To call Canadian artist Michael Snow a filmmaker somehow seems woefully inadequate. For while Snow undeniably makes films, he may be more aptly described as a film sculptor, or perhaps a cine-alchemist. For five decades now, this founding father of avant-garde cinema has been tearing apart and reassembling the DNA of film language in a series of dazzling experiments — and lest that sound austere or forbidding, I should add that Snow possesses a healthy reserve of impish good humor.
Born in Toronto in 1929, Snow graduated from the Ontario School of Art and, by 1956, had already made his first short, a four-minute animation titled A to Z. But at that time Snow was preoccupied with his painting, photography and jazz musicianship — interests he continues to pursue today — and so movies were put on the back burner until the 1960s, when he moved to New York. There he found himself at the epicenter of a heady experimental-film scene whose guiding lights included Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs.
Wavelength (1967) remains Snow's best-known work, and it is some kind of historic achievement, a movie in which time, space and movement are the stars, with human characters tossed cavalierly to the sidelines. Famous for having the longest zoom shot (45 minutes) in cinema, and as an influence on filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Chantal Akerman, Wavelength offers an uninterrupted traversal of a New York loft space from one end to the other, accompanied by a sound track of waves (both sonic and oceanic) and the Beatles singing “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Yet it's hardly as single-minded as it sounds. Without cutting, Snow employs tricks of exposure and filtration to take us from day to night to day again, from the dingy-gray environs of a Lower Manhattan walk-up to a shock-white mod nightmare. Wavelength catches us up so profoundly in the raw possibilities of movies' structural (as opposed to narrative) properties that when its own “murder” occurs, most viewers don't immediately realize anything has happened.
Cinefamily screens Wavelength twice on Thursday: with its original sound track at 7:30 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. with a live score performed by Wrekmeister Harmonies, sound artist J.R. Robinson's ensemble featuring David Yow of Jesus Lizard and members of LCD Soundsystem, Big Business, Priestbird and more.