On Time and Cinema
“Time” is the concept that is so often overlooked in quick discussions of motion pictures and the cinematic experience. Movement, light, sound, and narrative all come to mind when we think about cinema, but time is not, probably because we are immersed in it, as are films. But this is to miss the central fact of cinema, that like music it is durational, with a pace and audible focus that is controlled by the composer of music, and by the film-maker (or to be more precise, a film editor).
In a narrative film our sense of time is usually dominated by the pressures of the story. In a film by Alfred Hitchcock this is not the case, because he uses time as a controlling element of suspense. We can feel the second hand of a clock ticking towards a moment of resolution. Time becomes dense, tangible. Hitchcock is not alone in this. Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner and Maya Deren and Howard Hawks and John Boorman (to name only a few) did this too.
In 1973 I had an early, and curiously mistaken, stumble over the sequential nature of time. At a conference in Buffalo Jonas Mekas showed Jerome Hill’s autobiographical Film Portrait. Near the end of the film Hill discusses, and shows us, how film depicts time. We see his film editing equipment, with reels to the left and the right, and he points to one set of reels of film as “past” and the other as “future.”
To underline what we have just seen he says on the soundtrack: “At the beginning of this film we were talking about time—time past and time future …. The creation of the artist.” And then a summary statement, “Through cinema time is an island.” But a year ago I was able to consult Hill’s production script, and there found that he wrote “Time is annihilated.” On the soundtrack of the finished film it is hard to distinguish “an island” and “annihilated” but in a fundamental sense it does not matter. Both are declarations that in cinema time is not irrevocable, not eternally fixed, but something that can be manipulated, created by the artist.