Writing of Joseph Cornell, Jonas Mekas remarked that his films “deal with things very close to us, every day and everywhere. Small things, not the big things…His works have the quality—be they boxes, collages, or movies—of being located in some suspended area of time.” One finds a similar sensibility in the films of Brian Frye, particularly so in a cluster of 16mm works completed around the turn of the 21st century, just as the end of small-gauge cinema seemed all too immanent. At once literal actualities and sphinx-like artifacts, Frye’s films might at first seem like outtakes from lost projects, or damaged archival isolates, bearing grainy images that beg for exegesis: Kennedy-era actors awkwardly intone lines from a portentous melodrama; a woman’s face flits in and out of legibility beneath a storm of visual debris; a old man points to a weathered gravesite, his lips mouthing silent words; Civil War soldiers maneuver at the edge of a forest. These moments play like misplaced bits of someone else’s memories, physical records of our world mysteriously unmoored from their origins.
Currently a legal scholar—his research into the obscenity cases surrounding Flaming Creatures may be found here—Frye was previously the longtime co-proprietor, with Bradley Eros, of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, undoubtedly one of the most vital alternative film venues of the 1990s. His films, perhaps consequently, dissolve any lingering boundaries between selection and creation. Some are completely found objects, only lightly edited; others are shot entirely by Frye himself, yet are barely distinguishable from strips of B-roll. All of them, in one way or another, partake of the aesthetics of so-called amateur filmmaking—not merely in the sense that Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage used the word, to invoke an untrammeled love for the medium, but as a recuperative investigation into the more invisible avenues of cinema’s history, a retracing of vernacular attempts to convey the phenomenon of perception. Describing the source materials of his film The Letter, Frye imagines the secret motives of its anonymous cinematographer: “I’m told that all philosophy springs from one question: why is there something, rather than nothing? These, perhaps, are fragments of one man's answer to that question."
Followed by a conversation with Frye and Chrissie Iles.
- The Anatomy of Melancholy (1999, 16mm, 11 mins)
Sometime in the 1960s, a chiropractor from Kansas City made a short film called "A Portrait of Fear." The film consisted of several tableau shots of amateur actors standing in a field at night reciting painfully overwrought dialogue, apparently lit by the headlights of a car. I assume the cinematographer used an Auricon, as the sound was recorded directly on the B&W reversal original. In 1998, he sold me the outtakes, strung together just like you see them. - BF
- Broken Camera Reels 1 & 2 (2000, 16mm, 5 mins)
The film consists of two rolls of film I shot in 1998 or 1999 while living in a Bushwick loft. I was interested in the perfect simplicity of a movie camera and what happens when a single part is disabled. So I found simple old cameras and deliberately broke one part, to see what happened. In the first reel, I removed the claw. In the second, I removed the shutter. As I recall, I also have a scheme of swinging the camera back and forth and up and down and various f-stop settings. Very Ernie Gehr. Playing, drinking beer & shooting film. No editing to speak of. - BF
- Oona’s Veil (2000, 16mm, 8 mins)
I know of only one film-record of Oona Chaplin (née O'Neill), this screen-test made for a film in which she was cast and never appeared, having met and married Charlie Chaplin before shooting commenced. Hers was quite possibly the briefest ever film career, but brevity is no obstacle to greatness. Some say that Chaplin himself directed her screentest; history says otherwise. To hell with history. I rephotographed the original screentest, doing 20 frame (I think) lap dissolves from one to the next. The idea was lifted wholesale from David Rimmer, though I've never seen the film(s?) in which he did it. I was interested in the brief transition from still to motion in Chris Marker's La Jetée, and wanted to extend it somehow. Anyway, I didn't like the result, as the image shifted a lot. So I made a duplicate negative and did damage to it, to obscure the hiccups. It was exposed to chemicals, buried, and left on the fire escape for a year. What was left over I untangled, spliced together into something approaching a continuous strip of film, and had printed. The result became the master positive. The sound consists of a 78 of ‘Whispering Hope,’ played at 33 rpm. - BF
- Lachrymae (2000, 16mm, 3 mins)
".. and yet of that living breathing throng, not one will be encased in a material frame. A company of ghosts, playing to spectral music. So may the luminous larvae of the Elysian fields have rehearsed earth's well beloved scenes to the exiled senses of Pluto's Queen." - WKL Dickson
- The Letter (2001, 16mm, 11 mins)
An essay toward documenting the ineffable...One might consider it a dialogue between a man of Faith and one who has merely tasted of the absurd, yet struggles to ingest it. - BF
- Kaddish (2002, 16mm, 11 mins)
A fragment of tinted nitrate. An acetate recording of a wedding ceremony. Echoes of the bitter sweetness of the Spirit on the tongue of Man. As Frampton tipped his hat to Gloria, so might I. - BF
- Robert Beck Is Alive and Well and Living in NYC (2002, 16mm, 3 mins)
Robert Beck was an American soldier from Chicago, who served in the First World War. Struck deaf and dumb by shellshock, Beck was sent to an English sanitarium to convalesce. At some point, the patients attended a movie. Beck began to laugh, and was suddenly cured of his affliction. He became the patron saint of New York's Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, dedicated to films which touch the marvelous. On September 26, 2000, Stuart Sherman, the great performance artist and filmmaker, presented several of his films, interspersed with "perfilmances," in which he re-enacted the passion of Robert Beck. This film is a record of that "spectacle," shot by Lee Ellickson. Stuart Sherman died on September 14, 2001 in San Francisco. This may have been his last New York performance. - BF
- Across the Rappahannock (2002, 16mm, 11 mins)
On December 12, 1863, General Ambrose Burnside's Army of the Potomac engaged General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Before Burnside's army could enter the town, Union engineers were forced to lay pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River under withering fire. Close combat through the streets of Fredericksburg and multiple assaults on the Confederate army entrenched in the heights behind the town resulted in heavy Federal casualties, which forced an eventual withdrawal. In November, 2001, I attended a small and relatively informal reenactment of the battle of Fredericksburg. About a hundred men and women did their best to illustrate the actions of the thousands of young men who offered their lives a century earlier. An air of absurd theater suffused the entire event, which provided the ground for its peculiar truth. Everyone played their part exceedingly honestly and well, and left something on the film I was myself surprised to find there. - BF
Brian L. Frye is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky College of Law, where he teaches class in copyright, intellectual property, nonprofit organizations, and civil procedure. Previously, he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law. He was a litigation associate at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. He clerked for Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice Richard B. Sanders of the Washington Supreme Court. He received a J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 2005, an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1997, and a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1995. His research focuses on legal issues affecting artists and arts organizations. His critical writing on film and art has appeared in Film Comment, Incite!, and October, among other journals.
Frye is also a filmmaker. Most recently, he produced the documentary film Our Nixon (2013), which was broadcast by CNN and opened theatrically nationwide. His other films have been shown in the Whitney Biennial 2002, the New York Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, among other venues, and are in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is currently working on The Winds & the Waves, a documentary history of the media representation of the gay rights movement, and Andy & Julia, a narrative feature about a day in the life of Andy Warhol and his mother Julia Warhola.
Chrissie Iles is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.