Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass Analysis

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Critical Mass Hollis Frampton experimental filmWhile Lemon and Poetic Justice focused on visuals, Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass employs both film sound and images and examines their relationship–an approach Frampton also used for (nostalgia). Unlike (nostalgia), however, which is entirely based on the asynchrony between hearing and vision, in Critical Mass sound provides the basic framework. Although the McGurck effect suggests vision is the dominant sense over hearing, Hollis Frampton recognized sound’s potential to be the main cinematic element (Chris Marker did the same in La Jetee and Louis Morton in Passer Passer). After all, for Michael Haneke “A film’s musicality is the decisive factor that makes it succeed or fail. […] The heart can be more easily reached via the ear than via the eye.”

Unlike most movies by Frampton, especially those deliberately anti-narrative like Carrots and Peas, Critical Mass has a story–a boy and a girl are arguing because the boy has been away for two days without calling. The story unfolds through the dialogue between the two. And here comes the Framton-esque element: everything they say or do is echoed and repeated over and over again. It is a creative metaphor which uses cinematic language to communicate its idea–like Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, which uses dissolves and superimpositions to artistically depict the disintegration of the self, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which uses cinematography and mise en scene to express detachment.

Hollis Frampton’s echoing Critical Mass is a metaphor for the emotional resonance of a heated argument: everything you say comes back to you, you cannot take it back, and each thing you say only adds to the accumulating mass. In physics, critical mass is the amount of material needed for a nuclear reaction. Metaphorically put, critical mass is what will make things blow up and grow out of control. The echoing also suggests a lack of progress and direction–the dialogue keeps bouncing off and not being able to resolve itself. As the girl Barbara says at one point in the film, “Look, this is going absolutely no place. We’re going in a circle.” 

Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass: The Visuals

The film’s visual composition is minimal–the two characters appear in front of a generic white wall without any unnecessary elements that might deflect attention from the auditory experience. Like in most Frampton movies, especially Poetic Justice, (nostalgia) and Lemon, the visual depth is minimal. Unlike Johnny Depp’s frantically moving camera in Stuff, the camera in Critical Mass is completely static.

Hollis Frampton Critical Mass

The shadows in Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass emphasize the motif of repetition and “echo.”

The lighting in Critical Mass, however, is important, as it casts the shadows of the characters on the wall–thus, their appearances are reflected and “echoed.” The color composition is a plain black-and-white palette that avoids any distractions.

Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass: The Sound

Sound is the film’s driving element combined with the complex film editing, which echoes the dialogue segments. Aside from the diegetic dialogue sound, non-diegetic mechanical sounds appears several times throughout the film and sounds like a failure in the telephone connection. The metaphoric message is clearly the faltering communication between the two characters, and the mechanical sounds make the echoing dialogue sound even funnier.

For most of Critical Mass, sound and visuals are synchronized–visuals repeat together with the sound. Occasionally, as in the beginning and the end of the movie, the screen is black–Lars von Trier used the same narrative framework  in Nymphomaniac.

But towards the end of Critical Mass, the sound stops echoing, which the visuals continue repeating for awhile. As a result, sound and visuals fall into asynchrony. As mentioned, the discrepancy between sound and visuals is the basis for Frampton’s (nostalgia), but there it examines themes of temporality and movement. In Critical Mass, it symbolizes the conflict and lack of harmony in the the relationship between the two characters.

Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass is a humorous metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. It showcases Frampton’s peculiar filmmaking style which communicates ideas through the cinematic language.