Michael Snow’s 1968 film ‘Back and Forth’ makes a chiral out of limitation and potential, proving with deftness and rigour that the two seemingly disparate concepts can work as one and the same when the conditions are right. The form of his film is simple; a camera moves, fixed, back and forth, panning a run-down and dimly-lit classroom. When it hits the edge of what is presumably a block, there is a tap, or knock, and then the camera moves the other way. This is the film, over and over again, in various permutations for 50 minutes.
The speed at which the camera moves varies, sometimes moving so fast that it becomes a blur, sometimes so slowly that it is minimal. There are large swathes of the film where nothing is happening, other than this movement (and even when something is happening, it is not in clearly defined narrative terms- more like arrangements within the frame, such as a large gathering of people, or someone in the doorway, or window).
It is a highly conceptual piece, and indeed Snowworks under the umbrella of ‘Structural Cinema’. This was a name coined by P. Adams Sitney, in relation to a loosely connected group of avant-garde film artists who worked within a post-Brechtian reduction of the moving image to its most composite elements, in an attempt to force the viewer to question their most basic notions of cinematic perception.
As Snow sketches his film, it operates like the inverse of Brakhage’s process; if Brakhage (who was not part of Structural Cinema) sought to dismantle the logic of human vision by rendering cinematic images from the outside as disparate, abstract compositions, constantly shifting and evolving, then Snow works within restricted forms of those images to indicate their haptic potential if handled in the correct manner. Snow’s method also resembles a filmic equivalent of Boulez’s ‘Structures’, which used integral serialism to explore possibilities for new sounds distinct from more traditional compositional technique.
(indeed, if Brakhage and Snow are aesthetic opposites, then Snow attempts, roughly, a Brakhagian image in the ‘climax’ of this film, and it’s notable how much remains legible even as the image falls apart in front of us)
As the camera continues to move back and forth, back and forth, the viewer cannot help but be drawn in. My assumption that there were two main fields of vision gave way to the realisation that there are four- the camera view from the left, and the camera view from the right, but then the view from right-to-left, and left-to-right, each having distinct visual perspectives and capturing particular specifities of motion. Indeed, it seems to recall Boulez’s wish to find ‘a perfectly new synthesis’, one ‘not corrupted from the very outset by foreign bodies’.
The way the camera pans (as opposed to tracking, or dollying) indicates a swinging motion not dissimilar to digging, and the repetitious rhythm feels a little bit like something is being carved, a new visual revelation with each movement. One morbid reading could be of the camera and cinematography as a pendulum, swinging closer and closer to a destination that is perhaps out of reach.
Any morbidity could be corroborated by the fact that the film does, in some way, function as a horror film; it certainly articulates in a primitive form a number of techniques which would go on to become horror shorthand in the genre’s 70s heyday. The constantly shifting frame from such a rigid and fixed position ‘traps’ the viewer, as if you can look left and right but not move your head. Whilst this sensation does abate, there are moments when a figure will suddenly appear in the hallway, or window, and disrupt the field of vision in an upsetting way.
Whilst these figures are not in themselves scary (as horror-proper images they would be crude and unsophisticated), the horror comes in the discrepancy between how Snow attunes the viewer so acutely to the frames’ tightly controlled minutiae, and the seemingly random way in which he inserts various elements. This, coupled with the sense of being ‘trapped’ is perhaps a distillation of the horror mechanism to its most basic form.
When it is not scary, it is fascinating. In one spellbinding instance, a woman walks slowly across the room while the camera pans seems to divide the woman into different, liminal, captured spaces; first she is on the right of the room, then the camera moves left, then back to right, and she is gone; the camera moves left again, and she is there; the camera moves right, and then left, and she has left through the door. In its way, this sequence tells you all you could ever wish to know about how the movie camera delineates space through visual editing, assigning value to arbitrary potions contained within its field of view (within an unbroken shot, no less) that are tactile, interactive.
Whilst the work sounds repetitious, as if it has repetition baked into its DNA, Snow seems to undermine the concept of repetition within this work. If repetition, as typically defined, is seeing the same thing over and over again, then Snow does not fit that definition. It initially seems to operate as a cinematic epanalepsis, repeating the ‘clauses’ within Snow’s one cinematic sentence by returning to them with each swing of the pendulum-camera.
Snow injects too much variation, via speed and mis-en-scene for us to consider the image as being truly replicated. As the work continues, Snow’s images and allusions take on the quality of layers of butter pressed between pastry being folded and rolled, one layer becoming two, and then four, and so on.
Erin Manning has written in her work ‘Relationscapes’ that ‘stability is vision’s illusion’. What we take to be stillness is actually ‘an appearance of the composed relation across moments’. There is no such thing as stillness, only an illusion which we take for granted. In this same manner, Snow creates a ‘composed relation’ which, whilst having the form of one thing (a fixed series of shots), slowly reveals itself as multitudinous and aesthetically dense. In probing so deeply into his own, self-composed ‘vision’s illusion’, Snow’s effect calls into question the very nature of cinema, of images, of watching. It is a deeply vital work that anyone even halfway interested in cinema-as-art should immerse themselves in.
To have created so much from so little is a form of wizardry.