La Region Centrale (1971, Michael Snow)

I can tell this is a film that should be seen in a theater, no, that needs to be seen in a theater. It has no story, but unlike a Brakhage film which you may want to study at home and watch over and over, this is meant as an experience, more a ride than a movie. So I’ve done the movie great harm by watching it on my laptop, a reproduction of a reproduction of a TV screening, all low resolution with the corner of the image defaced by a station logo. One could already convincingly argue that I haven’t seen La Region Centrale at all, under those conditions – but wait, it gets worse. The experience builds (probably) over its three-hour running time, becomes (probably) more mesmerising and abstract as the third hour wears on. But I kept putting it on after midnight then falling asleep watching it, continuing the next night, as if picking up the story where I’d left off. And wait, there’s more. I thought for sure I could handle the last 45 minutes at a time without falling asleep again (wrong, lasted 35) but I soon got tired of the constant whirring sound effects (conforming to the strict rule that avant-garde films need always have annoying soundtracks) so I muted the movie and put on the latest Mogwai album instead.

All these crimes I committed against the movie, but I still liked it quite a lot, certainly better than Wavelength. Most of the Michael Snow movies I’ve been able to see have been interesting, but also more fun than tedious (again, all but Wavelength) which is exceptional in the avant-garde scene.

The writeup at Shooting Down Pictures is better than anything I could come up with:

Arguably the first feature filmed by a robot, Michael Snow’s three hour exploration of the possibilities of camera movement over a barren Arctic landscape suggests many things: sci-fi space probe footage more authentic than George Lucas; a rebuff to the romantic frontier landscapes of Hollywood Westerns; an avant-garde equivalent of an amusement park simulator ride. Lensed by a specially designed rotating camera mount pre-programmed to move with stunning variety, the film begins as a slow, soothing meditation on the otherworldly textures of the Canadian wilderness, but gradually morphs into a dizzying, terrifying freakout, a relentlessly spinning gaze that pummels the equilibrium of the human eye. The film pushes the boundaries not only of human sight but of the physical earth, destroying gravity and transforming a lifeless vista into a cosmic force of light and energy. Clinically scientific in its approach yet yielding an organic, even spiritual wonder, La region centrale does not merely vindicate the oft-neglected genre of experimental film, but thrusts itself into the center of cinema at its most vital.

My favorite motion is twenty minutes before the film’s end, the camera rotating while turning, but not in synch with each other, making the landscape look small and spherical but ever-changing.

Michael Snow:

The film will become a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness. Eventually the effect of the mechanized movement will be what I imagine the first rigorous filming of the moon surface. But this will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was. I want to convey a feeling of absolute aloneness, a kind of Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through. … It will preserve what will increasingly become an extreme rarity: wilderness. Perhaps aloneness will also become a rarity. At any rate the film will create a very special state of mind, and while I believe that it will have no precedent I also believe it will be possible for it to have a large audience.