Michael Snow, edited by Annette Michelson and Kenneth White (October Files, 2019) (image courtesy of The MIT Press)

Michael Snow’s masterpiece of experimental cinema, Wavelength (1967, 45 min.) — in which a 16mm camera continuously zooms in for a week, capturing a room’s interior — forever changed how we perceive film and its possibilities. Michael Snow (October Files, 2019), a chronological compendium of essays that spans six decades, edited by the late American critic Annette Michelson and the Scottish poet and academic Kenneth White, reflects on Snow’s artistic development and the critical reception of his groundbreaking work. 

The book situates Snow within the context of 1960s avant-garde sculpture and painting, whose primary practitioners were, like him, preoccupied with perception and framing. The essays (by Michelson, White, and other scholars, as well as Snow himself) investigate Snow’s break with notions of causality, his use of fragmentation in photography, and the role that new technologies, such as CGI, play in his later films. Snow comments on his methods and responds to critics in his writings. The collection also includes an interview with him, conducted by Michelson in 2015, addressing his personal affinity for jazz.

Among the critical essays, Michelson’s are the most illuminating. In her pioneering text “About Snow” (1971), originally published in Artforum, she describes Wavelength as a rare work of pure cinema that “re-sensitized our tools of perception.” By emptying his film of dramatic action, Michelson argues, Snow shifted its focus to the camera’s movement. Lens and zoom thus “instill in the viewer a threshold of tension.” In common parlance, the radicalness of Snow’s work lay in its suspense, but it is a suspense film devoid of plot. In this way, Wavelength called viewers’ attention to our natural propensity to create narrative structures, even where none are given.

While Michelson’s 1971 essay positioned Snow in the lineage of abstract expressionists, who themselves were influenced by European expressionism and psychoanalysis, a later essay, “Toward Snow” (1978), pushes her analysis further. She asks whether Snow broke with the idea of a “transcendental viewer,” which has haunted art since the Renaissance. Michelson concludes that while a number of experimental filmmakers, such as Stan Brakhage, questioned the primacy of Renaissance perspective, Snow, who began his career as a painter, reaffirmed it. For Snow’s La région centrale (1971), a special machine was designed by the engineer and cinematographer Pierre Abeloos to control a mobile camera at increasing velocity, while capturing images of the surrounding landscape.

Compared to the fixed eye guiding Wavelength, La région centrale was an even more radical experiment in automated motion. But, Michelson argues, the eye’s radical mobility doesn’t necessarily de-center the spectator. Michelson thus posits Snow’s film as an ultimate expression of voyeurism: a scopophilic pleasure, where vision is absolute, unhampered by physical impediments. This notion is again touched upon in the book’s final essay, “Strangeloves: From/De la région centrale, Air Defense Radar Station Moisie, and Media Cultures of the Cold War,” by White, an in-depth study of the technology behind La région centrale, a landscape film in which the camera is the chief protagonist.

Snow’s conceptual remake of Buster Keaton’s 1926 film The General, entitled *Corpus Callosum (2002), is also a primary focus of the book. The film explores two environments, an office and a living room, where strange perceptual phenomena (image distortions, blurs, digital interferences) take place. Discussed primarily for its slapstick bent, the film also reveals the broad net of influences that Snow’s oeuvre can claim. In the essay “Snow and Keaton,” the French filmmaker and theorist Érik Bullot considers the relationship between Snow’s late feature and the work of America’s greatest silent-era comedian. Constant spatial confusion and frequent trompe l’oeil effects connect these two artists.

Meanwhile, in “The Child and the Machine: On the Use of CGI in Michael Snow’s Corpus Callosum,” Malcolm Turvey (referring back to Michelson) characterizes Snow’s work as a euphoric personal expression of “ludic sovereignty over space and time,” concluding that silent comedies are the ideal segue to experimental film. Turvey traces childlike innocence in comedy, and determines that Snow was drawn to the joyful experimentation that seeing with a child’s eyes afforded him.

This is the collection’s most eye-opening insight. It refreshes our notions of experimentation. In Turvey’s, and to a lesser extent Michelson’s view, Snow’s work is primal at heart. Enabled by 16mm and, later, digital technology, it is an affirmation of play in the purest sense.

Michael Snow, edited by Annette Michelson and Kenneth White (2019) is published by The MIT Press and is available online and in bookstores.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.