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Structural Film

Updated January 14, 2022
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Structural Film essay

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During the 1960s -70s there was a surge of underground films and a formation of new experimental film genres and styles, the most important of them being structural film. Structural film was named by P. Adams Stiney, an American critic, Structural film contradicted the emphasis of shocking subject matter which was the common style used by underground filmmakers. Structural filmmakers concentrated the viewer’s attention on a nonnarrative shape or system that is prearranged within the film. The form in which such system usually unfolds gradually also inviting the viewer to participate in a process of noticing the fine details and hypothesizing on the film’s general pattern, stressing a much challenging form than common experimental films.

Structural film principles were explored in avantgarde works which emphasized stasis, minimal change and the film suggestion of modular construction. Minimalist sculptors, painters and composers also shifted their attention to bare- bone forms as well as slight changes in materials. The important sources for Structural Film were Fluxus, a loose group of American painters, performance artists and composers.

Fluxus were influenced by the Dada work of Marcel Duchamp much like the Dada movement before them the Fluxus believed that art should accessible to everyone, anyone can produce art and that there is no need to be educated in order to interpret art, amongst other things. Fluxus were also interested in John Cage’s theory of indeterminacy, John cage was an American composer with the idea that a piece can be performed considerably in various ways. Fluxus artists were dedicated to dissolve the bounds that existed between art and life by capturing the mundane, common Structural films were often known to be anti-illusionist because they focused the attention to the ways the medium transforms the object being filmed.

An exemplary structural filmmaker, writer, photographer would be Hollis Frampton. Hollis Frampton had a background in mathematics and science, he occasionally trodden into the history of painting and literature, unlike people before him Frampton opposed the idea romantic sensuality. Conforming to Frampton’s idea, to understand an artwork the viewer must recover a self-evident underlying structure or as he says, “its axiomatic substructure”. One of Frampton’s most renown works is his Film Zorns Lemma (1970) which is a mix of several forces within Structural Filmmaking.

Creating a unique pictorial alphabet with each image correlating with one letter, the demanding systematic portion of Structural Film is exemplified in his piece, presenting gradual change with the use of long takes, where just some ways of describing the complexity of Zorns Lemma. Due to its complexity the interpretations of this film varied form the rivalry between sight and sound, to children’s attainment of knowledge, amongst other interpretations.

In 1971 Hollis Frampton released into the world of cinema Nostalgia a short film that embodied a much less complex but accurate embodiment of Structural Film. The short film consists of twelve shots, in each of the shots there’s a different photograph on a hot plate slowly burning into ashes, the soundtrack that accompanies each shot is of the narrator discussing his memories of each photograph. The soundtrack doesn’t describe the current photo seen on screen but the photo that will appear next. The film overall gave a sense of nostalgia that yearned for a past that can no longer be recaptured or relived.

From the beginning of the film the sound track initiates first as it includes Frampton doing a sound check and the screen pitch black, which in a way prepares the audience’s hearing to be more alert because there could be less storytelling visually and more details in the narration. In this case that is exactly one of the concepts of the film, this film disassociates the narration from the visuals on screen, the audience is introduced to an inconsistency between the images shown and the sound track. This quality plays into the characteristic of Structural films being non-narrative meaning that in fact the narrative isn’t represented visually it doesn’t relate to the images seen with the narration because the narration is in this case disassociated from the picture. Deciding to leave in the audio of his sound check was purposeful for preparing the audience to the nature of this film.

In the short film Nostalgia there is the evident single static shot of the camera that doesn’t change throughout the film, it remains consistent while the only changes are the photographs in the frame. This contributes to the film with giving it a sense of simplicity and minimalism which also was a characteristic implemented by the minimalist sculptures, composers and painters who experimented with structural principles in earlier years. Structural film’s organizing principles vary, some centering on a single process of gradual change completely and some inviting the audience to notice differences of each moment. Nostalgia utilizes the gradual change approach that relies on the long take.

Frampton like several Structural filmmakers organized their work around a meticulous almost mathematical set of rules. Having experience in art history I would imagine that not referring to his previous knowledge wouldn’t have been adequate for Frampton, I only say this because Frampton indeed gave his work in Nostalgia incorporated the history that represented the photography. A photograph represents a memory lived, a moment in the past that can’t be relived no matter what. The sound track describes details about the next photograph that will be shown in a future moment. The photographs pull at the memories lived and the soundtrack attract the viewer to visualize the upcoming photograph injecting them with a sense of anticipation.

With the action of burning the photographs and visually representing each photograph turn into ashes, cements the idea of the memory disappearing and not dying because the memory was already lived and now it has vanished from the present. The soundtrack reminisces the details and emotions felt in each photography even of the newspaper cut-out, this is what contributes to the nostalgic tone of the film, the sense of the recalling the memory the photography it recalls and seeing it be destroyed. The idea of using photographs create a second dimension in the film which make them suitable to enhance the feeling of nostalgia.

With the distortion of what we see and what we hear, Frampton keeps the image and story separate from each other and places of interest in some ideas of memory, focusing on the total recollection of information, because there is no way to visually verify the details in the narrative of the upcoming picture. The audience can never directly check the description and they are left to choose what memory of Frampton’s photographs are real and based on their vague recollection they are left to reconstruct the story behind the photographs.

Structural Film’s intentions were that the viewers undergo the experience of the film and this is what made Sitney to infer that the structural trend fundamentally centered in human consciousness, focused on the ways in which the human mind constructs patterns and draws conclusions based on sensory information. What this means is that essentially the audience can make their own conclusions and fill out the blanks with information as they perceive it. An example of this idea that the picture was burned because he could feel the need of not needing the physical reminder of the memory, because he feels that he doesn’t need a photograph to remind him of that memory, this is a completely different idea than what is visually inferred in the short film, but it can be a valid viewer’s interpretation.

Structural films increase their complexity with repetition and indeed it’s the case with Nostalgia. Sure, there is a minimalist use of camera direction and materials, but it’s the underlying significance what’s complex as previously stated Structural Film requires meticulous planning. Each image is seen from the start in its clear and pristine form, the audience sees the entire course of the photograph, as the still image being consumed by the flames and turned into ashes, this is the repetitive sequence the short film follows through out a period of thirty-eight minutes. Structural Film as previously mentioned were the opposite of commonly underground films and in Nostalgia this idea is reinforced by Frampton because the action of something burning isn’t scandalous nor shocking on the contrary its merely an ordinary action with barely any movement at all.

Frampton’s description of the first photograph was “This was the first photograph I ever made with the intention of making art” and towards the end the phrase “I think I shall never dare to make another photograph again” is said by the narrator Michael Snow as he lends his voice for the short film script. This cyclical journey not only reflects the life, creation and destruction of the photographs the soundtrack narrates it also intersects with the film’s tone of nostalgia and Frampton’s the culmination of his career or in other words the death of his career. Each of the segments was recorded on its own film reel. At the end of the film the audience doesn’t get to see the last photograph the narrator described leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions based on the information they received by the narration heard.

Structural film style in foreign countries was utilized as less of an intellectual intent and applied structural techniques to erotic material overall or to evoke emotions recalling the film lyric. Structural film was kept alive by many avant- gardists throughout the 1980s, Structural Film aimed towards a sophisticated audience interested in reflexivity and other aesthetic issues. The affinities with the art-world movements allowed this film style into museums and art galleries, as well as art school and film departments. In the U.S Structural film style had been dominated by men, but all the structural movement had been led by women and increased the growth the tendency of feminist documentary and feature filmmaking during the 1970s.

Structural Film essay

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Structural Film. (2022, Jan 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/structural-film/

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