*Corpus Callosum (2002)

2002-08-28 (Limited release)

Since the late 1960s, Canadian avant-garde writer, painter, musician, and filmmaker Michael Snow has explored the constraints and available manipulations of space and time. With *Corpus Callosum, Snow has made a rather large, sometimes unwieldy, but surprisingly fun (if one can ever refer to structuralists as fun-lovers, Snow must be the first cited) experimental joke about how our everyday environments affect us. In a world less real than virtual, *Corpus Callosum speaks of time and space as human constructs and thus as objects to be altered.

*Corpus Callosum is a postmodern mishmash of video effects, animation, and elusive characters who may be played by two, three, even five different actors. At one point, the celluloid itself appears to twist in the middle, then emerges upside-down and on the other side. Speaking to Snow’s perpetual concerns of the inherent malleability of space and time, this image contradicts audiences’ perceptions of what film should be: narrative, linear, and character-driven.

Snow’s interests lie in human-made objects and spaces that take on computer-generated lives of their own. Offices and homes, familiar environments of the contemporary age, are here anything but typical. The office, for example, is populated by bored, overworked, and oversexed automatons, whose daily routines include large groups of people suddenly sticking together from enormous electric shocks, men literally tying each other into knots of erotic fixation, and godlike computer nerds whose monitor tampering results in grandiose color and light changes for the entire space. It’s like Office Space in the fourth dimension.

In a series of 360-degree pans across this environment, Snow shows us how this setting affects understandings of race, gender, and sexuality. Two men, one white and one black, shake hands as though closing a deal. As their hands meet, the “blackness” of one man drains into the body of the other, until what once was white now is black, and vice versa. A man and woman, attempting to fit through a door marked with bathroom-type male/female symbols, push and pull each other until they become a 3D rectangle of mixed-up gender. The rectangle then moves through the office by rocking from corner to corner; no one in the film pays much attention. Why doesn’t it register as shocking? Maybe because once you, like the dotcom-ish workers in the film, have seen advances like virtual reality, and so nothing is shocking anymore. Like space, like time, black and white, or male and female, become loosely defined once the malleability of cyberspace enters the picture.

Similarly, domestic life in *Corpus Callosum is irrevocably altered by innovations. The home is filled with televisions, pizzas, and empty glasses. Intense oranges and pinks make the living room seem alive and breathing. The walls are decorated with paintings, an eye-test chart, a crutch, and a skeleton. A mirror reflecting what appears to be Snow and his film crew forms the focal point, reminding us that this film has an author, just as our own environments have human creators. In one 12-minute sequence, objects on the walls begin exploding, one at a time, into beautiful pixel starbursts. Snow, the reflected “god” (for he is creator of this space and the characters who dwell within) appears here to be an Old Testament type: he can give and he can take away.

The home’s inhabitants — a father, a mother, and a boy (who may be the only character consistently played by the same actor) — regard these incursions as confusing but not altogether out of the ordinary. They sit back and continue watching television as their surroundings change behind them. Ironically, the one environment that remains the same is the perfectly blue sky with cotton candy clouds shown on the television screen; the flatness of virtual life implies safety from change, indeed, but also boredom and immobility. Where there is no variation, there can be no playfulness and discovery. Taken one step further, Snow could well be implying that narrative filmmaking has become flat and boring and that in order to remain fresh, filmmakers, like scientists, must seek out brand new territories freed from normal restraints of space, time, and story.

While it may seem like a cop-out to call *Corpus Callosum an “experience,” that’s really what it is. With Snow’s almost cute static-filled, electronic soundtrack of modem beeps, theremin wails, clicks, clacks, and high-pitched shrieks, the film washes over like a digital information wave. This could be what it would be like to have your brain connected to the internet, to read a computer’s “thoughts.”

*Corpus Callosum isn’t for everyone. Snow’s manipulations of space and time, while rewarding, can certainly grate on one’s nerves. Snow even pokes fun at the difficulty of his own work by rolling the credits halfway through the film; one can easily imagine him sitting behind a projector, gleefully watching confused and frustrated audience members glaring at their watches and sighing in resignation. But viewed with an open mind, *Corpus Callosum offers meditations on environment, -isms, information transfer, and filmmaking itself.

Granted, these meditations can be obtuse, even illegible. Snow appears sometimes to be so enraptured with his own digital capabilities that he forgets to offer fully formed ideas. In their place, however, he offers fully formed images that, while funny, disconcerting, or even disturbing, have a definite, lasting impact. That’s more than can be said for most movies. Snow has made his “experimental” film a wilder and more visually stimulating and imaginative ride than any summer blockbuster. Hollywood and the avant-garde elite alike might start paying attention. Snow’s work could well become the basis for both entertainment and art in a world that appears increasingly based in science fiction rather than tradition.