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Hollis Framptons Poetic Justice AnalysisSelfReference and the Physicality of Film

By Lamos Ignoramous

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Hollis Framptons Poetic Justice (1972) is a provocative self-reference to the medium of film,
wordimage relationship, representation, and imagination. The film consists of the
chronological filming of a screenplay a series of individual static shots with a single
camera framing.
The cinematography, if it can be called such, is minimalist and intentionally detached from
the film, reminiscent of the cinematography in Framptons (nostalgia).
The structure of Poetic Justice, however, is more versatile and closer to Zorns Lemma. The
patterns in Poetic Justice are repetitive and predictable, but evolve throughout the course of
the movie and involve different sections.

Hollis Framptons Poetic Justice cleverly and humorously calls attention to the nature of film
itself and its vanity. Essentially, Poetic Justice is a film about what film really is. By choosing
to depict a movie through its screenplay, Hollis Frampton raises the question of
representation and the wordimage relationshipa topic also extensively explored in Zorns

Annette Michelson discusses the limitation images impose on imagination because of their
completeness. The author cites Roland Barthes:

Barthes, too, complained of the fullness of the image, of the constraints of

representation which force one to perceive everything as presented. In writing, on
the contrary, I dont have to see what the heros fingernails are like, but the Text
tells me, if it so wishesand with what force!

Thus, by choosing to present the film through its text rather than through its images, Hollis
Frampton examines the elusive connection between words and images, rather than imposing
images on the audience. The representative nature of the images, particularly photographs,
are a recurring theme throughout the film.
Poetic Justice is a film investigation of the nature of film, and subtle self-references highlight
this approach. The frame of the movie has at its focus the sheets of a screenplay set on a
table, to the left of which is a potted cactus, and to the right a coffee cup.
Very early in Poetic Justice, the words in the script refer to the cactus and the cup next, and
more importantly, outside of the script . Thus, the anteriority of the space outside of the script
becomes entwined with the interiority of the script. This is just one level of self-reference in
Hollis Framptons Poetic Justice. But the script describes a close-up shot of A small table

below a window. A potted cactus, a coffee cup. Therefore, the shot depicting the cactus, the
table, and the coffee could be the scene the script is referring to. This is a second level of
self-reference as in this case the script refers to the movie Poetic Justice.
The plot of the film is disjoined and largely non-sense, but in an indulgent and obvious way
that calls attention to the very absurdity of the plot. It consists of four parts, called tableau
in the script. The script repeats over and over the words photograph, camera, and hand
all throughout the movie. Hand remains an unclear reference until the very end of Poetic
Justice, but the repetitive non-sense mentioning of photographs and cameras is clearly
touching on the self-indulgence and vanity of film. It establishes Poetic Justice as a mockery
of the self-obsession of cinema, its inevitable and selfish concern with itself, and inability to
depict anything else but its own physical presence.
The key to understanding Poetic Justice is a lecture Hollis Frampton held at the Hunter
College in New York in 1968, four years before he made Poetic Justice. In it the director
emphasizes the technical, physical, and purely material nature of film:

It seems that a film is anything that may be put in a projector that will modulate
the emerging beam of light. []Film is a narrow transparent ribbon of any length
you please, uniformly perforated with small holes along its edges so that it may be
handily transported by sprocket wheels. At one time, it was sensitive to light. []A
film is a ribbon of physical material, wound up in a roll: a row of small unmoving

For Hollis Frampton, film cannot transcend its own physical presence. In the lecture, the
director shows a series of short films that consist of different imagesamong them a redcolored screen and images of the American actress Lana Turner.

In some of our frames we found, as we thought, Lana Turner. Of course, she was but
a fleeting shadowbut we had hold of something. She was what the film
wasabout. Perhaps we can agree that the film was aboutherbecause she
appeared oftener than anything else.
Certainly a film must be about whatever appears most often in it. Suppose Lana
Turner is not always on the screen. Suppose further that we take an instrument and
scratch the ribbon of film along its whole length. Then the scratch is more often
visible than Miss Turner, and the film is about the scratch.
Now suppose that we project all films. What are they about, in their great
numbers? At one time and another, we shall have seen, as we think, very many
things. But only one thing hasalwaysbeen in the projector. Film. That is what we
have seen. Then that is what all films are about.

This discussion captures the essence of Poetic Justicea film about the inevitable presence
of film within the film substance, caused by the films physicality. It creates therefore a
complex pattern of self-reference. For Hollis Frampton Poetic Justice seems like the artistic
expression of his lecture.
Part two (Second Tableau) of Poetic Justice significantly exaggerates the reference to
photographs and cameras. The basic pattern repeated throughout this section is: a scene,
such as a house exterior with open exterior, followed by My hand holding a still
photograph of the same scene, followed by an action, such as You are opening a door. The
pattern continues throughout the entire section, thus obviously drawing attention to the
nature of photographs.


Poetic Justice Hollis Frampton overuses the use of the word photograph because of its still,
unmoving naturea topic also explored in (nostalgia). The completely motionless camera in
the movie, as well as the lack of any change of camera angles or other cinematic differences
create the feeling to the movie of a series of photographs. The script, because of its textual
nature, does not really distinguish between stillness and movementone of the essential
distinctions in cinema. Therefore, both the event/action and the still photograph of the same
scene are depicted through the same linguistic signifiers.
Part three of Poetic Justice is the most ironic and self-indulgent. It is a parody of conventional
romantic movies, as well as a humorous challenge for the imagination of the audience. The
pattern here: Bedroom. Love making. Outside the window is followed by an intentionally
random action/event happening outside, such as an inverted enamel saucepan.
The love-making scenes continue all throughout part three and their chance for romance is
abolished by the absurdity of the events outside the window. The intentionally non-sequitur
images are, as it seems, conjured in a stream-of-consciousness mode. They disrupt the sexual
images and challenge the audiences imagination and ability to picture the events.
The window may be a significant symbol, as it represents a different dimension, a sort of
camera capturing photographs of its own.
Part four of Hollis Framptons Poetic Justice is increasingly self-referential. The pronouns
you and me get increasingly confusing. The three characters of Poetic Justice are me,
you, and your lover. In part four, the climax of the script, me, (often myself) has a lot
more screening time that the previous sections. Photographs are mentioned even more
The pattern in tableau four changes more palpably than the previous sections. The largest

part consists of Your lovers hand holding a still photograph of yourself, followed by some
action/event, such as asleep. The next page of the script is Your lovers hand holding a still
photograph of your lover, followed by the same action/event from the previous page, in this
case, asleep.

At some point me joins you and your lover for a picnic on the grass. One the next page,
Your lovers hand is holding a still photograph of myself, filming you and your lover. Selfreference becomes so complex that the levels cannot be traced anymore. For one, the me
in referring to himself and including himself in the shot. Then, he is seen as exterior to you
and your lover in a photograph that depicts him filming. The self-reference can no longer
be clearly followed, as several levels of representation, film, script, and photograph, refer to

each other in a convoluted loop. The pages also become self-aware are refer to their own
physical presence by the act of filming.

Poetic Justice Hollis Frampton uses deictic (referential) wordswords that do not have a
fixed meaning in the physical world, but rather change based on the context they refer toin
this case, the pronouns me, myself you, your, etc. These words are ambiguous as they do
not explain what they refer to. Me and you can refer to an infinite number of people. The
ambiguous use of the pronouns challenges the imagination and the nature of word-image
But the final shot in the film may suggest who me has been all throughout. As the script
reads My hand covers a still photograph of my face, the following shot is the same page of
the script covered by a white glove.
Although the meaning of the scene is intentionally ambiguous, it could suggest that the
covered page stands for a still photograph of my face, and the while glove is my hand.
Thus, the page can be seen as the face of the script/film, who is revealed as the me
character. The film becomes the main character of his own filma vain self-reference, selfawareness, and inability to transcend the ubiquitous physicality of cinema.

Hollis Frampton - Poetic Justice, 1972

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