rep-i-tish-uh n: Musical Intonations and the “Beauteous Reveal” Through the Stripping of Human Language
“Critical Mass” (1971) | Hollis Frampton
My ears burned; I was devastated while my brain frustrated. My mind tried to derive meaning
from every single sound I was hearing. I wasn’t even sure if I could call it a cacophony– as un-inviting as the frustrated female sounded, I was aroused by the argument’s control over two, human bodies, provoking vocal “burns” to travel up and down the trachea. I tried to understand words I was being teased by, but then was being deprived of. Because the phenomenon is flawed, the viewer is paradoxically empowered. In such a creative gesture as this, Hollis Frampton reinstates what the parameters of linguistics can behold. Words, when stripped of their meaning, and digested as “foreign,” become an array of intonations which almost become a musical fetish: a language which reduces the human vocals to a reflection of the culture it is encased in; and the emotions it robs from the opposite sexes by designating areas of the musical scale for the woman and man to hazard territoriality.
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Critical mass shows a young New York couple arguing about their relationship. The film starts on the soundtrack; the screen is blank. Initially the dialogue is cut up in such a way that the couple seems to stutter as they talk (Frampton adds the stutter to such recent perceptual constructs as Warhol stares, Kubelka’s flicker and Makes’ glimpse). Lines of dialogue are cut into before they are finished, partially repeated, stopped again, repeated, until the phrase or sentence is finished and a new one begins in the same manner. A line like: I’m going to leave you, comes out: I’m goin’… going to lea…. to leave you… save you. An’…. When the image appears, we see the couple arguing, standing against a white wall. The picture is cut to reflect the stutter, repeating itself and going on, finishing one phrase and starting another. Later the stutter effect disappears and a second structural principle emerges. The sound and image go out of synchronization so that we hear the boy speaking while we see the girl’s mouth moving and vice versa. The degree of de-synchronization varies mysteriously, disconcerting us.
There are two kinds of temporal tensions in this film. In the first part, the stutter creates a future-past tension as in Nostalgia, only on a more immediate second-to-second basis. The incomplete phrases gives us a sense of what is to come. The repetition brings us backwards, then carries us forward, stops, and returns. Time does not evolve in a linear way. We are continually moved from future to past and back again, with no true sense of a present. In the second past of the film, the sound-image disjunction brings about the temporal problem. Because of our retarded awareness of the disjunction we are never quite sure whether we are listening to something that has already been spoken in the image or to something about to be spoken. We are simultaneously either listening in the present and seeing the past or listening to the past and seeing the present. ~ Bill Simon
As a work of art I think (Critical Mass) is quite universal and deals with all quarrels (those between men and women, or men and men, or women and women, or children, or war. It is war!… It is one of the most delicate and clear statements – human relationships and the difficulties of them that I have ever seen. It is very funny, and rather obviously so. It is a magic film in that you can enjoy it, with greater appreciation, each time you look at it. Most aesthetic experiences are not enjoyable on the surface. You have to look at them a number of times before you are able to fully enjoy them, but this one stands up at once, and again and again, and is amazingly clear. ~ Stan Brakhage