Computer Love

Once upon a time, motion pictures were theorized as a technology of truth, 24 frames per second. But as movies lose their basis in photographed reality and grow closer to animation, they find their mission elsewhere: The Man With the Movie Camera is superseded by the Humanized Machine.

Such cyborgs abound in Michael Snow's *Corpus Callosum. Part old-fashioned Renaissance man, part hardcore avant-gardist, the Canadian painter-photographer-filmmaker-musician gives full vent to his genius in this exhilarating perceptual vaudeville, titled for the "central region" of tissue that acts as a conduit between the brain's two hemispheres. Programmatically hybrid, Snow's piece similarly bridges the gap between film and video, nature and artifice, sound and image, art and entertainment.

*Corpus Callosum is a bonanza of wacky sight gags, outlandish color schemes, and corny visual puns that can be appreciated equally as an abstract Frank Tashlin comedy and as a playful recapitulation of the artist's career. From the opening reverse zoom through the series of 360-degree pans to the final line animation created by Snow in 1956, this 93-minute feature is a self-curated retrospective, but with a twist. Four years in the making, *Corpus Callosum was shot and edited on video, and reworked with custom software. Everything is stretched, squeezed, or flipped—the bodies of Snow's large cast not the least. Zapped by all manner of gross and subtle digitalized distortions, human actors are transformed into cartoon characters. (At one point, one guy ties another in a knot.) Space is similarly malleable. Is the camera panning, or is the image being subjected to some sort of digital taffy-pull?

A self-curated retrospective with a twist: from *Corpus Callosum
photo: Film Forum
A self-curated retrospective with a twist: from *Corpus Callosum


*Corpus Callosum
Written and directed by Michael Snow
Through September 10 at Film Forum

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
New Line

Although *Corpus Callosum, which Film Forum is screening as projected video, might be considered underground state-of-the-art, technology is not fetishized. (In some ways the contemporary filmmaker to whom Snow here seems closest is the obsessive Super-8 cut-and-paste animator Lewis Klahr.) Having marked out his conceptual grid, Snow uses—or rather accepts—unpredictable static or bleached-out colors as formal elements. Some of the effects, like the mad pixel dance created by throwing the movie into rewind, are ridiculously simple.

Scarcely divorced from (post)modern social reality, *Corpus Callosum is largely set in a generic information-age office and the cast members costumed as "workers." (Often the costume is the actor—as in the blond wig, hot pink blouse, and micro miniskirt ensemble that circulates among the players.) Situated atop a Toronto skyscraper, Snow's workplace is a Skinner box of wildly unstable identities, bodies, and (at times) genders—an arena for erotic fantasies and grotesque physical distortions. (These suggest a dialogue with his countryman David Cronenberg—whose latest feature, Spider, is as cool and conceptually rigorous as vintage structuralism.) In one of the most spectacular transformations, a man and woman crammed together in a doorway fuse into a single entity, carrying on as a rectangular slab of digital humanity. The office is a theater of cruelty, although, a few moments of globalized epilepsy aside, the artist's most sadistic ploy is to roll *Corpus Callosum's long (but not uninteresting) credits two-thirds through the movie.

Snow is judicious in his tricks, but *Corpus Callosum's visual pyrotechnics can distract one from its superb soundtrack—a silly symphony of hums, bells, buzzes, sirens, foghorns, gargles, chirps, and boi-i-ings that recalls the vulgar modernism of Raymond Scott's electronic commercials for Hostess Twinkies and Auto-Lite sparkplugs. Snow's laconic directions are heard throughout, drawing attention to the degree to which *Corpus Callosum has been post-produced. The artist casually emphasizes his conjuring act by directing his actors against the special effects that transform them.

Snow is conscious of art history, as well as his own. *Corpus Callosum's second major location is a living room whose pop clutter recalls Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage manifesto, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing. In addition to an apparent family of three, the furnishings include an eye chart, an electric guitar, a Ming vase, a model airplane (that may or may not allude to a similar craft in Jacques Tati's Playtime), a muscle-man calendar, a crutch, a stuffed fox, two Snow paintings, and a television broadcasting blue sky. The only continuously "real" aspect of the scene is the camera's reflection in a mirror. The family watches TV, impervious to their own transformations or the visual cacophony going on about them as, in a paroxysm of Bugs Bunny formalism, the objects begin to dance, implode, and otherwise act out.

*Corpus Callosum is not only funny but remarkably generous as well. (There are more ideas in any single minute than in the entirety of an overwrought 57th Street yard sale like Matthew Barney's Cremaster.) Among other things, Snow's movie is a feast for film theorists. A brief sequence in a classroom notwithstanding, it's in no way didactic. Still, *Corpus Callosum is that rarest of things—a summarizing work. Like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman or Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, it could be used to conclude Motion Pictures 101.

History doubles back on itself. *Corpus Callosum ends in a screening room with the presentation of Snow's crude cartoon of a weirdly elastic, waving human with a twisty foot kick. Rigorously predicated on irreducible cinematic facts, Snow's structuralist epics—Wavelength and La Région Centrale—announced the imminent passing of the film era. Rich with new possibilities, *Corpus Callosum heralds the advent of the next. Whatever it is, it cannot be too highly praised.

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