Special Note: La Région centrale will screen Monday November 24 and Tuesday November 25 at the Anthology Film Archives
screened November 15 2008 on DivX in Weehawken NJ
Arguably the first feature filmed by a robot, Michael Snow’s three hour exploration of the possibilities of camera movement over a barren Arctic landscape suggests many things: sci-fi space probe footage more authentic than George Lucas; a rebuff to the romantic frontier landscapes of Hollywood Westerns; an avant-garde equivalent of an amusement park simulator ride. Lensed by a specially designed rotating camera mount pre-programmed to move with stunning variety, the film begins as a slow, soothing meditation on the otherworldly textures of the Canadian wilderness, but gradually morphs into a dizzying, terrifying freakout, a relentlessly spinning gaze that pummels the equilibrium of the human eye. The film pushes the boundaries not only of human sight but of the physical earth, destroying gravity and transforming a lifeless vista into a cosmic force of light and energy. Clinically scientific in its approach yet yielding an organic, even spiritual wonder, La region centrale does not merely vindicate the oft-neglected genre of experimental film, but thrusts itself into the center of cinema at its most vital.
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Poster designed by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth
Michael Snow on La region centrale
After finishing Wavelength, which is in its entirety a single camera movement (a zoom), I realized that the movement of the camera as a separate expressive entity in film is completely unexplored… I would like to make a three-hour film “orchestrating” all the possibilities of camera movement and the various relationships between it and what is being photographed. The movement can be an imperceptible part of the activity, can accent it, can counterpoint or contradict it and be independent from it. Since I’m sure nothing has been done in this area, perhaps I should clarify the sense in which I can say that camera movement is an unexplored potentially rich part of cinema: camera movement has generally been allied to the dictates of the story and characters being presented and follows what has been assumed to further these things, e.g., someone leaves the room, the camera follows this action. I give the camera an equal role in the film to what is being photographed.
The camera is an instrument, which has expressive possibilities in itself. I want to make a gigantic landscape film equal in terms to the great landscape paintings of Cezanne, Poussin, Corot, Monet, Matisse and in Canada the Group of Seven…
The film will become a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness. Eventually the effect of the mechanized movement will be what I imagine the first rigorous filming of the moon surface. But this will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was. I want to convey a feeling of absolute aloneness, a kind of Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through. In complete opposition to what most films convey, this film will not only present only human drama but mechanical and natural drama as well. It will preserve what will increasingly become an extreme rarity: wilderness. Perhaps aloneness will also become a rarity. At any rate the film will create a very special state of mind, and while I believe that it will have no precedent I also believe it will be possible for it to have a large audience…
– excerpted from a proposal by Michael Snow to the Canadian Film Development Corporation in March 1969. Published in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow by Snow and Louise Dompierre. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994. Pages 53, 55.
This film is not ‘entertainment’. It is a phenomenon. It can be an agent of revelation. To be fully experienced it ought to be seen / heard in its entirety. The middle hour is a plateau, the nature of which will be understood if crossed, i.e. by looking back from the other side of the end. Take your time, take your place. It is to be expected that one will occasionally feel tangential. Stay, look at the image, but think of something else. Later, perhaps, you will find that you have rejoined the image.
La Région isn’t only a documentary photographing of a particular place at various times of the day but is equally and more importantly a source of sensations, an ordering, an arranging of eye movements and of inner ear movements. It starts out here, respecting the gravity of our situation but it more and more sees as a planet does. Up downs up, down ups down, up ups up. The first 30 minutes show us the four people who have set the camera and machine in motion doing various things, talking, looking, but after that we are gone and the remaining twp and a half hours is entirely made by the machinery (you?). There are no other people but you (the machinery?) and the extraordinary wilderness. Alone. Like a lot of other humans I feel horror at the thought of the humanizing of the entire planet. In this film I recorded the visit of some of our minds and bodies and machinery to a wild place but I didn’t colonize it, enslave it. I hardly even borrowed it. Seeing really is believing.
“An unimaginable film, literally like nothing you have ever seen before.” –John W. Locke, ARTFORUM
“Michael Snow’s LA REGION CENTRALE can be described as heroic bordering on the apocalyptic. … [I]t is an epochal film because of the extent of the camera movements and its transformation of space …. Gravity is destroyed … the horizon line has been erased and forgotten and the land mass has been transformed into a whirling flat disc, a blurred flash of light with no mass or volume, rotating wildly through the sky…. Snow’s mountain landscape has become a reflection on the solar system.”
– Bill Simon, Artforum
In several respects, La Region Centrale is the purified essence of Canadian cinema. It brings together the long-important landscape-art tradition (of the GROUP OF SEVEN painters, for example) and the theoretical problems of the photograph in a single monumental form. La Region Centrale synthesizes the demands of photo-representation and the abstractive tendencies of modern experimental image-making. The tension between these representational media and abstract form, once they were brought into the foreground by Chambers, Wieland and Snow, would underwrite a great many technical and formal experiments, just as the particular interest in landscape iconography their films manifest would recur repeatedly in the filmmakers who followed.
– Bart Testa, from the entry on Experimental Film for The Canadian Encyclopedia
One of the classics of conceptual filmmaking (1971), Michael Snow’s three-hour film is a landscape study with a vengeance: a camera, equipped with a remote-controlled zooming and panning device, was set up in a remote area in northern Canada, and made to go through every possible permutation of camera angle and focal length as it probed the surrounding wilderness. The resulting footage finds a strange beauty in the constant tension between the mechanical, mathematically determined operations of the camera and the chance transformations of the landscape as it’s raked by the light of the passing day.
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
This three hour film by the Canadian Michael Snow is an extraordinary cinematic monument. No physical action, not even the presence of man, a fabulous game with nature and machine which puts into question our perceptions, our mental habits, and in many respects renders moribund existing cinema: the latest Fellini, Kubrick, Buñuel etc. For La Région Centrale, Snow had a special camera apparatus constructed by a technician in Montreal, an apparatus capable of moving in all directions: horizontally, vertically, laterally or in a spiral. The film is one continuous movement across space, intercutting occasionally the X serving as a point of reference and permitting one to take hold of stable reality. Snow has chosen to film a deserted region, without the least trace of human life, 100 miles to the north of Sept-Isles in the province of Quebec: a sort of plateau without trees, opening onto a vast circular prospect of the surrounding mountains.
In the first frames, the camera disengages itself slowly from the ground in a circular movement. Progressively, the space fragments, vision inverts in every sense, light everywhere dissolves appearance. We become insensible accomplices to a sort of cosmic movement. A sound track, rigorously synchronized, composed from the original sound which programmed the camera, supplies a permanent counterpoint.
Michael Snow pushes toward the absurd the essential nature of this ‘seventh’ art which is endlessly repeated as being above the visual. He catapults us into the heart of a world before speech, before arbitrarily composed meanings, even subject. He forces us to rethink not only cinema, but our universe.
– Louis Marcorelles, Le Monde
The shadow of the camera mount captivates me the most: fleeting glimpses of that which makes the film possible. But when I recognize that I occupy the position of the mount, I realize that the glimpses I crave are those of myself. This craving is literally realized by the afterimages of the introductory Xs, moving as my eyes move across the first minute of each section of the film. This is an unparalleled reflexive strategy that serves to embed me within the film rather than cultivating a reflective distance. Indexicality has never been stronger than here, and this is what makes the film’s climactic slip into abstraction all the more potent.
-Randolph Jordan, Synoptique
La Région Centrale (Quebec, 1971, 180 min., 16mm, color) is arguably the most spectacular experimental film made anywhere in the world, and for John W. Locke, writing in Artforum in 1973, it was “as fine and important a film as I have ever seen.” If ever the term “metaphor on vision” needed to be applied to a film it should be to this one. Following Wavelength, Michael Snow continued to explore camera/frame movement and its relationships with space and time in Standard Time (1967) an eight minute series of pans and tilts in an apartment living room and (Back and Forth) (1968–69), a more extended analysis. But with La Région Centrale, Snow managed to create moving images that heretofore could no possibly be observed by the human eye. For this project he enlisted the help of Pierre Abaloos to design and build a machine which would allow the camera to move smoothly about a number of different axes at various speeds, while supported by a short column, where the lens of the camera could pass within inches of the ground and zoom into the infinity of the sky. Snow placed his device on a peak near Sept Îsles in Quebec’s région centrale and programmed it to provide a series of continuously changing views of the landscape. Initially, the camera pans through 360° passes which map out the terrain, and then it begins to provide progressively stranger views (on its side, upside down) through circular and back-and-forth motions.
The weird soundtrack was constructed from the electronic sounds of the programmed controls which are sometimes in synch with the changing framing on screen and sometimes not. Here, allusions to other films occur, especially science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which similarly reveals a barren, human-less primal landscape (with odd sounds) and spatially disorients the spectator. In La Région Centrale’s second hour, the world is inverted for so long, that when the camera swings vertically through a full circle to restore the horizon line to its rightful position, above the earth, it looks wrong. In the complete absence of human or animal forms, one can imagine the outlines of animals in the silhouetted shapes of rocks at twilight. It is impossible not to notice “camera movement” in this film, and, as Locke notes, one is inclined to observe the frame edge leading the movement (rather than the center) much of the time.
Michael Snow, Région Centrale, 1970. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow. Michael Snow, Région Centrale, 1970. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.
I can only imagine what it would have been like to see La Région Centrale, captivated in the extreme dark and quiet of New York’s Anthology Film Archive theater built specifically for the screening of experimental films in the 1970s. But, in any event, seen under any condition, the last hour offers up an incredible experience, with unbelievably high speed twisting and swirling motions rendering dynamic color and line abstractions. Finally, by rephotography —of the film jumping out of the gate— and flaring out of the image to red and yellow colors, and, closing with the camera apparently motionless on the sun, Snow presents a reflexive impression of the camera as the ultimate transformative, creative apparatus, capable of any magic. La Région Centrale presents a definitive “metaphor on vision.”
– Peter Rist, Offscreen
La region centrale is a film of constant motion, yet its motion, like that in Snow’s other films, is quite restricted in its range of variations. The camera moves constantly around a fixed centre; the movement is always circular, though its speed does vary. The circles, too, can be tilted even while they are being described, thus creating the figure of a circle in rotation. The camera can also be twirled on its axis forming a circle within a rotating circle. The apparatus which performs these movements was designed and engineered so that the camera always points outwards, its axis aligned with a radius to that point on the circle where, at any moment, the camera is to be found. While the camera is at the centre of the landscape the film depicts, it constantly looks outward; it photographs every point in that space except that at which the apparatus itself (the camera-mount is located).
Snow has made quite explicit the implications of this form of construction. In a conversation with Charlotte Townsend, he commented:
If you become completely involved in the reality of these circular movements, it’s you who is spinning, surrounded by everything, or conversely, you are a stationary centre and it’s all revolving around you. But on the screen it’s the centre which is never seen, which is mysterious. One of the titles which I considered using was !?432101234?! by which I meant that as you move down in dimensions you approach zero and in this film, La region centrale, that zero point is the absolute centre, Nirvanic zero, being the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere. (p. 369-370)
However paradoxical it might seem, it is the very purity of the camera movements – their de-anthropomorphized character – in La region centrale that allows them to serve as a metaphor for consciousness. Snow filmed La region centrale on a remote mountaintop, north of Sept-Iles, Quebec. Nowhere in the film do any people or animals appear, nor is there evidence of any towns or villages just beyond range of the camera. Nor, for that matter, is there any indication that human beings live nearby; there are no hydroelectric power lines, no television transmitters. Hence, the camera moves over and through an uninhabited landscape, over and through an unpopular space, an empty space, or at least, something rather close to it. As a result, we are able to see camera movements for what they are in themselves. We do not regard them – or perhaps more accurately, we do not disregard them, as we do most camera movements in most fiction movies – as a means of moving from one important object or character or incident to another or as a way of following characters as they move. The emptiness of the landscape encourages us to recognize the camera movements for what they are in themselves. (p. 392)
In the ultimate experience evoked by La region centrale, consciousness merges with the totality of matter. Mind and matter, the ideal and the real, as Hegel foretold, are reunited. In this section of La region centrale, Snow proposes an enlarged view of consciousness, expanding it from one that sees consciousness as representing beings to one that sees consciousness as forming – and formed in – Being. This makes it the culminating moment of Canadian cinema. (p. 398)
– from Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture by R. Bruce Elder, Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989
If 1970s film aesthetics was defined by a single common feature, it was the principle of excess. In Hollywood, this quality of excess manifested itself in the further roll-back and transgression of Hays-era prohibitions, leading not only to the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also to the well documented explosion of exploitation cinema. In Japan, the X-rated pink movies of the era bested Hollywood’s comparatively mild attempts to create a morally retrograde cinema. India witnessed the emergence of a relatively artless blockbuster cinema to compete with similar developments in Hollywood excesses in their own right – while Europe seem to discount the concept of popular cinema altogether. Indeed, in that latter context, the art film experienced its least commercial instantiation with running times often exceeding the 180-minute mark: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) comes in at a lean 165-minutes when compared with Céline and Julie Go Boating’s (1974) 190 minutes, Jeanne Dielman’s (1976) 201 minute-length, The Mother and the Whore’s (1973) 210 minutes, the four hours of Theo Angelopoulos’s Travelling Players (1975) and Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love (1979), and of course, most spectacularly of all, Jacques Rivette’s 773 minute Out One (1971) and its 4-hour abridgement, Out One: Spectre (1972).
Along with Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970), Michael Snow’s 180-minute La Région centrale (1971) extends this principle of excess to the avant-garde. Of course, it is not simply for the film’s punishing duration, but more importantly for the scope of its ambitions – another era hallmark – that La Région centrale rates as one of the defining examples of 1970s film art. Like the cinema of Rivette, Snow’s concerns itself foremost with allegorizing his medium’s basic ontology…
In the end, La Région centrale is the spiritual twin of Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and that film’s allegorization of the filmmaking process. Then again, if there is greater emphasis on the act of creation, of invention in Rivette’s subsequent opus, Snow’s film emphasizes the projected image and therefore the experience of film viewing itself. (So they are fraternal twins, I guess.) In other words, Rivette seems more concerned with the making and Snow with the seeing. Of course, this is not to limit Snow’s ambitions: La Région centrale further makes us aware of our place on this planet, the workings of gravity and its stipulated absence, and finally this planet’s revolving trajectory through the heavens. Snow’s masterpiece is not only reflexive, it’s cosmological. There is, in other words, an excess of ambition here.
Situated between the overheated subjectivity of Brakhagian cinema and the cool indifference of Warhol’s urban sensibility Michael Snow’s LA REGION CENTRALE (1971) is an extraordinary cinematic monument. Where Brakhage could extend a single second of consciousness out into ninety minutes of unrelieved intensity or Warhol would nonchalantly present a single eight hour long take of the Empire State Building, Snow had a complex camera apparatus designed and built to render a radical mediation on landscape, technology and representation. Snow’s apparatus was capable of moving in all directions: horizontally, vertically, laterally or in a spiral as determined by a series of electronic pulses guiding the machine. His film is one continuous movement across space, filmed from a remote mountaintop in Quebec, a deserted region without trace of human presence.
The placement of the camera in the landscape was of crucial importance for Snow. The camera had to be at the center of a space from which it would look out at and record all aspects of that space. LA REGION CENTRALE contests the classical tradition of a fixed viewpoint of space, a major theme of Twentieth Century art.
LA REGION CENTRALE attacks the notion of hierarchical space inherent in Renaissance fixed point perspective and narrative. Fixed point perspective are, at best, for modernist and post modernist artists, 19th Century forms of representation. A major tendency in 20th Century Western thought was toward a relativism which stresses the fundamental equality, unity and interconnectedness of things. The circular camera movements in LA REGION CENTRALE refuse to privilege any sector of the off-screen space. There is no edge to the film frame. The vision of unity which Snow proposes in LA REGION CENTRALE is that all points in space are of an equal and common nature.
The camera movement in LA REGION CENTRALE gradually develops over time in a complex musical, theme and variation structure. The first sequence, as a prelude, describes the total space of the film. Subsequent variations go on to explore the landscape by means of all the possibilities presented by the camera, film, lighting and the constantly moving camera apparatus. LA REGION CENTRALE builds to a crescendo, traveling from daylight to sunset to night-time through sunrise to daylight once again. The sunrise and sunset sections show how lighting can affect our perception and reading of a scene. The nighttime section of LA REGION CENTRALE introduces a series of apparent illusions and visual transformations which suggest the central spiritual nature of the film and its affirmation that technology can enhance our relationship with and understanding of the world.
In Snow’s film La region centrale, you and I face the problem of “who?” relayed through cinema and a cinematic machine set in the “garden” of the specifically Canadian north. The context for the film is not only concurrent experimental film practice in New York, but the argument that Canadian identity, or self-recognition, is grounded in fear before an empty and hostile wilderness. The visual representation of wilderness found in historical Canadian landscape painting and photography has been largely ignored in relation to La region centrale, particularly by non-Canadian critics, an ignorance which has obscured an important reference and a recurring theme in Snow’s practice. Writers such as Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and Gaile McGregor are well known for their analyses of the human recoil before hostile nature which they find in Canadian literature and painting. In 1989 Bart Testa extended this analysis into Canadian film with the exhibition and essays of Spirit in the Landscape, which included La region centrale. Protagonists, in this view, implicitly or explicitly retreat to a defensive position (e.g., under the bedcovers, inside a compound, or before multiple framing devices) in the face of a threatening, unregulated environment…
To match the camera movement to the idea of wide open space, Snow commissioned Pierre Abeloos, a creative engineer from Montreal, to design and build a machine for a camera mount which could point the camera in any direction and which could be controlled electronically by a preprogrammed musical score or by remote control. The flexible mount and automated control freed camera movement from conventional constraints of imitating the human eye, and of Snow’s immediate aesthetic response to what he might see through the viewfinder. The machine holds the camera at the end of a rotating arm offset from the machine’s principal vertical axis. It rotates the camera on the axes of three successively smaller circles, each tangential to the “prior” one. The largest circle describes a horizontal plane around the machine’s central post. The second circle traces vertical rotations tangential to the perimeter of the first horizontal circle. The third circle, tangential to the second, is where the camera sits and rotates on the lens’ own axis. Additionally, the lens can zoom. The machine can change direction and speed on any of these paths while performing these movements simultaneously and independently. Subsequently equipped with a video camera and supplemented by four monitors, the machine has become the sculptural video installation, De la.
Given this capacity to bring a dizzying repertoire of moving images to the screen, how can anyone ignore the reference to the body made by a film that can literally make you sick? La region centrale calls upon a spectator with mobile, stereoscopic vision, with hearing and the ears’ semicircular canals, and with the long habitual experience of being vertical and seeing at eye-level, of handedness, dorso-ventrality and human gait. The screen image rends the eyes, attacks balance in the inner ear, challenges the stomach, contests eye-ear integration, and denies the pace and focus of perception constrained in a head that looks forward, on a neck with restricted rotation, on a body that walks, turns, stops and blinks to see. The film’s sound has nothing to do with emotionally interpreting what is on screen but registers the presence of a sensing device with a series of electronic tones and pulse speeds that bespeak machine. Sometimes the pulses and tones are synchronous with the movements on screen and sometimes not. Such irregularity challenges perceptual integration of senses that are conditioned to synchrony, so that Snow’s earlier project of liberating the eye and ear from condition mutual subjection, which he undertook in New York Eye and Ear Control, returns with a vengeance…
The frames of La region centrale, accompanied by its beeping, move across the screen without a filmmaker’s or my emotions in mind. Yet, the film is not truly indifferent to me because it plays unceasingly on my bodily senses and on its ability to disorient and reorient them. While my body ties me to nature out there as the substrate of the film, because the film addresses me I am for the same reason part of the landscape in the frame and we are both “sent” or mobilized, now in the picture. One result: nature and “I” no longer suffer each other, either on the ground or in representation. Through my self and these new sights, the binary division between representation and the “real” world, “hostile” nature and my self, have been undone. Nature need no longer mourn, now becoming legible through meditation.
– From Figuring Redemption: Resighting My Self in the Art of Michael Snow. By Tila Landon Kellman, Michael Snow. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002. Pages 101, 117-118, 166
In 1971, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow started the paradoxical task of observing the wilderness empty of people, without having anyone present at all. Snow had a special camera-like machine, resembling a satellite or a probe, installed in rough, mountainous Canadian territory. Mounted on a special robot programmed to move, the camera filmed the uniform, utterly nonpicturesque landscape for sixty hours. The material was edited down to three hours; people are only seen for a total of thirty minutes. Otherwise, the camera relies upon itself, in a wild, cinematic roller coaster ride. In 1969, that is, two years before making the film, Snow announced that the film «La Région Centrale» would become «a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness.» He expected that the mechanical movement of the camera would result in somethingcomparable to the first rigorous film documents of the surface of the moon. At the same time, it «will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was.» After finishing the film in 1971, Snow thought that moments of ecstasy and totality prevailed. There was a zero point, an absolute center, a nirvana-like nothing, a lack of gravity, an orgasmic dimension, « &the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere.» This kind of incorporeal seeing, which is «beyond all subjective finality» (Raymond Bellour), reminds one of automatic recording and viewing machines that engage in viewing without seeing. This is a purely technical kind of viewing, which, in this case however, has no supervisory, controlling, guiding function. It is, as Alain Fleischer correctly wrote, «pointless,» mere performance (and thus also practically natural). The things [Robert] Smithson and Snow each move (translate) from one «desert» to another «desert,» could not be more different. Whereas Snow s (mostly) dehumanized camera movements completely obey the camera robot, and the «human factor» is limited to constructing the machine, programming it, choosing the location, and deciding how to edit the film from sixty to three hours, there are many more parts to Smithson’s mix of esthetic criteria. In a posthumously published essay from 1971, Smithson writes of his experiences with the «wilderness of Cameraland,» the «wilderness created by the camera.» Smithson is not able to get really excited. Cameras had lives of their own; it was difficult to imagine an « &Infinite Camera without an ego.» Smithson fantasized about a horror film with the working title «Invasion of the Camera Robots,» in which cyclopean cameras would terrorize a photography shop. The big issue was: how does one deal with the unavoidable, simultaneously productive and destructive presence of cameras, of abstraction machines? How does art/the artist behave toward the camera? There is no solution. Or is there perhaps one &? Michael Snow’s «Wavelength», for instance, earns Smithson s attention: after all, this film successfully dried up the ocean into a photograph. Smithson also appears to be interested in the fact that Snow goes out into the actual landscape with «a delirious camera of his own invention.» Snow produces a camera wilderness, which must have been suspect and at thesame time welcome to Smithson. Toward the end of his essay, Smithson indirectly admits that wild cameras could make a considerable contribution to the work of deterritorializing and decentralizing a society s narrative patterns. These thoughts, elliptically spoken, imagine a kind of film and photographic discourse that is infected by anti-narrativism a point of view that also includes the radical dissection of the subject of perception.
– Tom Holert, “Political Whirlpools and Deserts: Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Smithson and Michael Snow,” Mediankunstnetz / Media Art Net
About Michael Snow
Online dossier including articles and interviews with Snow, at Offscreen