A short film made by the artists Mircea Cantor and Gabriela Vanga, The Snow and the Man (2005), records a man building a snowman in a secluded Paris street. The ten minute piece might be considered unremarkable, yet the activities of the man observed were quite particular and, for me, compelling. Initially the man (dressed in t-shirt and zipped top, perhaps in his mid-thirties) moves about a parking area, gently rolling handfuls of fresh snow into larger and larger pieces. His actions are careful, tender, and there’s appears to a specific technique to what he is doing. His careful, circular kneading of the powdery snow seems a curiously slow method for gathering masses of snow, but it is assumed that this is a specific way of compacting it for modelling. Being viewed from above like this – the entire film is one shot, taken from an apartment window above him – seems to confer on the man, at least at first, a certain authority. There is a logical pattern to what we are witnessing. Slowly his activities begin to produce forms – he puts two reasonably sized portions of snow on top of each other, then tries to pick them up. They tumble back onto the floor, so he must start to scramble around again, slowly rolling the fragments back into the correct proportioned sphere. The man’s tentative authority gradually begins to crumble – slapstick emerges, a certain irrationality in the man’s movements, as if such traits were hidden from this vantage no longer.
The assumption that the snow figure would be built on the flat, white plain of the car park tarmac is dismissed when the man lifts his small tower of snow and takes it into a small yard, just to the right of the shot. The camera follows him as he places his materials on to a row of rubbish bins lined up against the fence. He piles a third lump of snow onto his tower to form a crude articulation on the square lid of the bin. He then disappears into the building at the rear of the yard, which he will do more than once, often with no obvious purpose – before reemerging with a long tool, perhaps a screwdriver with a wooden handle. He begins to poke it into the smallest globe – the head – perhaps marking out features, or preparing the surface for the addition of other elements. He then inserts the long tool, in an odd gesture of abandonment, near-madness all of a sudden, into the left side of the figure, leaving it protruding upwards like a fascist salute. Other fragments of snow, already stored on the top of another bin, are handled, some rolled in his fingers like cigarettes, others thrown idly of screen – though its certain, just from the look on the man’s face, that there is no person there to be his target. He is in front of a production line and his work is ravaged with interruptions. He might be profoundly bored at his workbench, with that curious proximity of attention that comes from ritualised, mindless activities and a lack of presence of mind – the body working on its own, the attention dipping in and out of sequence with it, like an oar slipping into water.
The man’s behaviour is fascinating. It is as if our voyeurism is provoking his way of being, this way of occupying space, and more specifically time, revealing it as a kind of substrate to solitude. Though he says nothing, it is like the man is talking to himself. He has a strange relationship to time here – he operates after having fallen through its cracks. He keeps looking away from what he is doing, as if watching for something out of shot, wary of being spotted, but in a way that seems at the same time wholly consistent with his automatic actions. He seems to only be operating on half-attention; his actions are of the order of slow reflexes, automatic movements working at the boundary between conscious and involuntary gestures. He glances at his watch, yet with no sense that he is waiting for something, that there is anything ever to be awaited. Perhaps it is more a checking and re-checking that time has come to a halt. The man, barely present, becomes increasingly anonymous in his erratic idiosyncrasies – this is the paradox – somehow dispersing amid his own eccentric traits and the strange, pointless task he is absorbed in. We continue to watch him, as he stabs the figure, rubs snow on it like powder, like a casual surgeon – the unsurprised improviser. He leaves the scene again, like Krapp slinking off to rummage, then returns. He lifts the figure, turns this way and that, before placing it back on top of the bin. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing to do. I suddenly think of his activity as writing, occurring in a region of uncertainty and hesitation, amid a sudden loss of power. What does one do with snow, or with the blank page? He operates outside himself. I also think of the Golem, though, instead of being made from virgin soil and pure spring water, made simply of virgin snow, of whiteness, and think that, at some point, the connection with writing would be confirmed by the placing of a piece of paper, rolled like a cigarette scroll, inside the figure, with the life-giving code printed upon it.