Some Notes on Film and Time

Concordia University, Montreal March 22, 1995


Since the early eighties I have taught certain courses which have explored the oddly transgressive hypothesis that time is the most essential element of the cinema. Students are amazed to learn how much we take time in our society for granted. In this centennial year of film I am reminded of the Lumiére brothers' first screening in a

Paris caféworkers leaving a factory on cue at closing time, someone checking his pocket watch as a train pulls into a station, etc. But of course film time is taken for granted, too. Even editing is approached more often as an aesthetic problem of space, in which frames adjacent to the cut are noted for their graphic continuity, for their `matching action,' and the resulting illusion of `invisible cutting.' But in my view, producers and critics must understand time more-especially with the increasing accessibility of interactive, computer-based media, where time will be more important, not less, as one multimedia producer exclaimed in frustration. What could be done about time, he asked, in such a 'user-directed' medium, where each run of a program might result in something different? Regardless of the complexities, programmers and designers are still in control, and the user is restricted to temporal experiences along pathways that are ultimately linear, no matter how many there are to choose from.


The objective in these courses-which I've named variously, Film and Time; Time, Memory and the Cinema; and Temporal Desiqn and Analysis in Film - has been to use time to gain insight into the nature of film. And yet, when I look back to my early creative work in music and poetry, a certain fascination with the nature of time motivated me even then. After several visually modernist explorations with my chosen medium of cinema, I returned to poetry and music to compliment my films, which by the late seventies were betraying a fascination, if not an obsession, with problems of time and memory. No doubt I realized I was on the right track when, during some genealogical research, I discovered the Hancox family name had a curious motto: Redeem Time.


While this admonition was probably directed at Knights returning from the Crusades to make good use of time in a non-Christian world, could it mean something else today? Does time have to be redeemed?

Looking at previous time, as one example, Christopher Lasch, in The Cult of Narcissism, has pointed out how a society that has trivialized the past, by making nostalgia a marketable commodity, quickly repudiates any suggestion that life in the past may, on occasion, have been better. "A denial of the past," he says, "superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future." Futurists themselves fall into a similar trap of temporal displacement, when, in their exuberant rush to the future, a mere flicker of a prototype is enough to announce "the future has arrived," the future is here," etc. Both the past and future implode into the insatiable now, or otherwise disappear. We shoot cassettes of home video in extra long takes, hoping to immortalize the moment, then, as it recedes into an estranged past, never find time to look at the tapes. (And I am speaking of myself here).


Stephen Kern in The Culture of Time and Space says Husserl thought of the present as "a continuous unrolling field of consciousness thickened with retentions and protentions." "Joycean epiphanies and the apocalypse of World War I," according to Todd Gitlin's review of Kern, "were flip sides of the same phenomenon, in which a `temporally thickened present' wrenched itself away from continuous time." Of course Harold Innis could speak personally of the horrors of a war precipitated by a panicking monopoly of spatially-biased communications. If God had created time to keep everything from happening at once, then "the old time perished with the old God." (Gitlin) In Innis' essay, "A Plea for Time," written in 1950, he referred to "the modern obsession with present-mindedness," which suggested to him "the balance between time and space has been seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to Western civilization."


The way in which the medium of cinema fits into Innis’s space time dyad is dependent on many factors, not the least of which is its increasingly important role as the collective visual memory of our troubled century. Perhaps films extend the limits of oral representation. A Holocaust survivor told me recently, "thank God the Nazis had a macabre fascination in taking pictures of us - what they did was indescribable." History, in fact, has an ontological bond with film. The cinematic process begins with a series of latent images that must be developed later to be seen, so is automatically cast in the precincts of the past. This is part of the reason why film privileges themes of time and memory, standing in contrast with the instantaneity of video, a perfect medium for a thickened (and thickening) present. But the latent image, along with previous time itself, has shrunk in value in the Post-Industrial/Post-Mechanical society. And as we move into a post-material age, these artifacts-these tangible moulds of light-are in danger of disappearing in the digital ether, as baud rate replaces shutter speed.

In The Ecstasy of Communication, Baudrillard talks about how electronic miniaturisation of circuits and energy relegates to total uselessness-almost obscenity-all that used to fill the scene of our lives-the body, landscape, and time all progressively disappear:

"... what can be said about this immense free time we are left with, a dimension henceforth useless in its unfolding, as soon as the instantaneity of communication has miniaturized our exchanges into a succession of instants?"

Since film, by comparison to newer communication technologies, is now a residual art form, we are left to its marginal vantage point to provide a critical overview of our era. I would go further, and say film's challenge today is nothing less than to redeem time.

It's true that, as J.T. Eraser, founder of the International Society for the Study of Time (to which I belong) has written, "the most striking effect of the arts of time is the bringing about of a feeling of transcending time." But does this mean filmmakers should follow T.S. Elliot's maxim, "only through time is time conquered?" I think Bruce Elder's ‘cinema we need' is no longer one of timeless exultation, but rather, of temporal consciousness. What this requires is greater knowledge of the possibilities of temporal manipulation-including newer, reflexive strategies-which present themselves to the filmmaker, to be used or abused.


Film's ability to `transcend' physical time should be familiar: the expansion and contraction of time by editing, the illusion of simultaneity through parallel cutting, the suspension and reversal of time, flashbacks, wishful flash forwards, high-speed photography and time lapse - and all of it creating a new, filmic time of its own. In fact, Griffith saw that the difference between film time and real time was the basis of cinema.


Our means for relating the normally fixed relationship of time and space is appropriated by the filmmaker. As in a spring wound within a clock missing its hands (like the famous opening scene of Bergman's Wild Strawberries ), motion pictures unreel their images with an internal logic that sets up other temporal universes. Each cut in a film instantly moves us through space to a new perspective that could be located any place, and so could have been reached at any time. Because space is no longer continuous, time has become indeterminate, and thus even the most `realistic' presentation of reality transforms that reality into something new. If time has been transcended, it is that of the mechanical clock; its circumvention allows direct access to the deep time of the biological clock.


Pudovkin said in the twenties the material of the film director consists not of real processes happening in real space and real time, but of those pieces of celluloid on which those processes have been recorded. As a result, film's ability to manipulate the arrow of time-and with it, cause and effect - gives the cinema considerable political power. There is also the length of the the individual shots, scenes, and sequences to consider, and their impact on the viewer's psychological time and sense of duration.


As a result of these complexities, I have devised a model for both temporal design and analysis, which begins with dramatic time (the time to be represented/perceived), filters it through eight categories of temporal manipulation, then compares the resulting physical time (the constructed duration, at 24 frames per second), with the viewer's psychological temporal experience-itself conditioned by clocks external to the film.


Perhaps the most telling aspect of cinema, for those interested in time and communication, is the projection apparatus. On the reel of film, thousands of frames maintain their images of potential moments - an enigmatic museum of stills, perhaps like memory itself. As the film moves through the projector, the images becomes kinetic, or `present'; in coming to life, they give the impression of happening now. This architecture also privileges themes of time and memory in film-Chris Marker's La Jetee, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, being three exceptional examples.


Unfortunately, despite film's seeming ability to transcend time, it suffers from its own kinesis. Unfolding in a perpetual present, like visual perception itself, film cannot really express a past or future, except what is already predetermined on a reel. Unlike literature, movies don't offer much in the way of tenses. No sooner are we presented in the cinema with a dramatic flashback, an historical reenactment, a wish fulfillment (future imperfect tense), than the action it contains appears before us with the same sensory impact as if it were happening now. Thus the illusionistic strength of the cinema-its predominant present tense, the fabricated continuity of time (and space), the appearance of causality-also represents its vulnerability as a medium ripe for propagandistic exploitation. This is one of the themes I deal with in Waterworx, Landfall, and Beach Events, a trilogy of ‘poetry films' all made in the eighties.


My most recent film, a one-hour experimental documentary, Moose Jaw, goes several steps further. This film addresses the proliferating phenomenon in Canada of museumization-literally and figuratively. Moose Jaw, the town in the Canadian west where I spent ten years of my childhood, was still a frontier town with a promising future following World War II. But the motto of its Main Street renovation project, in which one of the main accomplishments was to bring back the old Victorian light standards, was. "Moose Jaw-There's a Future in Our Past."


In a province festooned with museum culture, Moose Jaw is the site of the Saskatchewan Museum of Transportation, a cryptic, pyramid shaped, shrine to the technology which flourished in Moose Jaw in its heyday, when it was the CPR headquarters for the prairies. Since then, the city, whose population has hovered around 30,000 for half a century, has become a fascinating study in the detritus of Confederation-the recoil, in Canada's margins, from what Maurice Charland has identified as ‘technological nationalism'-the Canadian rhetoric par excellence.


While preparing for my last shoot out West (the last in a series that had been spread over eleven years), I finally began to realize how much Moose Jaw was not only a metaphor of Canada, but of myself. "There's a Future in our Past" had also become my motto. After all, my motivations for making this film of my home town-and, through its rail link, my country-were perhaps not that different from those of the museum. However, far from preserving a continuity with the past, museums often just alienate us, as our original experiences become further and further attenuated with each substitution, each re-presentation. But these are also the risks of personal filmmaking, where, by manipulating those innocuous ‘pieces of celluloid,' the imagery of one's own past can be reordered. "The work flames, and the model dies," said Genet. Such risky personal tinkering may be more acceptable in literature or painting, but in a medium so much an icon of western time (and progress) as the cinema, it is generally taboo. For me, the Moose Jaw film was a temporal transgression worth making; from a new cinematic temporal perspective, a continuity with my past could at last be forged-one that brought with it new revelations of technology, nation and individual.