AFED #81: Wavelength (Canada/US, 1967); Dir. Michael Snow
What I find fascinating about avant-garde cinema is how angrily some people react to it. I was reading a few of the comments to a ten-minute extract of Wavelength posted on Youtube and they often say more about the person responding than the film itself.
"What a weird piece of shit."
"If this film were a race, I'd support it's genocide."
"I'm all for the art of cinema...but it has to have a point!"
Let's pick up on the last one, because although Wavelength may not possess a plot per se it clearly has a point, which is to draw attention to the film-making process in itself and our preconceptions of what cinema is or should be. We're so conditioned to audio visual experiences that are narratively driven that many of us don't pick up on the devices through which this effect is achieved.
Wavelength isolates one of these in particular, the camera zoom, and compels the viewer to relentlessly focus upon it. Inexorably, over 45 minutes, the camera closes in from the view of a drab apartment to a picture of some waves mounted on the wall.
At first it's accompanied by background noise from the street outside but this is supplanted by a drone that gradually increases in pitch. There are other tricks, such inverting the image to a negative, and the double and overexposure of the film creates a hallucinogenic effect that leads the viewer to question their perceptions and draws them into a highly subjective experience.
There are four brief 'human' episodes. At the beginning a piece of furniture is carried into the apartment and left. Shortly after two women sit and listen to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' playing on the radio. Several minutes later after some banging and commotion a man stumbles into the shot and collapses, dead. Finally, a woman makes a telephone call to report discovering the corpse. All the time the camera continues its zoom.
One can hardly 'watch' the film in any conventional sense since so little actually happens. Rather Wavelength is creating a space and inviting us to fill it with our thoughts, even if that's purely boredom. Whether you succumb to its mesmerism or find yourself planning what to have for dinner that evening, it's all good.
Where I think people often misunderstand avant-garde films is to think that they exist in opposition to mainstream cinema, instead of as a counterpoint. By taking an atithetical approach avant-garde film-makers rely as much on what's absent as their actual formal content.
It's also naive to think it's undertaken with po-faced piety. I don't know much about Michael Snow - although he's become highly regarded as a virtuoso multi-media artist - but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he enjoys regular movies every bit as much as the next man. The notional concessions to narrative with a 'murder' seem almost to play upon this, like a reductionist version of Rear Window or the ambiguous mystery of Antonioni taken to the limit.