Jeff Reichert on Wavelength
In his 1965 performance piece Right Reader, the Canadian artist Michael Snow stands on an empty stage behind a large sheet of clear plexiglass hung from the ceiling. (The performance can be watched via Anarchive 2: Digital Snow, a digital archive of Snow’s work.) Affixed to the plexiglass is a black rectangle that creates a frame around Snow’s face. A harsh light from downstage right hits the plastic, rectangle, and artist, casting shadows of all three on the blank wall behind, but the frame draws our attention to Snow who, while lip-syncing to a cheekily self-promoting prerecorded audiotape, displays different artifacts, including a print bearing his trademark “Walking Woman” motif; a jazz album containing a piece allegedly inspired by his art; and, finally, a placard announcing the time and place of his next show (Poindexter Gallery, 21 W. 56th, Dec. 7–Dec 31, 1965).
After the audio runs out, he holds up, in quick succession, a series of three increasingly opaque black cards of the same height and width as the rectangle framing him. By the third, totally black card, his face is obscured entirely; he’s effectively faded himself out. We can see Snow’s entire figure and shadow throughout (switching your attention between the shadow—arm outstretched at a right angle, intersected by a dark rectangle—to the harshly lit face in the frame is like toggling between a Magritte and a Rembrandt). Yet by the simple act of placing his face in a frame, he’s made a larger statement about how we consume art. As with so much of Snow’s work in film, painting, printing, and beyond (Right Reader’s first performance was at something called the “Expanded Cinema Festival”), the frame’s the thing.
In cinema, the frame is always there. It directs our attention to the center of action and then allows the auteur to take over the handling of our gaze. It’s also our life preserver, demarcating areas of vision that are safe havens should we need to look away. Its power over us is massive, but we often don’t think of or notice the frame at all—perhaps we’re made aware of it in the theater prior to a movie’s beginning by the sound of a mechanical motor bringing the masking scrim in tighter or moving it wider, or, in the right repertory circumstance, by the din of patrons hollering that this reframing has been handled improperly. When a movie is incorrectly framed, we notice. When viewing conditions are correct, we don’t: the frame evaporates from our consciousness. But in those rare works when the framed image barely changes, suddenly the frame itself is thrown into relief.
What is it about a frame that draws us in so fully? In this age of proliferating screens, it’s a question worth asking beyond the bounds of cinema. At an exhibition of recent painting at the Museum of Modern Art, the young Columbian artist Oscar Murillo displayed a piece entitled “The Forever Now,” which featured six finished, unmounted canvases piled in a heap on the floor, looking not unlike a stack of laundry, in view of two similar paintings hung on the gallery wall. All the paintings, hung or heaped, were made in approximately the same span of time, with the same sized canvas, and largely the same materials and aesthetic. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of each artwork, there is a feeling that the six on the floor are somehow lesser, though when one examined the individual canvases (museumgoers were encouraged by nearby guards to play with the crumpled paintings), it’s quite difficult to say that one was somehow “better” than another, or that the two hung paintings were somehow worthier of a gallery wall. Murillo’s piece calls attention to a range of hierarchies enmeshed in how we view art: the hung and mounted paintings look more like art than the limp canvases on the floor, but if those latter canvases were, say, piled on the street outside of a row house instead of in a white-walled space at MOMA, we probably wouldn’t consider them at all. Frames, literal and metaphoric, separate what they contain from what they do not. For humans, whose vision functions via recognizing distinctions between colors, objects, foreground, and background, perhaps a frame is a kind of relief: the work of where to look is done for us.
Few artists have so winkingly questioned the complacency engendered by a frame as Michael Snow. In his hands, the frame itself is always under duress, is activated and made unstable in ways traditional narrative films leave us unaccustomed to—it becomes another element of his art, as opposed to the container for it. He has an abiding interest across mediums in how we see, what frames contain, what happens outside of them, and often manipulates the size and shape of his images to frustrate our viewing desires and destabilize our perception. The opening section of his 1981 film Presents begins with an image of a naked woman lying horizontally on a bed in a brightly lit and colored room. She’s far off, her room is small, surrounded by a sea of black, but over time she gets larger, growing in the frame. As we get a better vantage point on her actions, Snow uses optical printing to stretch the image horizontally, turning his nude model into a line of light and disappointing our expectation sof viewing her more clearly. By 2002, with the aid of digital technology, he was pulling *Corpus Callosum’s simple tracking shots of a generic office like taffy, making viewers at all times aware that his images’ boundaries are not set in stone, and not necessarily tied to the size of the screen they’re project upon. His most famous film, 1967’s Wavelength, constructed from a slow, 43-minute zoom in on an anonymous loft space, preserves the integrity of the frame (here 1.37:1) only to give us more opportunity to contemplate and interrogate all of the assumptions built into it.
Of course, Wavelength isn’t a single shot—a 16mm magazine or camera could never accommodate that much film at once. It was filmed over a week in 1966 and the often abrupt changes in time of day, quality of light streaming in from outside, and color filters applied to the image suggest the hand of an active manipulator. (There’s even a flashed frame towards the end of the film, which looks as though a small sunburst has been drawn around an object in the center of the image.) After some exposure flaring signifying the beginning of the film roll, and quickly viewed opening credits scrawled on two pieces of notepaper, Snow cuts to the space which will occupy our field of vision for the rest of the film. It’s a large loft, and the camera is placed somewhat high off the ground looking down, though not so high that we can’t see the banks of fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Four large windows, running floor to ceiling adorn the opposite wall. Each features 16 rectangular panes, making for 64 additional frames within the main image. On the left side of the loft there is a large shelving unit and a few desks are placed near the windows. In between the middle windows, in the center of our vision, there are a few photos attached to the wall—three more frames. (These become important later, and form the basis of Wavelength’s punchline.) As the film opens, we see plenty of the empty wooden floor. The outline of the rectangular planks adds yet another element to the massed geometrics and perpendiculars of the image. The tight, high 1.37 aspect ratio emphasizes how much the frame contains. You can’t look far during Wavelength without some line within the shot intersecting the edge of the frame, or another streaking towards the vanishing point. A line drawing of the film’s central image would look like a test for a class in impossible geometry.
Manny Farber wrote of Wavelength that it is “a straightforward document of a room in which a dozen businesses have lived and gone bankrupt . . . it is a singularly unpadded, uncomplicated, deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling, and a floor.” Now, Farber didn’t write with special access to knowledge of those businesses, or, as perspicacious an observer of film as he was, the ability to preternaturally discern their traces from the single benign image. The length of time all viewers of Wavelength are given to ponder the space, those three walls, a ceiling and a floor, invites us to imprint our own imaginary histories on it. The floor appears worn, which suggests it’s been well trod by many feet. When the film opens, we see some movers carrying a piece of furniture under the orders of a woman, and about three minutes into the film, two women walk into the space, and one puts on a record while the other smokes. Occasionally we see trucks passing by the windows. One can easily derive inferences of commerce from these as much as the telephones on the desk or what the contours of the loft itself suggest. Wavelength is constructed of “real” events that happened in actual space (300 Canal St., to be exact, though today the loft has been carved up into luxe apartments) recorded by a camera built to accommodate a particularly sized frame.
The specificity of that frame itself indexes a certain kind of reality as well. In the late 1960s, 16mm film was the tool of choice for the practitioners of Direct Cinema, so as a result, Primary, Crisis, Salesman, and the like were all shot in the same frame as Wavelength. Introduced in 1923 as a low-cost alternative to 35mm, 16mm had also by this time been long in use by news crews as their main format. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the texture of 16mm film and the 1.37:1 size are the format and ratio that most immediately signify loaded concepts like “truth” and “reality” to viewers, especially those viewers watching Wavelength at the time it was made. Given this, what could really be a more “true” and less mediated viewing experience than one unbroken zoom in a single space? Of course, Snow is here tweaking that Bazinian distinction between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” He recognizes reality as a category continually under negotiation, and an image as a tool for convincing us this isn’t so. In Wavelength’s process of destabilizing both image and reality, Snow reveals that the film frame is not an absolute, nor is it eternal. It is an arbitrary construction.
The record played by the two women who wander into the frame is the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” We hear enough of the tune to note the line “Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.” Think about the way Wavelength is most often discussed in shorthand: as a single zoom. Yet, it’s not. It’s made up of dozens of different shots taken on 14 different rolls of film—there’s even a crucial fade near the film’s end. Even though the zoom feels continuous and we always see the loft from the same angle, these constants merely suggests a reality that can never exist in front of a film camera, at least not in the way we normally assume. Later in Wavelength, Snow introduces elements of movie-ness to further tweak the realism of the equilibrium he’s established. A man (Hollis Frampton) staggers in, and falls to the floor, seemingly dead (is this Farber’s “deadly realism”?). For a second, the film’s register seems to shift. What’s happened? Soon after, a woman strolls in, notices the body, and makes a phone call, laconically telling the listener about the dead man. A new sort of narrative separate from those we have been constructing—about the loft’s history, the women listening to the record, or the woman working with the movers—has entered the frame, yet that frame hasn’t changed and the camera just keeps zooming implacably on. Most films are assimilation machines—they make the images we see cohere, become understandable and legible. It’s the film’s contract with the viewer that they will likely be easily consumed, the frame itself a bond of trust. As Wavelength steadily progresses, our trust in what we see is broken, everything and nothing is real (and nothing to get hung about), and the frame is no longer safe.
Every image captured on film is something of a fictional construction regardless of whether the action performed in front of the camera was actively directed—the introduction of a camera into a space necessarily implies this. Snow’s films often showcase elements of narrative cinema, images that offer the viewer a sense of story. His <—> (1969), in which a camera pans wildly back and forth in a generic classroom, occasionally picking up snatches of action (a kiss between students, others listening to a lecture, a bout of mock fisticuffs, a lonely man cleaning) offers the tantalizing pleasures of narrative film—but its constant, increasingly frenetic panning keeps any sense of narrative opaque and, as our vision becomes more disoriented and we perhaps experience motion sickness, forces us to focus on our own physical sensation as viewers. By the same token, every filmed image is also undeniably “nonfiction”—some one or thing existed at a certain time in front of a camera that was turned on and captured their movements. Considered in this light Snow could then be considered a nonfiction filmmaker of place, time, movement, and light. His epic three-hour La région centrale (1971), constructed entirely from images of a landscape taken by a camera mounted on a spinning, remote-controlled robotic arm, becomes a document of the camera’s wild gyrations in the mountains of Quebec over the 24 hours in which the film was shot. These are not new observations about the dual properties of images, but it’s on this razor’s edge where Snow balances the entirety of Wavelength.
The irony that Wavelength has all this time been zooming in on a photograph of waves pinned to the wall should be lost on none of its viewers—Snow’s had one over on us, building expectations, introducing events without resolution, only to, finally, show us a generic, unremarkable picture. By exploding his climax and notions of “important” filmic events throughout, Snow has asked us to contemplate what we expect from the image itself, employing the realism-saturated 1.37:1, 16mm frame. In his 2002 Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids), he points a camera for an hour at one of the world’s oldest frames—a window—and asks that we just watch as the wind pushes a curtain in and out (this time his frame appears to be 1.77:1, incidentally the new standard for nonfiction cinema). This reiterates with uncluttered simplicity what is perhaps the central theme of his film work: the act of looking is so often rendered passive, but there are wonders that await the activated watcher. Snow’s frames contain multitudes, for those who are ready to really look.