Wavelength (1967)


You'll pay more attention to the debate about its artistic value
You'll pay more attention to the debate about its artistic value

Genre: Experimental (Canada, USA)

Directed By: Michael Snow (<--->Presents)

Overview: Experimental pioneer filmmaker Michael Snow's 'Structural Film' showcases a single shot of a room for 45 minutes, slowly zooming in on a photograph of waves as the sound of a sine wave increases in cycles.

During an unseasonably sunny and warm day, I punished myself for being indoors by watching something from the list that would most likely hurt me. As I brought in my freshly barbecued artisan sausages, roasted potatoes and a nice glass of Ripasso, I knew my awesome meal would easily carry me 10 minutes into Wavelength's expected tedium. Ironically the sort of movie that surprisingly leaves me with a very un-minimalistic amount of things to say about it, Wavelength was a tedious, pretentious waste of time that I take more pride in saying that I saw it in one sitting than in saying I saw it at all. But art for art’s sake may have its merit, so that’s what my focus will be here. Of course the eternal caveat: if an artist had a specific vision with their art, the more another person interprets their work, the greater their chance becomes of 'being wrong'. So, that being said, whether I 'got it' or not, my review is my island of opinion.

Wavelength begins with a wide shot of the inside of a bare loft apartment. People bring in some furniture and leave. After two minutes or so, two ladies come in, stand near the window and listen to some of The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever", the chorus being Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields / Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about /Strawberry Fields forever. Save for a couple of very short interruptions, the lion's share of footage, around forty minutes, is a slow zoom onto a photo of ocean waves on the wall. Pardon the spoiled dramatic conclusion. Through it all, the tonal sound of sine waves goes through increasingly more-shrill-than-a-second-ago frequencies. Needless to say, Michael Snow succeeded in, as The Beatles warned, 'taking me down' with his film.

While nothing happened on the screen, I finished dining and read the 1001 book’s entry for Wavelength. Written by Kim Newman, I found the reason for its inclusion to be rather weakly explained, if I may quote, "... an archtype of minimalism...it plays a rigorous game with screen space and time... this film was designed to change forever the relationship the viewer has with the screen, forcing the audience to think through processes and factors that most films take for granted… a vital, important, and necessary work." I knew then that instead of understanding the reasons this film was so important that I couldn't die without seeing it, I'd have to start doing additional research to learn the deeper artistic and historical meaning of Wavelength, a film that was, now 20 minutes in, beginning to tax my attention span.

"Structural film" artists pursued instead a more simplified, sometimes even predetermined art. The shape of the film was crucial, the content peripheral. This term should not be confused with the literary and philosophical term structuralism. - Wikipedia

Snow's intent for the film was "a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas" - Wikipedia


Oh! A change of colour temperature! That's what I call a highlight!
Here is the film, streaming in its entirely. Keep watching.

Wikipedia give us a better explanation of the artist's intent of this film, including the acceptance of Wavelength in a historical context since it received an exceptional critical reception and became one of the seven key films of the structural film movement. IMDb tells us that Wavelength was "chosen by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada to be preserved for future generations". So now, I get it. Wavelength was something once, and, yes it 'made waves' in its time.

I, on the other hand had real problems with this piece of art (I'm done calling this a film): even if I accept Wavelength's tedium and 'being forced to think through processes and factors' as intentional, Wavelength, like Luis Buñuel's L'age d'or, is a technical mess. The part I would consider to be the most important aspect of the film, the zoom itself, is done manually, is noticeably choppy, and includes edits, so it’s not one continuous take. Though perhaps intentional, the sound work for both the music and dialogue is terrible, including noticeable cuts and the lack of ambient sounds – really basic stuff. The worst part of Wavelength is the ending, where Michael Snow ruins the entire effect of a deliberate 45-minute focus on the picture by skipping ahead and fading to the picture in full frame. Perhaps this is also a deliberate example of "a rigorous game with screen space and time", but I doubt it. It looked more like Snow cheated by jumping to a photo in focus rather than planning his work. When left with so little to focus on, the technical inconsistencies become niggling errors that make what is already painful to watch worse by knowing the director is artist before filmmaker, much like ‘the Greats’ who came before him, like the technically inept early works of Buñuel, or Maya Deren and her short films, including the I-don’t-know-why-it’s-famous Meshes of the Afternoon.

Proving my point that this is art over film isn’t hard when I consider my usual scoring criteria which include actors’ performances, the story’s plot and its script. I tried, but I can’t give this film my usual 5-point rundown. The score I grant is based entirely on the ideas Wavelength had me experience through its delivery, the value I feel it has artistically and thematically not in 1967 but today, which I grant at least has some cohesion. The image of waves combined with sine waves, annoying as they are, and The Beatles' 'Nothing is Real' lyric came together to create a film with a theme. Great. When I should have been appreciating an artistic film, I instead toiled, trying to learn why Wavelength was/is important in order to give purpose to the 45 minutes I spent on it. This is a clear sign to me that Wavelength is not valuable in the grand scheme of film, and certainly not something I had to hold off dying for, especially since it will most likely make you want to die. And if I dare say, you’ve learned more reading this article than watching that droning installation piece.

THERE'S the exciting part... ah crap it's over.
THERE'S the exciting part... ah crap it's over.

Overall Rating: 40% (And Ever And Ever And Ever…)

The fundamental question that crosses my mind whenever a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die film disappoints me is "why is it in here?" Often the answer is written in black and white within the pages and I accept it, but the correction I’ve had to make on countless occasions to first-time readers is that the book isn’t entitled The BEST 1001 Movies Ever Made. There's an element of film history in it. The worst movie I’ve ever seen from the 1001 list is Within Our Gates, the first film directed by an African American director. It’s a terrible work, but I get the reason it’s there. At the same time, the title of the book itself - or rather the word MOVIES instead of FILMS - should grant me respite and spare me from art gallery installations that are films merely because they’re printed on that medium. That shouldn’t be enough to put it in our otherwise worthy tome. If it was, there’d be more Matthew Barney, ick.

Man that was a long review… I've got blisters on my fingers!

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