The Film-Time Continuum

We are still awaiting the fallout from the Apple Watch. Whether or not it becomes fully ingrained in our culture, and an essential component of everyday life, remains to be seen, but, in any event, it renews our interest in the wristwatch—that wearable technology constantly reminding us we are beholden to time and a regimen. But now, the wristwatch is not just about checking the clock; it has been transformed into a computer with seemingly limitless access and complexity. The basic idea is the same, but our relationship to it has changed. The demand from this piece affixed to our wrist has grown in accordance with our increasingly complicated relationship with time itself.

Film has mirrored this change, incorporating complex treatments of time that correspond with our ever more convoluted association with this inescapable through-line. When film first stung images together—approximating the motion and speed of the world—temporality, dimensionality, and a compounding of perspective and perception were vehemently asserted on viewers in a way never before seen or experienced. These photographs move; there are actions, and these actions take place over some duration. All this is obvious and taken for granted now, but back in 1895, it was epochal. It marked a revolution in our attempt to grasp time, manipulate it, and bend it to our will. Art imitated life with a new level of intricacy. And, time became controllable, bendable, and malleable. Experiments in time manipulation began right from the beginning.

The recent past, constructed facsimiles of long gone eras, imaginative new worlds yet to come, or never to pass, are open templates to explore and intertwine. With film, time can be expanded, contracted, squeezed, extended, stopped, slowed, sped-up, and reversed. The possibilities and potentials of this are still being explored. An increasing number of films test the breaking point of comprehension and coherence as it relates to time, extrapolating to account for the tempo and tenor of the modern world. Time in film is being more complexly deployed, our relation to the fragments on the screen is becoming more fraught, and our ability to craft and comprehend is becoming more sophisticated in the process. Modern films are constructing temporal loops, head-spinning paradoxes, and perceptual conundrums, often with the addition of technology to the equation to ground these inquiries in a somewhat tangible reality and to reflect concerns of the current era.

Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and Christopher Nolan’s Memento are good jumping-off points. Both films operate in reverse, with each scene ordered in reverse chronology. With this retrocausality we are confronted with the very mechanisms of our own memory and experience creation. We like to think in linear patters and causality cycles. Moving in the opposite direction upends and negates this; the order of events and their relation to each other is fractured. We must necessarily piece things together in a way that is coherent and in line with our experience and worldview, and in these films we are forced to contend with our shortcomings, limitations, and simplifications. Taken further, this extends to larger issues in film and the way film structures time. Time is not smooth in film; it is constantly diced apart and reassembled. It is constantly threatening to snap at the seams and fall apart at the moment of cognition. This is papered over with ‘rules’ and conventions that solidify how we reorganize this time. It is ordered chaos, in which the mosaic of fragments takes shape over our collective knowledge of typical, standard approaches and formations. The ‘cut’ is a violent thing, befitting its name—the world before our eyes is continually erased and replaced and we are forced to reckon with new visual information in rapid, random succession, and yet we piece it together in a continuous stream.

Our minds are factories, breaking down stimuli into manageable chunks and piecing together the information into a coherent whole. With this coherent whole we predict and make assumptions about what is likely to come next, constructing logic patterns and conventions to ease the process in the future, streamlining our perception and information processing. But, in doing all this, we are conducting a regimented, highly systematic structuring of time and space. We edit, creating a linear stream of perception that doubles as our memory of experience—a path of attention cut through the infinite possibilities of information presented before us, a narrative of our lives, so to speak. In some ways we seek to transcend this; we long to take in everything. Three films that operate in line with this concept of infinite possibility and choice are Harold Ramis’ Grounghog Day, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, and Doug Liman’s Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. In each, the main character is able to reset events, start over, and try again, with different consequences and outcomes each time. The chance to refresh is a constant desire and something we know is not achievable. We will ourselves to move on, to learn from our mistakes. But film is a crucible in which we rehearse our desires. The ability to go back and make alterations is a common, classic motif in the history of film, speaking to this desire and yearning. These three films are particularly interesting for how they address this to the point of absurdity, attempting and exhausting all possibilities to the point where weariness sets in, fantasy snaps, and the importance of natural perception is reasserted.

Not all experiments in time necessarily focus on the fantastic, however. From Rope to Russian Ark, the mundane mysteries of ‘real time’ have been a subset of inquiry in exercises in film time. At the moment, Richard Linklater is foremost in tinkering with this conception with his decades-long film projects. Boyhood, his most recent, takes a shape not dissimilar from many coming of age movies; but its conceit—filming the same actors each year for a period of twelve years and following their life changes and growth—gives it a feeling of immediacy and perpetual present-tense experience that distances the work from pastiche. In Boyhood, the evolution of perspective and personality is sped up, making the imperceptible perceptible and organic in a way that is rarely captured onscreen. It’s often a shapeless and episodic affair, and, as a matter of course, resembles the manner in which life unfolds—uncertainly, in fits and starts, with the occasional narrative arc, and with no knowledge of what will come next. The only through-line is time itself, constantly marching on, and the characters are caught in its wave and moved from one circumstance to the next.

His Before trilogy, on the other hand, takes a different tact toward similar ends. It is a love story, but one that eschews ‘happily ever after’ threads in favor of large chunks of discourse and encircling, and vast gaps in time. Before Sunset and Before Midnight took off from Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise—where characters Jesse and Celine meet on a train and wander Vienna all evening. The second installment takes place 9 years later in Paris and the film itself was created 9 years after the first. And, the final installment takes place another 9 years after that in Greece. These installments operate at a pace approaching real time—long takes chronicle lengthy walk-and-talk passages where various topics and philosophies are discussed. So, like Boyhood, the organic progression of time is inside and outside the film (taking a cue from Michael Apted’s Up documentaries), but here the concept of time is also deployed through aligning film time and experienced time. It is a complex conflation of the real and the fictional that opens up new mechanisms for telling familiar stories through a simple grounding in existent temporality.

Another preeminent contemporary film time experimentalist is Christopher Nolan, though he emphasizes the grandiose over the intimate. In his creations fantasy and theoretical physics are entwined, mutually-informed areas of inquiry. Interstellar and Inception are particularly fascinating for how they layer time, creating parallel planes and traversing the relationships between them. In these constructions, relative experience is fore-fronted—a consistent, unifying principle can be experienced totally differently from one character to the next and from one plane to another. Interstellar splits along at least five levels of temporal experience, likely more. Character subsets experience time differently depending on positioning within the narrative spanning across solar systems, as well as proximity to a time-warping singularity. In Interstellar, we are no longer dealing with simple categories of plot time, experienced time, story time; these are broken into subcategories as different characters exist in different temporal realities. The way time is laid out is rational, grounded in principle and science, but we are operating at the outer fringes, experiencing operations of time that are grounded but still confounding. The nested dreamscapes in Inception mirror this, operating in parallel, with time moving at different rate ratios depending on dream-depth.

Relativity is equated to the process and experience of film itself. Film has the capacity to order and reorder time and space, but is beholden to the human mind and its machinations to make sense of the fragments as a whole. It is simultaneously fantastic and mechanical, fragmented and coherent. Time dilates, it bends, but it never breaks. We are always attempting to understand it, quantify it, and measure it, but new anomalies and variables constantly emerge that need to be accounted for.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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