WYSIWYG: The Films of Michael Snow
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WYSIWYG: The Films of Michael Snow

TIFF is thrilled to present this complete retrospective of the film works of Canadian avant-garde great Michael Snow, screening in monthly installments throughout 2015.

See the full lineup and get tickets to WYSIWYG: The Films of Michael Snow.

New York Eye and Ear Control 

“At first glance, Snow’s work looks formalist, but the basis is usually conceptual. (His motto might be William Carlos Williams’ ‘No ideas but in things.’) At the same time, his strongest pieces are perceptual. What you see is what you get.”—J. Hoberman

While Jim Hoberman made the above observation in regards to Michael Snow’s photographic practice (on the occasion of the artist’s recent photography show at the Philadelphia Art Museum), the same sentiment could be applied to Snow’s work in the cinema. Snow’s films could easily be described as “things,” their forms so often deriving from the functions they perform: in Wavelength, a camera zoom across a New York City loft ends on a photograph of the sea; See You Later – Au Revoir comprises a slow-motion shot of a man leaving an office; while the titles of Dripping Water and the cryptogrammatic <- -> (Back and Forth) are sufficient unto themselves to describe their contents. Description, however, pales before the powerful phenomenological experience of the films: as P. Adams Sitney aptly notes, Snow’s central strength is the “discovery of a simple situation permeated by a rich field of philosophical implications which duration elaborates.

By the time Snow came to filmmaking he was already an artistic polymath, being both an accomplished musician and visual artist. (In fact, his continuing importance in these other fields overshadows his cinema career for many in those communities.) He made his first film, A to Z, in 1956 (working after hours in future Yellow Submarine director George Dunning’s Toronto-based animation studio), but it was not until he and his wife Joyce Wieland moved to New York City in the early sixties that Snow adopted filmmaking as the third term in his trifecta of creative pursuits. Already at the epicentre of NYC’s exploding visual arts scene and hosts to an exciting music scene—the pair were neighbours to the likes of Carl Andre and Frank Stella, while Cecil Taylor, Roswell Rudd and others regularly played in their Soho loft—Snow and Wieland were introduced to the emergent New American Cinema movement when fellow Toronto expat Bob Cowan arranged a private screening of George and Mike Kuchar’s Regular-8 film A Town Called Tempest.

While Snow claims that the Kuchar aesthetic was more in line with Wieland’s interests than his own, he was inspired by the twenty-year-old twins’ ability to just go out and make things. Eagerly embracing the possibilities of non-industrial filmmaking, Snow made half a dozen films during his years in New York. The pinnacle achievement of this period was Wavelength, which Snow finished just in time to screen at the fabled EXPRMNTL festival in Knokke-Le-Zoute, Belgium. The film took the festival’s top prize and quickly became recognized as a canonical work of the international avant-garde, and a key text in what soon became known as structural filmmaking.

From Wavelength’s hypnotic linearity to the visceral intensity of <- -> and La Région Centrale to the headiness of Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen, it is striking to witness Snow’s ability to seize upon an idea and draw, tease, or wring out its myriad implications and permutations. Also striking is the sheer sonic and visual pleasure of his films, with Snow’s cross-disciplinary interests in music and the visual arts enriching his work in the cinema; and a persistent undercurrent of humour that can range from dryly witty to pure slapstick. Marrying rigorous thought with exhilarating audiovisual trickery, the films of Michael Snow continually force us to question if what we get is really what we see.

Chris Kennedy

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