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Michael Snow, Seen or Unseen

Michael Snow

In 1971, Hollis Frampton contributed a handful of notes on filmmakers to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalogue. “All that survives entire of an epoch is its typical art form,” he wrote. “For instance: painting (in all its enormity) comes to us intact from the New Stone Age. Film is surely the typical art of our time, whatever time that is. If the Lumières are Lascaux, then we are, now, in the Early Historical Period of film. It is a time of invention. One of little more than a dozen living inventors of film art is Michael Snow. His work has already modified our perception of past film. Seen or unseen, it will affect the making and understanding of film in the future. This is an astonishing situation. It is like knowing the name and address of the man who carved the Sphinx.”

That note, later collected in the 2015 volume On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, was part of a then-ongoing dialogue between Frampton and Snow, the interdisciplinary Canadian artist who passed away on Thursday at the age of ninety-four. Snow read the prerecorded text heard during Frampton’s 1968 performance A Lecture, and the year before, Frampton appeared in Snow’s best-known and most-influential film, Wavelength (1967).

Wavelength is often simply described as a forty-five-minute zoom from one end of a New York loft toward a photograph of waves hung between two windows at the opposite end. But not only are the film stocks, filters, and apertures in constant flux, there are also human characters, even if they do go nameless. A woman (Amy Taubin) enters with two men carrying a cabinet of some sort and tells them where to place it. All three leave. She returns with a friend and turns on a radio, which happens to be playing “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

They leave. Glass shatters offscreen. A man (Frampton) enters and collapses—dead. The woman returns and places a phone call in order to calmly report the incident. “Some movies are not simply motion pictures but monuments in space and time,” wrote J. Hoberman in the New York Review of Books when Anthology Film Archives presented a Michael Snow retrospective at the end of 2021. “D. W. Griffith’s epoch-hopping Intolerance (1916) is one. So is Chantal Akerman’s domestic epic Jeanne Dielman (1975).” But the “most modest and, in many ways, the greatest of these monuments is Wavelength.

Talking to Malte Hagener and Annie van den Oever in the new NECSUS Journal, the great film historian Tom Gunning recalls his first encounter with the film. “I don’t know if I would say I hated it, but I was very negative,” he remembers. But Gunning sensed that it was a work to be grappled with, so he took home a 16 mm print and sat down with his wife, an abstract painter, and turned on the projector.

“Maybe twenty minutes into it,” says Gunning, “my wife stood up and I thought she was leaving, but she didn’t. I thought, ‘Oh, she’s doing that thing, where you’re trying to subtly leave and you’re actually attracting more attention than you would if you just stormed out.’ So, after a couple of minutes, I said, ‘Look, please, if you don’t like it, you can leave, but I really need to concentrate and you’re distracting me.’ And she responded, ‘Oh, no, it’s just such a strong movie. I have to stand up to watch it.’ She got it more quickly than I did.”

Wavelength may be “calculated and cerebral,” but it is “also a work of great passion and intensity,” wrote Raymond Foye, introducing the interview he conducted with Snow for the Brooklyn Rail early in 2021. “Let’s call it ‘Snow’s Paradox,’ and it applies to the man himself: famous and neglected, celebrated and obscure. Few artists of our time have made such a compelling body of work over such a wide range of media: paintings, drawings, films, sequential photographs, sculptures both private and public, artist’s books, sound works, and musical compositions. It is a strangely selfless body of work—another remark that gives lie to itself, since he also somehow stands at the center of every work. He is there and he is not, just as materiality and demateriality consistently swap places in his work.”

In his 1992 collection A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Scott MacDonald noted that several of the filmmakers he spoke with for the first volume referenced Snow and discussed his influence, and in the second volume, five interviewees—Yoko Ono, Anthony McCall, Andrew Noren, James Benning, and Laura Mulvey—“talk specifically about him.” In <----> or Back and Forth (1969), “the pan is the central organizational principle,” and for La région centrale (1971), Snow constructed a computerized tripod that recorded seventeen preprogramed shots at the top of a mountain in Quebec that would be separated at the editing table by deep black space with a stark white X in the center.

For MacDonald, “the resulting film immerses the audience for three hours [and] ten minutes in an experience halfway between a landscape film and an amusement park ride.” Writing in Artforum in 1973, John W. Locke called La région centrale “as fine and important a film as I have ever seen.” As Hoberman observed, all of Snow’s films “are invariably anti-illusionist, reflexive, and often paradoxical investigations of cinema’s unique, irreducible properties.”

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