Dr. Tube and Mr. Snow

Malcom Turvey

Printed in MFJ No. 43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005) Paracinema Performance

I think we tend to talk interchangeably, and not very usefully, about film and cinema, as if they were the same thing.
Cinema is a social institution, while film is a medium. And I think while the medium may change, the institution will be just fine.
I don't see how the institution of cinema--which involves the social act of looking at moving images, and talking about them--
is going to be threatened by new technology.
Of course, it will be affected by it in terms of how films are made, distributed, and exhibited, but it won't be destroyed by it.
I can quite easily imagine film as a medium disappearing quietly in the next ten years with scarcely a blip in terms of the practices of cinema.

-Anthony McCall1

Given its overt use of computer-generated effects as well as what critics perceive to be its numerous allusions to its maker's previous films, it is tempting to view *Corpus Callosum (2002) as Michael Snow's simultaneous farewell to the cinema and ode to the new possibilities of digital image technology. "Rigorously predicated on irreducible cinematic facts," writes J. Hoberman in his review of the film, "Snow's structuralist epics-Wavelength and La Region Centrale--announced the imminent passing of the film era. *Corpus Callosum heralds the advent of the next." 2 Yet elsewhere in his review, Hoberman remarks that Snow's "piece bridges the gap between film and video,"3 reminding us that Snow's art often occupies an ambiguous position between mediums--between film and photography, for example, in One Second in Montreal (1969). Paradoxically, I argue here, in its very exploration of the new possibilities of digital image technology, *Corpus Callosum returns to and extends some of the cinema's earliest, most fundamental traditions. (Corpus callosum is, after all, the name of the connecting tissue between the brain's two hemispheres). In doing so, it suggests that, for all of their novelty, the use of digital technologies in filmmaking will be driven by some of the same basic impulses and desires that have shaped much cinematic art over the last one hundred or so years, and that the cinema will survive even if celluloid is no longer used to make films. The film thereby offers a salutary antidote to the "death of cinema" rhetoric of "rupture" and "revolution" that tends to predominate--much to the delight, one suspects, of those who make and profit from the new technology--in the discourse on digital media.

One contributor to this discourse who has emphasized the continuities between the cinema and digital media is Lev Manovich. To start with, Manovich points out, digital media have borrowed many representational conventions from the cinema. For example, when data is represented three-dimensionally, access to it is often modeled on the film camera and its movements.

During the 1980s and 1990s the camera model became as much of an interface convention as scrollable windows or cut-and-paste operations. It became an accepted way of interacting with any data represented in three dimensions--which in computer culture means literally anything and everything--the results of a physical simulation, an architectural site, the design of a new molecule, statistical data, the structure of a computer network, and so on. As computer culture gradually spatializes all representations and experiences, they are subjected to the camera's particular grammar of data access. Zoom, tilt, pan, and track--we now use these operations to interact with data spaces, models, objects, and bodies.

-Lev Manovich4

*Corpus Callosum makes extensive use of these camera movements, especially tracking (or what Snow likes to call "trucking"). Once inside the office in which much of the film takes place, there begins a series of tracking shots edited together into a continuous loop, with the camera repeatedly tracking across the space of the office from left to right, beginning and ending each time in roughly the same places. During each track, one or more computer-generated manipulations or "metamorphoses" (Snow's word) are employed. While the spatial effects produced by these manipulations clearly go beyond what is possible using the medium of celluloid alone, the temporal effect of repeating and looping tracking shots is familiar to anyone acquainted with the history of the cinema. As in Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961), or many of the films of Mizoguchi, it gives rise to a seemingly interminable, languorous, oneiric temporality.

Manovich also points to another richly suggestive continuity. Digital media, he suggests, escape the limitations of normal human vision, granting their users access to a universe of data that would be inaccessible to them otherwise. This places them in the same tradition as Dziga Vertov's "kino-eye"--Vertov's use of the cinema to transcend the constraints of everyday sight and reveal features of reality invisible to the naked eye.

Man with a Movie Camera [1929] is an important point in the
trajectory that leads from Baudelaire's flanerie to Aspen
Movie Map
, Doom, and VRML worlds, not simply because
Vertov's film is structured around the camera's active
exploration of city spaces, and not only because it
fetishizes the camera's mobility. Vertov wanted to overcome
the limits of human vision and human movement through space
to arrive at more efficient means of data access. However,
the data with which he worked is raw visible reality-not
reality digitized and stored in a computer's memory as
numbers. Similarly, his interface was a film camera, that
is, an anthropomorphic simulation of human vision
-not computer algorithms.5

Although *Corpus Callosum does not explore this particular continuity between digital media and Vertov's kino-eye, it shares a more general sensibility with the films of Vertov and other avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s, which Annette Michelson has done more than anyone else to identify and explain.

The cinema, argues Michelson, was the last and most powerful of the "philosophical toys" of a bygone era, ones that grant their users a "ludic sovereignty" over the universe, or features of it, such as the laws of space and time.6 Among avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s like Vertov and Eisenstein, its invention generated the same "epistemological euphoria" as advanced scientific paradigms such as Einstein's theory of relativity, a theory that seemed in the early twentieth century to represent "the dethronement of time as a rigid tyrant imposed on us from the outside":

One wants, upon reflection, to say that the theory [of relativity] consoled and, at least in part,
reaffirmed a sovereignty that had had, as we know, to withstand the blows to human narcissism
inflicted by Galilean, Darwinian and Freudian thought. One might further claim that this sovereignty
was nowheremore powerfully or immediately expressed than in the filmmaker's ludic reinvention
of spatio-temporality at the editing table. The manner in which film's elementary optical processes produced,
through the use of acceleration, deceleration, freeze-frame and reverse motion, the visible suspension of
causal relations within the phenomenal world gave hope that the cinema could be the articulate medium
of the master theoretical systems of modernity: of psychoanalysis, historical materialism, Einsteinian physics. 7

It is, I think, this euphoric sense of "ludic sovereignty," enabled by a new technology, that *Corpus Callosum shares with avant-garde film of the 1920s. Just as Vertov self-consciously revels in Man with a Movie Camera in what was then the novel power over time granted by the cinema, so Snow just as self-consciously revels in the new power over space enabled by digital.

According to Vertov, the cinema is "free of the limits of time and space." 8 Spatially, the cinema can "put together any given points in the universe, no matter where [it has] recorded them." 9 And just as it can traverse large expanses of space quickly (through camera movement) or instantaneously (through editing), so it can move backward and forward in time. This can be achieved by way of editing: "The coffins of national heroes are lowered into the grave (shot in Astrakhan in 1918); the grave is filled (Kronstadt, 1921); cannon salute (Petrograd, 1920); memorial service, hats are removed (Moscow, 1922)." 10 Or it can be achieved by fast, slow, and reverse motion: "[The camera] experiments, distending time, dissecting movement, or, in contrary fashion, absorbing time within itself, swallowing years, thus schematizing processes of long duration inaccessible to the normal eye." 11 In Man with a Movie Camera, more than in any other film, Vertov playfully foregrounds the cinematic power over time he has at his disposal, most famously in the sequence in which we see his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, arresting the flow of time of the very film we are watching on her editing table.

In *Corpus Callosum, Snow also foregrounds his power. Not only do we often hear the filmmaker instructing and praising his actors on the soundtrack, but in the so-called living room sequences--in which the placement, size, shape, color, and identity of various people and objects in a living room are manipulated digitally in a variety of ways--the filmmaker and his camera are visible in the mirror that sometimes hangs on the wall. Also, on the desks in the office are numerous computer monitors that often display elements of the film we are watching, as if the workers occupying this office are creating the film on their computers. Indeed, at one point, one of the workers turns and looks at the camera while sitting at his computer monitor, on which appear to be several dials. Much like Svilova controlling Man with a Movie Camera at her editing desk, this man moves his computer mouse and manipulates the dials on his monitor, all the while glancing up at the camera, as if to suggest that he is controlling the effects we begin to see--the image turns different colors, a man in a wheelchair rolls over it, it dissolves into TV static, and so on.

But even when the filmmaker, or one of his surrogates, is not directly visible or audible, we sense his power, primarily because he usually makes no effort to hide his computer-generated effects. As other commentators have noted, many of the digital manipulations Snow employs are overt, even crude. They are not, for the most part, blended seamlessly with the recorded elements of the shot in which they occur, as they typically are in mainstream narrative films. For example, in the third of the first series of looped tracking shots, we see the same woman fixing her make-up three times in three different places in the office as the camera tracks across it. Instead of hiding how he achieves this effect, Snow reveals, through slight mismatches, that it was created, as it was in Melies's day, by stopping the camera, repositioning the actress, and starting it again. While this crudeness has a number of functions, one is to foreground the computer-generated effects and the person creating them, just as the crudeness of the allusions to other films in the pre-1967 films of Godard--another self-conscious reveler in the power of the cinema--foregrounds his presence.

It is not just a sensibility that *Corpus Callosum shares with Vertov and his generation, however. Snow's film quite literally continues experiments begun by avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s and before. The cinematic sovereignty over space and time euphorically and self-consciously explored by Vertov and others in their films was not total. The cinema made time infinitely malleable, allowing filmmakers to move backward and forward in time through editing, but also to manipulate time within individual shots by speeding up, slowing down, and reversing the film. The power to manipulate space, however, was more limited. Although, as Vertov points out above, filmmakers have considerable power over the space between shots--they can move instantaneously between spaces via editing just as they can between times--the space within a shot is much less malleable than its time. The basic spatial properties of a shot--the positions of objects and their settings relative to each other, their sizes and shapes--cannot be radically altered once recorded because they are materially fixed on celluloid. This limitation is perhaps why the most brilliant of the filmmaker-theorists of this period, such as Vertov and Jean Epstein, tend to focus on time more than space in their writings.

In order to overcome the stubborn resistance or "rigid tyrant" of space once fixed on celluloid, filmmakers of the 1920s and before experimented with a variety of techniques in both the recording and printing stages--camera movement, focus, aperture, film stock, exposure time, and superimposition. The most radical--the one that allowed for the greatest manipulation of space within shots--involved the use of anamorphic lenses and mirrors. And the seminal example of this experimentation is Abel Gance's early comic short, La Folie du Docteur Tube (1915). In this film, a mad scientist, Dr. Tube, invents a white powder that transforms the appearance of anyone on whom it is thrown. Gance represents this transformation by filming his actors through anamorphic mirrors, which, much like the so-called crazy-mirrors encountered at fairs, stretch and bend, expand and contract the bodies of the characters and the space around them.

The film begins with a man in a white lab coat--Dr. Tube of the title--and his assistant, both asleep, seated behind a desk on which is arrayed test tubes, medicine bottles, and a variety of other scientific paraphernalia. As Tube awakens, his assistant, a young boy, mirrors his actions, inaugurating a doubling motif that Snow, too, will employ in his film. Tube, who has a hump on his bald head, begins grimacing wildly and staring into the camera at the viewer. 12 Having beaten his hump with a duster, he sends his assistant away and begins reading his notes, as if preparing for an experiment. Meanwhile, two young women, similar in appearance, each with a bouquet of flowers shaped much like Tube's duster, are seated on a park bench. They are greeted by two young men, also similar in appearance, who mirror each other's actions, much like Tube and his assistant. Back in his study, Tube, after several false starts, creates a white powder, which he tosses around with evident glee. Immediately, the space of the study, as well as the bodies of its occupants, are bent and stretched out of shape as Gance begins to film his actors through anamorphic mirrors, and Tube and his assistant laugh maniacally and look around in wonder. At that very moment, the two young women enter the building in which Tube's study is located while their paramours await them outside. As they climb the stairs, Tube spies them through his keyhole and maliciously throws some powder on them. After initially laughing at their changed appearances, they begin to worry about how their young men will perceive them, and plead with Tube to throw the powder on the men below, a request he willingly obliges. The men, themselves now transformed, enter the study. Finally, they all manage to dust off the powder, and their bodies and the space around them are restored to normal. While the young people drink in celebration, Tube places a cage over his head--anticipating a similar use of cages by post-war American avant-garde filmmakers such as Sidney Peterson13 --and the film ends with a shot of Tube's manic face as he gestures toward the camera, as if to suggest that his devilish tricks are not yet at an end.

Indeed they are not. In *Corpus Callosum, Snow picks up where Tube, or rather Gance, leaves off14 : the comic manipulation of the space and bodies within shots is the possibility enabled by digital image technology most explored by Snow in this film. In fact, the final two tracking shots of *Corpus Callosum employ an effect that is highly reminiscent of Gance's use of anamorphic mirrors. In La Folie du Docteur Tube, the most distorted image is created by filming through an anamorphic mirror positioned above Tube's study. The mirror doubles the bodies of those who are reflected in it, much like a crazy-mirror, with the bottom half of the image mirroring the top half. It also makes their bodies wobble. Because the mirror is positioned above the characters, and because the characters reflected in it--Tube and his assistant, the two men, and the two women--already mirror each other by looking alike, being dressed alike, or imitating each other's actions--a variety of strange distortions are created, giving rise to an almost illegibly abstract, highly unstable image in which the identities of the characters are blended and confused. In the final two tracking shots of Snow's film, a crazy-mirror is propped up against a bookcase in the office, which doubles the reflection of one of the workers standing in front of it. As if in imitation of the mirror, Snow then computer-generates a wobble in the image as the camera tracks past a man spread out on a chair. At the end of the track, the camera reverses direction, and this time Snow splits the image in half, the top mirroring the bottom, again much like a crazy-mirror.

But of course digital technology allows Snow to comically manipulate space and bodies in ways that Gance could have only dreamed of. For example, in addition to the bending, stretching, expanding, and contracting of space enabled by anamorphic processes, digital techniques allow him to twist space, as if it were a long string of silly putty.15 In the fifth tracking shot of the first looped sequence of tracks, the image is twisted in the middle, like a bow-tie, turning it upside down, and in the following track it is twisted again. And, following the first living room sequence, the second track in a new series of looped tracking shots contains one man twisting the arm and body of another, which is then enhanced by some digital twisting, literally foregrounding the power to twist granted to the artist by digital. The malicious, even sadistic dimension of manipulating the human body this way is also explicitly foregrounded when the man then proceeds to whip his victim. Digital technology also enables Snow to expand and contract not only whole bodies but body parts, as well as to squeeze bodies together. In the first tracking shot after the first living room sequence, a man sits back in one of the office chairs as his penis expands while his body remains the same size. Later, a man and a woman enter the door of a toilet and are squeezed together. When they emerge, they are still squeezed together in the rectangular shape of the doorway.

Snow also has great fun with the capacity to blend and confuse identities latent in any technology, whether a mirror or digital, that enables doubling. At the beginning of *Corpus Callosum, several people are shown entering the office, including a dark-haired man dressed in reddish-brown pants, a white shirt, a dark tie, and a light green jacket, and a shorter blonde woman in a brown skirt, pink shirt, white tights, and brown shoes carrying a purse. During the first living room sequence, Snow begins confusing their identities, first by having similar-looking but different actors enter--the man wearing the woman's clothes and vice-versa--then by having them enter backward, and finally by having a much taller blonde woman and a shorter dark-haired man enter in their clothes and sit on a couch. After another change in actors--perhaps ones we have already seen, perhaps not--the man gets up to leave. A blonde woman, identical to the blonde woman on the couch in costume and appearance, then enters. The first woman gets off the sofa and goes to stand by the second. They embrace, kiss, and are then morphed into a single woman, slightly shorter and plumper. By this time the viewer is thoroughly confused. Is the shorter, plumper woman the first actor whom we saw entering the office? Are both of the identical-looking women who kiss real, perhaps identical twins, or are one or both computer-generated?

Snow continues confusing their identities throughout the rest of the film. In the second living room sequence, the blonde woman appears again, now naked and pregnant. But by this time, we cannot be sure whether her pregnant stomach is real or computer-generated. Later, we see her, again naked, this time not pregnant but with a penis. For once, no digital trickery is obvious--her penis blends seamlessly with the rest of her body. Perhaps she is genuinely transgendered? Either way, Snow is using digital technology to further the identity confusion that Gance creates with his anamorphic mirrors and doubling motif.

*Corpus Callosum can thus be seen as continuing and extending experiments with the space within shots initiated by avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s and before. In it, digital image technology is used to fulfill a desire to control space that, while stimulated and partially satisfied by the cinema, was frustrated to some extent by the limitations of celluloid. In this way, the relation between *Corpus Callosum and films such as La Folie du Docteur Tube is not unlike the relation between Vertov's first sound film, Enthusiasm (1930), and his earlier interest in sound during the silent era. As Lucy Fischer puts it, "One can see Enthusiasm . . . as an almost postponed event--one that [Vertov] was somehow ready for in the twenties, but which was not, technologically speaking, ready for him." 16 Similarly, I think, from their experiments with anamorphic processes and other techniques, one might say that avant-garde filmmakers such as Gance were ready in the 1910s and 1920s for the computer-generated effects explored by Snow in *Corpus Callosum, but these effects were not ready for them.

More generally, Snow's film, in returning to a moment in the silent era of great euphoria about the cinema and its power, reminds us of another transitional period in the history of the cinema, one which also occasioned the rhetoric of "revolution" and "rupture" that we currently find in the discourse on digital media, and the feeling, among many, that the cinema had in some sense died--namely, the transition to sound in the late 1920s. Those who mourned the passing of the silent era felt that it was precisely the cinema's power over time and space, its ability to reconstitute reality, that was lost with the addition of sound, which, they argued, prioritized the recording properties of celluloid as a medium, preventing filmmakers from reconstituting reality in their films. As Snow's film brilliantly demonstrates, by giving the filmmaker greater control over space and its contents, the advent of digital image technology is re-prioritizing that which was supposedly lost with the coming of sound--the filmmaker's ability to reconstitute reality. 17 And what is now being mourned by some, ironically, is the loss of the stubborn resistance of celluloid as a medium to spatial manipulation by the filmmaker.

Of course, claims about the death of cinema due to the arrival of sound were vastly exaggerated. While the coming of sound certainly, in Noel Carroll's words, "prompted a reevaluation of the nature of the medium" that resulted in the "amplification" of the recording properties of celluloid, 18 films continued to be made that emphasized the filmmaker's ability to reconstitute reality, especially when modernism reemerged with renewed vigor in the 1950s. Similarly, the arrival of digital image technology is currently re-amplifying the filmmaker's ability to reconstitute reality. But films will doubtless continue to be made in a way that emphasizes the recording properties of whatever medium they are employing, whether celluloid or digital video.19

Avant-garde film of the 1910s and 1920s is not the only cinematic tradition that *Corpus Callosum returns to and extends. As many commentators have noted, its comic manipulation of bodies bears more than a passing resemblance to the tradition of physical, slapstick comedy. And, in the crude, almost primitive way it employs digital image technology to generate humor, the film seems to suggest, as did those of Sidney Peterson and James Broughton, that at the origin of the desire of avant-garde filmmakers to control space and time lie thoroughly primitive, childlike drives and impulses--a point also made by Annette Michelson, who argues that the "ludic sovereignty" over the universe granted by the cinema and reveled in by avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s and before is rooted in "our abiding infantile fantasy of omnipotence."20 An investigation of the film's connections to these traditions must await another occasion.21