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photographed reality and grow closer to animation, they find their mission elsewhere: The Man With the Movie Camera is superseded by the Humanized Machine.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?

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.

At one point in *Corpus Callosum, Snow creates “emotion” by digitalizing tears on an actress’s face. The same joke appears in Andrew Niccol’s Simone—the cautionary tale of a computer-generated movie star’s rise to media saturation. The eponymous Simone, who providentially saves the career of director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) when his human star (Winona Ryder) walks off his picture, is born paraphrasing Baudrillard (“I’m the death of the real”). Or rather, Taransky, who uses Simone to talk to himself, is paraphrasing the French philosopher. Or maybe it’s Niccol, who provided the screenplay for The Truman Show, tooting his horn amid the precession of simulacra. Taransky, a maker of “overblown art films,” is nostalgic for a Hollywood that never existed but is evoked onscreen as a virtual studio run by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener playing a “Catherine Keener type”). Niccol’s point is that stars are already virtually virtual entities and Taransky’s new leading lady is merely the next, entirely virtual step. But, like the actors in *Corpus Callosum, the being who is billed as and plays Simone is an at least partially human cyborg and is thus inauthentically inauthentic.

The difference between Simone and existing “synthespians” like Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft or the Japanese heartthrob Kyoko Date (or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse) is that audiences are supposed to believe that Simone is real. She’s an international sensation whose cover-girl looks are projected on the Taj Mahal as she sings “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” to an ecstatic mob. In his novel Idoru, sci-fi savant William Gibson speculates on the particular audience fascination that might sustain a personality construct like Simone. Niccol carries his more simple-minded Frankenstein premise all the way to Oscar night and beyond, but as The Truman Show made apparent, he regards the viewing public as far more easily programmable than Taransky’s computer. (Just to be safe, though, he steers tactfully clear of the obvious point that the greatest instance of mass delusion and the worship of incorporeal beings is organized religion.)

If Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman were this universe’s demiurge, Simone would be paired with Jar Jar Binks. But notwithstanding a few campy scenes of Pacino supplying moves for his comely synthespian, Niccol has no gift for comedy. His ongoing exploration of modern celebrity results in an industry satire that’s less funny than half-empty and hyper-designed. (The movies within the movie are close to self-parody.) As an explication of the absolute fake, Simone is far less resonant than the continually relevant Wag the Dog—a movie that came unbidden to mind last week with CNN’s mysterious tapes of “Arab terrorists” poisoning a canine subject at a secret location, possibly somewhere in “northern Iraq.”

Anyone craving an old-fashioned 20th-century movie-movie could do far worse than immerse themselves in Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai (at Film Forum August 30 through September 12 in a newly subtitled 35mm print). Rich in detail, vivid in characterization, leisurely in exposition, this 207-minute epic is bravura filmmaking—a brilliant yet facile synthesis of Hollywood pictorialism, Soviet montage, and Japanese theatricality that could be a B western transposed to Mars. As a director, Kurosawa is a master of action as well as decorative grouping. Although every third character is a pop-eyed mask of tragedy, the movie is stolen by Toshiro Mifune as a bogus samurai with more energy than Harpo Marx. A film about the beauty of carnage that, lubricated with humanist platitudes, eases past one’s moral censor, Seven Samurai is considered by many to be the greatest Japanese movie ever made. I prefer Kurosawa’s more streamlined and sardonic Yojimbo, but there’s no denying Seven Samurai‘s technical virtuosity.

Related article:

Into the Snow Zone: Director Michael Snow Discusses *Corpus Callosum” by Mark Peranson