Zorn’s Lemma

June 23, 2008

Zorn’s Lemma by Hollis Frampton

Not the idea that, if S is any nonempty partially ordered set in which every chain has an upper bound, then S has a maximal element, but the Hollis Frampton film. Since I don’t live near New York or San Francisco in the 70s, seeing it was almost as hard as understanding S without a mathy companion. But Ubuweb is a kind mistress, making the experimental film ghetto a little more open.

Not to say the film has a clear meaning. I haven’t done the required reading yet, and Zorn is not a gracious host. If such art for the last several decades has relied on a primer, unique to each artist, I’m left in the cold. But that can be an advantage of sorts, a reminder to trust experience.

A still, “uvula,” from Zorn’s Lemma

And it is an odd experience, teeming with words but no explanations. It opens and closes with voiceover; in between, a silent catalogue of advertising. So I read, sentences like “About baggage calorie, dance early.” Flarf before Flarf.

The film loops, more or less, going from Z back to A. But it doesn’t repeat, until the signs gradually give way to images. A fire replaces the letter X first, then the sea takes over for Z. Soon there’s no alphabet, just hands peeling an orange, construction workers, a girl on a swing. Then it’s over, and the final voiceover accompanies shots of people walking through the snow.

Seeing all those words one after another upends filmic space. Like signs, the images feel flat. Even the introduction of depth and motion, as when a man walks down a street and then out of frame, confound spatial unity when taken along with the shots before and after. Though its urban setting is clearly New York City, it doesn’t have to be. Zorn uses editing to exclude context, as structure becomes content.

Its editing recalls critic Fred Camper description of Christopher MacLaine’s film The End: “destructive editing.” The cuts in that film– and Frampton’s– deny montage, so that any pair of shots does not create a new meaning between them. Of course, a pair of Zorn‘s shots could create a meaning, if they would just slow down for a second. Pairs, maybe trios, of words make sense, but never in a string: “Ant blaze,” okay, and “city donut,” but all together? “Mate nowhere or paw” could work in a pinch, but not a conversation.

The images are the same, with several “stories” appearing in isolation. A hand gradually peels an orange, the shot divvied out in subsequent alphabets. But it has no relationship to the shot of reed grass spliced to it, or any of the letters remaining. Before a final alphabet of unrelated images, the last letter to go is “C.” The last word is “Cycle.”

A still of fire from Zorn’s Lemma

The closing voiceover, read by five different women alternating words to a metronome’s click, proposes a mystical wholeness for the film. It recalls Brakhage’s oft-invoked Erigena, who claimed, “All that is, is light.” It starts: “The first bodily form I judge to be light.” Light through a projector, or now a computer screen.

As watching the film has a meditative rhythm, I could claim an Abecedarian’s insight: all that is, is in the images preceding. In other words, the nonsense text of signs in Zorn’s Lemma store all the meaning that God put in the world. And anything else is just chatter.

Or I could just read math jokes.

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