Wavelength (Snow, 1967)

3 06 2010

Wavelength contradicts its own fame. It is known as the film in which nothing happens. A forty minute zoom towards a picture of some waves. Then you watch the film and, sure enough, there’s a forty approach towards a picture of some waves. But there’s no continuous zoom. There are filter changes. There are time changes. There are changes in the camera’s position. There are superimpositions of the film’s past and future. And most strikingly of all, there is a story. Some women chat. A man dies. A woman walks into the apartment, finds the dead man, and makes a phone call. The film is not interesting because it contradicts its fame, but this contradiction does reveal something interesting. Why is there a contradiction? How can people watch a movie about a guy dying and never mention the guy dying? This is the only whodunit in the history of the genre where it’s possible to forget the fact that there’s a murder mystery going on.

Altman toyed with that idea in Gosford Park years later: make a murder mystery movie and then neglect the murder mystery in favor of everything else. In Gosford Park, everything else amounts to a whole cast of characters, a throng of intrigues, gossip, meaningful glances, and choice words. In Wavelength, everything else amounts to a dull room and the urban movement beyond the windows. Therein lies the humor of the film: a man just died and the camera doesn’t care. The film is praised for subverting narrative, but the subversion happens within the text of the film, not in comparison to other films. A camera flies over a dead body. It doesn’t care. There is a story in Wavelength. Our narrator just finds it uninteresting. It would much rather keep moving towards a picture of some waves while sipping trippy colors and listening to an increasingly deafening hum. And that hum, combined with the slow approach, creates a perplexing feeling of suspense: there is something maddening about this slow approach and that sine wave that threatens our eardrums, something insane. The dead body, in all his ignored glory, contributes to this insanity. It is a tragedy that doesn’t deserve to be dramatized. It just happens. To the camera, it is another fact to be observed, another physical event during its voyage.

We know something is wrong. The noise makes us nervous. The tragedy makes us nervous. If that dead body doesn’t deserve our attention, what will? Who is our camera? What monster guides us in this journey? And where are we being taken? We anticipate the end of the journey like we anticipate the end of the noise. Both are gradual: the noise gradually increases while the destination gradually nears. We await the finale. That the finale is a picture of some waves is, again, humorous. So much anticipation for this? For a bunch of waves? Yet we don’t forget the dread. We leave the theater knowing that we felt something dreadful, something horrible, something resting past or within or between that death that was left unexplored, a death that the camera was complicit with in its decision to not seek out the culprit.

And then there’s the issue of time: waiting, watching space, watching a film remember itself and predict itself, deconstruct basic film truths in a way that is disconcerting: we experience a consistent journey even though it is not consistent, even though there are edits and lapses and trickery. This is true of nearly every film ever made. But here, it’s somehow revelatory. Why? Does Wavelength smother us with boredom to the point where everything is fascinating and new again? Perhaps. It is also a film trapped within walls. And its persistent entrapment traps us along with it. We are forced to stay in this room for interminable minutes. We inhabit this room. A break in the consistency of this physical space — a change of color, the interruption of the space’s future into its present, etc — is a shock. It shows how jolting it can be when a film establishes and breaks its rules with equal vehemence. It shows how spectacular our immersion into a film can be. We live and breathe in that room.

So, it’s a great film? I think so. I think it’s about our relationship to a camera, to a narrator gazing, and how our emotions depend and speak to this camera, which makes its own decisions, and our relationship to the narrative interacts with these decisions — which happens with every film, yes, but Wavelength dramatizes the clash between viewer and narrator by humorously exaggerating it, showing us a glimpse of a great event and then flying over the great event, disappointing our wishes. And yet, this disappointment is not really a disappointment, for we still get a film about a murder. Our camera makes us think differently on the murder, maybe on life itself. Death is not worth emphasizing. It happens, but life itself continues unchanged around it. The camera keeps floating through this unchanging life, or a life, an everything, that does keep changing, morphing, honking, walking, muttering, but not in reaction to the murder, not as a consequence to it. You could say the camera chooses to approach a picture of some waves because it’s as good as any other goal.

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