Michael Snow Takes Capitalism To Comic, Cartoonish Extremes

Still from *Corpus Callosum (2002), written and directed by Michael Snow(courtesy the artist)

Those familiar with Michael Snow’s previous work may be a bit surprised when approaching *Corpus Callosum(2002). There’s no slow exercise in form or technique here; nothing like the haunting zoom of Wavelength or the dizzying, whirlwind camerawork of La Région Centrale. Indeed, by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s account, it’s his most accessible film given that it plays into what he’d previously showcased in Rameau’s Nephew: a sketchbook of experimental humor.

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However, the film’s humor is completely informed by the digital medium in which Snow has chosen to work. Much of *Corpus Callosum — which screens today and tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art — plays out in an office space in a Toronto skyscraper, the camera dollying past the infinite series of vacant-minded workers as Snow launches an onslaught of video effects at them (though by the deadpan look on their faces, it’s just another day at the office). The workers are electrocuted, pulled, squashed, dissipated, killed, and reborn, and the entire image of the workplace collapses into a Möbius strip. Each effect is accompanied by a light boi-oi-oing, saw wave, or (my best guess) a theremin from hell. The result is a digital cartoon, exactly like a never-ending series of couch gags from The Simpsons or a best-of compilation of Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones buffoonery.

Snow has always been an animator — indeed, *Corpus Callosum ends with a theater projecting one of his first cartoons, which bears plenty of resemblance to the 2002 film’s effects show — so by the time digital and computer graphics technologies became accessible to him, he meticulously went through everything he could do with them. In an interview with Offscreen, Snow recounts his implementation of the Houdini software (now used for 3D animation for video games and blockbusters) as well as hiring recent graduates of Toronto’s animation schools to help on the production. The result is telling: the effects are not polished or meant to look realistic. Rather, they announce themselves as little particle invaders to create a discomfiting atmosphere with the humor. Think of David Lynch’s graphics effects in Inland Empire or Twin Peaks: The Return: they feel more disturbing as they reach an uncanny valley of monstrosity.

The idea of digital technology and computer graphics being better suited to animation than a representation of the ‘real’ is not a new one. John Whitney, Sr. and Lillian Schwartz had experimented with the most primitive versions of code-to-animation software in the late 1960s. Scott Bartlettbegan using computer animation over filmed footage around the same time. Several television and digital video artists (including Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow, Aldo Tambellini, and Otto Piene) established video art and animation as major art forms in their commissioned The Medium Is the Medium (1969). And Canada invested early in the potential of computer animation by granting 1 million Canadian dollars to found the National Film Board’s Centre d’animatique in 1980. Snow, by comparison, is very late to the game.

Nevertheless, *Corpus Callosum works both with the history of animation and Snow’s own filmography to create something that’s neither quite filmed reality nor entirely animation. As J. Hoberman has already pointed out, there’s still plenty for the Snow super-fan to latch onto here due to plenty of long shots (such as Wavelength and La Région Centrale); an incorporation of his own Walking Women series; a quick artifact-filled rewind, à la < → (Back and Forth); a focus on the medium itself like To Lavoisier (1991); and, of course, his own animation at the very end. In fact, Snow himself has alluded to his Presents (1981) as being a test-run of *Corpus Callosum in terms of “stretchiness” (though Presents uses an analog effect from early television). What Snow offers here is an exhibition of himself and his digital partners, all within the museum spaces of the office and the home.

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