Hollis Frampton’s 1970 Masterpiece
Introduced Live Via Webcam by Michael Zryd


January 17th, 2010

As its contribution to the citywide screening series “Critical Mass: Re-Viewing Hollis Frampton” White Light Cinema and The Nightingale are pleased to be presenting one of Frampton’s most acclaimed films – ZORNS LEMMA.

His first major work, ZORNS (1970, 60 mins., 16mm) is a culmination of many of Frampton’s major concerns up to that point – the creation and use of language systems and the idea of seriality in particular. It is both an intellectual exercise and a playful work of gaming (a precursor of sorts to interactivity).

The film will be introduced by Toronto-based film scholar Michael Zryd, who will help provide some context for the screening and strategies for viewing.


“One of Frampton’s monumental achievements, a playful puzzle of a film, full of wry autobiographical allusion, in which the artist experiments with systems of learning and language; narrative, action, and seriality; the disjunctive rhythms of sound and image; and the sensuous and the intellectual.”

-Museum of Modern Art


“ZORNS LEMMA is divided into three sections: an initial imageless reading of the Bay State Primer; a long series of silent shots, each one second photographed signs edited to form one complete Latin alphabet; and finally a single shot of two people walking across a snow-covered field away from the camera to the sound of a choral reading.

The first of several intellectual orders which Frampton provides as structural models within the film is, of course, the alphabet. The Bay State Primer announces, and the central forty minutes of this hour long film elaborates upon it. Within that section a second kind of ordering occurs; letters begin to drop out of the alphabet and their one-second pulse is replaced by an image without a sign. The first to go is X, replaced by a fire; a little later Z is replaced by waves breaking backwards. Once an image is replaced, it will always have the same substitution; in the slot of X the fire continues for a second each time, the sea roll backwards at the end of each alphabet once the initial substitution occurs. On the other hand, the signs are different in every cycle.

The substitution process sets in action a guessing game and a device. Since the letters seem to disappear roughly in inverse proportion to their distribution as initial letters of words in English, the viewer can with occasional accuracy guess which letter will drop out next. He also suspects that when the alphabet has been completely replaced, the film or the section will end.

A second timing mechanism exists within the substitution images themselves, and it gains force as the alphabetic cycles come to an end. Some of the substitution images imply their own termination. The tying of shoes which replaces P, the washing of hands (G), the changing of a tire (T), and especially the filling of the frame with dried beans (N) add a time dimension essentially different from that of the waves, or a static tree (F), a red ibis flapping its wings (H), or cat-tails swaying in the wind (Y). The clocking mechanism of the finite acts is confirmed by the synchronous drive toward completion which becomes evident in the last minutes of the section.

In ZORNS LEMMA Frampton followed the tactics of his two elected literary masters Jorge Luis Borges and Ezra Pound. From Borges he learned the art of labyrinthine construction and the dialectic of presenting and obliterating the self. Following Pound, Frampton has incorporated in the end of his film a crucial indirect allusion; it is to the paradox of Arnulf Rainer’s reduction. In Grosseteste’s essay, materiality is the final dissolution, or the point of weakest articulation, of pure light. But in the graphic cinema that vector is reversed. In the quest for sheer materiality – for an image that would be, and not simply represent – the artist seeks endless refinement of light itself. As the choral text moves from Neo-Platonic source-light to the grosser impurities of objective reality, Frampton slowly opens the shutter, washing out his snowscape into the untinted whiteness of the screen.”

– P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film

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