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Cinematic time

Related: film - time - fragmentation - narrative - nonlinearity

Has cinematic time influenced literature?: The Time's Arrow case study

Some films experimenting with cinematic time: Rashomon (1950) - Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - Run Lola Run (1998) - Groundhog Day (1993) - Memento (2000) - Irréversible (2002)

Some films concerned with time travel: La Jetée (1962) - The Terminator (1984) - Back to the Future (1985)

Cinematic time and fragmentation

The question of cinematic time has been a concern of mine since some time. I found the article below citing Rashomon and Marienbad as mid-20th-century experiments. The cinematic time issue also ties in with the question of modernist cinema - which just like modernist literature - deals with fragmentation and disjointed timelines which are incidentally two features of postmodernism as well.

In classical narrative structure we have a clear sense of objective reality — that is, linear time and causal relationships. In a classical film we may have fantasy sequences and flashbacks or even flash-forwards, but these are contained within a particular character's point of view. Increasingly though we're seeing films - even wide-release American films that seem to juggle time and space in a way that's not so logically contained. This isn't a new idea — it goes back to Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Surrealist and Dada films, and of course a long literary tradition. But what is perhaps new is the increasingly widespread acceptance of this kind of fragmentation — whether we're conditioned by TV commercials, music videos, science fiction, computer games, chaos theory, or simply boredom with predictable, conventional storytelling. We can't go into depth here about subjective time and space in contemporary film, but I will present a quick survey and then look a little more closely at a few recent examples.

It's possible to divide movies roughly into two categories — classical linear narrative structured around the Protagonist's subjectivity, and non-linear cinema structured around the Filmmaker's subjectivity. Two enormously influential temporal experiments have been Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) and Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961). --Patricia Gruben via http://www.praxisfilm.com/en/libraryresources/praxisnewsletters/fall2002newsletter/default.aspx [Aug 2006]

See also: fragmentation

Cinematic time timeline


  • 1896 Georges Méliès begins creating films with discrete fictional stories as opposed to the Lumière brothers’ actualités. Méliès’s work marks the beginning of the development of form and narrative as we define them today. This development continues in the work of Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith.

  • 1920 D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East provides an early example of parallel editing and cinematic patterns. To heighten the drama in the climactic ice-break sequence, Griffith cuts between three different shots (the hero, the damsel in distress, and the peril) in an A B C A C B C A B C A C B C pattern.

  • 1925 Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin ( Bronenosets Potyomkin) uses stretch relationships between screen and story durations. The massacre sequence, for example, lasts longer onscreen than it would have taken in real life.

  • 1927 Abel Gance introduces Polyvision, a process that uses three cameras and three projectors to display an ultrawide composition across three screens (or show up to three events at the same time). This technique, which predates widescreen by more than twenty-five years, is pioneered in his film Napoléon.

  • 1939 Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz takes place largely in a fantasy world.

  • 1941 Orson Welles breaks numerous cinematic conventions regarding plot order in Citizen Kane. Much of the movie consists of flashbacks, nonchronological sequences, and several chronological accounts of Charles Foster Kane’s life.

  • 1944 Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is set entirely in one very small location: a lifeboat.

  • 1948 Hitchcock’s Rope raises the long take to a new level; the film is a series of ten shots (the average shot runs 8.13 minutes) and is edited unobtrusively to give the appearance of almost seamless continuity.

  • 1950 In Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the story of a horrible crime is told by four people, each with a different recollection of what really happened.

  • 1954 Hitchcock’s Rear Window tells a story about point of view. Confined to a wheelchair, the main character spies on his neighbors across a courtyard, sometimes with binoculars or with a telephoto lens.

  • 1960 Hitchcock employs his concept of the MacGuffin in Psycho; the $40,000 that one character steals, though important to a handful of the characters, has relatively little importance in the overall narrative. The murders of a psychopath have nothing to do with the money. The temporal scope of George Pal’s The Time Machine spans hundreds of thousands of years, while spatially the scope is very small; since the time machine moves through time alone, the only spatial movement is within walking distance from the machine.

  • 1964 Andy Warhol’s Empire makes bold use of pure real time; a static movie camera records the Empire State Building for eight continuous hours.

  • 1975 While most Hollywood stories focus on a few characters, Robert Altman’s Nashville follows a large number of people, whose paths cross.

  • 1985 Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future is one of the first movies to set itself up for a sequel (or series) from the beginning. That is, although the film can be viewed independently, it is intended as part of a larger narrative that spans three movies.

  • 1989 Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing focuses on the theme of power. Rosie Perez dances furiously to the song “Fight the Power” during the opening credits, and the rest of the movie echoes that theme by way of its conflicting opposites.

  • 1993 Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day has a unique structure; the majority of the plot occurs within one day that day is repeated over and over. The traditional three-act format is filtered through a videogamelike narrative.

  • 1995 Hal Hartley’s Flirt tells the same story—indeed, realizes the same screenplay—three times with different actors and settings (New York, Berlin, Tokyo), creating a new type of story repetition.

  • 1996 Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, called the first truly postmodern film, has an almost incomprehensible narrative, with key actors suddenly switching roles and similar scenes played with different dialogue or even in different languages.

  • 1998 Like Groundhog Day, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run ( Lola rennt) employs the concept of resetting time, but its bold use of elements such as color, sound track, and a more quantifiable goal ($100,000 within twenty minutes) makes the film even more akin to a videogame.

  • 2000 Structured antichronologically (essentially backwards), Christopher Nolan’s Memento plays with the ideas of order and progression. The audience receives information in a way contrary to experience, at once both forcing identification with the amnesiac main character and making one of the chief sources of enjoyment figuring out the story.

  • 2001 David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive thwarts attempts at finding coherence in the film by using a surreal, dreamlike structure, multiple realities, and nonchronological order. The questions “What’s going on?” and “What is it about?” are the topics of much debate after the film’s release. --http://www.wwnorton.com/nrl/film/movies/movies_Ch02WhatIsANarrative.pdf [May 2004]

    The Emergence of Cinematic Time : Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (2002) - Mary Ann Doane

  • The Emergence of Cinematic Time : Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (2002) - Mary Ann Doane [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Hailed as the permanent record of fleeting moments, the cinema emerged at the turn of the 19th century as an unprecedented means of capturing time - and this at a moment when disciplines from physics to philosophy, and historical trends from industrialization to the expansion of capitalism, were transforming the very idea of time. In a world that itself captures and reconfigures the passing moments of art, history and philosophy, Mary Ann Doane shows how the cinema, representing the singular instant of chance and ephemerality in the face of the increasing rationalization and standardization of the day, participated in the stucturing of time and contingency in capitalist modernity. At this book's heart is the cinema's essential paradox: temporal continuity conveyed through "stopped time", the rapid succession of still frames or frozen images. Doane explores the role of this paradox, and of notions of the temporal indeterminacy and instability of an image, in shaping not just cinematic time but also modern ideas about continuity and discontinuity, archivability, contingency and determinism, and temporal irreversibility. A compelling meditation on the status of cinematic knowledge, her book is also an inquiry into the very heart and soul of modernity.

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