For seven days of stage four lockdown, I returned to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a 41-minute experimental film that zooms slowly through a room. The resultant text is an experiment in repetition, attention, constraint, digression, boredom.
time’s creep isn’t seamless sometimes it jolts
through windows, the world moves a frame imposed on time’s passing arresting time is impossible, even in an empty room white flashes we ourselves flash and yearn (john berryman) celluloid refracted through vhs refracted through vimeo the limits of vision inversion a negative of nothingness presence seeks an absence even in an empty room, perception does backflips.
once upon a ____ yearning for narrative’s arc clutching at the curling helix of a kite tail now, i slouch into not-knowing all i want is to pin down the shape of a day like bernadette mayer chopping vegetables, how rapt attention is to doing this as if it were a story an exercise in small powers to choose one’s frame.
a man falls to the ground we cannot bear it time slouches forward of course, we bear it the camera leaves the dead behind and the sound crests animal buzz of convenience store neon the mozzie’s deadly dance slow waltz of water and air in a room within a room within a room et al my dad texts to remind me freedom is a state of mind.
laura mulvey subverted the male gaze by filming a sphinx under sharp skies michael snow shows zigzags of clouds ripples on water film’s flickering skin like visible pore craters, like death unsloughed like, the dark side of the moon pastoral geometry spied from a plane going nowhere the sirens fall silent.
in park slope c&c learnt to time their lives with the ambulance’s wail. when they clocked off each night, they leant out the window and clapped for the frontline.
I usher my students into virtual galleries and ask them to sit before an artwork. Return each day, I say. Astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again (T.J. Clark). I find myself asking vague questions that carve silent trenches, like, why do we love what or whom we love? Maggie Nelson says, We just don’t get to choose.
Compared to Michael Snow’s still room, the world beyond the window is a-flurry. Everything looks like Windowswap now, the disembodied voyeurism of another’s frame. I have learnt to resent windchimes tinkling in a Parisian breeze, the depth of German greenery. I begrudge the copper bricks of Carlton North, less than five kilometres away.
I dare not record my apartment block’s concrete car park, the brick wall of the adjacent split-level, against which my loud neighbour bounces a basketball when she’s feeling lonely. Thwack, thwack, thwack. A siren song calling the other loud neighbours to join her.
The hum of Wavelength merges with my neighbour’s industrial-strength air-conditioner. On the news today, scientists say a summer of working from home with suburban air-conditioning units blasting will blow the grid.
I’m trying to focus on negative space, but I’m thinking about the fires in California, a ring of flame remapping the forest into territories of life and death. Windowswap keeps returning to images of the Amazon ablaze. Bezos breaks another record for aggregate wealth.
On Zoom my therapist looks out his window. He’s having some kind of crisis, confirmed by a Marshall Mathers peroxide job. I say, Someone went iso-blonde. He says, I’m having a crisis. I say, Well, the crisis is working out for you aesthetically.
The sound of breaking glass brings me back. Again, the body collapses. Again, I’m denied plot’s pleasures. Who is he? How did he die? Who loves him and who will be sad he’s gone? When he slept, what did he see?
I tell my therapist about my incandescent dreams and he says I need to find a productive outlet for my anger. And I say, sure, but where do I put it when I’m trapped in a box? My bedroom is my office, my gym, your office. Can I get a revenge body if there’s nobody around to see it? He says, New York would’ve solved everything, huh, and looks out his window again.
The first time I went to New York I saw Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short films at the New Museum while a fever set in. I can only remember dust motes floating in light. In the Q&A Apitchatpong affirmed the somnolent viewer, who teeters between sleep and wake.
Despite all the emptiness Michael Snow leaves no space for dreaming, or what Anne Carson calls decreation: leaving the centre empty for God.
Wavelength is a 1967 film by Michael Snow.
Wavelength is a pioneering work of “structural cinema”.
Wavelength is the refusal of narrative release.
Wavelength is the suspended reality of a fever dream.
Wavelength is a waking nightmare.
Wavelength is a gentle barrage.
Wavelength is the brutality that can be inflicted by four walls.
Wavelength is architecture divested of the practices of everyday life (Michel de Certeau).
Wavelength is a distraction from my own four walls.
Wavelength is a film about time’s slow passing.
Wavelength is the kind of film my younger self had no time for.
Wavelength is an experiment in endurance.
Wavelength is an experiment of perception’s limits.
Wavelength is an experiment in how much a viewing body can take.
Wavelength is an experiment in denaturalising sound and image.
Wavelength is an orchestra of cicadas at dusk.
Wavelength is the symphony of our machines.
Wavelength is aural sadism.
Wavelength is violence wrenched from its referent.
Wavelength is the dullest murder mystery in the history of cinema.
Wavelength is an anathema to the machine gun cuts of Michael Bay.
Wavelength is a treatise on the illusion of the real.
Wavelength is the pain of the real.
Wavelength is a comment on the zoom’s promise of vision.
Wavelength is the thwarted hope that something might happen.
Wavelength is the distillation of an idea to its pure core.
Wavelength is a cinematic drishti, an arbitrary point of focus that stills eyes and mind.
Wavelength is the possibility of a yellow chair in a white room.
Wavelength is an exercise in a male gaze denying the pleasure of the female body.
Wavelength is the everyday stripped of poetics.
Wavelength is the oceanic made geometric.
Wavelength is the ocean rendered static by the machine.
Wavelength is a climate change film, if you want it to be.
Wavelength is a siren distended.
Wavelength is an augur of what is to come.
Wavelength is a slow death.
Wavelength is silent, finally.
When I close my eyes it’s just footsteps in an empty room. They retreat for the roar of traffic, near then far. The whir of celluloid, dust on the reel, the threat of immolation.
Behind my eyes the film’s palette flickers. Cars passing blur into faraway waves. For the past seven years I lived by a freeway, the traffic sea rocking me to sleep. I moved just before the curfew started, but my old neighbour said at 8pm the dark finally fell silent. For the first few nights, sleep evaded them.
I grew up by the ocean and can confirm midwinter waves are louder than any freeway.
My mind, it makes sound synaesthetic. Vibrations flicker. Visions of planes rushing through the air, artificial wind created by a body hurtling towards the infinity of the pavement, Wonka’s glass elevator shuttling into the sky. Yves Klein leaping into the blue without a safety net, another illusion, erasing the scaffolding that catches the great artist if they fall. This is the sound of suspended animation, an ending that doesn’t come, a body hurtling through time and space forever. If you jump from high enough, don’t you lose consciousness anyway?
I’ve been doing this thing in yoga called ujjayi breath, where you constrict your throat and your exhale sounds like the ocean. Maternal cradle, place o’ plenty, soft wet dark, self and other together forever. No yearning. No lack. But this breath is just the ocean inside a shell.
My friend’s sister disembarked a cruise ship and the world never stopped rocking – a middle-ear malady where she feels permanently suspended between land and sea. Some retirees with the condition spend the rest of their lives on cruises, matching their world to their dis-ease.
Even as a child the seashell seemed a cheap trick, the folly that you could take infinity home with you. Summon it whenever you pleased. The shell just echoed my wet blood pulsing, none of the violence of waves crashing just beyond the window.
In 2003 Michael Snow made a 15-minute edit of the film called WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time).
An edit for shorter attention spans seems to betray the point. I imagine streaming instalments on Netflix, the only escape from our boredom, from the trauma of time passing. An endless feed of kitchen-sink realism. Four-wall realism. Nothing-ever-happens realism. Watching-through-the-window realism.
A canted angle on the pile of clothes in the corner of my bedroom. A slow zoom into the mould that’s infiltrated the shower sealant and can’t be bleached clean. A tracking shot following the vacuum cleaner sucking up detritus of small days. The soundtrack to all that emptiness would be this same buzz, adrenal and thrumming.
I played my students this interview with Eileen Myles where they talked about how all writing needed to be utopian. That they get to create the terms of their world. And I wonder why, when I could’ve written myself into something bigger, I chose another prism?
If I watched the cut for busy people I’d be done by now.
What I’m fumbling for is the possibility of an everyday critical art writing, where sitting before an artwork each day we might accidentally open a channel to sublimity, or at least find a way to acknowledge that the criticism we produce today is the product of four walls creeping in, encroaching on the space of the mind, and what might it mean if we splayed that bare rather than burying it deep?
Do I owe Michael Snow anything, or can I use him as I please?
Bad critics always froth over films about time, when we all know that if the filmmaker succeeded, we’d be bored to death. In the end the marks time leaves on the body are the only trace. Our lives are made bearable by our ability to forget.
I would like to say that memory crested like a wave, a neat loop as the sirens set in, but it’s nothing like that.
early abstractions one week mutterings a summation of time pure illusion a total glissando of memory own it
name lost compositions I did everything I could think of I made some significance things were happening
a photograph of waves a photograph of myself using photographs of waves the body is the photograph of waves total continuity
that motion yeses and nos a metronome a year in the making.
Today I force my students to watch Wavelength as an exercise in durational writing. Today we’re talking about time, about what it means to pay attention.
Earlier I made them read the chapter in Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day about coming home and being a mother and chopping vegetables and how the intensity of your attention can turn one thing into these infinitely smaller things. I want them to see that artmaking can be prosaic, that reading a picture book to a child might be a critical act, but they’re still young enough that the domestic probably repels them.
How does time move when you’re 21 and you have no idea what’s coming? I read that they’re taking lockdown hardest, that the less peaks and troughs you’ve weathered the more pandemic-time feels endless. What I’m trying to tell them is that their attention should be given wisely, but I sound like a father insisting virginity is a sacred present to be bestowed.
I am trying to pay attention to how my 18-month-old goddaughter moves through the world. She stops to inspect each flower as if it were the first. We turn childhood into a truism about inhabiting the present, resisting perceived wisdoms, of seeing each bloom anew. She doesn’t just want to see the flower though, she wants to possess it. She tears off buds with her fat fingers, worrying the petals into paste. Once her object of desire is destroyed, she abandons it without thought and moves on to the next.
She is happy to play the same game over-and-over. The rabbit has found his hat, the rabbit has lost his hat, ad infinitum. At the park she scorns the slide and swing for ‘sitting’. Sitting! she yells as we move from one log to another. She perches her hands on her knees – a picture of properness. And didn’t Freud say that these repetitions, the over-and-again-ness of fort da, was a way of steeling us against loss? To learn that the moment when our mother abandons us will not last forever?
Tarkovsky said if the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.
Watching Wavelength is an exercise in giving up control, accepting you won’t get what you want. How should we occupy our unfreedom?
I imagine my students’ tortured faces on the other side of their screens as the camera creeps toward the photograph of infinity. What I want to tell them is that I think magic is possible when we are all here together, directing shared attention toward a shared aim, which I’m pretty sure is also the magical thinking of The Secret, that we might possess endless abundance if only we believe hard enough, but what about when the classroom becomes a body of water without a frame, where our shared attention buoys us like salt to float outside our shared alienation for just a second.
When the film ends I will say to them, attention is a kind of prayer (Chi Tranh).
Or I will say, attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity (Simone Weil).
Or I will say, the rabbit will find his hat again.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a Naarm-based writer and cultural critic. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University, which she will complete as a 2021 Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University’s Writing Program. Her book The Headless Woman is out with Fireflies Press in 2023.