Elizabeth Legge,
London: Afterall Books, 2009
ISBN-10: 1-846380-56-1
US$16.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Michael Snow’s Wavelength (US 1966) is a groundbreaking film in every sense of the word, for it marked the end of an era in experimental cinema, and the beginning of the structuralist movement. Elizabeth Legge, one of the latter day champions of the film, has put together a thoroughly detailed analysis of the work from the perspective of a 21st century viewer; but in truth, Wavelength was just one of many influential films of the period in which it was made, although since then, for many, Wavelength has come to stand for experimental cinema of the era as a whole. And for those who want a detailed, careful analysis of Wavelength, Legge’s book is by far the best study of the film to date.

There is, let me make it clear, no doubt about it: Wavelength is a tough, raw, sharply observed piece of cinema; a work that transformed the way that people looked at the plastic and spatial possibilities of film. But as the blurb for the book would have it, “in 1966, at the height of minimal art in New York, artist Michael Snow chose not to make another object to be placed in a room but instead spent a year planning a film of a room:Wavelength, a forty-five-minute more or less straight-line zoom from the near to the far wall of a loft space, accompanied by a rising sine wave.”

This is a brief but more or less accurate description of the bare outlines of the film, except for one thing; minimalism, far from being at its height in New York during this period, was just beginning to gather momentum as a movement, and most of the film and art work of the era was resolutely pop or op, with a strong edge of classical Romanticism. Coming when it did, Wavelength was an anomaly, something altogether unprecedented (except in Snow’s earlier work, or in the more austere films of Andy Warhol from his silent, static camera period).

Wavelength, however, shares with other less rigorous films of the period a raw power and energy that comes from its innovative use of color filters, widely varying film stocks, an innovative use of film grain, a mounting sense of spatial tension, and also Snow’s intentionally raggedy zooming style; although Wavelength appears to be one continuous zoom across the space of the loft, it was in fact done in sections, to accommodate the schedules of the performers and other logistical matters.

As the blurb continues, we learn that the “the zoom [that constitutes Wavelength] is punctuated by what Snow laconically called “4 human events”: a woman directs two men who carry in a bookcase and place it against the left wall of the room; two women come in and listen to the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields [Forever] on the radio; a man [fellow filmmaker Hollis Frampton] briefly appears after protracted crashing and glass-breaking noises, wheels around, and drops dead; a young woman comes into the room and makes a frightened telephone call reporting the dead man … Wavelength won the grand prize for experimental film at Knokke-le-Zoute in 1967, and it was crucial to critics’ efforts to establish a vocabulary for temporal art. It was a “wavelength” that could stand up to the French new wave, and it has functioned ever since as a touchstone for art and film studies, and as a blue screen in front of which a range of ideological and intellectual dramas have been played.”

Wavelength was indeed highly influential, and critics, and thus filmmakers almost immediately appropriated its austere style and structure, as the dominant style of experimental filmmaking from 1967 onward. It was, and is, as the blurb above suggests, a work that became the template for most of the experimental filmmaking that followed, and coincided with the demise of the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque (then operating at 80 Wooster Street), and the rise of Anthology Film Archives, a canonical project that favored minimalist and structuralist filmmaking above all other styles, and projected a “closed set” of “essential works of the art of cinema,” effectively shutting down any oppositional cinema during that period.

For a number of years, operating at its theater in the Public Shakespeare Theater, Anthology ran a fixed, set, unchanging series of films that valorized certain filmmakers, and marginalized others. This was a controversial policy then, and it’s controversial now, although Anthology has long since abandoned this policy, and now screens a wide variety of films, with the “essential” films sprinkled in at regular intervals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selecting a key group of films for viewing, but excluding all others from screening signaled the end of many filmmakers’ careers. One of the key filmmakers excluded from this was the social satirist Stan Vanderbeek, who had been one of the founders of the experimental cinema in New York in the 1960s.

So when I look at Wavelength, as much as I admire it, and think (as any reasonable person should) that it’s a remarkable and audacious piece of work, I can’t help but remember those who were erased by it, suddenly put out of fashion, who couldn’t get screenings of their work anymore, who gave up because what had once been an open scene turned into a resolutely closed one. This isn’t Michael Snow’s fault; his work was just one of many that were made during the era, and Snow and his colleagues, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr and others, were making films that they sincerely believed in, films that are valuable, rich, and deeply invested in an interrogation of the limits of the filmic experience. But there were others, as well, and we’ve now forgotten them, because they lack the champions to write about them.

Figures such as Barbara Rubin, Robert Nelson, Stan Vanderbeek, Ben Van Meter, Ron Rice, Gerard Malanga, Jud Yalkut, Scott Bartlett and many others shared one thing in common: a highly personal and deeply felt vision of a new and anarchic way of looking at film and video, fueled by the inexhaustible Romanticism of the era, and the fact that film and video were both very “cheap” mediums in which to work during the 1960s.

Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol’s assistant, produced the beautiful films In Search of the Miraculous (1967), Preraphaelite Dream (1968), and The Recording Zone Operator (1968); the last film mentioned was shot in Rome, Italy in 35mm Technicolor/Techniscope in the winter of 1968. A different vision is that of Ron Rice, whose feature film The Flower Thief (1960), was shot in 16mm black and white using 50′ film cartridges left over from aerial gunnery equipment used during World War II.  Rice’s Senseless (1962), and Chumlum (1964) are also worth noting, as is Stanton Kaye’s Georg (1964) and Brandy in the Wilderness (1969). 

The pioneering montagist Max Katz should be remembered for his dazzling editorial construct Wisp (1963), and his 77-minute feature film Jim the Man (1970). José Rodriguez Soltero produced Jerovi (1965), Lupe (1966), an elegiac remembrance of Hollywood actress Lupe Velez, and the rigorously formalist feature film Dialogue with Ché (1968), which was successfully presented at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals in 1969, and widely reviewed.

Vernon Zimmerman’s Lemon Hearts (1960), stars the gifted actor Taylor Mead in no less than eleven roles, and is an improvisational comedy shot on a shoestring budget in San Francisco. Ray Wisniewski’s Doomshow(1964) and Bud Wirtschafter’s What’s Happening? (1963) are documents of “happenings” (partially staged theatrical-events) featuring such pioneering New York artists as Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer, La Monte Young and Dick Higgins.

Ben van Meter’s S. F. Trips Festival: An Opening (1967) is a gorgeously multiple exposed record of a “happening” on the West Coast, and has much in common with Wisniewski’s and Wirtschafter’s work. Jud Yalkut, originally a New York based filmmaker associated with the USCO Lightshow group, has continuously made films since the early 1960s, of which Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967), a record of a “happening” conducted by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and US Down By the Riverside (1966) are perhaps best known.

A group of influential films by New American Cinema artists seldom screened today also includes Jock Livingston’s Dadaist-influenced comedy Zero in the Universe(1966), David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm(1968)), revolving around a gay love affair on a Canadian college campus, Dick Higgins’s The Flaming City(1963), a hard-edged “Beat” epic about Manhattan life on the margins and Robert Kramer’s Ice (1969) dealing with a futurist cell of political revolutionaries; all of these films are certainly worthy of revival.

The late Scott Bartlett’s films Metanomen (1966), Off/On (1968) and Moon (1969) exemplified San Francisco’s preferred form of cinematic discourse for a later generation of artists, poets, writers and videomakers; indeed, Bartlett’s Off/On is one of the first films to mix film and video imagery together into a spatial congruent image mix. The visual structures of Bartlett’s films influenced the images we see on MTV today, as well as the digital special effects employed in many contemporary feature films. During his life, Bartlett was sponsored by such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola. Yet today, despite their undiminished impact and undeniable influence, Bartlett’s films are seldom shown.

The works of Shirley Clarke and Maya Deren are well known, but the films of their contemporary Storm De Hirsch are often marginalized. De Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror (1964), to pick just one film from De Hirsch’s considerable body of work, is a 35mm feature film shot in Rome dealing with the lives of three young American women living abroad; screened at the Locarno and Cannes Film Festivals in 1964, and in Vancouver in 1966, this transcendent and ambitious narrative film is only one example of early Feminist cinema that led to the later work of Yvonne Rainer, Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Julie Dash and others.

Dorothy Wiley and Gunvor Nelson’s Schmeerguntz (1966) and Fog Pumas (1967) operate in a zone of feminist discourse, which has been more widely appreciated abroad, particularly in Sweden, than in the United States. Carolee Schneemann is best known for her films Fuses (1964-68) and Plumb Line (1968-72), which both deserve wider exposure. Naomi Levine, Joyce Wieland and Barbara Rubin have also created works of considerable depth and beauty.

So, we come back to Wavelength. A key work of the 1960s, and of experimental cinema during its most explosive and productive era? Unquestionably. But, again returning to the book’s blurb, was Wavelength“crucial to critics’ efforts to establish a vocabulary for temporal art“? Yes, perhaps it was, for certain critics who prized the values that Wavelength so eloquently espoused. But then again, there were numerous other critics (Mekas among them) who championed more aggressively anarchic filmmaking, and whose view of independent cinema was already firmly established at the time.

But as far as the claim that only Wavelength, of all the films of that era, “stand[s] up to the French new wave [as if such a thing were even a project of the American avant-garde in the first place], and has functioned ever since as a touchstone for art and film studies,” I think we should cast our nets wider. There’s a lot of excellent, unsung work out there that needs revival, examination, and similar valorization. Perhaps we should look at some of these films, instead of staying comfortably inside the canon.

Wheeler Winston Dixon,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).View all posts by Wheeler Winston Dixon →