Michael Snow’s Wavelength still stands as the prototypical “experimental film” — perhaps the one experimental work that film studies professors will continue selecting as a stand-in for the miscellany under that title. That may be a bit of an odd choice, considering that the art world-friendly titles usually came in the Canyon Cinema variety: diaristic, personal, hippie-dippie works, shot on Super 8mm, and ultimately relying on a free-associating logic. Wavelength is much colder than those pick-up-a-camera-and-film-whatever hippie diaries, yet it remains more approachable thanks to its simplicity. Snow, coming from an art world that focused on form, made his film about the zoom function of a camera. Like all art, it can also be “about” many other things, but Wavelength’s zoom allowed the (primarily East Coast) film artists to have their cinema-qua-cinema moment, much as Oscar Wilde prompted “l’art pour l’art” decades earlier. Filmmakers such as Snow, Ernie Gehr, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Peter Gidal reduced their films to single formal traits (say, Conrad’s The Flicker, composed of just white and black frames, or Gehr’s Serene Velocity that rapidly changes focal lengths on a shot of a hallway), meaning they’re cheap, simple, yet able to spark discussion and debate. P. Adams Sitney labeled these films as “structural,” and their impact can be seen everywhere from the most punishing long takes in arthouse fare to the most attention-grabbing psychedelic editing in mainstream television.
Of course, the tradition of structural film fits most comfortably in film festivals’ experimental sidebars and galleries’ video art exhibitions. And, though many of these films are profound thanks to their simplicity, the “structural” label and weight of its history can be unduly lent to works that are merely simple. The small production budgets and the wanton corruption in the art world do not help their case.
This is all to say that Daniel Eisenberg’s The Unstable Object II has this history working both for and against it. His original 2011 work juxtaposed three modes of production: BMWs made nearly entirely by machines, wall clocks made in assembly line fashion, and cymbals made dangerously by hand. In dictionary-definition structural mode, Eisenberg removed all possible frills, leaving only the structure (both of the film and the objects being made) to be analyzed. Shot one shows step one in creating the object, shot two shows step two, and on and on until the product appears, much like flipping through a LEGO instructions booklet. The pleasure one receives from such a literal film as this varies depending on whether or not an intellectual compare/contrast exercise sounds like fun. The sequel, clocking in at three-and-a-half hours and sporting a dreaded “II” (implying that audiences have homework before attending), promises three times the fun.
The Unstable Object II similarly follows three different modes of production: a German workshop that carefully constructs prosthetic limbs and digits (Ottobock), a French artisanal glove-making shop (Maison Fabre), and a Turkish factory that mass-produces the sort of distressed jeans that keep Eurotrash clubs alive and pumping (Realkom). The specific locales add another layer of interest: see the blonde women slowly sculpting a prosthetic fingernail here, see the women in hijabs quickly switching out denim samples there. But all potential humanity (outside the forcefully poetic “their eyes bare their souls” variety) has been excised in favor of Eisenberg’s structural mission. This can be fine — it certainly gives an easy priority to any Marxist reading about alienation. Yet Kevin Jerome Everson’s eight-hour Park Lanes, an equally daunting film about a full workday in a Virginia factory, manages to capture conversations, work politics, breaks, and laughter, so you can see exactly what gets sucked out during the labor. Eisenberg works by rules first, people second, giving us the most solemn three episodes of How It’s Made.
Though no commentary accompanies the images of fingers forged or jeans stitched, Eisenberg offers plenty of thoughts on his website. He notes that the film’s runtime may make it “difficult for some viewers” but that this form of “durational observation” is necessary such that it can “expand what might be understood from the image of labor.” Again, this is true, just as it was true when André Bazin praised the long takes of Orson Welles. But Welles’s shots worked for the grandiosity of his characters just as Michael Snow’s long zoom worked for the bizarre narrative everyone forgets to mention in Wavelength. The Unstable Object II’s structure works to lend it artistic credentials, and, like many twentieth-century artworks, the conversations it inspires will likely be more interesting than the film itself.
Published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 4.