Michael Snow: On Filming The Central Region
By Jonas Mekas
I have one more installment with Dušan Makavejev to come. But I’ll devote this column to a conversation with Michael Snow, whose latest film, The Central Region, had its first public screening last Wednesday at Anthology and which will have a wider public opening at the Elgin Theatre on February 17. In my judgment, The Central Region is the most original and probably the most important film completed last year. For the sake of a curious record, just to remind you where the official film tastes stand, I should mention here that Richard Roud rejected Snow’s film for the New York Film Festival after seeing just a fraction of it.
JONAS MEKAS: Your film is three hours and five minutes long. It was shot in Canada. When was it shot?
MICHAEL SNOW: In October 1970.
MEKAS: And what was the exact location?
SNOW: Northern Quebec.
MEKAS: The sponsor of this film, I understand, was…
SNOW: The Canadian Film Development Corporation, and Famous Players of Canada.
MEKAS: Those who’ll see the film will notice that it was shot in a unique way. The shooting involved a specially built camera.
SNOW: It wasn’t the camera, actually. It was shot with an Arriflex. It was the machine that controlled the movements of the camera that I had to build. I call it the Camera Activating Machine.
MEKAS: For those who haven’t seen the film, what we see on the screen is a craggy, stony, rocky landscape, from the various positions of the camera as it continuously moves and rotates in, I guess, all possible directions: sideways, and around, and… how would you put it?
SNOW: …in most of the possible circular movements, centered around a single point. It stays in one place, but it moves in a complete 360 degree, absolute sphere space.
MEKAS: What caused the camera to move one or another direction?
SNOW: There were two ways of controlling the movements of the camera. One was through composing sound tapes which contained the information, the orders to the machine telling it which way to move. Another way was by means of dials which were divided in “horizontal,” “vertical”, “rotation”, and “zoom”, each being able to run at different speeds (between fast and slow) and in various combinations; like you could have the “horizontal” at the medium speed, or the “vertical” at, say, fast speed.
MEKAS: You were shooting remote control?
SNOW: Yes. We had to be there, but hidden, behind the rocks. I wanted the landscape to be without any human presence.
"I wanted to make the movie more sort of ’existential.’ I wanted the spectator to be the sole center of all these circles."
MEKAS: The film is divided into certain segments. The camera is never static. The only static element in the film is, or are, the division signs, which look like the letter X blown to a full frame. They divide the film in 10 or so segments. Is there any system or logic in these divisions?
SNOW: No mathematical form is involved. Those crosses sort of bracket each suite of movement. It opens with a circular movement on the ground, gradually rising like a big spiral. It goes up around and around on the ground and gradually rises until it reaches the horizon and then goes up into the sky. And that is like a kind of statement or theme of the whole film. Because that’s really the material of it all, the circular movement. And then it goes on into elaborations of various kinds.
MEKAS: Each segment deals with different movements?
SNOW: Different possibilities and different speeds. You may have the same movement happening again but at a different speed. Or you may have a combination of, say, just the vertical with the rotation but at the different set of speeds. So it’s like a variation system thing, but it doesn’t progress by any kind of additive method. But it builds. It gets to a certain level, for instance, during the dawn sequence. The tempo remains fairly similar, and then it gradually speeds up at the end to its most extreme.
MEKAS: At this point I’ll repeat what we see on the screen. As the camera goes through its positions, we see this rocky prehistoric landscape, this pagan landscape, with just stones and nothing living. For miles and miles, you see mountains, and a lake, but no sign of man. As the film progresses, gradually one begins to get a feeling of watching a landscape painting, a landscape painted with a camera. In a very simplified way, we could say that that’s what this film is. We have here the first landscape painting of cinema. As this proceeds, at the same time we hear a sound which consists of three or four kinds of beeps and their combinations. What are those beeps?
SNOW: They are not the original, but they are modelled after the original tapes that we made to move the machine.
MEKAS: That is, as we see the images, we hear the actual beeps of the tapes that moved the machine.
SNOW: Yes. They are in sync. You can understand them in different ways: as orders to the machine, or… I was, I guess, trying to cover the sound space in the same way as the visual space. It goes from very high to very low. It’s also very very quiet. It’s like a nervous system. It’s like a consciousness present in this place that is totally wild. The image that you see, the place is distant and wild.
MEKAS: Why did you choose a “dehumanized” landscape?
SNOW: I wanted to make the movie more sort of “existential.” I wanted the spectator to be the sole center of all these circles. It had to be a place where you can see a long way and you can’t see anything manmade. It has something to do with a certain kind of singleness or remoteness that each spectator can have by seeing the film. And also, I think I wanted to say that wildness should be left as wild as possible, as long as there is some left…
MEKAS: What do you think this film does to the viewer?
SNOW: What it does visually, for one thing, it’s interesting to think that there are no holds in it for the eye, except for the cross (or “X”). So that your eyes are being moved. I was trying, in a sense, to compose for moving one’s eyes. Like if you’re watching the rotation movement where the camera movement is just centered on the lens—which, as far as I know, has never been done before—an interesting thing happens to your eyes. Your lines of vision get tangled, because you are always making these turns, and you are always making a little hop, because you can’t follow the thing all around all the time. And I was trying to work from moving your eyes in that way, for a control of moving one’s eyes. I was literally arranging your eyes, the movement of them, at least the muscles of them, but also the iris part of it too, because there are sections where the amount of light is controlled. For instance, in the dawn sequence, where it goes along the dark ground, and then it goes into the sky, and what you have there is the screen itself just full of pure light, and it gets cooler, and then it gets warmer and warmer and brighter and brighter.
MEKAS: So that your film has much to do with seeing itself…
MEKAS: The camera seems to sit on a slope, overlooking a mountainous valley with a lake on it on one side, and a rocky tip of slope on the other…
SNOW: It was at the edge of a slope. I tried to find a place where I could get various things to happen, one which, when you go around, would be wider here and lower there; to be able to play sky against grounds.
MEKAS: Do you think The Central Region related in any way to the preoccupations and ideas of artists working in other arts today, say, in painting?
SNOW: I don’t know. Not that I know of. It’s a work, it’s not a demonstration. Most of the films that are made by the people who are in the plastic arts, are documentation of doing something or other, rather than making a film. I am interested in making a film. That’s a generalization, but a true one, I think. There are things in the film medium that can be used to make experiences that cannot be experienced in any other way, that you can’t have in any other way—that’s what I am interested in. That’s why this whole film is built on the possibility of the camera, that it really doesn’t have any “up” and “down” There is no built-in “up” and “down” in the camera, you can hold it any way you want. Even the vertical movement, just a vertical pan is a fantastic, miraculous thing. If you are looking at the horizon and then you look up into the sky, somewhere up there, the image turns upside down. And then when your eyes come down here, the horizon is upside down and scoots along the ground and somewhere in there it is right again… That, really, personally, I like a lot. It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it?
MEKAS: So you shot it in North Quebec? The landscape looks Arctic.
SNOW: It’s not really in the Arctic, but it’s a whole huge section that is treeless. It’s about the same latitude as James Bay, but it’s not near James Bay; it’s near the Saint Lawrence side.
MEKAS: Did you set a camp there?
SNOW: Oh, yes. We were just left there on this place by a helicopter, 100 miles from this air field, with all this fantastic machinery. And we set up a tent and Joyce did the cooking and we got to work. We were quite busy. We were getting up at five in the morning and starting up a generator and trying to eat and it was very very cold. And there was nothing to sit on for four days, and that’s an interesting feeling, except rocks, you know, and that’s really the strangest thing, you are always falling around on these big rocks. They are glacial rocks. And there was a storm on the day that the helicopter had to come back and get us. And we heard him and then he went back and we didn’t know what happened to him, and they were the only people who knew we were there… And we had a radio and we were struggling away to make ourselves heard. It was really an adventure.
This interview is an excerpt from Jonas Mekas: Conversations with Film-Makers, Movie Journal Columns 1961–1975 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2018), available to purchase now at the Metrograph Bookstore.