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Michael Snow: Wavelength (1966)
Michael Snow's Wavelength, a forty-five-minute zoom from one end of a room to the other, directly confronts the essence of cinema: the relationships between illusion and fact, space and time, subject and object. It's the first post-Warhol, post-Minimal movie, one of the few films to engage those higher conceptual orders that occupy modern painting and sculpture. Wavelength has become the forerunner of what might be called a Constructivist or Structuralist school of cinema, including the works of George Landow, Tony Conrad, Snow's wife Joyce Wieland, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, Peter Kubelka, Ken Jacobs, Robert Morris, Pat O'Neill, and at least two of Bruce Baillie's films, All My Life and Still Life.
A large studio loft in New York: pristine light flooding through tall curtainless windows, street sounds floating on still air. The motionless camera is positioned high up, closer to the ceiling than the floor, so that a certain atmosphere, a certain environmental ambience is conveyed in that special way the cinema has of creating a sense of place. In fact, the first thought that comes to mind is that if a room could talk about itself this is what it would say.
Soon we discover the camera isn't static: every minute or so it jerks slightly forward; we realize the zoom lens is being manipulated rather clumsily; ever so slowly we are edging toward the wall of windows. This realization adds the first of many new dimensions to come: by introducing the element of motion, specifically invisible motion like the hands of a clock, the filmmaker adds the temporal element to a composition that in all other respects appears static. Motion is the only phenomenon that allows perception of time; the motion here, like time, is wholly conceptual.
Minutes pass: we notice subtle details— patterns of light and shadow, furniture arrangements, signs, tops of trucks, second-story windows, and other activity seen through the windows. Two women enter with a large bookcase, which they move against a wall, and then leave without speaking. There's a dispassionate distance to this activity, not in the least suggesting anything significant.
Now we notice subtle permutations in the light (is it our eyes or the focus?). The walls seem darker, the light colder. We see a chair previously not visible (or was it?). Two women enter again (the same two?). They walk to a table and sit; apparently they are on a coffee break. (Perhaps this is a remote section of a warehouse or garment factory.) The women sit in silence. Suddenly, as though from a distant radio, we hear the Beatles: “... Strawberry Fields... nothing is real... living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see..."
Apart from being eerily prophetic, the music strikes the perfect emotional chord: the scene assumes a totally different inflection, a kind of otherworldly dream state. What previously was a cold impersonal warehouse now appears romantically warm. The music fades; one woman walks out; the other remains for a few minutes, then leaves.
Up to this point the film has presented a "believable" natural reality, the sort of filmic situation in which one speaks of "suspension of disbelief." But now, for the first time, a nonrepresentational cinematic reality is introduced: there begins a constant alteration of image quality through variation of film stock, light exposure, and printing techniques. By changes in light we realize also that we are alternating between times of day — morning, noon, dusk, night. With each cut the room appears completely different though nothing has been physically altered and the position of the camera has not been changed.
At the point when the image goes into complete negative, the synchronous "natural" street sounds are replaced by an electronic pitch, or sine wave, which begins at a low 50 cycles and increases steadily to a shrill 12,000 cycles during the following half hour. Thus "realistic" natural imagery has become pure filmic reality, and whatever identifications or associations the viewer has made must be altered.
Night: fluorescent lamps glowing (when did they go on?). In the blackness through the windows we see fiery red streaks of automobile taillights. Suddenly there's offscreen scuffling, tumbling, crashing glass, muffled cries. A man stumbles into the frame, moans, crumples to the floor with a loud thud below camera range. The electronic pitch is louder, the zoom closer. Window panes and photographs on the wall develop phantom images, vague superimpositions slightly offset. We no longer see the floor or side walls, just table, windows, photos, still indistinguishable. A girl in a fur coat enters. The light has changed: the room now appears to be an apartment. There's a yellow vinyl-aluminum kitchen chair that seems oddly out of place. The table actually is a writing desk with a telephone. She dials: “...Hello, there's a man on the floor... he's not drunk... I think he's dead... I'm scared... should I call the police? ... all right, I'll meet you outside... " She hangs up, walks out.
An overwhelming metaphysical tension engulfs the composition, filling the emptiness with a sense of density. Suddenly, a superimposed phantom image of the girl appears, transparently repeating the motions of entering, dialing, talking, leaving — but in silence beneath the whine of the sine wave, like some electromagnetic reverberation of past activity. The ghost image, which refers back in time to the "real" girl whose presence is linked in time to the death of the man, develops the only sequential, linear element in an otherwise nonlinear composition.
We realize also that the enlarged superimposed "outlines" around the window frames and photos refer to future points in the physical film itself when these objects actually will be that size. Similarly, the ghost "flashback" of the girl is a reference to the film's own physical "past," when the frame contained forms that it no longer contains.
Bright daylight: the room no longer is foreboding; the electronic tone is at its peak. The very light seems alive with a cold scintillation. The camera edges closer, blocking out the windows, until finally we distinguish the photograph on the wall: a picture of the ocean. A superimposed halo appears around the photo; suddenly the screen is an abstract (or more precisely, literalist) geometrical composition, totally symmetrical. This no longer is a room, no longer a movie, but quite literally an object — still photographs running through a projector.
Now the zoom advances to within the ocean photo; the sea consumes the entire screen. The electronic pitch runs a berserk glissando up and down the tone scale; We gaze at the ocean hypnotically: the fathomless water betraying no depth; the rhythmical waves frozen in time, answering some cosmic lunar force (Snow: "An implication of universal continuity"). We remember Chabrol's remark: "There are no waves; there is only the ocean." For a long time we stare mindlessly at this ocean and then, very slowly, it fades into nothingness.
Like so many experimental filmmakers Michael Snow came to the cinema by way of painting and sculpture. His Expo '67 exhibit and recent New York showings have attracted considerable attention due to their exploration of the act of seeing as applied to Minimal sculpture. An understanding of Minimal Art is essential to the appreciation of Wavelength (shot in one week of December, 1966). Remembering Warhol's pivotal contribution, it is still possible to say that Wavelength is without precedent in the purity of its confrontation with the nature of the medium: It is a triumphant and definitive answer to Bazin's question, "Que-est-ce que le cinéma?"
Like all truly modern art, Wavelength is pure drama of confrontation. It has no "meaning" in the conventional sense. Its meaning is the relationship between film and viewer. We are interested more in what it does than what it is as an icon. The confrontation of art and spectator, and the spectator's resultant self-perception, is an experience rather than a meaning.
Referring to critics of Minimal Art, painter Frank Stella remarked: "If you pin them down they always end up asserting that something is present besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there."28 Similarly, in Wavelength there is no dependence on an idea or source of motivation outside the work itself. The subject of the film is its own structure and the concepts it suggests. (Snow: "My film is closer to Vermeer than to Cézanne.") But because Snow is working in the medium of cinema, he must deal with the element of illusion, a quality not inherent in painting or sculpture. The very essence of cinema is the fact that what we see there is not there: time and motion. These concepts have been engaged in recent traditional cinema (Persona, Blow-Up, David Holzman's Diary), but always symbolically, never in the empirical fashion of Snow's movie. Wavelength is post-Minimal because, thanks to the cinema, it can deal empirically with illusion, that is, a wider range of vision than usually is engaged in the plastic arts. It is post-Warhol because it confronts the illusory nature of cinematic reality; it presents not only "pure" time and space, but also filmic time (fragmented) and space (twodimensional, nonperspectival). It is more metaphysical than Minimal.
Wavelength is a romantic movie.
Snow emphasizes that editing is an abstraction of reality by alternating times of day with each cut, and by cutting rarely. Thus he achieves what Mondrian called the "relations" of abstract nature. The theory of relativity reduces everything to relations; it emphasizes structure, not material. We've been taught by modern science that the so-called objective world is a relationship between the observer and the observed, so that ultimately we are able to know nothing but that relationship. Extra-objective art replaces object-consciousness with metaphysical relation-consciousness. Romance is born in the space between events.
- Johanna Branson Gill: VIDEO: STATE OF THE ART, 1976
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