Sunday, February 10, 2019


Film is narrative by definition, even more so than literature. Until recently you couldn’t push rewind; you still can't in the theater. To dream of a non-narrative film is to dream of turning time into the timeless, a human being into an immortal one, into an idea. Ideas feel no pain; they don’t ‘die’.  An idealist working in narrative is always returning to the scene of a crime. That’s why the narrative art of idealists is either formal, hieratic, distancing, or reduces to melodrama, the narrative form of kitsch, either way to forms of pre or post or anti humanism.

Hollis Frampton was a friend of Andre and Stella, and following all the rules of Greenbergian Modernism applied to film, using the  “characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”.  Remember my mother’s insistence–and she was only half a decade years older than any of them–that’s Eliot’s poetry was “about language”.  

Frampton was the son of a coal miner. He was born in Ohio. He says he barely spoke when he was young and described himself as having been “borderline autistic”.  At 15 he wrote himself an application to Phillips Academy Andover, and was accepted in full scholarship.  That’s where he met Andre and Stella. Later he decided he wanted to be a poet and started a correspondence and then friendship with Ezra Pound, but he decided he wasn’t a good poet, and switched to photography and film.

J. Hoberman  calls Frampton’s film-cycle Hapax Legomena  “crypto-autobiographical”. At the same time he quotes Frampton referring to himself as a “a spectator of mathematics like others are spectators of soccer or pornography”[i], again the same dichotomy of incorporeal formalism and base physicality.

Zorn’s Lemma begins with a black screen and a woman’s voiceover, an unprofessional reading of the 24 couplets  (without I or U, following custom derived from Latin,)  of  The Bay State Primer, from 1800. 

 In Adam's Fall/ We sinned all.
 Thy Life to Mend/ God’s Book Attend.
 The Catdoth play/ And after slay.
 A Dogwill bite/ A Thief at night.
 An Eagle'sflight/ Is Out of sight.
 The Idle Fool/  Is Whipt at School. …

The second section begins with the a montage, each shot lasting one second, -24 frames- of close-up images of the 24 letters of the Roman alphabet  (without J or V- reversing/mirroring the above ) in order,  each formed by typing into a sheet of tin foil.  At the last letter the alphabet begins again, this time formed by footage of signs and lettering on Manhattan streets, again each for one second­ –24 frames. The first shot is a hand holding up a large plastic letter A. Shots continue to loop through the alphabet, the photographs for each letter changing with every repeat. Some of the shots are stable, some  hand held, shaky, with camera motion. Gradually over repeated loops the words are replaced with wordless images. The first four substitutions are a bonfire at night (X),  reversed footage of waves breaking on a beach (Z)  a tracking shot of cattails in the wind (Y)  steam from a street vent (Q), for the four classical elements:  fire, water, earth and air.  Some of the substituted shots are repeated on each loop, some, peeling and eating a tangerine, changing a tire, continue on each loop where they’d had left off. The second section ends when all the words have been replaced  images, which coincides as well with the endings of the continuing shots.

The final section begins with an empty shot of a winter landscape with a tree line in the distance. A man and a woman walking with a dog pass the camera from behind and begin to  move out into the distance. Six female voices in succession recite individual words, timed by a metronome at one second each, from a section of  “On Light, or the Ingression of Forms”, by  Robert Grosseteste, a 13thcentury English prelate and scholastic philosopher. Frampton used his own translation[ii] By the end of the reading, the figures have moved out of sight.

The first bodily form I judge to be Light. For Light, of itself, diffuses itself in  every direction, so that a sphere of Light as great as you please is born instantly from a point of Light.
But Form cannot abandon Matter because Form is not separable and Matter cannot be emptied of Form. 
Form is Light itself or the doer of its work and the bringer of dimensions into Matter. But Light is of a more noble and more excellent essence than all bodily things. 
Since Light, which is the first Form created in first Matter, could not 
abandon Matter, in the beginning of Time it drew out Matter along with itself 
into a mass as great as the fabric of the world.
When the first sphere has been completed in this way, it spreads out its daylight from every part of itself to the center of the whole. This daylight, in its passage, does not divide the body through which it passes, but assembles and  disperses it. And this assembling which disperses proceeded in order, until 
the nine celestial spheres were perfected. 
Matter for the four Elements was assembled within the ninth sphere, which is the sphere of the moon. The ninth sphere, engendering daylight from 
itself, and assembling the Mass within itself, has brought forth Fire. 
Fire engendering Light has brought forth Air. 
Air engendering from itself a bodily spirit has brought forth Water and Earth….

P. Adams Sitney 

In Zorn’s 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.[iii]

* Arnulf Rainer. 1960 film by the Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka, made up of cuts between black and white leader with changes so small, down to one or two frames, that the viewer is unable to register them. It’s a film about film, made to be read about, and ‘understood’ but not experienced. 

Zorn’s Lemma manifests the same paradox we’ve seen before, depending of whom we’re talking about, of autism and the closet: the expressive and insistent denial of expression, of the self. Wanda Bershen, writing in Artforum in 1971, fittingly considering the date, sees this anti-Humanism as liberating. 

Having established itself as belonging to the generic category of "film," Zorns Lemma proceeds to totally ignore normal movie conventions. Not only does the structure lie bare, unclothed by any vestige of "content," but that structure is self-constructed. The film maker has provided a set of conditions and allowed them simply to take their course as if programmed by a calculating machine. A 24-letter alphabet at 24 f.p.s. provides the entire structural frame of the movie. The implication here, of course is that the artist is less "responsible" than usual for his work. Rather than an inventor or "maker" he is a kind of "engineer," a director of forces which already exist in his world.

The 24-letter alphabet is man-made, while the 24-f.p.s. film speed is a requirement of film machinery. Philosophically this suggests a considerably less egocentric concept of the artist than has prevailed even in the earlier decades of our own century. And if the artist is not permitted full control of his creation, neither is the audience. Room is left for real interaction, for real discourse, in "real time" between the spectator and the thing observed. A work like Zorn's Lemma is incomplete without the viewer's participation. If the film is indeed a model for the general category of film-viewing, that fact has broad implications. What does it mean for an event to be "complete"? Does not each interaction of each viewer with each event (or object) produce a unique situation? Is not experience (and therefore knowledge) of every sort finally subjective, and personal, and beyond a certain point, incommunicable?[iv]

Rather than an inventor or "maker" he is a kind of "engineer," a director of forces which already exist in his world. Remember Daston and Galison. This is also a twist on Bourdieu’s mocking of the “singularity of experience” in art, since it “elaborates no laws”[v], and therefore is merely a function of banal entertainment. And now we have an argument that rules and laws promote a singularity of experience because there is no author. Bourdieu’s bureaucratic dehumanization has become a celebration of atomization. 

Allen S. Weiss, writing in October in 1985 is both more aware of the conflicts and more committed to radical esotericism, so even more committed to erudite denial. I’ll begin where he does. 

Copulation and mirrors are abominable. For 
one of those gnostics, the visible universe was 
an illusion or (more Precisely) a sophism. 
Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable 
because they multiply and disseminate that 
—Jorge Luis Borges 

I do not believe there is such a thing as a 
perfect appearance. Even an epiphany is not 
in the theological sense a perfect appearance. 
Appearance itself is imperfect, 
— Hollis Frampton 

To the abominations of copulation and mirrors one might add cinema. In a world where error, as Nietzsche teaches us, is the very precondition of thought, truth and beauty are always proximate to sophism and illusion, Cinema disposes of yet another set of codes which are available for ideological misappropriation. This disposition by means of seriality, exemplification, listing, and cataloguing operates within the limits of two antithetical functions. Either such listing is a subversive activity, destroying all taxonomic schemes, or lists serve as formal Imperatives, constituting structures and systems. In the former case, a hermeneutic schema entails a de-centering and de-totalizing logic of events, operating according to the aleatory conditions of' existence. In the latter, a hermeneutics entails a centering and totalizing logic of structures and formal systems, constituting a determinate axiomatics.

Hollis Frampton's film Zorn’s Lemmais structured according to a twofold axiomatic system. The first axiom is indicated by the film's title, which refers to mathematical set theory: "Zorn's lemma. The maximal principle: If T is partially ordered and each linearly ordered subset has an upper bound in T, then T contains at least one maximal element." The second axiom derives from the mystical philosophy expounded by Robert Grosseteste in On Light, or the Ingression of Forms, which offers a combination of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy to express a theology, ontology, and cosmology of light. A section of this text is read in the third part of the film. 

These two axioms are already figured within the text recited in the first part of the film, the eighteenth-century Massachusetts elementary school lesson book called The Bay State Primer. The production of the sets and subsets in the  second part of the film is determined by a system of substitutions and progressions ordered by the (abridged) twenty-four-letter alphabet of the English language used in the primer. The mathematical axiom is operative in the alphabetical order of the text; the theological axiom is operative in the biblical content of the text. Thus the twofold axiomatic system is articulated according to a double coding: structural and ontological. [vi]

Here he adds a footnote

Thus Annette Michelson is correct to claim that in this film Frampton "translated the contradistinctions between lyric and analytic modes" (Annette Michelson, "About Snow," October, no, 8 [Spring 19791, p, 116), Here, the lyrical is an expression of the mystical praise of God, a  poetic mode of knowledge; the analytic is an expression of the mathematization of sign systems, a "scientific" mode of knowledge. Both trades are expressed by Grosseteste's onto-theoÎogy,

All of this once again is reactionary, as intellectualism and as art. Frampton exhibits a high-brow variant of Mapplethorpe’s self-destruction,  like Borges through asceticism rather than orgasm, but still it’s Arendt’s Vita Contemplativa via nihilism and scholastic philosophy, old and new, because the alternative, mere subjectivity, can never be a truthFrampton speaks about mathematics and irony, but the ending of Zorn’s Lemma is sadness. “He aspired to recognition as a ‘stoic comedian’”[vii] The phrase comes from Hugh Kenner, writing about Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett.  And this from Kenner’s 1962 article, “Art in a Closed Field” 

Let me put this as flatly as possible: the dominant intellectual analogy of the present age is drawn not from biology, not from psychology (though these are sciences we are knowing about), but from general number theory. [viii]

Frampton’s model was Flaubert, but again it was the Flaubert’s statements, the Flaubert of Bourdieu and pretensions to science, not the novels themselves. Frampton’s art aspires to the art of “Modernism” the art of positivism, an art we only look at now, if we do, because the artist failed in his goals.

The weakness in Frampton’s films is the gap between the earnestness of his desire to make an art without subtext, and the subtext’s insistent presence. The amateurish ‘plainness’ of  the technique, from camera to voiceovers, combined with the rigor of the ideas, mean that the sadness is left to leak in around the edges. And it’s almost shocking to me how much the sadness, the sense of loss, is ignored by critics. His hyper-rationality combined with his intellectualism –two distinct things–­ combine to undermine whatever instincts he had that might have allowed his subtexts have free rein, the advantage artists have by following their craft more than intellect so that their contradictions are allowed to flower. Being an ironic control freak doesn’t make you any less a control freak.  As Callie Angell said to me about Warhol, “People say Andy said he was a machine, but he didn’t. He said he wanted to be a machine, and that’s not the same thing at all.”  Warhol had a brilliant eye. His technique was mechanical, but the humanity of the people in his films pours out almost uncontrollably.  Frampton’s eye was mechanical. He made a scholastic art of citation, committed as idea, not as art. The art is there, but he undermines it, undermining rather than using own subjectivity, needing to leave himself an out, as a conceptualist and critic. He was a brilliant man, with an IQ tested as a child at 187, and his fits the model of early 20thcentury allusive representation, of Eliot et al. to a T. He did everything to fit the bill, and not strategically. After writing to Ezra Pound he ended up moving to DC and visiting him every day for two years until they had a falling out, apparently over the color of Aphrodite’s hair. This could read as the debate of mad poets out of  The Horse’s Mouth, but it seems closer to debates among players of Dungeons and Dragons over Cthulhu.

Frampton wasn’t a nihilist like Borges, or a sadist; at heart he was earnest, behind a wall of erudition. His last completed work was his most emotionally direct. You get the sense that he was growing out of isolation. This he shares with Wittgenstein and Eliot, and also Robert Wilson as I’ll make clear later.

The text below is from Gloria! his last completed film, words scrolling up a  computer screen as he typed.

These propositions are offered numerically, in the order in which they presented themselves to me; and also alphabetically, according to the present state of my belief.

1. That we belonged to the same kinship group, sharing a tie of blood. [A]
2. That others belonged to the same kinship group, and partook of that tie. [Y]
3. That she kept pigs in the house, but never more than one at a time. Each such pig wore a green baize tinker's cap. [A]
4. That she convinced me, gradually, that the first person singular pronoun was, after all, grammatically feasible. [E]
5. That she was obese. [C]
6. That she taught me to read. [A]
7. That she read to me, when I was three years old, and for purposes of her own, William Shakespeare's “The Tempest”. She admonished me for liking Caliban best. [B]
8. That she gave me her teeth, when she had them pulled, to play with. [A]
9. That she was nine times brought to bed with child, and for the last time in her fifty-fifth year, bearing on that occasion stillborn twin sons. No male child was born alive, but four daughters survive. [B]
10. That my mother, her eldest daughter, was born in her sixteenth year. [D]
11. That she was married on Christmas Day, 1909, a few weeks after her thirteenth birthday. [A]
12. That her connoisseurship of the erotic in the vegetable world was unerring. [A]
13. That she was a native of Tyler County, West Virginia, who never knew the exact year of her own birth till she was past sixty. [A]
14. That I deliberately perpetuate her speech, but have only fragmentary recollection of her pronunciation. [H]
15. That she remembered, to the last, a tune played at her wedding party by two young Irish coalminers who had brought guitar and pipes. She said it sounded like quacking ducks; she thought it was called “Lady Bonaparte”. [A]
16. That her last request was for a bushel basket full of empty quart measures. [C]

This work, in its entirety, is given in loving memory of Fanny Elizabeth Catlett Cross, my maternal grandmother, who was born on November 6, 1896, and who died on November 24, 1973.  

It’s a deeply sad film, the sentences scrolling up like the words of a melancholy computer: the memories of HAL.  The text is “bracketed by quotations” as Sitney describes them –with unnecessary detail– of  “two films from the Paper Print Collection of the Library of Congress”, though unnamed by Frampton, Murphy's Wake, and A Wake in Hell's Kitchen,both from 1903, short silent comedies about dead men who aren’t so dead after all and have fun at their own funerals, at the expense of the mourners. Frampton’s film is silent until the end of the 16 propositions, after which over the empty green screen we hear “an auditory quotation of  ‘Lady Bonaparte,' an Irish gig [sic]”. In fact  we hear the entire song, played by Finbar Furey. Then the second silent film cuts in, ending with the deceased, having scared off the last of his friends, left to dance and drink from an abandoned bottle of whisky.  The film cuts to black over which the typing begins again, the last sentence not rising off the screen like the  previous texts but to the top and fading to black. 

4. That she convinced me, gradually, that the first person singular pronoun was, after all, grammatically feasible. [E]

She helped him say “I”. She helped him to learn to accept a self, a subjectivity, what it means to be human.  

It’s a beautiful film, but a small one. To say that it’s more is to buy into a lie of a positivist art, an art of statements, and the lies that Frampton told himself and that his work undermines, but not strongly enough. 


[i]  J. Hoberman, “Hollis Frampton at Anthology: Here, There, Everywhere”. The Village Voice, March 25th2009
[ii]Hollis Frampton, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton,ed. Bruce Jenkins, MIT Press 2009 p. 194
[iii]  P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film:
The American Avant-Garde 1943–2000,Oxford University Press, 1974 (2002) p 369
[iv]Wanda Bershen, "Zorns Lemma," ARTFORUM, September, 1971, pp. 41-45. 
[v]Bourdieu, Rules for Art, p. xv
[vi] Allen S. Weiss, “Frampton's Lemma, Zorn's Dilemma”, October, Vol. 32, Hollis Frampton (Spring, 1985), pp. 118-128 
[vii]P. Adams Sitney, Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson, Oxford University Press 2008. p.102
[viii]  Hugh Kenner, “Art in a Closed Field”, The Virginia Quarterly Review,Vol. 38, No. 4 (Autumn 1962), pp. 597-613 

continuing here.

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