Monday, January 28, 2008

Interview with Hollis Frampton

Interview with Hollis Frampton
• Deke Dusinberre and Ian Christie

This interview took place on 8 September, 1976,
at the London Filmmakers’ Coop, Fitzroy Road,
London, and was intended for a future issue of
Afterimage. It followed Frampton’s participation
in the Edinburgh Film Festival’s International
Forum on Avant-Garde Film, where he took part
in panel discussions with fellow-North
Americans Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, Yvonne
Rainer, Joyce Wieland and Annette Michelson;
and with European filmmakers including Chantal
Akerman, Willem and Birgit Hein, Malcolm Le
Grice and Willian Raban. Behind the Forum lay
the influential re-mapping of avant-garde
tradition proposed by Peter Wollen’s ‘Two
Avant-Gardes’ essay, first published in Studio
International in November 1975, and reprinted
in the Festival’s 1976 magazine. There was also
much talk of a new narrative tendency in avantgarde
film, signalled at the festival by Le Grice’s
After Manet and After Lumière, Raban’s After
Eight, Rainer’s Kristina Talking Pictures and
Wieland’s The Far Shore. Frampton already had
a reputation as one of the major theoristfilmmakers
of the contemporary avant-garde,
although his work was comparatively little
known in Britain at this time. An interview by
Simon Field and Peter Sainsbury had appeared in
Afterimage 4 (1972) and Zorns Lemma was
available for hire from the London Filmmakers’
Cooperative, while some of his essays appeared
in Artforum during the early 1970s. The films by
Frampton shown at Edinburgh were from the
on-going Magellan cycle: At the Gates of Death,
consisting of The Red Gate and The Green Gate,
each 52 minutes long.
Deke Dusinberre: I’m particularly interested in
learning what you’ve been up to over the last
four years – particularly since the Afterimage
interview of 1972 was so lucid and suggested
a number of possible directions – but perhaps
it might be better to start by simply asking
what you’re doing now.
Hollis Frampton: I’m probably becoming less
lucid than I was four years ago. At that time,
as I recall, I was finishing one thing and
starting another. I was finishing Hapax
Legomena (five parts of which I had with me
in London); in the midst of that visit to
England I went to the west and filmed
Stonehenge, which was incorporated into
another part of Hapax. The last of it was
finished in the fall, I guess. At the same time, I
had begun what I hoped would be a simple
project, as outlined in that interview: a
catalogue or compilation of films which were
limited to exactly one minute – 1,440 frames.
They were to be an homage not so much to
the early cinema of the Lumières as to an
aspect of film that I feel has been lost, to a
certain degree, in the period in which we now
find ourselves, and which began with the
Soviet cinema of the period – roughly speaking
– of montage culture (or of the edited or
spliced film). What is so difficult to explain
about the Lumières’ films and other singleshot
films made at that time – I’m thinking for
instance of the very earliest things done in the
U.S., starting with Fred Ott’s Sneeze:1 45-
frame cinema that at 40 frames-per-second
lasted a little over one second – is their
luminosity, by which I mean that they seem
impervious to analysis. Films made within
montage culture, on the other hand, invite
and even command a type of analysis that
proceeds during the extended moment of
watching the films.
DD: What’s the status of that project now?
HF : At a certain point, what has tended to
happen previously happened again: I set out
to make a simple inventory or catalogue of the
appearances of the world, which I imagined
might run to a few hundred short films, but as
I actually began to gather these film segments
they began to organise themselves – to my
discomfiture – in a manner that I suppose is
determined by my own immersion in
montage: one thing suggests another, and if
you have five things there seems to be some
best order in which they should be seen. The
bits of film, which were as opaque as an
isolated word, seemed somehow to be
demanding a more intricate organisation than
I had originally planned. At first I thought that
simply meant sorting them into more intricate
categories; I had originally imagined that there
would be four categories – ‘ordinary,
extraordinary, exotic, and erotic views’ – which
were the categories used by the Lumières. So I
attempted a more complex sorting, which led
to the question of an equilibrium among the
categories. I suppose I could give a very
detailed history of a series of insights and
decisions (though I can’t necessarily remember
the dates), but what basically evolved from
that proposed inventory – or catalogue, or
storehouse – is a work whose working title is
currently Magellan. This is composed of parts,
not all of which consist of one-minute
segments, not by any means. It’s not a work
that can be diagrammed in linear fashion,
since it uses the grid – among many others –
of the cycle of the solar year. In other words,
it’s a calendar. That is to say, it rotates like a
wheel, or rather like a series of wheels that
rotate within one another. I now expect, when
and if the whole thing is completed, that it will
be, very roughly, thirty-six hours long. Within
those thirty-six hours there are a series of
rough categories – well, the categories are
actually quite exact, but they name parts that
overlap each other on a kind of twodimensional
map of the work. Those
categories are ‘Straits’ and ‘Clouds’ [of
Magellan], and there’s a section which
corresponds to a ‘Birth of Magellan’ (itself
comprised of subsections), and there’s another
which relates to adolescence. Then there’s a
‘Death’ and even, heaven help us, a
DD: How much of Magellan do you have under
your belt now?
HF : Well, that’s also hard to say. I’ve now
finished and released the two parts of the
‘Gates of Death’, which together come to 110
minutes and represent, within the complete
work, a kind of dispersed zone between
‘Straits’ and ‘Clouds’. There’s also a cycle of
four films for the solstices and equinoxes that
could be collectively seen as an epicycle I call
‘Solaria Magellani’. (A solarium, by the way, is
not only a sunroom – as in a tuberculosis
sanitorium – it’s also a sundial.) Those four
parts together amount to two hours thirtyseven
DD: Are they exterior to the ‘Straits’ and to
HF : No, they’re inside the ‘Straits’. Embedded.
DD: But there’s more to be done on the
HF: There is very much more to be done. More,
indeed, has been done but hasn’t been
released: of the one-minute pieces – the
unmodified one-minute pieces – I have now
shot about 700. I don’t think I will ever use all
of them. There are now also one-minute
pieces which are edited – indeed some are
highly edited. There are even some that
involve performance and directed acting. That
is to say, the one-minute pieces alone are
stratified or separated out into clusters which
are distributed throughout the whole time of
the work, which are involved in a longer
temporal spectrum within the history of film
than simply the primitive cinema of the
DD: Will those one-minute pieces form a
discrete part of Magellan, or will they be
distributed throughout the work? Will people
be expected to view all the parts in the same
relationship, or will they be allowed to pull out
any number of those parts in any of an infinite
series of permutations?
HF : Well, we come now to another aspect of the
problem – the problem of describing this thing
in linear speech. I will propose, then describe, I
think, a set of ways for deriving a canonic order
for seeing the whole thing. This is something
that on certain days of the year, let’s say, would
be pinned to this imaginary year, to specific
segments, while certain other days of the year
would be completely indeterminate (or at least
partly indeterminate). In particular, as I now see
it, there will be not one but two cycles of oneminute
pieces, which constitute the panopticon
of the ‘Straits of Magellan’. One of those
wheels – or series – is, as it were, a gear with
one more tooth, 366 teeth against 365, so that
if they were seen in a real, determined canonic
order – in fact, seen along a strictly calendrical
model in which there would be something to
see for every day of the calendar year – then it
would take 366 years to see all the
In addition to which, there will be a piece of
sound – I use that phrase very deliberately: a
piece of sound – because I’m envisioning a
kind of inventory not only of kinds of sound
but of ways in which sound may be used
alongside the image attached to each piece.
But at any given screening, whether or not the
sound will actually be played or the track run
silent will be determined by other, local,
factors. So a great deal of it is very rigidly
structured in one sense, but very rigidly
structured in a direction which will tend to
place the principles upon which it is structured
on a kind of horizon, as it were, in the
perceiving of the work, rather than at the
centre of one’s attention in perceiving it.
DD: Although I expected the implications of the
question to be important, I was really asking a
simpler question. Which is: how do you expect
the 36-hour film Magellan to be experienced?
HF : In as many ways as possible, save one: I
would be horrified if anyone ever proposed to
show the whole thing in thirty-six consecutive
hours. It’s not at all my goal to subject anyone
– not even myself – to the kind of exhaustion,
the kind of phasing in and out of attention
(and the ordeal of wakefulness) that would
entail. I just don’t think it could be done.
I can imagine a situation in which it could
be seen in the course of a week. That’s still an
awful lot of film. Or, under absolutely ideal
circumstances – though I don’t care too much
if they’re ever achieved – over the actual
calendar year which the work imitates (but to
which it is not absolutely tied down: I mean,
one writes a diary, for instance, with daily
entries over the period of a year, but that does
not necessarily imply that the reader must read
the entries at the rate of one a day). It’s like a
library, let’s say, or a compendium, and also
like a mechanical analogue computer or
differential analyser, something in which the
parts can be taken out, put elsewhere, and so
forth. Film, after all, does come on reels in tin
cans, and these can be lined up on shelves like
books, so that one has random access to the
‘books’ on the shelf (if not instantaneously to
the pages within the books). Most of the
books on this shelf – or most of the cans, the
parts – would in fact be very small; they would
be little reels of film with 2 x 36 or 72 feet of
film. That would be the case on about 360
days of the year. Some of the reels would be
larger, and of course there are some days in
which there would be very much to watch.
Again with the proviso – or at least the
suggestion – that the very large segments
intended to be seen on one day are open at
certain points – open out, so that smaller
epicyclic digressions are inserted into them or
balloon out of them.
DD: I’d like to clarify precisely what that [library]
will catalogue, what that analytic machine will
analyse, to what particular cycle the calendar
refers. Two things that spring immediately to
my mind, knowing a bit about your work, are:
that Magellan will in the first instance be a
recapitulation of the history of cinematic
representation, and that secondly it will have a
strong autobiographical element, situating
yourself as protagonist within that
HF : This is where I have to condition the likening
to a diary or to a journal. In a certain sense –
indeed, in many senses – my work has tended
to be autobiographical. That was certainly true
of Zorns Lemma and Hapax Legomena. In any
case, with any material filmed by a particular
person there’s a kind of kinesic
autobiographical inscription, is there not? Just
one’s physiological or motor state on a given
day will mark a shot with a gesture that on
another day it might not have. The hand-held
camera, at least, inscribes the presence of the
cameraperson on the invisible side of the
camera, and so forth. But to pursue me
through these mazes and corridors I think is
not what I would recommend to anyone.
DD: Would you recommend pursuing Magellan
himself? Have you in fact adopted him as a
persona? I know little about Magellan’s life
other than that he was the first to attempt to
circumnavigate the earth, but didn’t succeed.
Yet his conception – that is to say, the way he
conceived the expedition – was sufficient to
allow it to carry on beyond his own death.
HF : Well, at least some of his mortal part made
it all the way around the world. He was
dismembered, hacked to pieces in a local war
in the Philippines, where he had previously
been on an earlier voyage that took the Vasco
da Gama route around Africa, though of course
on this occasion he was coming back the other
way. So the few of his crew – plus his friend
Antonio Pigafetta who went along as a
passenger and kept a diary of the entire voyage
– gathered up what they could find and packed
him in a barrel of cloves. And so, aromatically
preserved, Magellan returned to Genoa.
Certainly there are specific things in the
voyage – the actual historic voyage – which
interest me and which I incorporate more or
less obliquely. One of the most interesting finds
its way into the work as a behavioural
parameter, a generated parameter rather than
an allusion: this of course concerns the dating
paradox, the time paradox that fell upon them
when they did get back. They had kept an
exact day-to-day log of the journey, as an aid to
navigation and so forth, and Pigafetta had kept
a day-to-day journal or diary, so they knew – or
they believed that they knew – the date upon
which they arrived home, and even the day of
the week. They were incorrect by one day. We
now know, of course, that they had crossed
what we would call the international date line.
Except that there was no international date line
at the time. They had simply preset – within the
cycle of the rotation of the earth – one
rotation, so that they had gained twenty-four
hours. It was extremely puzzling to them. It
was some years before all that got straightened
out. Although the Arabs had done a certain
amount of theoretical work on it in the high
Middle Ages, and understood what should
happen assuming that the world was round,
this knowledge was not available to the
Portuguese at the time.
Well, that paradox concerning the misfit of
actual experience – even enumerated,
modulated, kept careful account of – with one
aspect of the real astronomical calendar of the
world, is massively referred to in the phasing
misfit of cycles of material in the film. But as far
as specific episodes having the same kind of
relationship to my film as the specific episodes
in the Odyssey have to the episodes of Joyce’s
Ulysses, no, the relation is not the same.
DD: Why, then, Magellan?
HF : Why Magellan? OK, it’s a voyage, that is to
say it’s a vast picaresque which, like all
successful picaresques, takes the form of a
comedy. That means there’s a full resolution in
favour of the protagonist (which is getting
comedy melted down about as far as you can
go, making it about as abstract as you can). In
a manner of speaking, in the original voyage
there’s a resolution in favour of the
protagonist: he did establish the
‘spheroidalness’ (or what have you) of the
earth. He even, in a manner of speaking, got
back; because such a voyage is vastly inclusive
without there necessarily being a moment-tomoment
causal chain or transfer of energy
from one moment to the next. In the Odyssey,
for instance, there’s no particular reason why,
having escaped the enchantments of Circe,
Odysseus should then next come drifting
ashore and become Nausicaa’s lover. There’s
no direct causal link between that; it’s a model
of history which at least questions the notion
of causality. There may or may not be causal
links. What those links are – the nature of why,
say, one shot follows another, or one segment
follows another – is at all times under
construction, as is the nature of the passage of
the energy of attention from one segment,
one shot – one frame, even – to another.
DD: And you’re contrasting that with the
HF : Well, the Odyssey is a vastly sophisticated
work, of course. No, I wasn’t so much
contrasting it, I was likening it: except for the
very beginning and the very end, which first
enunciate and then resolve a specific set of
problems, whether or not what happens in
episode ‘a’ is causing what happens in
episode ‘b’ remains problematical. In other
words, that relationship is at all times to be
constructed in the imagination of the
spectator. At the level of a kind of
metalanguage, if we can imagine Ulysses as a
critical essay about the Odyssey, and about
prior comic literature, there is a double
relationship that is at all times under
construction: the first is that from episode to
episode, the second is that between the
episodes which we are now reading and the
palimpsestic corresponding Homeric episode
that underlies it and the nature of the distance
between them, which at all times is extremely
fluid. It’s fluid in relation to one’s attention;
sometimes one feels oneself reading the
Odyssey through Joyce at the moment of
detecting a strong correspondence, at other
times the distance becomes very large so that
the Odyssey, as it were, disappears.
DD: So can we assume that’s the way you
envisage the relationship between your film
and the exploits of Magellan?
HF: For starters. Save, of course, that it’s a lot
looser. And I wonder if I haven’t started to
regret, first of all, referring to this filmic object
I’m working on by a name of any kind; and I
wonder, furthermore, if I don’t regret a little
bit referring to the subsections by names.
Because of course what this does – and, in a
way, it does it in advance of the very fact of
the thing – is to polarise examination of the
film around a kind of clue-hunting. It’s
possible, mind you, for me to take a certain
kind of pleasure in presenting that kind of
extremely intricate but conceivably open and
schematised form – I’m not immune to the
pleasures of pedantry. But at the same time,
the activity of detective work – in which the
work presents itself under the guise of
scholarship about itself – constitutes, I think, a
kind of fool’s gold. As time has passed (and
now six and a half years have elapsed since I
completed Zorns Lemma), I have been
increasingly disappointed at a kind of insistent
failure of examination of that work to get past
its participatory and mechanical selfgenerating
quality, self-exhausting quality.2
(Which are of course attractive: there has been
some expansion of the list of goodies that can
be mined out of Zorns Lemma and so forth.)
DD: What direction would you like to see
analysis of Zorns Lemma take?
HF : Shall I say ‘deeper’? I’m not sure –
DD: Analysis has tended to dwell on the images –
HF : Well, the images contain so many to the
n-th power bits of information per frame and
so forth. And the fact that there are words
within them that can be read, let’s say, is an
aspect of those images.3 At a certain point,
your question engages with all kinds of
problems of artists explaining their own work
– and whether they should or not.
DD: I didn’t say I was going to believe you, I was
just asking for your version.
HF : Good. You leave me free to spin all sorts of
DD: Do you want to pursue that question about
Zorns Lemma?
HF : No, not too much. I just feel that there are
other dialogues which are being rehearsed in
that film that are not much touched upon by
the kind of empirical retrieval of its scheme,
about which, needless to say, I know a very
great deal. Mercifully, I’m starting to forget
some of it.
DD: But you raised that in the context of being
afraid that Magellan would just amplify,
because of the conceit . . .
HF : I just utter it as a kind of caution. I certainly
know that all these Ptolomaic and post-
Ptolomaic wheels with wheels are there [in
Magellan]; indeed, I talk about them all the
time, and exhibit them at considerable length
in the work. At the same time, I would offer
simply that they do also constitute a highly
ornate façade – or smokescreen – behind
which the meaning of the work is contained, as
it were, in camera. But, for me, the meaning of
the work is in the process of making it,
precisely what is under construction, and not
the scaffold. And the meaning of the work is
what it has always been. To put it as generally
as possible, it is an essay – in this case, a
particularly massive and inclusive one – about
what meaning is or may be, or various things it
is or may be in film (that is to say, in the
mechanical joining of images together in space
and time). An essay, if you like, on how the
notion of meaning itself is constituted. Which,
if the work is eventually clear to anyone, should
build the substance of that essay from within –
from an experience of the work – rather than
diagramming it from without.
Ian Christie: I recently read your ‘Notes on
Composing in Film’ in October, which is the
one piece of yours that seems to engage with
some of the current modes of descriptive and
analytic terminology, but actually doesn’t.4 You
say that denotation is one of the privileged
areas of connotation, which seems like a
sideswipe at various forms of semiotic analysis,
and I realise that you’ve tended to avoid
speaking about filmic signification.
HF : That’s true – I try not to. That particular
text was written for a conference about
researching composition and it turned out
that those who organised it understood the
word composition to be, of all things,
writing. There were no musicians there. I was,
of course, the only filmmaker. I don’t know
whether painters would take very happily to
the word composition anymore, because it
has come to mean things like triangles and
receding diangles and so forth – fixed stencils
to be applied to the picture plane. So it’s a
dead word for painting. I felt I was under
some constraint to be a little more specific, a
little less belle-lettristic, than I usually tend to
be. Which led to two results. One was that
things became rather severely schematised;
the other was that, having gone through
examples of four kinds of axiomatic change
derived from reading and one from misreading,
they were all drawn from literature
and music. To produce the scientific
postscript to that text with respect to film is,
of course, exactly what we are about – but
we are not, I think, very close. No, that’s not
true: we may be a little closer than we were a
while ago, to the point of being able to give
examples from film of any given category or
any operative principle that we can discern as
applying to the making of other works of art.
If we are at the incipience of a period of
precision, then we are at its very first
moments. So it would have taken me, let’s
say, ten years to write the other part of that
essay. No one knows enough to write a book
in three parts, the name of that book being
Principia Cinematica. Part One is called
‘Definitions’, Part Two is called ‘Principles of
Sequence’, Part Three is called ‘Principles of
Simultaneity’ –
IC: A rationalist approach, which identifies your
operation as an attempt at a modern mathesis
universalis – the kind of enterprise that would
have been entirely comprehensible to
Descartes, or to any of the philosophers of the
Encyclopédie period.5 That would seem to be
your working model?
HF: Right on the button. At the same time, of
course, I know very much more than they did,
because they are precisely what I know. What
interests me among all those interactive, closed
rational systems is the particular manner – the
particular point in their operation – where they
most begin to resemble the universe. And that
is the point where, after they have been in
operation for some time, they begin to
generate discrepancies, irrational values,
accumulations of error. Where the operations
begin to interfere with themselves or with each
other to such an extent that what is generated
appears not to permute but to be absolutely
smooth and continuous, becoming – if we
believe in causality – causally seamless, but at
such a level that it seems incessantly to just fail
to dis-intricate the lines of self-interference
from the system –
IC: That recalls a point you made about building
errors into Zorns Lemma; and it leads on to a
possibly irrelevant speculation about how one
builds free will into a rationalist system . . .
HF: The last person to deal with that problem
was God, by the way.
IC: There’s a point you make in the October
essay about Pound’s notion of reading and
writing being intimately connected. Doesn’t
this also connect with the current idea of
reading film as a text?
HF: It comes not only from Pound but also from
Eisenstein, who likens a film to a text, and
shots to words. He speaks of reading the shots
as though they were words, hence Zorns
Lemma’s very obvious debt to Eisenstein,
which somebody did finally remark. The film
tends, at that very frontal level, to take
Eisenstein at his word. Literally. And to act out
his suggestion, his insight, even while turning
it about, re-directing that energy back into the
enterprise of filmmaking – into practice. Pound
simply was handy at that point of
introduction, because he came right out and
said it. There are other, notable praxes that
intimately connect reading to writing, or
connect an understanding of the detailed
textural and textual history of the enterprise of
film, painting, or what have you on the one
hand, to practice on the other.
I think as we look at modernism it tends to
seem, to a great extent, as though on one
level or another most artists have done that.
The action painters, after all, were incorrigible
museum hounds; they were, in fact, a
generation of art historians. I think their
rhetoric of silence tended to camouflage – as it
was intended to – that historicisation, to
deliberately sink it to a deep layer. It’s clear,
again and again, that – how to put it – they
were not making those paintings because
those were the kinds of paintings they
personally found pleasant or interesting or
wanted to see, they were making those
paintings out of some version of what they
perceived to be historical necessity. For a
certain amount of time, that current in
painting persisted. Now, it’s not always a
simple path – this notion of perceived
necessity – but it’s one that does look into the
tradition of the art (or that part of it which is
available and known), re-evaluating it,
discerning within it what seem to be operative
principles that can be of use (or, on the other
hand, should be argued with, engaged with).
IC: One implication of Pound’s idea is that we’re
not so much reading the mind of a text’s
producer as tracing the history of the
production of that text, and what its agent, as
it were, encapsulates because of his historical
location. But the reading of Magellan that the
spectator is capable of seems to be history sub
specie aeternitatis. Not history viewed critically
or dialectically, but as if from God’s point of
view, if you follow me?
HF : I follow you, but I wonder if you’re right – I
don’t know.
DD: That’s an interesting contradiction, because
clearly the adventurousness of the Magellan
project re-foregrounds that act of making or
reading. I don’t know what sort of time-scale
you envisage devoting to the project; but can I
infer that it follows in a line from Pound’s
Cantos through Zukovsky’s A and Brakhage’s
Songs, in terms of being a work that is
conceived over such a long period of time that
it inscribes into its own making a history of its
permutation and change? Which would
undermine the idea of a perfect holistic work,
challenging its own hermeticism.
HF: Absolutely. I suppose I would like for them
both to be there, for them both to be present:
at once the hermeticism that you detect –
which is widely detectable, too – and the
simple fact that in undertaking something very
large one does not know how to do it. What
marks all projects of a certain size is the
‘learning how’ to do the thing as you go
along. Now, characteristically there are serious
problems with this. I suppose the Cantos are
something of a case in point, though there are
other cases. On the side of both the signifier
and the signified, the Cantos are heavily
dependent on what Pound happens to find
out, or run across, or get interested in at any
given time. The circumstances of his own life
constitute a kind of aleatory control voltage or
IC: I suppose it’s the scale and also the
complexity of the framework, or the
reassurance of the massiveness of the work,
that enables a structure such as the Cantos to
take on so much empirical material?
HF: Yes, Pound said that an epic was a poem
including history. He tended, rather selectively,
to shove history in wholesale. He is
furthermore supremely open to the criticism
that he merely included history without
having, as it were, a theory of history.
Finnegans Wake, after all, is also an extended
work of art in a language that includes history,
though Joyce appears not to have a theory of
history but to maintain every theory of history
that he knows equidistant from the fusion
point at which the prose is being generated.
IC: Vico stands to Finnegans Wake like
Copernicus to Magellan?
HF : Yes. There’s also obviously a psychological,
or psychoanalytic, theory of history which
stands ready at all times to inflect or deflect
not only the shape of an episode but the very
choice of words in that case. The Cantos have,
of course – well, I shouldn’t say ‘of course’ –
but they have always been a particular kind of
thorn in my side because there is, it seems to
me, a real disparity – well, the work is not
rigorous. It has a certain kind of architecture;
it’s possible, let us say, to separate it out into
massive blocks. In due course, one way or
another, Pound even manages to inform us
that there is a kind of subtext to the Cantos, as
there is to Ulysses, and that subtext is the
Divine Comedy in a general sort of way. But it
doesn’t wash too well to have spent two
Cantos on the Inferno, separated by a very
short distance in the poem from the first
incursion of Pound’s orientalism (at that point
in an almost pre-Raphaelite or Swinburnian
form); it is, without being very detailed about
it, a hell of a long way from the use Ulysses
made of the sub-text of the Odyssey, to keep
returning to those examples. The Cantos, of
course, stands in ruins, repudiated by its
author for reasons that one can only guess.6 I
suspect, in fact, that one of the reasons it was
repudiated was that Pound perceived in one
way or another that the very thing the poem
needed, since it was and is an essay about
history, was some controlling view of what
history is. Pound seems, literally, to subscribe
to the view that history is just one goddam
thing after another; that there is not, say, a
vector within it (or that the vector is relatively
simple, not multiple, and has a downward
direction), but that there is a bugbear – so to
speak – in the works, and the identity of the
bugbear changes from time to time. And at a
certain point the poem, for all its extraordinary
local inventiveness, begins to teeter.
Okay, I’d like to make something that is
simply not in pieces, one after another, in the
order that I happen to be able to make them.
Which, again, is Pound’s problem. Joyce, as he
worked on the text of Finnegans Wake, of
course, did not write it from beginning to end.
He wrote at the whole book, as it were, until
the whole book was written. That seems to be
a more useful model. On the other hand, we
seem to be spending an awfully long time on
the literary.
IC: We’re guilty of encouraging that. Where
would you like to go next?
HF: Maybe a swoop back to music, or more
particularly the theory and practice of serial
music in this century, in which stereoscopic
enterprise has developed in an exemplary
DD: I’m not sure what you mean by
HF: I was simply trying to develop a little
metaphor in passing, in which theory and
practice converged upon one another, each
inextricably informing the other. At the same
time, this is a music that has produced objects
which command a serious examination but do
not require any critical salivation in order to
sustain themselves. One can listen to and be
moved by Wozzeck long before one has the
benefit even of the score – in which, as I point
out with some relish, the various sections of
the work are developed musically with extreme
rigour.7 I have a predeliction for that work of
Schönberg, Berg and Webern, and that which
their successors have continued. We
understand a non-serial composer differently
than we would have before. I like things that
are as tense as a soap bubble, that account for
themselves completely. At the same time, I
don’t like things that give out their favours too
freely, that can be had, as it were, for a nod
and a knowing wink.
IC: Am I right in thinking that there is no
objective summary of Magellan laid out in
writing anywhere?
HF : There are various pieces on various tapes – I
don’t really know what to do about it. I’m
beginning to suspect something that I might
do about it. I have tried on various occasions –
I may or may not try this evening – to situate a
segment shown on a given occasion within
larger and larger sets of schemes and so forth.
I don’t know why I should want to do that
beyond the fact that I’m excited about it, like
someone bound to a Catherine Wheel that is
likely to turn for some years. On one occasion,
I spent two and a half hours spinning this
gossamer out into space, in order to situate
about two and a half hours of real film
somewhere within it. And everybody seemed
to find it just a puzzling as if I had said
nothing – which suited me fine. On the other
hand, on that occasion I felt as though I had
shot my wad. Now, what to do?
IC: It’s a matter of ‘local interest’, as you have
said a propos the Cantos. An expectation is
created as the scale of the whole work
becomes known. So the problem of
maintaining interest in its parts becomes
crucial; there is a real pull in an intellectual as
well as a perceptual sense, for a viewer who is
scurrying around trying to see parts within a
developing sense of the whole.
HF: At the possible cost of having to
theatricalise the production of the work, it is
exactly the pleasures and terrors of that
experience . . .
IC: . . . which you have knowingly evoked for
us all?
HF: One thing that Joyce did that has caused me
second thoughts was that he never did reveal
the name of the thing, but would draw people
out by the hour, like Molly Bloom talking
about heavy petting, as to what they thought
the title might be. If anyone got too close to it,
he would blanche and withdraw. Pound, of
course, pulled somewhat the same thing and
died, presumably with the name of his poem
in pectora, as John XXIII did.9 There are three
cardinals in the world who don’t know who
they are.
IC: Given that we are in that situation, can we
look at the local and structural aspects within a
section that is now available?
DD: For instance, by comparing Gates of Death
with Solarium Magelani?
HF: If we’re going to compare Solarium and the
Gates of Death, then I think the first thing we
notice is that they seem to behave pretty much
in the same way, except that Gates of Death
seems to be even more complicated. I think it’s
virtually impossible to retrieve or determine
what shot goes where in any of the five or six
films – or film segments – under discussion. At
the same time, it becomes clearer all the time
that there is some set of rules, some set of
operating principles, at work ever more clearly
and powerfully, hovering just beyond the point
where they can be retrieved.
DD: I was hoping to address that. After one
viewing, I was struck by the fact that the
structure of Gates of Death seems so eminently
graspable – even though I never managed to
grasp it – whereas Solarium gives me a much
greater feeling of an organicism that is harder
to assimilate, which I think pertains to all the
parts. Is there, in fact, a significant difference
in terms of the conception of the way those
films are ordered?
HF : As it happens, the rules become somewhat
more complex. That is to say, if we use serial
music as an analogy, the ways in which the
row can be modified or inflected increase in
number. What seems to change the issue is
that one of the rules in Gates of Death allows
the material to be redoubled; that is to say,
each image is seen twice. Another concerns its
more overt dispersion into strophes (or stanzas
or what have you), each of which carries a
refrain. So there’s a kind of lap dissolve in the
progress of this double group of films in which
they are at once more complexly rigorous and
rule-bound, and at the same time the quotient
of shape-markers on the surface increases,
which tends to make the formal structure of
Gates of Death look clearer than it is.
IC: The shape-marker frequently takes the form
of repetition. This is the problem of seeing the
nature of the structure, but not being able to
grasp it at the time, since a lot depends on
repetition which can only be appreciated
retrospectively. Towards the end, you see the
shape, how it’s working, by which time you
have, of course, lost –
HF : – what is shaped.
IC: It does create a curious interplay between
the realisation that comes at the end and the
recollection. Can we assume for the moment
that this is a form of filmic serialism, like serial
procedures in music after Schönberg?
HF : Let’s say it bears analogies. All the charts and
graphs that precede the editing of a film like
this are a kind of ‘lost wax’, if you understand
me.10 Actually they hang around, but I have
never exhibited them, as Sharits does.11 Let’s
just go back to a slightly different aspect of
this double group of films, one that becomes
more vehement as you pass through them, not
in the order of their making, but, let’s say,
from ‘Autumnal Equinox’ to ‘Winter Solstice’.
Or we could start with ‘Summer Solstice’ and
go to ‘Autumn’, to ‘Winter’, to ‘Spring’, and to
the ‘Red Gate’ and ‘Green Gate’. In all of
them, there is a punctuation between
individual shots; that punctuation tends, first
of all, to force the shots apart. It certainly
forces them out of immediate juxtaposition
with each other. In the case of the first three, it
is a brief flash of a colour field in one of the
Maxwellian primaries;12 in the case of the film
that I’m still calling ‘Vernal Equinox’ – although
I may have to contribute a massive footnote on
that – it’s a dotted line, the trembling dotted
line that outlines the frame.
In the Gates of Death, the punctuation –
the diaeresis, if you like – is even longer and
even more vehement: a superimposed pattern
of moving hexagons. The moment between
the ending of one film strip of photographic or
illusionist material and the beginning of the
next one is marked by a very abrupt return of
the pictorial space to frontality. It’s a flat field
of red or blue or green, or an interference of
two patterns of geometric figures, the flatness
of which tends to make even more pointed –
even more disjunctive – at the moment when
one shot encounters another shot. In fact, they
don’t encounter each other; that is to say,
there’s no direct collisional montage anywhere
in any of these films. This, it seems to me,
begins to place them in dialogue with the very
notion of collisional montage itself, which at a
certain point, as we know, degenerated – or
was degraded – into a set of rules about
something called ‘continuity’.
IC: One way leads to the disguised montage of
continuity, the other way to the theory of
enhanced emphasis, dramatic intensification.
HF : Very well. What I’m doing, in a way, is just
describing these.
IC: But are you not also implying a move – a
change of compositional principle – from the
neo-Eisensteinianism of Zorns Lemma, to
something which actually abandons the
principle of montage?
DD: Not so much abandoning it as opening up a
space between it and . . .
IC: What’s montage if you open up the spaces?
HF: You see, one of the pleasures of the pursuit
of the design is to find out whether all of the
large design is going to behave like this. Quite
simply, the answer is: no, it is not. What is
always at issue in this particular group of films
– or this particular bunch of pieces – to which
I have now put an end, is what I take to be an
opening up of the pathway to meaning from
one shot to the next shot. If you can imagine
all the shots – all the film pieces – that make
up a film as a grid or chess board, then on
that chess board there is for the knight, let us
say, a particular tour: there is a way to see all
of the shots in that as at least united by a rule;
there is a way to visit all the squares that is
united by the manner in which a knight can
move. In fact, there are a very large number of
knight’s tours; so there are presumably a very
large number of pathways through a body of
illusionist material. We have tended toward
the view that there is some one pathway
through that material, understood to be the
most meaningful, the one that the artist
chooses. First, I’d like to call into question the
concept that seems to lie behind the phrase
‘most meaningful’; and second, of course, I’d
like to call into question the notion of choice –
the artist’s choice – in that situation. I think
these films do so by holding open, at all times,
the pathway through the set of all shots that
compose the film. That is to say, the nature of
the tour itself – or the manner in which one
constructs meaning (inventing it as the
spectator in the midst of witnessing the work)
– is under construction again.
IC: The spectator is certainly under construction,
or his perceptual processes are. The producer
of the text, or of the set, is presumably also
under construction by the text?
HF : That’s right. But I think, at least for the
time being, that in these parts of the overall
work, Solarium and the Gates of Death, I’ve
carried this way of expanding the field of
choices for a pathway about as far as I can.
Now, to get back to your ‘eye of God’ trope.
If there is announced or believed to be a
grand design, which seems to be the case for
this film, this is in anticipation of a kind of
hindsight, you understand. That eye is
something that changes its colours and its
configuration. I winced internally when you
said that, because there is a two dimensional
map or diagram of the whole thing which,
when seen from a distance with all its
construction on a hexagonal lattice and with
various kinds of coding marks (colours,
numbers and so forth), when seen from that
distance reduces it to a kind of pantheist
mush. That notation, or map, is a very large
rendering of the human eye. But at the local
level – and of course one sees the film locally
in time, and then invents the real, fictive
structure of the film with whatever
equipment and tools one has – one invents,
as it were, the actual concrete intellectual
space within which the film transpires. That
process is one of continuous dialogue, a
constant re-opening of as many questions as I
can cram into it, so to speak. And it is
precisely at the level of the self-interference of
operations, at the level of disjunction
between the signifying apparatus and what it
is perforce linked to, that that dialogue takes
place. I wonder if that was a complete
sentence? It may have been.
1 What Frampton knew as Fred Ott’s Sneeze is now
more formally catalogued as Edison Kinetoscope
Record of a Sneeze, and appears to hve been made
as a series of stills primarily intended for publication
in Harper’s Weekly in January 1894, to illustrate
Edison’s moving-picture achievements, and only
later printed as a ‘film’. See Charles Musser, Edison
Motion Pictures, 1890–1900, Smithsonian
Institution Press/Le Giornate del Cinema Muto,
1997: 87–88.
2 Zorns Lemma was first shown in 1970, and at 60
mins. was Frampton’s longest film to date. Almost
immediately, it attracted wide attention, mostly
influenced by P. Adams Sitney’s presentation of it as
typifying the ‘structural’ turn in avant-garde film
(Sitney, ‘Structural Film’, Film Culture: An
Anthology, ed. P. A. Sitney, Secker and Warburg,
1970). Much subsequent criticism took this as its
starting point, to Frampton’s despair. For a
discussion of the critical legacy, see Virginie
Guichard, An ABC of Film: Hollis Frampton and the
Cultural Tradition of Film, Unpublished Ph.D
dissertation, University of London, 2003.
3 All the initial images of Zorns Lemma’s central
section are of words or letters in alphabetical order,
many appearing as public signs, which are then
substituted with word-free images to form an
alternative alphabet.
4 ‘Notes on Composing in Film’ appeared in the first
issue of October, Spring 1976; and had originally
been given at a Conference on Research and
Composition at SUNY Buffalo in October 1975.
5 In his early Rules for the Direction of the Mind
(1628), Descartes spoke of a ‘universal
mathematics’ [mathesis universalis] to deal with all
matters causing ‘problems about order and
measurement’ (Philosophical Works of Descartes,
trans. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, Cambridge,
1970: 13). The Encyclopédie (1751–78), edited by
Diderot and D’Alembert, aimed to provide a
Episodes from a Lost History of Movie Serialism: An interview with Hollis Frampton •
Film Studies • Issue 4 • Summer 2004 • 117
chap 7 10/6/04 12:12 pm Page 117
comprehensive, materialist account of the world
and human knowledge.
6 From 1961 until his death in 1972, Pound made
various despairing or dismissive remarks about the
Cantos – ‘I have lots of fragments. I can’t make
much sense of them’ (to Michael Alexander). ‘It’s a
botch. I knew too little about so many things . . . I
picked out this and that thing that interested me
and jumbled them into a bag’ (to Daniel Crory).
7 Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck was completed in
1922, following the serial method of Berg’s teacher
Arnold Schönberg, in which permutations of a basic
‘tone row’ determine all aspects of the work’s
musical structure.
8 From 1978 onwards, Frampton outlined and spoke
about the structure envisaged for Magellan with
increasing frequency. For a discussion of these
accounts, see Brian Henderson, ‘Propositions for the
Exploration of Frampton’s Magellan’, October 32,
Spring 1985: 129–50.
9 Pope John XXIII died in 1963 during the Second
Vatican Council which he had summoned, with
many of his reforms of the Catholic Church
unfinished – and later to be reversed by his
10 The ‘lost wax’ or cire perdue technique is used for
casting bronze sculpture. A model in wax is placed
within a clay and plaster casing, then heated until
the wax runs out, and is replaced by molten bronze
poured into the resultant mould.
11 Paul Sharits, another participant in the Edinburgh
Avant-Garde Forum of 1976, had been exhibiting
portions of film strip from some of his of his solidframe
‘flicker’ films, such as Ray Gun Virus.
12 The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell
(1831–79) laid the foundations of electrical and
optical theory, identifying the primary colours, red,
green and blue.
• Episodes from a Lost History of Movie Serialism: An interview with Hollis Frampton
118 • Film Studies • Issue 4 • Summer 2004
chap 7 10/6/04 12:12 pm Page 118

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