CAPSULE: ZORNS LEMMA (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Hollis Frampton

FEATURING: N/A

PLOT: The prologue is a reading from the “Bay State Primer.” The main body of the film cycles through one second shots of signs each beginning with a successive letter of the Roman alphabet; each letter is gradually removed and replaced by a scene of waves or grain or a man walking until the film consists entirely of such images. A reading from a 13th century mystical treatise serves as an epilogue.

Still from Zorns Lemma (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s odd, strange, and maybe even bizarre, but it’s not “weird.” What I mean is that the word “weird” implies an emotional gut level reaction to some scene of ineffable strangeness, and Zorns Lemma, while as far away from ordinary as is possible to get, provokes no emotional response whatsoever (if it does raise some feeling, it’s not aimed at the film itself, but rather by the audience’s anger at Frampton for having wasted their time). This is purely intellectual and philosophical filmmaking, not meaty or bloody enough to rate as weird.

COMMENTS: In 1975 Tom Wolfe wrote a controversial critical essay entitled “The Painted Word” about how modern art had abandoned the attempt to represent reality and become instead about illustrating the artist’s beliefs about the function and nature of art: that art had paradoxically ceased to be art at all, and turned instead into theory. I wonder if Wolfe had seen Zorns Lemma just before writing his screed, since this philosophical film about language and representation could have been easily and appropriately titled “The Filmed Word.” Beginning with the words of a child’s alphabetical primer (“in Adam’s fall we sinned all”), Frampton soon moves to create a primer of his own: 24 shots of New York City street signs, each illustrating a letter of the alphabet (minus “j” and “u,” which did not appear in the Roman alphabet). So, there is a shot of an “Abbey,” followed by a sign reading “back,” and so on (sometimes someone will hold up a hand-painted sign or a legend will appear on screen, but usually a marquee or logo supplies the key letter). Each shot is held for one second, which, since a film conventionally projects at 24 frames per second, means that the main body of the film consists of 24 sets of 24 frames. As the film cycles through the alphabet the rarest letters are replaced by images, i.e. the letter “x” is first to go, replaced by a shot of a roaring bonfire, then “z” yields to a scene of receding tide, and so on until all of the letters have been replaced by pure images. Most of the replacement shots are commonplace; a few are themselves experimental, such as a multiple exposure image of a boy bouncing a ball and a split screen of a woman’s face that’s been slightly displaced along its vertical axis. After about forty minutes of this repetitive cycling the circuit is completed and all of the letters have been replaced. We then see a man, woman and dog walking away from us in a snowy field. On the soundtrack, a metronome clicks away as different speakers’ voices (each says one word) are stitched together collage-style to recreate a monotone reading of a 13th century mystical text about the primacy of light (by Bishop Robert Grossetete): “…the light of the higher is more spiritual and simple while the light of the lower is more physical and multiple…” What does it all mean? I believe it’s primarily an expression of Frampton’s odd but apparently sincere belief that language was outdated and was due to be replaced (or at least strongly supplemented) by thinking through images: as he says in an interview included on the DVD, he believed that “the intellect of the West has been struggling for some time to find a natural counterbalance for language as a way of accounting for the world, a way of doing it through images.” Frampton believed that film was a new language of thinking and communicating through images, and he also felt that we were only at the beginning of that process; he was interested in creating a new vocabulary, grammar and even alphabet of images. Zorns Lemma is more an announcement of that intent than it is a development of it. Frampton’s concern in the film with preserving mathematical ratios, his obscure reference to “Zorn’s Lemma” (a complicated proposition of set theory), and the clockwork, mechanistic structure of the piece suggest a filmmaking mind that’s as obsessive as it is rigorous. As theory, Zorns Lemma is somewhat interesting, to a theoretician; as a film, I think the best thing we can say about it is that it’s somewhat hypnotic and not as intolerable an experience as it reads on the page. That may be low praise, but we judge experimental films by a different set of criteria than commercial films, or even art films; we don’t hope to enjoy them so much as to see our expectations of what a “film” can be challenged and expanded. In that sense, Zorns Lemma is worth encountering for students of cinema at its most basic level. I’d be highly suspicious of anyone who claimed to love Lemma, though, in the same way I’d cast a wary eye at anyone who claimed to be enamored with the obscurant prose of postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Zorns Lemma is included on a double-disc Criterion Collection set entitled “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey,” together with fifteen other Frampton experiments and supplemental interviews and lectures by the erudite director. Lemma is the most intriguing of the projects; several of the others make for frustrating watches, such as the seven minute “Lemon” (a static shot of the titular fruit, with only the lighting changing). By the time Frampton gets to his “Magellan” period at the end of his life, the works are totally abstract and unwatchable for normal audiences. In the period immediately following Lemma, some of Frampton’s most interesting experiments are collected in a series called “Hapax Legomena” (“unique words”). “(nostalgia),” a movie in which Frampton burns several old photographs while relating anecdotes from his life, has potential, but the director can’t ever resist alienating his audience. The stories aren’t synced to the photograph they describe; each commentary refers to the picture we’re about to see instead of the one we’re currently watching shrivel up on the burner. “Poetic Justice” (a surreal erotic story told through static shots of pages from the script) and “Critical Mass” (the film “stutters,” resulting in a trippy rendition of an improvised argument) have clever core ideas, but each goes on for too long after the audience has absorbed the concept. I would expect “Odyssey” to be Criterion’s worst selling release of the year; it would have fit better in their budget “Eclipse” series. But the gala treatment illustrates how seriously Frampton’s work is still being taken by some cineastes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never, at least so far during the Film Festival, have so many Philharmonic Hall viewers slithered outside for a cigarette.”–Howard Thompson, The New York Times (contemporaneous festival screening)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: ZORNS LEMMA (1970)”

  1. I actually do think Frampton’s work has a visceral effect, but only after submitting to a kind of trance state after passing the threshold of novelty (for many this is between 5 and 10 minutes depending on one’s preconceptions). It’s been decades since I’ve seen any Frampton film so thanks for letting me know about the criterion package.

    1. If you like trance-state movies then you should check out the movie we reviewed today, Visitors. These kinds of movies are not my thing and I wouldn’t recommend them to the general viewer, but I understand the appeal for the small audience that’s into them.

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