Time and Point of View in Contemporary Cinema

By Trifonova, Temenuga | CineAction, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Time and Point of View in Contemporary Cinema


Trifonova, Temenuga, CineAction


In Cinema II Deleuze situates the beginnings of what he calls the cinema of "the time-image" in post World War II European cinema, specifically in Italian neo-realism. This is a cinema of duration, whether psychological duration (emphasizing the characters' inability to act) or the duration of things (the characters' failure to act allows things and events to express themselves independently of the characters' subjective interpretation of them). Time is either affective (psychological) or existential (it reveals the being of things by drawing attention to their sheer presence). While the cinema of the time-image can be described as a cinema of reflection or ambience, the majority of the films made over the last few decades are no longer preoccupied with portraying the failure of action or of comprehension (a failure Deleuze attributes to the traumatic war experience), nor do they attempt to remain purely denotative (foregrounding the sheer existence of things, their absurdity).

Time in contemporary cinema is not a means to an end but has become the end itself. The new role of the flashback illustrates this trend well. The flashback is most commonly used as a technique for imparting information to the audience about a character's motivation or his/her past; however, in many contemporary films it encompasses the entire film. Its function now is to increase the level of ambiguity in the film, to conflate the present with the past, the real with the unreal. Time is no longer that through which things and people reveal themselves (time as change) but rather the source of a confusion of the real with the imaginary, whether this confusion results from the malfunctioning of memory, or from a discrepancy between the point of view within the story and the point of view from which the story is told, or from an incongruity between different levels of knowledge or self-consciousness within one character or among characters.

Errol Morris' documentary A Brief History of Time, based on the book by Stephen Hawking, follows the attempts of Hawking and his colleagues to explain the origin of the universe. Towards the end of the film, the hypothesis is put forward that the universe should not be conceived as originating from a singular point since the laws of physics break down when one tries to explain the universe in terms of singularity. The concept of imaginary time is introduced as a means of avoiding the problem of singularity. In this new model, the universe is smooth and self-contained (visually the model of the universe existing in imaginary time is represented by an elliptical form with no edge, no boundary, no beginning). This model excludes any notion of a creation event. Not only is the universe not created by God, but it is equally incorrect to say that it is created from nothing: there is no "nothing" in the midst of which the universe suddenly springs forth. As one of Hawking's colleagues remarks, in this model the use of verb tenses is no longer appropriate. The theory of imaginary time, or of an infinite universe, bears a striking resemblance to Henri Bergson's idea of pure memory developed in Matter and Memory (1896). Bergson envisions our mental life, and the universe as well, as having no beginning and, instead, infinitely stretched out 'towards' or 'into' pure memory.

According to Bergson, deja vu is a privileged experience insofar as it reveals the true nature of our mental life: its infinity, or, what amounts to the same, the infinity of time. In deja vu we remember something that we cannot attribute to our own past, but which seems to come from some anonymous, impersonal past. Since we are too busy meeting the demands of the present, we suppress those memories that are not immediately relevant to our present. If it were not for this narrowing down of our mental life, we would be constantly experiencing deja vii, i.e., reliving an impersonal past. Bergson believes that everything has already happened an infinite number of times and that if we were able to expand our mental life to its true proportions, we would see that time is infinite, that our lives have been repeating themselves infinitely, without beginning or end, and that it is namely because of this infinite repetition that we exist at all. …

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