Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hollis & Jonas

"Item: that I do not live in New York City. Nor is it, strictly speaking, "convenient" for me to be there during the period you name. I'll be teaching in Buffalo every Thursday and Friday this coming Spring semester, so that I could hope to be at the Museum for a Saturday screening. Are you suggesting that I drive down? The distance is well over four hundred miles, and March weather upstate is uncertain. Shall I fly, at my own expense, to face an audience that I know, from personal experience, to be, at best, largely unengaging, and at worst grossly provincial and rude?"

—Hollis Frampton to Donald Richie (then of the Museum of Modern Art), January 7, 1973

The indispensible UbuWeb recently put up some fantastic Hollis Frampton material, only to seemingly have taken some of it down just as soon. I hope that in writing a few words about it I'm not violating anything. Included were a video of the Screening Room interview between Robert Gardner & Frampton (which I watched, and had long wanted a chance to watch), a PDF of his amazing writing collection Circles of Confusion (which I hear we might reasonably expect to be reprinted in the near future), and a PDF of a letter from Frampton to Richie, excerpted above & below. The question of the letter is that Richie wrote to Frampton apparently to ask for his blessing & participation in a MoMA retrospective of Frampton's film work, for which he would regrettably not be paid. The world's most erudite filmmaker (alleged) responded that absolutely anyone was free to organize a retrospective via his prints in the Filmmaker's Cooperative, and without his express consent. Frampton goes for the kill in the letter—expertly slicing into Richie more than Richie himself probably deserved (but who knows)—explaining at length the incongruity of everyone's payment but his own, and the fact that he's the one who has to travel at his own expense to reach MoMA for the retrospective should he so participate.

(A few years ago, MoMA notoriously projected Frampton's film Lemon on DV in ambient light, like it was a throwaway installation, a sign of the wince-inducing carelessness or ignorance with which a huge, prestigious museum treats some of its artwork.)

* * *

This evening I saw Jonas Mekas' Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971), which I would have counted as one of my "humiliation" films. I should have seen it years ago. (I'm not just being coy here; it screens at Anthology a few times a year and anyone living in NYC and interested in experimental cinema has no excuse to let it slip by their fingertips for seven years, as I have.) This is one of the greatest films ever—pure, unadulterated heterogeneity! Unstable images, jumpy fast editing, a dreamlike stream of steady focus upon the object. "My Mamma ... waited twenty-five years..." Or to watch footage of Peter Kubelka eating lunch, and holding out his hand at the table to let a sparrow alight on his finger—poetry! There's a difference between becoming drunk on art because the aesthete turns art into life, and using art so that its highest, noblest aesthetic goals become indistinguishable from its simplest, barest use-value: that life and art themselves become mixed, that the practice of making art is in fact a way of living well, not escaping the world by means of aesthetics but burrowing into it via same. Who could fail to be moved by the scenes of Lithuanian family meals, cooked outdoors, or Kubelka & Annette Michelson drinking water from an old stone fountain in Vienna. The images are captured with off-the-cuff straightforwardness: Reminiscences is composed in the key of everyday movements, but it generates beauty from the concordance of its images (the mostly-moving camera, the quick cuts) to its depicted activities, which themselves bear an organic grace to them: Mamma cooking potato pancakes, Kubelka taking the spine out of his fish at lunch.

Speaking of drinking—drinks, they show up a lot, beer (at least I think it's beer) as well as fresh cow's milk, imbibed on the farm with readily apparent enthusiasm. When I got back to my neighborhood I swung by a bodega on the way home and grabbed a big bottle of Ballantine's, the ale of choice for mid-century American artists. It seemed only right.

Mekas' cinema consists largely of "diary films," maybe the world's greatest home movies. Nicole Brenez wrote of one of his more recent works (As I Was Moving Ahead...) that he simply went out and shot beauty—that today nothing is more revolutionary. Definitely to find a quotidian pocket of surpassing beauty and capture some part of it, make it a beacon or a bulwark of life against the onslaught of our destructive world ... it is in a way revolutionary. Art won't ever change the world of course. Not in the way it needs changing. It may however remind us of what we are missing, what we can afford to promise ourselves but do not. It helps us through our days (prescriptively, I prefer a "companion" model of art to an "escapist" one).

* * *

The artist at the margins, or in the sticks, of some more dominant model (geographically, institutionally...) will sometimes produce amazing things not because she is a lone romantic figure but because of the regular ties of quotidian life: community. In fifty years, if the Internet survives in some form, we may all be looking at Jen MacMillan's blog and tracing the connections formed by the New York avant-garde today, the people who are not talked about as enshrined masters, but the everyday shooters & developers of beauty.

* * *

"I'll put it to you as a problem in fairness. I have made, let us say, so and so many films. That means that so and so many thousands of feet of rawstock have been expended, for which I paid the manufacturer. The processing lab was paid, by me, to develop the stuff, after it was exposed in a camera for which I paid. The lens grinders got paid. Then I edited the footage, on rewinds and a splicer for which I paid, incorporating leader and glue for which I also paid. The printing lab and track lab were paid for their materials and services. You yourself, however meagerly, are being paid for trying to persuade me to show my work, to a paying public, for "love and honor". If it comes off, the projectionist will get paid. The guard at the door will be paid. Somebody or other paid for the paper on which your letter to me was written, and for the postage to forward it.

"That means that I, in my singular person, by making this work, have already generated wealth for scores of people. Multiply that by as many other working artists as you can think of. Ask yourself whether my lab, for instance, would print my work for "love and honor", if I asked them, and they took my question seriously, I should expect to have it explained to me, ever so gently, that human beings expect compensation for their work. The reason is simply that it enables them to continue doing what they do.

"But it seems that, while all these others are to be paid for their part in a show that could not have taken place without me, nonetheless, I, the artist, am not to be paid."

—HF to DR.


Ekrem Serdar said...

Hi Zach,

I like this spot on the web. You've probably seen this or already have them in some hard copy, but just in case:


ZC said...

Wow--I know I've visited that site before but I don't think I'd seen the links there. I have Circles of Confusion but it's great for others who don't to be able to look at the essays, some of the stuff there is new to me as well. Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...


I am so touched, I feel the teardrops building here in my cubicle. :) Who knows what lives our blogs will have?

Your post reminded me that I must read Hollis Frampton asap!

What would I do without Elusive Lucidity?


Ekrem Serdar said...

For sure! It is too bad the Richie letter was removed. I do remember thinking that the Screening Room was somewhat heartbreaking just because Gardner/T.V. necessities didn't allow Frampton to digress and take forever to introduce something. Which I'd probably listen to, alas...

PWC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donal Foreman said...

Hi Zach - can you tell me where Nicole Brenez said that thing about Jonas' revolutionary focus on beauty?

ZC said...

Jen, glad you got something out of the post.

Donal, the comment was originally in Brenez's ten best list for '00 or '01, in Senses of Cinema, which has since been taken down. I have a printout. She wrote--"Jonas Mekas films happiness and beauty: nothing today could be more revolutionary."

Andy Rector said...

Beautiful post, Zach.
The Frampton letter strikes me as a small manifesto.

Great artists don't want to be seperate from the guard at the door, the paper mills and printers; non-compensation is one more way of seperating them.

Was just reading Auguste Renoir's journal (orignally intended as a 'Grammer for Young Architects'!) and in it he says: "The only reward one should offer an artist is to buy his work." The next entry is: "Delacroix never won a prize." The days of prizes, badges, grants (which often is miles away from freedom) instead of sustaining, continuing one's work. Who was ever "honorably employed" as an artist?