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The Guy Who Took the Stroll Through New York in ’68

Over the last 24 hours, the blogosphere has taken a delightful stroll from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, circa 1968, thanks to an excerpt from Hollis Frampton’s 10-minute short film Surface Tension posted on the New York Times blog yesterday.

As the post points out, time-lapse movies like this were decidedly avant-garde in 1968 (inexplicable German narration, for example)—but thanks to the pause button, we can now experience the film from a historical angle as well, which, given the speed of the recording, was clearly not Hollis Frampton’s intention. Which got us thinking...

Who was Hollis Frampton and what was his intention?

The Wikipedia answer: “Hollis Frampton was an American avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician and pioneer of digital art.”

Yes, and with a generous helping of Holden Caulfield. A middle-class kid from Ohio, Frampton (no relation) was given a full scholarship to Phillips Andover Academy, where he was nicknamed “The Young Genius.” Coursework didn’t challenge Frampton, though, and he went so far as to bet a couple classmates that he could ace his American history final having neither opened the textbook nor attended one class. Turns out he couldn’t—he failed the course and, as a result, forfeited a National Scholarship to Harvard University. Paying (and not paying) for an education, if you will.

We needed to know more about this guy. And thanks to an eerie 1970s talk show broadcast on a local Boston ABC affiliate called The Screening Room with Robert Gardner, we now do. In particular, his monthly visits at age 19 with a somewhat-confused Ezra Pound, locked in an insane asylum after World War II.

We’re confident that, like the video above, what follows is a stroll worth taking. We’ve transcribed the interview and added links and references points for context.

GARDNER: Greetings, I’m Robert Gardner, bringing you another in series number three of Screening Room programs. We’re about midway through the season, and without wanting to sound pretentious, I think we’re going to be exhibiting at least two different kinds of courage tonight. One is the station [ABC-Boston] taking the material of a man named Hollis Frampton, who is on my left, to show you, and another kind, his own courage, which is the courage of a very independent filmmaker indeed, who is out on a leading edge—kind of frontier of filmmaking.

Now, Hollis, we know each other well enough to know that I’m a very different kind of filmmaker than you, and I think it’s going to make an interesting time. You were born in 1936. Somewhere around here, weren’t you?

FRAMPTON: No, I was programmed somewhere around here. I was generated in Ohio. I’ve always liked to believe it took place in the back seat of a 1932 Nash, one warm night. I went to secondary school in New England.

GARDNER: With some people who became filmmakers, is that right? It seems to me that I have that stuck away in my field notes somewhere that a Lez Blank was...

FRAMPTON: Lez Blank was indeed a classmate. I didn’t know him at all well.

GARDNER: But he got the same kind of programming at least...

FRAMPTON: Mhmm. The same kind of programming, within limits. There was a strange bunch of people there at that time there, however. Frank Stella was a classmate. Quite by chance, the sculptor Carl Andre was my roomie my first year in school.

GARDNER: Sounds like a fairly rich mixture of students at whatever school this was.

FRAMPTON: Whatever school it was, was Andover. I think, at that time at least, the bunch of us were too much the “Latin Quarter” type to really sit comfortably there. Now I think things have changed.

GARDNER: I imagine, though, you couldn’t escape a reasonably good education there.

FRAMPTON: [sighs] It was absolutely inescapable.

GARDNER: It seems your life has had high points every 10 years: you were born in 1936, I’m not sure what happened in 1946, but something happened in 1956...

FRAMPTON: In fact, something did happen in 1946—I began to acquire a fantasy life, but we won’t go into that. Later, maybe.

GARDNER: Okay, later.

FRAMPTON: But in the late ’50s, or the middle ’50s, as I was 19 and 20 years old, I imagined, I think a lot of young people did at that time who were in college or just getting out and had kind of a diffuse interest in the arts, imagined themselves to be poets, it was a good thing to be at that time. A few years later, it was a good thing to imagine oneself to be a painter. And now I think everyone wants to be a filmmaker.

But at that time, I imaged myself to be a poet and indeed I may have even written a couple bad poems in support of that posture. At the same time, there were kind of a few venerable remnants on the great generation of 1880s around. James Joyce, of course, had been dead for some time. Someone like [T.S.] Eliot was living in some vast emporium off in London. But [Ezra] Pound, albeit extremely ambiguously, was not only alive, but living in the United States.

GARDNER: In an insane asylum.

FRAMPTON: In St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, that’s right. And he was, of course, still surrounded at the time with the controversies of the political straits that had put him there after the first World War. In any case, I had my own little college radio program, on which I read poetry and so forth, and had come to a kind of problem about whether Pound’s Cantos really could be read on the radio at all. And somewhere along the line, I reflected that Pound himself was in position to know a great deal about the radio.

GARDNER: Having worked on it in Italy?

FRAMPTON: Yes. Most of it a rather sad experience. And he of course had a reputation for kind of generosity, and for a fluidity and volume of correspondence that stretched back over decades. And so for some reason it seemed natural to write the man a letter. And ask him what he thought.

Lo and behold, he answered, and I had never intended to go beard Ezra Pound, in his den, but the correspondence ripened, and it was about time I moved to Washington, for a period of about a year and a half, that for me ended shortly before Pound’s release was assured, and he went back to Italy. It was for him a particularly interesting time because he was, as I first began to correspond with him, finishing a large block of Cantos called “Section Rock Drill.”

There were a number of other visitors there, who were interested in the work. And Pound undertook, for the benefit of several of them and for me specifically, an extraordinary thing: that was that he read aloud, the entirety of The Cantos and annotated them as he went.

GARDNER: My god. Were you there in capacity of listener only or were you able to do any documentation of his performances?

FRAMPTON: Oh, no, there was—it couldn’t be documented. In any case, I was not at that time even a still photographer.

GARDNER: What was it that you learned the most from your experience with Pound?

FRAMPTON: That I was not a poet.