Michael Snow’s new movie Short Story—a title that really should be printed with one word placed over the other—is installed at the Jack Shainman Gallery as part of a show, with two other Canadian artists, called “Imposition.” Like many of Snow’s pieces, it’s based on an idea so elegantly straightforward it seems bizarre that it’s taken over a century of motion pictures for someone to execute it.
What is Snow imposing? Working in 35mm, he wrote and staged a three-minute scene in which an artist delivers a painting to his lover’s apartment, where he is confronted by her jealous husband. This ultimately violent scene is repeated 12 times, folded over: The second half of the “narrative” is superimposed over the first half. Thus transformed into phantoms, the principals simultaneously advance and retrace their steps—and because the sequence includes pans away from and back to the apartment door, the ground keeps shifting. The artist makes for the door as he’s coming in. The woman passes herself walking and watches the argument between the two men even as she turns her back on it. The husband is present throughout, if only as a specter. The Chopin piano étude underscoring the action is similarly doubled, as is the dialogue. That the actors are speaking Farsi adds another layer of superimposed English titles. (Given its Iranian histrionics, Short Story would make an excellent double bill with Abbas Kiarostami’s severely minimalist Five—a movie that, were it a bit more complex, might have been made by Snow 30 years ago.)
As a film artist, Snow’s motto is not “less is more” but, rather, “more with less.” Short Story is filled with visual events. The superimpositions flatten space in unexpected ways and shift colors with surprising results. Projected as an endless loop on a gallery’s white wall, this motion picture suggests a painting about a painting. The artist’s canvas—three thick, differently colored stripes—is itself part of the action. It’s unwrapped, rotated, hung on the wall, and finally, in the flurry of back-and-forth activity that ends the piece, grabbed back by the irate artist and broken over the husband’s head.
As always with Snow, the issue of figure and ground is paramount. Melodrama grabs your attention, only to be upstaged by the effects. What could be more interesting than this adulterous triangle, unless it’s the way that a patch on the wall suddenly turns green.