previous chapter
Chapter 7— Balancing Eye and Mind: Michael Snow
next section

Chapter 7—
Balancing Eye and Mind:
Michael Snow

I like to have ecstasy and analysis.
—Michael Snow


"All about seeing," a phrase Michael Snow used to describe his best-known film, Wavelength (1967), might be applied to Snow's work as a whole.[1] This chapter will not cover all of Snow's films, however, nor all of the ways they are about seeing. It will concentrate on three films and two cinematic techniques that most explicitly demonstrate Snow's integration of seeing and cinema. In addition to Wavelength , the films are « (Back and Forth ) (1969) and La Région Centrale (1971); the techniques are the zoom shot and camera movement. Taken together, they show how and why Snow's most original and significant contributions to the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film derive from his most thorough explorations into the dialectic of eye and camera.

That dialectical relationship deeply interested Snow from the time he began making films, which came some ten years after he had established himself as an important painter and sculptor.[2] Around the time he made Wavelength he remarked, "When you narrow down your range and are looking through just that narrow aperture of the lens, the intensity of what you see is so much greater."[3] Some years later he pointed out that the photographic, sculptural, and mixed media works in his major exhibition of 1979-80 demonstrated a common concern with "the kinds of effects the camera has on perception," and specifically, "the focusing concentration involved with the camera."[4] Still more recently Snow has commented, "[C]ameras both intensify and diminish aspects of normal vision, and they 'set apart' those aspects for possible examination."[5] To analyze and make art out of what cameras do to "normal vision"—that is the basis of Snow's visual aesthetics.

By exploiting the limits as well as the intense, concentrated seeing imposed by the frame of the camera-eye, Snow has been able to reveal


154

much more than the camera normally permits to be shown. He has done so while continuing to accept the camera's mechanicalness and its differences from the human eye. Instead of "humanizing" the camera, as Snow believes Brakhage has done, Snow is dedicated to pursuing "the 'machine-ness' of it."[6] This does not mean that human perception is irrelevant to Snow's concerns but simply that the richest visual experience provided by Snow's films comes from his manipulation of the "machine-ness" of cinema. The same manipulation produces the paradoxical union of "ecstasy and analysis" announced in the epigraph to this chapter.

In an essay published in 1980, Bruce Elder states that Snow's films "elicit an analytic rather than ecstatic response."[7] Two years later, in a published conversation with Elder, Snow insisted, "I like to have ecstasy and analysis" (my emphasis). He then added, "An ecstasy of analysis is an odd state all right! And an analysis of ecstasy seems a waste of good time. Or is film the only occasion for this meeting?" Leaving his rhetorical question unanswered, Snow went on to describe the "meeting" of ecstasy and analysis as a "dual state (simultaneous or oscillating fast or slow from 'one' to 'the other') [which] is provoked by all my films in different ways."[8] To analyze some of those ways and specify the nature of the "meeting" they provoke will be the principal concerns of this chapter.

The critical consensus grown up around Snow's work has tended to emphasize "analysis" at the expense of "ecstasy" and to concentrate on the conceptual aspects of Snow's films without giving comparable attention to the perceptual experience they produce.[9] In fact, when P. Adams Sitney declared "structural film" to be "cinema of the mind rather than the eye" and called Michael Snow "the dean of structural film-makers," he neatly marked off the limits for most critical discussions of Snow's work.[10] Like Sitney, David James places "structural films" in the tradition of art designed to "subordinate the retinal to the intellectual."[11] A similar eye/mind or retinal/intellectual dichotomy underlies the distinction Annette Michelson has made between "the disjunctiveness of the perceptual Now" experienced by viewers of Brakhage's films, and the unified and temporally extended "observation and cognition" produced by the films of Snow.[12] Among other critics the terms of the dichotomy have varied—abstract expressionist versus minimalist, poetic versus philosophical, personal versus impersonal, perceptual versus conceptual, romantic versus modernist, modernist versus postmodernist. But the underlying assumptions (that films for the eye and for the mind are fundamentally different and that Brakhage and Snow must be distinguished by their championing


155

of the eye and the mind respectively) have persisted in most critical discussions of avant-garde film since the late 1960s.

Snow's films have been readily assimilated into the "anti-visual discourse" to which I referred at the beginning of this book, and they have been especially prized for their examination of cinema's "materials and language" (in David James's phrase). Consequently, their contribution to the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film has not been given the attention it deserves. It seems especially appropriate, therefore, to end this book with a filmmaker who is widely assumed to make "cinema of the mind rather than the eye," but who, in fact, uses the visual means of cinema to address both eye and mind.

1—

In Snow's visual aesthetics the work of art engages the spectator in a perceptual balancing act, "a balancing of 'illusion' and 'fact,'" as he once put it. Pursuing this line of thought in an interview, Snow explains that Wavelength "attempts to balance out in a way all the so-called realities . . . involved in the issue of making a film." He then compares his own intentions with "the way Cézanne, say, made a balance between the colored goo that he used, which is what you see if you look at it that way, and the forms that you see in their illusory space."[13]

Analogous to Cézanne's "colored goo" is cinema's projected light falling on the flat surface of the screen. From that fact comes the illusion of solid forms in three-dimensional space. Snow's goal is to bring the spectator to the fullest possible recognition of both qualities of the cinematic image: its referential nature as representation of the visual world and its essential nature as, in Snow's words, "projected moving light image."[14] From that recognition on the part of the spectator comes the "dual state," or balance, of "ecstasy and analysis" Snow desires. Nowhere is it more fully realized than in the "demonstration or lesson in perception" provided by Wavelength .[15]

Although Regina Cornwell is right in saying that Wavelength "hinges on the zoom as does all discussion of it," one must not forget the rich visual texture of the film as a whole.[16] Extreme changes in exposure, flares and flash frames, negative footage, flicker effects, superimpositions, ephemeral spots and gleams of light (reflected off gels held in front of the lens), and innumerable shifts in the color and density of the image recur throughout the film like playful improvisations within the stern and unvarying structure, or shape, imposed by the zoom.


156

Such effects (which one would be inclined to call painterly were they not more characteristic of Snow's photographic works than his actual paintings) are both perceptual and conceptual. With their many brief and unexpected changes in light, color, and texture, they engage the viewer's perception in the moment-by-moment experience of the film (the "perceptual Now" that Michelson ascribes to Brakhage's films but ignores in Snow's). At the same time, they act as "intimations of other ways of seeing," as Snow has put it.[17] They subvert the conventional "illusory space" of the cinematic image by calling attention to the filmmaker's equivalent of the painter's "colored goo." They encourage the viewer to look at the image as well as into it, and they complement the countless small but clearly visible shifts in focal length through which the zoom calls attention to itself and, simultaneously, draws the viewer deeper and deeper into its own unique realm of perception.

That perception is unique because it is only possible through the mechanical eye of the zoom lens. Like any zoom-in, Wavelength's zoom does three different things at the same time. It narrows the camera's angle of vision; it "flattens" the "illusory space" perceived on the screen; and it keeps whatever is in the center of the frame when the zoom begins, exactly in the center for the full duration of the zoom.[18] The third of these characteristics is the least noted in discussions of the zoom, yet it is basic to both the perceptual and conceptual experience evoked by the film.

Snow framed his shot so that the center of the projected image on the screen is occupied by the photograph of waves pinned on the far wall of the room. Throughout the zoom, the photograph holds its central position, and as it expands toward the borders of the projected image, everything around it gradually disappears. By minute increments, the camera's angle of vision narrows until finally the photograph fills all the available space on the screen. In this way the mechanical and optical functions of the zoom lens determine the formal structure and perceptual limits of Wavelength .

It is instructive to compare Wavelength with Albie Thoms's Bolero (1967), a film made in the same year as Wavelength and shown in the same Knokke-le-Zoute festival at which Wavelength won the Grand Prize. Bolero is a single-take, fifteen-minute tracking shot made in a nondescript back street. To the accompaniment of Ravel's music, the camera creeps past buildings, yards, parked cars, garbage cans, and so on until it arrives at an extreme close-up of the eyes of a young women who is sitting at the end of the street. Thoms was specifically interested in "observing the effect of movement on perception."[19] It is true that the visual effect of his tracking camera approximates what one might actually see


157

while walking through the narrow street and directly up to the seated woman. The principal difference between Thoms's tracking shot and Snow's zoom shot is that the former has equivalents in ordinary perceptions of the visual world; the latter does not.[20]

In Wavelength the mechanical eye of the zoom lens creates a perceptual experience that cannot be duplicated by the human eye. By imposing its narrowing angle of vision on the space of the room, the zoom makes the wall seem to approach the viewer, rather than the viewer approach the wall. The wall seems to come forward exactly as the buildings across the street seem to advance until they look like flat images pressed against the windows of the room. This is the inevitable result of the zoom's flattening effect. At the same time, whatever remains visible on the screen seems to be growing bigger. What becomes biggest and flattest of all is the photograph of waves.

Presumably this is why Snow has said, "From the beginning the end is a factor. In the context of the film the end is not 'arbitrary'; it is fated."[21] It is "fated" because the end—that is, the photograph—is visibly present in the beginning as a gray spot precisely in the center of the projected image, and there is no choice but for it to become increasingly apparent as the photograph increases in size. When the photograph is the only thing left on the screen, the beginning can be said to have become the end. What was present, in miniature, at the beginning is still there, grown large, at the end.

As Wavelength permits us to perceive the interpenetration of beginning and end, so it also makes visible the interpenetration of time and space: the viewing time of the film expressed as a center-to-peripheries expansion in space. With the passage of time, every minuscule change in the lens's focal length marks another expansion of the center toward the borders of the frame. As the film's time gets longer, its space gets flatter and its central image larger. The paradox of a center expanding to its own peripheries and a beginning containing its own ending is potentially present in every zoom shot, but the zoom in Wavelength make that paradox visible and invests it with metaphysical significance.

When the borders of the photograph disappear beyond the borders of the projected image, the perfectly flat, rather dense, and uninteresting photograph suddenly reveals what manufacturers of lenses like to call "infinity." Up to this crucial point, however, the film seems to be leading toward the opposite perception. The deep space of the room has become steadily shallower, until the flatness of the photograph and the flatness of the screen seem to be one and the same. Then the flatness evaporates, and the viewer


158


159

Progressive stages of the zoom in  Wavelength  bring the
photograph of waves forward until it completely fills the screen.


160

perceives depth again. But the depth in the photograph is not like the depth in the room. It cannot be "flattened" by the optics of a zoom lens. This explains why the zoom finally gives up. It briefly shifts back to a slightly wider angle, as if it were gesturing toward its beginning. Then the whole image goes out of focus and fades into white: the clean slate of a new beginning.

Although there is nothing more the zoom lens can show us, the film does not end on a dead center of exhausted perception. Its affirmation of the flatness of the photograph/screen produces a new and qualitatively different sense of depth, one that could not be experienced so long as the wall provided a ground for the photograph and prevented our perceiving the photograph's "infinity ." By the same token, the film affirms yet goes beyond the materiality of the image on the screen and the means of putting it there. From the very thoroughness of its "analysis" arises the experience Snow calls "ecstasy": the flattening effect of the zoom (analysis) leads to the viewer's perception of infinite depth (ecstasy). Where the film ends, the imagination carries on, free of material constraints. Or, as Snow remarks, "And past the end it should have ripples."[22]

As Snow envisions the film's development, there is a perceptual change from the camera/eye to the screen/mind: "The space starts at the camera (spectator's) eye, is in the air, then on the screen, then is within the screen (the mind)."[23] It is in the final minutes of the film, as the photograph of waves and the film screen become congruent, that what was on the screen can be said to appear most completely within it, and therefore within the mind.

A different way of conceptualizing the perceptual journey from space to screen to mind is suggested by Snow's remarks on frames and windows. Snow has said that a projected film or anything "put on a wall with a frame around it" encourages the viewer to feel as if he or she is "looking out a window." Snow then goes on to say, "It's amazing how windows are influential. They seem like metaphors for the eyes in the head; when you're in the house you're looking out the eyes and we are the brains. That was one thing I was thinking about in making Wavelength ."[24]

For much of the film, the viewer shares the brain's point of view from within the room/head and can look out the windows/eyes at the end of the room. At the same time, the viewer is sitting in a darkened room watching the projected image on the screen as if it were a window. When the windows of the room are eliminated by the zoom, the photograph serves as another sort of window, revealing a vista quite different from the one visible through the windows that face onto the street. Because of the flattening


161

and enlarging effects of the zoom, the photograph-as-window and the screen-as-window become one and the same. If both windows are also eyes, then what they show/see is brought right up to the portals of sight, where a new kind of perception converts flatness into "infinite" depth. That conversion occurs "in the house" where "we are the brains." The mind carries on when the materiality of the film medium and the optics of the zoom lens can go no further. This is the beginning of the "ripples" that extend "past the end."

2—

In Metaphors on Vision Brakhage urges filmmakers to liberate the camera from the built-in restraints of the tripod by taking it in their own hands and letting it move as freely as the human eye: "One can hand hold the camera and inherit worlds of space." For Snow, however, the opposite approach has proved to be more fruitful. As Snow discovered in making « and La Région Centrale , the "illusory space" of the cinematic image can be radically transformed by a moving camera firmly attached to a tripod. What Brakhage regarded as a mechanical limitation, Snow recognized as a potentially liberating technique if pushed beyond its conventional limits. In that sense, Snow's approach is not so different from Brakhage's. He also uses the machinery "against specifications" and in total defiance of the conventions respected by the dominant cinema. By exaggerating its "machine-ness," he forces the apparatus to produce new ways of seeing that fully satisfy Brakhage's own criteria for "eye adventures." This is what Snow did with the zoom lens in Wavelength and what he went on to do with a moving camera on an ordinary tripod in « , and with the camera on a much more elaborate version of a tripod in La Région Centrale .

Snow has said that he wanted the camera movements in « to make viewers conscious of their own act of perception: "exactly what your eyes and mind are doing when you're watching that."[25] The result would be, he hopes, a "kind of demonstration or lesson in perception and in concepts of law and order and in their transcendence."[26] By "law and order," Snow presumably means the very strict rules he imposed on the recording of the image: one location; fixed camera position; no movement except perfectly horizontal pans; and, later in the film, absolutely vertical tilts, and no variation in the distance covered by each pan and tilt.[27] The mechanical regularity of the camera's movement is given further emphasis by a sound track composed of a continuously running motor and a sharp pop marking the end of each camera movement.


162

Throughout the film the same space is shown again and again as the camera pans back and forth, then tilts up and down. In the film's coda, which Snow has likened to a memory of the earlier parts of the film, both movements appear simultaneously in superimposition. This represents a kind of "transcendence" of "law and order," but another and more powerful transcendence arises from the one significant variable in the filming process: the speed of the camera's movements back and forth, up and down.

After a few introductory pans across the outside wall of a ground-floor classroom, the camera takes its permanent position inside the classroom and begins to pan slowly across a wall that has four windows opening onto a lawn and street beyond. As the film progresses, the physical limitations of the room are "transcended" through camera movement, just as a comparable room becomes transformed through the optical effects of the zoom lens in Wavelength . Also as in Wavelength , the camera's position relative to the wall is crucial to the perceptual effects of the film. The camera is placed so that at its farthest swing to the left it takes in the end of the room where there are some desks, a green chalkboard, and a door opening to the outside. On its rightward swing, the camera stops just short of the other end of the room. The relationship between the arc of the pan and the space of the room produces an asymmetrical image on the screen. The pan to the left ends with an image of much deeper space than does the pan to the right, and when the arc of the pan is at its midpoint, the wall is still at an oblique angle to the "picture plane" (the plane defined by the screen itself). Only when it is close to the rightward extremity of its pan does the camera face the wall directly and bring it into a parallel relationship with the screen's picture plane.

At slow panning speeds, this asymmetry is not particularly striking. One sees a stable, three-dimensional space that the camera slowly scans back and forth, just as one might do by turning one's head repeatedly left and right. (Snow has remarked that the film "involves one's neck as well as one's mind-eyes.")[28] When the panning speed increases, however, the movement seems to be transferred from the camera to the room. The space itself seems to be sliding back and forth across the surface of the screen. At the same time it retreats and advances as its perceived depth changes with every swing of the camera to the left (deep space) and right (shallow space). At still faster panning speeds, the three-dimensional room becomes a blurred two-dimensional plane that not only jerks back and forth but also seems to bulge and bend at the middle, or to see-saw toward and away from the viewer as the pan leaps between deeper and shallower space. By now, the camera's very rapid movements generate a mixture of ambiguous and contradictory


163

A portion of the pan from one end of the 
classroom toward the other (left) 
and the tilt between floor and ceiling (right) in «  
(Courtesy National Gallery of Canada).


164

perceptions that totally "transcend" the limits originally imposed by the space of the room and the mechanical regularity of the pans.

At the height of its panning speed, the camera suddenly switches to equally rapid tilts, figuratively crossing the horizontal double-headed arrow of the film's title with a vertical equivalent. Now the image on the screen not only pumps up and down but rocks in and out as the camera tilts between the floor and ceiling and over a window that changes shape with each upward and downward passage of the camera. The camera angle makes the window appear trapezoidal, like a rectangle receding in space. Because the trapezoid-rectangle changes shape as the camera changes angles, the whole wall appears to swing toward and away from the picture plane in a movement that complements the horizontal rocking of the wall during the panning sequence. Gradually the speed decreases, and as it does so, the viewer's perception of the space returns to normal. Then a uniformed policeman approaches the window from outside and peers into the room—as if to verify its return from "transcendence" to "law and order."

The appearance of the policeman is only one of a number of human events that briefly divert attention from the camera's movements. Even those diversions, however, allude to the film's thematic implications by introducing paired opposites, such as in and out, left and right, male and female, coming and going, give and take. The policeman is outside looking in. Early in the film a man washes the outside of the windows with back and forth movements of a rag. A little later he sweeps out the inside of the room with short forward movements of a push broom. He sweeps from right to left, toward the open door, then is glimpsed outside as he walks past the windows from left to right. Subsequently a man draws a double-headed arrow on the chalkboard. A woman sitting at a desk shakes her head from side to side. A man and woman embrace. Another man and woman toss a ball back and forth. A voice is heard saying, "Back and forth, to and fro, hither and thither, hither and yon." During a party scene two men exchange blows in a playful fist-fight, after which a voice says, "It's a draw."

Though momentarily arresting, these scattered events are ephemeral in comparison to the camera movement and its accompanying whir and repeated pop . Like the "illusory space" they occupy, the human activities disappear when the camera's oscillations increase in speed and rhythmic intensity. Only an occasional skip or jump in the pans and tilts, or a missed beat on the soundtrack momentarily break the rules Snow imposed on the production of the film's image and sound. The cumulative effect is of "law and order" carried to such an extreme that it finally transcends


165

itself to produce perceptions of a new and higher order. Here, in other words, is another version of the reciprocal relationship of "ecstasy and analysis."

"In various philosophies and religions," Snow has said, "there has often been the suggestion, sometimes the dogma, that transcendence would be a fusion of opposites. In « there's the possibility of such a fusion being achieved by velocity."[29] From a quantitative change in the speed of the camera's movement comes a qualitative change in perception. From a mechanical repetitiveness comes a very unmechanical experience for the eye and mind.

The viewer completely absorbed by the sound-image repetitions of « may experience a "transcendence" comparable to that brought about by chanting a mantra, or contemplating the interlocking geometrical patterns of a yantra, or surrendering body and mind to an endlessly spinning dance and repetitive chant such as Sufi "whirling dervishes" perform. These spiritual exercises have a physiological basis (aural, visual, and kinetic) like that of Snow's film. Like them, « subjects the brain to repeated stimuli in such unrelenting abundance that it cannot translate them into normal perceptions of the world. Unlike those other modes of attaining nonordinary perceptions, however, Snow's film is a work of art, which continues to insist upon its own integrity as art. Instead of carrying perception from the mundane to the transcendental, it moves back and forth between the two, balancing "transcendence" with "law and order," "ecstasy" with "analysis," the "Beyond" with the here and now of the filmmaking process and the craft of the filmmaker.

As the coda approaches its end, the soundtrack falls silent while superimposed pans and tilts crisscross each other at dizzying speeds, and the whole image glows with soft blue light. Suddenly this transcendent image is replaced by solid red, then by a grainy green (suggestive of the green chalkboard in the classroom or green film leader). At the same time the silence is broken by the applause of an anonymous audience. With that characteristically wry and self-reflexive gesture, Snow brings the film down to earth, restores its balance, and implicitly declares (like the voice heard earlier in the film), "It's a draw."

3—

La Région Centrale comes closer to declaring a victory for "transcendence," despite its even greater dependence on the mechanicalness of the camera-eye and the camera's tripod-body. "The camera itself is a ma-


166

chine," Snow explains in discussing La Région Centrale , "so attaching it to another, personally designed machine, seemed a way of augmenting its possibilities."[30] Snow's "personally designed machine" was, in effect, a super-tripod. It could be controlled by electronic sound waves transmitted from a distance and was so intricately constructed that it could start and stop the camera and adjust its zoom lens, as well as make the camera pan, tilt, twist, turn, and wheel about in every direction and on "every plane of a sphere," as Snow puts it. It could execute these movements without photographing the super-tripod itself, thus never revealing the central point upon which the camera turned. That invisible point is the "central region" of the film's title. Snow has called it "the absolute centre, Nirvanic zero, being the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere." Such comments suggest, quite properly, that La Région Centrale , like Wavelength and « , has affinities with visionary films for the inner eye.

By exploiting "the physical effect on the eye-mind of the projected moving light image," Snow reaches the inner eye by way of outer imagery. "La Région Centrale ," he explains, "isn't only a documentary photographing of a particular place at various times of day but is equally and more importantly a source of sensations, an ordering of eye movements and of inner ear movements." Although the same might be said of « , the earlier film does not so thoroughly reorient the visual sense of balance ("inner ear movements"). In « the camera traces and retraces the same horizontal and vertical coordinates within the closed space of the classroom. In La Région Centrale the camera is outdoors, and its movements follow all possible arcs on a sphere whose circumference is "infinity" and whose center is the camera-eye itself.

The two films are alike, however, in their use of rapid camera movement to flatten the illusory space on the screen. Both films also shift the viewer's perception of movement from the moving frame of the camera eye to the movement of space within the frame. Snow succinctly describes the subjective effects of these two kinds of perceived movement: "If you become completely involved in the reality of these circular movements [of the camera], it's you who is spinning surrounded with everything, or, conversely, you are a stationary centre and it's all revolving around you." This relativity of perception arises from Snow's efforts to equate the camera's mode of recording an image with the image as it is seen by the audience: "I wanted to make a film in which what the camera-eye did in the space would be completely appropriate to what it saw, but at the same time, equal to it." Then, echoing his remark about Cézanne's balancing of "colored goo" and "illusory space," Snow continues, "Certain landscape paintings have


167

achieved a unity of method and subject. Cézanne for instance produced an, to say the least, incredibly balanced relationship between what he did and what he (apparently) saw." La Région Centrale is a landscape film that accomplishes the same "balanced relationship" between what the cameraeye "did" and what it "saw."

In the most literal sense, what it "saw" was a boulder-strewn mountaintop, the surrounding mountainous terrain, and the vast canopy of sky. No houses, roads, power lines, or other evidence of human presence are visible. As Snow puts it, "There are no other people but you (the machinery?) and the extraordinary wilderness." The scene not only excludes all references to human activities but offers little that the human eye would find picturesque. An unlikely subject for a picture postcard, it is a landscape resistant to human sentiment or pathetic fallacies. In this landscape, as Regina Cornwell notes, "Nature does not look back at man. It does not weep."[31] Snow himself states the issue in more ideological terms: "I recorded the visit of some of our minds and bodies and machinery to a wild place but I didn't colonize it, enslave it. I hardly even borrowed it." To the extent that it could not be appropriated by human sentiment, this landscape offered an especially suitable mise-en-scène for a film centered on "Nirvanic zero."

The soundtrack is another element that helps to dehumanize the mise-en-scène. Instead of windy silence punctuated by an occasional distant birdcall, the soundtrack duplicates the sine waves and electronic pulses that controlled the camera's movements. It creates what Snow calls a "sound space" that is "equivalent, and synchronous to the eye space." Ranging from high, quick beeps, to long, low sonorous drones and tinny hums and buzzes like a ringing in the ears, the soundtrack refers directly to the filmmaking machinery and its sonic guidance system. It draws the viewer's attention away from the landscape per se and toward the means through which it becomes a "projected moving light image."

The dehumanization of the landscape is most fully developed through camera movements and the formal structure of the film as a whole. The opening section begins with very slow pans around the ground closest to the "absolute centre." As the soundtrack quietly hums and beeps, the cameraeye methodically scans the hilltop's stony, tundralike surface. (It also catches glimpses of the shadow cast by its super-tripod, which is the closest the film ever comes to identifying the physical support for its invisible center.) Very gradually the camera-eye shifts upward, the circles widen, and more and more of the surrounding landscape comes into view. Eventually the circling pans take in the full 360 degrees of the horizon, and


168

Left, the vista of sky and rocky terrain as the camera slowly circles
 the horizon early in  La Région Centrale  
(Courtesy National Gallery of Canada). 
Right, as seen from "the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere," 
earth and sky race across the screen during the camera's most 
rapid and unpredictable movements in  La Région Centrale  
(Courtesy National Gallery of Canada).


169

continuing upward, circle around the bright blue sky. Since the final section of the film also ends in the sky, one could argue that the opening section establishes the general movement and structure for the film as a whole: from earth to sky, from down to up, from solid, rocky presence to airy transcendence.

After the long, slow establishing shot that constitutes the opening section of the film, the camera-eye breaks free from its earthbound point of view. It begins to survey the landscape from every possible angle and without regard to the horizontal-vertical coordinates of the normal visual world. In Snow's words, "It starts out here , respecting the gravity of our situation but it more and more sees as a planet does. Ups downs up, down ups down, up ups up."

Up and down, sky and earth, figure and ground become relative to the camera's movement—or to the perceived movement of the space within the frame of the camera-eye: "[T]he frame is very important as the image is continually flowing through it. The frame is eyelids." The horizon line may suddenly whirl diagonally through the frame; the earth may drop down into the frame from above, reversing the usual figure-ground relationship of earth and sky; or the horizon may turn on an invisible axis within the frame, carrying sky and earth around and around with it. When the movement becomes sufficiently rapid in any direction, depth disappears and distinctive shapes blur into curved planes of textured color whizzing through the frame. Approximately midway through the film, the image grows dark, the white disk of a full moon passes and repasses against a blue-black sky. At one point, it even performs a little circular dance around the edges of the frame. Then, as the camera relentlessly pans around and around the horizon, the sky slowly reddens behind looming black silhouettes that turn into solid boulders as the morning light returns.

With the end of the film approaching, the velocity of the camera's movements and the unpredictability of their direction increase noticeably, until the camera is making all of its possible movements at its fastest possible speed. Great sweeping "wipes" (as Snow calls them) cross the frame from every direction.[32] Suddenly a rainbowlike curve of prismatic color appears and disappears near the left side of the frame. The camera's movement decelerates rapidly and the screen becomes a bright misty white. A pale disk of light—the sun or a refracted image thereof—slides into the frame. Then a larger light moves to the center of the frame. It fades and returns as another white ring of light appears in the upper left. The lights disappear but the whole frame continues to shine with white


170

light until flared frames of red-orange announce the film's conclusion. Thus La Région Centrale culminates, much like Wavelength , in an affirmation of "pure" light, the ultimate medium of filmic expression—and of the visionary experience.

This transcendent image of light is balanced in the film by a very different visual element. La Région Centrale begins with a large yellow X stretching from corner to corner of the black frame. The same X , varying somewhat in hue and brightness, also appears at the end of the film and at irregular intervals throughout. Sometimes it falls between significant changes in camera movement; at other times it simply interrupts a movement that continues when the X disappears. Since no title or credits appear in the film, the X might be thought of as their replacement. "It's a title," Snow has suggested, "a reminder of the central region—the whole thing is about being in the middle of this—the camera and the spectator."[33] "Being in the middle" is not only what the film is "about." It is also how the film was made by the camera and is seen by the spectator: from "the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere."

In addition to being a graphic title, a signature, and a statement of theme, the recurring X participates directly in the viewer's perceptual experience of the film. It opposes, and hence balances, the effects of the camera's movement. The camera draws the viewer's perception into the space and motion of the image; the X reasserts the flat surface of the screen and stability of the frame. The moving image pulls the spectator's eyes toward its leading edge, producing what John W. Locke has called "frame edge concentration."[34] The crossed arms of the X return attention to the center of the frame and reestablish the equal importance of all four of its edges. The camera's movements turn the world topsy-turvy; the X brings the viewer's "eye movements and inner ear movements" back into visual equilibrium. Occasionally, in fact, the X imposes its coordinates directly on subsequent passages by remaining visible as a brief afterimage superimposed on the wheeling and whirling landscape.

The X also draws attention to the viewer's own perceptual processes in a very specific way. It produces what perceptual psychologists refer to as "the waterfall effect." If one stares for some time at a waterfall, the solid land at the side of the falls will appear to move upward. Similar perceptions occur anytime one gazes at a clearly defined pattern moving in one direction and then shifts attention to stationary objects nearby. These objects will appear to move in the opposite direction. Although reports of the waterfall effect go back to Aristotle, a satisfactory explanation of the illusion remains to be found. It is assumed, however, that when certain


171

neural channels in the visual system "become adapted, or fatigued, with prolonged stimulation, . . . this unbalances the system, giving illusory movement in the opposite direction."[35] In La Région Centrale that illusory movement is invested in the X , which sometimes seems to tip or turn in the direction opposite to that of the movement in the preceding passage. Snow calls it "another kind of motion that's a kind of referral back to yourself."[36] That is precisely the case. The viewer's own visual system makes the X appear to move.

Like the flicker effect, this cinematic version of the waterfall effect arises from the conjunction of the machinery of cinema and the psycho-physiological properties of human perception. It helps the visual system regain its perceptual balance by reversing the perceived motion generated by the camera-eye. In still another way, then, the spectator for La Région Centrale is "in the middle," between the outer movements of the camera-eye and the inner counter-movements of his or her own perceptual system. To find oneself in that central region is to experience in another way the balance of "ecstasy and analysis" toward which Snow constantly guides the viewers of his work.

Originally, according to Snow, La Région Centrale was to begin with shots of himself and his three assistants setting up the camera, talking, and moving about. By choosing to omit that material, Snow not only simplified and strengthened the film's formal structure but also quite literally dehumanized the landscape and turned it over to the camera. He made sure that the camera-eye would not be identified with the human eyes that also surveyed the scene. The camera was not to be, in Snow's words, "a stand-in for the spectator" but was to see in its own way.[37] In its autonomy, however, the camera-eye does not become irrelevant to human vision. Quite the contrary. Because of its peculiar capacity for movement and framing, it opens the spectator's eyes to ways of seeing they could not achieve on their own—or at least could not sustain at the same level of intensity and formal development.

While La Région Centrale was in production, there was a plan for Joyce Weiland, who was one of Snow's assistants on the project, "to make a film about the making of La Région ." Although the film was never completed, its proposed title neatly captures the essence of Snow's relationship to the machinery of filmmaking, and, in fact, it might stand for the dialectic of eye and camera discussed throughout this book. The film was to be called A Humane Use of Technology .


173

previous chapter
Chapter 7— Balancing Eye and Mind: Michael Snow
next section