The most cerebral of those New York City–based avant-garde artists who came to (relative) prominence in the late ’60s and were given the name “structural”—as well one of the most erudite characters to ever pick up a camera—Hollis Frampton made movies that were ruled by ideas. It’s not that Frampton didn’t have an eye (in fact, he began his artistic career as a photographer), but it was his concept-made material that was the thing of beauty: “I’m a spectator of mathematics like others are spectators of soccer or pornography,” he once told a film journalist.
Frampton’s untimely death, at age 48 in 1984, deprived American film culture of one its most prolific practitioners—he had completed some 60 films and was in the midst of a grand epic, the Magellan cycle, intended to be projected over the course of a year with a separate movie for each day—as well as one of its most energetic theorists. The 25th anniversary of his passing is being marked by the publication of On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton (MIT Press), a sumptuous 300-plus page anthology of essays, statements, and interviews on film, photography, and video, together with a week-long series at Anthology Film Archives (March 25 through 31).
The show includes newly preserved prints of Frampton’s most influential work: the crypto-autobiographical seven-film cycle Hapax Legomena (1971-73), as well as his Zorn’s Lemma (1970), an hour-long, alphabetically structured puzzler that drove the audience mad at the 1970 New York Film Festival. There’s also his brilliant audio tape and projector performance, A Lecture—on the nature of the motion picture apparatus—that was originally presented for the edification of his students at Hunter College. The text is also included in On the Camera Arts and should be part of every introductory film class. Greek titles and scientific allusions aside, Frampton’s best work was edifying—and sometimes illuminating—without seeming didactic. The “written” film Poetic Justice (Hapax Legomena II), which I saw as an undergraduate, permanently altered the way I looked at movies.
Frampton’s farewell to photography, (nostalgia), known as Hapax Legomena I, may also be found in the just-released DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947–1986 (National Film Preservation Foundation), a beautifully produced, intelligently selected package of short-ish works by 26 filmmakers. There are obscure items by well-known filmmakers—including Harry Smith’s enigmatic paint-on-film animation, Interwoven (1947-49)—and some first-rate films by lesser-known artists. I’m particularly appreciative of Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953), a beatnik existentialist doom-show that talks directly to the audience about Armageddon in San Francisco.