Watching Film II (Film and Temporality).
Watching the best of film; the gold standard on the silver screen. The exchange relations of the ‘silver screen’; its exchange rate as the economics of ritual, investment at once social and individual, bringing together the process from industry to the individual, exchange relation of the collective spirit, exchange relation of the soul. A relation at once in time and of time: relieving us of our time (actual and stored), returning us just in time
Time and the moving image…
Temporality (& its Other). Our everyday time and that … other-time. Cinema time. Time out: from everyday time, for another time, a not-time suggesting eternity (on ‘this side’ the experience of a special time)… Out of time (for a short while). Or else defined as another kind of time, an-other time, although usually one stopping short of any reference to eternity. (But as the trace of the eternal is always present in any opposition to everyday time or temporality, so film time, the time taken from everyday temporality, always keeps open the path to the further realm.). In this way film is not just about past or future (like documentary history, or historical drama set in the past, or in a sci-fi future). Time and genre may suggest temporality, yet the overall effect is one of being ‘elsewhere’ for a while. Therefore we can speak of ritual time (framed by entry and exit, and underwritten by the exchange of wealth), with the ‘other-time’ of eternity as its final reference point…
Out of time we must go ’out of time’ to regain time. The Old Cycle: from Entropy to Ritual. The price of psychological refreshment is the price of a cinema ticket.
Social time versus film time. Once again in a dark place, like a dream, lost in dream time… dream time as ritual time (ritual form and exchange are required to recreate this ‘other-time’ in real time). Ritual time; the window of ‘other-time’ that is the aim and centre piece of ritual events, standard source of social glue in all prior social formations. So providing a fertile site for the resolution of problems (even, or especially, irresolvable ones), of acting out. Home to the ‘as if…’ Site of impossible fantasies often with transgression as its centrepiece (again as in the inoculation of the ‘carnivalesque’, ritual agent provocateur, harbinger of the return of eternal values, the return to order, the re-enthronement of the Law). Then…and not only also… the site of renewal (the end game, the happy, or open-ended ending). Like the history of literature before it - including myth and tragedy (closest in origin and content to ritual), (ancient) comedy and romance, precursors all of the fundamental plot of the novel. But not the lyric, which survives as an episode (like a poem cited within a narrative, precisely a dream episode) or else a sub-genre; the ‘weepie’ (the tear-jerking moment before the healing of the rift). Sites all where the contradictions and agonistic relations of a given social epoch and community are acted out, not least through the lens of the individual’s conflict with a dominant social structure. This lens then being reflected or reactivated (by proxy, as a stand in, at a safe distance) in the individual reading, or audience watching. Raptly watching the unravelling of the plot into its inevitable denouement either in comedy (contradiction cured) or in tragedy (individual sacrificed to contradiction but lesson learnt by all). Moreover a contradiction cured in the audience, in the reader… In the tragic vein may also be found the origin of the ‘unhappy’ art, the uncomfortable art of the Gothic, the art of manipulating the negative… (yet the art of the uncomfortable, of displaying the negative, is also the art of much painting – from religious art to the present, as of the near disasters and narrow escapes of literature, as of film today…the disaster movie is not alone in pushing its characters to their limits…). Time out for experiment and escape, also renewal and reminder. Time out of time to renew time (the formula for ritual and its trace in all art, in all culture). The larger (‘would be’ a-historic, universal) frame polices the result; eternity even in rational guise (as the a priori beyond contingency) guarantees the outcome - as we always desire it should…
Temporality within film. Past-present-future (our time) as narrative. As actualised memory or anticipation, windows in the present, the present in the film as our present, dotted with flashbacks and anticipations - including the devices of in medias res, and the retrospective rerun that is the special realm of the who-done-it. Our time as the experience of film moving. With not-time, the experience of time standing still, standing in for the sense of eternity and the rhetorics it represents (the outside, universals, immortals, ideals). ‘Time standing still’ as our ‘other’ time’, our access to special moments, to meditation, dream time, to islands of stasis amid the flow of narrative (precisely like the trope of hypotyposis, one thing interrupting another… an image irrupting in the flow of narrative). The latter may return to first and last things (eternity) or remain in more introspective, lyrical mode (like a private ritual supporting a private identity fantasy). But always we are returned to the (our) present: first the present of the film, then our own as the film ends. As film moves so we too move. A synchronicity broken only for considered rhetorical effect. The most powerful of which is…? The presence of the eternal.
The present of the film, a gift to our own present…
We think we are standing (sitting) still, with the film, the moving image, moving, moving us emotionally, perhaps geographically in our imaginations, even our identities in our association with those on screen (but not always in ways described by ‘Screen’) all moving with the film, the moving image: but we are ourselves moved in another way, moving with time, in time, with the film, this coincidence making the film still, an ‘eternal present’ as we accompany every frame. Still by still.
Past/Present/Future (narrative temporality) and its co-ordination with the Present (together with its sub-sets [past/future] our temporality). Our times present, with windows on past and future, memory and anticipation, checking and planning, combines with present movement in time of film, with its flashbacks and flash forwards. A time dovetailing together with our time so that we follow the film temporally, differences in the speed of successive scenes and the gaps they entail switching us, the audience into different temporal gears. Games with temporality as games with editing time, playing with the difference between our (apparently) forward passage in time, the moving present, and the film’s sequence of events (as if real). The ‘moving image’, cut up and reordered according to the desire to present information in a particular sequence. Keeping back the beginning (cause) until the end (the denouement) when ‘who-done-it’ is finally revealed.
Rhetorical temporality (its depiction) provides the explanation and rationale for the famous and, to many audience members, puzzling, switches between black/white and colour in ‘Heimat’ (the classic German serialisation of 20th century German history). Where the black and white sequences offer distance, through semi-presence (a presence with a sense of presence, that of colour, withheld) …suggesting the past, of ourselves, the viewer, looking upon it as the past seen from outside. The appearance of colour then draws us in with a greater, more complete, sense of presence, that of the now, of being closer, being drawn in to the time presented, as if ‘in’ our own (illusionistic) present. It is also possible for the unhistorical black/white scenes to be read as future portents; an option taken with great effect at the end of the first series…
Not Time (Again): for a sense of dislocation, out of time, an-other time, effects of timelessness, the time of the trance, the dream of the mystic. A background wash or trace, a left-behind archaism of ritual; the human need of image-cement to fix our volatile selves and steady the ground beneath our feet, better to provide an anchor against the entropy which washes over the social bond wearing it thin. The confirmation to be found in cinema answers this call: as once did all literature and art, as did all culture before it. Even the most banal.
Exceptions: film which disturbs so much that the viewer feels themselves becoming unhinged; David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (but such films only seem to function in this way in their early days, thereafter their ‘difference’ is consolidated, made safe, badge of identity of those who ‘can’ watch such things…). Or the poetry of Antonin Artaud. The sublime element in this kind of ritual taken to the limit.
Realist narrative versus Anti-realism (experimental or ‘avant-garde’ film). There are as many forms of this opposition as there are critical theorists who choose to mobilise it. Perhaps the key player to follow this binary distinction is Deleuze with the ‘movement image’ versus the ‘time image’ (after Bergson and Nietzsche). There are many other takes on this opposition in film theory; in the representation (as in another pairing, also from Deleuze) of ‘majoritarian’ versus ‘minoritarian’ issues (with the shadow in the background of the Nietzchean opposition of dominant and ‘reactive). An opposition also found in the work of Helene Cixous, where ’the other’ opposed to realist narrative is to be read as somehow distinctively female (first believed to be a result of formal innovations, but, on the realisation that male writers also use such, requiring the addition to the former of a specifically female content). This lead has been followed by other commentators who have quickly realised that the opposing term may be filled with ‘black’, ‘queer’, the ‘subaltern’ (sic) – in short all and any term which may be regarded as the ‘other’ of the ‘dominant’. An opposition which when found in literature includes class and generation; but not usually in film concerning itself with ‘working class’ (but not necessarily with service class or underclass) issues. In this case realism is preferred. However the ‘avant-garde’ Left have championed experimental form and content for its unsettling effects, thought to be (in potential at least) mind-opening, or awareness-raising; or, as, at best, the least worst (and so conveniently symptomatic) option (Adorno).
Cinema and certainty: of entities and events (things there and not-there).
Past and future are as ghosts compared to the present. However this is a present equally ephemeral; itself fading to the point of spectrality when we try to pin it down. The never-ending motion of the river on which we ride only becomes apparent on close inspection. Eternity, in the form of ‘the eternal present’, lies rather in the omni-presence of the frame than in the ever-changing content – its extrapolation into a never-changing realm of eternal stability, always elsewhere, always reliable, as the course correction, compass and sextant, true North of our storm-tossed ocean - or else its negative: chaos, which more closely mirrors the state of play of our spectre-ridden consciousness.
The presence of film, the situation of cinema, shares this phantom ambiguity, together with its necessity and persistence, like a ghost returning, or like a repeated dream… Not least as it shares the need with other forms of cultural representation, of culture itself, to portray eternal verities, even of the most trivial sort, where the most banal of clichés must be presented as if eternal verities, profound truths – as ideals (ever present masks of mediocrity and monotony). All as insubstantial as the memory of a bad dream at dawn, the flight of spectres with the coming of light.
All cinemas are as haunted places.
Flickering firelight, the source of cinema’s plague of phantoms, may also be its cure. The poison turned medicine comes to dispel bad dreams with good, a parting of the clouds that obscure our fettered vision (this is the long dream of the Enlightenment). But (if, and only if), somewhere (outside) is nominated the place from which the Word arrives (whether called forth by offers of alliance, service or sacrifice). Only if appearing from outside, there comes a new god unsullied and fresh, renewing our eternal contract, our right to dispose of the world as we see fit (the longest dream, one from which we have not yet awakened…). Slaves always to light and its play (its shadow play). Only the formation changes; the only exception being those who would be free as only animals can be (supposedly without consciousness) and so not able to perceive the need for a binding promise offered by light, of the blindness offered by light (and what animal does not flee the thunder thrash, the whip of lightening as it rides the sky). Firelight is just the gateway, but also the guardian of the gateway that leads to the sublime and its nightmares, set in a land of terror amid the realm of the Sublime.
Perhaps nowhere are memory and anticipation better combined than in science-fiction, or science-fantasy. The themes are typical, received; reconfigured in a futuristic setting (as it would appear at the time, before the time ((of the film)), its ((supposed and not actual)) time). And at a future date… Mirror of Utopia; culmination (with CGI) of a long literary history – a safer site for the working out of its fantasy. The site and stage for the utopian element in science-fiction, also to be found in the trace of its constant companion, the Gothic; a genre echo that stubbornly persists despite all attempts at dethronement by its blander cousin, the adventure story. A combination that marks the arrival of the desired world as something problematic (all recent images of utopia have been distopian). A reflection of the received present as problem (gift as bearer of debt). As a crisis for the young; the inheritors. One generation’s attainment marking the limitation of the next. Making of such genres also tales of generation and renewal and so the true heirs of literature and of ritual.
Copyright 2007, Peter Nesteruk