Photo: Zorns Lemma, Dir. Hollis Frampton, USA, 1970, 16mm, 60 mins

Hollis Frampton

Film Programme: Zorns Lemma

Zorns Lemma, Dir. Hollis Frampton, USA, 1970, 16mm, 60 mins

One of the great experimental films.  A 60 minute, three part riddle that maybe approximates our intellectual development by moving from imageless words to the recognition of silent images and the learning of simple tasks and finally a serenity and acceptance of death. It does all this by activating the viewer in deciphering what they see and hear.

Frampton is another of the last century’s great filmmakers; he’s a key figure in the movement that saw films created around pre-conceived structural concepts (numbers of frames/ shots, their order, fixed camera positions, serialist use of a set of individual frames…), as a means of freeing film from symbolism and narrative. One of the many reasons why we admire him is that, in order to get the most from film, he doesn’t assume that you the viewer knows everything, or that you know the basis of his chosen structure this time (you often need to look to philosophy, physics and set theory to grasp his films impulse 1, but assumes that you can reasonably be expected to get up and do some research.

Frampton made tens of silent films, and only a handful of sound films. This was due largely to the depth of his thinking about the potentials of sound film; and perhaps maybe yes, no small measure of disappointment in his view that those potentials had not been fully explored/ realised.  And so but the use of sound in any Frampton film is both rare and significant.

We’ve included Zorns Lemma in the programme here because it treats the sound-image relationship quite a good deal more complexly than your average syneasthetia based experimental film.  Frampton’s idea of sound in film is based on a deep reading of Eisenstein’s notion of vertical montage, where sound and image could be made to occur synchronously but in counterpoint, in the process creating what Eisenstein called a filmic analogy to harmony; a sort of filmic chord.  Here, the means to which sound is used (or not) in different sections of the film is deeply considered, and integral to the wider aims of the film; 

The most fruitful approach to the (film), however, is to see it as a narrative mapping of human intellectual development. This approach accounts not only for the film's particular imagery and sound, but for the unusual experience the film creates for viewers. Essentially, the three sections of Zorns Lemmacorrespond to three phases of life - childhood, youth or young adulthood, and maturity - phases that are often characterized by different forms of intellectual process. Frampton places the viewer in relationships to imagery and sound that are analogous to the successive phases of development. (Scott MacDonald)

Or put another way: the film‘s a sound-image riddle that approximates the mental tasks of: childhood (learning to hear before being able to see); young adulthood / maturity (learning to perform complex tasks, to attribute meaning to what we see in context) and; old age (a walk into a forest as a metaphor for the acceptance of death).

Below is an online link which you can use for reference. To see the film in its original glory, check with the distributor of the film for their terms and conditions.


  • 1.  Just one example, Zorns Lemma is an axiom of Set Theory, the equivalent to the well-ordering theorem and the axiom of choice, and states that “Every partially ordered set in which every chain (i.e. totally ordered subset) has an upper bound contains at least one maximal element”.
  • Zorns Lemma