Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Zorns Lemma (1970)

Zorns Lemma (1970)
Directed by: Hollis Frampton.

According to Wikipedia Zorns Lemma is “a proposition of set theory that states: Suppose a partially ordered set P has the property that every chain (i.e. totally ordered subset) has an upper bound in P. Then the set P contains at least one maximal element.” Now, if you can understand what the hell that means, you are much smarter than I am, or have at least studying advanced mathematics, because try as I might, even when clicking on the links that describe the various parts of that sentence, I still don’t really understand it. It made for some fascinating reading however, and discussion about the Axiom of Choice, and other mathematical principles, that let’s face facts, is of use to no one except mathematicians. For someone like me, who struggled his way through Grade 12 math, all of this is clearly WAY over my head. It wasn’t until I read Howard Thompson review of Hollis Frampton’s 1970 film, named after the principle, where he stated it much more simply “Zorns Lemma is named after mathematician Max Zorn's "lemma," an axiom which states that given a set of sets, there must be a further set containing a representative item from each individual set.”, that I felt at least had a tentative grasp on what the hell it was trying to say.

The majority of the hour long film is about a “set” of images, that changes as it goes along. It starts with simply showing us the alphabet – albeit an incomplete alphabet, as Frampton chooses to “cut out” two letters (J and U, I believe). Apparently he did this for two reasons – earlier alphabets only had 24 letters, and of course, film has 24 frames per second. Each of these letters stay on the screen for 1 second (24 frames), until the next one flashes up. He then replaces the letters with signs out from New York City – with each sign beginning with the next letter of the alphabet, and again, holds each shot for 1 second, or 24 frames. This is repeated for 47 minutes of the films running time, although with changes as it progresses. The signs are different each time, true, but there is a bigger change, as gradually, he replaces each sign with a snippet of film, which he also holds for just one second. Sometimes, these images are the same each time (for example, X is always the same shot of a fire, Y the same shot of grass blowing in the wind, Z, the same shot of waves – or at the very least, they looked like the same shots to me). And sometimes, they aren’t. I believe it is K that shows a man slowly painting a wall – starting off blank, and by the end, it is covered. H eventually becomes a shot of what looks like a hippie wandering around aimlessly – although each 1 second snippet is different.

And so, what Frampton seems to have done is make all those “set of sets” described by Zorns Lemma. He bookends this 47 minute segment with two segments with narration – beginning with a teacher reading from a grammar school textbook (I learned from Thompson’s review that this is the “Bay State Primer”). The film ends with a shot of a man, woman and dog walking across a snowy field, as alternating voices read, one word at a time, from On Light or the Ingression of Forms by Robert Grosseteste. Thompson states that the film is about “how we learn”, and I guess that’s as good a theory as any – we start off being taught by someone, then move on to independent learning, making connections in our own minds, and end up with a larger perspective, in the end.

Zorns Lemma is an example of “structural” filmmaking, although Frampton objected to the term, mainly because he didn’t like “labels” (don’t all artists complain about being labeled). Like filmmaker Michael Snow (a friend and collaborator of Frampton’s), Frampton’s film is more about “film” than it is about what it’s content. If Stan Brakhage was trying to get to something elemental and primitive in his avant-garde films, than Frampton and Snow were trying for something more ordered, and minimalist.

So is Zorns Lemma a good film? I don’t know. For about 20 minutes or so, I was drawn into Frampton’s structure, and his imagery. Unlike Snow’s Wavelength, which I found terminally dull from the outset, I enjoyed part of Frampton’s film. But like Wavelength, I think his film goes on far too long. For the first 20 minutes, I was enjoying the film – Frampton at least seems to be enjoying himself, unlike Snow in Wavelength, and his images are more playful and fun. Than you full grasp what he is doing, and then have to wait another half hour or so before Frampton moves onto the final segment. During that half hour, I grew restless and finally bored by the film. I have a feeling that most audiences would grow bored quicker than I did, as at least I knew what to expect going in.

But I will say this. In my review of Wavelength I wrote:

On one hand, it is precisely the film Snow wanted to make; it makes it point clearly, and had the effect on me that I think Snow wanted to have. On the other hand, it is an extremely boring film about a room that for the most part is completely empty. I have described the film that I saw, and what I think it all means. If you are still reading this, you already know if you want to see this film or not. Something tells me 99% of people fall in the not category.”

Make a few changes to that paragraph replacing the content of Snow’s film with the content of Frampton’s, and I think it aptly describes Zorns Lemma. This is precisely the film Frampton wanted to make. And if even that film doesn’t really appeal to me – and for that matter to the vast majority of people out there – you have to kind of admire him for making it all.

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