Friday, March 4, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Wavelength (1967)

Wavelength (1967) **
Directed By:
Michael Snow.

There are times when a movie critic just has to admit that a certain film is not for them. For me, Michael Snow’s Wavelength is a film like that. I think I understand what this film, generally considered to one of the best Canadian films of all time, and a film that has been called the Birth of a Nation of Structural film, is getting at. I think it even had the effect on me that Snow wanted it to have. For me though, the experience didn’t add up to very much. I get what the film is saying – I’m just not sure why it needed to be said.

Wavelength has been described as one 45 minute zoom shot, but that isn’t actually accurate, as there is definitely some editing in the film – as we can see when at different moments the screen turns different colors, or the simple fact that it quite clearly goes from day to night and back to day again in that 45 minute span. But it appears to be one 45 zoom take, which is the point. Snow positions his camera at one point looking at a large room with four windows along the far wall, and 3 pictures tacked in the middle wall. And gradually the shot gets closer and closer to one of those pictures. There are people in the movie – but the are merely a distraction – simply a way for Snow to play with our expectations of what a film should be. At the beginning of the film we see a woman and some delivery men dropping off some sort of dresser, then the woman and another woman coming in and sitting down and listening to The Beatles Strawberry Fields. Then nothing but the room. At around the half way point, a homeless man enters and apparently drops dead on the floor, where he stays for the rest of the movie – although as the camera zooms, he gradually gets cut out of the frame. Late in the film a woman enters and calls someone, presumably the police, on the phone about the dead body. And finally, the movie ends with one of the pictures – one of waves in the ocean – taking up the entire screen. And then it’s over.

I have just described the entirety of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. I know many of you are probably wondering why this film was made, and why it ranks on a list of the greatest films ever made, as it does. What the point of Wavelength is, I think, is to show the difference between reality and illusion – and how cinema can easily manipulate the truth. If a person were to stand in the same spot for 45 minutes and look in the same direction, then what they saw would never change. They would have the same perception of the room and everything in it. But the camera is different. Throughout the film, we get different views of the same room, because the camera zooms – and suddenly the reality of the room has changed. When it comes right down to the end, it feels like we are at the ocean, or at least looking at the ocean, because the picture takes up the entire frame. But in fact, we are in the same room we have always been in – and the dead body is still on the floor, and nothing has changed except for our perception.

I’m sure that all of this makes for an interesting debate – and I’m sure they’ve had some in various film classes over the years. Had I seen the film in that sort of setting, and had a debate about it afterwards, perhaps I would feel more strongly toward the film. But I don’t. To me, the film, not matter what meanings Snow gives it, or his audience reads into it, is really just a movie about an empty room. I understand why Snow made the film this way – filling it with other people and a plot would distract from his point, so he gives us just enough of it to make us wonder what is happening, to get us to the end of the film. The people are pointless – they don’t need to be there (and in fact some critics have argued that the people are the one flaw in Wavelength, which would have been a more pure film without them). The film, which can be infuriating and boring at the same time, has the precise effect on the audience, or at least it did on me, as Snow wants it to have. He wants us to stare at seemingly nothing for 45 minutes, as that is the only way to make his point.

When it comes to assigning a star rating to a film like Wavelength, I am somewhat tempted to simply throw up my hands and say I have no idea. On one hand, it is precisely the film Snow wanted to make; it makes it point clearly, and had the effect on me that I think Snow wanted to have. On the other hand, it is an extremely boring film about a room that for the most part is completely empty. I have described the film that I saw, and what I think it all means. If you are still reading this, you already know if you want to see this film or not. Something tells me 99% of people fall in the not category.

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