Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

May 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 2

Remembering the Future

Structures of Time in Contemporary Film

by Steven Shaviro

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the movies are changing, under the impact of new computing and communications technologies. From low-budget, improvisational efforts like The Blair Witch Project, to the most meticulously planned MTV videos (which cost considerably more, per minute of screen time, than nearly any feature-length film), digital technologies are everywhere in filmmaking today. With such things as digital video cameras, virtual, computer-generated special effects, nonlinear digital editing, and digital projection, every aspect of film production and distribution has been revolutionized in the last decade. And even greater changes are likely to occur in the years to come.

Neither the garish excesses of the new installments of Star Wars, nor the spartan aesthetic of Dogme95, would have been possible without these technological developments. The Phantom Menace is an object lesson in what happens when you have all sorts of cool new digital toys to play with, but nothing whatsoever to say with them. (And does anyone really believe that Attack of the Clones will be any better?). Lars von Trier and his collaborators in Dogme95 are reacting against the technological overkill of filmmakers like George Lucas; but the Dogme95 directors are no less beholden to new technologies. For it is only digital video—light, cheap, and out of control—that makes it possible for them to swear off elaborate sets and artificial lighting and special effects, in order to tell their stories with an in-your-face, continually moving camera.

But this isn’t just a matter of using newer and better tools for the same old task of making the same old films. The movies themselves have radically changed. This is because the new digital technologies permeate every aspect of our lives. Their influence is not just technical, but social and cultural as well. The world we live in today is a mediascape: a cultural landscape dominated by photographic and moving images, by television, by the Internet, by mobile phones and GPS devices and surveillance video cameras. These all affect the way that we see and hear and feel the world. Most powerfully, they alter our senses of space and time. Distance is annihilated, and processes that used to take a lot of time now seem to happen instantaneously. The movies cannot help but reflect this. Film is an art that unfolds in time; it embodies, and it reflects back to us in intensified form, the speeds and rhythms that run through our lives. As our social experience of time changes, filmmakers are compelled to adopt new forms and styles, and to tell their stories in new and different ways.

Take Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), one of the surprise hits of last year. In this film, a man suffers from short-term memory loss. At some unspecified time in the past, Leonard’s wife was murdered. Fighting to stop the assailants, Leonard caught a blow to the head, resulting in his current impairment. His mind is stuck at the moment of the assault. He cannot form any new memories, or recall what happened more than a couple of minutes ago. As a result, he is trapped in an eternal present. All that’s in his head is what is taking place in front of him right now, together with the trauma of the assault, plus some earlier recollections, which may not even be accurate. In order to take revenge, or even just to function, Leonard is forced to create a sort of prosthetic memory for himself. He does this by writing notes to himself, by tattooing crucial information on his flesh, and by taking Polaroids of everyone and everything he encounters.

What brings this story alive is the striking manner in which it is told. Nolan experiments with film form, in order to make us share Leonard’s disorientation. He tells us the story in reverse order. We start with what is chronologically the last scene, and each succeeding scene then shows us what happened just before the previous one. In this way, we are continually thrust into the present-tense action, without knowing what led up to it. Like Leonard, we do not know the immediate past; we lack the context that we need to make sense of what we see. If ultimately we are not as helpless as Leonard, this is only because we can ‘remember’ the future, which gives us, over the course of the film, a certain insight that he cannot share. That is why we have some hope of figuring things out, and coming to an understanding of the film as a whole. But this will only happen later, when we think back on Memento after we have left the theater.

Memento is not the first film to unfold in reverse chronological order. Previous examples include David Hugh Jones’ Betrayal (1983, from a play by Harold Pinter), and Jane Campion’s Two Friends (1986). But as far as I know, Memento is the first film to use time reversal in such a radical way, as more than just a series of extended flashbacks. In Betrayal and Two Friends, each long segment of the film takes place in ordinary forward time. And each of these segments is complete in itself, like a single act of a well-rounded play. It is only between the acts that we go backwards in time; and the time gap between any given act and the next (or previous) one is considerable. The effect is to focus our attention on the question of "why and how did this happen?" (in contrast to thrillers, where the question we ask is "what is going to happen?"). That is to say, films like Betrayal and Two Friends move backwards in time only in order to reveal the deeper causes of the events we have already seen. Despite their unconventional structures, they ultimately work in accordance with the conventional laws of memory and cause and effect. As a result, they do not really disturb our sense of linear, forward-moving time.

But Memento is far more disconcerting than these other backwards-time films. For it uses its reversals in order to challenge and to alter the very way that we experience time. The present-tense segments in Memento are shorter, and much more numerous, than those in Betrayal or Two Friends. And there are no large gaps between them; each scene ends just where the previous one began. Also, these full-color, present-time segments, unfolding in reverse order, alternate with a series of black-and-white flashbacks, that give us a back story from the time before Leonard’s injury. These flashbacks, in contrast to the main narrative, are presented in normal, forward order. Within them, Leonard reflects upon his own story, by telling us about another man, Sammy, who suffered from the same short-term memory loss that he now does. By alternating these two types of scenes, the film converges, from both directions at once, upon the crucial event that we never actually get to see: Leonard’s traumatic head injury, and the murder of his wife. Memento is thus structured like a series of concentric circles—except that these circles never manage to converge. There’s only a black hole at their center, a place where memory and consciousness get lost. Both the film’s protagonist and the film’s audience are drawn into this hole, the point where vision blurs and fades out.

There are at least two ways to think about Memento. One way is to see the film as a puzzle to be solved. This involves studying it closely, taking it apart, and putting all the scenes back together in unscrambled, chronological order. There are a number of websites that do this, such as Andy Klein’s dissection of the film in the online magazine Salon.com. Klein not only resequences the film to come up with a coherent, linear plot line, but also notes a few remaining oddities that suggest additional levels of meaning. Is Sammy just a stand-in for Leonard himself? Is Leonard insane, or delusional, in addition to being unable to form new memories? Is his quest for revenge merely a series of nightmarish repetitions? The film encourages us to ask such questions, and even to presume that there may be answers to them, if only we pay attention carefully enough.

But if one part of us wants to resolve the film’s mysteries, another part of us enjoys Memento precisely because it offers us such a roller-coaster-ride of disorientation. From this perspective, the vertigo of time reversal is the whole point of the film. Memento is not a puzzle to be solved by patient detective work, so much as it is a funhouse mirror whose distorted reflections give us a thrilling shudder of deranged recognition. When we experience the movie in this way, we find ourselves identifying with Leonard’s predicament. We feel a heightened sense of immediacy, at the same time that we undergo the frustration of not being able to put all the clues together. We find ourselves in an eternal present, where every situation is completely new and unexpected, and the rules of cause and effect have become inscrutable. In this way, Memento gives us a knowingly heightened version of what it’s like whenever we get really caught up in a film. We find ourselves experiencing it moment to moment, in the same way that Leonard lives his life. Leonard’s malady is that of every filmviewer, caught up in the excitement of the instant. More specifically, Leonard’s inability to retain new memories, the way he lurches back and forth between a full-color present that remains inscrutable to him, and a distant, black-and-white past from which he feels disconnected, mimics our position as media spectators. We live in a world of information overload, media saturation, restless channel-surfing, and continual distraction. Our postmodern culture’s hyperactivity, its historical amnesia, and its ever-shorter attention spans, are all mirrored in Leonard’s condition.

Memento is not the only recent film that plays with our sense of time in strikingly original ways. Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998) gives us three takes on the same situation. Lola has thirty minutes to raise a large sum of money, or else her boyfriend will be killed. The film is something like a video game, in which you have to play the same sequence over and over again, right from the beginning, until you figure out how to win. It also recalls the logic of chaos theory, according to which the tiniest initial events can have massive effects in the long run (in the classic example, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings leads to a hurricane half way around the world). In the same way, a lapse of just a few seconds can have drastic consequences in Run Lola Run; it can mean the difference between life and death. Traditional storytelling is based on chains of cause and effect, unfolding gradually over time. The twists of the plot may surprise us, but they are also supposed to have a convincing inner necessity. (This is what the ancient Greeks meant when they said that character was fate). Tykwer instead shows us a postmodern world in which every step is a gamble, because chance overpowers logic and fate. Run Lola Run gives us the sense of a dense network of interconnected possibilities, none of which can be predicted in advance. The story can only progress through a sort of trial and error, exploring all the possible sequences, one after another. Time is no longer a straight line, moving inexorably from past to future. Instead has the form of a labyrinth, through which we can move both backwards and forwards.

Mike Figgis’ Time Code (2000) experiments with time in a different way. The film consists of four 97-minute takes that were shot simultaneously, in real time, on four separate digital video cameras. Each camera follows a different group of characters. And when the various characters meet one another, the cameras do also, shooting the same scene from different angles. As we watch the film, the screen is divided into four quadrants, so that we can see all four sequences at once. Of course, there is nothing new about showing multiple actions in a movie. Ever since D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), filmmakers have used cross-cutting in order to tell multiple stories at once, and to give us a sense of the connections and resonances between them. And ever since Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), directors have used long shots and deep focus in order to suggest complex relationships among characters, and to show us multiple actions taking place in the same space. But with his radical use of a split screen, Figgis turns both of these traditions inside out. He creates a sense of deep simultaneity, unconstrained by either the unity of place, or the sleight-of-hand of manipulative montage. The result is a kind of sensory overload, since it is literally impossible for us to give full and equal attention to all the things that are happening on screen. We are swept up in the immediacy of the moment, and at the same time distracted by the need for a sort of multi-tasking, all too common in this Internet Age.

There are other films and videos I could discuss here, such as Michel Gondry’s video for Cibo Matto’s song "Sugar Water" (1996), which plays equally well forwards and backwards; and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), which uses outtakes in order to suggest paths not taken, ways that the story could have gone but didn’t. But I hope I have said enough to indicate a common thread: how filmmakers are charting the strange new ways that we are experiencing time, in our increasingly technologized world.

Steven Shaviro has written four books, most notably Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism, as well as countless reviews, essays and articles. He is a professor of Comparative Literature at the UW where he teaches, among other things, film.

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