Michael Snow’s La Région centrale (1971)

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Focusing on “cinema as an event,” Signals: Sound Stages falls outside the normal parameters of a festival programme. Not organized around a particular genre or theme, the films don’t necessarily share an interest in the acoustic, but reverberate—pun intended—on the auditory level. Sound normally garners far less interest than the visual, often only brought to attention when it falters—an out of synch audio track, poor dubbing, when it fails to play at all. Much like our bodies which function without consciousness thought, sound is taken for granted, a natural function that is rarely marveled at. But, not to be too poetic, like breathing it is central to the life of cinema.

Michael Snow, the Canadian avant-garde artist whose career spans over half a century, has made sound central to his expression of film. In Wavelenght (1967) he stretched the audio track to match the film’s 40-minute plus zoom, a synergy of sound an image. Here at Rotterdam for a showcase of his work, he introduced a screening of perhaps his most seminal film, La Région centrale. Made over a period of three days in 1971, the film is a series of shots of a barren Quebec landscape, taken from a camera anchored to a robotic arm which gyrated and panned 360-degrees to sonic cues. Meant to capture what Snow perceived to be the movements of landscapes, nature, and space, La Région centrale eschews linear perspective, a cosmic carnival ride through a formless universe.

In so tightly connecting sound and image, any screening of Snow’s works cue the brain to amplify the auditory. The event of the screening then wasn’t merely anchored in Snow’s presence and introduction—at 83 he still speaks passionately about the piece—but the overall soundscape of the screening room. At the heart of this experience was the 16mm projector. The original format in which La Région centrale was shot, the quiet hum of the reel spinning was a reminder of our active suspension of disbelief in watching any film (nothing more than projected light).

The format also raised questions of the digital. As many of Snow’s works are available on YouTube, the question of watching his films in a theatre versus online is naturally prevalent. (Programmer Edwin Carels invoked this point during the Q&A.) Thus, that whirring of the projector gave a tactility to the screening, making the film’s inversion of perspective and evoking a universal lack of orientation all the more profound. A true event to get lost in.

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