Format: Internet video on laptop.
Art films and I often don’t get along. I say that not as a defense of any review I make of said art films but as a statement of fact. Frequently, such cinematic experiments make me feel pretty stupid, as if I should be getting more from them than I am. Wavelength, considered a critical experimental film by Canadian director Michael Snow, is such a work. I’ve had a link to this film for a long time and have actually started the film more than once, but until today, never really made it more than a few minutes in. It’s unusual to say that a film with a running time well under an hour is daunting and difficult to watch, but Wavelength is both of those things.
To give it a chance to work, I decided that the best and fairest thing was to really watch it from start to finish in as close to one take as I could make it. In the interest of fairness, I was forced to pause it once briefly, but I got through the entire running time of about 43 minutes in something like 44:30, and my pause was early in the running time.
I’m certain there are a number of ways to consider this film, the most obvious being that this is the story of a single camera zoom. That is, more or less, what it is. The film starts at the end of a large room that looks like nothing so much as a loft apartment. Over the course of the film’s running time, the camera zooms from its initial position to a single point on the far wall.
I’d love to say that’s it, and for many an experimental film, that would probably be enough. Snow gives us some things to deal with as viewers of the film, though. First, there are four events that take place in the room. First, a woman enters with two men carrying a piece of furniture. She instructs them as to where she wants it placed, and then everyone leaves. This happens right at the start. Second, the woman returns with an acquaintance. The two listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio; actually, the only listen to most of the song. Third, just before the midpoint, a man enters the room and collapses on the floor, the camera zooming past him as it continues. Fourth, the woman returns and reports the body of the man, who she claims to have never seen before.
Throughout, we are given the same view of the room with its glacial zoom through a number of different lenses and filters. The screen sometimes flashes white, shows the room in a deep red tone or in a reverse image. There is also a constant hum of a tone throughout the film’s running time. The pitch of the single played note slowly rises and gains in intensity as the camera nears the far wall. This note becomes an important part of the film’s environment, soon eclipsing virtually all other potential sounds we might here, like that of the traffic rushing past the window. Additionally, the constant changing of lighting and filters does produce something akin to the passage of time, giving us something that is the equivalent of day and night during the duration.
This was, I will not mince words here, an ordeal, but one that I am in part glad to have gone through. Wavelength is not an easy film, but it is one that pays a strange sort of dividend by being watched all at once (or virtually so) rather than a minute or so at a time. That sort of episodic viewing, clicking the film on for a minute and pausing it, is extremely tempting, in no small part because of the increasing pain of the single note on the soundtrack.
While Snow attempts to portray the film as existing as a single shot, there is a great deal of evidence of cutting here as well as some film editing. In the last of the four episodes for instance, the woman in the apartment appears as a ghostly figure, semi-transparent and flickering in and out of existence as she calls for help. Still, even at these moments where it appears that we might gain some sort of clue to what Snow wants us to see, the camera continues its relentless zoom, evident at this part of the film to be centered on a picture on that far wall. The events, in other words, take place not in front of the camera or because they are important for us to see, but in spite of the camera or with no real relation to the camera. The collapsed man, for instance is soon zoomed past, presumably still on the floor but no longer visible to us.
I believe it may be impossible to call the experience of watching Wavelength enjoyable. It is not, but it is also not intended to be. It is instead a cinematic trial of endurance in the viewer and an artistic statement both strange and strangely captivating. I cannot say that I will watch this film again in the near future—I may never do so again—but for one reason or another, it is a film that will stay with me as a piece of artistic expression for a very long time.
If you've got the stomach for it, click here.
Why to watch Wavelength: Experimental film at a peak.
Why not to watch: It’s a single camera zoom.