If Michael Snow’s 1967 landmark avant-garde film Wavelength is like a Hitchcock movie with the narrative pared away so that only the suspense remains, then Snow’s latest work, The Living Room, bears comparison to Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, commercial films that deal seriously with the anxiety produced by the transition from the industrial to the digital age. It’s doubtful that this association will appeal to Snow, a Canadian visual artist and jazz musician who claims to have no interest in Hollywood.
The Living Room is a 20-minute excerpt from the still incomplete Corpus Callosum, a film that Snow has been working on for the past five years. The basic material was shot on 16mm film and then digitally transformed frame by frame, a slow and costly process. If the rest of Corpus Callosum (the title refers to the band of fibers uniting the two hemispheres of the brain) is on a par with this single section, then the film, like Wavelength, will be one for the history books. (Another fragment of Corpus Callosum is included in a show of Snow’s recent visual-art work at the White Box Gallery in Chelsea, opening November 30.)
Opening on a close-up of a TV screen, the image quickly widens to include the eponymous living room, decorated in blocks of color—a green wall, an orange floor, a mustard sofa—that would make most art directors puke. The room is occupied initially by three beings, each with its own ambiguities. On the floor next to the TV is a stuffed fox, which, though unmistakably dead, has a more lively visage than any of the humans in the film. Only the fox will remain unaffected by the digital storms that soon overtake the room’s human inhabitants and decorative objects, causing them to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, or morph in shape and size, or dissolve into blobs of electronic protoplasm.
Seated on the couch, and totally absorbed by the image of drifting clouds on the TV screen, is a person of maybe 12 or 13 whose sex, like that of many preadolescents, is not immediately discernible to the outside observer. (He is, in fact, the filmmaker’s son, Aleck Snow.) Standing motionless to the left of the couch is a naked, very pregnant woman whose body evokes the ontological question: Is she one person or two? Not actually inside the room, but reflected in a mirror on the back wall, is the filmmaker, who issues occasional directions—most having to do with the rearrangement of the many objects hanging on the wall. Like everyone else, the filmmaker seems unaware of the chaos around him.
The first digital storm is set off by the appearance of a man—the third term in the nuclear family—who is almost immediately subjected to the indignity of being gradually whited out from the tip of his shoes to the top of his head. I won’t give away the climax of the film, except to note that it involves a new person on the scene, who embodies the collapse of sexual difference and the fixed identities on which this nuclear family bases its existence. Like much of Snow’s work, The Living Room is strewn with sight gags. Provoking nervous laughter, they are a flimsy defense against an anxiety about the instability of meaning itself—an anxiety exacerbated by the infinitely mutable images of the electronic age.
The best thing about A Good Baby is the way it maps narrative onto landscape. Katherine Dieckmann’s first feature is set in a small Appalachian town where houses, scattered miles from one another, are linked by a two-lane country road that curves through the surrounding wooded hills. There’s nothing dramatic about the scenery: The woods are neither thick nor sparse; the hills are neither high nor low; the colors of the sky, leaves, and earth are nondescript. This is a landscape that seems at once real and abstract, an undifferentiated terrain on which we chart the perambulations and intersections of the film’s three main characters. Unlike conventional film narratives, which build from scene to scene through causal connections, A Good Baby takes form through solitary wanderings and intermittent fateful meetings.
The film revolves around an abandoned newborn baby girl. Left alone in the woods to die, the infant not only survives, but becomes an object of desire for almost every character in the film. She’s found by Raymond Toker (Henry Thomas), a reclusive young man who blames himself for the death of his younger sister years ago. As he searches for clues to the baby’s origins, he carries her everywhere in his arms. Raymond doesn’t know what the audience has already concluded on the basis of the film’s sinister opening scene: Just after giving birth, the baby’s mother was murdered by the traveling salesman (David Strathairn) who impregnated her. Driving around and about the town, he keeps returning to the scene of his crime and becomes obsessed with getting the baby back.
Made with intelligence and formal sophistication, A Good Baby uses fabulist elements within a basically realist framework. The combination is not unusual in literature, but in film, it’s more difficult to negotiate. Except for Thomas, as moving here as he was once upon a time in E.T., and the very assured Cara Seymour, as the woman who’s sweet on Raymond but refuses to live in a small town the rest of her life, the actors seem troubled about exactly what kind of film they’re in, and the dialogue, which lapses in and out of poeticized mountain-speak, doesn’t help. Strathairn’s religious nut job is shifty-eyed and menacing, but the performance is all twitches with nothing much underneath; lacking a center, it eventually careens over the top. Despite these flaws, A Good Baby is a fascinating debut by a filmmaker with a unique perspective and the courage to take big risks putting it on the screen.
Plus: Jessica Winter profiles A Good Baby‘s Cara Seymour