Reading in the Dark

Michael Snow's So Is This

Warning: This film may be especially unsatisfying for those who dislike having others read over their shoulders

1So Is This (1982) is a 43-minute silent film composed entirely of type-set words that appear on the screen one at a time, gradually forming sentences and paragraphs as the viewer pieces the individual frames together. This strange process of reading words on moving celluloid frames is distinct from the self-regulated steady reading of words on the page and, in most cases, words on electronic screens. So Is This shows how film as a critical practice can engage with the writing that surrounds it. Film reviews, film theory, and a range of other texts interact with the ideas and methods of filmmaking. In So Is This, Michael Snow, who is most well known for films such as Wavelength (1967) and La Region Centrale (1971), uses the ‘material’ of film critics – the written word – and the moving image, to raise questions about the specific practices of looking and reading.

2This exploration of film and writing has been explored in a wealth of conceptual films from the 1960s and 1970s. Lis Rhodes’ Light Reading (1978) uses collage and text, and is possibly referred to in So Is This, which states “this is light reading”, a pun on the two meanings of ‘light’ – as physical brightness, or shallowness (a light read). Mike Dunford’s Tautology (1973) employs single words contrasted with images. Paul Sharits’ Word Movie (1972) explores the relationship between spoken language via the soundtrack and written text on the screen, and comes closest to So Is This in its focus on text as imagery. So Is This stands out among these explorations because of its singular and sustained focus. Snow’s film is composed entirely of text without the inclusion of any pictorial imagery and, unlike Sharits’ film, doesn’t rely on sound.

On film and writing/About film and writing

3To discuss the relationship between film and the critical writing which surrounds it, it is useful to consider the distinction Meaghan Morris makes between texts which write ‘on’ a topic and texts which write ‘about’ a topic (151). Her discussion revolves around Roland Barthes’ On Photography and its critical reception and, not coincidentally, is placed between two examples of her own adroit and responsive style of art criticism The essays I am referring to are ‘Two Types of Photography Criticism Located in Relation to Lynn Silverman’s Series’ and ‘Intrigue’ in The Pirate’s Fiancee: Feminism, reading, postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988, 137-150 and 155-170. . The distinction Morris makes between texts which write on and texts which write about – a choice, she suggests, “made for reasons as well as rhythms” (151) – may seem trivial, but it is a useful place to start thinking about methodological and stylistic tendencies in film criticism.

4Morris reminds us of the literal meaning of ‘on’ – one writes or scribbles on a surface (151). Film criticism typically contains both Abouts and Ons, with a stronger dose of the former. A writing practice based on ‘abouts’ is one which deciphers texts, ‘cuts’ into them. “Clairvoyant reading tears through” (152), as Morris describes, in order to interpret. The term ‘clairvoyant’ is used to describe a practice which penetrates the surface of a text to find meaning. When Morris reminds her reader that “Ons . . . are the smooth swirls which are not straight lines which bind the pieces [of ideas] together” (151), she gives a warning about the critical ellipses that can occur when a reading practice emphasises the Abouts at the expense of the Ons. The vagueness of ‘smooth swirls’ and ‘straight lines’ is made less opaque when reading Morris’ own particularly likable ‘patterns’, but another way of thinking about the difference between writing on and writing about, is to think about writing on as a method of writing with.

5Snow, like Morris, pays attention to the small words which cradle the meaning of more complex sentences. The individual words that make up the frames of So Is This are all set to the same margins. This results in the small words taking up a larger portion of the screen, while the longer ones are shrunk to fit the margins. As the title indicates, this process inevitably places more emphasis on the small words. The word which is emphasised the most is ‘this’, which Snow describes as “the most present tense word there is” (‘Comments’ 24).

Light Reading

6The words of So Is This are typeset in Helvetica font – a standard font heavily utilised during the seventies and eightiesFor a discussion on the history of Helvetica see http://www.ms-studio.com/articles.html . The letters maintain the characteristic imperfections of manual typesetting. They are sometimes cracked, or slightly fraying at the edges. Similarly, Snow uses out-of-date colour film stock to make this ‘black and white’ film, which one soon realises is not black and white, but a range of dark and light colours. Snow continually reminds his viewers that although they are ‘reading’ words, the words are created by light, creating a practice of ‘light reading’. “[I]n this film writing is lighting” So Is This cheekily proclaims. To further emphasise that we are viewing a film, Hillier notes that, “Snow leaves in the end-of-roll flaring – normally simply junked as unusable – during which ‘image’ (here, written text) is progressively unable to be registered” (85). Some words have a flicker effect, and at times the ‘white’ text bleeds into a yellow tone, while the ‘black’ background moves toward a dark green. Although minimal in its use of ‘imagery’, So Is This maintains a particular beauty in the simplicity of shapes and colours and the unpredictable nature of out-of-date film.

7The duration of each word on the screen varies greatly, as does the darkness in the pauses between words. This rhythmic pacing of words and darkness is amusing and at times infuriating. Unlike other textual forms, where you can scan through sentences and paragraphs to make meaning, So Is This allows you to read one word at a time, at a pace controlled by the filmmaker. These nuances of timing create a ‘tone’ of address – Snow acknowledges that at times he structures the rhythm to make it conversational (‘Comments’ 28) – while also highlighting the ability of the film medium to structure time.

8This supervised reading in which the audience engages is frustrating – some words are held on the screen for nearly a minute, causing all kinds of bodily aches and irritations – and also very entertaining, although not in the sense that the film promises when it claims that “[i]t's going to get into some real human stuff that will make you laugh and cry and change society”. When watching the film I am reminded of being read aloud to by primary-school teachers, who would hold the book with the text facing the class, allowing students to follow the words while she or he read aloud. The sensation of staring at the teacher’s hands, willing them to turn the page a little faster, resurfaces during So Is This. The film coyly reminds us that;

Everybody of course is equal and capable of reading at the same speed. But really some prefer it slow and some prefer it fast and you can't please everybody.

9So Is This refers to itself as both “script” and “score”. This musical analogy is important, considering Snow’s career as a jazz musician. So Is This is not a film about sound, yet it shares the concerns of rhythm, pace and ‘tone’ that are explored in his musical works. Jim Hillier’s connection between Snow’s description of the concerns of Rameau’s Nephew and the explorations he makes in So Is This, carefully highlights this point. Snow explains;

To use spoken language to any deeper effect in film, I think one ought to be involved in provoking differences of hearing and listening counterpointed with those of seeing, watching, looking and making possible raw or concrete understandings. Meaning is a constituent not only of the words used but, even more than in real speech, of qualities possible only with film sound: a conscious use of the differences between actual speech and recorded speech (Snow in Hillier 80).

Communal reading

10In a discussion of Snow’s film works, Thierry de Duve uses the word ‘hostage’ to describe the process of being ‘forced’ to literally ‘read’ an entire film (23). Although joking, de Duve hits on a salient point about the type of reading practice that Snow’s film demands you undertake. It is impossible to skim through the text of So Is This, or to read ahead; a more dedicated and active reader is required. To watch So Is This requires a level of involvement that films - even most experimental films – don’t typically demand. Towards the beginning of the film So Is This informs the audience that it “will consist of single words presented one after another to construct sentences and hopefully (this is where you come in) to convey meanings”. The construction of sentences, into paragraphs, a word at a time, means that the film slyly entices reflection and deliberation, through the necessity of holding onto the previous words, in order to understand the meaning Snow is conveying with subsequent words.

11This enduring involvement creates a closeness/intimacy with the text. In an interview with Snow, Mike Hoolboom describes So Is This as having a “friendly, warm feeling” (18). This is produced partly by the rhythm and tone of the words but also because the film doesn’t fail to remind its viewers that language is a relationship between people. The sociality of language – written and spoken – is referenced in So Is This when the film flippantly consoles its viewers for watching a film composed solely of text;

But look at the bright side of it: Sharing! When was the last time you and your neighbour read together? This is communal reading, it's Group Lit! We could even read aloud but let's not.

Is there anybody reading this right now?

12It is important to place So Is This in the context of the reception of some of Snow’s earlier films. Presents (1981) was critiqued for its representation of the female body, and its conventional approach to women generally. Produced and received in a period of criticism when film theorists were heavily quoting Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, Presents was not warmly welcomed (Testa 29). I find this particular moment of Snow’s reception intriguing for two reasons. Firstly, it is extremely unusual for experimental, and especially Structuralist film-makers, to be held accountable for the social implications of their work. For a discussion of Presents, identification and female spectatorship, see Teresa de Lauretis ‘Snow on the Oedipal Stage’, Alice Doesn’t Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 70-83.

13Secondly, Snow responds to the criticism in his typically humorous manner, by making a film containing nothing but words, which could be read as a direct response to the practices of reading films into theory. When So Is This muses, “a good thing about reading words like this and not hearing a voice is that you can't accuse it of being male or female”, the film responds to the disapproval aimed at Presents.

14So Is This also responds to the censoring of Snow’s earlier film Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot, (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974). Rameau’s Nephew, a four-and-a-half hour film which contains graphic sexual imagery, was censored by The Ontario Board of Censors. In a hilarious ‘paragraph’ of So Is This, Snow inserts single-frame – and hence subliminal – ‘offensive’ words amongst the slower paced text;

Since this film was tits originally composed ass The Ontario Board of Censors has started to inspect so-called Experimental Films eg This. It's difficult to cock understand why but it seems as if their purpose is to protect you from this. To protect you from people like cunt the author discussing their sexual lives or fantasies on this screen.

15So Is This goes as far as to directly address the then-Ontario film censor, Mary Brown, who banned Rameau’s Nephew, with a cheery ‘Hi Mary’. These jibes at the practice of film censorship work to highlight the difference between reading a word and seeing a picture. Although the film mocks ideas about semiotics and film, it also, as Hillier argues, engages with semiological concepts much less opaquely than many theorists describe them in books (85).

16A whole discussion about critical writing practices seems to vibrate within the humorous and ‘light’ text of So Is This. It could be read as a film on film criticism, or at least a response to the methods of film writing, but it is about a lot of other things as well. Scott MacDonald writes that So Is This “turns film onto language in the way that language is normally turned loose on film (20 ‘Interview’). This is certainly true in the sense that language is forced to succumb to the limitations of the celluloid frame, just as the filmic image is typically paraphrased into linguistic descriptions.