Michael Sicinski

This is a slightly revised version of an essay published in Qui Parle vol. 11 no. 2. My intent is to use the website to make semi-regular revisions on this piece, as time permits.


Michael Snow's Wavelength and the Space of Dwelling


In 1967, Michael Snow presented Wavelength, his fifth film, for the first time.  Jonas Mekas has recalled this initial screening of the the first completed lab print, for a private gathering of Snow's friends in New York City, saying, "I had no doubt we had just witnessed a landmark event in cinema" (Mekas, in Shedden 1995, 85).  The history of experimental film has borne out Mekas's belief, and while a viewing of Wavelength today remains unlike any other cinematic experience imaginable, Michael Snow remains an artist commonly admired from afar, respected in the United States but not exactly well-known, and afforded inconsistent attention by recent academic cinema studies.  In the brief essay cited above, Mekas compares Snow to Andy Warhol, and laments the fact that Snow has not attained the same degree of notoriety (ibid).  The comparison is instructive.  While it would be reductive and inaccurate to call Snow "the Canadian Warhol," he is without a doubt the most important Canadian visual artist of the twentieth century.  Like Warhol, as well as Marcel Duchamp and Yoko Ono (another of the century's major artists, equally ignored but for very different reasons), Snow has built a body of work astonishing in its range of media, encompassing major contributions in painting, sculpture, photography, and jazz, as well as cinema.[1]

Mekas goes on with the comparison, conjecturing that part of the widespread preference for Warhol over Snow has to do with identity politics.[2]  This might be partially correct, but the emergence of queer Warhol studies has been a recent development, one dedicated to correcting a long-standing elision of issues of sexuality in Warhol scholarship.[3] It is tempting, and not altogether inaccurate, to further attribute the relative eclipse of Snow to chauvinism on the part of the New York-based artworld.  While Snow lived in New York for a brief time, during which he made Wavelength among other key pieces, R. Bruce Elder has argued that Snow is a quintessentially Canadian artist[4], just as Warhol was in many ways fundamentally "American" (especially in his embrasure of capitalism as an epistemological position) and virtually synonymous with the New York scene of the 1960s and 70s.  In contrast with Warhol's experiments in the radical levelling power of the media, Elder argues that Snow's interest in the dialectical interaction between subjective and objective experience, neither erradicating the other but achieving a higher order, reflects a concern common to many Canadian art and film practitioners (Elder 1989, 200).

But all in all, the key difference between Michael Snow and Andy Warhol is to be found in the work itself, and in the source materials upon which it draws.  Warhol is in many ways the easier artist.  Although Warhol's work is in most cases just as complex as Snow's, his work on popular cultural icons, as well as his willingness to engage directly with the visual language of advertising, envelopes his conceptual strategies within a veneer of populist accessibility.  Snow's work has always been harder-nosed, even in his popular public sculptural works such as those installed in Toronto's Eaton Centre shopping mall and Skydome Stadium.[5]  While Warhol's camp sensibility often allows a point of entry into work which is in many ways austere and serialist, conversely the dry wit and sensuous character of Snow's work is often missed by viewers unable to engage with its surface minimalism.  Warhol's most aggressively experimental work, especially the extended cinema pieces like Empire and Sleep, are more often discussed that seen; in many ways this has been the fate of much of Snow's oeuvre in the United States.

Wavelength is something of an exception; in fact it is the work by which Snow is known best in this country.  This is not to say, however, that its fundamental strangeness and aesthetic radicality have been completely embraced.  In fact, among those who have written critically about Wavelength, there are assumptions which impede the full appreciation of the materialist insights the film offers.  Snow's film, whose primary action is the gradual zoom across a loft space by decreasing the camera lens's focal length, has consistently been described as a "narrative" film, albeit one which breaks most of the rules of that mode of discourse.  Even while allowing that Wavelength is a metacommentary on the filmic process, critics have continued to see this process as primarily a temporal one.  Such temporalization has largely been thought strictly within the framework of film narrative, "narrative" and "temporality" essentially conflated (as is so often the case when dealing with the film medium).  Such premises ensnare Snow's film within a regime of cinematic thought which the film should be understood to demolish.  The drive to co-opt Wavelength on behalf of narrative cinema is isomorphic with the action which narrative cinema itself exacts on cinematic space.  Both bespeak a desire to bend their respective objects into accordance with pre-given, schematic demands. 

Enabling my attempt to reconsider Wavelength are the works of two theorists, both of whom recognize rationalization and domination as the key dangers of modernity.  The first is Martin Heidegger, who locates a waning of our powers of apprehension in a desire to "apprehend," through a seizing which determines in advance what the beings in question will (be allowed to) be.

Representing is no longer the apprehending of that which presences, within whose

unconcealedment apprehending itself belongs, belongs indeed as a unique kind of

presencing toward that which presences that is unconcealed.  Representing is no

longer a self-unconcealing for . . . , but is a laying hold and grasping of . . . What

presences does not hold sway, but rather assault rules (Heidegger 1938, 149).


It is certainly impossible to come to a film or any other cultural artifact with no preconceptions whatsoever, but this is not what Heidegger is calling for in this passage.  Rather, he asks if in engaging in representation (in this case, critical representations of Wavelength), we might resist an instrumental urge to simply "lay hold," an urge which precludes a transformative encounter with the (art) object represented.  For the object will not self-disclose in the absence of an attentive viewer who "co-discloses" through his or her encounter with the object. 

But Heidegger's thought shall help us to rethink more than just the prevalent critical interpretations of Wavelength and the services into which they have been pressed.  Particularly in some of his late essays, Heidegger offers us a partial vocabulary for describing the coming-to-presence of space and spatial relations, in ways which need not be understood as primarily narrative.  This is admittedly a reading of Heidegger which runs counter to some major themes in his work.  Questions of temporality and historicity, of returning to philosophical origins and retracing paths through tradition, are certainly related to narrative.  Heidegger's contribution to the hermeneutical tradition, as Richard Palmer has noted, is the articulation of historical with ontological time.  Our understanding of Dasein "is not a fixed understanding but historically formed, accumulated in the very experience of encountering phenomena" (1969, 128).  Paul Ricoeur has taken the Heideggerian philosophy of temporality in an explicitly narratological direction.  Ricoeur argues that the category of "care" in Being and Time is that projective mode through which we understand our own "within-time-ness," intersects with a narrative experience of history.  The experience of "plot," he claims, constitutes the ways in which we are able to reflect upon the historicity of our Being.


The gap between Heidegger's concept of historicality and our own concept of narrative

 time would be unbridgeable if Heidegger did not provide us with a mediating concept

and if our analysis of narrative time could not be raised above the level of within-time-

ness.  As concerns Heidegger, the stroke of genius is to have ascribed to what he calls

Wiederholen ("repetition" or "recollection") the fundamental structure thanks to which

historicality is brought back to its origin in the originary structure of temporality.  Through

repetition, the character of time as stretching-along is rooted in the deep unity of time as

future, past, and present . . . (Ricoeur 1980, 178).


 In some of Heidegger's later work, however, a related but different tendency can be observed.  A new concern for spatiality, and the coming-to-presence of spaces, offers the possibility for thinking with Heidegger about Being as an irreducibly spatial, materialist process.  Such a reading is in large part facilitated by placing the later Heidegger alongside a second major theorist of modernity, Henri Lefebvre.  Lefebvre's 1974 book The Production of Space provides a materialist framework for understanding the relationship of spatiality and the built environment to social relations, and, in so doing, can provide an analysis complementary to that of Heidegger for estimating the consequences of Wavelength's rupture of traditional cinematic language. 

Lefebvre's book intends to serve as a corrective to what he identified as a recurrent trope within Western metaphysics: the privileging of time over space, and, within spatial analysis itself, the privileging of "space" as an abstract concept, denigrating or ignoring altogether social space as collective, material praxis.  Near the beginning of the book, Lefebvre traces the lineage of this problem in Western thought, identifying Nietzsche as the sole figure attributing adequate importance to space (Lefebvre 1974, 22).  In fact, taking Lefebvre to the letter on this point would cast aspersion on the project of this essay, since he identifies Heidegger himself as yet another philosopher whose principle concern is with time, space serving only as the location for a temporalized conception of Dasein.And yet space -- the woods, the track -- is nothing more and nothing other than 'being-

there', than beings, than Dasein. And, even if Heidegger asks questions about its origin,

even if he poses 'historical' questions in this connection, there can be no doubt about the

main thrust of his thinking here: time counts for more than space; Being has a history, and

history is nothing but the History of Being (Lefebvre 1971, 121).


While it is true that this criticism is ultimately borne out in Heidegger's consideration of spatiality in Being and Time[6], I identify many related concerns between Lefebvre's text and Heidegger's later essays on dwelling, technology, and the "world picture."  Although their emphases differ, both authors are mobilizing their respective critical apparatuses against a cold abstraction of the lived world, the domination embodied in a form of modern rationality which is insufficiently attentive to lived human experience,   Lefebvre's philosophy demonstrates the extent to which our position within the physical dispensation of social space serves to condition our human potential and perceptions.  Conversely, Heidegger's ruminations on dwelling as a coming-to-presence seem to hinge on recognition of our spatial "thrownness."  From these instants derive both the material reality of spaces, and their subsequent temporal dimension, in terms of a reconfigured past and reimagined future.      

The dialectical terms of Heidegger's concept of spatial copresencing are almost photographic in their play of revealing and concealing.  By contrast, Lefebvre's descriptions of spatial representations emphasize their almost sculptural solidity.  Wavelength provides an ideal pivot point between these modes of thought.  As I hope to show, Michael Snow's film is also concerned with investigating the relationship between spatiality and dwelling, in particular by interrogating cinema's specific role within this constellation.  First, I plan to reexamine some of the most influential critical responses to the film, with an eye to the way in which they continually reinscribe the film within a temporal framework, perceiving spatiality as a mere facilitator for Wavelength's temporal unfolding.[7]  Furthermore, I will detail the manner in which, even for the most astute critics of avant-garde cinema, "temporality" in film remains irrevocably inscribed within narrative.  The consequences of this "narrativizing" of Wavelength serve not only to domesticate the film's radical break with conventional film language, but also to seal over those fault lines which jeopardize narrative's ideological primacy, cracks in a massive edifice through which the piercing light of  Wavelength aggressively shines.  Following from a shift of emphasis away from narrative time to non-narrative space, the aforementioned theories of Heidegger and Lefebvre will hopefully offer a critical lens more adequate to the work performed by Snow's film.[8]


I.  Narrative as Enframing

In her seminal essay "Towards Snow," Annette Michelson describes the effect generated by Wavelength as that of a bringing-to-self-consciousness of the process of consciousness itself.  The film, she argues, provides a metaphor for the process of seeing, a "literal" metaphor redoubled by both the camera / loft and the eye / screen relationships.  Wavelength, as one of a number of cinematic works which "present themselves as analogues of consciousness" (Michelson 1971, 172), is seen by Michelson as a real-time (if slowed) analogue for the process of perception, of which the film itself might be seen as a "document."  Borrowing from phenomenologist Aron Gurwitsch, Michelson understands the perceptual processes of consciousness to be entirely temporal.  She quotes Gurwitsch as follows: "In modern terminology one could compare consciousness with a perpetual succession of kinematographic pictures . . . a unidimensional sphere of being, whose fundamental structure consists only and exclusively in temporality" (quoted in Michelson 1971, 172).

Just prior to this portion of Gurwitsch's quoted text is a recapitulation of an analogy by David Hume, who called consciousness "a theatre without a stage" (ibid).  So, for Gurwitsch and by extension for Michelson, Wavelength is not only primarily concerned with temporality, but temporality as theater.  This is only the clearest example of a desire which seems to emerge with great regularity when spectators are confronted with Wavelength: a narrative urge.  Michelson uses language such as "threshold of tension," "horizon of expectation," phrases which seem to re-enfold Snow's film within a tradition of narrative film grammar in which, he has noted, he was never especially interested (MacDonald 1993).[9]  This model of conscious as solely temporal, and the consideration of Wavelength as a paragon illustration of this model, reduces space to a secondary "place," that place in which time (as consciousness) passes as a set of narrative perceptions.  In fact, Michelson claims that Wavelength effects an "emptying" of space.


We are proceeding from uncertainty to certainty, as our camera narrows its field, arousing

and then resolving our tension of puzzlement as to its ultimate destination, describing, in

the splendid purity of its one, slow movement, the notion of the "horizon" characteristic

of every subjective process and fundamental as a trait of intentionality. . . And it is as if

by emptying the space of his film (dramatically, through extreme distancing, visually by

presenting it as mere volume, the "scene" of pure movement in time), Snow has re-defined

filmic space as that of action (Michelson 1971, 174-175).


Our perception happens in time -- this is true.  But the emphasis on the concatenation intentionality-temporality-action provides a merely idealist model of sense perception, which is also, of course, a material process.  The concept "intentionality" here seems to center the perceiving subject, placing her or him within a sensual framework of which she or he is the master.  The sensual world described by Michelson unfolds for the perceiver.  "Action," here, I take to be the film's analogic doubled experience -- the "action" of the zoom and the "action" of the spectator's consciousness toward the filmic information on screen.  Michelson, perhaps in anticipation of a critical condemnation of Wavelength as "illegible," situates the film within a field of narrativized "action."


. . . for someone . . . deeply and exclusively committed to the film of tight narrative structure,

Wavelength could, above all other films from the American [sic] avant-garde, present some-

thing both new and familiar, welcome, in any case -- if one understands the continuity of the

zoom action to stand as a kind of quintessential instance of that spatio-temporal continuity

subtending the narrative integrity of those comedies, westerns, gangster films which formed the

substance of the Hollywood tradition . . . (ibid)


To some extent this characterization of Snow's film stands to reason.  To the hypothetical viewer accustomed to films which adhere to a traditional narrative grammar, the temporal protraction of Wavelength is likely to be its most disconcerting aspect.  In fact, at moments the film is so still that it appears not to move, and Michelson's description reminds us that Wavelength remains true to cinema's fundamental status as a time art.  Michelson's analysis, however, tends toward the homeopathic.  Wavelength treats traditional "film time" with visual "thought-time."  That is, we shift from time to metatime.  Like enframes like.

By placing Wavelength within the narrative tradition, albeit as a metacommentary on that tradition (a film whose "story" is the purely temporal cognitive process of watching films),  Michelson locates Wavelength within a temporal humanism, implying that the film proposes a spectatorship which posits "humanity" (or more precisely, a specific, historically determined notion of what being human means) as both centered subject and represented object of any filmic experience.  This is a reasonable interpretation to infer from the film, especially given the role of temporality in the phenomenological thought prevalent in both Snow's and Michelson's thinking at this time.  However, this view does not fully account for Snow's deconstructive move, one much more radical than mere metacommentary.  Rather than recenter the viewing subject in time, Wavelength dislodges the bourgeois humanism of both film narrative and the cinematic apparatus itself, precisely by charging right through them, following them through to their dialectical conclusions.

The movie camera inherits Quattrocento perspective from easel painting.  This mode of perception, which posits a monocular subject for whom a coherent visual world unfolds, is of course wholly conventional and, in fact, distorts its subject, erring however on the side of apparent clarity.[10]  Jean-Louis Baudry has analyzed the cinematic apparatus and elaborated its embodiment of the Renaissance perspectival ideal.  The world as visioned by the camera is captured, framed, and distanced in accordance with a subject position safely outside that which is filmed, a spectacle laid out before a mastering eye.


The world is no longer only an "open and indeterminate horizon."  Limited by the framing,

lined up, put at the proper distance, the world offers up an object endowed with meaning,

an intentional object, implied by and implying the action of the "subject" which sights it

(Baudry 1970, 537).


Like Michelson, Baudry identifies in the filmic spectacle an implied action of consciousness, performed by a subject, with intention toward the object under scrutiny.  However, this drama of visuality is not benign, an abstract temporality concretized in the profilmic event.  Baudry recognizes that the look enforced by the "window on the world" is the look of bourgeois ideology.  Idealist humanism is literally inscribed upon the object so seen.


. . . [I]f the eye which moves is no longer fettered by a body, by the laws of matter and

time, if there are no more assignable limits to its displacement -- conditions fulfilled by

the possibilities of shooting and of film -- the world will not only be constituted by this

eye but for it.  The movability of the camera seems to fulfill the most favorable conditions

for the manifestation of the "transcendental subject" (Baudry 1970, 537).


The narrative of consciousness which Wavelength allegedly dramatizes is "the story of the eye," an organ which is conceived here not so much as part of the body, but as Leo Steinberg put it, "a part of the mind."  According to the perceptualist, "theatre of consciousness" model, then, Wavelength is indeed an axiomatic film.  It could be understood in this light to dramatize the disembodied eye of the transcendental subject, the zoom across the loft dramatizing the apprehension of that spectacle which was created precisely for such a subject, whom it in turn confirms. And in so doing, it would be temporality as lived time -- the time spent absorbing the film itself -- which is the concrete activity of the narrative, because this Albertian apparatus effects an abstract levelling of space ("emptying the space").  This abstraction and nullification of the materiality of space is a precondition of filmic narrative.

Stephen Heath has explored this imperative in his essay "Narrative Space."  In it, he retraces the history of the abstraction of space in Western representation, starting from the Renaissance and culminating in the cinematic apparatus (1976, 391).  He extends this line of inquiry into the ideological effects of cinema through an examination of the concomitance of narrative clarity and the visual mastery of the perspectival model.  Space, Heath argues, has the potential to be in excess of the narrative demands of a story-film; its materiality poses a threat to the singular meaning necessary to insure the so-called universal legibility of linear narrative.  The first step in the process of "domesticating" space for narrativity is, as previously argued, implicit in the optical system of the apparatus itself.  The Albertian model takes the eye outside of the spectacle, insuring that it is, as Heath writes, "no longer englobed in the area of the painting" (ibid).  In so doing, space becomes an object from which the eye is set apart, putting its insistent materiality at a manageable distance.  But the semiotic hold of a specifically narrative film experience requires a second-order hypostatization of space in order to assure its dominance.


The filmmaker, like the painter, must make decisions about the frame, in accordance with the film apparatus's historical inheritance of the bounded visual field of easel painting (Heath 1976, 390)[11].  The frame, as a boundary which not only excises a specific, limited "window" from the visual field, but ascribes to it an artificial geometrical order, has evolved in mainstream film production into a primarily temporal circumscription.  Heath elaborates:

Frame space . . . is constructed as narrative space.  It is narrative significance that at any

moment sets the space of the frame to be followed and "read," and that determines the

development of the filmic cues in their contributions to the definition of space in frame . . .

Narrative contains the mobility that could threaten the clarity of vision in a constant

renewal of perspective; space becomes place -- narrative as the taking place of film -- in

a movement which is no more than the fulfillment of the Renaissance impetus . . . (Heath

1976, 392).


Thus, in a narrative film, space serves as a container for a predetermined set of actions, as "place" or locale.  Space's material existence is disarticulated as narrative space becomes "background" to the elaboration of figures on / in a stage, usually the "center stage" of the Albertian vanishing point.  "The vision of the image is its narrative clarity and that clarity hangs on the negation of space for place, the constant realization of center in function of narrative purpose, narrative movement . . ." (Heath 1976, 394).

In the traditional narrative film, space is both container (or action / temporality) and contained (by the frame, which in turn "bounds" only narrative action).  In either case, the aggressive assertion of space as a palpable entity serves to derail primary narrative clarity.[12]  In this respect, the abstraction of human sense perception which characterizes readerly narrative discourse finds itself bolstered by a visual analogue.  Just as, in conventional realism, no detail appears which is without some function, even if that function is only to serve as a "nothing," an authenticating triviality which attests to the "reality" of the scene, the narrative space of traditional film-frame space is present to be "acted through," as one plays through a golf course. The space of the green is just so much noise surrounding each hole along the narrative.  And as such, narrative space is presented in order to ratify that which transpires within it.[13]  Spaces such as this, of course, do not merely appear in the world.  Like the technological development they are, they are productions.  However, rather than displaying their producedness, asking spectators to assess them as produced spaces which could have been produced in other, perhaps more sensitive ways, narrative spaces work to efface the evidence of their having been produced.  They tend to be presented as inevitabilities, which, given that they are cut to the measure of narrative demand, is not really inaccurate.


The need is to cut up and then join together in a kind of spatial Aufhebung that

decides a superior unity, the binding of the spectator in the space of the film, the

space it realizes. . . . the space constructed in film is exactly a filmic construction

(Heath 1976, 394-395).


Narrative space, then, might best be understood as a form of technology in the sense criticized by Heidegger in his essay "The Question Concerning Technology," as a means of mastery which "challenges forth."  The profound arrogance of a humanism which, in Heidegger's view, has tragically lost its way, is evidenced by the predictability, standardization, and encapsulation which traditional narrative inflicts upon filmic space.


What kind of unconcealment is it, then, that is particular to that which comes to stand

forth through this setting-upon that challenges?  Everywhere everything is ordered to

stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call

for a further ordering.  Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing.  We

call it the standing-reserve [Bestand]. . . . Whatever stands by in the sense of standing-

reserve no longer stands over against us as object (Heidegger 1955, 17).


It seems not at all coincidental to a discussion of Heidegger's critique of instrumentality that the optical domination of space within cinema, which remains primarily a temporally deployed medium, begins with the imposition of the frame.  For with the frame comes a physical boundary which forces that which exists within its perimeter to submit to an external demand to be something discrete and completely knowable.  Heidegger identifies "enframing" as the modern technological mode, a means-end rationalization of the world in which difference is leveled in order to provide a predictable standing-reserve, able to be brought to bear for the confirmation of that worldview which flatters the human subject with a false omnipotence.  In such arrogance Heidegger recognizes the danger of technological thinking.


This danger attests to us in two ways.  As soon as what is unconcealed no longer

concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve,

and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-

reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to

the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.  Meanwhile

man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the

earth.  In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters

exists only insofar as it is his construct.  This illusion gives rise in turn to one final

delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself

(Heidegger 1955, 27).


This complex passage requires some explication.  For Heidegger, the process of unconcealment is the mode of the revelation of truth, and this process relies on a series of interlocking injunctions.  The act of unconcealment is an ongoing entering-into-presence of something which can occur in two modes.  One is physis, which Heidegger likens to the flower coming to bloom of its own accord, a natural process (which must nonetheless be witnessed or attended to).  The creative act, however, is for Heidegger poiesis, the bringing-forth of truth by revealing it, as the builder brings his or her craft into being through a becoming-responsible to the medium.  This material act is a co-presencing, whereby the artisan is "starting something on its way into arrival" (1955, 9).  In the act of fashioning not just a mere object but a work of human expression from the "raw" material, the artisan can be understood to reveal the medium, bringing forth from it something new which in some way was latent within it, concealed.  The creative act, in a sense, allows the material to "presence," to be seen and exist in a new way.

Of course, this craftsperson has a choice, one which is not entirely free but must take into consideration those social pressures placed upon him.  Shall they fashion a work which exhibits his or her vision of good, socially-minded design, or build cheaply and satisfy the whims of a fickle marketplace?  And, if the latter is chosen, what are the consequences?  As Heidegger states in the passage quoted above, in cutting the world to its own measure, humankind drives itself to the brink of its own objectification.  In ascribing to the material world, and to other people, only those characteristics which one requires for the reinscription of one's own sense of identity, one clearly makes a world in which all one could expect for oneself is to be so dominated in turn.  This is the irony of the moment of modern technological thinking: humankind's placement at the center of its own universe creates the conditions for its own self-domination.

Enframing, then, is that bounded mode of apprehension in which there is a place for everything, and that which falls outside that specific place of designated action (in the narrative frame or the quotidian visual field) is simply not seen.  How do we truly consider the space which the camera will not see, which is in excess of the technology of narrative temporality?  As we have seen, within the logic of enframing which asserts the priority of narrative time, those material spaces of Wavelength are simply recuperated, brought within the time-frame of our own "perceptual" histories.  Or, arguing within another popular register, one can englobe the world within a different narrative and, rather than grafting it onto the film, decry Snow as an apolitical bourgeois who refuses out of stubbornness to tell the correct story.  The synthetic category "structural film" is too commonly dismissed as telling "non-narrativity" as the story of its own presumed privilege.  Films like Wavelength are then made to stand in for a cold, institutionally-sanctioned elitism which "effaces" history, "history" understood only in terms of narrativity.  Such a master narrative of an allegedly stable referent -- "politics" -- allows David James to write the following.


Relinquishing the populist ambitions of the underground and the revolutionary ones

of contemporary political filmmakers, structural film became Art, high culture distinct

from and opposed to the mass media in general and the film industry and even other

independent film in particular.  But in thus repressing its social milieu, it deprived

itself of anything to represent.  Its anathemazation of narrative was as much a social

inevitability as a formal choice.  Precluded from engaging or even recognizing its own

social situation, it had no story to tell (James 1989, 275).


Within this story, it seems, the properly "political" film, we can assume, is not the stageless "theater" of consciousness, but consists of those acts contained within the social theater, the "theater" of history.  We begin to act in the theater of politics from that "place" in which we find ourselves.  But Wavelength asks after the philosophical consequences of this very thrownness.  As Jonathan Rosenbaum succinctly puts it, "at the moment when perception itself becomes a political question, Snow's work functions politically" (Rosenbaum 1983, 187).


II. The Materiality of Dwelling


Wavelength could be understood, as I suggested earlier, as a submission to the constraints of the cinematic apparatus.  This specifically means that the successive images of the loft space which are created by the film unfold visually for the viewer's eye, in accordance with those geometric rules which governed the invention of an illusionistic, perspectival cinema.  Not coincidentally, the space of the film is that most easily rendered of geometric abstractions, the cube.  The high angle of the camera suggests, for the first third of the film, a cube described from the upper right hand corner, at a slight tilt, so as to subtly emphasize the illusion of depth proffered by the camera.  The scene is spatially bounded by the rear wall and windows, which through much of this portion of the film tend to flatten the cityscape outside the windows.  The scene thus inscribed, then, is a paradigmatic geometric abstraction, which the camera centers on screen for the centered viewer, sitting still, at the designated angle of vision. 

The film, however, inscribes the subject of mastery at the apex of the inverted pyramid of perfect vision precisely in order to emphasize that subject's subsequent objectification in accordance with the very visual abstraction which purports to deliver the world.  Human activities occur within the space to the camera's utter indifference.  But more importantly, the insistent tightening of the space rendered by the apparatus could be seen to thrust the spectator into an unwelcome vision of the perfect world promised by abstract illusionism.  This is a world evacuated of subjectivity, given over to an enframing mastery out of control.  Upon first viewing Wavelength it is difficult not to feel as though one is being physically held in place, information inundating the windshield of the world's slowest vehicle.  As Heidegger promised, that system of domination whereby one enframes the world boomerangs dialectically, dominating the master in turn.  By following the consequences of the cinematic apparatus through to their logical conclusion, Snow brings apparatus theory full-circle.  The promise of the fully present humanist subject of conventional cinema becomes radically dehumanized, starkly erased.  The subject is "decentered" by hewing unswervingly to the central axis.

If this were all that Snow had accomplished with Wavelength, this would be radical enough.  This commonly held view of the way Wavelength decenters both author and spectator is certainly crucial for the history of North American alternative cinema, shifting the stakes away from an heroic subjectivism which achieves its creative zenith in the cinema of Stan Brakhage, toward a concern with structure, in all its meanings, as dialectically determining and determined by human agency.  While some commentators observed this structural turn as both hermetically elitist and socially incapacitating, the concern with cinematic and other forms of language, as well as a new-found understanding of "identity" as a constrained fiction which should be regarded as a meaning-effect rather than a pre-given certainty, must be seen as necessary historical precursors to the complex explorations of identity-generation and its relationship to representation, which one finds in the films of Chantal Akerman, Su Friedrich, Yvonne Rainer, and the collaborations between Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, to name only the most obvious successors.

I contend that Wavelength goes further than this, taking this apparent "anti-humanism" to its limits, opening up a viewing experience which provides the beginnings of a new sense of human subjectivity as materially and spatially "present."  This is certainly not the humanist presence of the classical model of film space, which affirms us by sealing over our lack.  Rather, by inviting (some might say "forcing") a recognition of our materiality, our presence in space, Snow's film dethrones the human subject, placing her or him in the position of an object among others, but one which has the ability and the responsibility to attend to the presence of that which is around us, not as its master, but as its co-discloser.

Near the beginning of the film, some people bring a bookshelf into the loft space.  This has been cited as the first of several "narrative" events within the film, although I think it is more accurate to identify this as one of Snow's provocative puns: there are people "moving in" to the loft, and we, the viewers, are "moving in" via the zoom lens.  But beneath this wordplay lay one of the most intriguing issues broached by Wavelength.  The film, I think, metaphorically asks us what it means to "move in," to truly occupy space.  This is precisely the question posed by Heidegger in his essay "Building Dwelling Thinking."  In it, Heidegger inquires after the origin of dwelling, an occupation of space which does not seek to dominate, in the sense of a military occupation, but which may in turn occupy us. This process begins with a new understanding of "boundary," not as an enframing, but as the location from which an active being of space begins.


A space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and

free, namely within a boundary, Greek peras.  A boundary is not that at which

something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which

something begins its presencing. . . . Space is in essence that for which room

has been made, that which is let into its bounds.  That for which room is made

is always granted and hence is joined, that is, gathered, by virtue of a location,

that is, by such a thing as the bridge.  Accordingly, spaces receive their

being from locations and not from "space" (Heidegger 1951, 154).


Heidegger understands the space of dwelling as the opposite of rationalized, abstract space, forcibly marked out on the map.  Rather, the space of dwelling is profoundly dialectical; by attending to a space, one recognizes that the space exists as a space by differing from other spaces around it.  We create the space, in effect, by focusing on it, allowing it to presence.  But this process is not only subjective.  The presencing of the space involves an assertion of its material presence, and our role as beholders and dwellers within that space is one also of being held within or shaped by that space.

In Wavelength, this process of activating the dialectical presencing of the loft space is accomplished through Snow's techniques which emphasize the irreducible materiality of space.  Shortly before the sine wave begins on the audio track, Snow manipulates the images with filters, creating a flash between clear images of the loft with a generalized light coming in from the windows, and a darkening of the loft space, with an attendant clarity of the street scene outside the space.  The interplay between interior and exterior is just one example of how Snow, like Heidegger, recognizes that once we attend to spaces, such boundaries are understood to be artificial impositions, but also human interventions which help those spaces to presence in the first place.  This is explicit in Heidegger's discussion of the function of the bridge.


Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can

be occupied by something.  One of them proves to be a location, and does so

because of the bridge.  Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand

in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge (Heidegger

1951, 150).


In this respect it seems apposite that Snow conceives of the zoom as a kind of optical bridge, which can be put to uses different from those it commonly serves within narrative grammar.


I knew I wanted to expand something -- a zoom -- that normally happens fast, and allow

myself or the spectator to be sort of inside it for a long period.  You'd get to know this

device which normally just gets you from one space to another (Snow, in MacDonald

1993, 63).


Snow places the zoom-bridge in Wavelength in the service of ontological inquiry.  The space of dwelling is produced precisely by slowing down the quotidian, in order to allow an attention to the space usually occluded by simply moving "from one space to another."

In this respect, the space of dwelling is a product of human attention, but one which, unlike the idealist model of the apparatus, does not efface our materiality in the process.  For co-disclosure of the loft space requires that we too be in that space; the ongoing act of dwelling requires a recognition that our bodily presence within the dwelling is only a co-presence, that we in turn are continually produced and re-produced by the space around us.  This Heidegger calls our "stay" within and among things.

Spaces, and with them space as such -- "space" -- are always provided for already

within the stay of mortals.  Spaces open up by the fact that they are let into the

dwelling of man.  To say that mortals are is to say that in dwelling they persist

through spaces by virtue of their stay among things and locations (Heidegger 1951,



Snow's film aggressively materializes -- as opposed to "dramatizes," which implies both the distance of narrativity and the safety of "mere" representation -- what it means to stay within the space of dwelling.  We must allow ourselves to submit to its demands, in a process of self-disclosure, while simultaneously attending to that space as it comes to presence at the moment of our presence within it -- two coextensive moments within the undisclosure of the materiality of the encounter.

Wavelength accomplishes all this, in large part, by emphasizing the human activity behind the camera's look.  Discussions of the anti-humanist stance of Wavelength often ignore or disfigure this human presence, since the history of the dominant idealist cinema equates humanity with humanism.  Michael Snow performs work on the film, which in turn performs work on the space of the represented loft, continually asserting the human production which enables this space's coming to presence.[14]  In the first third of the film, one sees the flapping corner of hand-held gels which transform the space into sumptuous, deep monochromes.  The penetrating eye of the invincible camera is repeatedly humanized by Snow after the first fifteen minutes, after which black leader pops into the filmstrip, making the camera "blink."  With each split-second blackout, the view is changed either slightly (focal-length position as well as change in film stocks) or substantially (local-color views giving way to hot pinks and diffused whites). This is, on a literal level, the same space.  But unlike the shifting views of narrative space, Snow's material dislocations ape the surface logic of continuity editing in order to underscore the Heraclitan axiom that no space is simply "there."  Human activity produces space, while at the same time that creativity is bounded, or begins from, the demands of the space itself.  Henri Lefebvre has discussed this dual, pivotal quality of the productive interaction of human beings and spaces.  On the one hand, he understands human agency as being hemmed in by the more burdensome structural demands of spaces of domination:


Activity in space is restricted by that space; space 'decides' what activity may occur,

but even this 'decision' has limits placed upon it.  Space lays down the law because it

implies a certain order -- and hence also a certain disorder (just as what may be seen

defines what is obscene).  Interpretation comes later, almost as an afterthought. Space

commands bodies, prescribing or proscribing gestures, routes and distances to be covered

(Lefebvre 1974, 143).


But at the same time Lefebvre recognizes that in the spatial field of power, the repressed may always return.  Abstract space may, through human intervention, be metamorphosed dialectically into the space of potential revolution. 


Homogeneous in appearance (and appearance is its strength), abstract space is by no

means simple.  In the first place, there are its constitutive dualities.  For it is both a

result and a container, both produced and productive -- on the one hand a representation

of space (geometric homogeneity) and on the other a representational space (the phallic).

The supposed congruence of the formants of this duality serves, however, to mask its

duplicity.  For, while abstract space remains an arena of practical action, it is also

an ensemble of images, signs and symbols.  It is unlimited, because it is empty, yet at

the same time it is full of juxtapositions, of proximities ('proxemics'), of emotional

distances and limits.  It is thus at once lived and represented, at once the expression and

the foundation of a practice (Lefebvre 1974, 288).


As I have stated above, it is precisely the quandaries of abstract space, exemplified by the technologies which are Snow's historical inheritance, which Wavelength elaborates.[15]  But more than this, in accordance with Lefebvre's injunction to comprehend space as an ongoing series of material dispensations, Snow foregrounds the activity of seemingly "passive" space.  Snow's materialism is almost scientific in its stance, but clearly this is not a technological enframing, in which the world is firmly apprehended in order to be bent to the measure of human will.  Snow's physical materialism seems more of a piece with Heisenberg.  In observing the shifting visual pulsations of the spaces produced by Wavelength, one becomes aware that "spaces," and the "things" within them, are not solid but rather in a constant state of flux.  The yellow chair which features prominently in the film is altered along with its context.  It pops into deep greens only to burst into a white flare of light.  Often, the film's return to the local color of the loft is presented in a grainy film stock, live with swirling particles.  The materiality of the film in the projector is indeed emphasized by these incursions of anti-illusionism.  But this assertion of materiality is part of a total destabilizing of the depicted world of the loft space.  Shifts in film grain, along with the oscillating sine wave which comprises the majority of the soundtrack[16], demonstrate the most basic material level of sensual experience.  Sight and sound are nothing more than reactions to light and air, material subatomic particles in motion.   In Wavelength, it's not that everything is "alive," in some sort of fantastic realm in which the pathetic fallacy ceases to be fallacious; it's that everything is active and in motion, including the viewer him/herself.  Our heightened awareness of the motion of the motion picture, then, does refer to the thingness of the celluloid strip -- on a fourth viewing I began to notice that the film visibly vibrated in the projector gate, another aspect of the material substrate of film which "narrative space" must stabilize -- but it also refers to those spaces outsside the film as well. After all, the space of the viewing situation is itself only created as a space as it enfolds both the projected film, and our spectatorship.  The theater is a place we are in the habit of touristically visiting, but perhaps Wavelength asks us to make this a space of dwelling as well.


III. Picture versus Motion

As I have tried to show, this process must be a material dwelling.  That is, we must simultaneously allow spaces to come to presence without deforming them into places of expedience, and recognize this thrownness as a concrete social situation, a spatio-historical formation.  While Heidegger provides a crucial ethical model for allowing the world to change us, this studied attention to what is becomes most transformative when articulated with a program for intervention into the material world.  Thinking Lefebvre along with Heidegger reminds us that part of our responsibility to the world is to bring it into being with an ethical, affirmative praxis.

Lefebvre, it must be remembered, is writing from the position of a materialism which saw itself assailed by the "linguistic turn," rather than broadened by it.  Shortly after the passage quoted above, Lefebvre stipulates, "We are not concerned here with mental or literary 'places', nor with philosophical topoi, but with places of a purely political and social kind" (ibid 288-289).  As evidenced by The Production of Space's thoroughgoing critique of the material effects of the philosophical and geometrical abstraction of space, this distinction is certainly not absolute for Lefebvre.  However there is a sense that representation is not in itself material or embodied enough for Lefebvre. By way of criticizing Roland Barthes's semiotics, Lefebvre writes


It is pure illusion to suppose that thought can reach, grasp or define what is in space

on the basis of propositions about space and general concepts such as message, code

and readability.  This illusion, which reduces both matter and space to a representation,

is in fact simply a version of spiritualism or idealism -- a version which is surely common

to all those who put political power, and hence state power, in brackets, and so see nothing

but things (Lefebvre 1974, 162).


It is certainly true that simply describing relations of space and power could well redouble the violence of abstraction which gave rise to those relationships in the first place.  But, to return to an earlier point, the rupture which is strong enough to provoke a radical reimagination of spatiality may well be an idealist one.  However, lest we succumb to crude dualisms, we must understand, as Lefebvre cautiously acknowledges, that ideality and materiality are moments within a simultaneous, dialectical process.  Their dual conditioning and sparring are the conditions of subjectivity, and it is only with the perception of jarring dislocations between and within these two moments that fissures in the edifice of the sovereign subject can begin to erupt.

Then, as we have suspected, much more is at stake in the realm of so-called "representation" than crude materialism has heretofore allowed.  Lefebvre, exemplary in this respect, recognized the subject within representation as being crucially contested, material terrain.  But his placement within intellectual history provoked this skepticism towards representation; he perceived the shifting fortunes of French leftist politics as bringing about an undialectical politics of image and sign.  Film work, presumably always primarily an inquiry into representations, would have to find an expression of the materiality of space, of space as primary effect, to be able to come into dialogue with Lefebvre's theory of space.  Wavelength, as I have argued, does indeed provide a representation of space, but it also is an active production of the space it depicts.  Snow's film does not subordinate material space to the needs of synthetic narrative or bourgeois reassurance.  By recognizing the dialectical character of disclosure and undisclosure, Snow makes cinematic space real.  Each lurch forward of the zoom throws more and more of the loft space out of sight --  a quality of Wavelength observed by those critics who have emphasized the film's "narrativity."  But more significantly, each disclosure is the creation of a new space, all the more palpably material due to the compression established by the zoom.[17]

As the film reaches its conclusion, the space created becomes increasingly flat.  Following Taubin's exit from the frame, the windows begin to flank a slight strip of wall containing what are now visible as photographs.  A brief monochromatic outburst begins, flashing in deep yellows and blues, a kind of short history of modernist flatness.  Dust becomes visible in the edges of the windows on the left.  The image of waves, which the spectator by this point realizes to be the final space of the film, suddenly appears doubled atop itself.  A "lost" space from the past returns in a ghostly flashback to "enframe" the more solid interior image of the same.  Our memories of previous spaces will condition our perception of spaces to come -- this is the temporality of consciousness.  But more than this, Snow seems to imply that our experience of having seen dwelling enframed might allow his viewers to dwell in space(s) to come, inside as well as outside the frame.  This is the point at which a new kind of enframing of space may point the way to a disenframing.  Heidegger writes


On the one hand, Enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that

blocks every view into the coming-to-pass of revealing and so radically endangers

the relation to the essence of truth.  On the other hand, Enframing comes to pass

for its part in the granting that lets man endure -- as yet unexperienced, but perhaps

more experienced in the future -- that he may be the one who is needed and used

for the safekeeping of the coming to presence of truth.  Thus does the arising of the

saving power appear (Heidegger 1955, 33).

In the final minutes of the film, the ghost frame flickers out, the double enframing giving way to the image of the ocean, still, in black and white, for several minutes.  We are in the space of "mere" representation, presumably the only space the cinema can offer for our dwelling.  However, the conclusion of Wavelength, I contend, forces us as spectators to confront a spatial reality beyond that depicted in the film.  Following 44 minutes of forward compression, and the subsequent creation of a succession of filmic spaces, Snow pulls us back, out of the photographic image, by pulling his lens out of focus.  This action is legible in the film as both the elimination of imagery -- the photograph of waves becomes a black blur and then gives way to pure white light -- and a reverse trajectory, which moves us away from the film image.  As we pull back, the image dissolves into the flat materiality of light particles on the screen, in front of which we sit. 

This filmic act, like the spaces of dwelling described by Heidegger, must be understood dialectically.  A theory of "structuralist film" which places Wavelength into a Greenbergian lineage of modernism, wherein the assertion of the flatness of the movie screen is an axiomatic end in itself, will miss the performative character of this reversal of spatial movement.  In this respect I refer to Michael Fried's analysis of minimalist (or "literalist") sculpture and its radical difference from Greenbergian modernism. He writes, "Whereas in previous art 'what is to be had from the work is located strictly within [it],' the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation -- one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder . . ." (Fried 1967, 219).  Fried has called this situation one of "theatre," wherein an art object's raison d'être is to force us to interact with it in a play of multivalent spatial production.  Instead of the pure temporality of a "theatre of consciousness," in which an artwork radiates its total shape across time, work such as that of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and, indeed, Michael Snow, dramatizes our bodily location in space, and in fact continually readjusts it, provoking, one might say, a "consciousness of theatre."


In Wavelength, we are not suddenly confronted with flatness, but physically moved back into flatness.  In the last few seconds of Wavelength, we are distanced from the representational space of the film, at the same moment that the lighted white field illuminates our spatial location within the theatre, a location rendered perceptible as space by the dialectical operation of the film.  Just as, in Heidegger's formulation, a space along a river becomes a location only in relation to its enbridgement, Snow's film literally brings to light our spatial existence within the theatre, our emplotment within space.  Considering the role of filmic entertainments within the current phase of capital, it seems fair to say that the movie theatre is typically a decidely unphilosophical place.  Wavelength, however, asks us to physically dwell within those exhibition spaces in which it occurs.  Fried claimed that minimalist sculpture, due to its performative, spatial character, was "(to say the worst) corrupted or perverted by theatre" (Fried 1967, 227).  Michael Snow takes this gesture one step further, "perverting" theatre with philosophy.      


For invaluable assistance with this essay, I would very much like to thank Fred Dolan, Michael Chaiken, Bill Selman, David Sherman at Canyon Cinema, and especially Kaja Silverman, who will certainly see many concepts which she first introduced reflected here.


Works cited


Jean-Louis Baudry.  "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus."  Bill Nichols, ed.  Movies and Methods Volume II.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986 [essay written 1970].


R. Bruce Elder.  Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture.  Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1989.


Michael Fried.  "Art and Objecthood."  Morris Philipson and Paul J. Gudel, eds.  Aesthetics Today.  New York: New American Library, 1980 [essay originally published 1967].


Stephen Heath.  "Narrative Space."  Philip Rosen, ed.  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1988 [essay originally published 1976].


Martin Heidegger.  "The Age of the World Picture."  William Lovitt, trans.  The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.  New York: Harper and Row, 1977 [essay written 1938].


Martin Heidegger.  "Building Dwelling Thinking."  Albert Hofstadter, trans.  Poetry, Language, Thought.  New York: Harper and Row, 1971 [essay written 1951].


Martin Heidegger.  "The Question Concerning Technology."  William Lovitt, trans.  The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.  New York: Harper and Row, 1977 [essay written 1955].


David James.  Allegories of Cinema.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.


Henri Lefebvre.  The Production of Space.  Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 [written 1974].


Scott MacDonald.  A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


Scott MacDonald.  Avant Garde Film: Motion Studies.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Jonas Mekas.  "Michael Snow: Achievement vs. Money and Fame."  Jim Shedden, ed.  Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow 1956-1991.  Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario / Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1995.


Annette Michelson.  "Toward Snow."  P. Adams Sitney, ed.  The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. New York: New York University Press, 1978 [essay originally published 1971].


Richard E. Palmer.  Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969.


Paul Ricoeur.  "Narrative Time."  W.J.T. Mitchell, ed.  On Narrative.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.


Jonathan Rosenbaum.  Film: The Front Line -- 1983.  Denver: Arden Press, 1983.


Bart Testa.  "An Axiomatic Cinema: Michael Snow's Films."  Jim Shedden, ed.  Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow 1956-1991.       Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario / Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1995.

[1] A series of four books, collectively called "The Michael Snow Project," together give as complete a picture as possible of Michael Snow's multimedia oeuvre.  In addition to Presence and Absence, the volume dealing with Snow's cinema, there are three other volumes, one each on Snow's music, his non-film visual art, and his collected writings.

[2] Mekas's statement on this matter argues that "maybe it's time to return to the auteur theory in art. I won't exaggerate at all by saying that auteurs are being hated today by the ethnic/sexual/social/health activists, funders and promoters. So, while Andy's work sells in millions, Michael's work still remains in the kingdom of art, not people . . . " Some readers may find this statement offensive and conservative.  I, however, think that while Mekas is not going out of his way not to offend, his claim has a significant basis in reality -- some artists and critics have indeed perceived  Snow, Mekas and others as a cinematic "old guard" whose "formalist" endeavors are politically and socially irrelevant. Such claims are untenable in their generality, of course, as well as being historically short-sighted. Mekas's involvement in the legal defense of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures should in itself  belie any claims about Mekas's "conservatism."

[3] For example, see Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and José Esteban Muñoz, eds., Pop Out: Queer Warhol (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Richard Meyer, "Warhol's Clones," Yale Journal of Criticism 7, no. 1 (Spring 1994); and Douglas Crimp, "Getting the Warhol We Deserve: Cultural Studies and Queer Culture" (unpublished lecture presented at the University of Rochester Summer Institute in Visual and Cultural Studies, June 1988).

[4] See Elder's magisterial Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1989).

[5] On the former, see Peter Gibian, "The Art of Being Off-Center: Shopping Center Spaces and Spectacles," Tabloid #4 (part one) and #5 (part two), 1980.  On the latter, see MacDonald 1992.

[6] In section 70 of Being and Time, "The Temporality of the Spatiality that is Characteristic of Dasein," Heidegger writes, "Temporality is the meaning of the Being of care.  Dasein's constitution and its ways to be are possible ontologically only on the basis of temporality, regardless of whether this entity occurs 'in time' or not.  Hence Dasein's spatiality must be grounded in temporality" (New York: Harper, 1962 [originally published 1927], 418).  He continues by explaining the ineluctably temporal Dasein "makes space" for itself.  "It determines its own location in such a manner that it comes back from the space it has made room for to the 'place' which it has reserved" (ibid, 419).  I contend, however, that it is an open question to what extent Heidegger's prioritizing of time over space precludes a fruitful application of Heidegger's work in this area.  Lefebvre, demonstrably on the more humanist side of 20th century French thought, would certainly agree that abstract "space" in itself is not his preferred object of analysis, and that, like Heidegger, he finds space compelling only in its lived, existential reality.

[7] In this respect, I am in agreement with Bart Testa, who finds in Snow's film a radical reversal of the terms on which we usually conceive of cinema as a "time art."  He writes,

By toppling the hierarchy of narrative cinema, in which time is usually bent, elided

and distended to suit dramatic exigencies, Wavelength takes duration and narrative

as pure correlations of space itself.  Or, as Snow himself succinctly remarks, "Events

take time.  Events take place" (Testa 1995, 38).


[8] I should mention here that an emphasis on the production of filmic space in Wavelength is not without precedent.  One of the original commentators on Snow's work, P. Adams Sitney, identified Wavelength's central problematic as a spatial  one.  "This is the story of the diminishing area of pure potentiality," he writes.  "The insight of space, and, implicitly, cinema as potential, is an axiom of structural film."  More specifically, Sitney writes, "The overt principle of . . . Michael Snow's Wavelength . . . is that the action or  event is a function of the given space"   See Sitney, ed.  Film Culture Reader  (New York: NYU Press, 1970, 331-332). 

[9] As the rest of this essay will make clear, I have no intention of making Snow's authorial consciousness, his relative familiarity or lack thereof with film narrative, the crux of my argument, or even a significant lever with which to prise the issue open.  I mention it nonetheless, because 1) I believe that dismissing authorial statements tout court commits a dialectical error, attributing undue weight to them by their scrupulous absence; 2) the distrust of academic analysis which I find all too common in the experimental film community stems, in part, from, in Scott MacDonald's words, "a tendency in academe to see filmmakers as laboratory animals who don't really know what they're doing" (1992, 75).  This of course raises the question of to what degree anyone really knows what they're doing -- as Snow put it in his MacDonald interview, "exactly how "independent" anyone can be is a question we'd better not try to get into now" --, but authors should not be singled out as a special case (ibid).

[10] For the canonical text on Albertan perspective, its visual distortions, and those competing models it beat out for historical dominance, see Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form (Boston: 1993, written 1925).

[11] Heath also makes explicit the economic imperative of the development of easel painting.  Practices which were dominant at earlier points in history, such as fresco or stained glass, were tied to specific spatial installations, whereas the infinite portability of the easel painting set the image free to circulate, enabling the art cartel whose last gasps we continue to witness.  While the cinematic apparatus might seem imbricated with this historical trajectory only metaphorically, one need only consider the corporate-capitalist imperatives of the designation of 35mm as "standard gauge," or the various industrial conferences declaring "universal standardizations" for film equipment, to understand the continued interest in the film reel and the film projector as interchangeable parts.  The guarantee that this week's blockbuster can be sent to "a theater near you" is a modern replication of the easel painting system, although ironically there is today more likely to be variation in the shape and form of paintings than in the cinematic exhibition apparatus.

[12] This can be seen in those works by ostensibly narrative filmmakers which allow the material quality of space to determine their films, most notably Robert Bresson and Jean-Marie Straub / Daniéle Huillet.  I would argue that this approach to space also characterizes the best work of Peter Greenaway, such as Vertical Features Remake.  The material treatment of space in narrative films by these filmmakers serves to decenter the actions of characters within the films, by emphasizing the boundedness and outer determination of human activity, an adoption of a specifically anti-humanist stance.

[13] As Roland Barthes puts it, describing the classic "readerly" text in the introduction to S/Z, the reader "is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974 [Original published 1970], 4).

[14] Among the many critical disfigurements of Wavelength, and Snow's cinema generally, has been a refusal to engage with its sensuous, luminous qualities. This critical tendency has been well documented, and attentively refuted, by William Wees, who writes, "The critical consensus grown up around Snow's work has tended to emphasize 'analysis' at the expense of 'ecstasy' and to concentrate on the conceptual aspects of Snow's films without giving comparable attention to the perceptual experience they produce." See Wees's Light Moving in Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[15] Snow's ongoing investigation of the properties of the film medium led him, in subsequent work, to make changes in the material apparatus itself.  His film La Région Centrale is perhaps most notable in this respect.  Snow created a device which turned the movie camera in any and all directions, 360 degrees around, up and down, all by remote control.  In this respect, the element of chance combined with a non-mastering de-humanized gaze produces a film which forcibly demands that its viewers submit to a cinematic space outside of human control.

[16] . . . most prominently that majority of the film in which no human beings occupy the screen.  Shortly after one of the women near the beginning of the film switches off "Strawberry Fields," the wave begins and they exit.  The entrance of Hollis Frampton signals a return of synch sound, which terminates upon the character's death.  The sine wave begins again.  It continues through the phone call placed by Amy Taubin and does not stop until the ambulance or police sirens overtake it.  Indeed, Amy's character is "frightened," since she has not only discovered a dead body in her flat; she has stumbled in upon the secret world of objects in and of space, coming to life in her absence.  The mundane process of living or occupying cannot, Snow seems to say, really coexist with the codisclosure of dwelling, performed by Snow and his camera.

[17] Again, Snow would in subsequent films take this spatial compression even further.  In Breakfast, a still life is flattened against a wall by a sheet of plexiglass affixed to the front of the camera lens.  In Presents, the camera "penetrates" the space with a physical encroachment forward, crashing into the set.  Both examples seem to deconstruct the acquisitive character of the all-perceiving voyeur implied by the camera's forward drive.