Michael James Aleck Snow
December 10, 1929, Toronto
The most significant experimental filmmaker in the world, and also a famous painter, sculptor and musician, for over 40 years, Michael Snow has created a succession of artistically radical films that have revolutionized cinema, stimulated many imitators and encouraged the development of new critical theories about film. His work, though precisely formal, has a poetic and metaphoric level (and often an engaging sense of wit and a delight in paradoxes) that distinguishes him from the structuralist-materialist filmmakers who emerged in Britain and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. – Peter Morris, The Film Companion
Michael Snow had two beginnings as a filmmaker. In the 1950s, recently graduated from the Ontario School of Art, he worked as a film animator at Graphic Films, run by George Dunning, where he met his first wife and collaborator, Joyce Wieland. At the time, Snow was a painter and a jazz musician. In 1956, Snow made a four-minute animation piece, A to Z. After A to Z, Snow did not return to filmmaking for eight years.
In 1964, Snow was living in New York and devoted to visual arts and music until making New York Eye and Ear Control: A Walking Woman Work (1964), a live-action film. Snow used the Walking Woman, a cutout silhouette, as the film’s protagonist. Walking Woman was the exclusive icon in all Snow’s art between 1961 and 1967 — paintings, T-shirts, street installations, sculptures and the serial photographs Four to Five (1962–1964) shot in Toronto, which led to New York Eye and Ear Control.
By the mid-1960s, with the Walking Woman works well underway, Snow had framed his style as a painter in accord with the post-expressionist generation of Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He became known as a New York artist, although he exhibited mainly in Toronto’s Isaacs Gallery. Later, he was known as a New York experimental filmmaker. Snow formed associations with other experimental filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, and notably, Ken and Flo Jacobs and Hollis Frampton. With New York Eye and Ear Control, Snow entered the scene around the same time Stan Brakhage completed the epochal Dog Star Man and the book Metaphors on Vision (both 1964) and just after Andy Warhol made Sleep (1963) and Eat (1963), and other films that used minimal formal means of expression.
Brakhage’s influential film aesthetic was rooted in abstract expressionism, manifest in rapid camera movements, partially abstracted imagery, assertive montages and silence; however, Snow’s film more closely resembled Warhol’s films in its steadied camera and long takes. But Snow’s highly considered form — something Warhol never provided — was constructed on compositional contrasts and dualities: the flat Walking Woman silhouette and deep space, city and country, movement and stasis, and silence and music, in this case a vibrant free-jazz soundtrack. (Snow designed an LP that was released through ESP disk.)
Snow did not think of himself as a complete “artist in cinema” like Brakhage. Recalling such artist-filmmakers as Fernand Léger and Man Ray, who made crucially important films in the 1920s while working in other media, likewise, New York Eye and Ear Control (Snow’s second “first film”) appeared to be an addition to the Walking Woman multimedia cycle. However, Snow’s two subsequent short films, Short Shave (1965) and Standard Time (1967), did suggest he was working consciously toward a set of cinema-specific procedures. This was confirmed in the 45-minute work Wavelength (1967), which also brought him international fame as a filmmaker.
Shot in a Canal Street loft in December 1966, Wavelength was launched at the Fourth Experimental Film Festival of Knokke-le-Zoute, where it took first prize and began its world tour. The critic P. Adams Sitney saw it as the centrepiece in the movement he called “structural film”; he later observed that Wavelength “had an impact upon avant-garde filmmaking and audiences incomparable to any other avant-garde film in my memory.” It consists of a seemingly continuous zoom (though the advance takes the better part of a day and a night, with flashbacks, etc.) and thus realized like no other film of its time, the prospects of reductive form in cinema. This brought Snow into closer relation with minimalism, the emergent art movement at the time, and also with new developments in film theory. The effect of Wavelength on international avant-garde film was nothing short of galvanizing, and Snow’s work remained the most closely observed and discussed among avant-garde filmmakers.
Snow followed Wavelength with another powerfully simplified piece, (<––––> [Back and Forth], 1968–1969), which developed a panning shot as its main compositional motif. He also made a trilogy of films that show his sustained interest in inter-media relationships: One Second in Montreal (1969), a meditation on time and the temporality of photographs; Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film (1970), a Snow-styled slide show cum lecture survey of his paintings as the camera arcs in successive angles around a screen; and Dripping Water (1969), a “sound piece” collaboration with Wieland, who made it an elegant, simple film. These were small-scaled films in comparison to Wavelength but Snow’s next film, the three-hour La région centrale (1971), was an expanded epic landscape film that utilized a specially engineered camera mount to gain the fullest possible range of camera movements over a barren view of northern Quebec.
The effect of his filmmaking on his art was apparent in the many photographic and sculptural pieces that Snow made during the 1970s, surveyed in detail in Philip Monk’s “Around Wavelength” in Visual Art, 1951–1993: The Michael Snow Project (1993). Snow interrupted his filmmaking after creating the four and a half-hour Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974). This encyclopedic film deals with sound and image and film and language in an exhaustive multi-part exploration that has yet to be challenged — or for that matter, widely understood.
During a six-year period in which the only film he made was the short Breakfast (Table Top Dolly) (1972–1976), Snow resumed making feature length films in 1980, producing the 90-minute Presents. The film begins with two passages comparing video- and cinema-image technology, centered on the classic painter’s tableau, a recumbent female nude. Presents proceeds to comedy; the woman rises, dresses, and an inept young suitor offers her flowers. The real fascination of this slight theatrical passage is that the whole set is being moved on forklifts during the performance. The section concludes with the camera demolishing the set before jumping through a window and into a hugely protracted montage of images, each of them separated by the beat of a snare drum. Presents is about the traversal of media (painting, theatre, film, video) bound by language; its punning associations seem to connect the images, though an overall structure remains elusive.
So Is This (1982) succeeded Presents (although Snow originally planned it to follow Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot: Thanx to Dennis Young by Wilma Schoen; it is a film consisting entirely of single words following one another in clear grammatical order. Whereas Presents promised the grammar of comedy and associative montage but actually deployed serial punning as its formal principle, So Is This uses grammar and introductory textbook semiotics to envelope cinema in one big pun — the expression “film language.” Lodging it in the film’s aesthetics, Snow creates a very funny “theory” comedy. Snow made a “sequel” to So Is This, a large-scale, three-language video installation called That, which has been exhibited in Europe, though not in North America to date.
Snow returned to video with See You Later/Au revoir (1990), using super-slow motion to turn a simple 30-second action into an 18-minute meditation on time and cinematic motion. The film is a kind of prelude to Snow’s next two films, which also treat cinematic material as poetic substance. To Lavoisier Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991) is a collaboration with filmmaker Carl Brown, who specializes in homebrewed chemical film development. In a series of tableaux, people perform everyday tasks — sleeping, dining, reading, card-playing — as the camera arcs past and over them (the replete set of positions recalls La région centrale’s movements). Brown abraded the film stock, creating a continuous dynamic surface-effect tension with the comparatively static views and cueing the soundtrack, the crackle of fire. The physics and chemistry of combustion were the scientific focus of Lavoisier, the 18th-century savant.
At the other end of the technical spectrum is *Corpus Callosum (2001), in which Snow uses high-tech animation software, Houdini (developed by Greg Hermanovic at Side Effects Software in Toronto), to set out another series of tableaux of everyday activities. These are subjected to transformations, not of the celluloid surface but the objects and human subjects; in effect, and paradoxically, Snow renders the whole digitized representation a radically plastic surface. Funnier, yet also more sinister than Snow’s contemplative films since the late 1980s, *Corpus Callosum has enjoyed comparatively long theatrical runs in several cities, including New York and Toronto, which is extremely rare for an experimental film today.