Modes Of Representing Duration

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The concept of duration is essential to the artificial experience of time and memory in linear narrative filmmaking.  Duration within the narrative, marking the passage of time, is signified most easily in title cards that provide a point in time in which the story unfolds.  A good representation of this technique is Phillip Kaufman’s film The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), which opens with a title card that will later be juxtaposed with a historical event thus cueing the audience in on the number of years that have supposedly passed between the beginning of the film and the film’s second act.  To reinforce the link between narrative and history, Kaufman and editor Walter Murch constructed the most effective newsreel sequence ever to appear in a fiction film.  Here, just as the mediums of documentary and narrative film become one, so does the audience’s understanding of our “real” world history and the history of the film’s invented characters.  This tactic has the same effect and conceptual correlation as that between the testimonials and the narrative in Warren Beatty’s film Reds (1982).  The primary interest of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and most narrative films for that matter is not the recreation of the experience of human memory nor the human experience of time, but is rather concerned with constructing a short hand manner of informing an audience of time’s passing without analyzing the experience of time on the film’s characters.

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Nicolas Roeg’s films The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980) represent the polar opposite of the narrative film techniques employed in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.  In Roeg’s films there is no necessity to link the narrative to any historical context, in fact The Man Who Fell To Earth takes place on an Earth whose continuity and timeline exists as a perverted parallel to our own.  In adapting the Walter Tevis novel into images Roeg hit upon the most unique concept of the film.  The Thomas Newton character, played by David Bowie, is an ageless spaceman, who has journeyed to Earth to collect its resources and return to his own planet in time to end a terrible famine.  Newton’s unchanging physical appearance provides an instructive contrast to the appearance of the Rip Torn and Candy Clark characters.  As the film progresses, the outward appearance of the human characters in the film begin to undergo subtle changes, a wrinkle here, a grey hair there.  As The Man Who Fell To Earth exceeds the second hour of its running time, Torn and Clark are made up to appear as if they were in their seventies.  By observing Torn and Clark’s transformation the audience receives it’s only hint at just how long Newton has been trapped on Earth.

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The relationship between the audience and the Clark and Torn characters is a subjective one that essentially plays in a dramatic fast motion the experience all people share with one another and can never fail to observe, the onset of old age.  But the fore fronting of such an experience in The Man Who Fell To Earth is only half as dramatic as the truly subjective representation of time in Bad Timing.  Utilizing an editing technique similar to that of Performance (1970), Bad Timing offers the audience a distinct perspective on a tumultuous relationship whose linear narrative is disjointed to resemble a stream of consciousness recollection.  Roeg’s recreation of human memory is masterful though it never disengages from the obvious artifice of its fictional characters and the manipulation of the psychological simulation for dramatic effect.  This is a similar predicament faced by Alain Resnais’ film Je Taime, Je Taime (1968), which managed to negate all believability simply through the scale of it’s montages.  Roeg benefits from Resnais’ mistakes by making the narrative of the flashbacks far more coherent, but by being flashbacks these sequences manage to be self-aware.

However, the merits of such innovative techniques as opposed to the rudimentary linear devices employed by a Kaufman or Spielberg make Roeg’s films tremendous achievements in mainstream filmmaking.  Interestingly, though Roeg is often imitated by such directors as Christopher Nolan and Stephen Frears, he has never been equaled in his ability to construct a simulated experience of subjective memory.

-Robert Curry

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