Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)

While watching The Story of Film, I’ve been marking down the names of movies Mark Cousins discusses which I haven’t seen. And since I love lists, I thought I’d pick one title per Story episode and watch it, more or less chronologically. I call it The Story of Film Festival.

For years I’d been meaning to watch Birth of a Nation, then after reading Rosenbaum’s article about the AFI 100 list, I’ve been meaning to watch Intolerance instead. I’ve enjoyed some of Griffith’s shorts (A Corner in Wheat, The House with Closed Shutters) but never tackled any of his features, which seems a major oversight considering how important they were in film history (or in “the story of film”). While watching Intolerance, I dutifully noted Griffith’s pioneering editing style. I marvelled at the few extreme close-ups and dolly shots, a couple apparent crane shots, and heaping tons of cross-cutting, both between and within the four different time periods. But besides the academic interest, I found the movie boring and heavy-handed. It could’ve used a couple rewrites – the four stories of intolerance told simultaneously don’t work well together, and two of them (Paris and Judea) don’t work at all. Maybe this is because of deleted scenes, but I certainly don’t wish for the movie to be longer. Hopefully I’ll end up enjoying his shorter, more personal stories like Broken Blossoms and True Heart Susie more than this one, but now I’m in no hurry to watch those.

“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”

Lillian Gish (star of Broken Blossoms) rocks this cradle meaningfully beneath a sunbeam whenever Griffith lacked a good transition scene between time periods.

In the “present” of the 1910’s, wealthy Mary Jenkins, “unmarried sister of the autocratic industrial overlord” is ignored at a party and so “realizes the bitter fact that she is no longer a part of the younger world.” So she joins a stuffy ladies’ reform club dedicated to the “uplift of humanity” (read: censorship, prohibition, and making things generally boring).

Meanwhile, the father of The Dear One (ugh) works at the Jenkins factory. The mill orders a wage cut (to conserve funds for Mary’s reform group), a strike ensues, lots of cannon fire (reportedly modeled after a bloody strike at a Rockefeller factory). The Boy’s father dies (excuse me, “the Loom of Fate weaves death” for him). The surviving protagonists move to the city, where The Boy and “The Friendless One” get tangled up with gangsters (“musketeers”) and Dear One’s dad dies (sorry, “inability to meet new conditions brings untimely death” to him). Boy and Dear are to be married, but his boss doesn’t like quitters, plants stolen goods on the Boy which “intolerate him away for a term” in prison, because the titles love to use that word even when it doesn’t fit. While he’s in prison, his Dear wife has a baby, which is taken away by the Intolerant reformists and raised by careless nurses.

Friendless Miriam Cooper, actually married to Raoul Walsh:

In ancient Jerusalem, there’s some stuff about hypocrites among the pharisees, funniest part of the movie. Jesus turns water to wine, proving that he is on the side of fun, not like the stuffy ol’ reform club of the present-day scenes. Then this whole segment is forgotten.

A hypocritic pharisee, probably not played by Erich von Stroheim:

In 1570’s France, the catholic king’s mother hates the Hugenots (protestants), and despite some royal wedding that’s supposed to bring peace, she schemes to destroy them. Meanwhile, down in the peasantry, Brown Eyes is dating Prosper Latour (the great Eugene Pallette of The Lady Eve – weird to see him young and silent).

The King with mum Josephine Crowell, who’d play queens in The Man Who Laughs and The Merry Widow:

Protestant leader Admiral Coligny: Joseph Henabery, a prolific director who also played Lincoln in Birth of a Nation

At the Great Gate of Babylon in 539 B.C. (an intertitle brags about the movie’s life-size replica walls), the Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton, prolific director of westerns in the 40’s, also made the marijuana scare flick Assassin of Youth) is a warrior poet, agent of the High Priest of Bel, who falls for a Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge, with the most modern look in the movie, despite wearing a hat that looks like a spinach salad with olives). Their leader is great and Tolerant, but the high priest is annoyed that some people worship a rival goddess, so he schemes to assist the Persians when they attack Babylon by having the impenetrable gates opened for them.

Mountain Girl joins in the battle:

So all the stories (not counting Judea) are about poor, pretty girls having their lives ruined because of greedy decisions made by rich, powerful people. The movie is incredibly obvious, so I got bored and spent much of the second half imagining the bloody murder of everyone involved. And then that’s pretty much what happened.

But first – two doves pull a chariot carrying a rose:

In the present: “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice” – cue montage of the ugly women of the reform movement. But the reformists’ actions have simply moved the drinking and partying underground, where it’s more dangerous for being unregulated. The Boy returns home, the Musketeer gets involved in their lives again, then the jealous Friendless One kills him. Boy is blamed and sentenced to hang, but T.F.O. confesses at the last minute, so a car carrying her races to beat the governor’s train and stop the execution in time.

Robert “Boy” Harron (star of Griffith’s True Heart Susie, who killed himself in 1920) with Dear Mae Marsh (appeared in small roles in John Ford movies through the mid-60’s):

Babylon is attacked by Persian “Cyrus, world-conqueror” with his sword “forged in the flames of intolerance,” assisted by the jealous high priest. Hilarious moment in the fight when a warrior knocks another’s head clean off – then it happens again, in case you missed it.

In France: The Massacre of St. Bartholemew: a morning army assault on the unsuspecting protestants.

Unsuspecting Prosper (Eugene Pallette!) and Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson, later author of The Pocket Book of Etiquette and The Complete Book of Charm):

After hours and hours of long setup, the movie picks up the pace, cross-cutting between two battles and the final hours before the Boy’s hanging.

Brown Eyes is speared to death while Prosper runs through the city to reach her, then when he curses out the soldiers for killing his beloved, they blow him away with rifles.

Brown Eyes meets spear head:

Every character we’ve met in Babylon is killed, the Mountain Girl shot full of arrows.

But the Boy is spared and reunited with his Dear One, though their missing baby is never mentioned. IMDB says all sorts of alternate versions and deleted scenes exist, one of which shows the baby coming home with them. The site also says that after filming, Babylon was declared a fire hazard, and that Jesus Christ was deported for having sex with 14-year-olds. I need to watch Buster Keaton’s parody (only an hour long) The Three Ages again sometime.

Crazy ending:

People supposedly involved in this movie who appeared in minor roles whom I failed to spot: Tod Browning, Frank Borzage, Douglas Fairbanks and W.S. Van Dyke. Behind the scenes: Erich von Stroheim, Victor Fleming, Billy Bitzer, Jack Conway, Allan Dwan, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-author Anita Loos and Howard Hawks head writer Charles Lederer.

L’Amore (1948, Roberto Rossellini)

For a while there, I dismissed all Italian movies. Their horror is badly acted and makes no sense, 98% of their movies have awful lipsync and among the higher-quality pics I’ve seen are The Leopard (which I hate) and flicks starring Roberto Benigni. Sure, I admit Antonioni and Fellini can be great, and I liked Suspiria a whole lot, so I figured I’d give the country another shot this year via poster-boy Rossellini. Rome, Open City was wonderful, but before moving on to Paisan I took a pit stop with L’Amore, wanting more Anna Magnani – and what a pit it was.

L’Amore is actually a film and a half, or an hour-long feature preceded by a short. First off is The Human Voice, a one-woman play written in 1930 by Jean Cocteau. I’d heard it performed before, on an LP by Ingrid Bergman recorded sometime after her divorce from Rossellini and return to Hollywood. So two Rossellini lovers recorded the same French monologue – coincidence? The play is pretty straightforward, a woman who’s been dumped awaits a call from her ex-guy, talks to him through a failing connection, going through various levels of grief. Should be a showy actresses’s dream role. The Bergman LP sold it better, as far as I’m concerned, sounding more like an actual phone call, all the visuals imagined. Rossellini’s version adds straightforward visuals – an unkempt Magnani on the phone in her room, with no fancy editing or showy camerawork. The biggest problem is the sound, distractingly out of sync (distracting even for me, who was busily reading subtitles), harsh and shrill, Magnani’s whining getting on my nerves until I finally turned the volume waaay down. You’d suppose a one-person movie in a single room would have been a good chance for the Italians to try recording synchronized sound for the first time ever, but even the pioneering Rossellini didn’t think to try that.

In the second part, The Miracle, from a story by Fellini, simple Nanni has a religious mania. While up in the mountains herding goats, she meets a lone dude, whom she welcomes as Saint Joseph (as in the stepfather of Jesus). They share some wine and she wakes up later, wanders back to work. A few months later she’s pregnant. Neighbors taunt and joke with her, a devilish midget throws her from her “home,” which looked like a pile of clothes in a plaza, then literally the entire town comes out to throw her a fake parade then throw stuff at her. So she flees up the mountain, delivers the baby herself.

G. Moliterno: “… largely made, as Rossellini himself acknowledges in the film’s epigraph, to showcase the consummate acting talents of Anna Magnani.”

He also mentions that the Human Voice segment was shot in Paris during prep for Germany Year Zero. “A clear indication of Rossellini’s greater than usual attention to visual style here is given by the pronounced presence of mirrors throughout the film in order to underscore the ongoing fragmentation of the self.”

And if I may overquote from the same source:

[Nanni] clearly anticipates the characters of Gelsomina and Cabiria in Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but Magnani channels an animistic vitality into the role that makes the poetry of Fellini’s two later creatures appear wan in comparison. And in fact, despite Fellini’s own appearance in the film as the silent and mysterious vagabond who prompts Nanni’s religious delirium… Nannì brings to mind the “durochka” or holy fool, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. … [Appeals against the film’s banning in the States] also overturned the Court’s own decision in 1915 which had for decades denied films the status of self-expression and thus protection under the First Amendment. Part of the miracle of Il miracolo, then, turned out to be its role in initiating the beginning of the demise of film censorship in the United States.

Greaser’s Palace (1972, Robert Downey)

“I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.”

A woman is singing a song about the virtue of virginity at the Palace when head honcho Greaser’s son Lamie Homo freaks out, getting himself shot dead for interrupting the entertainment. Soon “Jessy” parachutes into the Western movie, resurrects Homo, and goes about impressing everyone with his magic tricks such as walking on water and bleeding from his hands. Meanwhile, a woman wakes up finding her husband and son (cameo by six-year-old Robert Downey Jr.) dead, then loses all her worldly possessions and gets shot a bunch of times, crawling through the desert with no water. It all seems like it might be a metaphor for something.

The son and the holy ghost:

I didn’t get all the metaphors, though – Hervé “da plane” Villechaize is married to a bearded guy in a dress, Greaser has a constipation problem, Jessy’s entertainment agent walks around the desert as if underwater, characters are named Cholera, Coo Coo and Seaweedhead. On one hand it seems like a fun bit of anarchy – the movie can have a Monty Python-like comic sensibility – but if you check the web you’ll find articles willing to draw biblical connections to every last detail. Downey himself underplays it: “The idea of the trinity of the father and the son and the holy ghost parachuting into a western to get it right this time is all I went with.”

Jesse and Herve:

I’ve seen my share of mad westerns – Straight to Hell, The Last Movie, The Shooting – but this one played more like El Topo, seemed more desperate and dangerous than your usual movie, but never without a script and a plan. Unfamiliar cast – Allan Arbus (who’d later play director Gregory LaCava in a W.C. Fields bio-pic) as Jesus, Albert Henderson (of Serpico and Big Top Pee Wee) as Greaser, his main gal was Luana Anders, a Corman actress who followed Nicholson to Easy Rider and The Last Detail, and the Agent Morris was Don Calfa of Return of the Living Dead.

D. Carter:

Jessy is a meeker version of Christ, clear in his intentions but unsure how to accomplish them. … He is a showman, not a messiah or prophet. Walking on water and raising the dead are part of his “act,” and he only reluctantly offers the people advice after he is shown a picture of the Last Supper, calling into question whether Downey intended him to literally represent Christ or merely a Christ-like figure—though it’s most likely a cheeky attempt to obscure any deliberate meaning. Inspired by the image, Jessy comes up with the idea to tell the townspeople of a malevolent force called “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana” living outside of the town, while reassuring them that he has interceded on their behalf because he believes them to be good people. It is a humorous analogue to the Christian belief of Christ’s intercession with God to save believers from Hell, but one that implies that belief is nothing but a parable intended to give people comfort.

“If ya feel, ya heal”

Buy from Amazon:
Greaser’s Palace DVD

Ordet (1955, Carl Th. Dreyer)

Proud father of three Morten Borgen has carved out a name for himself in the community. A devout Christian farmer, his beliefs differ somehow (I wasn’t exactly sure how) from those of the local prayer group and he’s trying to win more converts to his side. His son Mikkel’s wife Inger, the only woman of the house, is a mother of two with a third on the way.
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Son Johannes was supposed to be a religion scholar, but he had a terrible time with Kierkegaard and lost his damned mind, now walks the house claiming to be Jesus Christ when he isn’t wandering the countryside lost.
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Youngest son (right) Anders wants to marry the daughter of Peter Petersen (left), leader of the town prayer group, but he’s disallowed because of the two older men’s religious feud.
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When Inger’s pregnancy is suddenly in trouble, Peter wishes her death.
His wish is granted.
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Johannes reappears mid-funeral during a reconciliation of the two stubborn men, who put aside their differences of belief so their children can be together. In front of the men, the kids, the doctor and Inger’s atheist husband Mikkel, Jesus-Johannes raises Inger from the dead.
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Movie is set in 1925, so only the doctor has a car. Moves rather slow, glad I had some coffee in me. Didn’t seem like my thing for a while – flashbacks to Gertrud, a movie I didn’t get – but an hour later I’ve gotta admit it’s one of the most beautiful works of cinema ever made. Just look at these fucking stills. I’m sure there’s more reading I could do, tons and tons of articles written about it, but I’m gonna skip ‘em and let it stand for itself right now.

The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Even in a year of crazy films like The Wicker Man and Touki Bouki, ain’t nothing crazy enough to sit with The Holy Mountain. This was the last of Jodorowsky’s fully-realized features until Santa Sangre (nobody, AJ included, seems to like The Rainbow Thief or Tusk).

Third shot of movie: Director/Alchemist with women who will soon be shaved:
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First half-hour is free-flowing. A Thief (who I didn’t realize never speaks) wanders with a deformed dwarf, getting beaten up and attending a toad-and-chameleon circus, while around them dissidents are executed, riot police hold a dead-animal parade, and priests pick up underage prostitutes. Finally the thief breaks into a mighty tower occupied by The Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) who cleanses him, turns his shit into gold, and then introduces our other characters and their corresponding planets:
– Fon/Venus – narcissist who runs fashion & cosmetic companies, slave to his dad
– Isla/Mars – major arms manufacturer
– Klen/Jupiter – sex-obsessed artist
– Sel/Saturn – makes war toys to prejudice kids vs. countries we plan to invade
– Berg/Uranus – murderous bureaucrat
– Axon/Neptune – ruthless mohawked police chief with testicle collection
– Lut/Pluto – futuristic architect, designing sleep-chamber apartments
(I had to look some of those up – movie is sensory overload, I forgot stuff)

Three chameleons prepare to defend Mexico from the toad invasion:
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Kind of a Jesus/disciples thing, but is the Thief Jesus or is the Alchemist? They go through intensive spiritual training, then Alchemist leads them to the Holy Mountain atop which nine ancient immortals control our planet, with the goal of deposing them and becoming immortal themselves. Each traveler has a dream of their own bizarre death, but they continue to the table at the summit, where they find dolls in the seats. Sitting down, camera pulls back to reveal Jodorowsky’s lighting and sound crew, and he proclaims the truth: “We are images, dreams, photographs,” freeing them from the film itself.

Atop The Holy Mountain:
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Haven’t checked out the commentary yet (tried to listen at work, but of course it’s in Spanish), but in a modern interview online, Jodorowsky says he never killed animals for his movies – not even the rabbits in El Topo. That’s surprising, but I’ll take the guy at his word. He also says he became a feminist during the making of Holy Mountain, and indeed it’s hard to think of movies less feminist than his previous two. He’s a fan of Lynch, Cronenberg and Starship Troopers, and I wish him luck with his long-delayed Lynch-produced next movie.

Alchemist & Thief in chamber of mirrors:
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Cinematographer Rafael Corkidi shot The Mansion of Madness the same year. A few of the actors have popped up elsewhere… Lut/Pluto had a small part in The Exterminating Angel, Axon/Neptune was an Oliver Stone collaborator throughout the 90’s, and Fon/Venus plays the lead girl’s dad on the show Rebelde.

Our director:
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After Calvaire and Frontier(s), it’s the third movie this week with a hair-shaving scene.

The Milky Way (1969, Luis Buñuel)

This is one of Buñuel’s anarchic sketch films (see also: Simon of the Desert, Phantom of Liberty) which he made in between his relatively more normal, subversive upper-class films (in this case between Belle de Jour and Tristana). I still think I appreciate his films more than I enjoy them, but the more of them I watch, the more I feel that his career is unassailable, that his last twenty years of filmmaking produced one long masterpiece. It turns out I had seen this before, though I barely remembered it. Must’ve rented the tape from Videodrome. Don’t think I finished it last time, because it got foggier around the halfway point.

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Such a smart and well-researched movie, I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. I can discuss the cinematic aspects though. Good photography with no surprises, unusually long shots but not noticeably/showoffy long. Buñuel’s movies always feel the tiniest bit too slow for me, too perfectly calm and collected, the acting and sets and camerawork too high-quality for their content, which I suppose is the point.

The plot is a “picaresque”, two beggars wander into various scenarios during their long walk from Paris France to a holy pilgrimage spot in Santiago Spain – although it turns out they’re not on a pilgrimage themselves, they just heard there’s a huge crowd in Santiago where they can get rich on spare change. Different historical periods and bible stories blend into their present-day 1960’s voyage without anyone batting an eye. They meet Satan(?), the Whore of Babylon, and lots of people discussing the six central mysteries of Catholicism and their associated heresies. They do not meet Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Marquis de Sade or the Pope, but they’re all in the movie via sidetracks from the main action (though one could argue that it’s all sidetracks). Plenty of surreal moments keep the movie lively even when the dialogue is all obscure religious debate.

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French cinematographer Christian Matras was about Buñuel’s age, had also shot most of Max Ophüls’ best films, also The Eagle Has Two Heads with Cocteau and Grand Illusion with Renoir. Co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (also an occasional actor) worked on most of Bunuel’s 60’s-70’s stuff and over a hundred other movies, including recent ones like Chinese Box, Birth and Goya’s Ghosts. The guy who played Jesus starred in Rohmer’s sixth moral tale a couple years later. Virgin Mary Edith Scob was in Franju’s Judex in the 60’s, and lately in some Raoul Ruiz films and the newest by Olivier Assayas. Of the two tramps, the older would be in the next two of Buñuel’s French films, and the younger would star in Clouzot’s La Prisonnière and Godard’s Détective.

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In the DVD interviews, Ian Christie tries to make us feel better for not knowing the historical references – he says nobody knew them. He got a press kit. The film was influenced by The Saragossa Manuscript, which sounds cool. “What heresy means for him is a kind of metaphor, I think, for human beings’ fascination with arguing about the immaterial, the invisible, trying to bolt it down and make it literal.” Screening when it did, it was alternately seen as cleverly reflecting or having nothing to do with the political and social upheaval in late 60’s France. Interview with the writer and documentary on the DVD are both pretty alright, nothing that needs repeating here.

Our two bums with the whore of babylon:
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Michel Piccoli as the Marquis de Sade:
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Alain Cuny as the mysterious walkin’ guy:
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L’Age d’or reference:
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Shorts watched July 2008

Les Miracles de la cene (1988, Pascal Aubier)

Jesus as cheap magician. The water-into-wine and one-loaf-into-many tricks impress the Last Supper crowd, but yanking out the tablecloth doesn’t work as well. Very short, wordless comedy – lovely.

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Blood of the Beast (1949, Georges Franju)

Wowie, I’d put off watching this short doc because I figured it would be intense and horrifying. Then I had some time to kill at our hotel in Virginia, and there it was on my laptop, so I put it on… a slaughterhouse documentary, hours before going to a fancy restaurant with steak and veal dishes, stupid. So I had to order the fish. Movie has the same fascinating combination of beauty and horror, poetry and death which permeated Night and Fog. A classic, but not one to watch very often.

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three by Hollis Frampton and Kenneth Anger (1964-70)

Wonderful 16mm screening at Emory, but not well-received by the students and regulars who came to be entertained. Silly students and regulars, it is not a university’s job to entertain you!

Scorpio Rising – 1964, Kenneth Anger
Couldn’t remember if I’d seen this before, but of course I have… opening credits bedazzled onto a motorcycle jacket were immediately familiar. Despite the nazi imagery and comparisons between bikers headed for a gay orgy and Jesus and his disciples, I heard no complaints. I think people enjoyed the juxtapositions (well-prepared presenter Andy warned us about ‘em in advance) and grooved on the hot 60’s rock radio score (kept hearing “oh I love this song” from behind me).

Lemon – 1969, Hollis Frampton
Lovely film, second time I’ve seen it. Should be shown every year. Only comment overheard: “I don’t know about the second movie. Just a lemon.” Mostly people were quiet about this one. I choose to believe that they were awed into silence, contemplating its light play and imagining possible deeper meanings, and not quietly wondering what they needed to pick up at the grocery store. A movie can feel much longer or shorter than it is. Lemon is supposed to be seven or eight minutes long, but I say it feels like four, five tops.

Zorns Lemma – 1970, Hollis Frampton
(no apostrophe, in tribute to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake)
Okay, this one feels its length… its exact length, measured second by second.
1) Black screen, voice reads us some children’s poetry, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Roman alphabet (so I=J and U=V) to make 24.
2) The meat of the piece, 24 seconds, one letter per section. First section we see each letter once. Then a word beginning with each letter. Then again (different shots, different words). Again. Again, but X has been replaced by a shaking, roaring fire. Again, with the fire. Again. Again. Again, but Z has been replaced by the ocean, flat horizon, a wave rolling out to sea. Again with the fire and the ocean. Again. 24 letters at 24 frames per second (though it’s 25 seconds if you consider that each alphabet section is followed by a second of black, a shout-out to our PAL-locked buds in Europe who see everything on video a little faster than we do). And on until, some 40 minutes later, each letter has been replaced (C was the last to go). No audio except the groaning and laughter of my fellow filmgoers.
3) Sound and Vision together! A visual cooling-down after part two, two people and their dog walk across a snowy field from bottom of the screen to top as six alternating female voices on the soundtrack read us some philosophical writings about light – at precisely one word per second.
4) The audience members (those who hadn’t walked out) were horrified!

D. Sallitt liked it:

The bizarre experience of taking a test during a movie was completely distracting, so that I absorbed the materiality and the narrativity of the alphabet images only indirectly, during brief rest periods. Somehow this strengthened my investment in the images: I don’t think I would have found the “letter H” guy’s walk around the corner very interesting in itself, but that corner took on mythic spatial qualities for me.

Hahaha, I know what he means about the corner. Of the little movies that replace each letter, seen in one-second increments, some stay pretty much the same (the fire, the tide) and some progress as time passes (someone peels and eats a tangerine, this guy walks towards a corner). Everyone breathes a little sigh of relief when, finally after a half hour, the man disappears around the corner in a one-second bit toward the end. Next bit is just the corner. Next one the man comes back around the corner! Must be considered one of the biggest twist endings in non-narrative avant-garde cinema.

excerpts from S. MacDonald:

Even a partial understanding of Frampton’s films requires a rudimentary sense of the history of mathematics, science, and technology and of the literary and fine arts. … Nowhere is Frampton’s assumption that his viewers can be expected to be informed, or to inform themselves, more obvious than in Zorns Lemma, the challenging film that established Frampton as a major contributor to alternative cinema. Zorns Lemma combines several areas of intellectual and esthetic interest Frampton had explored in his early photographic work and in his early films. His fascination with mathematics, and in particular with set theory … is the source of the title Zorns Lemma. Mathematician Max Zorn’s “lemma,” the eleventh axiom of set theory, proposes that, given a set of sets, there is a further set composed of a representative item from each set. Zorns Lemma doesn’t exactly demonstrate Zorn’s lemma, but Frampton’s allusion to the “existential axiom” is appropriate, given his use of a set of sets to structure the film. Frampton’s longtime interest in languages and literature is equally evident in Zorns Lemma. …

The tripartite structure of Zorns Lemma can be understood in various ways, at least two of them roughly suggestive of early film history. The progression from darkness, to individual onesecond units of imagery, to long, continuous shots. … If the second section of Zorns Lemma is Muybridgian – not only in its general use of the serial, but because the one-second bits of the replacement images “analyze” continuous activities or motions in a manner analogous to Muybridge’s motion studies – the final section is Lumieresque.

As set after set of alphabetized words and their environments is experienced, it is difficult not to develop a sense of Frampton’s experience making the film. The film’s collection of hundreds of environmental words suggests that the film was a labor of love, and an index of the filmmaker’s extended travels around lower Manhattan, looking for, finding, and recording the words.

For most viewers the experience of “learning” the correspondences is fatiguing – especially since the process of watching sixty shots a minute for more than forty-seven minutes is grueling by itself – but the laborious process has been willingly (if somewhat grudgingly) accepted. The experience of learning the correspondences is the central analogy of the second section. It replicates the experience of learning that set of terms and rules necessary for the exploration of any intellectual field.

In a philosophic sense, Grosseteste’s treatise [spoken during the third segment] is an attempt to understand the entirety of the perceivable world as an emblem of the spiritual. And, on the literal level, what Grosseteste describes in the eleventh century is demonstrated by the twentieth-century film image: For a filmmaker, after all, light is the “first bodily form,” which, literally, draws out “matter along with itself into a mass as great as the fabric of the world.”