Chatting with Michael Snow
In February, I had a few brief minutes to talk with Michael Snow when he was visiting the Punto de Vista Film Festival in Pamplona. They were having a rare screening of La Region Centrale, his three and a half hour opus documenting a landscape in northern Quebec. La Region Centrale is one of the monuments of avant-garde cinema – austere, uncompromising in its vision/obsession, stunningly beautiful, intriguing and ultimately an exciting piece of filmic and conceptual exploration.
Mr. Snow was suffering from an intense bout of jet lag, something that hit his 86 year-old body stronger than he expected. However, he’s a generous soul, witty,engaged and engaging – and one of the greatest artists (not only in film, but in photography, sculpture, music and more) of our time. I was honored to have this short, if somewhat insubstantial, chat with him.
NV – Why did you chose that area (the place where he shot La Region Centrale)?
Michael Snow – It could have been anywhere in a sense. I wanted something that was visibly unpopulated, and then, not touched by man in any way. But I also didn’t want it to be really picturesque. It wasn’t about exploiting the beauty of the place. So, I searched by looking in… The province of Quebec has a place where you can get aerial photos of the province and the machine that I used was made in Montreal, so I wanted to be able to go from Montreal as easy as possible. And I found a couple of areas by looking at photographs and I went to one of them and rented a helicopter. So we went out, and I asked them to land here and land there. And it happened when it landed there. I like the fact that there was glacier residue. The rocks are very interesting. They punctuate the space into the complete distance. And then there’s a big rock. But I really didn’t want it to be too appealing, but to be wild looking in some ways. It could have been something else, but that’s what it was.
NV – Is there some historical. mythic or personal relationship to the place?
Michael Snow – No
NV – Have you been back since?
Michael Snow – No. I suppose it could be found again.
NV – We have to turn it into a pilgrimage spot – a Michael Snow place for people to visit.
Michael Snow – Sort of related to what you’re saying – the loft I shot my film Wavelength in – I’ve heard back, that the owners of the building have cut that room in half. So that now some windows are in this room and some are in this room. And somebody wrote to me that they got permission to have a look at it and they were appalled. So they thought they’d share their appalledness with me.
NV – Scratch marks, dirt and dust that create this other level. While the camera’s panning you are very aware that the film is running vertically
Michael Snow – It makes another reference, similar to the frame in some senses. But that was a digital version. It wasn’t 16mm.
NV – But there are still some scratches and dirt on it.
Michael Snow – Yeah, it’s a copy of the original film.
NV – The scenes going to the blue of the sky, more field of color, that the emulsion of the film had a kind of liveliness to it.
Michael Snow – Yeah.
NV – I think it’s that films age. It’s not exactly texture, but it’s kind… it creates yet another plane of…
Michael Snow – It’s partly when you photograph the sky, something that is basically white it affects the recording aspect in a different way. Something that’s just eliminated. It’s just direct light that’s coming through. I don’t think I can pin that down, but I think it makes a different effect technically.
NV – It strikes me as the film ages, as it gets a little dirty it is actually adding more stuff.
Michael Snow – There are relatively new prints. It was made in 1971 but the prints are not from 71. The original negative is, from which new prints can be made. That’s getting more and more scary. Pretty soon you won’t be able to make prints anymore.
NV – Another thing that I loved about the film was the moon shots. I don’t know if you had this in mind, or if it was bit more of a happy accident, I noticed in the screening room here the moon became like a spotlight on the audience.
Michael Snow – Oh yes, it’s like a beam.
NV – As it went, the proscenium has a couple of reveals and there are some light fixtures on top and it was casting shadows into the house.
Michael Snow – (Laugh)
NV – And I thought it just broke open the frame completely to a whole new level.
Michael Snow – Yeah, that’s true.
NV – I don’t know if you had seen this happen in other screenings
Michael Snow – Well, you noticed that you see it as a beam. Of course I didn’t think of that when I was making it, but it’s another sort of byproduct of doing something.
NV – You talked about, today, about your controlling the machine in a sense of playing the machine.
Michael Snow – As an instrument.
NV – But you had in your mind a kind of larger structure for the piece, or was it pretty random in some ways?
Michael Snow – I worked for months and months on trying to find ways to imagine the movie and how to motate what I imagined. And some of it’s simple, in a way, the beginning, the first 20 minutes. I knew exactly what I wanted to do there. It’s like the St. John Passion by Bach. It starts low and it gradually goes higher and higher. So I knew the speed that I wanted to… It’s actually after that that it becomes complicated because it became more subtle in a certain sense. But I did try to imagine it and I did write a score, which I tried to follow. But I found that I really got immersed in imagining what was happening, because obviously, we couldn’t see results of the piece. That could be done with the attaching of a video camera, but I didn’t do that, or perhaps I couldn’t have. Anyway. And so, after playing it, so to speak, for a few hours, I started to feel a little more comfortable. I don’t why, because I didn’t see the results, but it was just, I thought that I could… when I wanted to change the speed from 2 to 3, I felt that I knew what I was doing. And it’s true.
NV – As I was watching the film, by the end, the last few movements, as it may be, after the sunrise and the next day, it was kind of like, and maybe it’s me projecting some feelings on to it, but it felt like the film was easier, in the sense that it kind of learned how to make itself, for lack of a better way to say it.
Michael Snow – I think that’s in way that I said it was. I started to feel a little bit more comfortable about how I was playing the instrument, despite the fact that I couldn’t see any results. And there were many difficulties. We shot one 400-foot roll and went to look at it in the camera and it was jammed full of broken film. The film had broken and it filled the camera. We had spent hours trying to clean the camera. So, stuff happened that got in the way, but obviously, it did get done.