Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Zoom Zoom

Film: Wavelength
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.


  1. It sounds almost as if you're describing the mind-altering properties of a mantra.

  2. Saw this for a class in college. What baffled me about it is that it's not that experimental to start with. He's not doing anything Andy Warhol hasn't done with SLEEP or TOWERS

  3. It does have a sort of mantra quality. For the life of me, I can't explain how this film creates tension, but it does. And while he is covering similar territory to Warhol here, there is an essential difference. Warhol's films are sort of an enforced boredom while Wavelength manages to evoke something like a narrative without really having one.

  4. You give it more credit than I do. After forcing myself to watch the complete film without moving (I'm almost certain I didn't even blink) I heard a voice in my head (I think it was Nelson from "The Simpson's saying "HA-HA made you watch"). There are billions and billions of hours of security film all over the world that does the same thing with the exception of the deathly slow zoom which may have been more poignant if the target was a framed picture of Bozo the Clown.

  5. If you're interested, you might wanna check out the music video to The Naked and Famous song 'Girls Like You'. This film would seem to be an obvious influence, and it's a good tune as well.

  6. @Ken--yeah, I remember a similar comment from you on a past review about this film. I had been particularly dreading this, and I can't really say what I saw in this, but I certainly saw something.

    @Adol--I'll give it a look.

  7. I took a look at that video Adolytsi referenced, I definitely think there there was an influence. I guess if it serves as an inspiration for others, it can't be all bad. At least the video was interesting.

  8. Wow, this sounds even worse than the recent Flaming Creatures experimental film that I watched. At least that has random nudity to break up the LSD trip that's in it. It's also around 43 minutes long, by coincidence.

    Call me cynical, but from the 1,001 book's choices of experimental films, they seem to be equating it with "no one would ever willingly watch this unless we put it in the list."

  9. I get that same sense sometimes. That's sort of my opinion on art film in general, though.

    I'm sort of worried about Flaming Creatures.

    1. This is more in regards to paintings, but I suppose it would apply to film as well - in my opinion, the "art" in modern art lies not in the creating of it, but in the selling of it. Anyone can throw three wads of paint at a canvas; it takes a true artist to convince someone else to pay them money for it.

      In regards to Flaming Creatures, just keep repeating, "It's only 42 minutes. It's only 42 minutes" and you'll get through it okay.

      Just kidding.

      Sort of.

      I actually can kind of understand why Flaming Creatures is on the list: it caused controversy by having full frontal nudity and crossdressing topics in a film released in the early 1960s. I read afterwards that it was often banned and audience members arrested. I also read that John Waters saw it and considers it an influence on his work.

      It really did come across as something that people who had dropped a lot of acid would have come up with, though.

    2. There are times when I agree. However, I look at some pieces of modern artwork and I get something out of it. Wavelength was strangely like that for me. I found nothing of value in Sayat Nova or Heaven and Earth Magic, but something sparked in me here.

      I suppose this is why I am not an artist. In part, because I can't express myself that way and in part because that spirit of understanding only moves in me sometimes.

  10. Well, I just "watched" this. The best way to describe it is "this is the film that the fast forward button was invented for." And to think, I started out the evening watching Meet Me in St. Louis and had to stop because the Netflix DVD was unplayable after a while.

    The best part of Wavelength was the Beatles music. After that it was downhill, especially once the tone started. I could have done without the irritation of it.

    If you want a good laugh, read this review of Wavelength on IMDB - (an excerpt) "I found the entire concept to be so emotionally exhausting and frustrating that once the film was over I could do nothing but watch it again."

    1. I read that review. I hate to say it, but that review pretty much sums up my opinion on this film, save the fact that I didn't watch it again.

      Meet Me in St. Louis stopped working? Nice. The little kid in that film needs to be institutionalized.

  11. I watched Wavelength on YouTube just now. It made me want to eat my own eyeballs.

    1. I get that, but it oddly worked for me.

    2. Ultimately I know what you mean. I got up an started doing things around the kitchen and I even left Wavelength on while I left the room and went to the bathroom. Which I never ever do. But I didn't feel like it was likely that I would miss anything.

      When I came back after two or three minutes, the zoom effect was very noticeable because of what I had missed, and I did feel a little more appreciative of what the filmmakers had accomplished. I watched the rest of it, and it is almost worth it when you get to the end on that close-up of the photo of the waves.

      But it doesn't quite make up for the very uncomfortable restless feeling I had earlier in the film.

    3. Yeah, I understand that fully. I think it's one of those things that works for the occasional odd duck (me) and doesn't do anything for anyone else. I can't even really tell you exactly why it works for me, but I found myself kind of fascinated by it.