TO LAVOISIER WHO DIED IN THE REIGN OF TERROR
Directed by Michael Snow.
Michael Snow’s new film begins with a shot of what appears to be an old piece of machinery, perhaps even the side of an old camera. Soon a hand reaches down, grasps a knob, and opens a door, revealing a fire blazing within: it’s an old stove. After some minutes, we dissolve to an overhead shot of a couple lying in bed. Further dissolves lead to long takes of a man flailing his arms, a card game, a woman in the kitchen, an anonymous terraced high rise, a man painting.
The subject matter of Snow’s shots tends toward the everyday, the mundane. Each shot is held for a long time, and in most the camera begins a very slow zoom-in. In virtually every one, the surface of the film aggressively asserts itself: the image is at times covered or even obscured with scratches, streaks of various colors, and irregular blotches, and at times the emulsion literally breaks up into multicolored dots or abstract patterns of color, all a result of special film processing by Snow’s collaborator Carl Brown.
While for me To Lavoisier Who Died in the Reign of Terror is rich and wonderful, it obviously won’t appeal to all moviegoers. It has no plot, no characters, and no intelligible dialogue, and the sound track, which the filmmaker says is based mostly on the sound of fire, is primarily abstract and irregular white noise punctuated by occasional fragments of speech, music, or ambient sound. To appreciate this film one must be willing to give great attention to the plastic materials of cinema–color, composition, camera angle, rhythm–and be willing to allow that such elements may themselves raise important questions or express serious ideas. What I find so rewarding in this work, aside from the pure sensual pleasure that Snow’s extraordinary imagery offers, is the unique way it re-poses the great questions that have been hounding much of modern art: How much can a person know of the external world, of the realm outside the self? To what extent can an artist’s medium aid in that quest, and to what extent does it leave one even more trapped in the medium’s materials or in one’s own brain? In an era in which our relationships to each other and to our planet are being increasingly questioned, these are questions not only for artists and art lovers but for all of us.
Antoine Lavoisier was an 18th-century French chemist whose work helped lay the foundations of modern chemistry. As all chemists and alchemists before him did, Lavoisier studied the ways in which substances are transformed into other substances. More specifically, he helped develop the idea of certain fundamental chemical elements that cannot be further reduced or divided, and he gave the first accurate explanation of fire and helped develop the general idea that chemical processes do not create or destroy matter but simply transform it. He was also a tax official of the ancien regime who was condemned to death during the Reign of Terror; he was sentenced along with 27 others in a group trial that lasted less than a day, and then immediately guillotined.
The most obvious references to Lavoisier in Snow’s film are the fire sequences at the beginning and end, but the more general idea of transformation is present everywhere. The quotidian subjects of the images are altered by the unusual camera angles through which we first see them, then further transformed by the effects of the slow zooms and the surface patterns. Indeed, the film’s central tension is between the images’ reference to external reality and the cinematic elements that continually alter, and sometimes completely obscure, that reality.
Part of what makes Snow’s film compelling–and a large part of what sustains the film’s tension–is that his images are initially so radiant, so seductive. The camera angles–sometimes frontal, but often oblique or tilted–maximize the images’ visual impact, but they introduce tension as well: a kitchen or bathroom counter filmed sideways constantly reminds us that the filmmaker’s sensibility is determining how we see the things onscreen. The angles also seem to create a kind of imagined vortex around the images’ centers, as if these tilted compositions cannot sustain themselves for long, so that when the slow zoom begins it only seems to confirm a quality already inherent in the shot. The zooms also express the natural empathy a film viewer feels for a shot placed before him: a desire to draw closer, to feel, to caress, even to penetrate. A tilted overhead shot of a card game leads to a zoom-in that brings us closer to the cards, yielding a humorous little reward when we see that the cards are all different sizes, and some are bent as well–what kind of game is this? But as the camera draws closer still, we find we are seeing less rather than more: a flash of hand or card.
The shot of the card game made me think of the paintings of Paul Cezanne, who made cardplayers one of his principal subjects. His cardplayer compositions are utterly unlike this shot, but the tension in his work between image as a record of external reality and image as abstract patterns of paint has informed much of our century’s art, including, if only indirectly, Snow’s.
If the zooms function as powerful expressions of the film viewer’s natural desire for closer contact with the action, by the end of each zoom they’ve produced exactly the opposite effect. As the camera, following the viewer’s wishes, closes in on the scene, the imagery becomes more abstract or a barrier appears to deny further entry, and the movement that was meant to bring us closer actually places us at further remove, as if the actual nature of the physical world denies the viewer full participation. Thus a zoom-in on a man reading ends with him placing his hand mid-frame, facing the viewer; the woman in the kitchen holds an empty pot similarly positioned; a zoom-in on a painting being done in black on a white canvas begins as a few brush strokes but ends when the painting has become a black rectangle that almost fills the now zoomed-in image.
The nature of these barriers is made clearer by an extraordinary shot of Snow himself cleaning a glass table, seen from below. His hands first push away some dense surface clutter, and he then uses glass cleaner and a rag to wipe the table clean. The metaphor for filmmaking is obvious here; one thinks of a filmmaker cleaning his lens, the glass through which all his images must pass. But while cleaning a lens helps produce sharp, clear images, in this shot Snow’s zoom keeps traveling until his hand and rag fill the frame, moving rapidly back and forth, creating an almost abstract visual rhythm. The intertwining desires of filmmaker and viewer–to show others the world and to involve oneself in it–can produce exquisite moments of temporary rapture, but those moments are quickly destroyed by the insatiability of those same desires.
The film that remains Snow’s best-known, the 1966 Wavelength, consists of a long zoom across the space of a loft, ending with a picture of waves on the far wall. When the frame is finally filled with the waves, the image, which has been flattening as the zoom goes to telephoto, mysteriously seems to open up, as if into another, more ethereal world. The zooms of To Lavoisier have the opposite effect, always ending in flatness, with barriers, in movements too close and frenetic to be easily resolved by the eye. The suggestion of transcendence in the earlier work here yields to a more convincing, if bleaker, vision of a certain kind of impossibility.
The zooms have a near-perfect analogue in the panoply of surface patterns that are present through much of the film. These are similarly dual in effect: their variety and richness is beautiful, but their presence modifies and sometimes obscures the representational imagery. As the camera slowly zooms in on the center of a Ping-Pong game, the emulsion appears to break up into a swirl of orange dots, and the eye struggles to locate the tiny white disk of the ball amidst the shimmering surface.
The surface patterns do introduce one element not present elsewhere in the film, except perhaps in the sound track: their movements are characterized by a certain randomness, the randomness of Brownian motion or of other natural processes like fire. If Snow’s carefully staged compositions and carefully timed zooms are brimming with an artist’s intentionality, the patterns introduce a realm that is outside of the artist’s point-to-point control. Snow got to decide which patterns to include and which to leave out, to be sure, but presumably he didn’t have much control over how the patterns developed or what they look like. The particular patterns couldn’t be applied speck by speck, or frame by frame; their very appearance suggests something not wholly a product of human sensibility.
Since most of Snow’s surface patterns can be seen as simply exaggerations of elements present in most films–grain, streaks, scratches, dust–the ways in which these patterns obscure the image can be seen as a statement about the ability of cinema to represent reality, particularly when prints of older film classics are increasingly available only in more and more deteriorated versions. If the artist’s and viewer’s excessive desire for involvement with the material on the screen (represented by the zooms) doesn’t result in failure, Snow seems to be saying, then the very nature of celluloid itself will ultimately bar entry.
Snow, a Canadian, is an artist whose work over four decades has taken the form of painting, drawing, sculpture, books, video installations, and music as well as cinema. Much of his art has been concerned with the question of representation, with the relation of an image to the object it represents in the world, and with the related question of how much anyone can know of the external world. Usually Snow presents these issues playfully, with humor, as topics for further research. There is humor in To Lavoisier as well: the man seen from above flailing his arms looks like he’s struggling with the surface splotches, and the different-sized playing cards seem to be a joke about the arbitrariness of the size of objects on the screen, an arbitrariness made apparent throughout the film by the zooms. The film ultimately concludes that solipsism is inherent in film, or perhaps in all visual art.
The penultimate scene is a series of static shots of a small model of some templelike buildings that recall classical Greek architecture. When a shot with movement finally appears, it seems that the camera isn’t zooming but is actually moving through space, moving in on the “temple.” Soon the toy temple and the other buildings come crashing down, as if some part of the advancing camera had knocked them over. (In a 1976 Snow film, Breakfast, an advancing camera dollies across a table set for breakfast, crushing plates and food before it.) Now the destructive aspect of the zooms is made explicit: they destroy whatever is before them. Or is it the Renaissance innovation of perspective, of representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, which had its roots in classical Greece, that Snow wishes to destroy?
In the earlier zooms, what began as complex and seductive compositions became flatter and more abstract; but if the feel and taste of the world was lost, a different beauty was gained, in the same way that the obscuring randomness of the surface patterns has a fascination of its own. In this scene a fire breaks out among the fallen temples, itself a complex configuration of shifting light, not unlike the film’s surface patterns or the rapid movements of things seen close at the end of zooms. After a few minutes of beautiful flames we are given a final image: a close-up of a hand in a dark and indeterminate space, quickly moving closer to the camera and going out of focus and hence becoming more “abstract.”
While I don’t know if the final hand is actually Snow’s, it seems clear that it stands for the artist’s hand, seen at least twice before in the film, cleaning glass and playing the piano. (Incidentally, the reading man who places his hand center screen is Snow’s fellow Toronto filmmaker Bruce Elder.) The artist’s perception, desire, and materials have obliterated the external world, and we are left alone, in a single terrifying moment, with the artist’s hand, the body part through which he does much of his work.
Despite the beauty of the film’s abstract elements, there’s an ineffable sadness to this final image: the end result of the artist’s work and will has been to will the world away. Partly because the title stresses Lavoisier’s death, I found myself thinking of the people who murdered him, caught up in their own insanity, inventing crimes without regard to the facts. There is surely a danger in any solipsism: an artist or a politician who thinks only his own thoughts with no reference to external reality is likely to reach false–or worse, evil–conclusions. But there is another possible association one might make with the isolation of Snow’s final image: the eye-closing willing away of the world that the philosopher Descartes, whose writings helped initiate the Enlightenment and our modern era, took as a starting point of his Meditations. Like most good art, Snow’s film raises more questions than it answers, and in the apparent finality of his ending there is also the possibility of some as yet unimagined new beginning.