Francisco Rojas • 19.12.2022
Coinciding with the upcoming blu-ray release of “Presents” by Michael Snow on December 20th, La Región Central Cineclub will host a screening on December 15th in Santiago, Chile. More information about the blu-ray on re-voir.com.
From the start, Presents by Michael Snow presents itself as a kind of game of (re)interpretation of its title. First, a grand opening with a thunderous, almost drone-like musical sound, accompanied by an image that could very well be curtains that are about to be raised, revealing just a little bit of light shining from behind. The thread of light transforms into another image, one that twists and changes in size and shape with every electronic manipulation being visible and audible. The “music” is just a sonic representation of the image being created, every visual intervention modulating the sound itself. The image, as it is being manipulated, resembles a photograph or a painting, a representational picture (Michael Snow and Jonathan Rosenbaum mentioned Goya as a point of reference in a Film Comment interview); a naked woman laying on a bed in (we assume) her bedroom. Throughout the composition, movements can be seen little by little, the woman accommodating herself, changing positions. There is literal life inside the frame but more specifically, we have a true moving picture.
Puns and sense of humor are a constant within Michael Snow’s work. We are talking about the same artist that made a piece called Two Sides to Every Story that literally has two sides: an action gets projected onto a screen, which is located in the middle of a room. The rear and frontal view of the action are visible on each side of the screen and respectively, the screen itself becomes a sort of three dimensional image/object despite there being only two dimensions and two sides at play. In Snow’s ‘Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot thanx to Dennis Young by Wilma Schoen’, an enormous amount of vignettes interrogate the use and possibilities of sound in cinema during the course of four and a half hours. Snow invites objects such as a laughing chair and “English comedians” to rebel against the characters (we will get more into this later).
Michael Snow also has a big interest in form itself, in this case, cinematic form. The concept of moving images and their early making was deeply considered by many of the important filmmakers from the “avant-garde” scene such as Ernie Gehr, Peter Hutton, Ken Jacobs and Hollis Frampton. Through films like Wavelength and La Region Centrale, Snow illustrates almost better than anybody else how a moving image always involves time, or as he prefers, duration. Duration is always dialoguing with the image and maybe especially when the image is not really moving.
Back to Presents. Once the woman in the images moves outside of the scene and out of our original frame, walking from one room to another, we see how the change of scenery, the movement between the spaces seems to be outside of the convention despite the camera always following the subject. It is not the camera that is moving, but the set that is moving for the camera instead. Such movement conflicts with the supposed stability of the actions, the music from a record scratches because of it, the actress is fighting to stay on her feet, measuring her steps and movements. It is the same for the actor that enters the scene at the right end of the set, a man presenting himself with (again) a present; a bouquet of flowers.
The fakery or artificiality of the set and its design and craft are evident. Screams are heard with every movement of the set, they count numbers. A sort of numerical structure is apparent from the start. Snow also presents what could be an illustration of what is usually considered a conventional moving image, a narrative personified with actors, filmed inside a big studio. The mechanical noise made by the set can only resemble an industrial sound, the sound of a big cinematic enterprise. But here it seems everything is about to break, about to fall to pieces.The balance of the production itself is in a very fragile state. Once again, “fragile” is taken very literally here; objects are falling, the “furniture” is crumbling and the characters are trying to anticipate the shaking of the entire scenery. Stability is almost impossible and the image is constantly changing in the most concrete way possible.
Speaking of concrete, or construction, near the half hour mark of the film Snow decides to destroy the film in its most proverbial sense possible. With the camera charging against the objects, destroying them, the actors disappearing, demolishing the entire conventional/industrial basis of the piece. Snow’s films, along with that of many of his peers, have been put under the umbrella of structural/materialist film, a term coined by P. Adams Sitney. For Adams Sitney these types of works revolve around form and not necessarily content. Well, Snow seems to also be destroying that conception, we have so far seen the entire system getting smashed. If creating and destroying are intrinsically connected, then here is a truly structural/materialist film, the structure itself destroyed, leaving us with just bits and pieces of the rest of the materials as the only testimony of that destruction. A panel of the set falls off and a new variant is presented almost as if it were a wall being demolished.
Now the images are captured by a hand held camera in the tradition of a diary film, letting glimpses of life be visible for brief seconds before cutting to the next moving picture.
Travels, traces of daily life, animals in a zoo, and so on. A discipline closer to the work of the Lumière brothers, the actualités. (The Lumières were also filmmakers that made a Demolition of a Wall, even using the same event to reconstruct their subject).
Actualité film in Spanish is usually translated as “película de novedades”, a novelty film. A term that suggests innovation but (through its association with novelty songs and novelty shoes) it seems that in the present its concept suggests something ancient, primitive, a definition that is the total opposite from its origin. With such a time contradiction, it is only right that the final hour of the film seems to deal with the actualité as a means to capture the ever fleeting present.
Each cut is accompanied by a single beat of a drum, percussion that gives a rhythmic quality to the consecutive images but at the same time it disengages the viewer on connecting them into a narrative flow. Each shot and cut is aware of its present time, leaving the previous one behind. Time can only be reflected upon in retrospect.
The shots do not seem to have an exact duration between them as a group, the rhythm only illustrated by the already mentioned percussion, fluctuating freely between every image and only matching the cuts. Is the beat of the drum a metaphor for a minimal, almost molecular measure of present time itself? As if every image is happening during the course of the single beat of the drum, materializing (or abstracting) that present? At its end, the percussion repeats itself constantly with the intervals between them getting shorter, sounding closer to a battle drum. Snow himself mentioned that “presents” can also be applied as a military term, “to present arms”; also adding that “one shoots a film”. Each drum beat connects with a particular, respective shot at its start but then as the sound gets faster, the beats seem to be morphing into frames, with the speed of the percussion illustrating the consecutive quality of moving images being captured.
This film may have been structured in a linear way, yet on its climax, the rapid sound of the beats sound not much different from the initial overture drone that opened the film. Was all of this a single continuous moment? Or has the moment already passed?
The motivation(s) behind each and every shot or section is sometimes a single color, a particular action or movement, an object that might suggest a way to move the camera in an interesting way; characters pacing back and forth like the zoo animals, the colors from the cars and trucks, the concept construction/destruction, the city in opposition to the woods, the natural against the artificial, and sometimes, even small objects and gestures that seem to constantly call back to the initial sections of the film.
Presents essentially being an illustration of Michael Snow’s interests, a collection of images and events organized (maybe disorganized) in such a way that the act of capturing, of looking at the world and having the impulse to take a camera and shoot at something feels obligatory, primitive, eternal.
Maybe the only present that we can actually grasp and understand is from the artist himself at the time the film was made.