Published on January 2nd, 2015 | by Dan Gvozden0
Was 2014 a Banner Year for Time in Movies?
Perhaps the property most unique to cinema and media is the inclusion of time as a defining element. What is a film if not time applied to a photograph? It is this specific attribute that differentiates cinema from the other visual arts and from which all other methods and techniques derive. Only in film and only through its use of time is time travel possible. We all know time as a constant stream but through editing and non-linear storytelling that stream can be diverted, redirected, and dammed up altogether.
This year alone has featured a number of notable films that played heavily with their relationship to time: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Get on Up, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Wild, Boyhood, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Birdman to name a few. While some of these films’ divergence from strict linear narrative storytelling is nothing new, it is worth considering the effectiveness and functionality of how the films of 2014 used time structurally, narratively, and as a plot mechanic.
Time is also a factor to consider when casting a critical eye on a subject. If cinema history is a history of any one subject, it is a history of images. Time and time again, images are reintroduced to build upon, reinvent, or subvert their initial meaning. Time builds nostalgia and also tears away contemporary sentimentality, star power, and resources. In 2011 the theme of nostalgia was prevalent in films such as Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Super 8, The Artist and Hugo. Several of these films transported the audience through time by utilizing a setting meant to invoke nostalgia while others’ stories utilized literal time travel. Certainly nostalgia is one of the driving forces in the modern studio system with at least fifteen remakes of earlier films released this year, from Annie to The Equalizer.
I certainly do not think that the number of films this year that utilize time in a nonlinear structure is any kind of trend or gimmick beyond how this technique is utilized in each film. I do not even think the number of films is particularly unusual as even just last year theaters saw the release of Inside Llewyn Davis, About Time, Nymphomaniac, Lovelace, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Saving Mr. Banks, and Oldboy which utilized similar techniques. When looking for trends dealing with nonlinearity it would be prudent to look at films that were modeled after Pulp Fiction, a film commonly attributed with using nonlinearity in a novel way. Films like Go, Amores Perros, Snatch, The Limey, and The Usual Suspects took influence from not only the nonlinear storytelling of Pulp Fiction but also the way it utilized the jump cut technique of the French New Wave.
I would argue that the number of films that utilize this nonlinear technique is mainly inflated because Hollywood is slowly figuring out how to make biopics that satisfy narratively. After years of exhaustive biopics that dragged audiences through the entire lives of their protagonist, studios have figured out that the best stories focus on a specific time in the character’s life. This limited viewpoint allows for immediacy and narrative structure beyond an arc that starts with the character’s birth and ends with their death. Yet these stories are not able to convey their importance through a singular moment in these character’s lives. So their narratives are inevitably presented in a nonlinear fashion that allows for flashbacks or other devices that reveal their full history. This technique applies to several films this year, including: Wild and The Imitation Game.
This nonlinear technique is handled fairly well by those three films and serves to enrich each of their stories. Wild does the most with the concept, moving between many dissimilar times often without establishing them and eventually even merging history with present. It is only when the film comments on the future in its final moments that it trips up and breaks its pre-established style and characterization. The Imitation Game presents three separate narratives from Alan Turing’s life that help to flesh out three important eras in his life. This allows the filmmakers to synchronize three separate climaxes for maximum emotional impact.
If these techniques are successful it’s not because they are shockingly new but part of a long tradition of timeline experimentation in filmmaking. Films from Francis Ford Coppola like Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and The Godfather: Part II destroy the concept of time altogether. Apocalypse Now’s opening sequence blurs time and location through a use of cross-dissolves and misattributed sound effects. The Conversation projects the “memories” of Gene Hackman’s character and sound recording from the park over and over again to interrupt the main story and allow audiences a glimpse into his tortured psyche. The Godfather: Part II balances the story of the birth of the Mafia with Michael’s current reign over his family and eventual betrayal/murder of Fredo. The two stories act as a commentary on each other that enriches each story.
Even the way that X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, and Edge of Tomorrow play with time isn’t necessary new but they all bring new ideas to pre-established techniques. X-Men: Days of Future Past is your typical time-traveller movie but instead of sending a character through time the film sends Wolverine’s mind through time into his younger body, albeit with the caveat that he doesn’t age as a character… so it is essentially his same body. The fun that’s had with this is that he’s suddenly inserted into a life he’s forgotten (due to his mind wipe) and in the middle of relationships he does not remember navigating. There are not quite Marty McFly’s levels of time-rewriting paradoxes, but the new concept adds an interesting wrinkle to an old formula.
The Grand Budapest Hotel uses different levels of narration as a way to frame the stories it is telling, each one operating at a different level/era of time. The construct of a man telling a story from his past is one that has been used time and time again in films; The Green Mile, and Forrest Gump jump immediately to mind, both with Tom Hanks, curiously enough. The wrinkle that The Grand Budapest Hotel adds to this formula is that it denotes each different level of storytelling with a different aspect ratio that slowly gets smaller the deeper the story gets inside this Russian-nesting-doll-like story.
Interstellar brings real-world time and all of its vagaries to the screen in a way that few films (if any) have attempted. The film doesn’t necessarily travel through time more than it visualizes the relativity of time. Interstellar‘s point-of-view never deviates from the regular speed of time unlike in Nolan’s Inception but, like that film, it has characters operating in different realms of time. Seconds for one character are years for another and Interstellar capitalizes on that idea both narratively and emotionally. In Interstellar‘s final sequence, it displays time in the fifth dimension as a solid moveable object, as real to us a book on a shelf. Simple comprehension of this concept is difficult but the film presents it in a digestible, if preposterous, way.
Perhaps the most fun is had with time in Edge of Tomorrow where the timeline of the film is reset every time Tom Cruise’s character perishes. The idea itself is built off of Groundhog’s Day’s rules but the videogame mimicry takes it a step forward. The film is able to compress time after establishing a language of his death and rebirth. It asks viewers to make connections between images to assume Cruise’s progression through his impossible battle with the alien forces. Just as soon as the film teaches its audience how to read its language and relationship to time it pulls the rug out from under them by challenging their presumptions about time. Those who have seen the film are unlikely to forget this moment of surprise and sudden dramatics.
However, the most innovative use of time in cinema this year has nothing to do with nonlinear structure but with how time is compressed in Boyhood and Birdman. Both films seamlessly move through time without drawing attention to themselves. Boyhood progresses year by year through a boy’s life without captions or dissolves to signify time has passed. Not only does this give audiences the task of grounding themselves in their new temporal reality but it also keeps viewers in a heightened sense of awareness about time, a key character in the film. This quick slippage of time from one year to another also serves to reinforce the film’s notion of the unstoppable and speedy flow of time. Birdman does a similar trick but for a few days leading up to a big performance. The trick here is that time changes are hidden in invisible cuts. The resultant appearance of a single take creates a living backstage world where time slips by on a moment to moment basis that adds a great deal of energy to the film. It is almost as if each room contains a pocket dimension where time is not subject to the laws of the universe. It is as if the jump cut concepts of the French New Wave were applied to a film without cuts and instead had to use the movement of the camera and architecture to accommodate.
Who can be sure how time works as part of the art of film as each and every film, with or without cuts, is able to have its own definition and set of rules. This year’s films are certainly no different, even if they are just iterating on long established concepts of narrative storytelling. Either way, it is exciting to see storytellers open up their palette and continue to explore the medium’s potential.