Minding My Peas and Carrots: On Hollis Frampton and Food Videos
In his essay about the history of experimental music, found in his classic book Silence, John Cage states, “Now that things are simple, there’s so much to do.”
In the wake of Cage’s observations about the challenges presented in experimental music, the structural film movement, categorized under the broader “avant-garde cinema,” also sought to do a lot with seemingly little. Fixed shots, seemingly basic visual compositions, and rejection of narratives present a challenging puzzle and endless interpretations for a viewer.
Filmmaker Hollis Frampton, whose work is available on the Criterion Collection and streaming services like Filmstruck, has a body of work that often gets lumped into “structural filmmaking.” Though he hated the label, his films jump right off of Cage’s conceit about simplicity. Frampton’s work spans day-in-the-life documentaries (1968’s “Surface Tension”) to mathematically arranged edits (1970’s “Zorns Lemma”), but his food videos are my personal favorite example of making a lot out of something simple.
“Lemon,” his 1969 short, is a seven-minute video composed of a single shot of a lemon. The framing remains static while the lighting changes throughout, casting harsh highlights and sexy shadows, and the lemon in turn often looks appalling but more often, good enough to eat.
And that’s it. For seven minutes. Big deal, right?
While I could cast off “Lemon” as “something a kindergartener could do,” for me, his food videos bring up a far less bitter response.
As someone whose profession is making food videos (many of them in the sped-up, “hands and pans” fashion saturating the Internet), Frampton’s work is liberating to watch. The short early films peel away the flashiness, the narrative, and predetermined steps, presenting food in a way I find so refreshing (if at times alarming).
Depending on how the light touches it, Frampton’s shot of a lemon transforms from a three-dimensional object to a flat image, devoid of any depth (and not nearly as appetizing).
There are no fast editing cuts. There is no cheery guitar music. There is no finished dish. Instead of presenting a structure of “here’s what to add next,” “Lemon” strikes as a film about how to film things, and its simple presentation allows me to fully appreciate that.
It’s learning how to paint a still life. But Frampton doesn’t stop playing with his food there.
In his 1969 film “Carrots and Peas,” Frampton addresses noise and silence in a five-minute short composed of chopped-up clips of lurid peas and carrots and a soundtrack of gibberish. The vegetables look like they came from the freezer, and any chance of understanding what the voices are saying is hopeless. The carrots march through the frame in stop motion — much like in an Internet recipe video. The carrots and peas look more like wallpaper than ingredients, the voices sound like the din of a dining room, and the film whets the appetite about as much as looking at a TV dinner does.
Frampton flattens food further in the 1974 “Autumnal Equinox,” a 27-minute video featuring graphic close-ups on slaughterhouse work. Surviving a viewing has impact: The last thing in the world you want to do is eat a steak.
But while these ugly food films aren’t screaming “it’s dinnertime,” I’m seeing this presentation of ingredients as they are, a simple portrayal that’s paradoxically beautiful and ugly, and boring and action-packed at the same time.
Michael Snow, a structural filmmaker often considered a contemporary of Frampton’s, is probably best known for his 1967 work “Wavelength,” a 45-minute zoom of a room. There is sound and “action,” but this work is ripe for ridicule as John Cage’s four-minutes-and-33-seconds “symphony” of silence. In place of fussing with the details of edits and a conventional narrative, this film finds its own intricate details.
In writing about “Wavelength,” critic Kim Newman praised it for its dealings “with physical space and the intrusions of the tiniest elements of human narrative.”
Frampton, who actually makes an appearance in the film (and falls dead on screen), doesn’t give credence to any semblance of plot. His presence is an intrusion. And in a slew of overly complicated recipe videos, his food shorts are a welcome intrusion.
In his 1968 lecture at Hunter College, Frampton made a presentation that offers an even clearer summation of his filmmaking. During the lecture, he manipulated a projector’s white rectangle with color slides and his hands — all with the voice of Michael Snow narrating his lecture notes and intruding the viewed space. There’s a lot that Frampton suggests during the presentation, but the most interesting suggestion is one he gives after manipulating the viewer’s observations.
“ There is still time for us to watch our rectangle awhile. Perhaps its sheer presence has as much to tell us as any particular thing we might find inside it.”
Suddenly, there’s a lot you can make with a single lemon.