Wavelength (1967) is only 45 minutes, but its status as a landmark of avant-garde cinema means it already occupies an immortal place at the edge of experimental filmmaking. Canadian director Michael Snow’s masterpiece is considered a cornerstone of “structural film,” and the movie is simultaneously regarded as one of the most important underground, art house and Canadian films ever put to screen. In a 1969 review in Artforum, Manny Farber wrote, “For all of the film's sophistication (and it is overpowering for its time-space-sound inventions), it is a singularly unpadded, uncomplicated, deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling and a floor. ... It is probably the most rigorously composed movie in existence."
Wavelength takes place in one setting – the large living room of an urban apartment. In one sense almost nothing happens in the room, although there are four scenes involving actors interspersed throughout the movie’s 45-minute run: a woman wearing a fur coat leads two men carrying a large bookshelf into the apartment and directs them where to place it before all three leave the apartment again. Later, the same woman returns with a female friend. The pair drink coffee and listen to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” before they both exit the apartment. After the sound of breaking glass can be heard on the film’s audio track, a man enters the apartment and walks to the center of the living room before falling down dead. Several minutes pass before the woman in the fur coat reappears and makes a phone call regarding the dead man in her apartment.
As these sequences play-out, viewers become aware that the camera is slowly pushing forward into the living room, and that the audience’s point of view is becoming increasingly focused and intensified as the elements in the frame – windows, floor space, furniture, pictures on the wall – become concentrated. Post War experimental cinema – like experimental
painting – became increasingly complex as artists like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage pushed cinema to its limits, creating visionary, highly personal works. In painting, the reaction to abstract expressionism was minimalism, and in cinema, filmmakers like Snow and Tony Conrad began to impose severe limits on their films, producing simplified works that wowed with pure rigor. In his groundbreaking classic, Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney outlined the elements that defined these new “structural” films, writing that the four characteristics of structural film are "fixed camera position … the flicker effect, loop printing and rephotography off the screen."
In a 1968 L.A. Free Press review of the film, Gene Youngblood describes Wavelength as a “triumph of contemplative cinema.” There is no doubt that Wavelength’s empty spaces and almost total lack of action evoke a meditative, maybe even mystical experience, but the film is also erotic in that it’s a movie about looking at something that cannot be looked away from, and, in fact, draws the viewer inexorably toward it. The only thing we’re sure of as the movie unwinds is the intentionality of the camera moving toward the object of its singular desire. The implications of Wavelength’s creeping camera are simultaneously cosmic and concupiscent, and if this movie was a painting it would be Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World.”
For me, one of Wavelength’s great revelations is that in a film where nearly nothing happens, nearly everything becomes significant, magnified or meaningful. Moving a shelf, drinking coffee, an over-the-top death scene, a phone call – these all swell in the viewer’s memory, filling up seemingly countless minutes of unspooling film that separate them while viewing the movie. The incremental pushing-forward of the camera’s point of view becomes a kind of ominous rush, but we’re racing in slow motion – running in a dream. Toward the end of the movie, Wavelength’s visual intensity is supported by a minimalist music score of randomly paired tones that shift up in frequency before the film’s final image takes over the frame, and then blows out of focus before fading to white.
Like many experimental films of note, Wavelength can be found online, but don’t miss this chance to see this cornerstone of avant-garde cinema projected on a big screen in 16mm. In addition to Wavelength, this Light and Sound Machine production will kick-off with two of Snow’s other films: New York Eye and Ear Control and The Living Room.
Wavelength screens at Third Man Records on Thursday, Sept. 21. Doors at 7 p.m., film at 8 p.m. Go to www.belcourt.org for more details and tickets.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.