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The Big Blizzard of 2005

To call Canadian artist Michael Snow a filmmaker somehow seems woefully inadequate. For while Snow undeniably makes films — a fact attested to by the long overdue local retrospective that kicks off this weekend — he may be more aptly described as a film sculptor, or perhaps cine-alchemist. For five decades now, this founding father of avant-garde cinema has been tearing apart and reassembling the DNA of film language in a series of dazzling experiments — and lest that sound austere or forbidding, I should add that Snow possesses a healthy reserve of impish good humor. Just consider his disarming 1982 short So Is This, which consists solely of words written in a simple white font flashing on screen one by one and gradually forming complete sentences — including one prophetic early warning: “This film may be especially unsatisfying for those who dislike having others read over their shoulders.” Born in Toronto in 1929, Snow graduated from the Ontario School of Art and, by 1956, had already made his first short, a four-minute animation titled A to Z. But at the time, Snow was preoccupied by his painting, photography and jazz musicianship — interests he continues to pursue today — and so movies got put on the back burner until the 1960s, when he moved to New York and found himself at the epicenter of a heady experimental-film scene whose guiding lights included Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs. Wavelength (1967) remains Snow’s best-known work, and it is some kind of historic achievement, a movie in which time, space and movement are the stars, while human characters are tossed cavalierly to the sidelines. Famous for having the longest zoom shot (45 minutes) in cinema, and as an influence on filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Chantal Akerman, Wavelength offers an uninterrupted traversal of a New York loft space from one end to the other, accompanied by a soundtrack of waves (both sonic and oceanic) and the Beatles singing “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Yet it’s hardly as single-minded as it sounds. Without cutting, Snow employs tricks of exposure and filtration to take us from day to night to day again, from the dingy-grey environs of a lower-Manhattan walk-up to a shock-white mod nightmare that might have been imported from Blow-Up, a movie to which Snow tips his hat in more ways than one. To wit, Wavelength catches us up so profoundly in the raw possibilities of movies’ structural (as opposed to narrative) properties that when its own “murder” occurs, most viewers don’t immediately realize anything has happened. Perhaps the only logical step for someone who’d just made a movie about zooms, Snow’s subsequent Standard Time (1967) and (a.k.a. Back and Forth) (1969) concerned themselves primarily with pans and tilts. Both, however, were mere warm-ups for La Region Centrale (1971), an epic landscape film in which a camera mounted to a specially constructed robotized arm spends three hours of screen time surveying a northern Quebec mountain range from every possible angle, at a host of differing speeds and along every conceivable axis of movement. (Snow has said that he set out to photograph the Earth in the way an alien probe might.) The Beatles are gone now, with the pattern of electronic bleeps used to control the camera, creating its own brand of anxious music as the film takes its hypnotic hold. Indeed, to watch La Region Centrale is to undergo nothing short of a profound forgetting and re-learning the very syntax of visual perception: Where does sky end and ground begin? Which way is up? What exactly is “up”? Even more ambitious in its design, “Rameau’s Nephew” By Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) By Wilma Schoen (1974) is a cacophonous, four-hour avalanche of anagrams, homophones, tongue-twisters, backwards dialogue and hilariously asynchronous audio-visual pairings, cumulatively serving as Snow’s precocious (yet deeply considered) response to 40-odd years of “talking” pictures. In the ensuing three decades, Snow has kept his running times conspicuously on the shorter side, although his intrepid exploration of the moving (and sounding) image has hardly slackened. Au Revoir/See You Later (1990) stretches the simple act of a businessman saying good night to his secretary into an 18-minute super-slow-mo affair; The Living Room, an excerpt from Snow’s jubilant 2001 video feature *Corpus Callosum, represents its maker’s headfirst plunge into the digital-imaging toolbox and may well be the definitive statement on the ever-diminishing line between live-action and animation. Finally, Snow’s latest DVD project, Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time (a.k.a. WVLNT), employs a series of superimpositions to condense Snow’s 1967 short into one tightly packed 15-minute package. Personally speaking, I’ll take my Wavelength super-sized, thnk u vry mch. Los Angeles Filmforum screens La Region Centrale on Sunday, April 10, at 7 p.m., at the Egyptian Theater. A new print of Wavelength, recently restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, screens together with Standard Time and So Is This at the Norris Cinema Theater on the USC campus on Sunday, April 24, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.lafilmforum.com. WVLNT, Au Revoir/See You Later and The Living Room screen at the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams auditorium on Tuesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m., followed the next evening by a Snow concert performance. Visit www.getty.edu/visit/events/suspending_time. Rameau’s Nephew screens at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Friday, April 22, at 7 p.m. Visit www.cinema.ucla.edu.

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