Finding the Right Language: Poetic Justice

03/20/2013 4:00 AM |

Poetic Justice (1972)
Directed by Hollis Frampton
March 26 at Light Industry with Beatrice Gibson’s “The Tiger’s Mind”

“In the beginning it was just about trying to learn to speak, speak better or speak differently,” says the voiceover in British artist Beatrice Gibson’s short 2012 film “The Tiger’s Mind.” The film’s setting is a villa where some people may have been murdered. The female narrator tells, with ominous musical accompaniment (a 1967 narrative score composed by Cornelius Cardew that shares this film’s title), of developing relationships between six mysterious figures named Tiger, Mind, Tree, Wind, Circle, and Amy. Verbal language, she says, should be replaced with the language of things. The camera moves slowly through a living room in which a curtain blows. In the grounds outside echoes a woman’s scream, followed by malevolent laughter. A porcelain tiger statue looms somewhere indoors. The viewer imagines an unfolding film. Gibson told me by email that, for her, “The Tiger’s Mind” tries “to trigger a more active kind of spectator by leaving certain things unanswered.”

So does Poetic Justice, which Light Industry will screen on a double-bill with “The Tiger’s Mind.” The American Hollis Frampton’s second film in a seven-part series called Hapax Legomena (“things said once”) is about seeking the right language. Frampton even later turned the film into a book, in whose introduction he wrote that his goal had been “to recapitulate some of the history of film art as though it were my own life to recollect.” The setting is a table. On the left-hand side is a small potted cactus; on the right-hand side is a cup of coffee; in the middle sits a pile of white paper sheets. The sheets follow each other in numbered succession, each containing handwritten words that describe a tableau.

For instance, the members in one series each begin with “Bedroom. Lovemaking. Outside the window are” before individual sights: spruces and juniper under snow; peacocks strutting on a turf green; men and women in evening dress; hyenas disputing a carcass; strands and bladders of kelp; wrestlers in a tag match; an automatic turret lathe in operation; a calm inland sea; a squadron of pipers; rings of Saturn, looming; little girls skipping rope; tumbled stacks of cordwood; a display of ophthalmoscopes; a party of mountaineers; a park of bay trees; a sky full of wheeling pigeons; truck wheels splashing in muddy water; three red-haired women rolling dice; a beached whale, gasping; a double circle of monoliths; red and white corpuscles; a procession by torchlight; smoking ingots of refined cobalt; a field of daisies and mallows; two surgeons amputating a limb; walls and turrets of obsidian; silver dirigibles trailing advertisements; parrotfish schooling in dim light; a classroom festooned with crepe paper; a small crowd pointing at the sky; a spinning brass anemometer; a pearl necklace on green baize; six or seven zebras, grazing; two farmers scalding a hog; an inverted enamel saucepan; a heap of spoiled fruit; bolts of striped twill; a seated audience, applauding; fern shoots; a cracked jug leaking milk; a storm on the rim of the sun; a consort of trombonists; crystals of pure nicotine; the Statue of Liberty; lavender sea anemones; knives and bright axes; a child licking a spoon; a frigate advancing under sail; a clutter of nude plaster mannequins; feathers and bloody tracks; a blue arc struck between electrodes; stalagmites of tinted paraffin; grizzled drovers herding sheep; eggs hatching baby turtles; a great suspension bridge, foreshortened; an enormous hexagonal mirror; I am aiming a camera; a lilac in bloom.

Throughout Poetic Justice you can sense an offscreen person writing, both by hand and with a camera, then leaving the text for others to finish. But perhaps some things must remain incomplete.

Thanks to Beatrice Gibson and to Bruce Jenkins, editor of Frampton’s collected writings.