Originally published here in a shorter form in March 2015.
Time tends to dislodge a work of art from the contemporary criticism that surrounds it, so Michael Snow‘s 1967 film Wavelength may not be considered as radical now as it was then, but it remains a radical film about the very nature and mechanics of perception (perhaps even moreso now than it was nearly 50 years ago). Certainly, in its concern with personal and private spaces, Wavelength is as urban as any Martin Scorsese film, but it is also a film about ghosts and spirits, about the ultimately melancholy, fragile condition of consciousness itself, haunted by death and mortality but cherishing the very fact of physical presence. I first saw it in 1979; it remains one of my favorite films.
Wavelength demonstrates the power of a single perceptual motion through a single mechanical gesture, the zoom. The inexorability of this gesture through the approximately 45 minutes of the film renders both the dramatic “events” of the film and the photochemical material of film itself as contexts around which the zoom is the overpowering movement. The film is uniquely about looking at this landscape even as the eye constantly returns to the forward motion of the zoom, the object of this vision finally filling the screen in Wavelength‘s final minutes. The film creates distinctly sensual memory even as the events that constitute that memory dissipate both spatially and temporally in the experience of watching the film. It therefore demands repeated viewing, a sublime recognition.
The film is not available on DVD, and the below YouTube presentation is no substitute for watching the film itself in a theatre, as it was originally meant to be seen. Anthology Film Archives will present the film on December 20; there’s more about Wavelength here.
1.0. The theater is the sum total of the possibilities of given language, bodies, and movement on a stage.
1,1. Any given theatrical event is by its nature incomplete.
1.1.1. Completion does not inhere with the presence of an audience traditionally conceived.
1.1.2. The performer is effectively an audience member within the possibilities experienced within the performance.
126.96.36.199. The theatrical event remains incomplete nonetheless.
1.2. Theatrical experience results from the interplay of relationships among language, bodies, and movement and not from language, bodies, and movement themselves.
1.2.1. This interplay can be neither properly conceived nor misconceived.
1.3. Narrative and story necessitate the limitation of possibilities.
1.3.1. Narrative and story dictate logic, a temporal progression from past to future, and conclusion.
188.8.131.52. This logic and conclusion are themselves dictated by social and aesthetic convention.
1.3.2. Narrative and story conceive of experience as a closeable space.
1.3.3. Narrative and story are therefore stagnant art.
1.4. Consciousness is the proper sphere of theater, as of any art.
1.4.1. Consciousness has not been fully explored as a sphere of theatrical activity and imagination.
184.108.40.206. Theater has the potential to cut consciousness itself adrift from the world outside the theater.
220.127.116.11. A revised conception of one’s own consciousness can be taken from the theatrical space into the world outside the theater.
1.4.2. If consciousness is the sum total of our representations of the world, theater adds to that total what was not present before.
1.5. The represented world is the sum total of the possibilities of language, bodies, and movement in that world.
1.5.1. Theater the art form closest to that world.
1.5.2. The represented world is incomplete.
Opening this Wednesday, November 25, and running through December 19, REND Productions will present a double-bill of two Howard Barker plays, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo and Judith: A Parting from the Body (the former in its London premiere) at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street in London. Robyn Winfield-Smith, who helmed a successful presentation of Barker’s Lot and His God in 2012, directs both. According to the web page for the production:
First, the London premiere of Barker’s dark comedy The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Isonzo is blind, witty and 100 years old; Tenna is blind, beautiful and just 17. On the day of their wedding a battle of wits commences in which bride and groom discover the other is far more of a match than they had bargained for. … This ground-breaking staging, set in a world of mysterious sound and mischievous light, heightens the senses with a 3D audio experience transmitted through over-ear headsets.
[In] a timely revival of Barker’s war masterpiece, Judith: A Parting From The Body … Judith enters the enemy camp to kill the Assyrian general, Holofernes. Her land is at stake — but what of her heart and mind? In his radical reimagining of a legend, Barker lays bare the complex sacrifices of human beings at war.
“Over-ear headsets”? Well, that’s a new one on me, and for Barker as well I believe. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing notion, and you can find out what Winfield-Smith makes of it beginning on Wednesday. More information and tickets here. You can see a trailer for the production at this Facebook page.
Another of the great pioneers of American avant-garde film is Ernie Gehr, whose fine Extreme Velocity (1970), which I first saw during my college years in 1980 or so, is a foundational work in structural cinema, a term coined by P. Adams Sitney. Perhaps the closest parallel to new music, this kind of film explored the very physical and visual elements of film itself (light, color, the mechanical and photochemical process), as some new music explored timbre, duration, psychoacoustic experience, and decay as central elements of the experience of music. Obviously there are parallels to theater and visual art as well. (I find a very close affinity between structural film and new music’s spectralist school, but that’s just me; Gehr’s own favorite composer is Charles Ives.) Scott McDonald said that Gehr demonstrates an “idea of using cinema as a retraining of perception, often of slowing us down so that we can truly see and hear” — about as good a definition of structural film as you’ll find.
Gehr is still going strong. This Saturday Gehr’s latest presentation, Carnival of Shadows, opens at the Museum of Modern Art for a run extending to April 30. “Ernie Gehr’s large-scale, multiscreen video installation … is simultaneously a reflection on early animation and genre cinema, a playful exercise in moving-image graphics, and an extension of the artist’s interest in the abstraction, texture, and rhythms of visual material,” the museum says. “Its source is an early-20th-century shadowgraph toy, which used ‘paper print films’ in the form of sequential silhouette drawings that were brought to life as they passed before a stroboscopic screen. Gehr’s silent, digital video adaptation transforms five original paper subjects, all issued in France c. 1900–05 … “
Next Monday film historian Tom Gunning will moderate An Evening with Ernie Gehr at MoMA, at which Gehr will talk about this and other recent work. Four years ago Manohla Dargis profiled Gehr’s work for the New York Times, and in 2013 Gehr spoke about the relationship of philosophy to film with Peter Catapano of the same publication.