Presents (1981, Michael Snow)

At first I read the title like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” but now I think it’s more like Christmas presents. PREH-sents. We’ll never know for sure.

A line sloooowly twists itself into an image of a room with a naked woman on a bed, slooowly twists itself back into a line. The soundtrack is a terrible drone noise and I’m getting worried, watching the time pass on the DVD player face and asking myself whether Mr. Snow would approve if I watched his movie on fast-forward, or at least played some nice music and silenced his drone noise.

Then I was thinking that Snow probably wouldn’t approve of my watching “Presents” at home on a TV with afternoon light from the windows glaring off the screen in the first place. So I’m better off not worrying about it.


Suddenly the lines stop mutating into boxes and I cry out loud, “The camera moved! I am in heaven!” but it turns out the camera did not move. The whole set moved on a truck and hydraulic lifts while the camera stayed still. The naked woman gets up and puts on a robe, answers the door and lets in some guy. They look everywhere for something, while a record plays (and scratches and skips because the set keeps moving). Finally she finds whatever they were looking for, and the camera rolls up onto the set housed in some unseen destruction vehicle with a plexiglass front (you can see reflections which I’m pretty sure were not part of my TV glare) and clumsily mangles the set. Finally drives through the back wall, which falls down to reveal sky…

Drum hit!
camera pans down a waterfall
Drum hit!
we are creeping through the underbrush
Drum hit!
camera follows a line of buildings sideways
Drum hit!
I fall asleep.

A few days later I watched a bunch more avant-garde films (shorter than this one) and started P. Adams Sitney’s avant-garde book, then returned to this, beginning when the wall falls and the montage part begins. I fell asleep again! Seen most of it by now, and I get the point, so I am quitting.

The short shots in the montage section continue, camera always panning (note: camera mostly pans, not moves, but there’s clearly some movement in there), one shot cuts into the next with a drum hit, sometimes matching the same motion as the previous shot, sometimes changing direction, but always in motion, imitating the gaze of the human eye, oooh. After an hour and thousands of pans, the last cut is to a pink screen that fades to red then black.

A film camera attacks and destroys a TV set:

Don’t have it with me, but in the Sitney book the author says he uses the term “avant-garde” instead of “experimental”, because experimental implies that the artist is still messing around with his technique and doesn’t intend his film as a finished, planned piece. Can’t say that’s true of Presents, which was clearly planned, but it does feel experimental to me in that it’s an “investigation” of camera/eye movement which is actually interesting but I’ve found hard to watch. Snow bemoans that people’s attention spans for this kind of film aren’t what they used to be (hence his time-compressed reissue of Wavelength) and I guess I’m not helping matters by saying I thought this was too long.

Snow says he used a “Quantel analog effect” to stretch and squeeze the image in the first ten minutes.

Distributor calls it “an investigation into representation, process and material and the nature of camera movement.”

P. Monk:

The apparent vertical scratch in celluloid that opens Presents literally opens into a film within the film. When its figure awakens into a woman in a ‘real’ unreal set, the slapstick satire of structural film begins. It is not the camera that moves, but the whole set, in this first of three material ‘investigations’ of camera movement. In the second, the camera literally invades the set; a plexiglass sheet in front of the dolly crushes everything in its sight as it zooms through space. Finally, this monster of formalism pushes through the wall of the set and the film cuts to a series of rapidly edited shots as the camera zigzags over lines of force and moving fields of vision in an approximation of the eye in nature. Snow pushes us into acceptance of present moments of vision, but the single drum beat that coincides with each edit in this elegaic section announces each moment of life’s irreversible disappearance.

S. Liebman:

A major work, even when measured by the standards of Snow’s most impressive achievements. The title is a complex, provocatively ambiguous pun. The first section is a play based on the slipping and colliding senses of the word ‘presents,’ its homonyms, synonyms, and related concepts …. In the last section, assisted by the drum beat accenting each cut, the editing insists on the separateness of each shot and by doing so it constructs a vast inventory of different things and events. This extraordinary concluding montage sequence poses the most concerted and comprehensive challenge to the discourse of presen(ts)(ce) mounted by the film.

M. Snow in a 2002 interview:

Presents has something like three different modes in it. There is pushing and stretching, the tracking of the set, which because of convention you think of as camera movement, but you can see that the set is moving, then there is the smashing up of the set, followed by almost an hour of hand held pans which are from all over the world. Each one the pans is a different reaction to the scene with the camera. So that if the camera was moving in one way you might follow it or if the shape was round you would shoot it in a round way. One of the things I wanted to do was to cut each pan so that there would be no continuity from shot to shot, so they were isolated in time and space as these little instants taken from life. Pans are obviously much different from dollies or tracks. They are a glance. And they also reinforce a certain ephemerality, so there is a sadder aspect to the glance. It is recorded but then it is gone and then there’s another glance and it is gone. So that part of Presents is a particular thing that I have not done that much, a montage of things that have a tremendous variety, not in terms of the world itself but in terms of what you can gather from the world.

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