag scenario (a not-dead-yet body dances at its own funeral), and ends with scrolling green-screen computer-generated text—going from photographic body to digital ghost.