Putting forth any interpretation of Michael Snow’s trippy *Corpus Callosum may be useless, since the filmmaker himself speaks about it so eloquently. As he announced at the premiere screening last January in Rotterdam, “The film is a tableau of transformation, a tragicomedy of cinematic variables.” The corpus callosum is a central region in the brain where messages are passed between the two hemispheres. Snow chose the title because the film represents “betweens”—the most apparent one between illusion and reality. The asterisk, he cryptically explains with a smile, “refers to something elsewhere.”
The medium is always part of the message for the 72-year-old, white-haired Snow, a still-energetic renaissance artist whose prolific output includes structuralist films, photography, and improvised music. Though much of his newest effort consists of continuous pans (“trucking”), a Snow staple, what’s changed is that he’s working in digital. The ideas behind *Corpus Callosum have existed since the groundbreaking video manipulation in Rameau’s Nephew (1974) and his earlier squeezing and stretching film, Presents (1981), a fact he’s eager to illustrate with visual aids: 20 pages of his script notes published in the Parisian journal Poliphile in 1993. “I remember when I started thinking about what could be done, in 1981 to ’82, I had what felt like a revelation—I realized I could use the entire cartoon vocabulary with real people.
“One thing I was trying to do in Presents was to utilize, in cinema, these three ways that you can make things: additively, subtractively, or molding and shaping,” he continues. “*Corpus Callosum has to do with various kinds of metamorphoses. There are live ones, alterations of clothing, every kind possible—the normal kind, with people who are big and small, men and women. And then there are the slightly abnormal—dwarfs, hermaphrodites—and electronic alterations. It also seems as if there’s a Hero and Heroine, and they’re identified by their clothes and hair, but they keep changing too. The whole thing, on every level, is about representation and the changing of shapes.”
*Corpus Callosum could be the avant-garde parallel to Waking Life, because Snow also shot live-action sequences and then supervised a team of animators who digitally altered the images. (The Tashlin-esque animation was made possible by Houdini, a software program developed in Snow’s hometown of Toronto by designer Greg Hermanovic.) The expense caused long delays, leading Snow to first complete the stand-alone short The Living Room (screened at Anthology Film Archives in 2000). The financial pressures were relieved when the director was given a Telefilm Canada grant for low-budget features that, believe it or not, is meant to encourage young filmmakers.
But few indie tykes have Snow’s philosophical inclination—he has long proposed that a camera has to be more than just a recording device, and his new film attempts to exploit the unique properties of the digital medium. “Even though a lot of digital projection is really good, film appears more organic, because it’s built on what was discovered in optics, formulated partly by Descartes,” he says. “But electronic imagery isn’t optical. In a strange sense, it’s not even visual. Computer imaging is a way of seeing that is more neural: It’s as if it’s already in the brain, and it has bypassed the eyes, so that that mutability, or clay-like quality, is still present—it’s like a surface that’s agitated. The image isn’t a result of light falling on things. It’s not so much photons as it is electrons. There’s an inherent instability to electronic images.”
*Corpus Callosum concludes with Snow’s very first film, a 1956 animated short he created under the supervision of George Dunning (who later went on to direct Yellow Submarine). This low-tech finale renders *Corpus Callosum a corpus of Snow’s career. Is it fair to say he’s been working on the film for the last 45 years? “It goes back even further,” the director argues, “because there are earlier artworks, like a sculpture called Metamorphosis Chair from 1955, that deal with similar issues. I’m really proud of this film, because I thought of a whole bunch of stuff that really couldn’t be done at the time, and I can prove it.”
J. Hoberman’s review of *Corpus Callosum