P. Adams Sitney on Michael Snow

Michael Snow, *Corpus Callosum, 2002, digital video, color, sound, 92 minutes. All Michael Snow works: Michael Snow Studio.

ON JANUARY 5, Michael Snow died in Toronto. He was, at ninety-four, one of the last of the great generation of North American avant-garde filmmakers and one of the earliest ever to be discussed in Artforum. Of those I wrote about in the first two editions of Visionary Film (1974, 1979), the only artists to have survived Snow are Kenneth Anger, Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, Lawrence Jordan, Peter Kubelka, and Yvonne Rainer, along with the “newcomers” of the second edition, Robert Beavers and Joel Singer.

In their lifetimes, none of Snow’s filmmaking peers ever attained his success or acknowledgment, not even Jonas Mekas (1922–2019), who gained worldwide fame in his final decade. This was due, in part, to the variety of the arts Snow practiced and to his being Canadian. After nearly a decade in New York, where he established himself as a central filmmaker, he returned in 1971 to Canada, where he received major sculptural commissions, for a suspended flight of geese to decorate Toronto’s Eaton Centre, and for gargoyles of ecstatic sports fans to grace facade of the city’s SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre). In a 2015 article commemorating Snow’s 1970 exhibition in the Venice Biennale, one writer called him “Canada’s coolest living artist.” Snow was indeed cool: funny, good-humored, generous, gregarious, unusually sane, and self-assured.

He trained as a painter at the Ontario College of Art, traveled internationally as a young jazz musician, and learned cinema while working for an animation studio in Canada. Once he resettled in New York, he found a wide circle of friends in the downtown arts community: Chantal Akerman, Richard Foreman, Hollis Frampton, Gehr, Philip Glass, Jacobs, Babette Mangolte, Mekas, Annette Michelson, Rainer, Steve Reich, Richard Serra, Amy Taubin, et al. For his first film made in the United States, New York Eye and Ear Control (1964), Snow used his jazz contacts to build its impressive soundtrack.

Michael Snow, New York Eye and Ear Control, 1964, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 34 minutes.

That film is the ne plus ultra of the fusion of jazz and cinema (contrasting figures and depth). However, its achievement was not recognized until after Snow had made his most famous film, Wavelength (1967), which explores the nature of the zoom lens. I know of no single film that made as deep an impression on American avant-garde cinema. Closest to it, in that respect, was Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963). Like that of Smith’s film, the impact of Wavelength was intensified by that fact that its maker was relatively unknown when it was first screened.

The forty-five-minute work, shot entirely in the artist’s loft studio on Canal Street, has affinities in its aggressive duration with the films Andy Warhol had been making for the previous three years, but that aspect, combined with its second-by-second fluctuations of light and texture, gives it a complexity and a look that were utterly new to avant-garde cinema. Thus, Wavelength cut a path for a number of emerging filmmakers. In recognition of that, in 1969, I wrote “Structural Film,” an essay that immediately engendered a controversy lasting two decades.

The success of Wavelength encouraged Snow to investigate other facets of filmmaking paraphernalia and the projection situation. It was followed by parallel cinematic manifestos: <‒‒‒> (aka Back and Forth, 1969), exploring the horizontal and vertical panning potential of the tripod’s swivel head; La Région Centrale (1971), for which Snow used a custom-built equatorial mount to capture all the baroque movements Stan Brakhage pioneered in his Anticipation of the Night (1958), but which is radically divested of Brakhage’s signature subjectivity; and Rameau’s Nephew (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1972–74), which offered an encyclopedic array of sounds made by the human body, including language and musical instruments. Each of these films, like Wavelength before them, constituted a summa technologiae of at least one fundamental dimension of the cinematic experience.

I know of no single film that made as deep an impression on American avant-garde cinema as Wavelength.

After that, Snow continued to make films, mostly in Canada, with similar ambitions: Breakfast (Table Top Dolly) (1976) examined forward camera movement as a force field; Presents (1981) challenged Brakhage’s dominance of montage and the handheld camera; So Is This (1982) aspired to be the ultimate film of only words on the screen; See You Later (1990) hypothesized slow motion as a cinematic element requiring investigation; To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991) presciently foresaw the obsolescence of film and celebrated its emulsion; *Corpus Callosum (2002) redefined video; and Cityscape (2019) tried to do the same for IMAX. However, the films made after 1974 never had the resonance or influence of his earlier masterpieces.

From the whole of his filmography, it’s clear that Snow was always concerned with the nature of self-conscious perception and with temporal sequences. In fact, most of his output in other media reflect the same preoccupations. The humor and parody that play a large part in all his later films may have contributed to the decline of their reputation as “serious” works. In Rameau’s Nephew, he pokes fun at Plato’s aesthetics, Bob Dylan’s music, and even me.

In 1981, feminist critics attacked the use of the many female nudes in the montage of Presents. Snow’s reputation in the United States never quite recovered from that myopic view of an otherwise fascinating film. It reprises the phenomenology of <‒‒‒> by opening with a still camera photographing staged action on a mobile set, moving jarringly back and forth.

Michael Snow, Breakfast (Table Top Dolly), 1976, 16 mm, color, sound, 15 minutes.

I suspect that Snow’s absence from New York after the early 1970s took a toll by cutting him off from the main currents of avant-garde cinema and its reception. The strongest evidence of this would be his acknowledgments of his predecessors within the visual text of So Is This: Aside from the (then young) Su Friedrich and Serra, he cites only Canadian antecedents, curiously omitting James Broughton, Frampton, George Landow, and Paul Sharits and obscuring that brilliant film with a rather provincial tonality. Similarly, nowhere did he acknowledge that Frampton’s Palindrome (1969) had preceded To Lavoisier by more than two decades in its manipulation of chemical hues on film stock, or that the traveling shot that transforms the ground throughout Seated Figures (1988) into colored horizontal lines essentially reproduces and elongates Gehr’s Field (1970). Snow overlaid that image with the shadows of a rambunctious audience, themselves precursors of the SkyDome gargoyles. The shadowy figures may actually refer to the occasionally negative reception of so-called structural films, such as his own and Gehr’s.

Annette Michelson crystallized Snow’s reputation in the US art world when she published her essay “Toward Snow” in the Summer 1971 issue of this magazine and the editors put a still from Wavelength on the cover. Shortly before that, the Art Gallery of Ontario had published an exhibition catalogue, Michael Snow/A Survey (1970). A succession of grants from the Canadian government followed. One of them enabled the construction of the mount of La Région Centrale. Snow and his then wife, the artist Joyce Weiland, even threw a massive party for Pierre Trudeau in their Chambers Street loft that the prime minister attended. (Snow would divorce Weiland in 1990 and marry the writer and curator Peggy Gale, with whom he had a son.) Five years after the Survey, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press issued Cover to Cover (a photographic book to be read from both the front and the back, republished recently by Light Industry). In 1993, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Knopf published The Michael Snow Project, consisting of three volumes of critical essays—Music/Sound 1948–1993, Visual Art 1951–1993, and Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow 1956–1991.

Michael Snow, Wavelength, 1967, 16 mm, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Admirably, he refused to allow Wavelength to be distributed digitally. Instead, he issued WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) (2003), where thirds of the film are superimposed on one another, obviating the loss of visual detail that would have resulted from digitizing the original. Gartenberg Media Enterprises distributes a fine DVD version of Rameau’s Nephew together with a superb book on the film by Ivora Cusack and Stéfani de Loppinot in both French and English.

I saw Snow for the last time in 2005, when he gave a magnificent piano concert at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. More than twenty commercial recordings make up his discography.

P. Adams Sitney is the author, most recently, of The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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