“Structural film” denotes works, generally made between the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, whose shapes were often predetermined and which subordinated content to form. Perhaps the greatest example of the movement is Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), sometimes described as “a 45-minute zoom on a painting across a loft,” but more precisely as a minimalist exploration of the cinematic relations between time, space, narrative, and even color. The zoom appears uninterrupted, but ellipses are evident in changes in light through the window (in fact, a whole week passes). Over the course of that edited zoom, someone plays “Strawberry Fields Forever” on a record player, a man collapses, and a woman calls an ambulance. Sometimes the zoom is superimposed with footage of earlier or later in the film. The color grading occasionally changes, altering the mood with it. Little actually happens, but precisely for that reason, everything that does is imbued with significance. And Wavelength is only the tip of the iceberg that is Snow’s work. Anthology Film Archives’ complete retrospective of the Canadian director is a chance to rediscover what remains vital about structural film.
Many of those revelations are hidden in lesser-known, difficult-to-screen works. 1970’s A Casing Shelved is an exemplary case. It consists of a projection of a single 35mm slide depicting a bookcase in Snow’s studio, accompanied by a tape recording that describes the image, enumerating the contents of the shelf and other details. When Snow’s voice tells you of the clothes hanger dangling from the top shelf, the eye naturally moves to it. It seems to argue that cinema as an experience is not merely what is on the screen, that it also lives in the way the viewer seeks details, responds to audio cues, and otherwise privileges some part of the image over the other. Your observation might devolve into a stare as Snow’s voice entrances you; this too is a natural and therefore valid response. A film and its viewer cooperate to create its meaning.
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Even the title of 2005’s SSHTOORRTY (the words “short” and “story” merged) makes an audience work to untangle it, preparing them to do the same with the narrative. The film is split into two parts which play simultaneously, with the images, sound, and subtitles (the characters speak in Farsi) all layered over one another. Each part tells half a story about a painter, his client, and the client’s wife, who is having an affair with the painter. The scene is just a few minutes long, but it repeats several times. The viewer can focus first on one half and then the other, then use the next few iterations to put together the narrative pieces. Or perhaps you’ll start with character details, watching the woman’s face as her husband announces what he knows, then use later loops to ascertain exactly what the living room looks like and the true color of the various walls, or to determine what happens to the wrapping of the painting that is tossed aside and seems to vanish (all of this is surprisingly tough, given the superimpositions). Here the viewer is tasked not only with contemplation, but also with participation.
As Malcolm Turvey has written, this playfulness, or Snow’s “ludic sovereignty over space and time,” is a hallmark of his 21st-century work. Prelude (2000) is again built around a single shot, this one a pan across a room where a group is eating dinner before a trip to a movie theater. The sound is out of sync for most of the running time, beginning far ahead of what we see, with the visuals only at the end “catching up” to what we heard at the start. This disparity forces the viewer to mentally realign sound and image, and therefore time and space as well. Similarly, 2003’s WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) compresses the older film into three superimposed shots, making it run only 15 minutes. It’s a pointed crack at anyone who would dismiss Wavelength based on its synopsis, but it’s also a chaotic and dense experience that makes it apparent how much is really happening in the original. These “ludic” qualities emphasize the gulf between Snow’s sense of play and more capitalist orientations of time.
Snow demands more of an audience than they may be used to, but such fastidiousness is integral both to filmmaking and criticism. For writers as disparate as Manny Farber and Roland Barthes, details like the hat brims in Howard Hawks films or the hairstyles in 1953’s Julius Caesar were of greater import than character psychology or reductive sociopolitical interpretations of narratives. Farber, who despised prestigious “White Elephant” art and championed the “Termite” art of genre directors, was a great appreciator of Snow, because both understood movies as art more mysterious and sublime than mere storytelling devices. Snow’s films are not just for academics and artists; they are for anyone wondering what makes movies special, or just looking for movies that truly are special.
Retrospective: Michael Snow plays at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) December 3–14.