Experiments in Film: Surface Tension (1968)

Have you ever pondered what would occur if a theoretical physicist were to grab a camera and begin working in experimental film?  Well thanks to Hollis Frampton we now have that answer, and it is most evident in his short film Surface Tension.  A series of speedup shots and mismatching non-diagetic sounds help to question the entirety of cinematic composition in ways that are both visually captivating and jarring to the senses.  Frampton was outspoken in his believe that what artists roles were within filmmaking were confined solely to what would fit within the confines of a rectangular box that was a screen, in his time a projector specifically.  As such, his works often pushed notions of place and time in ways that would not be challenged for decades.  Furthermore, along with the help of contemporary and colleague Michael Snow, he worked to dismantle the very thought of linear narrative in a new way, particularly the issue of placing a camera in a static position and only altering its outcome in post-production.  In a sense, Surface Tension is about what you can do the a piece of film with technology, as opposed to Brakhage whose work seemed more focused on what one can do with film itself.  To Frampton, the film was irrelevant it was what the film began once project that truly mattered, because to him that is when the artist no longer had control over it, even if they placed themselves in the narrative.

Surface Tension, as the name suggests, concerns itself with the way objects move on a surface with a varying degree of “film.”  Scientifically speaking, the greater the amount of film the more difficult it is for an object to move. In Hampton’s film this is not the case, in fact, it is how he alters the film that allows the material to move in an either slower or faster rate.  It is only the sound that seems to move at a consistent pace, but that, arguably, has nothing to do with film and exists on its own plane of experience.  Frampton even went so far as to claim that the film was about three separate notions of space, one being comedic, one scientific and a third being something in between.  With this in mind it helps explain the three segments of the film, one involving a man talking whilst standing next to a clock.  With the sound removed, we are left perplexed over the man’s discussion that is faster than normal and only have the incessant ringing of a phone as comfort.  The second section, the scientific portion of the film, follows a camera fast forwarded through the streets as incomprehensible German is dubbed over.  We are only able to pull worlds like “chocolat” from the man’s dialogue, which is juxtaposed with incredibly murky water.  The final section is of a fish in an aquarium on the beach.  The rate of the film is normal this time as we watch the ebb and flow of the tide consume the tank, but never take the fish.  Simultaneously words appear on the screen that have no coherent meaning, but appear to refer to the film as a whole in some manner.  Neither comedic nor serious, this portion of the film is clearly the hybrid of the previous portions, yet it is always affected by what Frampton has done to intervene with the film stock.  Ultimately, the film is book-ended by crashing tides, perhaps suggesting that no amount of intervention can stop surface tension, when the force is greater than the film trying to interfere.  A deeply profound commentary on the entire state of filmmaking, particularly considering it is a question film theorist haves struggled over for almost a century.  What Frampton does with Surface tension, is definitively answer that question, or at least provide a philosophical positing so grand that to overcome it would be to some extent inconceivable.

For more information about Hollis Frampton or to find information about Surface Tension, which was recently released as part of a new Criterion box set called A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, click either of the images below:

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