(Canada/USA - 1967)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Hollis Frampton, Amy Taubin
Genre: Experimental Film
Director: Michael Snow
Screenplay: Michael Snow
Cinematography: Michael Snow
Composer: -
Runtime: 45 minutes

Michael Snow’s best known experimental film uses the camera to investigate reality vs. illusion. The truth of cinema is largely in our heads, to the point people believe this is a continuous 45-minute zoom. Snow sets the camera on a tripod at the widest angle and proceeds to ever so slightly narrow the field of view for the duration of the film. The camera is on one side of an 80-foot loft, with the other side containing four large windows with 3 photos tacked up in between the middle two.

A tracking shot could be used to creep closer to the destination, but it would not explore human vision vs. camera vision. Moving the camera toward its ultimate destination, a photo, would constantly mimic our field of vision. Zooming eliminates the illusion of “3D space”. In actuality, we are of course looking at something flat and thus everything is the same distance from us. Dimension is the camera’s trick, as our eyes see depth that isn’t actually there, perceiving objects to be closer or further because we know that’s the way they are in real life. A picture can’t technically duplicate that, not even when projected rapidly, but our eyes and minds respond to the illusion.

The initial setting shows the camera’s ability to seemingly duplicate human vision. As Snow’s zoom progresses, we begin to realize we are seeing the object not as we would in real life, but in a way only a camera can see it. The narrowing and flattening effect the zoom lens produces makes the photo appear to come to us. Ultimately, we remember that film is nothing more than rapidly projected light, a form of magic trick. So the film starts as fiction and ends as fact, yet the audience fights that all the way. Something in us, our eyes or our brains, tells us that what we are used to - the duplication of human vision - is the truth and the all too narrowed field of view and flattened depth is the lie.

Some people will find Wavelength to be among the most boring and tedious films ever made. It’s meant to be a sensuous aesthetic experience, but probably also to infuriate the viewer. The film challenges your viewing habits by tricking you into thinking it’s going to be something that it isn’t. The film appears to start out traditionally with the “action” coming from humans, who inhabit the apartment listening to The Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever”. But they disappear and the zoom continues. We start looking out the windows, as the street has cars and people going by. Why are we doing this? Perhaps because we are bored, but certainly because we are programmed to think humans are the only reason for watching (since it’s not animated or wildlife).

Just as we’ve begun to learn what the film is, a tramp (future experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton who directed Zorn’s Lemma) collapses on the floor, apparently murdered, causing us to revert right back to our old habits. We want to know if he’s unconscious or dead, but Snow tells us plot is a meaningless gimmick by ignoring it. Wavelength is something like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup if David Hemmings stared at his pictures without caring about the subjects that occupied them enough to pursue the murder theory. Snow refuses to veer from his course. It’s like Manifest Destiny; the end is all that matters and thus it justifies everything. Progress doesn’t halt for the deceased.

But this progress is all cinematic deception. Though Snow makes some of his edits with various flares, color flashes, and superimpositions, he doesn’t really try to hide the fact that his zoom is a series of edited segments. Jump cuts and time lapse photography are huge hints toward the manipulated time frame, but the most obvious clue is day changes to night, and back. The tramp may have been lying on the floor for quite a while before someone noticed him, not that we are supposed to care.

Stripped to its essence, cinema is a set duration where light is altered. Snow makes all kinds of slight as well as glaring changes to keep us actively viewing, but he does them within a rigid context that can lull the viewer to sleep. You can’t experience the film through passive viewing or understand it through fast forwarding, but you might have the urge because it doesn’t meet your expectations of what a movie is.

Cinematic techniques are utilized to transform the world. Our perception is dramatically altered by shifting light (color) and film stock (texture). Filters, layering, flickers, gel reflections, and colored frames all point out the lie of the zoom being continuous, but more importantly alter our viewing experience. Combined with the thwarting of our movie expectations, they encourage us to turn the structuralist experiment into a meditation on the artistic process, and life, by making it about the interaction with our own consciousness.

Repeats mixed with jump cuts and superimpositions create the cinematic equivalent of the waves we are soon to enter through the photo Snow is zooming in on. The soundtrack is equally tricky, and by far the most grating aspect. Snow theoretically does the opposite with the sine wave, starting at the smallest (50 cycles per minute) and increasing to the greatest (12,000 cycles per minute), which is scratch your nails on the chalkboard territory. In actuality, Snow takes it back from time to time to create a similar dramatic effect. The real purpose of the zoom and the sine wave is the same, to increase the intensity of the viewing experience. If something happens in this film, it’s through the experience becoming so acute our mind reacts to it irrationally.

The film ends by completely breaking the illusion of human vision, but in doing so it has actually created a transcendent moment where our imagination takes an even greater leap. Once all background details are eliminated through the smallest range of f-stops, the entire screen is engulfed by the photograph of a wavy ocean. We know it’s only a picture, and yet we feel like we are in the ocean because we know when we are in the ocean all we see is endless ocean. The depths are suddenly endless again because we’ve hit an angle where the camera once again matches what we are used to seeing. There’s a kind of freedom in this image that makes us feel like we better start kicking our legs. We understand it’s not real, but our imagination takes over, our mind works to give us what we’d like to believe. But this fiction is quickly broken when Snow zooms in a little further. Suddenly, he’s in so tight we can only see a blue blur. The film ends with camera vision restored.


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