Sole Criterion: A Hollis Frampton Odyssey
By Brett Ballard-Beach
July 5, 2012
DVD Spine #607
I am not sure if it can be counted as a digression if I choose to start with it, but I felt an extended anecdote was in order for my introductory comments. Late last fall, I had the chance to see a film titled 13 Lakes, which as its title suggests, concerns a baker’s dozen of the titular bodies of water, all from the United States. Each lake is featured for precisely ten minutes. The camera is fixed, several feet off the water, and does not pan or zoom. The image is perfectly centered, capturing an equal amount of water and sky. (In the case of Crater Lake, southern Oregon’s world famous landmark, the reflection of the mountain peaks in the water is so dizzyingly symmetrical it becomes easy to understand how a small plane once crashed in the lake when the pilot became disoriented and lost his bearings.).
And on the soundtrack, a wealth of aural pleasure that becomes an almost narrative for each piece: a speedboat that comes into frame every so often as it loops around one lake; gunshots like muffled firecrackers off in the distance during another; a train that comes speeding along, ever so frustratingly just out of sight, and then recedes, the roar of its engine fading over much of the remainder of the running time. Each segment allows for contemplation and (yes!) boredom, reflection and distraction. Many of James Benning’s films deal with the physicality of landscapes and geography, measured out in formal units of time.
I had been hotly anticipating this film, based solely on the description provided by the group screening it and an affinity for prior work by Benning. I had booked a Zipcar with enough lead-time to get me to the Hollywood Theatre before 7. This was the second of a two-night programme and the previous night’s screenings had started ten minutes late. I felt confident. I had not counted on my first experience with a car being returned late. Nearly 20 minutes late. As the half o’clock turned to quarter to seven, I began to calculate: “I can make it there and miss a minute of the first lake. Three minutes. Half.” I began to go back and forth in my head—“Do I go if I know I will miss all of the first lake?”
I tore out of Reed College parking lot at 648 pm up towards Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard. From there, it was a left turn and a straight shot of nearly 70 blocks. Providentially, I hit nothing but green lights all the way north, during the tail-end of rush hour, and but for searching for a place to park at my destination would have made it on time. As it was, I parked two blocks away and dashed across a busy intersection, tore through the front door, sprinted up the flight of stairs and threw my admission money at the hapless volunteer.
I wound up being about six minutes late, which still wounds me. But, as you might imagine, sitting and staring at a scene of natural beauty does wonders for one’s composure when one is red-faced, breathless and about ready to pass out. I was as excited to see 13 Lakes as I have been studio tentpoles in summers past, and it remains one of the most enjoyable and involving films I have seen in the last year. I relay this story to give you a baseline by which you can suss out my personal affection for non-narrative films, specifically ones built around a tight structure, an identified time limit, and a willingness to create a private universe in miniature. The director who is the focus of this week’s column created short films that might be reasonably viewed as controlled scientific experiments or conversely, mathematical equations and proofs set to 24 frames per second and overflowing with an artist’s humanity and vision.
The film leader that opens several of Hollis Frampton’s pieces contains the word FOCUS (in similar typography to the 10, 9, 8… countdown many of us of a certain age are familiar with from the educational films screened in junior high and high schools.) In its primary and most obvious form, this is an instructional device to the projectionist to help him or her clarify the image, as the film is about to start. But coming from a filmmaker who so carefully selected and assembled the elements of his films as much from mathematical precision and scientific inquiry as from the aesthetics of art, poetry, and still photography that had been his earliest foci, it becomes well as much a command for the viewing audience.