Cinematic Transcendence From a Synaesthetic Perspective

(A Review of Michael Snow's Wavelength & David Rimmer's Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper)

Kenneth Hemmerick

Originally published in Lonergan Review Number 6 - Canada's Film Century: Traditions, Transitions, Transcendence

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Cinematic Analysis Michael Snow

In this paper we have discussed the senses, synaesthesia and cinematic transcendence. Michael Snow states "knowledge isolates, selects and points out unities or differences which were not previously evident. Identification, definition is a matter of limits, of recognition of limitations, bounds and boundaries."37 In this paper I am attempting to push the boundaries of cinematic analysis to include a poly-modal synthesis. In this regard, I am looking at how cinematic visual and aural events interact to produce a shift in awareness.

Wavelength (1967), by Michael Snow, is a forty-five-minute film which encourages transcendence in the viewer. The film is structured as an apparent "single shot," moving progressively and slowly towards a photo of an ocean wave on a wall. The camera's forward movement is through the almost-empty space of a room, providing the viewer with psychological space to imagine and to fill the screen with his/her speculation and to hypothesize about the "dramatic" narrative which is taking place.

At various times throughout the film, events happen - a bookcase is moved into the room; two women enter the room and listen to the radio; the women disappear; a man enters the room and falls to the floor, as if dead, and a woman enters the room and telephones a man called Richard, telling him about the dead man on the floor and to arrange a meeting downstairs.

Bruce Elder gives a detailed and knowledgeable analysis of this film, defending it as a meditation of drama in film, an interplay of time and space as single, fixed and continuous, and the creation on film of a subjective space, the space of vision and imagination.38

His analysis shows how Snow evokes, in the viewer, an engagement of self in the negotiation of the film's sense of time and space. For Elder, the camera movement is the structural organizing principle of the film; from the long, slow, forward movement of the camera lens towards the photo of the waves on the wall, to the intense climax of the movement of the image, finally moving towards the viewer.

As in the case of Wittgenstein's duck/rabbit paradox, the "line" of consciousness shifts between the film's subjective space of vision and imagination and the underlying subjective awareness of the viewer's own interior space of vision and imagination. Through the use of the "single shot," the viewer is confronted with self-awareness in the form of questions such as, what is happening here? What is this film about? Where is this narrative taking place? Why is the man on the floor? Who are these women? The interior space of the viewer becomes filled with possible answers or solutions to the questions being asked. Throughout the film, there is a hum in the background of the film. This sonic event aurally complements the notion of a wave length. Metaphorically this generated wave or signal suggests, along with the slow moving zoom, that all life is a wave formation.

Bruce Elder writes, "Suddenly one's attention is diverted from the continual extension of the zoom. There occurs the second of the "human events": two women, one of whom we saw previously supervising the moving into the room of a bookcase, walk into the room and listen to a radio broadcast (supposedly) of the recording "Strawberry Fields Forever."39

The playing of this popular tune acts as a trigger which activates a different knowing. As a then well-known Beatles song, it provides the viewer, aurally, with a sense of familiarity of the known, as contrasted with the unfamiliarity of the film's context, the unknown. The song enables, in the viewer, a "break" or shift in knowing in the right-brain sense. Wavelength visually calls upon the viewer's intuition, sensuousness, imagination, receptivity, associativeness and subjectivity. With the insertion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" into the film's discourse, the viewer shifts to a left-brain mode of knowing of the intellect, intellectual, reductive, active, realistic and objective. The visual right-brain activity of recognition is contrasted with the aural left-brain activity of experience. At this point, a spontaneous shift of aspect yields a new perceptual whole; thus the film may be seen first as "imaginary" and then as "real", with no process of interference intervening.

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© 2006 Kenneth Hemmerick