The structural filmmakers—such as Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, Tony Conrad, Bruce Conner, George Landow, Paul Sharits, Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, and Anthony McCall (1)—were, and are, like film theorists, examining the apparatus of cinema directly. They were notably committed to “filmic realities,” a commitment that, according to Federico Windhausen, counterbalanced other issues such as Sharits’s diagnostics of corresponding emotional states: “[In his third phase,] Sharits restricts himself to the production of only two kinds of images: abstract colour flickers (as in Shutter Interface) and shots of rephotographed filmic phenomena (such as coloured frames, frame lines, film grain, sprocket holes and the optical soundtrack code).” Windhausen identifies this major mode of inquiry as “diagnostic, pertaining to the identification of cinema’s fundamental elements.” (2) As an example, he quotes from Sharits’s working notes for the installation piece Sound Strip/Film Strip (1971):

[E]ssential to the concept of the movie (or any expressive use of time) is the sectioning of the continuous time reality (beats, words, frames) … What we want to do is, not negate the sectioning of time, but reveal the nature of the illusionary continuity of film time. (3)

Inquiry into the film/video loop phenomenon has repeatedly led to a concern for animation, via, for example, proto-cinema’s turning, spinning, repetition machines; Fernand Léger/Dudley Murphy’s garden-swing, stair-climbing, and other repetitions in Ballet mécanique (1924); Dziga Vertov’s spinning-top-like motors, wheels, and gears; the structural filmmakers mentioned above; and recent Hubbard/Birch, Girardet, and many other digital cinematic installations.

Some of those film animators, such as Girardet, have repeatedly implicated a higher power— the “few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight,” conjured by Henry Adams, who said of himself that “the dynamo [driven by that coal] became a symbol of infinity.” (4) The linking of animation to its power sources, with all of their connotations, has not been common in theories and experiments to “reveal the nature of the illusionary continuity of film time.” It perhaps has been treated as a given. On closer inspection, however, one finds such concern for the higher power sources of animation among the filmmakers most engaged with the apparatuses of animation, especially some who have often been considered as part of a largely formalist, a-political project, filmmakers such as—in addition to Girardet—Dziga Vertov, Tony Conrad, Bruce Conner, George Landow, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow. Vertov, for example, pictured and advocated for the dynamos and motors that would power the “Soviets Plus Electricity” system, including Vertov’s politically self-propagating animation devices. And Tony Conrad has noted that

the true tonic of our social lives, though it does lie above fusion, has been pointedly handed down to us principally through the primary machinations of the primitive machines. 60 cycles is a compromise between the desires of motors and transformers and the reactance of long-line power transmission. Throughout our lives we hear with unresponsive insouciance the groans of the machines, ineffectively complaining on the long electromechanical wave band of their 60 cycle burden. Their wavelength is buried down there with the whistlers; one wave spans our continent. The revenge is simple: 60 cycles is the ideal killer frequency for bio-chemical life forms…

. . .

The least precocious child alive today can hardly miss 60 cycles…the largest, most careful melody ever played. 60 cycles is pumping and surging all about the heart of the civilization….with [my] ear pointing in the right direction, it will hear far far past the future, into the current of the living present [emphasis added]. (5)

Ken Jacobs, who, with Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969), helped kick start the structural film “movement” by picking apart early cinema, and who has analyzed and synthesized the animation devices of every generation of animation, including the archaic ones and always the next one, and who thus is firmly in the formalist tinkerer’s camp, has, as Malcolm Turvey notes, “like Vertov, view[ed] our capacity to be fooled by visual illusions as playing a central role in political enslavement, which is why filmmakers must ‘entertainingly expose the fraud’; ‘The recognized illusion is the death of the social delusion that keeps a populace infantilized, either by religion or the technology of images that leaders now employ to keep their flocks in line.’” (6) Moreover, Jacobs’s feature-length video, which premiered at the ‘Views from the Avant-Garde’ program at the New York Film Festival in October, 2011, is explicitly and ferociously political; and while formally and expressively committed to the digital and the mutating loop, his digital loops are the visual and sonic evocation of an intrusive and threatening electrical infrastructure—i.e., the power grid.

Michael Snow, too, perhaps the reigning filmmaker most commonly associated with the formalist fascinations of the structural cinema, has a long-standing concern for the environmental embeddedness of his animation practice, including its sources of power. Snow’s 62-minute film/video installation, Solar Breath (Northern Cayatids) (2002)

Solar Breath (Northern Cayatids). Solar-panel power source for camera included in the frame outside the window

Solar Breath (Northern Cayatids). Solar-panel power source for camera included in the frame outside the window

is a phenomenon of techno-environmental beauty, which was probably Michael Snow’s main reason for making it. Almost erotic in its visual, tactile, and rhythmic intensity, it is not unlike the very unlike artist, Ann Hamilton’s, work with fabric, light, and interval. Snow’s window-curtain slaps against the invisible screen—insect screen and film screen—so that we seem to feel it with our body, the way we really, not virtually, feel its sound against our eardrums. Snow and his wife, Peggy Gale, shuffle around the cabin behind the camera, preparing and eating a meal, in the same sonic and spectatorial space as the installation’s viewers. Michael occasionally chuckles and makes appreciative noises, commenting “that’s amazing,” as he watches the curtains, and monitors the camera’s image of the show that he, and the viewer, are watching. One can experience this film the way one watches the real sky and the shifting clouds within the frame of James Turrell’s “Skyspace” installations, which make immediate images of real clouds and skies.

James Turrell’s “Skyspace”

James Turrell’s “Skyspace”. Michael Snow’s Solar Breath (Northern Cayatids) installed (on the left)

Solar Breath also can be taken as a virtual window cut out of the far wall of the white-box gallery. Or, since the curtain covering the open window on the left blows into the room and smacks back into the insect screen every few seconds, forming a different “caryatid”-draping each time it slaps back virtually against the real wall of the gallery (as in Dennis Oppenheim’s Echo), (7)

Dennis Oppenheim, Echo, 1973

Dennis Oppenheim, Echo, 1973

It can be experienced as an automated slide show, a cosmic carousel projector changing slides, i.e., curtain patterns, with every solar breath.

Solar Breath

Solar Breath

Solar Breath’s curtains are the flapping, Ann Hamilton-like skirts of a Canadian caryatid, a shifting diptych of the double discourses of modernism: abstraction in the left-hand side of the window, and the modernist grid—Mondrian, Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, or Peter Eisenman—on the right-hand side.

Snow, however, is best known for his minimalist, structural sophistication, for highly systematic works of film, such as the ground-breaking 1967 film, Wavelength, which is a 45-minute, super-slow-moving zoom shot from the far end of an 80-foot New York loft to an extreme close-shot of a photograph of ocean waves on the far wall of the loft. A 35-minute glissando of a sine-wave audio tone is the main sound track of that film, which rhymes with and parallels the 45-minute zoom. Those two morphing phenomena form the basis for a complex time/space system, somewhat like the working of a representational Destiny Machine. 

A Great Chain of Animation

If Snow is doing something like Wavelength with Solar Breath, then one might see those filmed curtains flapping in the breeze as a solar-driven machine. The wind is a solar-powered force that drives the machine just as the “few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house” drives Henry Adams’s dynamo; that wind power is the eponymous “solar breath,” and the artist’s cabin, windows, insect screen, and curtains, forms a device that catches that solar breath, and lets it go, time after time. The curtain blowing in and flapping out is a pump, a valve, a bellows, or, in the human machinery implied by the film’s title, heart and lungs. It’s mechanism reminds us that inside the camera is a shutter—virtual or real—that, like those curtains, opens and closes repeatedly to admit and to block the sun’s photons striking the sensitive surface of the recording device. Finally, the image reaching us in the gallery is carried by light passing through the opened shutter—virtual or real—in the projector, so that each still image slaps against the surface of our retinas repeatedly, and, because of persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon, allows us to see the motion of those curtains and their solar breathing. The energy that drives this machinery, and the image of this machinery, is solar; the image of the sun itself at the beginning of the film emerges out of the upper right frame of the window and passes toward lower-left, on its way to setting. While doing so, and in typical Michael Snow reflexivity, the sun seems to be driving—directly—the video camera that is recording it, since the billowing curtain occasionally reveals a solar panel outside the window, with its power cord running toward the position of the camera. So the camera and the movie itself are part of the vast, beautiful machinery of nature that humans, even with their often seemingly alienating technology, are capable of appreciating in a balanced, ecological manner. It’s a vision of that infra-thin connection that is both simple and complex enough to cause Snow a cosmic delight.

It doesn’t hurt the cosmic mechanics to appreciate that each and every flap of the curtain’s breathing cycle creates another completely still, painterly, framed image of breathtaking loveliness, accompanied by a synch-sound “hwump,” like a catching-of-the-breath. Thus we find the pioneer Snow still detecting and deploying formal looping structures, as usual, but the loops are links in a great chain of animation, connected to a higher source. 

Defining Animation

The recurrence of a diagnostic imagery of animation I will define as “externally powered motion deployed in loops”—whether in factories, films, or computers—begs definitional scaffolding. Since the imagery discussed above implies power from a higher source, I start with that source: Animation is power as applied to make something move. This definition is analogous to typical dictionary entries, such as “1. The act, process, or result of imparting life, interest, spirit, motion, or activity,” “3: to move to action,” and “The action of life, vitality, or (as the sign of life) motion.” (8) Seemingly irrelevantly, but working as if from a concatenation of Cartesian or Spinozan elements, aspiring to a Leibnitzian concatenation of truths, and acknowledging the mature wisdom of Michael Snow’s cosmic imagery in Solar Breath and La Région Centrale (1970-71), I tentatively propose the sun as the higher source of the power to cause earthly, including human, motion of any sort. This nomination of a higher animating power is not necessary to the definition of cinematic animation, but is relevant to the cinematic imagery under consideration, of which there are many more examples.

Solar or other energy sources are, of course, far from what filmmakers and film theorists usually mean by animation, which is: “All techniques that make inanimate objects move on the screen, such as drawing directly on film, individually photographing animation cells, and photographing the objects one frame at a time while adjusting their position between frames;” or “Any process whereby artificial movement is created by photographing a series of drawings (see also cel animation), objects, or computer images one by one. Small changes in position, recorded frame by frame, create the illusion of movement.” (9) The definitions of animation that refer to the causing of any motion whatever belong to an enormously larger class of animation. And within that huge category of caused motion, the specific instance of the sun animating the elements of the Earth might be called “dispersed power;” when dispersed solar power takes the form of calorie-burning human beings who invent machines that move, the resulting further-dispersed power of machines might be called “deployed power,” i.e., sun power deployed through machines by humans. Animated film is an intricately evolved concatenation of deployed power: the sun’s higher power animates earthly elements which accidentally disperse that power in ways that evolve over time into humans, who in turn invent machines that purposefully deploy the sun’s (and gravity’s) (10) power in order to move water through shoots, steam through cylinders, and electrons through dynamos, wires, and motors so that gears, sprockets, and shutters move in such a way that the sprockets move strips of film, frame by frame, past the shutters, which regulate the projection of photons from a lamp through a lens onto a screen. This intricate deployment of power—still within the definition of a first-order animation of machines by solar and gravitational energy—results in a human experience of motion on the screen, a second-order animation different from the first-order motion of the animated machines.

“The act . . . of imparting . . . motion” in the first set of definitions refers to real motion, such as factory wheels, engine pistons, or film-projector sprockets and shutters. The human experience of motion produced by that real machine motion, and referred to in the second set of definitions as a second-order animation, is explicitly stated as illusionary, not real like projector sprockets. Thus, there are now two qualitatively distinct definitional orders of animation, and since a first-order, real animation—which includes a chain of a) higher power, b) dispersed power, and c) deployed power—is a necessity for the illusionary animation, we can use just such ordinal terms as first- and second-order. For example, when the second-order definitions refer to something making “inanimate objects move on the screen,” they have in mind apparent, not real, motion. But they also assume the necessary prior presence of a real motion that moves the individual frames of images in a way that creates the physical conditions for illusionary motion. Thus the first-order definition of animation is always present, either literally or implied, in second-order definition. This banal truth may not yet be enough to justify a specifically film-studies concern for the real, higher power sources, but it does suggest the relevance of related imagery in the work of the diagnostic filmmakers.

Solar energy dispersal and its human deployment are, as general terms, within the first-order definition of animation, but film animation transcends that definition in a quantum-like leap. Fusion occurs when deployment devices of the first-order definition of animation, which I will refer to as “animation-1,” move the film frames through the apparatus at a rate that exceeds the human ability to perceive those intermittent frames as separate from each other, thus enabling the illusion of continuous motion referred to in the second-order definition of animation, which I will refer to as “animation-2.” 

Fusion Diagnostics

Once a cinema of fusion had been invented, some filmmakers and commentators never looked back; they moved quickly past what I have called, after Michael Snow, “cinema antique,” proceeding to invent and develop “cinema biologique,” which dominates world cinema today, its primary modes being narrative and documentary.

Some filmmakers and theorists, however, remained interested in animation-2 as an animation-1-based apparatus. Animators, of course, as specialists in fusion, always had to keep the mechanics of that fusion in mind, but some documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmakers did as well. First, early cinema—cinema antique—continued to experiment with the devices of fusion beyond the point of fusion’s definitive invention and after fusion’s potentiating of diegetic realism, producing cinemas that were genuinely experimental and that strike us as avant-garde-like, as film scholars such as Noel Burch, Tom Gunning, and Andre Gaudrillault have elaborated. Second, even after cinema-biologique realism had become the coin of the realm, the historical avant-garde cinemas, primarily the Soviet and the European, what I call “cinema mécanique,” remained interested in the apparatus of fusion even though they were not animators in the conventional sense. The fusion phenomenon was seldom their primary concern, even for a Dziga Vertov, who was castigated for his apparatus-focused high-jinks by his colleague, Sergei Eisenstein. For both Vertov and Eisenstein, propaganda rather than diagnostics was the aim of their interest in the fusion apparatus. Vertov, however, remains nonetheless a founding figure in diagnostics—what Malcolm Turvey calls “revelation”—because he felt that the analysis of animation-2 was political, that it was a concern of the polity, “the people,” in a way similar to Ken Jacobs’s philosophy of revelation-as-revolution, discussed below.

The same feeling underlies the investigations of animation-2 undertaken by the structural filmmakers mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay. Federico Windhausen’s technical discussion of Ken Jacobs’s cinematic adaptation of Hans Hofmann’s teachings about spatio-temporal depth in painting, leads to this conclusion:

The working out of Hofmann-derived ideas comprises a major trajectory within Jacobs’ development, and while I have focused on it exclusively in order to examine the precise nature of the filmmaker’s engagement with his mentor, it was a pursuit that coincided with others, including Jacobs’ cultivation of a politically and social relevant experimental cinema. . .

Jacobs has explained: “by the late sixties, I had come to feel that formal development was social development. A formal film experience changed minds operationally and caused them to behave differently in society.” . . . [H]e described [one of his own lectures] as a detailed single-film analysis that would ‘destroy the movie-as-spontaneous-dream delusion forever, and commence a much richer seeing and comprehension for the audience/participants.” . . . This is where the “formal” and the “social” meet for Jacobs. (11)

Late in his career, Jacobs has consummated this formal-is-social mission by producing a digitally looped, throbbing monster of a structuralist protest film, Seeking the Monkey King, which premiered at “Views from the Avant-Garde” at Lincoln Center in 2011, and which is social enough to have been projected in the streets of New York City by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Monkey King is a brutal articulation of the raw power of animation-1 and animation-2, a tremendously brave baring of a heart and mind filled with fear of and rage at the Destiny-machine. (12) The video deploys simple articles found around the house photographed with a high-end consumer-grade digital video camera and subjected to one of the digital animation-2 software algorithms that Jacobs has been exploring for years. The churning, flickering, positive-negative, in-and-out switching loop patterns are directly related to Hans Hofmann’s formal concerns of spatio-temporal tension discussed in technical depth by Windhausen.  Through Jacobs’s evolved skills with Hofmann’s techniques, these diagnostic concerns become penetratingly Rorschach-like, and, with the help of a musical and sound-effects collaboration with composer J. G. Thirlwell, the repetitional pumping action of the animation is able to drill straight into the observer’s mind and brain—the Eisenstein of the Pavlovian era might be envious. The sound track of Monkey King is specifically referential to the crackling, sparking, arcing sounds of an electrical power grid that is in attack mode. This seeming direct-assault on the audience by raw power—reminiscent of Sharits’s Ray Gun Virus (1966)—is occasionally accompanied by Jacobs’s printed text, which absolutely raves at the lethal policies that he perceives at work in the world, especially in his country, policies which he prophesies will quite soon unleash horrific consequences on all of us. Every one of the three main elements of Jacobs’s video—visuals, sound, and text—is completely over-the-top, and together they represent the most alarming and affecting film in recent memory. The almost-direct representation of the animation-1 power grid in Monkey King—which Ken Jacobs knows full well was driving the Blu-Ray technology and the stunningly lush projection the film received at the Walter Reade Theater—plus the pervasive micro- and macro-looping of the animation-2 digital manipulation and the flickering of alternating positive-and-negative image, are, as Malcolm Turvey suggests of Jacobs, revelatory. And these revelations are reminiscent of Girardet’s Release, though more insistent—and thus they contribute to a discourse within new media linked to previous generations of artists and tools, and they also demonstrate a refusal of several generations of utopian filmmakers to let the world of animation-1 become separated from the diagnostics of animation-2.

Fusion Non-diagnostics

While Vertov and other filmmakers of the historical avant-garde such as Murphy/Léger, while Ken Jacobs and some structural filmmakers, and while Girardet and some digital-media artists did recognize the presence of animation-1 in their diagnostics of animation-2, other avant-garde filmmakers did not. Perhaps the greatest and most influential experimental filmmaker of all time, Stan Brakhage, was committed to humanizing the machine in a way that romanticized the machine-human relationship. His accomplishment in doing so is colossal, sublime, and can be life-changing—it still has the power of epiphany for sophisticated film students coming of age in 2013; human cultural life would be diminished without Brakhage’s contribution. However, by the time the structural filmmakers were in full voice, Regina Cornwell was able to say that “Text of Light [1974], with all the encomiums about its being Brakhage’s ‘masterpiece,’ is basically a nineteenth-century work and, in fact, a reactionary one.” (13) I remain grateful for Brakhage’s reactionary masterpiece, just as I am grateful for Rachmaninoff’s Brahms-like Second Symphony, finished in 1907 when the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern was already underway and Charles Ives had already written two symphonies. It is possible that the cinema of the Jacobs, Snow, and Frampton could not have emerged without a Brakhage; after all, via Marie Menken, Brakhage had introduced non-geometrical abstraction, transformed and transcended diegetic illusionism, and brought film in line with what was going on in painting in New York after a significant hiatus. Such feelings of appreciation for Brakhage, however, do not diminish the appropriateness of the specific correctives to romanticism pursued by Schoenberg and Ives, by the structural filmmakers, and by Cornwell’s explication of Michael Snow’s critical analysis of Brakhage.

Cornwell introduces her chapter, “De-Romanticizing Art and Artist: La Région Centrale,” with this quotation from Snow:

As a move from ßà[aka Back and Forth, 1969] I decided to extend the machine aspect of film so that there might be a more objective feeling, you wouldn’t be thinking of someone’s expressive handling of the thing but perhaps how and why the whole thing got set in motion, what’s behind it. In both ßà and La Région Centrale once it is set up it keeps on going. [my emphasis].

Wavelength, ßà, and La Région Centrale are, implicitly and explicitly, explorations of the Destiny-machine that “once it is set up . . . keeps on going.” They encourage thinking about “how and why the whole thing [—including explicitly the Région Centrale film machine, and implicitly the machine of film in general, and by ‘exten{sion of} the machine aspect of film,’ machines in general—]got set in motion, what’s behind it.” What’s behind it implicitly includes the “few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight,” conjured by Henry Adams in his discussion of the culture of the dynamo in his The Education of Henry Adams as far back as 1907. Adams feared and respected the coming of the dynamo, but preferentially romanticized the cult of the Virgin that produced Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; Cornwell, to the contrary, insists that “Brakhage’s ‘Cathedral of Light” no longer accommodates the demands of a conscious, critical, scrutinizing art perceiver. [His ‘Cathedral’] presents only an ‘escape’ to the seductive trap of the artist’s hermetically sealed romantic vision.” (14)

This judgment about a generational shift in experimental film between romantic maximalism and structural minimalism is, like the education of Henry Adams, old news now, but it remains a backdrop for a generation of digital-era filmmakers who are facing a new set of gifts from the dynamo that are within the concerns but well beyond the imagination of a Henry Adams, and were, and are, within the visual range of the structural filmmakers of the 1970s and today. This renewed emphasis on a particular way of de-romanticizing the art of cinema zooms both forward into and backward out of Scott MacDonald’s framing of the “garden in the machine;” the emphasis by some filmmakers as much on the machine as on the garden reveals the dynamo in the garden, and the garden in the Destiny-machine. (15)

One of the most charming evocations of the machine-in-the-garden imagery is Vadi-Samvadi (1976-81) by Argentine experimental filmmaker, Claudio Caldini. It is quite explicit, introducing a young man at a desk that is full of flowers and plants, a little desk garden, in the middle of which, and right in front of the young man, is a tiny functional steam engine about eight inches square.



After the young man has unveiled this machine in the (desk) garden, he lights its boiler flame with a wooden match, stares directly into the sun shining through the window, then puts on his glasses and smiles at the machine that is heating up and beginning to produce steam and to move. As the engine moves, the film cuts to close-ups of single plants and blossoms that are made to vibrate and flicker “electrically” via single-frame-editing at near-fusion rate. Shots of the steam engine from desk-level elevation show the main wheel turning fast and its attached piston rod moving up and down and its piston cylinder oscillating quickly back and forth, all surrounded by wisps of steam. The intercutting between machine and flickering flower blossoms leaves no doubt that this is, metaphorically, a little archaistic animation machine, and since it is set in a garden and adjusted to the sun, it is a ritual recognition of the higher sources of animation that cause film to live and give filmmakers like Caldini and Brakhage aesthetic life. Frampton’s frequent observation that film is a nineteenth-century machine is made graphic by Caldini, but with no trace in Caldini of any Framptonian irony about Brakhage-like, nineteenth-century aesthetic values. Caldini is immersed in his own version of Brakhage-like aesthetics; nonetheless, the things that do separate Caldini’s aesthetic values from Brakhage’s are significant: Caldini massively adopts and adapts structuralistic flicker; and he expresses gratitude for, rather than Brakhage’s heroic overcoming of, the machine. In fact, he could be said to be expressing gratitude for, or at least registering joy of, the machine’s gift of flicker, the basic intervallic elements of animation that make his flowers throb.

In the diagnostics of animation, Caldini includes animation-1 in his idea of animation-2, and thus he counts as one who remains interested in the machine as a higher source of power after the onset of fusion, though he doesn’t take his work very far into those diagnostics. He is content to—literally—whip the handkerchief off the steam-animation device like a modern Thomas Savery or Georges Méliés, and to show its power to move water particles, machine parts, and imagery. This is a step beyond Brakhage toward animation-1/animation-2 diagnostics, but it remains, along with most of Caldini’s other beautiful work, aesthetically committed to Brakhage’s lyricism that is under Cornwell’s critique here.

Ballet Mécanique to Cinema Mécanique

Cornwell characterizes Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale project as “de-humanized.” The film is shot not by humans but by a machine; though Snow sketched the machine, it had to be designed and built by an engineer.





It approximates the robotics of big science and industry—of Mars exploration, auto assembly, medical robot surgery, and quantum-particle research. In operation, the machine at the center of La Région Centrale moved the camera in every possible manner except tracking and dollying. It is, as Bill Simon describes it, a versatile crane without tracks or wheels:

Unique features of the camera apparatus derive from the complex multi-jointed “crane” structure to which the camera is attached and the possibilities of multiple camera movements which this “arm” provides. The arm is attached to a vertical base fixed to the ground of the landscape which is to be photographed. Importantly, because the base is in a fixed position, certain modes of camera movement which have been historically very important, such as tracking and dollying movements and movements with the camera mounted on a moving vehicle (e.g., car, train), are automatically eliminated. (16)

The motion of the crane and camera were scored by Snow and controlled by remote-control sonic signals of variable frequency. (17) The camera not only responded to systematic commands from the working world of the physical sciences, but it was made to perform as many vectors as possible within the centered spherical space and available time, as in a full set of permutations in a lab setup, or a set of hand-entered operations crunched by a calculating machine. The film’s title itself came from a physics text found by Snow’s wife, Joyce Wieland, in a Quebec City bookstore.

Snow had been finding ways for some time to use film to rebalance human perception and general human outlook within wider frameworks, and thus de-romanticize and dehumanize it. His first film was a traditional animation titled A to Z (1956) in which, according to Snow’s blurb in the Filmmakers Coop catalogue, “two chairs fuck.” Cornwell describes his rebalancing of human perception and conceptualization in terms of equalization:

The zoom in Wavelength tends to dehierarchize the film’s events. Although the narrative is there to be read, the time, light events and the yellow chair have the same value as the human events. In ßà all events reiterate the basic panning gesture and are objectifications of it. Also, the mise-en-scéne of Wavelength and the panning of ßà tend to equalize the contents and space of the frame. In La Région Centrale the constant movement of the camera dehierarchizes the contents of the frame. The relentless movement pulls away from a centre of attention, forcing the viewer to scan the frame. [emphasis added] (18)

Simon also says of La Région Centrale, that the fact that

the “camera-eye,” as Snow likes to refer to it, is located at the center of a space, all of which is given the same visual attention, creates a very special situation in terms of the representation of that space.

. . .

[T]he space of the film is best understood as a sphere or perhaps a dome with the flat land mass on which the camera is mounted as the floor and the total 360˚ surrounding space projecting out to the horizon and upwards to the sky as the dome. Most importantly, all parts of this dome are equally treated, the entire 360˚ horizon line as well as the land and sky. Because of the total circularity in the treatment of the space, certain distinctions inherent in conventional camera vantage points such as “in front of” or “behind” are totally obliterated. (19)

What Cornwell refers to as “dehierarchizing” and “pulling away from the center of attention” as a defining feature of Snow’s most epic and influential films, such as Wavelength, ßà, and Région Centrale, and what Simon refers to as giving “the same visual attention” and “equal treatment” to all points of space in Région Centrale, are a concerted de-anthropization of cinema. Simon, in summary, says that “by the final section [of La Région Centrale], the spectator’s ability to imagine himself or herself standing on the land mass and looking out at the landscape has been destroyed.” (20)

In addition to taking great trouble to build, mount, and run a highly mechanical filming machine, a reflexive filmmaker such as Snow originally felt the need to reference the human labour and creative process:

In September of 1970 Snow returned to the site by helicopter with [the machine’s engineer,] Abeloos, Wieland and an assistant, assembled the machinery and electronic remote-control equipment, mounted the camera and remained for five days in the cold of the mountain top. In all, approximately six hours of film were shot, parts of which were second takes. Included in this six hours is a half-hour segment documenting the activity of the crew as they installed the machinery along with a demonstration of the movements of camera and machine. Snow later decided to omit this half-hour “human” segment because he felt that it totally altered his original idea. Indeed it not only alters it but, in fact negates it. (21)

His “original idea” was dehumanization. So, in addition to taking great trouble to build, mount, and run a robotic filming machine, Snow finally even extracted the reflexive human element of the robot’s construction, programming, and installation from the viewers’ experience as well.

Snow also worked just as hard to avoid any evidence of human life in the found landscape that La Région Centrale surveys.

After innumerable trips into the wilds of Quebec, Snow was still unable to find the location he wanted. Paradoxically, he sought an area totally untouched by man and man-made devices—not even a telephone pole—yet a place which would be easily accessible by car for hauling the equipment and crew. After resorting to maps and aerial photographs, Snow finally discovered the place he was looking for by helicopter—a mountain top with stones, boulders, surrounding hills and mountains, overlooking a lake—about one hundred miles north of Sept-Iles in Quebec. Since the place had no name, Snow considered using another nonverbal title like ßà. It was Joyce Wieland who saw the words “La Région Centrale” in a physics text in a Quebec City bookstore and suggested it to Snow as a possible title. (22) 

Erneute sachlichkeit

Why would Snow consider it so important to remove humanity from this film, and to ignore or run roughshod over the humanity encountered by the machinery of films set up with mechanical insouciance, like Wavelength and ßà? One of his own answers to those questions suggests the importance of Wieland’s physics textbook: “I decided to extend the machine aspect of film so that there might be a more objective feeling.” And Cornwell says that “[t]hree years earlier [than this] Snow had remarked that he thought ßà was more objective than Wavelength.” (23) Objectivity, rather than subjective expression, is more a priority of science than art, more the concern of a Heisenberg than a Brakhage. Snow is struggling, like Heisenberg, to get himself and other observers out of the picture in order to see what the picture looks like without him and them. Both Heisenberg and Snow are de-humanizing the conditions of observation, both are aware and trying to account for the limits of such de-humanization and thus are intensely aware that humans remain implicated in objectively observed phenomena.

Machines are increasingly even more implicated than mere humans. Heisenberg was immersed extensively in the machines of microscopic and macroscopic observation in quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, ferromagnetism, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles. He helped build the first West German nuclear reactor. Snow, while he was attempting to empty human elements from the photographing and the photographed in La Région Centrale, depended on the humanly created machinery of a master engineer, as well as on automobiles, helicopters, and electronic signaling and control devices. He brought in an arsenal of almost military-like apparatuses to capture his hard-sought untouched landscape. There seems to be nothing like purity in Snow’s notion of de-humanization.

Of course, as Cornwell explains, the de-humanization is ultimately meant for a human experience, but an experience that is less and less grounded in anthropocentric assumptions and habits. Snow’s machine is designed to take the human body out of the shooting so the human viewer can see what’s out there when we “aren’t there.” He has constructed the viewing situation as a triangulation of equal elements: machine, nature, human spectator. Snow says that “[i]n complete opposition to what most films convey this film will not present only human drama but mechanical and natural drama as well.” (24) It is another of Snow’s odd ways of abstracting, in this case removing or altering gravity, the haptic, and other assumed and habitual elements of cinematic spectatorship. Since the human element remains part of Snow’s triad of objectivity, perhaps we could think of the term “dehumanize” less as an absolute removal of the human, which Snow has never desired, and more a reduction of the human element—“dehumanize” meaning to reduce humanization, like “decelerate” meaning to reduce, not eliminate, speed.

The film’s title, “the central region,” does indeed recognize the anthropocentric final cause of the project, which must remain human spectatorship, but it also emphasizes each of the other elements of the triangulation—the central region of the mountaintop at the center of the unsullied landscape, the far horizon, and the celestial dome; and the central region of the robotic pan-cinematographic machine. The “X”s that divide the sections of the film provide a respite for the human viewer subjected to such de-humanized cinematography, and they do graphically suggest centering, as if X marks “the spot:”

Speaking of the purpose of the X Snow remarks, “And in a way it’s a title, a reminder of the central region—the whole thing is about being in the middle of this—the camera and the spectator.” (25)


If Snow had given the film a graphic title, like Back and Forth’s ßà, which he initially contemplated, it might have emphasized La Région Centrale’s centering by reversing Back and Forth’s two arrows like this, à ß, and pushing them together to their dimensionless meeting point, producing the X that marks the palimpsestic trinity of his spot, —X—.

Motives and Mission—Intimations of an Animation-3

Michael Snow reported that, after setting up the mechanical apparatus of La Région Centrale, “after that we are gone and the remaining [experience] is entirely made by the machine (you?). There are no other people but you (the machinery?) and the extraordinary wilderness. Alone. Like a lot of other humans I feel horror at the thought of the humanizing of the entire planet.” (26)

Ortega Y Gasset pointed out in 1948 that “[art in the new style] is inhuman not only because it contains no things human, but also because it is an explicit act of dehumanization. . .. The question is not to paint something altogether different from a man, a house, a mountain, but to paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible. . . For the modern artist, aesthetic pleasure derives from such a triumph over human matter.” (27) Ortega analyzes many aspects of dehumanization, including a will to style, which would, of course, be relevant to the structural filmmakers such as Snow. Ortega also suggests a number of motives for dehumanization, including the modern artist’s assessment that all romantic realism is melodrama and thus subject to easy and automatic human emotional response, and that clarity requires objectivity and distance from such emotion:

The works of art that the nineteenth century favoured invariably contain a core of “lived” reality which furnishes the substance, as it were, of the aesthetic body. With this material the aesthetic process works, and its working consists in endowing the human nucleus with glamour and dignity. To the majority of people this is the most natural and the only possible setup of a work of art. . . . But the fact is that our young artists, with no less conviction, maintain the opposite. . . . Our firmest convictions are apt to be the most suspect, they mark our limits and our bonds. . .When the horizon stiffens it is because it has become fossilized and we are growing old. (28)

Bill Simon’s analysis of Snow’s La Région Centrale provides instances of the artistic motives behind dehumanization analyzed by Ortega:

The attempt to overcome the restrictions of a fixed [human] viewpoint is a major theme of twentieth century art . . . Film, with its potential to shift the viewpoint towards the depicted space of action through editing and by actually moving the camera with the space, has played a central role in suggesting the possibilities of a shifting [, and thus potentially more objective] viewpoint. [emphasis terms added] (29)

Ortega recognizes other motives, but none more suggestive that the following, which appears near the essay’s conclusion:

All peculiarities of modern art can be summed up in this one feature of its renouncing its importance—a feature which, in its turn, signifies nothing less than that art has changed its position in the hierarchy of human activities and interests. These activities and interests may be represented by a series of concentric circles whose radii measure the dynamic distances from the axis of life where the supreme desires are operating. All human matters—vital and cultural—revolve in their several orbits about the throbbing heart of the system. Art which—like science and politics—used to be very near the axis of enthusiasm, the backbone of our person, has moved toward the outer rings. It has lost none of its attributes, but it has become a minor issue. (30)

As filmmakers such as Jacobs, Snow, and Girardet, among many others, move our fine-art investigations toward science and politics, they confirm Ortega’s observation that art has become a minor issue, and they attempt—with trepidation—to correct for this devolution. Their corrections at the same time reflect a growing sense that, ironically, their essential tools are integral to a Destiny-machine evolving toward a dehumanized, deepeningly automated and capitalized Animation-3, beyond fusion and its illusion of mere motion.


  1. See Malcolm Le Grice’s excellent survey of this period in chapters 8 and 9 of his Abstract Film and Beyond (London, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Studio Vista and MIT Press, 1977).
  2. Federico Windhausen, “Paul Sharits and the Active Spectator,” in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p. 132.
  3. Paul Sharits, untitled notes, Sound Strip/Film Strip folder, Files of Burchfield-Penny Art Centre, Buffalo, New York, n.p., in Windhausen, “Paul Sharits,” p. 132.
  4. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Vintage Books/The Library of America Edition, 1990), p. 353 (orig. publ. Washington: Adams, 1907).
  5. Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (New York: Zone Books, 2008), pp. 335-336.
  6. Malcolm Turvey, “Ken Jacobs: Digital Revelationist,” in October 137, Summer 2011, p. 110; Ken Jacobs quotation from Jacobs, “Three Letters on Cézanne,” in Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, ed. Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 169.
  7. This virtual flattening of the “curtain” again and again against the gallery wall—the real screen of the wall coinciding with the insect screen of the image—may count as an example of Duchamp’s infra-thin.
  8. Definitions taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company, updated in 2009, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971.
  9. “Glossary,” in David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); “Glossary,” in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction 4th Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979).
  10. Solar power remains the higher-source animator, since the sun causes the motion of elements and compounds of the Earth, such as water, allowing the force of gravity to come into play for human deployment.
  11. Federico Windhausen, “Theories of Moving Pictures: Ken Jacobs after Hans Hofmann,” in Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, eds. Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur (New York: Oxford, 2011), pp. 232-244.
  12. “The Destiny-machine” is a modern version of the old idea fate; the Destiny-machine figure is explored extensively in relation to the film career of Fritz Lang in Tom Gunning’s The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI Publishing, 2000).
  13. Regina Cornwell, Snow Seen: The Films and Photographs of Michael Snow (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1980), p. 106.
  14. Cornwell, Snow Seen,” p. 107.
  15. Scott MacDonald, The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). MacDonald is undoubtedly the most prolific critic and one of the most supportive figures of the experimental cinema (including structural, minimal film), publishing perhaps 6,000 pages or more in a scholarly and activist career of some five decades.
  16. Bill Simon, “A Completely Open Space: Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale,” Millennium Film Journal Nos. 4/5, Summer/Fall 1979, p. 96.
  17. In a previous draft of this sentence, I used the term “pre-programmed” instead of “scored.” After perusing that draft, Snow wrote me the following email, which, for both professional and obviously personal reasons, I include in its entirety: Dear Ron, “Animation Diagnostics” is superb, rich. Congratulations. Wow! I have only one cause for concern and its basically my fault not yours (that is, that in previous discussions about LRC I’ve been confusing about this particular detail). Yes, discussion of La Region Centrale unfortunately perpetuates a descriptive confusion that, indeed, is decidedly my fault. The motions of the camera were not “pre-programmed” in a techno mechanical sense. In Montreal we made an attempt at defining instructions to the camera activating machine with sound tapes. A few minutes of such “pre-programming” were made but to make a 3 hour story short, used on-site, they/it didn’t work. I had made, on paper, “scores” of movements that I wanted the camera to do and in shooting I referred to them. Physically, my “instructions” were sent by a buried cable to the “camera activating machine” from a little “valley” just out of sight of the camera. We had made a panel with a set of dials – to start the camera, to control movement to the left or right or vertically and to make the camera zoom. The panning dials were calibrated for speed 1 (slow) to 10 (fast) so Horizontal 1 with Vertical 5 would make a slow circular pan with “spirals”. I hope that your reference to “pre-programming” can be changed. The rest of the discussion of LRC is all relevant, pertinent, marvelous. Looking forward to seeing you and Louisa in Berlin [at the 3rd International Experimental Media Congress at Arsenal in October], Best, Michael
  18. Cornwell, 117.
  19. Simon, 97, 98.
  20. Simon, 100.
  21. Cornwell, 110.
  22. Cornwell, 108-109.
  23. Cornwell, 105.
  24. Cornwell, 119.
  25. Cornwell, 119.
  26. Cornwell, 120
  27. Ortega Y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” in The Dehumanization of Art and other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1956), p. 21.
  28. Ortega, 22-23.
  29. Simon, 97. Simon’s point about Snow’s use of film’s ability to work as a technological shifter could be expanded through comparison with Thierry de Duve’s essay on Snow’s fascination with linguistic shifters, “Michael Snow: The Deictics of Experience, and Beyond,” Parachute 78 (April, May, June 19750, pp 28-41. In discussing Snow’s 1969 work, Authorization, de Duve says: “What is the strategy employed to free the I from the here and the now? Mise-en-abîme and self-referentiality. A loop in time and space [p. 30].”
  30. Ortega, 48.

About The Author

J. Ronald Green is Emeritus Professor of film studies in the Department of History of Art at Ohio State University. His books include Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux and With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Other publications treat media policy, documentary, avant-garde film, video, photography, installation, and digital arts.

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