A Pentagram for Conjuring Hollis Frampton
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | September 3, 2012
Author’s Note: the following paragraphs are excerpted from a longer work on the cinema of Hollis Frampton. The remaining two sides of the pentagram have been omitted for reasons of length…and magic.
In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” Andre Bazin writes that “the guiding myth…inspiring the invention of cinema, is the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion all the techniques of the mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to the phonograph, namely an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” Total cinema—i.e. a cinema capable not merely of embodying the physical structure and multi-dimensionality of the world in all its immanent complexity, but of also developing and evolving at a pace equal to the infrastructural drift, the rise and fall, of its social spheres, its discursive zones and intersubjective layers—would remain a “myth” until film practices had advanced far enough in time to undertake the massive project of replicating nature at the axiomatic level of the real: “The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature. Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented!” Bazin’s essay, written in 1946, was something of a response to the aftermath of a War which had permanently scarred the psychogeography of Europe and drastically altered the stakes for artistic production in the wake of mass death, socio-historical collapse, and psychic alienation. If Total Cinema had not been invented yet, it had certainly been derailed for the time being.
Twenty-five years later, and only one year after completing his masterwork, Zorns Lemma (1970), Hollis Frampton would obliquely revisit the myth of total cinema in his discourse on the “infinite film”. For Frampton, film was “a machine made of images,” but the borders conventionally limiting the machine of film to the technical boundaries of the camera, projector, and screen had considerably widened: “We are used to thinking of camera and projector as machines, but they are not. They are ‘parts.’ [...] Since all the ‘parts’ fit together, the sum of all film, all projectors, and all cameras in the world constitutes one machine, which is by far the largest and most ambitious single artifact yet conceived and made by man (with the exception of the human species itself). The machine grows by many millions of feet of raw stock every day.” Film, in Frampton’s eyes, was “the Last Machine” because it had so “utterly engulf[ed] and digest[ed] the whole substance of the Age of Machines (machines and all), and finally supplant[ed] the entirety with its illusory flesh. Having devoured all else, the film machine is the lone survivor.” To the end that the film machine was composed of every projector, every screen, and every filmstrip in the world (a theory which Frampton would later adjust to include video technology and, by implication, television, laserdiscs, DVDs, media files, Youtube, etc.), Bazin’s myth of total cinema re-emerged in Frampton’s theorization of the infinite film: “The infinite film contains an infinity of endless passages wherein no frame resembles any other in the slightest degree, and a further infinity of passages wherein successive frames are as nearly identical as intelligence can make them.”
The myth of total cinema, thus, would shed its mythical skin not necessarily through the progressive advancement of image technologies (though the polyvalent reach of the screen-image had certainly made the cinematic omniverse more salient) but, rather, through the steady and patient aggregation of the film image itself; rather than basing the concept of total cinema on a perceptual and technological approximation to the substance of the real, Frampton grounds the infinite film on the possibility of its total replacement of what we, as spectators, have come to believe is real.
Elsewhere, writing this time on the “photographic agony,” Frampton “postulates an Atlantic civilization that expended its entire energy in the making of photographs.” Like Borges’ labyrinthine mirror-copulating history of Tlön, Frampton’s Atlantis shapes a massive allegory on the substitutional logic of language, specifically on the photograph’s shamanic displacement of the real:
Briefly described, [the ‘Supreme Artifact of Atlantis’] consisted in nothing less than the synthesis, through photographic representation, of an entire imaginary civilization, together with its every inhabitant, edifice, custom, utensil, animal. Great cities were built, in full scale and complete to the minutest detail, by generations of craftsmen who dedicated their skills to the perfection of verisimilitude: these cities existed only to be photographed. But the ambitions of Atlantis went far beyond this concern for mise en scène.
What was missing, of course, was precisely that, the mobile mise en scène of the camera, the expressive kinema of the image which the perceptual boundaries of the frame promised. Beyond the mere staging, the closed field, of the frame lay what Deleuze calls (in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) the immanent “out-of-field” realm of the Open: “All framing determines an out-of-field. [...] In itself, or as such, the out-of-field already has two qualitatively different aspects: a relative aspect by means of which a closed system refers in space to a set which is not seen, and which can in turn be seen, even if this gives rise to a new uneven set, on to infinity; and an absolute aspect by which the closed system opens to a duration which is immanent to the whole universe, which is no longer a set and does not belong to the order of the visible. [...] In one case, the out-of-field designates that which exists elsewhere, to one side or around; in the other case, the out-of-field testifies to a more disturbing presence, one which cannot even be said to exist, but rather to ‘insist’ or ‘subsist,’ a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogeneous space and time. Undoubtedly these two aspects of the out-of-field intermingle constantly.” This out-of-field yielded the possibility of a duration spreading across multiple infinitudes, and these infinitudes hinted at an eternal chess movement of the camera across a cosmic checkered board, the whole closed system of the immanent frame—what could not be seen could be imagined, and what could be imagined came exponentially into view as the not-yet-seen.
In any case, a universal library of motionless photographs threatened stagnation, would become obsolescent, because temporality kept intervening in the reception of the illusory photographic image; such a library had to account for the rates of change and stages of erosion that eat away at buildings and flatten mountains and hills into a hundred, a thousand tablelands, had to allow for the gravitational pressure and metabolic processes that consume human bodies, vegetable structures, city skylines, calcified social masses. Thus, “walls had to be gradually dirtied and effaced; buildings demolished or burned, repaired, rebuilt. Illusory machines were gradually refined. Celebrities were made to age. A sprinkling of wars, natural disasters, and social upheavals were staged with the utmost care.” Each of these molecular motions of change was documented in photographs, and the photographs, when they were assembled and placed in particular sequences, would hint at primitive animatronic manipulations. But a library containing the sum of photographic artifacts constituting the Universe could not properly call itself “the Universe” unless it was animate, unless it could be screened on a 70mm screen in technicolor, an infinite roll of film, like musical perpetuum mobile, fed into the omnivorous mouth of the film machine:
If we are indeed doomed to the comically convergent task of dismantling the universe and fabricating from its stuff an artifact called The Universe, it is reasonable to suppose that such an artifact will resemble the vaults of an endless film archive built to house, in eternal cold storage, the infinite film.
Frampton writes, “There is nothing in the structural logic of the cinema filmstrip that precludes sequestering any single image. A still photograph is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.” In the parable of Atlantis, or in Bazin’s vision of 19c entrepreneurial monomaniacs dreaming of three-dimensional “moving pictures” (in which, for instance, blue-colored avatars of real people prance through imaginary computer-generated worlds), the still photograph persists in burning on the retina the latent afterimage of its mythic import. To this effect, “cinema could already claim—from within the same nexus—a complementary feat [to that of photography]: the resurrection of bodies in space from their dismembered trajectories.”
Resurrection from the death that the photographic image inscribes on the subject doomed to terminal immobility. Resurrection from the still image through the mobile image; a revival similar to that of Tim Finnegan, in the ballad bearing his name, from a death caused by drunkenness, through the sacred spirit-restoring power of a spilled drop of whiskey. The Image kills (because it intoxicates, generates illusion)—but it also resurrects.
Metahistory (n.): 1. A rational, complex fiction assembled from the parts of disparate, unrelated, nonintersecting facts; 2. The Eisensteinian technique of vertical montage, or its effects, predicated on the horizontal plane of history; 3. The practice of historiography at the level of cinematic construction, employing the latter’s toolkit to bring to sequential or narratological order assymetrical, anachronic data, figures, images, tropes, idioms, etc.; 4. A tradition or consolidated set of forms and practices which a critical apparatus will fabricate using the psychic or literary wreckage of a previous age or any such hodgepodge of chronologies: “These fictions were what we may call metahistories of event. They remain events in themselves” (Hollis Frampton).
The metahistory, properly speaking, does not exist because it is always in the process of being invented. It is a film; the “infinite film.” What function do metahistories perform, per Frampton? “First of all, they [metahistories] annihilate naive intuitions of causality by deliberately ignoring mere temporal chronology. And then, to our own cultural dismay, they dispense, largely, with the fairly recent inventions we call facts.” Answer: metahistories erase facts by systematizing them, by putting them in such an order that the “facts” disappear, or appear to reappear as parables, stories, rational fictions, spliced filmstrips, composite images, such that they manage to clarify or illuminate existent (and frequently obscure) chronotopologies. An alchemy of the singular—of the discarded literary fragment, the jagged sun-warmed shard of glass, the mute and impotent datum—into a (chemical) condensation, the fluidic revelation, of the whole, of the filmic Open.
Fables, then, are a decisive part of the art of metahistoricizing, and Frampton is a consummate fabulist, the metahistorian by definition. Let us glance at such a one:
The first side of “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative” (1972) replicates the incidents of a recurrent nightmare that a friend describes to Frampton. (The reader is encouraged to click the link immediately above, read the first section, then skip to last sentence of the present paragraph—my summary does the fable no justice.) In the nightmare, Frampton’s friend lives through two entire lifetimes; the first is spent living out a “long, active, and passionate life,” except on the condition that it be captured entirely, moment to moment without a single instance of privacy, by an omnipresent film crew (think of The Truman Show). In the second lifetime, after experiencing death in the first, the dreamer reincarnates only to find himself forced to watch the completed film of the first life, every single minute, hour, day, and year of it, in its monstrous omnitude. Naturally, watching the cinematic events of the first lifetime completely consumes the time and subjectivity of the second—the snake winds up eating its tail, and the circle of narrative closes in on itself. But this clever Borgesian fable—its humor nevertheless disguising the doom and pith of something like Kafka’s Great Wall of China—forms only one section of Frampton’s “pentagram.” Indeed, the pentagram works as it was designed: it immediately conjures up yet another narrative, of another dream, one which a friend of my own had recounted to me many years ago, involving the revenant of James Joyce.
In the dream my friend is in a car driving at a frenetic pace toward…somewhere. Next to him, seated on the passenger seat, is the finished (and, presumably, successful) screenplay adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses. The passenger side windows are turned down, the wind is racing, and the pages of the screenplay are flying out of the open window in limitless profusion; but it doesn’t matter, the screenplay remains complete, and, for whatever reason, the full body of the script remains intact and irreducible, despite the problem of the pages continuing to fly out of the car. Looking into the rearview mirror, suddenly, he notices a man racing in pursuit of his vehicle: it is Joyce. He is running madly, a superhuman with no apparent need for the velocity of an automobile. It seems Joyce has no legs: he is either floating, flying in blinding speed after him, or running so swiftly that his kinematic legs appear in a blur. In a flash Joyce is side by side with the car, on the passenger side, and the eyepatch is fixed menacingly on the offensive screenplay; as the pages fly out, Joyce’s hands—now assuming the numerosity of the arms of Avalokitesvara—collect the flying sheets and tuck them into his pants, down the crotch side, down his arse end. Joyce is furious, he demands the screenplay (or his blackly creased eyepatch demands it)—in any case he is mute, and his spectacled cyclopean eye, blinded in some vague spasm of wrath, is all that’s necessary to tell him so. It is silently understood that the Dubliner categorically refuses that any film adaptation should be made of his book. (My friend at that time was unaware that a reasonably faithful film adaptation of the novel had been made in 1967.) The dreamer remembers protesting, crying out in fear, but then it is too late: Joyce malevolently enters the vehicle (my friend remembers vividly that Joyce’s movements become bizarre at this point; the Irishman begins to move as if a penetrating strobe light had caught and interrupted the progress of his body, in a hideously mechanical rhythm like that of stop-motion animation). Joyce proceeds to sit down next to him, lifts up his spectacles, fingers the eyepatch, and then…the dreamer wakes up. Almost instantaneously he thinks to himself, “That would make a good movie.”
It could be averred that the trajectory of Frampton’s career covers the entire ground of the history of art—or, at least, it has retraced, and usefully abridged, the significant challenges and permutations which the perennial problematic of aesthetic perception, and the coeval relationship it shares with the technologic imagination, have posed during the 19th and 20th centuries. It could be proposed, on the other hand, that Frampton’s blip on the radar of history represented a fruitfully inverse correlation to the encroaching apparatus of postmodernity, so that his work-of-days came to evince the symptoms of a decidedly premodern condition; Frampton’s mind, after all, was characterized by a predominantly medievalist taste for mathematical graphs, astronomical charts, calendrical systems, Lullian computational machines.
Born in Ohio in 1936, Frampton was from the get-go a poet of verbal inclination. His early formative years were said to begin when he started writing letters to Ezra Pound in 1956, when the former was a university student, and the latter an illustrious resident at the “funny farm.” Frampton spent the years of ‘57-’58 waiting in line just to see Pound, or at least sit down by the feet of the elderly lion-maned statesman, who at that time was working on Thrones de los Cantares, 96-109, at St. Elizabeth’s. In events similar to Valéry’s encounter with Mallarmé, the younger, self-aware poet was inevitably, albeit temporarily, persuaded to take up another hobby. He moved to New York, took up painting for a time; abandoned it out of a professed distaste for “smearing gooey substances over flat surfaces”; was later compelled to chide any wayward comparisons of painting to photography (or to film for that matter, on the superficial basis that each involved the optical equipment of the eye)—as akin to “confusing the humane disciplines of cooking and dentistry because the results of both are appreciated by the mouth.” He became amorously involved in a long-standing, but conflicted, relationship to photography. Motionless photography, however, would prove inadequate to his formal ambitions: he began to imagine “sequences of photographs that were time-regulated,” in which the spectator’s optical literacy would increase with the mobilization of complex, intertextual, genre-splicing sequences. Film arrived in the form of various apprenticeships in film processing laboratories; the presence of a New York coterie of filmmaker friends—Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, and later, Paul Sharits—along with the trailblazing examples of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas, and the “master of Rollinsville” himself, Stan Brakhage, amplified Frampton’s conviction and immersion. The seventh art would be his permanent, though not exclusive, locus. He eventually came to the realization that film and photography were not genealogically related but were ontogenetically distinct; rather than being two halves of the same operation, film and photography were “both parts of something for which we do not have a name at the present time [...] which thing, once it is fully constituted, will [...] constitute a kind of counter-machine for the machine of language.”
Frampton himself provides us with a characteristically self-effacing, suitably jocund autobiography, en précis:
Hollis Frampton was born in Ohio, United States, on March 11, 1936, towards the end of the Machine Age. Educated (that is, programmed: taught table manners, the use of the semicolon, and so forth) in Ohio and Massachusetts. The process resulted in satisfaction for no one. Studied (sat around on the lawn at St. Elizabeths) with Ezra Pound, 1957-58. That study is far from concluded. Moved to New York in March, 1958, lived and worked there more than a decade. People I met there composed the faculty of a phantasmal ‘graduate school’. Began to make still photographs at the end of 1958. Nothing much came of it. First fumblings with cinema began in the Fall of 1962; the first films I will publicly admit to making came in early 1966. Worked, for years, as a film laboratory technician. More recently, Hunter College and the Cooper Union have been hospitable. Moved to Eaton, New York in mid-1970, where I now live (a process enriched and presumably, prolonged, by the location) and work…
In the case of painting, I believe that one reason I stayed with still photography as long as I did was an attempt, fairly successful I think, to rid myself of the succubus of painting. Painting has for a long time been sitting on the back of everyone’s neck like a [sic] crept into territories outside its own proper domain. I have seen, in the last year or so, films which I have come to realize are built largely around what I take to be painterly concerns and I feel that those films are very foreign to my feeling and my purpose. As for sculpture, I think a lot of my early convictions about sculpture, in a concrete sense, have affected my handling of film as a physical material. My experience of sculpture has had a lot to do with my relative willingness to take up film in hand as a physical material and work with it. Without it, I might have been tempted to more literary ways of using film, or more abstract ways of using film.
The act of ridding oneself of the “succubus of painting” paralleled the act of “unlearning” one’s psychic, aesthetic, formal influences. (To reach the oily black heart of mechanism, one had to be in the belly of the medium after all.) Sculpting in time precluded the static, literary, slavishly historical function of writing in time—in this respect, the originary materiality of film (grounded in the thermoplastic film substrate of its organism) helped to “unlearn” the illusory aspect of its flat-surface paper-like images. In Frampton’s eyes, the psychic plasticity of the filmic image was coterminous with the physical plasticity of its sequence-molding mechanism. Plastic (i.e sculptural) expression prevailed over a false understanding of the image as exclusively graphic or mental. But an acceptance of its primordial illusion—of the fable or rational fiction it unavoidably crafted, for instance—was necessary toward a working acceptance of what the film machine was capable. From Pound Frampton learned that unlearning what one learned was the commencement of real work, of authentic composition. (He recalls, at this point, the balladic leitmotif of “Finnegan’s Wake”: whiskey kills but it also resurrects; the illusion of pure appearance deceives but it also enlightens.)
Since the learning, the understanding of an art consists in the recovery of its axiomatic substructure, we can begin to say that the “unlearning” that Pound cites as indispensable to new creation consists in the excernment, castigation, and transvaluation of that axiomatic substructure. New composition, then, may be seen as an activity synonymous, if not coterminous, with the radical reconstitution of the embedding code.
There are two modes of learning the code of composition, per Frampton: “reading,” and “misreading.” Concomitantly, there are four modes of reading: substitution, constriction, augmentation, displacement. Each of these four modes represents, paradoxically, the possibility of a misreading which leads toward an unlearning (a recombining) of any given work’s axiomatic structure:
But if we examine words, whether as a system of marks ordered upon a surface, or a system of sounds disturbing the air, we can discover no difference between the manner in which they denote and the manner in which they connote. It is possible, then, to view the denotation of a word as no more than that particular term in a series of connotations which has, through the vicissitudes of history, won the lexicographical race. In a word, a denotation is nothing more than the most privileged among its fellow connotations. In Finnegans Wake Joyce, while implicitly accepting the assumption that words are made up of parts, displaces the privilege of the denotation, making of the word a swarm of covalent connotations equidistant from a common semantic center. Which such connotations will be identified with the notation, then, is decided in each case not within the cellular word but through interaction with its organic context.
One may read the above as yet another definition—in a series of denotations dueling with competitive connotations—of what metahistory sets out to do. Joyce’s displacement of “The Ballad of Finnegan’s Wake” (which is to say, his reading/misreading of it) assumes the size and order of the novel Finnegans Wake, sans apostrophe, an ownerless entity that furnishes new readings with each change in reader; similarly, Frampton displaces a single corollary from the set theory proposition of “Zorn’s lemma” (“Every partially ordered set contains a maximal fully ordered subset”) and generates a reading/misreading that assumes the size and order of the film Zorns Lemma, sans apostrophe, an ownerless entity that furnishes new readings with each change in spectator. (Another example: one pentagram leads to the spatial construction of another less soluble, if you turn it upside down.)
“A specter is haunting the cinema: the specter of narrative. If that apparition is an Angel, we must embrace it; and if it is a Devil, then we must cast it out. But we cannot know what it is until we have met it face to face.” In response, Frampton tests the veracity of an axiom he dubs “Brakhage’s Theorem” (in recognition of Brakhage’s role in establishing its axiomatic nature); the theorem describes the third inevitable condition for the production of film art, narrative, the first being the physical limitation of the frame itself, the second being the “plausibility” of the image (or its ability to generate a visually sustainable illusion by recalling to mind an existent or imaginable referent in the real world).
BRAKHAGE’S THEOREM: For any finite series of shots [‘film’’] whatsoever there exists in real time a rational narrative, such that every term in the series, together with its position, duration, partition, and reference, shall be perfectly and entirely accounted for.
Which is to say, narrative is inevitable and unavoidable, so long as there are pieces that can be grasped, arranged, and retrieved by either the frame, the image, or the spectatorial mind. (A Coleridgean idea perchance?) For every still photograph, there are an infinity of frames behind it, and an infinity of frames in front of it, lying in narratological ambush; equally, for every displaced literary fragment or ripped-out page of text, there is an eternal library in which a dust-clogged book happens to be missing a page. What can be critically apprehended can be materially and psychically re-adjusted, re-placed, re-positioned. Frampton reasoned that if narrative self-generates through the mere appearance of matter (since matter, according to Grosseteste, is inseparable from form/narrative), then the metahistory of film provided a viable solution in concretizing the immaterial specter of narrative. The tyrannical machine of language (whence originated the specter of narrative) would no longer pose a problem so long as there was a counter-machine to meet it at the other end.
Autobiography, the first and last narrative, was, alas, an inescapable condition. If we were to shoot an odyssean arrow through the small hoops that outline Frampton’s career, we would start at the verbal origins of all art, at poetry, and continue into the sphere of painting (nearly as old), then progress through the recently discovered continent of photography, take a long and winding turn at the electric circle of cinema, and complete a final volta back to poetry, i.e. to a freshened rhetoric of images that has, by this point, engulfed the verbal anachronisms of language. The impossible arrow would thread a robust and imperfect circle, a Magellan-like circumnavigation of the overlapping worlds of language.
To be continued…Tweet