Michael Snow (b. 1929)

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Wavelength (1967)

By Michael Snow, 1967
45 min., b&w, 16mm

Wavelength, Michael Snow's meditation on cinematic practice, takes the form of a zoom that moves from the end of an 80-foot urban loft to a photograph of waves on the wall at the opposite end of the room. The zoom is accompanied by a sine wave as it gradually progresses from its lowest note (50 cycles per second) to its highest (12,000 cycles per second).

At the beginning of the shot, most of the room is visible. Eventually, the zoom excludes the rest of the room as it focuses on four vertical double windows, three intervening sections of wall space, and a desk, radiator and chairs by the opposite wall. As the zoom progresses, it goes through a series of jerks and jolts between occasional shot changes. Meanwhile, the image passes through a variety of colour filters, film stocks, degrees of processing (positive and negative) and light exposures.

At different points in the film, four events occur involving people, during which the sine wave is combined with synchronous sound. Prior to the third event, there are sounds of glass breaking, wood splintering and footsteps on the stairs -- a man staggers in and drops to the floor just before the zoom eliminates him from view. In the last event, a woman makes a telephone call, explaining that a man appears to be dead on the floor. After she leaves, superimposed images of her conversation and earlier stages of the zoom's progress appear over the principal image. As the zoom moves onto the lowest of three small photographs on the central wall, a police siren is heard, gradually merging with the sine wave. The zoom continues beyond the borders of the photograph, then retreats a little and the image blurs out.

Michael Snow's first major film was described by the critic Jonathon Rosenbaum as "the most consequential zoom shot in the history of cinema." It has been variously analyzed for its modernist-materialist form as a definitive answer to Bazin's question Quest?ce que c'est le cinma? (Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 1970); as an exploration of the problems of narrative and the viewer?film relationship; as a meditative experience; and as an epistemological inquiry. This rich and rigorous film is all of these, and more; Wavelength stands as one of the most important works of modern cinema. - Canadian Film Encyclopedia


With his film Wavelength, Michael Snow revolutionized the international Avant-garde film scene like no other production. Viewed from its basic concept, this is a purely "formal" film: it consists of a single, 45-minute-long tracking shot through the length of a room, accompanied by slowly-increasing sine tones.[

As the camera moves forward through the rooms space (when carefully studied the movement is not continuous, but made up of individual passages edited together), one registers the passing of several nights and days. The camera is ultimately moving toward a spot between two windows at the back of the room, where a photograph on the wall shows the unsettled surface of the sea; in the end, the camera comes so close to it that only the waves fill the screen.

The fascination of this film can be explained through the application of the formal principle of the tracking shot, which seems to determine the entire film, with stray elements of reality: people occasionally appear in the frame; the telephone rings; apparently someone is even murdered in this space. Even what one can recognize of the street through the windowpane constitutes a counter-element to a purely "abstract" form.

"Wavelength ranks among those films which force viewers, regardless of how they react, to carefully consider the essence of the medium and, just as unavoidably, reality," wrote the critic Amos Vogel.

(Source: Ulrich Gregor, Geschichte des Films ab 1960, Reinbek, 1983.)

dir/scr/cin/ed/prod Michael Snow
sound Ted Wolff
assistant Ken Jacobs
act Hollis Frampton, Joyce Wieland, Amy Yadrin, Lyne Grossman, Maoto Nakagawa, Roswell Rudd

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