Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Time Waits for No One

Coming back to Ryerson University to teach a film course for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer over a year ago, I decided to start with a class about the nature of time. Even though I had had the idea shortly before I became sick, it had acquired some poignancy during the months of treatment. Time wasn't just the philosophical exercise I first considered, but a tangible entity that I was growing quite intimate with. I came to see that you can't beat time because – to paraphrase George Harrison – time flows on within you and without you. We may try to organize time through our calendars and appointment books to construct a linear path of going forward through the weeks, months and years. But we can run out of time despite what our daytimer tells us. When we are awake, we are conscious of time passing. Yet we sleep for eight hours a night and it never seems like eight hours when we open our eyes to the morning.

Time is independent of our existence whether we are conscious of it or not. It may be one reason why some of us fear going to sleep at night because it's then that our futile control over time slips out of our grasp. As we enter the world of dreams, time shifts into realms of abstract reality. It's movies that allow us to experience time in that abstract reality, as if we were to find ourselves in a waking dream. Perhaps that's why some people fear movies and choose to attend only some pictures, while avoiding others that may disturb their sense of order. Unlike in the other arts such as literature, theatre, opera and the visual arts, where we can experience a work in linear time – giving us full control of what we read, watch and hear – movies are about surrendering our control to the eye of the camera and the sensibility of the person behind the lens.

From the moment the Lumière brothers shocked audiences in 1896 with L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), which was simply about a train arriving at the station, where viewers experienced the sensation of being run over, movies have played exquisite games with our concepts of reality and time. Georges Méliès was a magician on the Paris stage trying to pull off tricks to entertain audiences until he discovered the movie camera thanks to the Lumière brothers. In quick order, he made a number of astonishing short films that defied our idea of time by trying to recreate the world of dreams where linear time is challenged. In The Vanishing Lady (1896), a woman sitting in a chair disappears before our eyes – even at one point reappearing as a skeleton – due to the wizardry of the new technology of the movie camera. One Man Band (1900) had Méliès duplicating himself on screen into a complete musical orchestra with the same deftness that Harold Ramis would reveal later when – thanks to digital technology – he cloned Michael Keaton into multiple characters in the 1996 comedy Multiplicity.

Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station)

Given the hand-painted colourization that would adorn Gulliver's Travels (1902), and the narrative and visual complexities he'd impart to A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès proved to be a man of his time, but he was also an artist living out of his time. Envisioning and anticipating the innovative techniques of movies in the future, he lacked the technology to advance them beyond the time he lived in. That would be left in a few short years to directors like D. W. Griffith, who took us back to the American Civil War in The Birth of a Nation (1915) – where he also confronted us with a racist narrative from a Southerner's view that had an operatic power. The shock of that film and the ripples of controversy it created forced the filmmaker to respond in 1916 with Intolerance, an epic riposte which intercut four separate stories about inhumanity and injustice. But the picture didn't just contrast Babylon, where pacifist Prince Belshazzar is brought down by warring religious factions, with Judea, where the last days of Christ (Howard Gaye) are depicted in the style of a Passion play, and with France, where Catherine de Medici presides over the slaughter of the Huguenots, or present-day California, where a woman (Mae Marsh) pleads for the life of her husband (Robert Harron) when he is sentenced to hang for a murder he did not commit. Griffith told these stories as if the events were happening all at once. Each era spoke to the others; the present found its own echo in the past. Besides presenting the experience of the simultaneity of time, Intolerance also generated suspense by implicating the audience in what it was watching. (When we are subjected to a car chase in the contemporary story where the passengers are making a desperate attempt to prevent the hanging, it is paralleled with comparative moments from the previous eras.)

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) drew more directly from Méliès' magic shows as Keaton's film projectionist dreamed himself onto the movie screen to experience time as out of control. Others – in time – would go even further. In the eighties, Woody Allen replicated some of Keaton's alchemy in movies like Zelig, where he inserted himself into footage of the past – including a Hitler rally – and The Purple Rose of Cairo, where he reversed Sherlock Jr. when a character in a movie (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen and enters the real world to be with a lonely housewife (Mia Farrow) who was fixated on the film, so that he could be free of the confines that the drama he was stuck in imposed on him. Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) featured the suspense of watching a boy on a trolley unwittingly carrying a bomb across London hidden in – what else? – containers of film. We watch him being delayed and stalling while the clocks of the city loom down with the inevitability that time will eventually run out and he and innocent others will be killed. We, meanwhile, are helpless to stop time, to enter the screen and save them.

Georges Méliès' One Man Band (1900) 

In Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles depicts the failure of tycoon Charles Foster Kane's first marriage not in a number of dramatic scenes, but as a flashback to the past from Kane's friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten). He describes the marriage to a reporter in an anecdote, collapsing time. The years of decline become a brief theme with variations. Composer Bernard Herrmann opens the marriage montage with a romantic waltz capturing the couple's happy moments before their growing unhappiness turns the music into a dirge in little over a minute. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an astronaut (Keir Dullea) reaches the end of his life; Kubrick folds the stages of his death into a series of formal vignettes even as the stillness of the camera shots expands the time in which we experience it. In The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola powerfully dramatizes the fall of the son (Al Pacino) who inherited the criminal kingdom of his father (Marlon Brando) by contrasting footage of the early years of his father's rise to power (now with Robert De Niro in the role) with the torpor of the son's later collapse. Sergio Leone's 1984 gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, goes even further to scramble time and the narrative, so the story bounces in and out of different eras, reflecting the sense of guilt that De Niro's Noodles feels about the failure of his life. In the beginning, as Noodles lies in an opium den drawing on his pipe, we hear a telephone ringing through the various stages of his life until, finally, it is answered by the cops he's called to rat on his partners in crime.

The obsession with time has sometimes served as a dare to directors trying out new ways to expand on the dramatic narrative. Nicholas Roeg's elliptical Don't Look Now (1973), set in Venice, features a love scene between a married couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) who are still grieving the accidental death of their daughter and having trouble connecting to each other in the present. They get stuck emotionally in the past while attempting to find a future for their marriage. Roeg decided to shoot their love scene by cross-cutting between their coital passion and the later dispersion of their sexual excitement when they're getting dressed for dinner. Besides evoking the deathly experience that follows orgasm, Roeg also found a dramatic means of reflecting both the romantic passion of the couple reaching out to each other and the sense of despair they felt about things never being the same again. (Steven Soderbergh filmed a variation on this scene in his 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight, where bank robber Jack Foley, played by George Clooney, wins the heart of FBI agent Karen Sisco, portrayed by Jennifer Lopez. As they flirt in a hotel bar, Soderbergh intercuts their foreplay and the later seduction scene in the hotel bedroom. But Soderbergh's aim is the opposite of Roeg's – to build a feeling of erotic anticipation rather than the regret over the death of eroticism in Don't Look Now.)

In David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), not only does the main character (Brad Pitt) live his life backwards, resembling an old man at birth and a child at death, but the movie is framed by a death-bed story by his lover (Cate Blanchett) about a man at the turn of the 20th century who invented a clock that went backwards. His goal was to bring the boys back alive from WW1, including his own son, though the clock could do little to soothe the afflictions of time. Fincher shoots this scene to resemble a scratched silent film, but he also makes it look hand-coloured, as if to suggest that Méliès was around with his brushes to add his sumptuous touch. Alan Rudolph in his little-seen romantic drama, The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002), gets right inside the way events can teleport us back in time so we sketch a path of memory that we hope will take us up to where we are now. In the case of David Hurst (Campbell Scott), a mild-mannered dentist who shares a practice with his wife Dana (Hope Davis), his marriage is put to the test. One night, as she is about to appear in the chorus of their local amateur opera company, he sees her backstage in the arms of another man. Assuming that she's been cheating on him, he makes his way back to his seat, and their children, dazed. As the music starts, he begins to remember their courtship at dental school, their marriage, their first home and the pregnancies that followed. Rudolph has David's memories of his relationship with Dana flood back with a tidal force that's underscored and inspired by the first act of Verdi's Nabucco, where the Jews are being assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco. We know that an old song on the radio can sometimes bring back long-buried moments in time; Alan Rudolph accomplishes the same sensation with Verdi in The Secret Lives of Dentists.

The inventor (Elias Koteas) and his backward clock in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Most popular SF novels and films (The Time Machine, Time After Time, Frequency) deal more literally with time travel and our fascination with altering the past or future. Perhaps the finest SF picture of this nature is Chris Marker's innovative and masterful 1962 short La Jetée. La Jetée is about a man in the future, a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic France, who has a distinct memory from his childhood of a single incident at Orly Airport in Paris: he sees a woman on the jetty as he watches planes arrive and depart. He also has a lingering image of a death that he can't quite place. As scientists find a means to send people into the past to alter the future, this man is able to revisit that moment, hopefully to resolve the memory. And he does so but not in the manner he hoped for. By using a series of still images to create both the motion of a movie and the manner in which memory works, Marker recreates the process of both gathering time and being overwhelmed by our inability to harness it. "Most times when we recall the past we remember it only in fragments," wrote critic David Churchill in his appraisal of Marker's career when he died in 2012. "These fragments often get mixed in with other memories, too, as our brain zooms through its 'attic' making up its own associations and connections. Many times, these memory fragments do not play like movies, but instead still images; captured moments." As much as Marker's film captures moments, the character in the story is captured by memories that are out of his hands – a theme that emerges again years later in his film essay Sans Soleil (1983). What both movies share as well is a fascination with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which may itself be the ultimate (if not so obvious) time-travel picture.

Vertigo opens with detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) chasing a criminal across the rooftops in San Francisco. While trying to jump to the next building, he slips and finds himself hanging desperately from an eavesdrop. Another police officer attempts to rescue him but falls from the roof to his death many feet below. From that moment, Scottie is trapped in the past with a trauma that leaves him with vertigo – a fear of heights. He retires from the force but is enlisted by an old college friend, Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he claims is possessed by the past – by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide once the married man she loved cast her aside after she bore his child. Scottie follows Madeleine through the city streets from the Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum, where she gazes at the Portrait of Carlotta, to Fort Point, under Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into the bay. Scottie rescues Madeleine and falls in love with her. As they draw closer, Madeleine recounts a nightmare, the setting of which Scottie identifies as the Mission San Juan Bautista, which is Carlotta's childhood home. When they drive there, Madeleine, overcome, runs into the church and up the bell tower. Scottie tries to follow, but his acrophobia gets the best of him and he can't climb the steps. He's left watching her plunge to her death, an apparent suicide.

James Stewart's Scottie hanging on in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Having failed to save the woman he loved, Scottie remains obsessively stuck in the past. After spending time in a sanatorium recovering from catatonia, he returns to the streets of San Francisco to retrace his steps, as if, in doing so, he could also undo the past and find a clear route to the future. Hitchcock cleverly maps out these scenes so that we also return to our memories of the earlier part of the movie. He has us time travel (along with Scottie) to the beginnings of the story, where we unravel clues along with him. But once Scottie strays from the path of the past, he spots a woman who looks a lot like Madeleine. Boldly visiting her in her hotel, and finding out her name is Judy, he asks her out for dinner and she accepts. After he leaves, Judy does some time traveling of her own, back into her memories, to the moment when she betrayed Scottie by using him as a patsy for Elster in his scheme to kill his wife. Judy posed as Madeleine and faked her suicide to make Scottie a witness. (It was the real Madeleine, already dead, who was tossed from the rooftop.) Once again, while tracing Judy's flashback, Hitchcock repeats the scenes from earlier in the movie when Madeleine/Judy climbed the staircase – only this time we see moments that weren't in that part of the narrative. Instead of staying with Scottie trapped on the stairs, we go to the rooftop, where we see the faking of the suicide.

Over the last third of the picture, Scottie persuades Judy to recreate herself as Madeleine, not in an attempt to make her over (as some feminist critics have suggested) in the spirit of the male gaze, but in a pathological attempt to bring back the past. And, out of love for him, she agrees to let him recreate this woman who never really existed. Once he has her, though – in a haunting moment when she emerges like Madeleine's ghost from the bathroom – he loses her again, this time when his detective instincts take over.  As they get ready to go out to dinner, Judy decides to wear Carlotta's necklace, which reveals to Scottie that he was set up from the first. Out of bitterness, he drives her back to the Mission San Juan Bautista to recreate the scene of the original crime and finally free himself from the past. But although, in confronting Judy, he does free himself from his vertigo, Judy is startled on the roof by an intruder, steps backwards and tumbles to her death. Scottie finally recovers the present, but loses the woman from his past for a second time.

The ghost of Madeleine (Kim Novak) emerges from the bathroom in Vertigo

As Vertigo demonstrates, time traveling doesn't require a machine; we can do it in our own minds. In Francis Coppola's The Conversation, Gene Hackman's wiretapper tries to unravel the meaning of a conversation he's recorded, continually revisiting the past through his tape recorder. But while it functions sufficiently like a time machine, he can't undo the past any more than Scottie can. Vertigo makes you dizzy with its notion of time as a spiral that can't be broken – like the back of Madeleine's hair, a replica of Carlotta's in the painting. Bernard Herrmann's highly romantic score is steeped in Gothic tragedy; it takes its cue from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, with its themes of love and death and its unresolved chords that keep the listener in a state of suspended anxiety. "Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again," director Martin Scorsese once told Sight and Sound. "And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was
going for – he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession." And that heart of obsession is our desire to break the grasp of time upon us. Yet time waits for no one.

While movies, where we continually engage in daydreams beyond our control, continue to break apart and reconfigure our sense of time, the technology that made watching movies possible has altered our viewing habits dramatically. Where we used to wait for films to open and even feared that we might not have the time to see them before they close – possibly for years, if not for good – today, with the availability of streaming, we are now offered the illusion of being in control of what we can see. We can now catch a recent movie at will on Netflix, even pause it to take a break or to return to it at a later date. There's no longer the urgency of experiencing a picture during its brief stay. We don't even need to be in a big movie house where we can share the communal dreaming with others in the audience. Today we can engage with a movie in the privacy of our home and with whomever we wish. But that doesn't stop filmmakers from toying with time, whether it's Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris, reminding us that no era is free of the prejudices of its time, or Michael Apted in his Up series of documentaries, where every seven years he contrasts the lives of a group of men and women – children of seven when he first filmed them – to see if time ends up shaping them or they shape the times with their evolving values. The extraordinary 2016 documentary, Tower, where director Keith Maitland recreates the first mass shooting in America at the University of Texas in 1966, sets out to make us conscious of time. There was the killer residing in the clock tower, marking time with the bullets he fires. Some victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time; others survived because they turned out to be in the right place at the right time. Tower resists turning the period songs on the soundtrack into nostalgia, but rather lets them function as signposts, the survivors having marked their memories by the tunes they heard. What we discover, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, is that we can't escape the existential puzzle of being trapped in time. But in a good movie we can always imagine, through time's elusiveness, what it's like to experience time as it really is – and as The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, you just have to abide.

  Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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