Michael Snow (1928-2023)
Among the many accomplishments of Michael Snow’s diverse artistic output over the six decades of his productive life* we might add the continuing capacity of an avant-garde to occasionally induce a shock effect. That, at least, has been its now legendary effect in film departments where young undergraduates, who often have only the experience of the commercial film industry, see Wavelength (1967) for the first time. While not quite an épater the bourgeoisie, it has nonetheless provided the occasion for a complete ruination of filmic assumptions. Viewing Wavelength in a first-year film class is a bracing experience that either convinces the student to study Economics instead, or arouses a deeper and perhaps more profound interest in cinema, media and its possibilities.
While other films on the canonical list of avantgarde cinema are no doubt equally perplexing, it is perhaps the machinic vision of Wavelength that sets it apart regarding its purported difficulty. With Un Chien andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon, humans are featured, and the camera has the civility to acknowledge their presence and their significance. In Wavelength, agency is given over to a logic of a camera and its functions, which disregards the humans which occasionally wander in and out of its field of view, and for 45 minutes the viewer witnesses its relentless pursuit of a mystifying goal.
This is surely a challenge for the student, but it is also a challenge for the teacher, for Wavelength is the type of film that cannot be explained. The student will want that explanation, but teacher cannot provide it. The image of the self-assured teacher, who may inwardly smile at the inexperience of the student, should be refused, for Wavelength is a kind of film that is not designed for understanding. In the place of wanting to mean something, it instead wants to do something, and while many useful things can of course be said to help frame an appreciation of what the film is doing, the essential strangeness of Wavelength cannot be undone. That is where the student and the teacher learn together.
- Gary Kibbins
* for a brief overview, read the obituary in the Globe and Mail by James Adams and Kate Tylor, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-renowned-artist-michael-snow-mixed-conceptualist-coups-with-witty/.