Wavelength (1967)


Michael Snow’s experimental short Wavelength is a triumph of trying-your-patience. That’s by design, of course. Although, it would be kind of amazing if Snow just accidentally made a 45-minute movie consisting almost entirely of a painfully slow zoom-in toward an indecipherable painting across an almost empty room, then mistakenly used a grating and increasingly high-pitched whirring sound to fill the soundtrack. Whoops!

To be fair, there are a handful of traditional plot indicators. You know, like characters. A woman appears, telling some furniture movers where to place a large bookcase; a couple of friends sit around listening to a warped record playing The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”; a man walks into the room and inexplicably keels over. Real slice-of-life stuff. And through it all, the camera keeps inching, ever so slowly – often imperceptibly – toward the far wall.

Snow does add a bit of variation by shifting the colors and saturation of the image. It flips to a red, to black and white, bathed in blue, and so forth. There’s no pattern, no particular meaning to the timing or the palettes, as far as I can tell. At one point, the room was mostly dark and I imagined I could see the painting on the wall moving, as though there were a giant face on the wall and the painting formed the mouth. It was no doubt a trick of the imagination; the eye trying to find something to draw focus in an otherwise empty, lifeless room.

I get the feeling that Wavelength is more notable for the conversations it sparks than for what it actually accomplishes. Much like Andy Warhol, whose eight-hour Empire immediately comes to mind as a counterpoint to those who would be tempted to call this one of the most grueling films of the 20th century, Snow’s work seems to be less about the art in itself and more about what it evokes. I often hear people say of movies that are known tearjerkers, “Why would I want to feel sad?” I’ve written before about my distaste for such questions: the emotions elicited by such films are exactly the point. One could as easily ask why watch a horror movie, or a hard-hitting drama of any kind. Why see a movie guaranteed to make you uncomfortable? The answer, I think, is in the fact that such films do conjure some strong feelings; no matter what those feelings are, it gives a bit of a jolt to the brain. Just interacting with an artwork on a visceral level, that alone is the magic of the movies.

Does the viewer interact with Wavelength in the same way that he or she might with other difficult pieces of cinema? Is the frustration one feels when realizing the awful, increasingly high-pitched whir isn’t going to stop–is that feeling worth seeking out, just for the sake of having an emotional response at all? Are Snow’s apologists justified in speaking of this work at a masterpiece, or even as something essential? I was moved to view the film after reading a synopsis in the book 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (which, frankly, made it sound a lot more compelling than it is). It’s hard not to wonder, afterward, whether I agree with the book’s writers. No doubt I would have survived just fine without seeing it (just like my father and his father before him), but can we at least agree that the movie serves some purpose beyond juvenile provocation?

I don’t know. I’m reluctant to give the film a pass simply because it’s art, or simply because it seems to deliberately court charges of being garbage. How is Wavelength any better than titles which intentionally seek to replicate the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon, e.g. Sharknado? Is that what’s happening here? That the movie is so utterly bad that the only explanation is that it must actually be good? Do the numerous subtle (yet nonetheless banal) references to waves – light waves, sound waves, ocean waves – prove the movie has a purpose and therefore a brain?

I do appreciate the questions the movie raises in my mind, but drawing thoughts out of the viewer is not on its own a sign of greatness. I declined to write a full review on Steve James’ documentary indictment of physical sports, Head Games, opting instead to write a thousand words on the immediately forgettable Ben Stiller comedy The Watch because the latter film got me thinking about concepts the movie didn’t even try exploring itself. That doesn’t mean that The Watch is better than a movie made by the same guy who brought the world Hoop Dreams. Similarly, just because Wavelength leaves its viewer with questions – about its meaning, its goal, its worth – that alone is not evidence that it has any of the three.

If you’re waiting for me to come to some grand conclusion, you (much like viewers of this film) are bound to be disappointed. I feel like Snow wins either way, whether I praise or condemn: the movie is immune to criticism. But maybe it’s immune to criticism because Snow wasn’t thinking about critics at all when he made Wavelength. Instead, he was just making exactly what he wanted to make; whether it says anything useful (or anything at all, for that matter) is beside the point because the film is not inviting you to enjoy it in the first place. It makes no more sense to bust a hole in a beehive, then complain that you can’t appreciate the stings you receive. Yet maybe there is something one could appreciate in the beehive: the geometric complexity, for instance, even if it houses disgusting little dangerous insects. Likewise, there’s something here, obviously. There’s something that draws certain people to it, something that made the synopsis I read intrigue me enough to seek it out. Whether it’s handled well or like hell is debatable.

But, come to think of it, there is something that sets the provocation of Wavelength apart from the schlock of Sharknado. The latter film believes it’s catering to its audience. It’s a cynical get-rich-quick scheme. Snow’s film might also be cynical, but in a different way. It’s cynical in the sense that it just couldn’t care whether or not it appeals to you. By no means does that make it a good film, but it makes it honest. If nothing else, that’s something about the movie I can get behind.

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