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Reviewed by:
  • Michael Snow: Wavelength
  • R. Bruce Elder (bio)
Elizabeth Legge . Michael Snow: Wavelength. Afterall Books. 2009. 112. $16.00

Writing on Michael Snow's artworks poses an interesting challenge that writers on contemporary art seldom encounter. Snow is erudite, [End Page 285] deliberate, and very bright, and his own commentary on his works is extensive, insightful, and expressed with a wit and novelty that almost unfailingly provokes insight. A commentator on Snow's work therefore confronts a choice: cleave closely to Snow's remarks and, while benefiting from Snow's remarkably level-headed understanding of his creative methods, risk being turned into someone who merely elaborates on and explains the artist's 'authoritative' comments (generally by translating them into a form that lacks the poetic irony so characteristic of Snow's own discourse); or blaze one's own path, by finding novel things to say about Snow's work - a tack that, given the extent and richness of Snow's own remarks on his work, risks turning the commentator's remarks into fanciful misprisions.

So how does Legge manage in navigating between this rock and this whirlpool? Essentially, she takes the second route - and that is commendable, since only that way might lead to fresh insight into a film that has generated a sizable literature, much of which has the character of commentary on Snow's commentary on the work. I say 'essentially' because Legge frequently quotes, or alludes to, Snow's own statements, but (perhaps in order to avoid turning the book into a commentary on the filmmaker's own commentary) she doesn't treat them as ironic and plurisemic constructs, but as straightforward statements about the artist's intent and methods.

The course Legge set for herself allows her to turn up some treasures. Her comments relating Snow's ideas on equivalence to those of Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture (1941) seem to me a rich vein (that might have been exploited further). Her comments on the radio bringing sounds from the outside world into the loft and the phone call carrying sounds from the loft to the outside world are perspicacious.

It is wonderful, and revelatory of the context in which Snow made Wavelength, to read Legge's respectful acknowledgement of 'the very scope and density' of Susan Sontag's intellectual references as installing 'erudition as a unique identifier of contemporary approaches to art, film, and writing.' (Among Snow's friends and associates, think of Hollis Frampton's formidable erudition, or Paul Sharits's, or of Ernie Gehr's meticulous and probing analytic intelligence.) It is also wonderful to see Legge doing what is so rare, that is, to introduce the theory of the gaze without utterly misrepresenting Lacan (Legge correctly understands Lacan to have proposed that the gaze uncannily belongs to an inapprehensible point in the object [or picture] from which the viewing subject is gazed at). But then (acknowledging that this represents a turning away from Lacan), she does what I find unfathomable: she resorts to the politically motivated distortion of psychoanalysis Laura Mulvey offers, to ground what strikes me as a fatuous commentary on Snow's 'Walking Woman.' Her Barthesian inflected commentary on narrative [End Page 286] similarly relies on overly literal readings of signifiers that are far less determinate than that section of the book makes them out to be. Here, she might have benefitted from paying due heed to Snow's assertions that he is not a storyteller.

The book's major shortcoming is to propose that the film's devices resemble features of human vision. The avant-garde cinema that immediately preceded Snow's - Stan Brakhage's lyrical and mythopoeic films - is commonly thought (with some justification) to have been based on an analogy between human vision and cinematic constructions that are rooted in the medium's nature. Snow's cinema broke radically with that, in adopting a 'God-like above-it-all' vision. Legge's remarks that closely draw together forms from Wavelength and features of human vision reduces the radical challenge that Snow's film posed to the avant-garde cinema of 1968. Further, it flies in the face of Snow's own remarks that contrast...


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pp. 285-287
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