Le Cinéma Selections: Review of THE LIVING ROOM by Michael Snow
What does a contemporary avant-garde master have to show us about cinema, artificiality and chaos?
Review by Tober Corrigan — Miniflix Contributor
In this recurring series, we review a film currently playing at Le Cinéma Club, the free short & medium-length curated film site. Then, if relevant, we pair it with a short film currently available in the Miniflix library.
THE LIVING ROOM opens with a video screen — an image full of self-referential meaning. We see streaks of blue video, like when you stare too close into an old tube television. Slowly the camera pans back to a scene fitting this lo-fi throwback to the late 20th century. Bright, harsh colors fill the screen. Familiar emblems of Americana’s past (Coke cans stripped of their branding, partly eaten pizza from a nameless franchise) seem perfectly disheveled on the table. The obligatory pet sits obediently on the floor, except it’s stuffed and a literal shell of its former self. Eventually the camera pulls back long enough to reveal a mirror into a second reality — that of the actual filming.
In this scene alone we are introduced to many of the primary themes and ideas that may be on the mind of one of the most famous short and medium length directors of his time.
Michael Snow has worked for decades across several mediums, but avant-garde enthusiasts and cinephiles alike have taken to his deep and playful reflections in cinema form. If THE LIVING ROOM is any indication of the larger projects behind his oeuvre, it’s that Snow seems intent on simultaneously stretching (sometimes literally) the limits of filmmaking and reinforcing those same constraints. The scene described above isn’t over yet. It eventually pulls back to reveal a completely naked woman (“the mother”) standing behind marked tape, a purely functional piece of the filmmaking process.
And suddenly, a new question enters the mind of the viewer. Are we witnessing a dance between Artificiality and Intentionality?
This conceptual tango is played out over and over again, particularly in moments where we hear looped audio of someone (maybe Snow?) giving out stage directions and telling crew members to enter the “scene” and add or take away objects that make up this bizarro mise-en-scene. We see it in stilted performances from the three actors (mother, father, child), acting like automatons responding to the indiscernible commands of their masters. Their static and lifeless presences start to resemble the stuffed fox in the corner, equally placid, equally pre-determined by outside forces (this is punctuated in an extended freeze frame).
But the Artificiality being exposed here quickly finds its match in the Intentional freedom of Snow’s filmmaking choices. THE LIVING ROOM’s final third largely involves the random movement, appearance, disappearance and the like of all the room’s objects — and eventually the three family members. The characters teleport in and out ex nihilo. Eventually, they are squeezed, become elongated and squished, become as absurd of abstract forms as the phony set upon which the “drama” of the scene plays.
The central tension of LIVING ROOM, ultimately, is the same central tension lying behind all our living rooms, strange neutral spaces where we idly get dressed, watch TV, eat pizza, argue, have sex, or do nothing. Cinema, or more appropriately, watching cinema, is the only way in and the only way out of the absurdity. In Snow’s playful editing, sound mixing and staging, he’s exploring cinema’s unique possibility of portraying infinite possibilities across finite time. In his caricatures, his subjects, and his objects filmed, Snow reminds us that cinema will always be contending with the material world’s inherent limitations.
I can’t think it an accident that the layout feels reminiscent of a stagey TV movie production or a fine art gallery exhibition hall. It’s artificial but in a way now long established by artistic conventions. In the end though, the only image that never goes away, that never moves its position, that never loses its presence, is the mirror in the middle, reflecting back to us the camera’s eye, watching as the world struts and frets its hour upon the stage.
Our Miniflix Companion Piece: A FAMILY PORTRAIT by Joseph Pierce
It’s hard to find a film quite like THE LIVING ROOM, but in the entire Miniflix catalog, the closest companion has to be Joseph Pierce’s acerbic, piercing 2009 animated short A FAMILY PORTRAIT.
One area not discussed in the above review was THE LIVING ROOM’s commentary on the nuclear family and the inherent tension between freedom and boundaries in gender assignments, in familial tensions and in human moods and dispositions.
While for Snow the dysfunctional family (as microcosm for dysfunctional humanity) was subtext, A FAMILY PORTRAIT makes it the central figure. We start in a rather traditional setting of the family portrait. All the conventions are there: the smooth-talking, always upbeat photographer, the prim and proper poses by the family members and the hushed tones between them.
But the film uses its hand-drawn animated palette to quickly subvert the idea of a “normal” family. We see glimpses of the darkness within first from the little girl, how a sharp and nefarious grin turns into something monstrous and otherworldly. When the picture holds, we find that all four family members are not as they first appeared.
The tension behind this “happy family” is further borne out when we discover through inference that the father is having an in-office affair, that boy has deep attachments to his mother and that the little girl is never satisfied with anything.
Eventually we begin to understand that the film’s title holds a subversive double meaning. We’re getting the true portrait or understanding of this family, all the strangeness, pettiness and darkness living beneath, as they are getting their literal portraits taken.
Like THE LIVING ROOM, Pierce chooses to go out with a moment of dark humor and play. The photographer gleefully takes photos of the family as they hit each other with pillows, clearly letting out aggressions they’d been holding for too long. In these extended outbursts, Pierce supposes, we are seeing the family in their truest, or at least most primal, state.
But there’s one final, sadistic twist. The film fades to white as it’s ambiguously uncertain whether the mother has suffocated the father to death. Either way, the photo’s been taken and a portrait of a family has been catalogued.
In strange and diverse ways, these two short films show the freedom of cinema to explore family dynamics in uncomfortable and unexpected ways.
You can watch THE LIVING ROOM until this Friday through Le Cinéma Club.
A FAMILY PORTRAIT is available now to stream at Miniflix.TV.