The Canadian artist Michael Snow (1929–) is one of the most important visual artists of his homeland. His film Wavelength (1967) is probably the best known avant-garde film of all time. The film starts with a wide-angle shot of a room that is nearly empty. Gradually, the camera starts moving in an extremely slow zoom towards the opposite wall. Persons pop in to the room, hinting at a drama. On the soundtrack we hear small events (talking, the distant sounds of radio and traffic) and oscillating sine wave noise. The zoom continues, and the image finally frames a small black and white photograph of ocean waves on the wall. The duration of the film is 45 minutes. When it has finished, we are in a space entirely different from the one we were in when the film started — without any physical movement of the camera.
Snow has said he spent over a year preparing Wavelength. He carefully considered its form, structure and duration, looking for a way to make the film as intense as possible while keeping it simple. The film could not be too long, so that the viewer would not become bored, but not too short either, so that the experience would not be left lacking. For the viewer, Wavelength is an unsolved riddle, a beautiful mystery that cannot be drained of its charm even with repeated viewings. The film has inspired a multitude of different interpretations and academic analyses. Film historian P. Adams Sitney has considered the zoom of Wavelength in depth. He calls the film “a metaphor of the whole human consciousness”.
In addition to Wavelength, Snow will introduce at Avanto a retrospective of his films — many of which are at least as stimulating as the canonised classic. In its all disparity, New York Eye and Ear Control (1964) was a provocative conquest of an entirely new territory. Traditionally, film music has been subservient to the image. Snow, who started his career as a painter and a jazz musician, combined ruthlessly dry architectural imagery with an improvised jazz score dripping with drama and performed by a sextet put together by Snow himself and consisting of Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Gary Peacock, Sunny Murray, Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai.
<—> (Back and Forth, 1969) is an educational film taking place in an empty classroom. It parallels Wavelength, reaching comical proportions. The camera pans back and forth in the empty space; the position of the viewer resembles that of someone watching a tennis match in the front row. According to Snow, the work is a film sculpture that verifies the truth of the theory of relativity. A solid mass (the classroom) becomes energy (light) with the aid of velocity (the camera). Letters, words and language are the building blocks of the satirical So Is This (1982). This anti-film challenges academic studies which focus on the language of film, taking the discussion to an entirely new level.
La Région Centrale (1971) is Snow’s three-hour monument and one of the most extraordinary filmic experiences of all time. Its subject matter is barren mountain scenery near Montreal. To shoot the film, Snow developed a complex motorised platform which enabled him to rotate the camera around its axes in all directions. While the camera sweeps the surrounding scenery, the scenic views become a roller coaster ride. The camera shows us visions we are unable to perceive with the naked eye. The atmosphere of alienation in La Région Centrale has often been compared with the philosophical spheres of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The totality of the experience is crowned by electronic music created out of the mechanical sounds of the camera platform.
Corpus Callosum (2002) is a colour-saturated trick film that takes place in an office setting in the spirit of George Méliès, a twisted parody about the world of computer effects, a reality where everything can be manipulated. It makes visible all the digital traces, signs and mistakes that are usually desperately cleaned away in order to make room for a believable illusion.
Triage (2004), made in collaboration with photographer Carl Brown, is a double projection of two separate film reels. Snow’s reel is a fast, encyclopaedic listing of perceptions (“24 frames about everything”), while Brown’s reel is the opposite in its calm variation of one and same scene. As a kind of climax to Snow’s filmic thinking we are treated to the extremely rare A Casing Shelved (1970). Using a slide projector and sound tape, it is simultaneously a warped self-portrait and a timeless conceptual film about the tools and means available for an artist.
In the video installation SSHTOORRTY (2005), an artist is taking a painting as a present to his mistress, but is interrupted by the husband. The acted short film (“short story”) has been divided to two sequences of an equal duration, projected on top of each other. The result is a hazy eternal triangle, where the characters meet themselves again and again in a nightmarish atmosphere.
Snow has never been particularly interested in narrative films, not even as a spectator. His films are therefore a portal to a promised land of cinema, a better reality which escapes everyday realism and traditional dramatic solutions. For Snow, filmmaking has, first and foremost, been a tool for thinking.
Michael Snow 1
New York Eye and Ear Control (1964, 34’)
Wavelength (1967, 45’)
Total duration: 79 minutes.
Orion on Friday, 16 November at 4:30 pm,
second screening on Sunday, 18 November at 4 pm.
Michael Snow 2
<—> (Back and Forth, 1969, 50’)
So Is This (1982, 45’)
Total duration: 95 minutes.
Orion on Friday, 16 November at 6:30 pm,
second screening on Sunday, 18 November at 8 pm.
Michael Snow 3
La Région Centrale (1971, 180’)
Orion on Saturday, 17 November at 3:30 pm.
Michael Snow 4
Corpus Callosum (2002, 95’)
Kiasma Theatre on Saturday, 17 November at 11 am.
Michael Snow 5
Triage (2004, 30’)
A Casing Shelved (1970, 46’)
Total duration: 76 minutes.
Kiasma Theatre on Saturday, 17 November at 1 pm.
Michael Snow’s installation SSHTOORRTY (2005)
Kiasma Mediatheque from Friday, 16 November to Sunday,
9 December. The installation opens on Friday, 16 November at 3 pm.
All screenings and the installation opening are presented by Michael Snow.
Michael Snow : Wavelength (1967)