Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice (1972) is a provocative self-reference to the medium of film, word–image relationship, representation, and imagination. The film consists of the chronological filming of a screenplay —a series of individual static shots with a single camera framing.
The “cinematography,” if it can be called such, is minimalist and intentionally detached from the film, reminiscent of the cinematography in Frampton’s (nostalgia).
The structure of Poetic Justice, however, is more versatile and closer to Zorns Lemma. The patterns in Poetic Justice are repetitive and predictable, but evolve throughout the course of the movie and involve different sections.
Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice cleverly and humorously calls attention to the nature of film itself and its vanity. Essentially, Poetic Justice is a film about what “film” really is. By choosing to depict a “movie” through its screenplay, Hollis Frampton raises the question of representation and the word–image relationship—a topic also extensively explored in Zorns Lemma.
Annette Michelson discusses the limitation images impose on imagination because of their completeness. The author cites Roland Barthes:
Barthes, too, complained of the fullness of the image, of the constraints of representation which force one to perceive everything as presented. ‘In writing, on the contrary, I don’t have to see what the hero’s fingernails are like, but the Text tells me, if it so wishes—and with what force!’
Thus, by choosing to present the film through its text rather than through its images, Hollis Frampton examines the elusive connection between words and images, rather than imposing images on the audience. The representative nature of the images, particularly photographs, are a recurring theme throughout the film.
Poetic Justice is a film investigation of the nature of film, and subtle self-references highlight this approach. The frame of the movie has at its focus the sheets of a screenplay set on a table, to the left of which is a potted cactus, and to the right a coffee cup.
Very early in Poetic Justice, the words in the script refer to the cactus and the cup next, and more importantly, outside of the script . Thus, the anteriority of the space outside of the script becomes entwined with the interiority of the script. This is just one level of self-reference in Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice. But the script describes a close-up shot of “A small table below a window. A potted cactus, a coffee cup.” Therefore, the shot depicting the cactus, the table, and the coffee could be the scene the script is referring to. This is a second level of self-reference as in this case the script refers to the movie Poetic Justice.
The “plot” of the film is disjoined and largely non-sense, but in an indulgent and obvious way that calls attention to the very absurdity of the “plot.” It consists of four parts, called tableau in the script. The script repeats over and over the words “photograph,” “camera,” and “hand” all throughout the movie. “Hand” remains an unclear reference until the very end of Poetic Justice, but the repetitive non-sense mentioning of photographs and cameras is clearly touching on the self-indulgence and vanity of film. It establishes Poetic Justice as a mockery of the self-obsession of cinema, its inevitable and selfish concern with itself, and inability to depict anything else but its own physical presence.
The key to understanding Poetic Justice is a lecture Hollis Frampton held at the Hunter College in New York in 1968, four years before he made Poetic Justice. In it the director emphasizes the technical, physical, and purely material nature of film:
It seems that a film is anything that may be put in a projector that will modulate the emerging beam of light. […]Film is a narrow transparent ribbon of any length you please, uniformly perforated with small holes along its edges so that it may be handily transported by sprocket wheels. At one time, it was sensitive to light. […]A film is a ribbon of physical material, wound up in a roll: a row of small unmoving pictures.
For Hollis Frampton, film cannot transcend its own physical presence. In the lecture, the director shows a series of short “films” that consist of different images—among them a red-colored screen and images of the American actress Lana Turner.
In some of our frames we found, as we thought, Lana Turner. Of course, she was but a fleeting shadow—but we had hold of something. She was what the film was about. Perhaps we can agree that the film was about her because she appeared oftener than anything else.
Certainly a film must be about whatever appears most often in it. Suppose Lana Turner is not always on the screen. Suppose further that we take an instrument and scratch the ribbon of film along its whole length. Then the scratch is more often visible than Miss Turner, and the film is about the scratch.
Now suppose that we project all films. What are they about, in their great numbers? At one time and another, we shall have seen, as we think, very many things. But only one thing has always been in the projector. Film. That is what we have seen. Then that is what all films are about.
This discussion captures the essence of Poetic Justice—a film about the inevitable presence of film within the film substance, caused by the film’s physicality. It creates therefore a complex pattern of self-reference. For Hollis Frampton Poetic Justice seems like the artistic expression of his lecture.
Part two (Second Tableau) of Poetic Justice significantly exaggerates the reference to photographs and cameras. The basic pattern repeated throughout this section is: a scene, such as “a house exterior with open exterior,” followed by “My hand holding a still photograph of the same scene,” followed by an action, such as “You are opening a door.” The pattern continues throughout the entire section, thus obviously drawing attention to the nature of photographs.
In Poetic Justice Hollis Frampton overuses the use of the word “photograph” because of its still, unmoving nature—a topic also explored in (nostalgia). The completely motionless camera in the movie, as well as the lack of any change of camera angles or other cinematic differences create the feeling to the movie of a series of photographs. The script, because of its textual nature, does not really distinguish between stillness and movement—one of the essential distinctions in cinema. Therefore, both the event/action and the still photograph of “the same scene” are depicted through the same linguistic signifiers.
Part three of Poetic Justice is the most ironic and self-indulgent. It is a parody of conventional romantic movies, as well as a humorous challenge for the imagination of the audience. The pattern here: “Bedroom. Love making. Outside the window is” followed by an intentionally random action/event happening outside, such as “an inverted enamel saucepan.”
The love-making scenes continue all throughout part three and their chance for romance is abolished by the absurdity of the events outside the window. The intentionally non-sequitur images are, as it seems, conjured in a stream-of-consciousness mode. They disrupt the sexual images and challenge the audience’s imagination and ability to picture the events.
The window may be a significant symbol, as it represents a different dimension, a sort of camera capturing “photographs” of its own.
Part four of Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice is increasingly self-referential. The pronouns “you” and “me” get increasingly confusing. The three “characters” of Poetic Justice are “me,” “you,” and “your lover.” In part four, the “climax” of the script, “me,” (often “myself”) has a lot more screening time that the previous sections. Photographs are mentioned even more frequently.
The pattern in tableau four changes more palpably than the previous sections. The largest part consists of “Your lover’s hand holding a still photograph of yourself,” followed by some action/event, such as “asleep.” The next page of the script is “Your lover’s hand holding a still photograph of your lover,” followed by the same action/event from the previous page, in this case, “asleep.”
At some point “me” joins “you” and “your lover” for a picnic on the grass. One the next page, “Your lover’s hand is holding a still photograph of myself, filming you and your lover.” Self-reference becomes so complex that the “levels” cannot be traced anymore. For one, the “me” in referring to himself and including himself in the shot. Then, he is seen as exterior to “you” and “your lover” in a photograph that depicts him filming. The self-reference can no longer be clearly followed, as several levels of representation, film, script, and photograph, refer to each other in a convoluted loop. The pages also become self-aware are refer to their own physical presence by the act of filming.
In Poetic Justice Hollis Frampton uses deictic (referential) words—words that do not have a fixed meaning in the physical world, but rather change based on the context they refer to—in this case, the pronouns “me,” “myself” “you,” your,” etc. These words are ambiguous as they do not explain what they refer to. “Me” and “you” can refer to an infinite number of people. The ambiguous use of the pronouns challenges the imagination and the nature of word-image representation.
But the final shot in the film may suggest who “me” has been all throughout. As the script reads “My hand covers a still photograph of my face,” the following shot is the same page of the script covered by a white glove.
Although the meaning of the scene is intentionally ambiguous, it could suggest that the covered page stands for “a still photograph of my face,” and the while glove is “my hand.” Thus, the page can be seen as the face of the script/film, who is revealed as the “me” character. The film becomes the main character of his own film—a vain self-reference, self-awareness, and inability to transcend the ubiquitous physicality of cinema.