Thursday, July 19, 2007


It seems to be classics week at the Anthology Film Archives. First Jack Smith's surprisingly drab Flaming Creatures screened on Sunday and now Wednesday evening we get Michael Snow's 1967 film Wavelength. Unlike Smith's work, though, Snow's film generates real excitement. What is exciting about the picture is its willingness to reduce cinema to a purely formal level. The film not only consists of little more than a forty-five minute zoom across a New York loft, but the zoom itself represents the film's sole subject. By making the work's form its content, Snow leaves the viewer with nothing more at the end than the cinematic language he has employed. This collapsing of content into form results in a radically reductive view of the cinematic medium that continues to excite through its sheer audacity.

This is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of the elements that traditionally form a film's substance (plot and character) but that these elements are ultimately dispensable. The film provides a slight, patchwork narrative, whose details are occasionally glimpsed in the course of the zoom, but it is always peripheral to the proceedings. The film's action is not its real content, the action's very superfluity pointing to the work's true subject, its own form, consisting in this case of the inexorable camera movement. In the course of the film a bookcase is moved into the loft, two women enter and drink a cocktail, a man falls to the ground apparently dead (after an off-screen scuffle is heard), a woman places a phone call in response to the body, and a siren suggests the arrival of an ambulance. In addition, we are given brief glimpses of the action in the street through the loft's windows (car traffic, people entering a hardware store). But all this is beside the point. The audience's visual frame of reference (dictated by the ever-moving camera) treats the action with utter indifference. It is as likely to occur on-screen as off. Manny Farber wrote about the film "if a room could speak about itself, this would be the way it would go," but the camera seems indifferent to room and human being alike. The room is merely the space through which it passes. The camera, the technical element, is all that counts.

The zoom proceeds not in a steady procession, but in discontinuous bursts that, in their crudeness, place the attention squarely on themselves. The zoom is also accompanied by a series of auxiliary techniques (the insertion of different colored filters on the lens, double exposures, intentional blurring) which serve both to maintain audience interest in what could quickly become a monotonous exercise and to underscore the artificiality of the proceedings, an artificiality which in its conspicuousness confirms the primacy of the film's technique over any extraneous content. The colored filters, which change at a moment's notice, provide a particularly jolting (and visually seductive) reminder to the viewer of the author's technical manipulations. As Farber describes them, we see "violent changes in color in which the screen shudders from intensities of green, magenta, sienna: a virtuoso series of negative and positive impressions in which complementary colors are drained out so that the room, undergoing spasms, flickers from shrill brilliant green to pure red to a drunken gorgeous red-violet". As these filter changes subside near the film's conclusion, the camera finally comes to rest on a picture of a wave-filled seascape thumb-tacked to the wall. This image, on which the camera lingers for several minutes before fading to a final white, recalls the film's title and further emphasizes the fact that the film is about itself.

The soundtrack is largely composed of a steady electronic buzz built on a conjunction of sine waves which begins roughly a third of the way into the picture and continues uninterruptedly (except for the occasional sound introduced by the intrusion of the film's plot) and with increasing shrillness until the conclusion. The sound waves (the "wavelengths" of the title) are the aural equivalent of the zoom, the contentless audio counterpart to the pure visual technique. Just as the on-screen appearance of the film's "characters" interrupt the authentic procedure of the work, so these off-screen audio intrusions (the sound of the struggle, the siren) detract from the film's pure (because without concrete content) audio program. Like the video intrusions, these audio interruptions further emphasize the primacy of technique as the film's true subject through their sheer irrelevance to the proceedings. It is this insistence on, not merely the privileging of the technique, but the elimination of any other content, that marks Snow's work as such a radical postulation. That the film manages to maintain a certain hypnotic thrall despite its academic premise and mixes its intellectual rigor with a formal eloquence that maintains viewer interest throughout marks Wavelength as one of the most successful cinematic experiments yet attempted.

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