If you know anything about Canadian film, you’ve probably heard of Michael Snow. If you know anything about avant garde cinema, you’ve probably heard of Michael Snow. If you pretend to be an expert on either subject and you haven’t heard of Michael Snow and his work, you need to stop calling yourself an expert. There are few Canadian artists who have been more influential and more rightfully lauded than the 85 year old filmmaker, musician, sculptor, animator, composer, and visual artist. He’s quite possibly Canada’s least talked about legend.
If you live in Toronto, you’ve probably encountered the work of Snow and you didn’t even know it. Have you ever noticed those meticulously crafted birds that hang from the ceiling at Eaton Centre? That’s Michael Snow. Have you ever remarked upon the sculptures of sports fans bursting out of the corners of walls around the Rogers Centre? That’s more of Snow’s work.
And if you’ve ever seen a film at the Toronto International Film Festival that plays in the boundary pushing Wavelengths category – so named after Snow’s most highly regarded film – you’re essentially watching films that TIFF has deemed worthy of carrying on in the famous artist’s footprints.
So it’s only natural that the TIFF Cinematheque would mount a retrospective of his visual accomplishments. Throughout not a single season, but over the entire course of 2015, TIFF Bell Lightbox will host WYSIWYG: The Films of Michael Snow, a monthly series of free screenings showcasing Snow’s best work (some of which Snow will be attending).
It (and our monthly columns charting the series) starts today (Saturday, January 31st) quite rightfully with Wavelength at 1:00pm. When people ask me how I can critique and understand art – and not simply critique a narrative piece with countless moving parts and facets – I point to Snow’s work as a sort of Rosetta Stone for understanding what constitutes an exceptional “art film.” It’s not merely a work designed to be passively remarked upon in a gallery or exhibition hall. It’s the definition of an engagement. There’s little incitement, and yet constant questions, all of which are completely valid to ask. It’s open and inviting instead of closed off and hermetic. If one were to walk novice eyes through the just over 45 minutes of the film, they would probably have a greater understanding of art and would have questions even their purported teacher hadn’t thought of.
I say purported because Snow clearly asks a lot of the patient viewer to engage with his film. It starts simply enough. It’s a seemingly static shot of a New York loft. And that’s pretty much it. The possibly diagetic/possibly reconstructed noise from inside and outside the apartment is the only sound until a pair of women enter the room, close the windows, and listen to a warbled recording of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” it’s intoning of “nothing is real” sticking in the viewer’s skull almost on repeat for the remainder of the film.
Then things start to change after this moment and the women leave again. It’s apparent that the image itself is building towards something: slowly pushing in on an unknown final point, creating tricks of light and sometimes straight up psychedelic freak outs in overexposure. The soundtrack begins to hum, growing louder and sharper as it progresses. Then, the unexpected happens, perhaps as a nod to the audience that they have become in their own right detectives; scanning the frame and listening intently to the noise on the soundtrack for any sort of clue what Snow might be building to.
It ends in a spot that has literally been staring the viewer in the face the entire time, but probably not in the fashion they expect. It’s not misdirection or dirty pool, but something much smarter and deeper; something that forces the viewer to reconsider and replay the film back in their mind using only what they can remember feeling rather than what they can remember actually seeing.
It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it or after you view it. Many critics have tried over the past decades since its 1967 debut to come up with hyperbolic ways of fawning over its importance. Most notably and annoyingly Manny Farber described it as “the Birth of a Nation of Underground films,” a useless nod that not only compares apples and oranges, but also forgets that there could have ever been anything experimental and game changing in mainstream cinema before D.W. Griffith came along. Gene Youngblood of the LA Free Press in 1968 offputtingly calls the film “a confrontation” before trotting out meaningless hip phrases like “post-Warhol” and “post-minimal” as if either is exactly worth a damn.
I suppose this works as proof that even academic and artistically minded critics are occasionally prone to the same sort of glib, wanton posturing as those they decry as hacks for comparing one work of art or cinema to another, but if ever there was a film that begged to be approached with an open, attentive, and curious mind, it’s Snow’s masterpiece. I fear I even said too much, but it’s such an indisputably key moment in cinematic history that, love it or hate it, it deserves to be viewed on its own terms.
In addition to Wavelength this month, there will be a showcase of Snow’s considerable musical chops in the short film Snow in Vienna, a document of a 2012 trip by the artist to Vienna’s Wiener Konzerthaus for a piano recital.
Join us next month as we go back a bit in Snow’s career to talk about his first film. For a full list of films showing as part of this program through the month of May, please visit TIFF.NET.