Friday, February 1, 2013

Zorn's Lemma (February 1st at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[ZORN'S LEMMA screens Friday February 1st at 7:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

You know, I earned my degree at Syracuse University, where the school football mascot is an orange sphere with legs. And it never even occurred to me to ask who or what he was? Just now I've learned the Syracuse University college football mascot is called Otto the Orange. The pride of the Syracuse Orangemen. Okay. That's like 35 years of my ignorance, cured at last. Was it worth it?

Shortly before going to an `online-only' version (meaning a transitional step to going out of business entirely; happy New Year to you too), the esteemed Newsweek Magazine asked in a cover story if college indeed was still worth it. For me, personally, no. I went to Syracuse in a lovely corner of New York state and earned a costly degree from SU's illustrious communications college...and then I languished into a failure-to-launch post-grad life of perpetual rejected employment applications and subsistence intervals of freelancing. None of the fellow students I met maintained any ties with me. It was the life that I would have most likely led with no higher-education schooling whatsoever. The only thing the Syracuse diploma brought me (besides one short-lived scriptwriting gig with an alumni that fetched me a sum total of $350) were a wealth - sarcastic use of the word, possibly - of memories from four years of big-time university life. For what that's worth.

In this case, it's worth a space-filler on this blog. Not exactly what graduation speaker Mario Cuomo told us young, optimistic SU kids in our caps and gowns what our lives in the 21st century would be like.

But it was at Syracuse, in a cloistered classroom, that I beheld a classic "experimental" film entitled ZORN'S LEMMA on good old fashioned 16mm, the way that filmmaker Hollis Frampton shot it.
And I must say that I've had worse cinematic experiences, though if I were imagining dollar after dollar of tuition money evaporating into oblivion during the short-feature running time I might have been a little put off.

The movie, as I recall, begins with an odd sequence of out-of-sync recitation as a guy discusses some right-wing misdeeds on the part of the US government. Or maybe that was another experimental movie, but as ZORN'S LEMMA was made in 1970, well, gotta satisfy the campus-revolutionary demo, no? The main section of ZORN'S LEMMA has nothing to do with the bookends, as Frampton depicts a number of graphic elements and signage, ultimately settling on a complete A-Z primer of words. He repeats this alphabetical sequence, gradually introducing images in place of the individual words. Over and over this happens, until the entire lexicon we've seen are replaced with images (burning logs, an orange being peeled, etc.).

The clever bit is that, if one stays awake, one begins to consistently associate the vanished word with whatever seemingly random visual that Frampton mated to it. For a while, like an afterimage, you can still visualize the word. Even when the sequence is now almost entirely pictures. So a new lexicon, one of moving-picto-grams, if you will, evolves. That's a pretty neat neurological/psychological trick.

At least for me it was. I've seen lots (and avoided even more) of "avant-garde" and experimental movies and (ugh) `video installations' that have had far less to offer. So, okay, if you have the chance to dig ZORN'S LEMMA, it is a bit of a head trip without the frequent headache, and it may even make more sense to watch it when you're sober, which must have been pretty daring for 1970.

And for myself, back on the Syracuse campus in the early-VHS, pre-DVD, pre-Web, pre-download era, my curiosity over Frampton's little masterwork was at last satisfied, as I had long been reading tantalizing references to ZORN'S LEMMA in the academic cinema journals I used to peruse. So, that’s one in the “win” column for my college investment. A very small “win” column, last I checked.

Yes, I read brainy academic cinema journals on those long-ago cold, wintery New York nights. Not even something fun like Famous Monsters of Filmland. Obviously I had no girlfriend on campus either. Damn straight college is a waste, Newsweek! Why didn't you conclude that in the early '80s, when I had time to back out? (2 1/2 stars out of 4)

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