Weathering the Creative Storm: An Interview With Michael Snow

Michael Snow at the 2002 Festival International Nouveau Cinéma Nouveaux Médias

by Donato Totaro, Andre Habib Volume 6, Issue 11 / November 2002 38 minutes (9405 words)

The Canadian artist extraordinaire Michael Snow was an invited guest of the 2002 Festival International Nouveau Cinéma Nouveaux Médias (FCMM). Snow’s extensive work was featured throughout the 10 days of the festival, highlighted by the Montreal premiere of his latest feature Corpus Callosum, a retrospective of his major film works, a special concert by CCMC (Michael Snow, Paul Dutton, John Oswald), a “Conversation between Michael Snow and Thierry De Duve,” several installation pieces, and the launch of the DVD-Rom Digital Snow. Offscreen and Hors Champ were extremely pleased to be able to interview such a giant of the avant-garde art world. If ever the term “Renaissance Man” applied, it would be to Michael Snow. Most artists would be pleased to have made inroads into one art, but Snow is a strange beast, extending his creative talons into music, painting, sculpting, photography, and film (are you dizzy yet?). So as ecstatic as we were to have one hour with Snow out of his extremely busy schedule, we realized given his prodigious achievements and the pages of questions we had both prepared, that we would barely be able to scratch the surface of his accomplishments. To make up for unasked questions and after thoughts the interview is broken down into thematic sections with brief impressionistic introductions. Offscreen and Hors Champ would like to thank the FCMM, and especially the ever helpful Adrian Gonzalez of Media Relations, for making this interview possible.

Michael Snow, Two Sides to Every Story, 1974. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

Pause 1: “Presents” Corpus Callosum

Corpus Callosum is a wonderful 93 minute all-computer digital feast, playful, engaging, and cloyingly subversive. It is like a series of installation pieces come alive. Encompassing the movement/stasis spectrum of much of Snow’s work (and indeed experimental film), one part of the film features a lateral snake-like tracking shot past corporate office work stations, and another part of the film features a static long shot, long take of a “living room” filled with animated movement of people and objects in the middle ground and all along the room’s busy ‘found art/object’ wall. One of the things I found striking with Corpus Callosum is the way it uses new computer digital technology to recall old electronic/analog technology. The film rejoices in a funhouse mirror-like squeezing, stretching, and enfolding of the image which immediately reminded me of my childhood black and white Marconi television set and its dual pencil posts in the back of the set used to control the vertical and horizontal. With today’s near picture perfect cable/digital set-ups this type of visual distortion is no longer a part of our televised experience. Rather than the stretching, squeezing, and shadowing of early analog and resistor tube technology we get precise cubistic digital breakup or total ‘blue screen’ image loss. With our technologized image improvement, something is lost. That ‘something’ is recalled in Corpus Callosum. Snow also takes full advantage of the ‘animated’ nature of computer generated technology to play with notions of the ‘shot’ or the ‘take.’ On several occasions a shot is looped, or a woman appears twice in the same shot, defying the spatial-temporal logic of ‘real time.’ The groundbreaking leaps in Bazinian real time artfully achieved through the mise en scene by directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Andrei Tarkovsky or through the wonderful ‘hidden edits’ of Alfred Hitchcock are now possible with the click of a mouse. The long take has become the ‘long fake!” At the beginning of cinema, Méliès’ days, people first went to see the apparatus that provided the first ‘moving images,’ the ‘spectacle’ of cinema as a new technology. In a similar sense, while watching the film I wondered, at what point does Corpus Callosum stop being a film and start being a display of the software?

Offscreen: The first question we would have after watching Corpus Callosum is whether you think an audience familiar with your work will be surprised by this film?

Michael Snow: Well I hope so because I try to make each film a different film. And certainly what I’ve done there has never been seen before, in my work anyway. So yes it should be new for people who are familiar with my work.

Offscreen: Well I think it is also a self-referential film and people will see elements from your other works, certain motifs like the zoom in and zoom out, the credits appearing in the middle of the film, the winding up at the end of the film.

Michael Snow: Yes I think I also used a flashback structure in So is This.

Offscreen: And Back and Forth.

Michael Snow: Yes in Back and Forth there is a kind of a coda, that is true. Maybe it’s just a style!

Offscreen: How much of Corpus Callosum is about your body of work?

Michael Snow: Well I’ve never thought of it that way although I know some people have. I think some of it is absurd because the “walking woman” image is in the two living room scenes and some people have referred to that wall as a retrospective piece. For me the wall is composed for its use in the film and has nothing to do about me trying to talk about my past. Because I have used the walking woman on the occasion does not mean that I am nostalgic. It is simply a form that I like to use again and on the wall in the living room there are two of them, but there is also a Renaissance painting by Filippo Lippi and it so happens that the one walking woman is a digital reformation of the Virgin in the painting. Which I don’t think anyone has ever noticed, it is squeezed into the walking woman’s shape, and all these odd things that are on the wall, the kitsch things, a guitar, etc., they are not autobiographical. They were chosen for how they would be used for the amount of detail on the wall because there is a lot to look at in that room and they are all in a sense protagonists. So I think it is pretty odd to think of that as a reference to my other films. Or at least as a conscious reference, a reminiscence. For me it isn’t.

Offscreen: Yes there is a lot of reference to art history, Richard Hamilton is one that people have brought up quite a lot, specifically his ‘living room’ painting, "What is it?"

Michael Snow, Corpus Callosum, 2001. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

R. Hamilton’s “What Is It?”

Michael Snow: Well that is by chance.

Offscreen: That explains the great synchronicity within art I guess. What struck us as well is that in its playfulness it reminds us of George Méliès. So much so that if he were alive today with that technology that is the type of film he would be making.

Michael Snow: Yes I think that is true.

Offscreen: And also the fact that the film is made by Houdini Software and of course Méliès worked in Houdini’s old theatre.

Michael Snow: Yes and that is a pure coincidence.

Offscreen: In terms of the Houdini software was it is developed for this film?

Michael Snow: No not at all. It was developed by Side Effects Software in Toronto. Mainly led by a fellow named Greg Hermanovic who has a similar background to Daniel Langlois, he was at the Film Board and his background is in early animation. They did an earlier version called Prisms and then Houdini. The film really got made because at one of my concerts during the intermission I was casually talking to someone from the audience and he told me what he did. And I told him that ever since 1981 I had been writing about a possible stretching and squeezing film. That is the way I was thinking of it because in the film Presents I wanted to do something that would stretch or squeeze the image. I tried using prisms, and then I saw on television a wipe that squeezed and stretched the image, which was done fairly fast. I looked into it and it was a Quantel analog effect. So I used it very slowly in the beginning of Presents to stretch, squeeze, and spread the image. And that gave me all lot of ideas. The manipulability was something that I want to explore. So when I met Craig I told him that I had these ideas and asked if we could get together. It turns out he knew my films very well and my music and when he saw the ideas that I had been scribbling down since 1981 he was really knocked out. And he offered to be a consultant on the film and help me get it done. So in 1996 I received a grant from the Canada Council. They gave me half of what I applied for but in 1996 and 1997 I was able to shoot a lot of the live action which was to be used and altered. So it was done from a script that was never really changed. The final script was written in 1995-96. So the Houdini Software existed before the film and one of the reasons why Craig was interested was to use Houdini on this. His idea was to use animators who were either in their last year at school in Toronto, like Sheraton or Ryerson, people who were being trained in using Houdini or recent graduates. Because I could not pay as much as was being paid in the commercial sector.

Offscreen: Like Roger Corman, use them when they’re young!

Michael Snow: Well it worked out well except that some of them got other offers because of the boom in animation in Toronto, and away they went. Which caused all kinds of complications because things would be have done, or never rendered or never copied or in some form we could not retrieve. We kept running out of money, every budget I made was wrong. I took a section out of the film two years ago because I became depressed about not finishing the whole thing and I issued that as a film called Living Room. Which has been shown around a little bit. I was desperate and looked at everything we had done which was scattered on Dat tapes and hard drives and I decided to composite that thing together to see whether it could stand alone. And I thought that it could and it did. A few years ago it was the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival and they asked several film makers to make films. I was very pleased and surprised to be asked because it was more above ground people like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre. The people who were organizing that was Rhombus and it turns out they were fans of my films. So I shot Prelude for that. I tried to get them involved in helping to get funding to finish Corpus Callosum and one of the people there, Jody Shapiro, called me up a few months after we had talked and told me that Telefilm had a new category which oddly enough was for young and short fiction filmmakers, none of which fit exactly, but he suggested that I apply. He said he would help me which was fortunate because when I tried to apply I showed him what I had done with the application he started laughing, saying that I would not have a chance. I did not know how to phrase it properly so he redid the application and I ended up getting the money.

Offscreen: The film in a sense goes through the history of these technologies from analog to digital.

Michael Snow: Although it was all done in the computer, so there isn’t any film in it except for a little tiny bit at the end which is something I did in 1956 and is in a sense my first film. The film I usually refer to as my first film A to Z which is a cut out animation film in 1956. Where as what appears at the end here is, well something which we used to call flimsies. You see I started out in animation and that is how I got involved with film. We used to make the drawings on tracing paper, we would put them on pins with one over the other on a light box and you would draw them. And I did this little sequence of this leg stretching in 1956, but I never shot it, I just kept it as a flimsy. So I guess that is in a sense my first film or at least it was intended to be shot as film. But it was not shot as a film.

Offscreen: Has the film itself been transferred to film?

Michael Snow: I made 16 mm copies of The Living Room and Corpus Callosum, from the beta original, which worked pretty well. What is interesting is that it becomes a translation, it is a film of electronic effects.

Offscreen: Along with your films there is a launch of your new DVD ROM, Digital Snow, which includes excerpts from your films. I remember when I met you in 2000 and asked about seeing works on video and you said, very simply, that they are not video they are films. I was wondering how that transfer from film to digital went?

Michael Snow: I had just gone through something in Paris with a guy named Pip Chodorov who has something called Re-Voir Editions (and its US affiliate). He is doing video transfers of experimental films. They are very beautifully done he has done films by Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, and Maya Deren. They are very well done and he has a very interesting point. He says what they are reproductions and that he hopes that people who see these will really want to see them as films as well. So we did my film Presents about a year ago. It is on VHS pal for Europe, although he is going to do NTSC versions of them eventually. We decided to do something else and we selected Rameau’s Nephew which is about four and a half hours long from 1974. At first I thought it should be on DVD because it is made up of 30 different sections which are really quite separate because they do not have any narrative continuity. Inevitably it appeared to me that if you would want to own it you would want to be able to flip between the chapters. It was never designed to do that because it was supposed to work by pilling all these things up in your mind so that in the viewing of the film in a theater situation you learn the language of the film. It is a temporal experience. But since I had given up on that by accepting to make this version that people can dip into I thought it should be DVD. Well any way Pip Chodorov, who is an American Filmmaker who was been living in Paris for about 10 to 15 years, convinced me against DVD because of the compression issues and he demonstrated this for me. Obviously for some things, narrative films, this would not be noticeable, but for anything that has a concern for single frames there will be distortions that are going to affect the translation. He pointed out certain things in Rameau’s Nephew that would not come out as well on DVD as on tape. So oddly enough we are putting out Rameau’s Nephew on two video tapes. I wish I could be more precise about his technical objections but he convinced me against DVD at this point in time. Even though he thinks that DVD will be improved in the future. (A brief description of Chodorov’s technological objections can be read here, Filmmaker Magazine ).

Offscreen: I was going through the DVD, Digital Snow, and was fascinated by the amount of archival material and the related texts around the films.

Michael Snow: Let’s face it the medium is incredible, it is just a miracle that you can have all these different mediums on this little disk. Let’s face it that is incredible! This is not exactly conceit, but it is almost as if the medium was made for this kind of use. There’s lots of music concert footage, clips from films, and links to articles that refer to it and all that stuff.

Offscreen: The DVD will be a boom for scholarship on your work.

Michael Snow: We tried to make the information part of it as accurate as possible and that has been difficult because there are a lot of errors in catalogs that keep getting passed on. We tried to do a catalog of exhibitions and that was difficult to do. We spent two years on the bibliography because there has been a lot written on my work. I think it is as accurate as you can get right now. There are about 80 articles in full text that you could print out if you want.

Pause 2: One Hour in Montreal, or Temporality

Most artists with a philosophical predilection eventually become intrigued by the issue of time, and how their particular art form both represents time and generates questions of temporality. There is no question that of all the arts, music and film, two which Snow has excelled in, are the most temporal of the arts. In Henri Bergson’s first book, Time and Free Will, he used music as analogy to express in words what he referred to as durée (duration): "Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states. For this purpose it need not be entirely absorbed in the passing sensation or idea; for then, on the contrary, it would no longer endure. Nor need it forget its former states : it is enough that, in recalling these states, it does not set them alongside its actual state as one point alongside another, but forms both the past and the present states into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another." (p. 100). In an essay entitled “‘Musical Time’ and Music as an ‘Art of Time’ ” Philip Alperson outlined the ways in which art can represent time. 1 In adapting his schema to film, I have come up with the following categories:

  1. As a product reflecting its particular time ( “historical time”)
  2. The time necessary for the film to be consumed by the viewer (“perceptual time”)
  3. The time traversed within the film’s story (fabula) and plot (syhuzet) (“narrative time”)
  4. The way a film may directly be about time either in its content (“thematic time”) or form (“structural time”)
  5. The time taken to make the film (“production time”)
  6. The material permanence of a film (“endurance time”)

In Snow’s domain, (primarily) non-narrative film, the categories which are most often invoked are “2” “4” and “6”. A word that can encompass these three categories is time’s ‘weight’. Each artist has what Andrei Tarkovsky would call their own “sensibility of time.” And depending on this sensibility, the weight of time can feel or be light or heavy, playful or ponderous, full or empty, whole or fragmentary, successive or simultaneous. You can say the history of artistic representation of time has been an elaboration of these qualities within and with the particular formal and stylistic aspects of each art form (Lessing’s Laocoön). Snow makes playful reference to time in Corpus Callosum, with the clock on the wall that appears and disappears, a visual signifier for how he can literally manipulate time in any which way with computer and digital means. In his book Technics and Civilization Lewis Mumford argued that the clock was the most far reaching man-made machine: “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” 2 If the mechanical clock, with its rigid minutes and seconds, had the greatest impact on time in the late 19th and 20th centuries, then the computer, with its more fluid and amorphous heartbeat, will have the greatest impact on time in the 21st century. Looking back now, the clock seems almost quaint and innocuous, ticking at a constant beat regardless of the speed of life around it. The computer may be still dependent on the clock, but it has internalized the clock, both literally and figuratively. Once outside the body, disconnected from it, the clock is now within the body (the computer). And with the computer’s insatiable thirst for increased speed and power, the new clock appears more threatening and awe inspiring than ever before. Where once we had the hour, minute, and second, we now have the millisecond (one thousandth of a second), microsecond (one millionth of a second), nanosecond (one billionth of a second), picosecond (one trillionth of a second), femtosecond (one millionth of a nanosecond), and attosecond (one quintillionth of a second). Infinity anyone? How does this relate to Michael Snow? Regardless of the changes brought about to time by technology and culture, the common denominator is and always will be how time is experienced by individuals, cultures, and societies. And what makes Snow’s work germane is that the experiential aspect of time is always inscribed within the text as an important part of how the film affects the viewer’s mind and body.

Offscreen: You mentioned Rameau’s Nephew being four and a half hours long and one of the things that has always intrigued me about your works is the question of duration. Some of your films are very long, four and a half hours, 3 hours, some are 45, 55 minutes, Corpus Callosum is feature length at 93 minutes. That specific duration is an important part of the temporal experience of every art. How do you decide on the lengths of certain films? Why is La Region Centrale 3 1/2 hours, Back and Forth 55 minutes, Wavelength 45 minutes?

Michael Snow: I guess it is just imagining the perception of certain things and deciding on how long it would take for that to arrive in your consciousness, and to make a mental environment where you are really involved. As I mentioned with Rameau’s Nephew it is divided into several sequences all with people in them which is the exact opposite of La Region Centrale, where there is no human appearance it at all. Rameau’s Nephew is like a great big sentence but in a language of this film or in the language of the image-sound possibilities, particularly to do with speech. You get the sentence slowly in the sense that you go for one sequence, which is now in your memory, and that involves a certain kind of mode or use of image and recorded speech. Then you move into the next sequence and it is different. So it is a little bit like in a sentence were nouns are different from verbs. Since each sequence has its own etymology I intended that they would take a certain amount of time before you would start to realize that what was being built was the equivalent of a sentence within the language of this film. Does that make any sense? But still does not explain why it is four and a half hours long! With La Region Centrale since the subject is, in a way cosmic, I thought it should be long, it should feel like 3000 years or 3 million years, not three hours. The idea originally was to shoot out of every hour and make a condensed day but that turned out to be impossible. It is a condensed day because it does go from a morning to another morning, but not in that type of precise process.

Offscreen: I think in certain cases you can not take a three hour experience and replicate it in 10 minutes. Like, for example, with the eight hour film Sátántango (Béla Tarr, 1994), the experience you feel at the end of it cannot be achieved in a 90 minute film. I think it is connected to a certain weight that temporality has.

Michael Snow: Weight is a good way to say it I think. It is very hard to explain. In New York Eye and Ear Control, partly there I wanted to have at least 30 minutes of music by this amazing group that I had chosen and I wanted to achieve this simultaneity between the two senses, which is why it is called eye and ear control. The two senses are moving along parallel to each other, and of course although they affect each other, neither was intended as an accompaniment to the other, but rather as polyphony. It was partly in opposition to the way music is usually used in fiction films to reinforce certain emotions, like this is sad or this is exciting. I never like that even though they’re obviously many wonderful uses of it. Rather I wanted to do something where you can actually listen to the music for its qualities, like these two languages simultaneously. With Wavelength one of the starting ideas was to be able to see a zoom, to experience a zoom from a kind of analytical “inside a zoom” position, and it seemed to me that could not be fast. I thought it would be interesting to have it big enough so that it is monumental, that is weight in a way, and so it ended up being 45 minutes, but it could have been 15 minutes.

Offscreen: A related question is the type of weight you want to create as well. Traditionally there has been two ways that artists have represented time, through wholeness or fragmentation. At the turn of the 20th-century time was often represented with images of speed and rapidity and now artists tend to represent time through slowness or the idea of infinity and stillness. I think you have done that both in your work.

Michael Snow: Yes Wavelength does that in a way.

Offscreen: See You Later is one which really gives you that sense of weight by taking this one minute or 30 seconds and making it momentous, which would be the wholeness representation of time. So how would you begin to discuss wholeness and fragmentation in your work in relation to temporality?

Michael Snow: I think the films are all different. There is one film which is in a sense as exclusively duration as you to make, I think, and that is called One Second in Montreal. The idea there was about experiencing lengths of time and I kept on trying to figure out ways to do it and that is finally how I did it. But every hold in it is a different duration that is a purely temporal, or almost purely temporal since there is also the image, but there isn’t any motion so it uses the fact that in film a frame is one 24th of the second and it is the first time in history that one can be that precise with attention.

Offscreen: And the center of the film becomes very important as it does in Prelude, where there is a shift and temporality slows down.

Presents has something like three different modes in it. There is pushing and stretching, the tracking of the set, which because of convention you think of as camera movement, but you can see that the set is moving, then there is the smashing up of the set, followed by almost an hour of hand held pans which are from all over the world. Each one the pans is a different reaction to the scene with the camera. So that if the camera was moving in one way you might follow it or if the shape was round you would shoot it in a round way. One of the things I wanted to do was to cut each pan so that there would be no continuity from shot to shot, so they were isolated in time and space as these little instants taken from life. Pans are obviously much different from dollies or tracks. They are a glance. And they also reinforce a certain ephemerality, so there is a sadder aspect to the glance. It is recorded but then it is gone and then there’s another glance and it is gone. So that part of Presents is a particular thing that I have not done that much, a montage of things that have a tremendous variety, not in terms of the world itself but in terms of what you can gather from the world.

Offscreen: Which brings in two questions that are I guess unrelated. For the question of time when you are talking about the time that it takes for the audience to pick up not only what the film is about but the fact that the audience should be feeling something that takes two and half or three hours. I was wondering how the audience response works in your films and how you evaluate the time it takes for something like Wavelength to really seep into an audience?

Michael Snow: I’ve never been able to know. I have to do it for myself or imagine it for myself. Obviously there are many different types of reactions, some of my films have caused riots, fights, and all kinds of things.

Offscreen: Has it changed over the years, the audience reception?

Michael Snow: Yes. I don’t know what is happening to people but they are not as tough as they used to be (laughs out loud).

Offscreen: I was thinking of the visual culture today, maybe not in terms of duration but a certain type of violence that would be visual that people would be more accustomed to that may be in your film?

Michael Snow: Yes and that is a good point because there used to be violent reactions to Paul Sharits’ flicker films. People would say, “oh my God I can’t stand this.” I think that it is less likely now because there has been more use of that kind of stuff in a common way especially in music videos and in other films. So people’s vocabulary has expanded.

Offscreen: In turn, although audiences may be more used to seeing the violence and the freneticism, the spectator anger comes from when they are watching nothing or feel they are being bored.

Michael Snow: Yes, that is right. I know there is also the influence of television and being able to zap away so it is a weightier decision to go into the theater than it used to be. And probably attention spans are not as strong as they used to be, generally speaking.

Offscreen: I just saw Peter Mettler’s Gambling, God and LSD. He introduced it and he talked about the investment of the spectator’s time when watching a film that is three hours long and of giving something back to the audience, of rewarding them in a certain way.

Michael Snow: Yes it is generous of people to say this is three hours long and I’ll give it three hours of my time. I would like to have seen that film, because I like Mettler’s work.

Offscreen: Well it was very good.

Pause 3, Improvisation and Humor

In this final pause I would like to simply relate a pleasant discovery: Snow’s wonderful sense of humor. On at least five or six occasions during the interview the formal question and answer method was interrupted by bursts of laughter on Snow’s part, sometimes in anticipation of his own answer, or as a lead-in to a mock or hypothetical answer. In hindsight, this should not have been a surprise. Humor appears in many forms throughout his films. Not laugh out loud humor, but a wry humor that comes from an inward gaze at the mechanics of artmaking. While his films are sometimes misleadingly typified as intellectual or conceptual exercises, there are equally aware of the inevitable forces beyond the artists control, everything from funding, to good fortune, to chance, or to the fickle whims of audiences and, indeed, the art establishment. If Snow’s fascination with the mechanics and technology of art often stems from his intellect, the resulting work can also be seen as an experimental film version of Bergson’s famous dictum on what makes us laugh, those moments when we see “the mechanical encrusted upon the living.” Just think of the great final ‘gag’ in Table Top Dolly, where the plexiglass in front of the slowly moving camera creates an ‘invisible’ force that eventually pushes everything off the end of a kitchen table; or the similar gag of the moving set in Presents which gives the illusion of a lateral tracking shot; or the unexplained collapse of a man in Wavelength; or the impromptu inclusion of the offscreen audience at the end of Seated Figures; and of course the feature length “Man With a Computer Camera” antics of Corpus Callosum.

Offscreen: I was also interested in the way you use your audience, obviously in your films, but also in other work, this dynamic you have with the audience, this inclusion of the audience to make the work, work. For example, in a film like Seated Figures you have people clapping, or Back and Forth you have the audience included, and there is this irony with the audience. I was wondering what the role of the audience is in that sense?

Michael Snow: It is included in a way but I never really think about it beyond wanting to share something with other people. There are references to the audience and Seated Figures is a particular case because the sound track is a hypothetical or possible audience. I did all the sound for that, the crumbling paper, the whispering voices, laughing, the fight.

Offscreen: There was a bit of that in the audience last night during Wavelength, with people shuffling in their seats.

Michael Snow: For a while, my only 35 mm film was something called A Casing Shelved (1970) which is a single slide and it is shown as a film along with a tape, it is about 45 for 46 minutes. It really is a movie because the voice brings you around this still image but there has been some occasions, like once about four or five minutes into the film a lot of people in the audience must have said to themselves, “oh, oh I think I know what this is going to be like and I’m getting the hell out of here.” And almost in unison they got up and left (big laugh). That also happened once with the showing of New York Eye and Ear Control. That was really amazing because it was only after about a minute or so, before this crazy music had even started yet. It was pretty lyrical at that point but I guess they saw something suspicious!

Offscreen: Again with the question of the audience, after having seen many of your films and reading about them it seemed to me there was a discrepancy between the discourse surrounding the film and the experience of the film. For example, the way Wavelength is described so inaccurately. And even when somebody wants to be accurate, like P.A. Sitney, yet realizes how much more there is in the film. There is something that you cannot really translate to words which happens to the body. So those two, basically matter and mind which is also involved in the film, is as important. And in that gap between the idea of the film and the experience there is something that is really essential to the work itself. In the case of these descriptions, or the concepts of the work, everybody knows or thinks they know what the work is about. Like with Wavelength or La Region Centrale, oh yes Wavelength is a continuous 45 minute zoom into a wall. But when you are actually watching the film, it is certainly not boring, or least not for me anyway, and in that gap there is really something important happening.

Michael Snow: I think it is terrific that you said that because it is really true. I really want to make physical things so that the experience is a real experience and not just conceptual. Well yes there are ideas in the works, but they are also body affects, like the panning, for example in Back and Forth. I’ve seen someone get sick and people have fainted with La Region Centrale, so I must be doing something right. So yes you’re right. One of the things with Wavelength is this continues zoom. A lot of people who are really smart have not realized that the whole thing is continuously moving but it is single frame. See, if it was just a continuous zoom it would not refer to the frames. It is very nuanced because it was done by hand. I moved the zoom myself. It is full of different kinds of effects and qualities because it is really founded on the principle that, despite the fact that it is a zoom, films are made of single frames, and of course the film ends up on a single frame of the wave. But I think one thing that happens is related to people’s memory. This is, again with some very smart people, like Alain Fleischer, who wrote about Wavelength and said that after he had seen it he condensed it in his own personal description to being a continues zoom. Then he saw it again and you can tell by the way he wrote, it was as if he was disappointed. And this from another filmmaker. He clearly had another film in mind, because this is not a continuous zoom at all. He also never mentioned the sound and the sound is what does this because it is a continuous move that is always changing. I just find it amazing that people don’t mention the sound, because that is what affects the sense of direction, the sense of it being continuous.

Offscreen: It is actually a very discontinuous film, Back and Forth is another one of these works where when you describe it you have to reduce it down to this system, when in fact when you are watching the film you realize just how discontinuous it is. I would not called it improvisational, but there are variations within that system.

Michael Snow: Yes that is another thing, sometimes people think of them as conceptual, that you have this idea and that it just gets done. But a lot of things go wrong in them and I only include them because they add something. The things that can go wrong are particular to mediums and they make for qualities that really are of the medium. Picasso has done this. Say you are doing a portrait and the face is perfectly done, but the rest of it is done in brushstrokes. That is sort of like what might happen in the films. They are planned and they are really specific themes in a way but there are also a number of unplanned things that happen. I mean, I do not use everything that happens of that kind but I really like those things.

Offscreen: This is a perfect segue into a question about improvisation. You mention that there are specific things that happen or go wrong for each medium. Since you are a musician do see any correlation between the way you improvise in music and at what stage you do the improvising, composition or performance, and film?

Michael Snow: There is really not that much improvisation in my films. There is an acceptance of a chance, again to refer to Wavelength where I used all kinds of different film stocks and did not really know what they would look like. Ken Jacobs gave me some of outdated stock. But that is not really improvisation in a sense, like the music is. They are really compositions that allow, within reason, things to happen that are unpredictable.

Offscreen: So I guess it is a difference between chance and unpredictability and improvisation? Maybe this is an impossible question to answer, but when you improvise in music how much of the improvisation is already encoded in your brain?

Michael Snow: The CCMC as it is now is John Oswald, Paul Dutton, and myself, and we have been playing together for about 10 years. We play our music and each one of us is working on ways to get new sounds out of our instruments. What Paul Dutton does with his voice is truly outstanding. Every time we play together I am amazed by how creative the two of them are. The piano is a bit of a monster because it is this center of Western music and so much has been done with it and it is a fixed pitch instrument. It is a bit like trying to paint because there is the weight of all that has been done before. But anyway I think I am playing my own music by now. And it has to do with color really. Since they are never really in tune in the sense that other music is, they are just all over the bloody place. Now the piano can be accepted as having a certain rigidity on one hand, when you play a third it is a third. I have to deal with that, plus playing with them. I have got involved in trying to use the resonance of the piano to work with the harmonics, the overtones. So that there are all kinds of stuff that is produced from clusters that can work. It is just a question of instantaneous ear, and working with what they are doing. But it isn’t only the fixed pitch that you get when you play a note on the piano. I do know something about harmony but playing the way we play it is not about harmony but about sound really. It is not jazz but it has the kind of heat of discovery that there is in jazz.

Offscreen: A lot of the terms you used are the same as those used by the film theorist Sergei Eisenstein and his types of montage like metric, rhythmic, tonal and over tonal. He is deliberately using these musical terms, so maybe at the editing stage of film there is more of her relationship to music?

Michael Snow: I have been working with free improvisation for many years now, since the 1960’s, but there are some compositions that are much more like the films, like The Last LP. It came out as an LP in 1987 and 1994 in a CD version. It is a completely studio done thing that is composition in the sense that it uses multitrack layering, and I did all the parts.

Offscreen: Is it all piano?

Michael Snow: No it is everything, drums, trumpets, voice.

Offscreen: Do you use some type of language based stuff as well?

Michael Snow: Well, in the CD version of Sinoms there is a 30 page booklet and in the back it talks about the history of recording and how wonderful it is that, at least from the Western point of view, we’ve been able to record the music of cultures that did not have recording, and thus preserve it. But there is also a negative aspect to this and that is the effect of the intrusion of the West on such cultures. On this CD there are two African pieces, there’s one South American one, a Tibetan piece, and the texts are full of ethno musicological references, including an ancient Chinese one. But all of this is a total construct, I did everything, including even the use of gongs. One of the nicest ones is Sinobodar (?) which is a girls puberty rite from a tribe in Niger Africa and I did all the voices. So you can take it that way, at its face value, but the truth is actually in the booklet, but it is printed backward so you have to read it through a mirror, and people never do that! It has been ordered by music departments and is available from Art Metropole in Toronto. And I have had some wonderful experiences with it. When I was working on the sculpture called "The Audience," the guys that were working on it happened to have a radio on at the time and we were listening to this program that had ethnic music on. The guy played a Bulgarian woman’s choir and then he played the first piece from my CD, which was an ancient Chinese piece, I forget the name of it, with gongs and whistling on it. And he read the notes relating the interesting history, and played other tracks, and so on. Another funny story, a friend has this recording and played it for another friend. She liked it and asked where she could get it and my friend must have told her she got it from Art Metropole. And then a few days later this woman called my friend and was kind of angry and said, “well why didn’t you tell me what this was!” And it brought up the whole thing about music, can there be “fake music,” and if you like it, then what you hear is what you hear. So this woman must have read about how it was done and found out it wasn’t 15 year-old girls singing! So in my music as well as in my improvisation there are things like that. One piece called Si, Non uses the names of all the mayors of Quebec City since the beginning. It is a vocal piece.

Michael Snow, The Audience, 1988. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

Offscreen: With all of that layering you mention we see so much of that in today’s music.

Michael Snow: I did that with some stuff that I did in 1972 a New York label called Chatham Square, Phil Glasses’ first label, put out a thing of mine called Michael Snow: Music for Whistling, Piano, Microphone, and Tape Recorder, which is two lp’s. And there was a lot of stuff that used recording as an instrument. It was released in 1975 but a lot of the music was done in 1972. Partly because of working with film I have been involved with that for a long time, the idea that recording itself is an instrument.

Offscreen: I was struck last night at the concert and listening to the whole record Snow Solo Piano Solo Snow.

Michael Snow: Oh yes, the three C D one.

Offscreen: And it was even more striking yesterday because I saw your performance and I was struck by the extraordinary violence, literally the physical violence against the piano itself. I found that there was the same type of ecstatic violence that I saw in many of the films and an incredible energy which was very striking to me. I wonder how that is brought in?

Michael Snow: Speed is a way to escape consciousness and just act. If you think too much in the music you are too late. You have to act and this is something that happened in abstract expressionism too, it was a discovery particularly in De Kooning’s paintings, great paintings. There’s a lot of speed in his work and the speed produces things that only speed can produce. I think with our music, we may not have that jazz background, we don’t have steady tempos or tunes, and the rhythm is extremely variable, but the energy or the phrasing is where the heat comes from. Because there isn’t any cumulative rhythm so it is a transfer to phrasing from rhythm.

Offscreen: When you mention speed the first thing I thought of was the speed of your panning movements in Back and Forth or La Region Centrale. How did you achieve those rapid-fire pans in Back and Forth, were they just done manually?

Michael Snow: Yes it was just by panning very fast. I don’t think I changed the shooting speed, I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was all shot at 24 frames per second.

Offscreen: At the end of Back and Forth you get lost in the rhythm of it, like when you’re on a train and speeding past objects.

Michael Snow: I was hoping to make it become all one energy field.

Offscreen: It also evolves, where at one point it almost looks like a gallery of paintings. I can think of a moment in Plus Tard (See You Later) where the windows themselves look literally like paintings.

Michael Snow: Plus Tard uses gestures too and each one being a slightly different gesture with the camera.

Offscreen: That can also relate to abstract painting right?

Michael Snow: Yes I was actually thinking about painting when making Plus Tard, more than anything. That it was like a brush stroke.

Offscreen: In terms of the violence I was thinking of a film of yours which is rarely discussed To Lavoiseur, Who Died in the Reign of Terror, just the extraordinary assault of the film. I was wondering with that film because there are a lot of superimpositions.

Michael Snow: Well actually they are fades and dissolves between each and zooms as well, and they follow this pattern where they shoot from above and round and round like a clock.

Michael Snow, To Lavoisier Who Died in the Reign of Terror, 1991. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

Offscreen: It seems that the print itself is all worn out.

Michael Snow: That is all from processing. There is a wonderful filmmaker called Carl Brown from Toronto who for years has been working with the chemistry. He doesn’t use a lab at all except at the end when he finally makes a negative of what he’s produced. I asked him to work on To Lavoiseur so the image part of it is a collaboration with Carl Brown (Painting the Light Fantastic). He knows what he is doing but he experiments a lot. What we did is I set up all the shots and I shot them on different stock, and once again this is a little bit of chance business. Over the years I had accumulated lots of bits of film some of them were really outdated and some had no labels on them. So we shot the scenes on three or four, or five different types of stock and then I give them to Carl to process and do whatever he wanted with them. It is really amazing what he does because he knows about the mix of different chemicals but it is all about duration, about how long the film is in the vat. So that is how those images were made. We’re planning to do another collaboration which is a suggestion of his. He made a two screen film called Fine Pain with sound by John Kamevaar, who used to be in the CCMC. Kamevaar is primarily a drummer, percussionist, but he has used samplers and stuff like that for quite a long time now. I really like Fine Pain, it is amazing, and Carl suggested we do a kind of an “Exquisite Corpse” to screen thing where he would do something and I would do something and then we would give it to John to do whatever he wanted for sound. I’m going to try and start working on that fairly soon. In terms of technology, I think there is still something left to do with single frame shooting and that is what I want to do in this. The trouble with that is that it takes so much time, a day might go by and you have only shot six frames.

Offscreen: With what would you be filming that?

Michael Snow: A Bolex, 16mm.

Offscreen: To recall something that you said in relation to Wavelength, that it was a “summation of religious inklings.” I know you said you’re planning to work on this Fine Pain but what are some of your other recent inklings?

Michael Snow: Well there is a lot of stuff. We just came back from a little tour, CCMC, we played in Holland and at “Festival Polyphonix.” Have you ever heard of a Jean-Jacques Lebel?

Offscreen: No.

Michael Snow: He is a French performer at Happenings. For 40 years he has had this festival which mixes sound, poetry and different kinds of performances pertaining toward sound. Anyway we just played at that. I am going back to Paris on the 22nd because there’s going to be something quite similar to here, I have a show at the Georges Pompidou and the beginning of a month-long retrospective, and the launch of the DVD Digital Snow. And the launch of Des Ecrits par Michael Snow, which is a French translation of my writings with some new stuff in it similar to the English one.

Offscreen: The Pompidou usually puts out a book when they do retrospectives. Will that be happening with yours?

In this case what they have done is that they’ve made this book of writings instead. It is being done with the Ecole des beaux arts. I’ll be playing a solo piano concert at the Pompidou. There will be the release of the box set of Rameau’s Nephew, which will have a 100 page book. And I’m doing a show at the Sorbonne gallery and a conference as well. Right now I am in a show at a wonderful gallery called Yvon Lambert. They are doing a series of projection exhibitions and there is a new work which I did this summer which is in that. The other nice thing that happened out of that is that they asked me to show there in about a year, which I am really pleased about because it is a terrific gallery.

Offscreen: So you’re not slowing down! It seems that have a nice link with Paris.

Michael Snow: Yes it is a very Cinephilic culture. I had a one-man show in 1979 at the Pompidou Centre and that seems to have had a continuous ripple effect.

Offscreen: Well maybe just to sum up, do you think that people have a tendency to separate you when they are asking you questions, not label you but break you up into all these portions, Michael Snow being…, whereas do you consider yourself more as whole?

Michael Snow: Well I do consider the individual things individual, in a way because that is what I do I guess, try to find out what is special about each medium. It is understandable that people cannot be knowledgeable about all the different mediums. Sometimes it is funny. There was this advertisement for this solo piano concert in a magazine in Paris and it read, “A unique concert by the cineaste Michael Snow.” Like, my God, he is a filmmaker and actually plays the piano!

Offscreen: You have actually produced more paintings and music than films?

Michael Snow: Yes there are a lot of paintings, not for quite a long time but there are quite a few.

Offscreen: Photography also, it is almost impossible to catch up, to sum up.

Michael Snow: There was a retrospective of my work in photography, which started in 1962, organized by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It did a tour and the catalog is fantastic.

Photograph by Michael Snow, In Media Res, 1998. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

Offscreen: That is where the Alain Fleischer article is from?

Michael Snow: Right. Then it went onward to Paris and, I think Geneva.

Offscreen: Well we are nearing the end and we would really like to thank you for giving us this wonderful time.

Michael Snow: Well I would like to say thank you, really, for your asking me and for your knowledge about what it is I apparently do. Sometimes you talk to people who really don’t know anything about your work, and what can you say?

The Michael Snow Dossier


  1. Philip Alperson, “Musical Time” and Music as an ‘Art of Time,’” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38 no. 4 (Summer 1980), 407-417.
  2. Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. 1934. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.

Weathering the Creative Storm: An Interview With Michael Snow

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

André Habib somehow became professor of film studies at the Université de Montréal after working as a videostore clerk, while remaining a cinephile and critic, and without ever having been able to direct a movie. He joined the team of Hors champ in 2000, with Simon Galiero, Frédérick Pelletier and Nicolas Renaud. Since 2016 he is chief editor of the journal (with Renaud Desprès-Larose, Nour Ouayda and Olivier Godin). He has published over 250 articles and organized more than 30 public events. He is the author, among others, of La main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (Boréal, 2015) and L’attrait de la ruine (Yellow Now, 2011).

Volume 6, Issue 11 / November 2002 Interviews   avant-garde   canadian cinema   experimental   michael snow   people_snow