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“I make the rules of the game, then attempt to play it,” explains Michael Snow in Teri Wehn-Damisch’s On Snow’s Wavelength, Zoom Out, a portrait of the affable Canadian pan-format artist. “If I seem to be losing, then I change the rules.” Game-play is an apt metaphor for Snow’s art, which takes many forms: music, writing, sculpture, installations, photography, video, holography, and, most famously, film. Filled with multi-tiered puns, visual trickery, and cognitive roundabouts, his works function as philosophical toys for the hyper-mediated offspring of 20th-century technology.
Snow’s prominence as a filmmaker began in 1967 with the first screenings of Wavelength, rigorously structured as a 45-minute zoom-in and created as what Snow calls his “definitive statement of pure film space and time.” (In tribute, Wehn-Damisch structures the documentary as a continuous zoom-out.) But unlike other film artists of his generation, whose contrarian cinephilia erupted partially in parodic reaction to Hollywood, Snow claims he was drawn to filmmaking as merely one medium among several. “It was not from being affected by ‘the movies’ at all,” he says. “It was simply that I saw from the technique involved really interesting possibilities.”
Zoom Out‘s sole voice is Snow himself, and the film limits its investigation to his “camera-related works” and musical compositions. Snow narrates through clips of canonical movies like the relentlessly horizontal Back and Forth (1969) and La Région Centrale (1971), shot in the Canadian tundra by a robotic camera with hypnotic 360-degree movements, as well as lesser-known titles like ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974), a witty four-hour cinematic rebus about language. (In keeping with Snow’s puzzle fetish, Anthology smartly pairs Zoom Out with The Way Things Go, a 1987 half-hour document of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s warehouse-sized real-life Rube Goldberg contraption.)
Snow proves an engaging and likable self-glosser, laying out the conceptual continuity between his films and the elaborate photograph-based installations, which play with proportion and flatness through jerry-rigged lightboxes and clever blowups. But some aspects of his work get shorter shrift. For instance, while Snow refers to his “sensuous philosophy,” little time is given to his fascination with naked bodies (mostly women), or the gut-wrenching kinesthetics of his cinematography. Commenting on Crouch Leap Land (1970), a series of three sneak-a-peek female nudes photographed from below, he stresses that “the image of the figure in space is in the mind. It’s in the imagination.” Hardcore head-tripper, he spins bodily moments into airy mental diversions. On flesh, Snow melts.