*Corpus Callosum

(Michael Snow, Canada, 2002)


In the early ’70s Michael Snow, a legend of avant-garde cinema, was one of the first people to incorporate video into film, and synthesisers into experimental free jazz music. He conceptualised *Corpus Callosum over many years, waiting for the new digital technologies to catch up with his ideas. Finally using special software devised especially for the project, Snow’s epic work *Corpus Callosum is devoted to (in his words) ‘stretching and squeezing’.

Unlike more abstract or painterly experimentalists of his generation, Snow always starts with a precisely constructed tableau, the mise en scène of which he then slowly takes apart or literally destroys. Snow takes his particular interest in the theatrical element of cinema further by treating the recorded image as an object available to every kind of technological and conceptual distortion – moving, in Raymond Bellour’s recently proposed terms, from strict mise en scène in its classically delimited sense to a host of other cinematic practices including mise en plans and mise en images. (1)

On this scenographic level, *Corpus Callosum is something of a sequel to his Presents (1981). Here, the tableaux are set in a family lounge room, a school and especially a modern office space. Using computerisation in an ingenious and often amusing way, Snow twists, distorts, distends and empties the content of these isolated scenes. Personal identities are in question: every physical variable of age, shape and gender is subject to endless tinkering and transformation. Ending with a touching tribute to himself and his oeuvre – he screens the first animation he ever did in the ’50s, already about stretching and squeezing – *Corpus Callosum is by far Snow’s strongest work since Au revoir/See You Later (1990).

There is much to like here, despite some rather ugly filming and gawky, amateur performances, not to mention Snow’s old, irrepressible tendency for corny intellectual puns. At their best, Snow’s games can be captivating and nerve-stretchingly suspenseful in the best avant-garde sense. Indeed, his way with those sliding synth tones on the soundtrack reminds me irresistibly of Goblin’s rock-horror scores for Dario Argento.

And yet … my frustrations with *Corpus Callosum, and with the way Snow tends to publicly present it, stir all the issues that once arose in the historic changeover (somewhere in the late ’70s/early ’80s) between what Peter Wollen called the two avant-gardes. There is a social text in Snow – after all, this is a film about all the key sites of control in Western society – and he has a fine sense for the grind of daily humiliations and resistances, as well as a vivid imagination for gender, age and status reversals and confusions. (Although I doubt Snow has seen it, there is a strong affinity, both in structure and content, between his work here and Philip Brophy’s Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat [1988].)

But this is the last thing Snow really wants to acknowledge, so fixed is he on the demonstrable and irrefutable materiality of his ideas and the truth of his chosen medium. To my question (at the Rotterdam Film Festival premiere) about his choice of tableaux and settings, he responded that he picks such familiar scenes merely in order to better demonstrate formal properties and parameters. What a cop out! Snow, like some of his contemporaries, seems blissfully unaware that squeezing and stretching happen to be a big part of contemporary horror, fantasy, animation and trash comedy – even as his work strikes sparks against these realms.

Does it really matter whether Snow knows this stuff? Yes, to the extent that these are the same old, almost puritanical blockages that forced a transformation in avant-garde practice twenty years ago: blinkers against fiction, political content, and pop culture. *Corpus Callosum is well worth engaging with, but most of all in terms beyond those that the auteur and his subculture are likely to clamp over it.

© Adrian Martin June 2002


1. Raymond Bellour, "Figures aux allures de plans", in Jacques Aumont (ed.), La Mise en scène (Brussels: De Boeck, 2000), pp. 109-126. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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