HF_criticalmass

By Chuck Stephens

I

Hollis Frampton is speaking: “Whatever is inevitable, however arbitrary its origins, acquires through custom something like gravitational mass, and gathers about itself a resonant nimbus of metaphoric energy.”

II

Anatomy of a break-up: shit flies apart.

Experimental filmmaking titan Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass—a lock-groove valentine from a young lovers’ meltdown-already-in-progress—was filmed on two one-hundred-foot rolls of black-and-white 16mm stock during February of 1971, on the same SUNY Binghamton campus where Ernie Gehr had photographed his stroboscopic still life Serene Velocity the year before. One of the group of Frampton’s films known collectively as Hapax Legomena—a Greek phrase which the filmmaker parsed alternately as “unique words” (i.e., words unique in an author’s corpus), and as “things said once”—Critical Mass is either a boho melodrama or a structuralist jape (and, depending on your temperament, probably a good deal more). One thing is certain: very little in this angry, funny film occurs only once.

The set-up is simple: “He” (sullen film student Frank Albetta) has just returned, unrepentant, to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend after an unexplained absence of two days. “She” (volatile, voluble classmate Barbara DeBenedetto) has been waiting for him all that time and is now, to put it mildly, extremely fucking pissed. The film’s melodrama—an emotion-choked, method-actor-y gander at a few highly charged moments of a couple’s ongoing relationship crisis—is also its sitcom: a kind of polyglot culture comedy about today’s crazy kids, too young to have been at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, too skuzzy for an episode of All in the Family, but absolutely ready for rock-and-roll grad school and anything else that leads to the Ramones. But it’s not so much what Critical Mass is about as how it’s about. With Steve Reich’s 1966 tape-loop rondo “Come Out” as a structural touchstone, the movie’s a diachronic, minimalist remix in which every cadence of hot-headed accusation, every callow swerve into misdirection seems iterated only to be reiterated—an eternally unfolding and infernally unending falling-out, in which every fragment of dialogue is spluttered once, shouted twice, then stuttered into thrice by Frampton’s three-steps-forward-one-step-back, elusively algorithmic dice-and-splice.

“Frampton eventually made three copies of both the sound and picture he had recorded,” explains film and media scholar Ken Eisenstein, “and by cutting them repetitively, he pulsed the material, expanding, ‘in the sense of Styrofoam, the bubbled-up time in the thing.’” And when Frampton later described Critical Mass as “a film about accounting for your time,” he was being typically wry, and typically multiple: there are all kinds of time bubbled-up in the thing. The argument itself lasts (let’s say) ten minutes, the entirety of which was tape-recorded, but because only six minutes of film footage of the argument was exposed, the film begins, ends, and alternately eclipses into flat black or bleaches into white for lengthy sections of its just over 25 minutes, even as the argument on the soundtrack rages and re-rages on. Swallows and sighs and howling silences loop and skip; when the images finally return, time’s begun to slide and the sync has slipped. Flustered hands, sullen wall, darkness is coming. Bubbled-up time, and time again.

Then there are bubbles that burst. While photographing Critical Mass (“noun, Physics: the minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction”) in February, Frampton was unaware of the extent to which his own marriage was in the late stages of atomization. His wife finally left him in June; the filmmaker finally began editing his footage in October: “As I began to cut the footage, I began to understand why I had made it in the first place.” Here comes the sitcom again. “It wasn’t comic, particularly, in the making,” Frampton recalled of the circumstances and structural advances of the film, “[but] I extrapolate from that a general law of comedy that wasn’t a bit funny at the time.”

III

Hollis Frampton is speaking: “It is at first out of sync, for instance, in one extended passage, by one repetition of the word ‘bullshit.’ And it is then later out of sync by two repetitions of the word ‘bullshit.’ The iterations of that word being hers.”

Men.

Tagged with →  

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →

  • Exploded View: Steina & Woody Vasulka

    Icelandic filmmaker Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir’s extraordinarily warming 2019 documentary The Vasulka Effect, about the protean Euro-hippies and rightfully dubbed “grandparents of video art,” Steina and Woody Vasulka, was exactly the movie I needed to see this winter. Awash in Nordic echoes even as it confronts the modern realities of art-gallery politics and the history of America’s visual-arts fringes, it’s a mythical origin story that’s actually true, all about ancient heroes and ravaging time. More →

  • Canadiana | Reading Aids: The Good Woman of Sichuan and Ste. Anne

    When navigating the as-yet-unknown films of a festival program, nationality still provides a persuasive point of reference for some, a feeling underlined by the proud declarations issued by national funding organizations, promotional bodies, or particularly partisan members of the press once titles have been announced. This year’s reduced Berlinale Forum lineup also invites tenuous lines of this kind to be drawn (two films from Argentina, two films from Canada!), although the three Franco-German co-productions shot elsewhere say far more about how films are made in 2021. More →