Avant-garde saxophonist/composer John Zorn incorporates wildly disparate musical genres, from head-banging rock to Sephardic klezmer and experimental classical. Claudia Heuermann's years-in-the-making study of Zorn is similarly kaleidoscopic in technique.

Avant-garde saxophonist/composer John Zorn incorporates wildly disparate musical genres, from head-banging rock to Sephardic klezmer and experimental classical. Claudia Heuermann’s years-in-the-making study of Zorn is similarly kaleidoscopic in technique; her approach — to fragment her film into numbered “stories” and show them out of order, flashing backward and forward in time — captures the eclectic nature of Zorn’s output better than would a more linear style. Yet the form her deconstruction sometimes takes, particularly in further chopping up Zorn’s story with passages describing the making of the docu itself, needlessly blurs the lines between Zorn’s process and Heuermann’s. Nevertheless, pic should please Zorn fans and score in music and indie venues.

Zorn’s fascinatingly mixed bag of compositional methods range from the frenzied anger of his punk-ish “Naked City” band to the interactive jazz riffs of his sax-led klezmer group “Masada” to his scored classical concerts featuring violins, cellos, wind machines, crumpled papers and the wailing lament of Japanese sopranos. The composer has also worked out a complex system of signal cards that can be called for by any player, triggering changes for the rest of the ensemble, with Zorn controlling the pace but not the content of these snatches of sound.

The likeness of Zorn’s experiments to basic film editing is no accident. He cites the influence of Warner Bros. Cartoons’ resident maestro Carl Stalling, whose practice of breaking down compositions into discrete units was a revelation. He also regards movie music giant Bernard Herrmann as an inspiration. And Zorn himself has scored an odd collection of films, from his better-known work with Masada on Jewish-themed docus like “Secret Lives” and “Trembling Before G_d,” to earlier arrangements for Japanese S&M porn flicks.

Heuermann, in her zeal to learn from her subject/mentor, adopts his index card system — her hands or his hands pull file cards indiscriminately to conjure sample imagery or sample sounds. She breaks the film into “stories” with headings like “reality,” or “about time,” and skips around deliberately to violate her own setups.

At times, this hall-of-mirrors atmosphere functions perfectly. Editing room monitors or theater screens display already-seen footage, only to segue into all-new sequences, Zorn’s pronouncements on his art and the place of the artist in the world saved from pomposity by the distancing technique. (To clever doubling effect, Heuermann stands in front of the monitor watching herself as she ponders how best to end the picture.)

At other times, the film/music equation seems forced. The constant intrusion of Heuerman’s self-conscious video “diary” on the making of her film, though the latest in postmodernist chic, gets annoying after a while. Even more disturbing are the voice-over epiphanies wherein Heuermann discovers her art, her aesthetic and her destiny through her encounter with Zorn. “How would my life have been different if I never heard Zorn’s music?” Heuermann endlessly muses.

There’s nothing wrong with a documentarian in love with her subject, but there is when, by extrapolation, that subject is herself.

A Bookshelf On Top of the Sky: Twelve Stories About John Zorn

Germany

Production

A Bureau of Time and Sound presentation. Produced by Claudia Heuermann. Directed, written, edited by Claudia Heuermann.

Crew

Camera (color, Digibeta/DV/HI-8), Rainer Hartmann, Heuermann, Arlene Sandler; music, John Zorn. Reviewed at MOMA Documentary Fortnight, New York, Dec. 20, 2002. (Also in Munich,Montreal film festivals). Running time: 82 MIN. With John Zorn. (English dialogue.)
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