Born 1929, Toronto, Ont.

If there were ever a perfect image of the Canadian psyche — it’s that of Snow. Born with the perfect name and a desire to make us aware of negative space, Snow may be a grandaddy in the context of this book, but as Atom Egoyan’s foreword makes clear, his vision of the world has framed much of the Canadian film experience for generations past – and no doubt generations to come. For a guy concerned with the mechanics of framing, it’s a fitting legacy.

Born in the very crust of the Canadian establishment, raised in Toronto’s tony Rosedale district, and funnelled through its favored institution — Upper Canada College — Snow was born to be a bank president. The fact that he became an artist makes him an original rebel, as his entire life’s path turned him into a living artwork defined in opposition to institutional ways of thinking. Already a painter and sculptor, Snow’s formal film career began in 1956, when he joined George Dunning’s Graphic Associates in Toronto and made the short film A to Z using cut-out animation — a la South Park.

A jazz lover — and jazz musician — who wanted to push the boundaries, Snow moved to the very nucleus of mind-altering art-scene, New York City, in 1963. He did so to concentrate on his painting, but after he experienced the adrenalin rush of art frames that moved — particularly he work of film-maker/film-critic Jonas Mekas — a refreshed Snow was blown toward celluloid. He used photographic elements to expand his “walking woman” series — a multi-media organic piece that he worked on from 1961 to 1967. (Eleven sculptures from this series were installed at the Ontario Pavillion at Montreal’s Expo ’67).

He also turned out his second film, New York Eye and Ear Control, then made what is arguably his most important film of all, and most-commonly used example of what “experimental film” looks like: Wavelength.

Screened in 1967 (Canada’s centennial year), Wavelength made a big splash because it pushed people into a conscious awareness of the “frame,” and in so doing, also pushed us to see the stuff that was “not in the frame.” The film is all of 45 minutes long and executes what is essentially one very long zoom shot accompanied by repeating sonic cycles at different speeds.

In so many ways, Wavelength is the Hollywood antiChrist: non-narrative, non-human, non-edited, non-dramatic and decidedly non-populist. You go from a wide shot of an apartment to a close-up of a photograph of waves on the opposite wall. That’s about all the camera action you get. In the meantime, Snow inserts a variety of colour filters in front of the lens, changes the aperture, goes from positive to negative images and stumbles into apparently random human acts.

A woman instructs two men to install a bookcase, someone turns on a radio, another woman opens a window and then, the veritable climax of the movie: a woman enters the room, picks up the phone and tells someone there’s a dead body in the apartment.

The film is packed with different layers of meaning each with a multitude of interpretations. You could talk about Wavelength for days (if you were really pretentious) and ponder Snow’s intentions, but the distinguished Canadian has been in the spotlight enough to offer his own words on the subject of artistic intent.

“The abstraction that’s involved in making a two dimensional image is a huge one, which we forget all the time. After all, I mean, they’re flat. And it’s amazing that we tend to concentrate on the suspension of disbelief part of it,” he told arts writer-turned tech guru, Peter Wilson in 1994.

“Apart from its image what is this thing? How did it come about? Of what material is it made?” Such are the questions the fuelled an entire lifetime of artistic creation (including the suspended flock of Canada Geese in Toronto’s Eaton Centre). Snow and McLuhan were on the same page with the whole “medium is the message” idea, only where McLuhan was focused on the intrinsic codes and value systems that go into the creation of a mass-market artifact, Snow was deconstructing the actual medium itself — giving the camera itself the starring role in every film he ever made.

More proof can be seen in another Snow classic, Standard Time (1967): It’s a 360-degree pan in a clockwise direction. Then there’s Back and Forth (1969), where the camera moves — surprise, surprise — back and forth. Some of his more ambitious work combines all of these techniques, and maybe even a two-dimensional cut-out of the human form to add extra contrast to his frames.

For Snow, it’s all about representation — and how the photographic image distorts the nature of three-dimensional truth, and so he plays with all the distortion knobs he can get his fingers on, from artificial light contrasting natural light, real colour vs. artificial colour, the real thing that is NOT the real thing. If that’s not proof of Snow’s Canadian-ness — then consider this: His films are also concerned with language, and after being acknowledged as a leading experimental artist the world over with collections in the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée d’art moderne in Paris, he was trapped in the sphincter of Ontario’s morality police for obscenity in the early 1980s (before his induction into the Order of Canada).

Another Canadian-ism is the inaccessibility to Snow’s work. He’s never had a commercial release in over 40 years of film-making. Sadly, Snow’s work is hard to find. You have to haunt cinematheques and galleries and hope one day, a Snow show comes to your neck of the woods. My first Snow experience was at Expo 86 in Vancouver, where Snow created a series of 48 holographic stills called The Special Image.

At the time, I was struck by the holographic images more than the whole piece. Those cheesy hologram eyeball watches had yet to appear in my berg, so it was quite a novelty to see a two-dimensional image that appeared three dimensional. Little did I know that was the whole point of the exercise. But that’s Snow’s talent and the reason his work is so effective: they are so simple to look at, that you end up thinking about the things you see. It might not sound all that brilliant, but think about it. You’ll be surprised. 

“It’s a kind of way to find a new picture that uses the possibility of the camera…There’s a strange mood because there’s this kind of deathly thing in it. Some people find it quite cheerful, but to me it is corpse-like. That wasn’t intentional, just a byproduct.” – Michael Snow talking on his Venetian Blind self-portrait series.

FILMOGRAPHY: A to Z ( 1956), New York Eye and Ear Control (1964), Short Shave (1965), Wavelength (1966-7), Standard Time (1967), <——> (Back and Forth) (1968-69), Dripping Water (with one-time partner, Joyce Wieland) (1969),One Second in Montreal (1969), Side Seat Paintings Slide Sound Film (1970), La Region Centrale (1971),Two Sides to Every Story (1974), Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974), Breakfast /Table Top Dolly (1972/1976), Presents (1980-1), So is This (1982), Seated Figures (1988), See You Later / Au Revoir (1990), To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991), Prelude (2000), Living Room, The (2000), Corpus Callosum (2001).

This profile originally appeared in Weird Sex & Snowshoes, copyright Katherine Monk 2001