Unreal Nature

July 15, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:35 am

… the scene always seems to slip from our sight before it comes fully into focus … ‘the moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses.’

This is from Michael Snow: Wavelength, by Elizabeth Legge (2009):

In 1966, at the height of Minimalist art and its objects, Michael Snow, a Canadian artist, filmmaker and musician then living in New York, chose not to make another object to be places in a room, but instead planned a film of a room.


Wavelength has functioned ever since as a touchstone for contemporary art and film studies, and as a blue screen in front of which a range of ideological and intellectual dramas have been played.


… For most of the film, the camera does not itself move or advance, but the zoom creates a sense that it is heading somewhere and getting closer — even though the zoom only means a lens is being turned, or that the visual field is narrowing. The effect is a gradual compression of the space, as if it were being shovelled against the far wall and displaced to the sides, in an unseen leak at the edges of the screen.

[line break added] (Our eyes keep moving to the sides to see if we can see the advance of the lens, as if we were watching a shadow lengthen.) This flattening intensifies when the initially oblique angle of the zoom changes to its final head-on approach. Yet, in spite of this strange collapsed spatiality, we also experience the zoom as our own virtual movement into depth — not quite bodily, but through a feeling of being pulled forward by our eyes, merely by looking.

[line break added] At the end, when the zoom closes in on a smaller and smaller area of the waves [in a photograph of the ocean on the far wall], we feel that it is actually carrying us into the photograph, in something like a dream of flying, as if there were no barrier, as if the zoom could puncture the photograph, wall and screen and move beyond them, out into and over the waves.


… Yet as the zoom persists and pushes forward into the space, we become vaguely aware of the interruptive shifts in the zoom’s focal length, which give it a speculative volition, as if new decisions were continually being entertained. In effect, the screen image seems to respond to the depicted events in the room, creating the sense that the room is itself an organism responding to entrances and intrusions, perhaps mimicking or cuing our own responses …

… Does Wavelength somehow constitute an ontology of film, or does it just raise the idea of ontology? Does it restore a ‘transcendent subject’ with mastery over the perceptual field, both as author and as viewer, or does it block that suspect entity? Does it somehow enact consciousness by provoking an intensified phenomenological experience in the viewer, or does it interfere with our sensory immersion by stimulating a disruptive undertow of self-awareness?


Snow’s zoom could work as an allegory of apperception, the process by which the mind brings experiences and memories to bear on our senses, unifying the flow of sensation, or of film itself as a succession of stills in which the perceptible adjustments of the lens stand for the imperceptible modification of successive film frames. The zoom is a kind of scale marking our experience of time as one of both loss and accumulation.

… The zoom can be taken in two ways: as either coring out the territorial power of space by invasive temporal turns of the lens, or as spatial interruptions of time conceived as linear inexorability.

… perspective in Wavelength would be a cliché used as a ‘probe’ (Snow noted ‘room probe’) into the hidden environmental structures of culture. In the film, the apparent mastery implied by a fixed, raised vantage point is played against a cool exclusion, as the scene always seems to slip from our sight before it comes fully into focus — or, to use George Kubler’s words, ‘the moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses.’

[line break added] The passages of intense color and flashing light make us feel that the world is being transmuted into new substances — with light itself giving up its ordinary role of making other things visible while being invisible, and instead shaking apart into its component spectral colors, taking on mote-like textures, turning into a particle accelerator and prism.




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