Zorn’s Lemma (1970)

Going into this screening I expected chaos. I imagined something akin to that scene in Gremlins where the creatures have taken over the movie theater. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. An hour long experimental film won’t insight a riot. It will just put freshmen to sleep.

Hollis Frampton’s short piece, Lemon, was actually one of the more appreciated works screened this semester. My students found it quirky and amusing, but at only a few minutes in length they also enjoyed it’s brevity. Somewhere, in some journal or notebook, I have a quote along the lines of : “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m probably mangling the quote beyond recognition and I wish I knew who said it, but basically the world loves a short, simple joke.

I do not think Frampton intends for his films to be jokes, but they are rather whimsical. Perhaps they should be compared more to intellectual games as most of Zorns Lemma plays like a game revolving around the alphabet. Starting with spoken text from an early American grammar textbook, a black screen presents the viewer with nothing to focus their eyes upon. Switching from no image and sound to no sound and lots of images the bulk of the film is comprised of second long handheld shots of signs. Structured around the 24 letter Roman alphabet ( the ‘i’ and ‘j’ a re combined just as the ‘u’ and ‘v’ are as well) the film plays off of films frame rate of 24 frames per second. Cycling through the alphabet the shots of text plucked from signs loop round and round. In time, each letter is replaced by another image, free from text, but capturing a small action working towards completion. Some of these actions include the changing of a tire, the peeling of a tangerine, or the painting of the wall. As time progresses one realizes that the film will be over once all the letters have been replaced with images and once the action in all the images is complete. It took me some time to figure out that not only did the shots switch from one letter to the next, but that with each letter set the shots worked through an alphabetic pattern, thus the word ‘meat’ would be followed by ‘meet’ and so on. Realizing this I began to guess what words would appear in the next go around and groan when Frampton thought of a word I had not foreseen.

Uncertain where the film would end I began to grow rather frustrated with the game after it had persisted for over a half-an-hour. Rather than keep guessing what words might appear I found myself looking for mistakes in the editing. Knowing that certain images would always proceed other images I found my brain playing tricks on me as I swore that particular shots were now out of order. Like an elaborate game of Concentration I found my memory to be a poor tool for determining the film’s larger structure. Certain that I was wrong and that Frampton had more time to map out the film than I had to remember the map he laid forth, I went back to guessing what the last few words would be. Trying to just enjoy the peculiar words he had managed to find on the street or the variety of fonts on display I let the next ten minutes click by and then nearly missed the last word in the cycle, as it switched from text to an image of a beautiful red bird. The game was over and I almost missed it.

The film ends with a series of long, wide shots of a man, woman and dog crossing a snowy field. The white of the snow acts as an opposite to the darkness that opened the film. However, this portion of the film has both image and sound. The sound is provided by multiple narrators reading from a 11th century treatise by Robert Grosseteste. The text speaks of light and being Hollis Frampton, a rather playful filmmaker, it becomes obvious that the film will not end until the white of the snow covered field has consumed the frame, leaving us with nothing but light.

Overall, Zorns Lemma is not that hard of a film to stay awake through, so long as you have a playful mind. Sadly, this isn’t probably the case with most people. Though that’s rather strange as most Hollywood films are all about playing games. I guess this is just a slightly higher level of play, akin to the Friday edition of the New York Time Crossword puzzle. I will still fault my students for not engaging the game. But then again, the Teaching Assistant sitting next to me didn’t make it far into the film. So it goes. Sometimes you don’t show up ready to play. I guess I’m just the sort of sick minded person that loves a structuralist film that plays whimsical games. But I don’t think I’d want to play this game more than once every few years.

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