Volume 3 : Cover Topic - Time and Cinema (1)

A Forking In Time: A Subversion Of The Realist Notion

Subhadeep Ghosh


A Proposition:

‘There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was far faster than light
She went out one day
In a relative way
And returned the previous night.’

— George Gammow

As you wonder from one two three to infinity about the abysmal plausibility of this proposition, you tend to suspect it first. And the hard-boiled realist in us would assert – Surely, you are joking, Mr. Gammow!

But then there is cinema…

Start adding up those one-twenty-fourth split seconds and you are off to a journey, a journey through light and shadows and you turn your head aside, only to realize that even in that intermittent darkness you have moved ahead in an irresistible inertia of motion, riding on an avalanche of images. Taken aback, you realize the fathomless light years that you have been so traveling, for you are entrapped in a maze, a labyrinth of time where past, present and future appear but as would that old monk Hans Lucas have suggested, not necessarily in that order.

For such is the power of cinema or incidentally…

Our Memories Tick at 24 frames per second

‘Where is the cinema? It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous continuous performance of film and scenarios.’ — Jean Baudrillard

More often than not, when we encounter a situation in our daily life, we seemed to have a feeling as though we have seen it already. We are accustomed with its familiarity, we have seen it through and through, or so it seems. As if it’s just the nth reflection of an event that has occurred before – in short, we carry a sense of dejà vu or a trace of such a sensation.

But why this estrangement? Isn’t this the cinematic experience?

The advent of photography in the second half of 19th century brought about a distinct change in our perception of memory. For the photograph meant an arrest of the moment. And, in the very act of photography was hidden a latent desire. A desire to defy the ultimate moment – Death.

‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’

Milan Kundera has rightly articulated this struggle. And only memory gives us a chance for survival. To refute absolute annihilation. The photograph aspires to transcend the moment. The photographic investment was indeed an investment in Memory. An investment, which was taken a step further with the advent of cinema. And since its inception, the cinematic experience has contributed significantly to our perception of memory to the effect of reorganizing and restructuring it altogether. The modern man is essentially conditioned by cinema, constantly conjuring up images from museums of his memory. The visuals of a film, forms an associative communion with that of an image preserved in his memory. His memories are at work, anti-clockwise. Thus in our conscious and unconscious attempts at cinema we try to memorize, for films are orthographic projections of that memory (although we forget it on occasions). That’s how memories work in a film and that’s how films work in our memory – present continuous in our consciousness – ticking at 24 frames per second.

Memories & Films, A Few Observations…

When memories start ticking in cinema, they chime with the efficacy and the eloquence of a clockwork. Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad & Tarkovsky’s Mirror probably are two exemplary films that befall in this category and deserve our attention.

The subject of Last Year At Marienbad is the human mind, its structure being the mind’s ceaseless cataract of images. The drama of the film lies in the continuous ebb and flow of emotion that lights up the images or blacks them out. The traditional distinctions between present and past, fact and fantasy are obliterated here, not simply as a game but out of a conviction that it is a more honest way of representing the flow of perception.

Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which is perhaps the most personal of his films, on the other hand, is a search for a lost time. And he harrows through his childhood memories to recreate a universe that blossom with its own florescence. It’s not just nostalgia about one’s childhood or one’s relationship with his mother that creates a film like Mirror, but there is a deep sense of one’s history underneath. Mirror even transcends that history with an extraordinary lucidity and sheer poetry of its images. No wonder then when an old lady wrote to the filmmaker: ‘It exactly resembles my childhood. Only how did you know that?’

Yet both of these two films by conventional standards (realism) are quite complex in nature, at least at a mere structural level. Thus one fails or falls short to appreciate their beauty if one attempts to approach them within a causal framework of the chronological events that unfold on the screen. One might go as far to say that there is nothing to ‘comprehend’ as such, in these two films. Primarily, one has to remain faithful to his senses, for the images unfold as they do in our dreams. Then only a more serious intellectual engagement is possible with them.

Both Resnais and Tarkovsky belong to that rare breed of filmmakers/authors who are deep rooted in their sense of history. What is intriguing is their notion of time – and the way they construct it as a formative element in their films. So the question to put forward – How do we perceive the notion of history and how is it related to the construction of cinematic time?

What is History?

Is it Memoirs? Or is it Memories?

We all carry a certain notion of history within us. Our memories are constitutive elements of that history. But, often historians remain oblivious to this fact. With exception to the postmodernist approach, almost all ‘modernist’ attempts at history writings had more or less followed the model of a linear realist narrative. This dominant course within its discipline has a fatal logical trap. For it then reduces to a notion of teleos. And this method starts from this notion and rework at it, thereby lending a linear causal structure conforming to the chronology of the events. Then history reduces to be an anthology. To mere ‘memoirs’ that act as a substitute for our memories. Memoirs become surrogate memories. And the very claim of objectivity that the project of history undertakes is thrown to a serious challenge. To codify history within a strict academia would entail an act of sheer ignorance of the multifaceted concurrent forces that are at play, of the different zones of silences and most of all an impossibility of a wholistic knowledge. So history has to accommodate for its discontinuities, for its rupture and account for its porosity in structures.
Whatever objective stance we may take, history has to seclude a space for imagination. That’s where a filmmaker or an author figures in, to lay the bridge. Parceque, une histoire ou bien l’histoire – c’est la meme chose.

The fundamental question for any creative author is then how to approach that history. To develop a certain sensibility towards one’s own history is just not enough, for the method being followed to arrive at that is equally important, as it necessarily moulds that sensibility to that extent, where, ultimately one cannot separate the one from the other. As seen, the realist method falls far short here as well; it cannot penetrate beyond the apparent surface reality of things: beyond the skin depth. The realist model fails drastically to explain and account for the inherent split(s) as experienced in a schizoid time.

The phenomenal monopolizing power of technology in every sphere of a modern human existence is re-layering our perceptive faculties, altogether. The utter chaos of our time stems from these quotidian exchanges and experiences of reality, a rationalization of which is nearly impossible. Technology today, has colonized all myths, and in the process, it itself has appropriated the functions and role(s) once played by myths in our traditional societies.

To address the problem of this time and that of history, one has to follow the Borgesian model. A Ts’ui Pên model, which albeit its incompleteness, is not a false one. Contrary to Newton and Schopenahauer, the artist can no longer believe in a uniform, absolute dimension of time. He has to believe in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times.

‘This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of times.’ — Jorge Luis Borges

Today, the filmmaker or the author can hope to create an image of his contemporary universe, with a formal recourse to a new rhetoric. Only by a thoughtful reintroduction of the magical, the fabulous, the fantastic and the surreal element in their linear schemas, they can accommodate the discontinuities, the inherent ruptures of this time and thus create an alternate notion of time – where time itself forks perpetually towards innumerable futures.

The ‘Yugoslavian’ filmmaker Emir Kusturica is perhaps one of the few contemporaries who have achieved this to a degree of perfection in his film Underground (1995). A film that attempts the daunting task of (re)presenting a period in history spread as wide, from 1941 - 1995 could only possibly begin on a deceptively lyrical, unassuming note: "Once upon a time, there was a country." He creates a frenetic, delirious, farcical, insightful, and ultimately tragic allegory on the dissolution of a nation in Underground. Using surreal, repeated events that interweave reality and illusion, Kusturica presents an incisive metaphor for the turbulent and often vicious circle of former Yugoslavian politics. The repeated aerial assaults during World War II are later re-staged by Marko in order to continue deceiving the underground workers; the wedding receptions continually feature the lively Gypsy band; military personnel shuttle paying refugees in a hidden tunnel through ‘Yugoslavia’; and the final haunting image of the fragmented land, proves to be an elegiac passage in a solemn requiem for the fractured soul of a lost nation.

Kusturica’s interpretations of this turbulent chapter in ‘Yugoslavian’ history, although being subjective, will be a true account of the period, precisely because he acknowledges the limits of his very knowing. The historical discontinuities of his times are evident at the very formal treatment of this film.


‘In the Apocalypse the angel swears that there will be no more time… Time isn’t a thing, it’s an idea.’ — F. Dostoievsky

We await the end of ‘linear notion of time in cinema’ with optimism.



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