WAVELENGTH - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1968

Director: Michael Snow

Production: Color, 16mm; running time: 45 minutes. Released January 1968. Filmed during one week of December 1966 in a loft in New York City.

Producer: Michael Snow; screenplay and photography: Michael Snow; editor and sound recordist: Michael Snow; music: Tom Wolff.

Cast: Hollis Frampton ( Man who dies ); Joyce Weiland ( Woman with bookcase/Woman listening to radio ); Amy Taubin ( Woman on telephone/Woman listening to radio ).

Awards: 4th International Experimental Film Competition (Knokke, Belgium), Grand Prize, 1968.



Youngblood, Gene, Expanded Cinema , New York, 1970.

Curtis, David, Experimental Cinema , London, 1971.

History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema , New York, 1976.

Kubelka, Peter, and others, Une Histoire du cinéma , Paris, 1976.

Le Grice, Malcolm, Abstract Film and Beyond , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977.

Sitney, P. Adams, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde , New York, 1979.

Dompierre, Louise, Collected Writings of Michael Snow , Waterloo, 1994.

Shedden, Jim, editor, Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow, 1956–1991 , Toronto, 1995.


"Letter from Michael Snow," in Film Culture (New York), no. 46, 1967.

Mekas, Jonas, and P. Adams Sitney, "Conversation with Michael Snow," in Film Culture (New York), Autumn 1967.

Stoller, James, in Village Voice (New York), 11 January and 11 April 1968.

Yalkut, Jud, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1968.

Lamberton, Bob, in Film Culture (New York), October 1968.

Snow, Michael, "Letter," in Film Culture (New York), October 1968.

Sitney, P. Adams, "Avant-Garde Film," in Afterimage (Rochester, New York), Autumn 1970.

Medjuck, Joe, "The Life and Times by Michael Snow," in Take One (Montreal) January-February 1971.

Michelson, Annette, "Toward Snow," in Artforum (New York), June 1971.

Skoller, Donald, "Aspects of Cinematic Consciousness: Suspense and Presence/Disillusion/Unified Perceptual Response," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1972.

Rosenbaum, J., in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1975.

Heath, Stephen, "Narrative Space," in Screen (London), no. 3, 1976.

Michelson, Annette, "About Snow," in October (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Spring 1979.

Goldsmith, Catherine, "The Complete Films of Michael Snow," in The Gallery (Toronto), March 1981.

Wees, W. C., "Prophesy, Memory, and the Zoom: Michael Snow's Wavelength Reviewed," in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Summer-Fall 1981.

Hamlyn, N., "Seeing Is Believing: Wavelength Reconsidered," in Afterimage (London), Winter 1982–83.

Dunovicova, N., "Focus on Plot: Michael Snow's Wavelength ," in On Film (Los Angeles), Spring 1984.

Rabaté, François, "Image, récit énonciation: A propos de Wavelength ," in Revue d'Esthetique , no. 6, 1984.

Sterritt, David, "Savoring the Art of Experimental Cinema," in The Christian Science Monitor , vol. 83, no. 163, 18 July 1991.

Johnson, K., "Being and Seeing: Michael Snow," in Art in America , vol. 82, July 1994.

* * *

Michael Snow's Wavelength established his reputation as a filmmaker and, with the prestige of the winning prize at the 4th International Experimental Film Competition, it quickly became the showpiece of a movement toward monomorphic, minimalist films (often called "structural films"). The decisiveness with which Snow staked out a territory for investigation, the simplicity and clarity of the film's overall gesture, and the intricacy of its details, were factors in the immediate and continuing attention this film has claimed.

Wavelength describes a single zoom movement for three quarters of an hour across an almost empty New York loft, resting eventually with the frame of a black-and-white photograph of waves pinned to the wall of the room. Within this pseudo-continuity there are innumerable changes of color filters, sudden shifts into negative, changes from day to night, occasional super-impositions, and a series of human events of increasing dramatic significance. The events include moving in a bookcase, listening to a song on the radio, a tramp breaking in and collapsing on the floor, and finally a woman entering and upon seeing the body, telephoning for help because she thinks he is dead.

The human events are filmed with the direct sound which interrupts the steadily increasing sine wave of piercing electronic sound which contributes largely to the uncanniness of the film. The filmmaker dissects the illusion of continuity imposed by zoom, evoking an impressive series of metaphors for memory and death in the process. The opening installation of the bookcase, with its live, unmuffled sound of footsteps mingled with the noises of the street and its commercial traffic, sets the tone of a casual documentary. As we wait for something to happen, that casualness is cancelled by the non-realistic visual and auditory events arranged to emphasize the autonomy of the camera and sound recorder of the audio-visual stimuli. Gradually we come to realize that even such conventional tools as the radio and the telephone are machines for translating sound waves into electronic traces and back into audible sound.

The zoom is a particularly appropriate tool for Snow's critique, because its movement is virtual, in actuality a relationship between two lenses, the image of an image. In the film's temporal scheme, that inner mechanism of the lens is echoed by the frame-to-frame relationship that suggests either movement or stasis depending upon the nature of the still images. The end of the film dramatizes this when Snow dissolves from one image of the photograph of the wave framed on the wall to a closer shot wholly within the photograph. The dissolve cannot be distinguished from the act of zooming. Finally, he declares the fragility of the image itself by simply changing focus on the photograph so radically that the screen goes white: the very threshold of visibility is inscribed within the lens.

Other avant-garde films have dwelled upon the uniqueness of the cinematic images, but none so systematically as Wavelength .

—P. Adams Sitney

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