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

  • Issue 87: Table of contents

    Alexandre Koberidze, Dasha Nekrasova,Radu Jude, Amalia Ulman, Monte Hellman, TV or not TV, Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, Azor, New Order, Siberia More →

  • Remembering Women: Claudia von Alemann’s Blind Spot

    Cherchez la femme, they say. It sounds nice, but what this expression actually means is that woman is the root of all (male) problems, always to blame. Claudia von Alemann’s extraordinary Blind Spot (Die Reise nach Lyon, 1980), recently restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek in cooperation with the Institut Lumière, is a rare film that puts the pursuit of a woman at its heart—not so that she can be punished, not so that a man’s troubles can be explained, but so that her achievements might be rescued from oblivion and might, in the process, change another woman’s life. More →

  • Common Sense Connoisseur: The Critical Legacy of Bertrand Tavernier

    The two most cherished film books in the pile on my bedside table are in a language my command of which is rudimentary at best. But since both Jacques Lourcelles’ Dictionnaire du Cinéma – Les Films as well as Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s 50 ans de cinéma américain have never been translated from French into either English or German, I gladly make do, filling the gaps with a mixture of autodidactic guesswork and occasional dictionary consultation, which for all its drawbacks has proved to be a viable method. More →

  • “I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction:” On Radu Jude

    In the name of the popular, delighting in reduction and obviousness, a boring assertion: the common ground of every film movement christened a “new wave” over the last 70 years has tended toward revision, a self-conscious desire to provide a true image of the people in opposition to the distorted picture given by whatever relevant iterations of official culture. The banality of this claim can be measured by the volume of cant and platitude produced in support of it, often by the artists themselves. There is, I hope, little need to rehearse these arguments regarding realism, myth, and so on. Who today can help but squirm when faced with the phrase “true image of the people?” More →

  • Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Mexico/Greece/UK)

    Abel Ferrara is a changed man. While the evidence suggests that this is very good news for Ferrara himself and his immediate family, it could result in a minor schism in the manner in which his films are received. For most of his career Ferrara has been the subject of a Romantic cult that glorified his legendarily self-destructive behaviour, and often read this (literal) lawlessness as an integral part of his renegade creative vision. More →