For roughly a decade (from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s) Brian Frye was one of the best and most original experimental filmmakers around. Before heading to law school, Frye crafted a body of work that demonstrated a keen awareness of form, a sensitivity to his materials, and a careful understanding of history – both film history and history in the broadest sense. His films ACROSS THE RAPPAHANNOCK (a portrait/landscape work of Civil War re-enactors) and MEETING WITH KHRUSCHEV (which excavates a short fragment of a famous meeting) explore two very different eras of American history in vastly different ways.
Frye is also frequently drawn to the idea of performance, again treated in a multiplicity of way. Two early films, 6.95: STRIPTEASE and 9.95: THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN MY LIFE (INFINITE SET), have Frye both as maker and as his own “performer” of sorts. He also foregrounds elements of performance in his found footage work: amateur actors in THE ANATOMY OF MELONCHOLY; the man called to serve God in footage from an unfinished documentary in THE LETTER; even Nikita Khruschev and Jack Kennedy in MEETING WITH KRUSCHEV and the “soldiers” of ACROSS THE RAPPAHANNOCK are positioned within a performative framework. In almost all of his films, Frye is interested in that intersection between truth and illusion, between fact and fiction – in that middle ground where one is not certain which is which. Given the breadth and curiosity of his work, it is not surprising that Frye came to filmmaking after receiving an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Nor is it surprising that he, at least temporarily, gave up filmmaking to pursue a law degree. Recently, he’s returned to film and video making, between his lawyerly duties. He’s currently at work on a feature-length project with his wife, video artist Penny Lane.
6.95: STRIPTEASE (1995, 3 mins., 16mm, b&w, silent)
“6.95: Striptease might have been titled “Brian Frye Fails to Strip.” We see Frye disrobe, but when he gets to his white undershorts, the roll ends in white flare-outs. There’s also something strange about his movements, especially when he drops his shirt – because in fact he ran the camera in reverse while putting his clothes on. As a result, the work is much more than a joke about not doing what so many other student performers are quite happy to do. The unnatural-looking movements and the expectation set up by the title in effect comment on conventional narrative cinema, in which the film’s end is supposed to resolve the plot’s overarching “issue”: Will they have sex? Will they get away with the crime? Here, once one realizes that Frye’s movements are off, every instant seems peculiarly nonlinear, anticipating the final reference to the material realities of film. Further, 6.95: Striptease often has a splotchy yellow tint that’s the result of home processing. Frye minimized the tint in some of his other films but intentionally did not do so here. The image’s occasional yellowish field combines with the reverse motion to denaturalize Frye’s figure: he seems trapped on the surface, in the emulsion. […] The splotches and scratches and dust contribute to the sense of film as an object rather than a transparent window onto some reproducible “reality.” Frye’s point in 6.95: Striptease, as in all his work, is that we cannot directly know the world by seeing it.” (Fred Camper)
9.95: THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN MY LIFE (INFINITE SET) (1995, 3 mins., 16mm, b&w, silent)
MEETING WITH KHRUSCHEV (1997, 35 mins., 16mm, b&w, silent)
“About a half hour in length, ‘Meeting with Krushchev’ is a refilming of a sequence perhaps 15 seconds long showing a meeting between the Soviet premier and president Kennedy. Frye slowed it down in reprinting, resulting in a sequence just over a minute in length, then he rephotographed it more than 20 times with varying degrees of magnification. For the final film he intercut all 21 strips, editing in a way that seems neither random nor precisely calculated. We might see shots of grain patterns, sometimes colored by handprocessing, shots of the action that are a little clearer, and occasional views of the ‘master shot.'” (Amy Beste)
THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY (1999, 11 mins., 16mm, b&w, sound)
“In 1999, I bought the outtakes from a short film called ‘A Portrait in Fear’ from the cinematographer. The movie was directed by a chiropractor from Kansas City, Missouri, and shot on an Auricon. The poetry came naturally.” (BF)
THE LETTER (2001, 11 mins, 16mm, b&w, sound)
“An essay toward documenting the ineffable. I’m told that all philosophy springs from one question: why is there something, rather than nothing? Perhaps these are fragments of one man’s answer to that question. He spoke to someone once; I encountered his ghost and replied with this film. 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, 11 mins., 16mm, color and b&w, sound)
“Here is my covenant with you, says the Lord: My spirit that is upon you, and the words I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth or the mouths of your children or the mouths of your children?s children – the Lord says – from now through all eternity.” (Isaiah 59:21)
“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)
ACROSS THE RAPPAHANNOCK (2002, 11 mins., 16mm, color, silent)
“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)
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