Michael Snow’s Wavelength—an Exploration of Vision, Perception, and Film

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Michael Snow Wavelength

The 80-foot loft in Michael Snow’s Wavelength

Michael Snow’s Wavelength is one of the cult experimental movies that transcend definitions. The 45-minute film consists of a static and gradual zoom-in shot inside of a studio loft, with the camera fixed at one side of the loft, and finishing with the close-up of a photograph hanging on the wall on the opposite side of the loft.

Wavelength examines many of Snow’s major themes—the nature of vision, the material world as experienced through senses, and the vision-sound relationship. However, unlike in So Is This, in Wavelength Michael Snow does not delve into linguistics, semantics, or word puns.

Snow shot Wavelength for a week in 1966 and released the film in May the following year. Before shooting, the director spent about a year of planning and taking notes. The movie started with the idea of zoom, and the rest of the elements followed afterwards. The director himself took the photograph of sea waves that is hanging on the wall in the room.

His friend and experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs gave him the camera used in the movie, while Hollis Frampton played the dying man. Because of Frampton’s availability, the film was not shot in chronological order. Michael Snow had to shoot the dying-man sequence with the zoom starting from the middle, and then return it back and make sure he preserves continuity. The director shot both during the day and the night and had to take the camera off the studio at the end of every shooting day. Snow did the zoom with an Angeniux lens, also borrowed from Ken Jacobs.

Michael Snow’s Wavelength

The film starts with the steady camera shot pointing to the far corner of an 80-foot loft. As the film begins, a lady and two men carrying a bookcase enter the loft. The opening action is deceptive, as at first it may suggest Wavelength is story-driven. The camera, however, does not follow, engage, or recognize the action in any way. After the three characters exit the frame, the camera remains detached.

As William Wees points out in his book about avant-garde cinema “Light Moving in Time, ” “the richest visual experience provided by Snow’s films comes from his manipulation of the ‘machine-ness’ of cinema…In Wavelength the mechanical eye of the zoom lens creates a perceptual experience that cannot be duplicated by the human eye.” Wees refers to the mechanical precision of Wavelength’s camera, which is not engaged in movement or social action the way human perception is.

The machine-like attitude to film and emphasis of patterns, structures, and form over content are some of the landmarks of structuralist cinema, particularly notable in Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, for example. Wees distinguishes the de-humanized structuralist camera from Stanley Brakhage’s camera, which is more actively involved in the action. The distinction can be nevertheless somewhat misleading, as Brakhage seeks to overturn the “man-made laws of perspective.” Annette Michelson sees a continuity between Brakhage and Snow: “an insistence on the primacy of vision and a correlative emphasis on the primacy of light.”

At about 3.10 min. into Wavelength, the woman from the fist scene has returned into the camera frame, joined by another woman, and seems to be turning on a radio—the action is inferred from sound  rather than visuals because at this point the zoom is still far away for any clarity of details. The radio starts playing The Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The song does not start from the beginning, but only from the section with the lyrics: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstand all you see.”

It is a very subtle reference to the central theme of vision in Michael Snow’s Wavelength, as well as an establishing point of another topic of key interest to the director —the sound-vision relationship. The director explored the theme in humorous detail in “Rameau’s Nephew…” of which Snow  humbly said, “the best sound film ever made.”

Just when the Beatles sing the line “nothing is real,” the image in Wavelength starts losing its realistic look and gradually turns into an eerie red-glowing illusion. In a conversation with his friend and filmmaker Jonas Mekas and the avant-garde film historian Paul Adams Sitney, Snow said, “It is attempting to balance out […] all the so-called realities that are involved in the issue of making a film. […] That whole issue in film has been touched on by lots of people, that it‘s light, and it‘s on a flat surface.”

The woman in Wavelength stops abruptly the radio just when The Beatles are singing “I’m going to Strawberry Fields,” and leaves the frame.

The following few minutes of the film play extensively on the nature of vision and appearance. The film stock and image appearance change repeatedly. At the moment when the film switches to negative, the diegetic street noise is replaced with a non-diegetic electronic sound, as Michael Snow himself noted, “a sine wave which goes from its lowest (50 cycles per second) to its highest (1200 c.p.s.) in 40 minutes.”

Michael Snow Wavelength experimental film

Michael Snow in 2012

The non-diegetic sound and the unrealistic film stock dispel the illusion of reality created so far. Wavelength emphasizes the artifice of film as light on a flat surface.

About 16.20 minutes into the film, a loud banging diegetic noise appears off-screen. A man (Hollis Frampton) enters the frame, staggers, and falls on the floor. The camera continues its cold indifference and steady close-up.

A few minutes later, a woman enters the frame and speaks on the phone. When she leaves the frame, we see superimpositions of her. For the realm of the loft or the realm in which the action is taking place, these superimpositions are clearly unrealistic. But for the realm of the screen, both the so-called “actual” image of the woman and the superimpositions of her are “made of the same matter”—light projected onto flat surface.

The telephone scene is the last human sequence in Michael Snow’s Wavelength. The sound becomes increasingly intensified, while the zoom continues until eventually only the photograph hanging on the wall is seen.

For Michael Snow Wavelength is an investigation of the nature of representation in the style of Cezanne—the director started as a painter among many other occupations before turning to film. As quoted by Annette Michelson in her essay, “I am interested in a kind of balance that has some similarity to the way Cezanne equalized the physical facts and the presented illusions in painting. On film the transformation is into light and time and the balance is between the illusions (spatial and otherwise) and the facts-of-light on a surface.”

In Wavelength Michael Snow reveals the spatial illusions through the narrowing of the frame. What at first appears a big studio loft eventually shrinks to a flat-surface photograph. The photograph itself is another flat-surface representation of “actual” space, thus the illusion of space is augmented. Michael Sicinski discusses in great detail the spatio-temporal aspects of Wavelength and discusses its relation to the philosophy of Heidegger and others.

The gradual zoom-in thus also represents the passage of time—but the chronology is later broken through the superimpositions, which refer to previous “moments.” However, according to Michael Snow Wavelength has “only one place with a connection to a prior event: her making the phone call refers back in time and space too, because the zoom has gone past that point, to where the body is.”

Wavelength’s style is a typical example of structuralist cinema, defined by the avant-garde film historian Paul Adams Sitney as “cinema of the mind rather than the eye.” Because this comment may seem as a contradiction to the statement about the importance of the nature of vision in Wavelength, it is important to clarify: What Sitney meant is that structural cinema emphasizes form over content and takes an analytical approach to film rather than an emotional or spectacle-driven. In simple words, the goal of structural cinema is not to shock the audience with spectacular images, but rather to provoke intellectual analysis. But especially in the case of Michael Snow, the intellectual analysis is very often meant to be about vision.

The Canadian has emphasized the importance of vision and nature of seeing not only in his films, but also in his sculptures, such as his 2012 exhibit “Objects of Vision,” about which he says, “All these things have to do with vision and thinking about vision.”

You can see Michael Snow’s Wavelength here, although the quality is not great: