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July 16, 2005

Media Times

One of the courses I'll be teaching this fall at Catholic University (henceforth CUA) is the senior seminar in media studies, for which I have chosen to focus on what I am tentatively calling "media times" (suggestions for a cooler name would be appreciated), which will draw from my research on cinematic and televisual representations of time, and Nick's recent discussion of real-time cinema raises some of the questions that I'd like to address both in my research and in the seminar.

Nick starts with the canonical distinction between editing (Melies) and long-take realism (the Lumieres), adding that this opposition has resurfaced in the age of digital filmmaking, in which both techniques -- long takes and fast-paced editing -- are made easier (or at least more imaginable), as the examples of the quick-cutting Run Lola Run and real-time Russian Ark illustrate.

Nick then adds, drawing from a comment by Jean Baudrillard, that time-shifting can be identified with fantasies of immortality. In The Perfect Crime, which I need to read, Baudrillard writes, "It's a good thing we ourselves do not live in real time! What would we be in 'real' time? We would be identified at each moment exactly with ourselves. A torment equivalent to that of eternal daylight—a kind of epilepsy of presence, epilepsy of identity. Autism, madness. No more absence from oneself, no more distance from others" (53).

Nick then speculates that real-time cinema, including the Warhol experiments and Mike Figgis's Time Code, remind us "too deeply of our own termination," noting that time-shifting via editing may provide us with some form of illusory control over time. This argument is one I've been trying to articulate for some time, and within the time-travel films that I discuss, the ability to travel in time, often linked narratively to cinematic time-shifting, seems clearly identified with those desires for immortality. These fantasies of control over time are implicit in cinema's origins, as Mary Ann Doane's The Emergence of Cinematic Time argues. But time travelers, of whatever sort, are inevitably associated with this control over narrative time, and many time-travel films revolve around the desire to delay death for as long as possible (Primer's devastating critique of this desire for mastery is worth noting here).

I think that TV complicates this opposition between real time and "reel time" to some extent. The real-time flow of TV, even when a show is highly edited, seems inescapable, as broadcasters compete for viewers' attention spans, against potentially hundreds of other simultaneous channels. Of course, it could be argued that commercials and other elements disrupt that continuous flow, but the direct address of the viewer is never interrupted (of course Tivo, a classic time-shifting technology, could disrupt this real-time experience of TV). These questions might be complicated even further, as Nick observes, by the popularity of real-time strategy video games (here's a good overview of the history of these games). Essentially, I'm interested in how these media might produce different, often competing, representations and experiences of time, and I'd like to think about these "transitions" in and between media.

This post entails a fair amount of brainstorming and thinking out loud, but Nick's point about the ways in which real-time cinema might make viewers more aware of their own mortality is a significant one when it comes to unpacking these questions about media and time.

Posted by chuck at July 16, 2005 3:14 PM

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One might even say that "dream" narratives in film have a similar effect of extending mortality. An example might be "Waking Life", in which we discover that the entire film is likely some sort of a dream (with "inner" dreams embedded within it) which takes place, in all likelihood, during the *moment* before the young man's death.

Posted by: girish at July 16, 2005 6:27 PM

Away from the more interpretive elements of your post, I've often wondered why, in the age of film, no one has ever tried to do a complex full length feature film in one take. I've thought a lot about this, for some odd reason, and it would involve a bit of trickery -- a dual magazine camera which starts recording on both as one mag nears its finish. It would also be pointless if you weren't doing something a bit more choreographed than a "My Dinner with Andre" type film.

Digital cinematography renders this a bit moot, but I always thought it would be an interesting experiment that would, at the very least, show how the vocabulary of editing has influenced not just style but quality and how difficult it is to capture realism on film.

Posted by: Dylan at July 17, 2005 11:07 AM

Dylan, Russian Ark was done in a single take, but it's certainly the exception. Hitchcock's Rope, of course, was done in 4-5 long takes, with the cuts "masked," by cutting while the camera is focused on a man's back. I'd imagine that part of the problem was that such experimentation was not consistent with the Hollywod studi system's desire for films that are easily accessible and following certain norms of storytelling. I'd also add that Nick's "interpretive" points cannot be dismissed.

Girish, Waking Life is an interesting example, especially given its "animation" of filmed footage. I wonder to what extent the use of animation might affect our experience of the film in these terms.

Posted by: Chuck at July 17, 2005 1:17 PM

Chuck's posting offers a lot of food for thought. I especially am intrigued by what he says near the end, bringing TiVo into the discussion. If it's true that media today are more overlapping and connected in part because they often share a common medium (i.e., I can search the web on my computer, but I can also watch movies on it, play games, listen to the radio, even watch TV), then perhaps we could think of "real time" not as something distinct to one genre or another, but rather as something that now works through mulitple media simultaneously.

This is inelegantly phrased, I know. But what if the day is coming when the distinction between the long take (real time) and editing (montage) no longer matters because we, as viewers/users, make our own edits by shifting from genre to genre? Perhaps the distinction between real time and edited time depends upon a sanctity of the film artifact that no longer exists?

I think that traditional film criticism sort of assumed a model of complaint, maybe even devoted movie watchers who gave their undivided attention to the film at hand. But if movies today have migrated to home viewing forums--TVs and computers--does this sanctity still exist? If viewers already disrupt the "time" of a film by interrupting it with surfing, fast-forwarding, skipping, etc., then I wonder if this is an even deeper evasion of real time and its whiff of mortality. A film like Russian Ark is subject to the same chapter breaks, etc. as a heavily edited film like Run Lola Run. And they are both subservient to their post-release medium: the DVD (until a new format replaces it.)

The class you mention, Chuck, sounds very good. I like the title.

Posted by: Nick at July 17, 2005 2:24 PM

Nick, you might be right about the extent to which the temporality we are discussing depends on a cinematic time that no longer exists as such (and these comments are somewhat rushed as my wireless signal has been spotty today). There are, of course, crude experiements in interactive cinema, and real-time stratgey games also allow the "viewer" some control over events. DVDs also already allow "edits" to te extent that viewers can click over to audio commentary, and some documentaries (such as a documentary on Michel Gondry) have "hyperlnks" that allow viewers to leave the "primary" documentary and to watch a Gondry-directed music video that is being discussed in an interview. In some sense, I view these disruptions as disorienting. It's hard to know how much I should concentrate on the "primary" narrative.

But my next question would be: did the sanctity of uninterrupted film viewership ever really exist? I'm not saying that the new technologies aren't changing things, but that the "ideal" model is itself a fiction.

Posted by: Chuck at July 17, 2005 3:56 PM

I can't remember which company put these out, but there are several films in a series called "Infinifilms" which allowed the sort of hyperlinking that you are referring to. The one I remember watching all of was "Thirteen Days" which allowed you to break away from a moment in the film and go to a futher discussion by others in documentary, talking-head format about those moments.

It was both satisfying and unsatisfying, in a way, because, while it was interesting to watch the film this way (though it took a sold 4 hours or so) it was also just sort of a pirating of the special features documentaries, cut up into pieces and then interspersed within the film itself. Neat, but not earth shattering.

Posted by: Dylan at July 17, 2005 4:43 PM

Chuck--points well taken. I agree it's dangerous to be nostalgic about older cinematic models. But I do think there are significant differences between a spectator's level of interaction with a film today as opposed to during the classical era. This isn't to say that there were no interruptions, etc. back in the day (i.e., News on the March, trailers, cartoons, etc. all existed as sort of "supplementary" features much like today). I wonder if the difference has to do with the viewer's actual ability to manipulate these supplementary features, as well as the primary film text itself.

If we think of editing as the power to actually add/subtract from a film, then it's true that most DVD viewers don't have that ability today--except that there are DVD players that allow users to sort of pre-select/edit content: http://www.clearplay.com/About.aspx

But if we think of editing as the ability to rearrange the temporal order of content, to skip over parts, to pause, etc., then this seems to create the possibilities for a radically different viewing experience than during the classical era, when audiences in movie theaters had very little control--if any at all--over the interface/medium that brought the film to them.

I'm really glad this is being discussed. Graeme Harper is someone who has also written about this, but there aren't too many others...

Hi Dylan---
I'll have to check out "Thirteen Days"--I think I've seen one of the Infinifilms (maybe "Rush Hour 2"?) It will be interesting to see if these new alternative ways of watching film will catch on...

Posted by: Nick at July 18, 2005 8:49 AM

Nick, I was probably thinking more about the ostensible ideal situation, of a spectator in a darkened room without distrations, which is probably based on a specific historical moment of spectator behavior. But in the terms you describe, you're right. These "Infinifilms," to name Dylan's example, have the ability to change the viewer's experience of the film considerably.

And something like Clear Play, also provides for greater audience control, although I'd be curious to see how much that technology seeks to appear seamless in its efforts not to disrupt the viewer's experience of the film. That is, would a naive viewer realize that something has been removed from the film?

Thanks for the pointer to the work of Graeme Harper. I'm certainly looking for other scholars who are thinking about these issues.

Posted by: Chuck at July 18, 2005 11:36 AM

Infinifilm.com has the list of the films they have available. Thirteen Days, Blow, and 15 Minutes seem, to me, to be the most interesting choices, as at least those films bring up interesting discussions or questions that more in film detail could aid (more so than say Austin Power's Goldmember or Friday After Next).

Posted by: Dylan at July 18, 2005 3:43 PM

Hey Chuck,

Graeme Harper has an excellent chapter on the "cinema of complexity" and DVD in the New Punk Cinema book:


Posted by: Nick at July 18, 2005 9:48 PM

Thanks for the pointers. I've been planning to read the "New Punk Cinema" book for some time, so that's another excuse to check it out....

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2005 1:14 PM

For a name...instead of "media times"...how about "c Squared and the Reely-Fast Circular Flicker" ?

And I loved Russian Arc.



Posted by: Jaosn Hesiak at January 19, 2007 12:53 AM

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