Film

Michael Snow Takes Capitalism to Comic, Cartoonish Extremes

The moving image artist’s 2002 video *Corpus Callosum launches an onslaught of video effects at indifferent office workers and couch potatoes.

Still from <em>*Corpus Callosum</em> (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)
Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)

Those familiar with Michael Snow’s previous work may be a bit surprised when approaching *Corpus Callosum (2002). There’s no slow exercise in form or technique here; nothing like the haunting zoom of Wavelength or the dizzying, whirlwind camerawork of La Région Centrale. Indeed, by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s account, it’s his most accessible film given that it plays into what he’d previously showcased in Rameau’s Nephew: a sketchbook of experimental humor.

However, the film’s humor is completely informed by the digital medium in which Snow has chosen to work. Much of *Corpus Callosum — which screens today and tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art — plays out in an office space in a Toronto skyscraper, the camera dollying past the infinite series of vacant-minded workers as Snow launches an onslaught of video effects at them (though by the deadpan look on their faces, it’s just another day at the office). The workers are electrocuted, pulled, squashed, dissipated, killed, and reborn, and the entire image of the workplace collapses into a Möbius strip. Each effect is accompanied by a light boi-oi-oing, saw wave, or (my best guess) a theremin from hell. The result is a digital cartoon, exactly like a never-ending series of couch gags from The Simpsons or a best-of compilation of Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones buffoonery.

Snow has always been an animator — indeed, *Corpus Callosum ends with a theater projecting one of his first cartoons, which bears plenty of resemblance to the 2002 film’s effects show — so by the time digital and computer graphics technologies became accessible to him, he meticulously went through everything he could do with them. In an interview with Offscreen, Snow recounts his implementation of the Houdini software (now used for 3D animation for video games and blockbusters) as well as hiring recent graduates of Toronto’s animation schools to help on the production. The result is telling: the effects are not polished or meant to look realistic. Rather, they announce themselves as little particle invaders to create a discomfiting atmosphere with the humor. Think of David Lynch’s graphics effects in Inland Empire or Twin Peaks: The Return: they feel more disturbing as they reach an uncanny valley of monstrosity.

Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)
Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)

The idea of digital technology and computer graphics being better suited to animation than a representation of the ‘real’ is not a new one. John Whitney, Sr. and Lillian Schwartz had experimented with the most primitive versions of code-to-animation software in the late 1960s. Scott Bartlett began using computer animation over filmed footage around the same time. Several television and digital video artists (including Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, Aldo Tambellini, and Otto Piene) established video art and animation as major art forms in their commissioned The Medium Is the Medium (1969). And Canada invested early in the potential of computer animation by granting 1 million Canadian dollars to found the National Film Board’s Centre d’animatique in 1980. Snow, by comparison, is very late to the game.

Nevertheless, *Corpus Callosum works both with the history of animation and Snow’s own filmography to create something that’s neither quite filmed reality nor entirely animation. As J. Hoberman has already pointed out, there’s still plenty for the Snow super-fan to latch onto here due to plenty of long shots (such as Wavelength and La Région Centrale); an incorporation of his own Walking Women series; a quick artifact-filled rewind, à la <—> (Back and Forth); a focus on the medium itself like To Lavoisier (1991); and, of course, his own animation at the very end. In fact, Snow himself has alluded to his Presents (1981) as being a test-run of *Corpus Callosum in terms of “stretchiness” (though Presents uses an analog effect from early television). What Snow offers here is an exhibition of himself and his digital partners, all within the museum spaces of the office and the home.

Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)
Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow (courtesy the artist)

Those museum spaces add yet another level of intrigue as they represent both the prime spots for sitting down to stare at a screen, and the types of places where sitcoms usually take place (such as The Office, The Simpsons, or Cheers). Yet Snow inverses what we would usually expect from a sitcom by primarily gluing his characters to their respective screens as their surroundings and themselves turn into something resembling Maya Deren doing Looney Tunes. Snow does not play this as a simple condemnation of our screen-filled, cyberpunk present; rather, his nightmarish contortions are blithely accepted by the characters and appear to have no further consequences. This universe is descriptive rather than prescriptive. As a result, Snow lands firmly within what Steven Shaviro (referencing Benjamin Noys) terms “accelerationist aesthetics“: “Intensifying the horrors of contemporary capitalism does not lead them to explode; but it does offer us a kind of satisfaction and relief, by telling us that we have finally hit bottom, finally realized the worst.”

Several reviewers have already pointed out that the title of the film refers to la région centrale of the brain, which coordinates electrical signals between the two hemispheres. How does that relate to what’s on screen? Hoberman took a shot with “bridg[ing] the gap between film and video, nature and artifice, sound and image, art and entertainment.” Snow’s sly title allows for all of these readings, but its metaphor works best as a mediator between representation and reality. In the domestic scenes, the furniture on the walls blinks in and out of existence to little or no objection (or recognition) from the characters, who continue watching the nice clouds on television. While their inaction in the film may seem surreal, there’s not exactly a coherent, energized force ready to stop the blinking disappearance of capital and power from the lower- and middle-classes. Read through Shaviro’s accelerationist lens, *Corpus Callosum shows us the absurd, horrific status of our work and home lives — and assures us that it’s OK to laugh.

Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum screens Tuesday, July 25 at 6:45pm and Wednesday, July 26 at 4:30pm at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) as part of the series Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction (through August 31).

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