Wavelength (1967 film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Wavelength is a short, forty-five minute film that made the reputation of Canadian experimental filmmaker Michael Snow. It was filmed over one week in December 1966 and edited in 1967. It was released in May 1967, and is an example of what film theorist P. Adams Sitney describes as "structural film." It won the first prize at EXPRMNTL 4.


Wavelength consists of almost no action, and what action does occur is largely elided. If the film could be said to have a conventional plot, this would presumably refer to the three "character" scenes. In the first scene two people enter a room, chat briefly, and listen to "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the radio. Later, a man (played by filmmaker Hollis Frampton) enters inexplicably and dies on the floor. And last, the female owner of the apartment is heard and seen on the phone, speaking, with strange calm, about the dead man in her apartment whom she has never seen before.

In the end, one can hear what sound like police sirens, but could just as well be a part of the musical score, a distinct piece of minimalist music that pairs tones at random. These tones shift in frequency (and in "wavelength") as the camera analyzes the space of the anonymous apartment. What begins as a view of the full apartment zooms (the zoom is not precisely continuous as the camera does change angle slightly, noticeably near the very end) and changes focus slowly across the forty-five minutes, only to stop and come into perfect focus on a photograph of the sea on the wall.

Structural Film

According to P. Adams Sitney, the trend in American avant-garde cinema during the late 1940s and 1950s (such as the work of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage) was towards "increased complexity". Since the mid-1960s, filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad and Joyce Wieland produced works where simplicity was foregrounded. Sitney labeled this tendency "structural film." The four characteristics of structural film are "fixed camera position…the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen." Sitney describes Snow as the "dean of stuctural film-makers" who "utilizes the tension" of Wavelength's use of a "fixed-frame and…the flexibility of the fixed tripod". Where Sitney describes stuctural film as a "working process," Stephen Heath in Questions of Cinema finds Wavelength "seriously wanting" in that the "implied…narrative [makes Wavelength] in some ways a retrograde step in cinematic form". The principal theme of Wavelength to Heath is the "question of the cinematic institution of the subject of film" rather than the apparatus of filmmaking itself.

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