Wavelength is one of a handful of truly canonical works of American experimental film. Its use of film's material and formal foundations as a subject established it as one of avant-garde cinema's most conceptually advanced investigations into its own medium, echoing similar trends in modern painting and sculpture. Michael Snow himself described Wavelength as a continuous 45-minute zoom across a New York City loft, but this oft-repeated description does little justice to its complexity and variety. The zoom moves in stops and starts, at different times of day and night (seen through the three large windows that dominate the wall opposite the camera), and includes superimpositions, reversals, and several different film stocks, which provide a range of colors and textures. A rising sine wave accompanies it on the soundtrack.
Fragments of narrative action occur only to be subsumed in the zoom's inexorable progress. In the beginning, two women bring a bookcase into the loft and leave. Later, after the sound of breaking glass is heard, a man (Hollis Frampton) enters and collapses dead on the floor. Later, one of the women (Amy Taubin), enters again, calls someone on the phone to tell them about the dead body, and leaves again. Towards the end of the film, a siren can be heard approaching. In a traditional narrative, these events would be central to the film's action, but in Wavelength, they exist only to reinforce the film's emphasis on the camera's ability to simultaneously represent and alter space. The zoom's relentless narrowing in, along with the changes in film stock and lighting, gradually transforms the loft from a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional one. In the end, the zoom comes to rest on a small photograph of ocean waves (a two-dimensional object depicting three-dimensional space) mounted on the wall. Considered one of the major achievements of the "structuralist" film movement, Wavelength won first prize at the fourth International Experimental Film Festival, and established Snow as an important avant-garde filmmaker.