A Time Removed
Jean-Luc Godard may famously have proposed a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end not necessarily in that order, but what happens when a film’s temporal sense seems on the point of collapse? Of course there have always been films playing with our sense of time and space, and some of today’s movies would be aware of their influence. Whether it happens to be the early stages of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, with its disembodied voices talking about the Japanese city while scenes from the atrocity are shown on screen, or John Boorman’s Point Blank, where the film intercuts various moments visually with the sound of Walker’s footsteps as he walks down the corridor, there have been many films playing with our temporal coordinates. Even the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin distorts time and space. However, there are moments in Spring Breakers and To the Wonder, as well as Days of Grace, Upstream Colour and First Cousin Once Removed, where time is dislocated and the atemporal takes over as we cannot easily claim we know what scene we are in exactly, and in ways that seem relatively fresh.
Let’s take a moment, or several moments, in Days of Grace. Here the police boss tries to persuade the central character that he needs to help him out and the film is shot in several different locations at several different times, but with the content of the scene presented as a singular situation. As part of the discussion is shot in the car, another in the cafe, the sound bridge allows all the locations to be contained within the one narrative sequence (boss persuades his subordinate), even as we move from place to place. The director Everardo Valerio Gout could have used voice-over here to achieve what in literature is called the frequentative, and what Jean-Paul Sartre so admired in Citizen Kane.
Now usually the frequentative is a series of shots suggesting time passing, as in a clichéd account of a love affair developing or someone growing up, and is often accompanied either by voice over or music that indicates the passage of time. Where a novelist might write, “the seasons passed and their love grew”, a filmmaker will often have more or less the same phrase to a series of images showing the passing of the seasons and the characters shown in various moments of intimacy. What seems different in the films we’re invoking here is that the frequentative isn’t a temporary lull in dramatic force as a series of events are compressed into montage, but that much of the film itself can feel like this act of compression. In Days of Grace, To the Wonder, Upstream Colour and Spring Breakers there is no longer the voice-over simply as an external presence, but instead semi-embodied: it isn’t quite in the story as dialogue, but not quite there in the film as assertive voice-over either. In the sequence in Days of Grace we could have had a series of shots in different locations with the cop telling us how his boss eventually managed to persuade him, or we could have had two or three scenes where the boss keeps asking, but instead the compression takes place in the sound bridge as the film cuts from one location to another, but as if the conversation is continuing smoothly. (There are variations of this in both The Wolf of Wall Street and Nymphomaniac, and perhaps its roots can be traced to the scene in Citizen Kane where time passes as Kane and his wife have breakfast over a number of years.)
This leads to an intriguing, or worrying, atemporality: has the filmmaker lost the plot or found his subject? Do they need to tighten up their dramatic principles, or should we accept that while film is durational, there is no need for it be scenically dramatic: there is no need to tell the story in categorical scenes, but instead the director can allude to a scene rather than dramatize it. If there are moments in Shane Caruth’s Upstream Colour that invoke Terrence Malick, they lie partly in this interest in finding a filmic equivalent to the frequentative without falling into the obviousness of the montage sequence. When the affair develops between the two leading characters in Caruth’s film, it is as though the affair is happening all at once, with time collapsing as intimacy becomes present. When he (Caruth) shows his lover (Amy Seimetz) round the hotel, when they dress up to go out, when they talk about their feelings, these seem less scenes than shards. The dramatic structure has been shattered and we are left with pieces of a sequence without the entire scene.
In Malick’s To the Wonder, the narrative seems to be taking place on another plane, as the story isn’t remembered as we would expect with voice-over reflection, but co-existing with the story. As Ben Affleck’s character starts an affair with one woman, then later with another, and then again with the first, the story exists without ready cause or consequence. Why does she leave, exactly; why does she return? In one scene she hangs out with an Italian friend in the small American town in which she is living, but we have little idea who this friend is, whether she stays there or is visiting. In Malick’s second wave of films (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder) he appears to be seeking ever further dislocation from the narrative event and demanding the story becomes a secondary dimension to the meditative. The images aren’t dramatic; they are illustrative: they reflect certain feelings rather than generate them. When T. S. Eliot proposed his famous objective correlative, central to it was the series of images that would lead to the release of an emotion. In Malick’s work increasingly the emotion is foremost, and the images illustrating a given feeling of awe and wonder, but in a manner that we can’t easily define. After all, Malick’s faith is closer to a belief in belief more than a pre-existent religious assumption.
It is this awe and wonder Caruth also wants to extract in Upstream Colour. Both Malick and Caruth here are what we might call cinematic transcendentalists. They are filmmakers looking to go beyond the story to find a wondrous dimension in being in the world. It is no accident that critics often name check Emerson in the context of Malick’s work. Four of the seventeen essays in The Cinema of Terrence Malick mention the key American transcendentalist, while his fellow transcendentalist Thoreau (name-checked in Malick criticism also) proves a central influence on Upstream Colour: his famous book Walden runs through the film not just as a thematic device, but also in relation to the very plot. It is when one of the central characters notices the importance of passages from Walden that the story comes together. However, what matters most is that the story remains slightly dislocated, as if taking place in a dimension beyond the readily dramatized.
This seems pertinent to Spring Breakers also. Numerous scenes are de-contextualized or recontextualized, as if the characters are caught in a parallel world whilst at the same time existing in this one. If Malick’s film suggests the spiritually other-worldly, Harmony Korine’s seems closer to the pharmaceutically oblivious, with people so out of their heads we might wonder whether there is any point in us concerning ourselves with specific bodies, with singular characters. As the bodies bump and grind it is often almost irrelevant whether any of the leading characters are in the scene, just as at the end when three of the girls along with their gangsta mentor (James Franco) take on the opposition it feels more hallucinatory than dramatic. In a fine moment where the girls re-enact an earlier robbery that allowed them to get the funds to head for Florida and the spring break of the title, so Korine flashes back and shows us footage that we hadn’t initially seen. Where the first time we view events from the getaway car, later we are inside the diner, witnessing the horrified reactions of those being robbed, and the aggressive tactics of the girls. There is no great plot revelation in this flashback, it is all part of Korine’s topsy turvy narrative deployment as the scene feels even more horrific in the reenactment than in its original dramatizing. When the girls say in Florida that they want this moment to last forever, is Korine aiming to create a film that creates a perpetual present also?
If Korine’s work takes apart the story as if narrative convention is a conservative idea that needs to be blown away rather like gangsta villains, Alain Berliner’s interest in the jumble of time is respectful and pertinent. As he focuses on his First Cousin Once Removed, Edwin Honig, so he muses over how best to capture a man with Alzheimer’s whose mind is now a muddle. A translator of Pessoa and Lorca, and a poet of some consequence, Honig can’t even remember the books he has translated, the writers he would have so admired. If the past is a foreign land at the best of times, here it is a separated by an ocean of confusion. As Berliner shows archival footage of a bridge collapsing, it is an obvious but apt image of the mind alienated from itself. Berliner chooses not at all to detail the degradation of the disease from one point to the next, but instead to stay close to the tangle of thoughts, to suggest that the atemporal isn’t only a narrative possibility, but also a horrible neurological phenomenon.
We shouldn’t of course insist that playing with time in film ought to be justified only by the sort of seriousness underpinning Berliner’s film, but it might be worth wondering whether the use has added something to our perception of the world, or merely distracted us from the predictability of its story if it were told in a more straightforward manner. The experiments in film time in the sixties were often attempts to understand better how we think, how we remember, how we feel. As Martyn Auty said in an essay about time in film, ‘Time Zones’, “the setting of Last Year at Marienbad is a metaphor for the structure of memory”. Other filmmakers like the Straubs and Fellini, used it to explore the problem of political history, or the indecisiveness of behaviour. It might be a fair question to ask when lost in filmic space to wonder what such bafflement is serving. Is it merely the ingenuity of a filmmaker capable of playing with the viewer’s expectations, or capable of generating a new perspective from its conjuring tricks with time? When Auty says “until the beginning of the sixties, the concept of time in the movies appeared to have altered little from the earliest narrative films”, now we might wonder whether a film with a beginning, a middle and an end in that order is a cut no longer in fashion, and whether it is fashion more than point which might explain the style.
Of course there is always more than fashion at work (especially in a great filmmaker), but in the lesser cinematic gods perhaps fashion is enough. Maybe what counts here is the sense that time is not a given of an audience’s need for something new; but a filmmaker’s realization that our thoughts and feelings constantly demand comprehending, and this sense of understanding has to move beyond the ready expectation and find new narrative pathways. Malick is of course the master, here, as if responding to Godard’s formulation with one of his own: that film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but seems to be serving some higher order, some inexplicable need that we can’t easily explore let alone explain. It is a rosy fingered cinematic dawn, a tactile trancendentalism where time asks to be seen from its most intimate source and its furthest point. As Fergus Daly astutely put it in Senses of Cinema, musing over Malick’s motivation behind The Thin Red Line, “how can I put the camera on the side of the whole, how can I achieve the point-of-view of the Cosmos on itself?”