PRINT January 1970


Wavelength, Standard Time, ←→, and One Second in Montreal

THE COOL KICK OF of Michael Snow’s Wavelength was in seeing so many new actors—light and space, walls, soaring windows, and an amazing number of color-shadow variations that live and die in the windowpanes—made into major esthetic components of movie experience. In Snow’s Standard Time, a waist-high camera shuttles back and forth, goes up and down, picking up small, elegantly lighted square effects around a living room very like its owner: ordered but not prissy. A joyous spiritual little film, it contains both his singular stoicism and the germinal ideas of his other films, each one like a thesis, proposing a particular relationship between image, time and space. The traits include rigorous editing, attention to waning light, fleeting human appearances (which suggest a forbidding, animistic statement about life: that the individual is a short-lived, negligible phenomenon and that it is the stability of the inanimate that keeps life from flying away), a rich-dry color so serene as to be almost holy, and a driving beat that is like up-dated Bach.

Standard Time is an astute, charming exercise compared to the other Snows which are always steered into purposefully intolerable stretches: tough, gripped snarls of motion which have to be broken through to reach a restful, suave, delta-like conclusion. In his sternest film, titled with a ←→ sign for back and forth motion, a specially rigged camera swings right left, left right, before a homely, sterile classroom wall, then accelerates into an unbearable blur (the same frenzied scramble, as though the whole creative process was going berserk, that occurs three quarters through Abbey Road). In One Second in Montreal, ten stray photographs, culled from the library, all of them of little drab parks connected to public buildings, are turned into a movie that has a special serenity and is pungent with a feeling of city, snow, unexcitement, the mediocrityof public buildings and parks (no fresh air). Despite the dirge-like sonority, I question the length of time that Snow holds on each park to create a majestically slotted ribbon composition.

When the electronic sound in Wavelength reaches an ear-cracking shriek, the one-shot movie, a 45-minute zoom aimed at four splendid window rectangles, burns hot white, like the filaments in a light bulb. This middle section is composed of violent changes of color in which the screen shudders from intensities of green, magenta, sienna: a virtuoso series of negative and positive impressions in which complementary colors are drained out so that the room, undergoing spasms, flickers from shrill brilliant green to pure red to a drunken gorgeous red-violet. Despite the grueling passage, which always comes three quarters through a four-part construction, his two major statement films, Wavelength and ←→ are liftingly intellectual. Besides his Jeffersonian mien, Snow’s films are filled with the same precision, elegance and on-the-nose alertness that went into Jefferson’s slightest communique to a tailor or grocer.

His film career, a progression from austere painterly to a more austere sculptural style has peaked into this queer “double arrow” film that causes a spectator to experience all the grueling action and gut effort of a basketball game. just listing the ingredients doesn’t sound like a real night out at the films. This neat, finely tuned, hypersensitive film examines the outside and inside of a banal prefab classroom, stares at an asymmetrical space so undistinguished that it’s hard to believe the whole movie is confined to it, and has this neck jerking camera gimmick which hits a wooden stop arm at each end of its swing. Basically it’s a perpetual motion film which ingeniously builds a sculptural effect by insisting on time motion to the point where the camera’s swinging arcs and white wall field assume the hardness, the dimensions of a concrete beam.

In such a hard, drilling work, the wooden clap sounds are a terrific invention, and, as much as any single element, create the sculpture. Seeming to thrust the image outward off the screen, these clap effects are timed like a metronome, sometimes occurring with torrential frequency.

The human intrusions in Wavelength and Standard Time are graceful, poignant, sensitively observed: a fair-sized turtle walks on a line through the camera’s tripod legs straight toward the right-angled corner of a studio bed; at another point a cat does an arching, almost slow-motion leap onto the bed; then a woman walks briskly by with a towel over her shoulder on her way to the bathroom. There’s no eclecticism to these events, which show a good touch for the tactile quality of 1969 loft existence. Formularized and stiffened, the humanity in the double arrow movie is a bit dried-up. Things are done on cue: a man and woman self-consciously play catch, a cop cases the joint, a mock lecture is given to three students, a gawking and hodgepodge group is seen uncomfortably standing around.

The movies are utterly clear but they get their special multimedia character from Snow’s using all his talents as painter-sculptor-composer-animator. Obviously a brainy inventor who is already a seminal figure and growing more influential by the day, there is something terribly different about this Canadian in the New York sharp scene. Incapable of a callow, clumsy, schmaltzy move, he’s a real curiosity, but mostly for the forthright, decent brainpower that keeps these films on a perfect abstract path, almost always away from preciosity.

Manny Farber