Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia—The Question of Temporality

Share Button

Nostalgia experimental film by Hollis FramptonHollis Frampton’s Nostalgia, officially stylized as (nostalgia) (both are used interchangeably here), is a playful examination of sound and vision, past and future, memory and temporality, perception and imagination. The movie consists of static shots of photographs burning on a stove with a voice-over narration explaining the photographs. The artistic “tension” of the movie is between the inconsistency of the images and the sound—the voice-over is one photograph ahead of the image on screen.

Thus, Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) creates a distorted temporality of inconsistency between sound and vision, past and present. Nevertheless, the timing difference between sound and vision remains consistent throughout the film, i.e. the sound always remains exactly one photograph ahead of the image, and the voice-over pauses overlap with the images of the burned photograph. This consistency creates a false sense of rhythm and precision, a dynamic feeling that may hide the discrepancies between sound and image at first. For Hollis Frampton Nostalgia “is mostly about words and the kind of relationship words can have to images. I began probably as a kind of non-poet, as a kid, and my first interest in images probably had something to do with what clouds of words could rise out of them… I think there is kind of a shift between what is now memory and what was once conjecture and prophecy and so forth.”

The structure of the movie remains consistent and is typical of Hollis Frampton’s movies such as Zorns Lemma and Poetic Justice. In Nostalgia, however, the structure is even more minimalist and development in the patterns is largely absent.

The camera work is also minimalistic and draws the attention to the photographs and the narration, instead of making itself obvious (a notable difference from Michael Snow’s Wavelength, for example, where the camera’s movement is one of the main points  of the film). A single static shot composition remains all throughout the film, while only the photographs in the frame change.

“Is it all right,” asks the voice-over (by fellow filmmaker Michael Snow) in the beginning of (nostalgia), as he is blowing in the microphone to check the sound. “Does it sound all right?” The question is a subtle self-reference to the nature of the film, where the sound-vision relationship is intentionally distorted.

In a similar fashion, at the end of the film, the voice-over refers to the visual senses as he is inviting the audience to observe a photograph (which, because of the sound-image distortion does not appear on screen): “Here it is. Look at it. Do you see what I see?”

Thus, sound and vision provide a sort of thematic framework for Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia. A second opposition in Nostalgia is between the stillness of the photographs and the moving temporality of the film itself.

The photographs create a second dimension of past in the film. The photographs themselves refer to an event that has already happened, while the photographs as they appear on screen in the movie (nostalgia) are in the past as opposed to the voice-over; the feeling of temporality is enhanced, particularly the reference to past events—the name “(nostalgia)” is therefore suitable.

In his work “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,” Roland Barthes emphasized the history of photographs. Analyzing photographs of his dead mother, the author says:

With regard to many of these photographs, it was History which separated me from them. Is History not simply the time when we were not born? I could read my nonexistence in the clothes of my mother had worn before I can remember her. There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently. […] This is the only time I have seen her like this, caught in a History (of tastes, fashions, fabrics): my attention is distracted from her by accessories which have perished; for clothing is perishable, it makes a second grave for the loved being. […] Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it—and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history.

Barthes’ photographs refer to a time he was not present at, but nevertheless they share the feeling of past with the photographs from Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia.

Both sound and vision in the film possess different temporality, yet neither refers to an “ultimate” present moment. Sound and vision are “incorrect” in their timing in terms of their relation to each other, but both refer to a time already gone. The feeling of temporality is ambivalent, therefore neither the sound is correctly in the future, nor the image is in the past. The two components stretch time to the point of complete loss of origin. However, the somewhat overriding effect of the human vision as the supreme sense, especially in the case of the McGurk effect, can cause the audience to think of the image of (nostalgia) as the more immediate and original part of the movie, and thus to think of the sound being “off.” Such a statement would be inaccurate, as both sound and vision are displaced.

Nostalgia film by Hollis FramptonThe burning of the photographs presents an important element of the historicity of the images. Just like the photographs themselves are still, dead in a way, because they represent a moment already gone, the image of their burning suggests their removal from the presence. Therefore, the sense of displaced temporality is further augmented: as the audience listens about an image they are yet to see, in the “present,” in the “time zone” of the sound part of (nostalgia) this image is already in the process of being destroyed.

The voice-over in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia repeatedly refers to past and history, often in a humorous way that is only enhanced by the seriousn and even tone of the narrator.

I made this photograph in March 11th 1959. The face is my own, or rather, it was my own. As you see, I was thoroughly pleased with myself at that time, presumably for having survived to such ripeness and wisdom since it was my 23rd birthday. […] This photograph was made in the studio where I worked. It belonged to the wife of a friend. I dare say they are still married, but he has not been my friend for nearly ten years. We became estranged on the account of an obscure mutual embarrassment that involved a third party and three dozen eggs. I take some comfort in realizing that my entire physical body has been replaced more than once since it made this portrait of its face.

The emphasis on “this” is somewhat ironic, as it refers to a photograph that is different from the one seen on screen. The use of the deictic word is referential and points to a realm of spatiality and physical presence outside of itself. This playful linguistic approach is also explored in Michael Snow’s So Is This. The voice-over in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia repeats both “this photograph” and “as you can see” over and over again—an ironic call to the sound-vision asynchrony.

The narrator specifies the face “was” his own rather than “is,” thus recognizing it as past. In a similar way, the friend is no longer a friend and the physical body has changed—the change and flux of the events is opposed to the stillness and perpetual present of the photograph.

The hint about the “mutual embarrassment” establishes a new realm in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia—imagination. As the sound works as a form of anticipation of the events to come, the audience inevitably starts imagining the upcoming photograph. To enhance the imagination, the  voice-over is often intentionally detailed in his analysis of the picture, particularly in the humorous case of the photograph of the two toilets: “On the left is Saint Marry Magdalene. […] The roll of toilet paper stands for the skull of Adam, whose sin is conventionally washed away by the blood the crucified savior sheds.”

Hollis Frampton Nostalgia experimental film.In a different account, the narrator observes:

A year after that, I happened to compare the prints I made from the six negatives. I was astonished. In the midst of my concern for the flaws of my method, the window itself has changed from season to season, far more than my photographs had. I had thought my subject changeless and my own sensibility pliable. But I was wrong about that.

The contrast between the evident present of the photographs and the irrevocable past of the moment captured is once again emphasized. What kind of reality do the photographs reflect if their subject has since changed? Are they indeed a form of perpetual present or a dead history?

The realm of imagination is summoned in the end of Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia again. As the narrator tells the story of the most horrifying and probably most significant photograph (as it is the one that convinced him to abandon photography), the movie ends before the audience can see the picture. Here, the feeling of temporality is stretched beyond the realm of here-and-now, of sound and vision, and is now in the spectrum of the imaginable.

Here it is. Look at it. Do you see what I see?