*** (A must-see)

Many people dislike the films of Michael Snow, even people who have never seen one. They hear his 1967 film Wavelength described as a continuous 45-minute shot across the length of a loft, zooming slowly toward a photograph of waves on the opposite wall, and decide that it sounds like no fun. Or they hear Snow’s own description of the film–“a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas”–and decide the same thing. Snow, a Canadian filmmaker (and sculptor and composer), is a serious artist, but he’s also a witty guy. In a commission for the pedestrian ramps to Toronto’s sports dome, Snow sculpted Audience–giant gargoyles of fans cheering, booing, eating hot dogs, and snapping photos. Unlike many of the theory-minded filmmakers he gets lumped with, Snow builds humor into his work, though his joking is not at the expense of his audience and not encoded for intellectual insiders.

An impressive trio of Snow’s most recent films, showing at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday, reveals his entertaining engagement with the weighty ideas of life and death, time and truth. Unlike the purposely difficult movies with which avant-garde filmmakers usually address these subjects–movies that often end up proving only that a little bit of theory is a dangerous thing–Snow’s films prove that a little bit of film can be a powerful tool in the hands of a philosopher.

His latest film, See You Later/Au Revoir (1990), achieves a quasi-theological impact. A mundane half-minute event is slowed down to an 18-minute meditation loaded with dread. Using a super-slow-motion video camera designed for highlighting sports action, Snow shot himself getting up from a desk, putting on an overcoat, exchanging farewells with a woman who’s typing, and walking out the door. The result is reminiscent of Proust’s novels, in which protracted descriptions of everyday incidents run for pages and pages. Proust pushed narrative conventions of time and action. Snow’s miniature plot advances with supernatural deliberation–the film is simultaneously a still life and an odyssey.

The sound track catches him saying “Good-bye” and her saying “See you later.” But spread over so many minutes, the words are impossible to decipher–you can’t even tell whether they’re speaking English or French. The sound of her typing is likewise denatured. Snow seems attuned to the primordial notes underpinning our normal soundscape.

With his back to the camera, Snow passes by an op-art painting with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. His face unexpectedly appears inside its oval frame–what first looked like a piece of corporate decor turns out to be a mirror. The office walls also contain schematic swatches of bright colors. Originally shot on one-inch videotape, See You Later/Au Revoir has a phosphorescent aura not normally found on film; Snow, also trained as a painter, calls it “a slightly activated Vermeer.” It begins with Snow peering at his watch, and ends with his door closing out a blinding white light beyond the office. As he throws on his coat, its shadow hovers over his shoulder as if it were his soul. His almost medieval dwelling on the ordinary plumbs an existential microcosm.

Snow’s So Is This (1982) is an oddity in that it is made up only of words (and punctuation and parentheses) that appear on the screen one at a time. For 42 minutes he spells out, word by word, a playful train of thought on the film itself, its audience, and artistic expression. It’s as if Snow chose to be understood, for once, with unimpeachable clarity. To quote from the screen, “Some of the author’s films are liked by a small handful of people, disliked by a slightly larger number, and unknown to millions. With this film he hopes to reach everybody who can read English.”

He aims to please, but acknowledges potential complaints from one “small handful” out there. “Some of the more cultivated members of the audience may regret the lack of in-depth semiological analysis in this film.” He also addresses people who are arriving late and finding their seats, the Ontario board of censors, children (who are cued when they should cover their eyes), and viewers who want to ask, “Wouldn’t a book be better?” Given the novelty of the film’s format (“This is communal reading!”), Snow’s reminder that “you can’t see what’s coming” is more ominous than obvious. The film states it “won’t discuss itself all the time. It’s going to get into some real human stuff that will make you laugh and cry and change society. . . . It’s not all going to be such heavy going. Some parts are going to be just plain fun!” And actually it is more fun than deconstruction ever is in the hands of its licensed practitioners.

Seated Figures (1988) is a more abstract pursuit of similar themes. The title refers to the audience. The sound track seems to come from the projectionist’s room; it keeps track of what’s going on behind the people who are in their seats staring ahead at the screen (or what’s going on in their midst when the projector is in the same room). In Snow’s Wavelength a few human activities intimate an obscure human drama; in Seated Figures some voices, mixed with the projector’s noise, suggest a gathering of people doing something like watching a lengthy abstract silent film. In fact, the sound track begins on the leader, with a voice mentioning the title and Snow’s name, saying it is a silent movie made in 1988. Coughing and yawning can be heard. Later a baby cries, and a muffled conversation in French can be overheard.

The film looks like a Lilliputian’s topographical survey of asphalt roadways and wildflower fields. Snow’s camera traverses the terrain from different angles and at different speeds. From an aerial perspective of a few feet off the ground, pebbles and weeds rush by, becoming undifferentiated streams.

This challenging film closes with a whimsical gesture of shadow play. The archetypal projectionist makes a cameo appearance–not since Buster Keaton’s 1924 Sherlock Jr. has a film so cleverly incorporated the projectionist as a protagonist.

So Is This quotes one of Plato’s dialogues on the resemblance between painting and writing: “The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive; but if you question them they maintain a most majestic silence.” The films of Michael Snow embody this paradox of appearing both intimate and aloof. He once wrote, “The film is there and you are here. You’re equal. It’s neither fascism nor entertainment. . . . In my films I’ve tried to make something happen that couldn’t in any other way so that there is something about that experience that comes from the possibilities of the medium.”