Wavelength (1967 film)

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Promotional Poster for Wavelength 1967 Film.jpg
Promotional poster for new workprint
Directed by Michael Snow
Written byMichael Snow
Starring Hollis Frampton
Roswell Rudd
Amy Taubin
Joyce Wieland
Amy Yadrin
CinematographyMichael Snow
Edited byMichael Snow
Release date
  • 1967 (1967)
Running time
45 minutes
United States

Wavelength is a 45 minute film by Canadian experimental filmmaker and artist Michael Snow, known for building his reputation upon publicity of the film. Considered a landmark of avant-garde cinema, [1] it was filmed over one week in December 1966 and edited in 1967, [2] and is an example of what film theorist P. Adams Sitney describes as "structural film", [3] calling Snow "the dean of structural filmmakers." [4]

Experimental film, experimental cinema or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working. Many experimental films, particularly early ones, relate to arts in other disciplines: painting, dance, literature and poetry, or arise from research and development of new technical resources.

Michael Snow Canadian artist

Michael Snow, is a Canadian artist working in a range of media including film, installation, sculpture, photography, and music. His best-known films are Wavelength (1967) and La Région Centrale (1971), with the former regarded as a milestone in avant-garde cinema.

Avant-garde works that are experimental or innovative

The avant-garde are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It may be characterized by nontraditional, aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability, and it may offer a critique of the relationship between producer and consumer.


Wavelength is often listed as one of the greatest underground, art house and Canadian films ever made. It was named #85 in the 2001 Village Voice critics' list of the 100 Best Films of the 20th Century. [5] The film has been designated and preserved as a masterwork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. [6] In a 1969 review of the film published in Artforum , Manny Farber describes Wavelength as "a pure, tough 45 minutes that may become The Birth of a Nation in Underground films, is a straightforward document of a room in which a dozen businesses have lived and gone bankrupt. For all of the film's sophistication (and it is overpowering for its time-space-sound inventions) it is a singularly unpadded, uncomplicated, deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling and a floor... it is probably the most rigorously composed movie in existence." [7]

Cinema of Canada filmmaking industry in Canada

The cinema of Canada or Canadian cinema refers to the filmmaking industry in Canada. Canada is home to several film studios centres, primarily located in its three largest metropolitan centres: Toronto, Ontario, Montreal, Quebec and Vancouver, British Columbia. Industries and communities tend to be regional and niche in nature. Approximately 1,000 Anglophone-Canadian and 600 Francophone-Canadian feature-length films have been produced, or partially produced, by the Canadian film industry since 1911.

The Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada was a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the preservation of Canada's audio-visual heritage, and to facilitating access to regional and national collections through partnerships with members of Canada's audio-visual community. In 2008, the Conservative government eliminated $300,000 in funding for the Trust, leading to the cancellation of the program.

<i>Artforum</i> magazine

Artforum is an international monthly magazine specializing in contemporary art.


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 four "character" scenes. Snow's intent for the film was "a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas". The 45-minute-long zoom–which nonetheless contains edits–that incorporates in its time frame four human events in the room, including a man's death and a woman calling emergency later on, is intended to be symbolic of his intent. [8] In the first scene, a woman in a fur coat enters the room accompanied by two men carrying a bookshelf or cabinet. The woman instructs the men where to place this piece of furniture and they all leave. Later, the same woman returns with a female friend. They drink the beverages they have brought, and turn on the radio, which is playing "Strawberry Fields Forever" by The Beatles. Long after they leave, what sounds like breaking glass is heard. At this point, a man (played by filmmaker Hollis Frampton) enters and inexplicably, although in a way to indicate his death, collapses on the floor. Later on, the woman in the fur coat reappears and makes an emergency phone call, speaking, with strange calm, about the dead man in her apartment whom she has never seen before.

Plot (narrative) Concept in narratology: presentation of a sequence of events in a narrative work

Plot refers to the sequence of events inside a story where each event affects the next through the principle of cause-and-effect. The causal events of a plot can be thought of as a series of events linked by the connector "and so". Plots can vary from simple structures—such as in a traditional ballad—to complex interwoven structures sometimes referred to by the term imbroglio. In the narrative sense, the term highlights important points which have consequences within the story, according to Ansen Dibell. Plot is similar in meaning to the term storyline.

A character is a person or other being in a narrative. The character may be entirely fictional or based on a real-life person, in which case the distinction of a "fictional" versus "real" character may be made. Derived from the ancient Greek word χαρακτήρ, the English word dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor" developed. Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves "the illusion of being a human person". In literature, characters guide readers through their stories, helping them to understand plots and ponder themes. Since the end of the 18th century, the phrase "in character" has been used to describe an effective impersonation by an actor. Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practiced by actors or writers, has been called characterisation.

Zoom lens Lens with a variable focal length

A zoom lens is a mechanical assembly of lens elements for which the focal length can be varied, as opposed to a fixed focal length (FFL) lens.

Around the end of the film, 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"), becoming higher-pitched as the camera further 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. The film ends with the camera going completely out of focus and fading to white, as the soundtrack finally raises to a pitch too high to be heard.

Incidental music is music in a play, television program, radio program, video game, film, or some other presentation form that is not primarily musical. The term is less frequently applied to film music, with such music being referred to instead as the "film score" or "soundtrack".

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute, its period—the time interval between beats—is half a second. Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.

Wavelength spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the waves shape repeats, and thus the inverse of the spatial frequency

In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. The inverse of the wavelength is called the spatial frequency. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term wavelength is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.


Hollis William Frampton, Jr. was an American avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer, theoretician, and pioneer of digital art. He was best known for his innovative and non-linear structural films that defined the movement, including Lemon (1969), Zorns Lemma (1970) and (nostalgia) (1971), as well as his anthology book, Circles of Confusion: Film, Photography, Video: Texts, 1968-1980 (1983).

Roswell Rudd American trombonist

Roswell Hopkins Rudd Jr. was an American jazz trombonist and composer.

Amy Taubin is an American film critic. She is a contributing editor for two prominent film magazines, the British Sight & Sound and the American Film Comment. She has also written regularly for The Village Voice, The Millennium Film Journal, and Artforum, and used to be curator of video and film at the non-profit experimental performance space The Kitchen.

Structural film

Still from film Michael snow wavelength.gif
Still from 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". [9] 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." [10] Sitney describes Snow as the "dean of structural film-makers" who "utilizes the tension" of Wavelength's use of a "fixed-frame and…the flexibility of the fixed tripod". [10] Where Sitney describes structural 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". [11] To Heath, the principal theme of Wavelength is the "question of the cinematic institution of the subject of film" rather than the apparatus of filmmaking itself. [12]

Maya Deren American filmmaker

Maya Deren, born Eleonora Derenkowska, was a Ukrainian-born American experimental filmmaker and important promoter of the avant-garde in the 1940s and 1950s. Deren was also a choreographer, dancer, film theorist, poet, lecturer, writer, and photographer.

Stan Brakhage American filmmaker

James Stanley Brakhage, better known as Stan Brakhage, was an American non-narrative filmmaker. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th-century experimental film.

Paul Jeffrey Sharits was a visual artist, best known for his work in experimental, or avant-garde filmmaking, particularly what became known as the structural film movement, along with other artists such as Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow.

In 2003, Snow released WVLNT (or Wavelength For Those Who Don't Have the Time), a shorter (1/3 of the original time) and significantly altered version by overlaying multiple forms of the original film upon itself. [13]

Critical reception

The screening of Wavelength in 1967 was, according to filmmaker Jonas Mekas, "a landmark event in cinema." [14] Considered a canonical avant-garde film along with Léger and Murphy's Ballet mecanique (1924), Buñuel and Dalí's Un chien andalou (1929), Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Stan Brakhage's Mothlight (1963) and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1964), [15] Wavelength's 45-minute running time nevertheless contributes to a reputation for being a difficult work: [16]

[G]iven the film's durational strategy, we feel every minute of the time it takes to traverse the space of the loft to get to the infinite space of the photograph of waves—and the fade to white—at the film's end. The film inspires as much boredom and frustration as intrigue and epiphany.... [16]

The film won the Grand Prix at the 1967 Knokke Experimental Film Festival, Knokke, Belgium. [17] and in a 1968 Film Quarterly review, Jud Yalkut describes Wavelength as "at once one of the simplest and one of the most complex films ever conceived." [18] In a 1968 L.A. Free Press review of the film, Gene Youngblood describes Wavelength as "without precedent in the purity of its confrontation with the essence of cinema: the relationships between illusion and fact, space and time, subject and object. It is the first post-Warhol, post-Minimal movie; one of the few films to engage those higher conceptual orders which occupy modern painting and sculpture. It has rightly been described as a triumph of contemplative cinema.'"

Wavelength ranked 102nd in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll of the greatest films ever made, and also received three directors' votes. [19]


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(nostalgia) is a 38-minute 1971 film by artist Hollis Frampton (1936–1984). The film is composed of black-and-white still photographs taken by Frampton during his early artistic explorations which are slowly burned on the element of a hot plate, while the soundtrack offers personal comments on the content of the images, read by fellow artist Michael Snow. Each comment/story is heard in succession before the related photograph appears onscreen, thus causing the viewer to actively engage with the 'past' and 'present' moments as presented within the film.

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  1. "Few filmmakers have had as large an impact on the recent avant-garde film scene as Canadian Michael Snow, whose Wavelength is probably the most frequently discussed 'structural' film." Scott MacDonald, "So Is This by Michael Snow" Film Quarterly Vol. 39, No. 1 (Autumn, 1985): 34.
  2. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979 p. 375
  3. Sitney pp. 368-397
  4. Sitney p. 374
  5. Reprinted in Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, London: Studio Vista, 1971, p. 250
  6. Robert Enright, "The Lord of Missed Rules: An Interview with Michael Snow" Border Crossings v. 26 no. 2 (May 2007): 22
  7. Sitney, p. 369
  8. 1 2 Sitney, p. 370
  9. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, p. 166
  10. Heath, p. 129
  11. "The density of Wavelength is foregrounded in Snow's own 'preemptive' digital version of the film, WVLNT or Wavelength For Those Who Don't Have the Time (2003), which divides the film into thirds and superimposes them into a fifteen-minute short. This point was made recently hy Bart Testa, in a 2007 SCMS paper, 'Michael Snow's Film Encyclopedias 1991-2005.' Michael Zryd, "Avant-Garde Films: Teaching Wavelength." Cinema Journal 47, Number 1 (Fall 2007): 111-112.
  12. Enright, 23
  13. Michael Zryd, "Avant-Garde Films: Teaching Wavelength" Cinema Journal Vol. 47 Issue 1 (Fall 2007): 111
  14. 1 2 Zryd, 110
  15. Jud Yalkut, "Wavelength by Michael Snow" Film Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 1968): 50
  16. "Votes for Wavelength (1967)". British Film Institute. Retrieved January 17, 2017.