The Sea of Time

The greatest of directors in the canon of cinema are not those who see their work as primarily being with actors, locations, shot-designs, or even story.

The great directors are those who see time, and the construction of it in cinematic language, as their primary material.

Ackerman, Linklater, Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, Weerasethakul, and Tarr are all carefully constructing a reality in the films they direct.

This reality inevitably involves performance, the camera, and some form of narrative, but much more vital and perhaps even informative to all those other elements is the way that these filmmakers construct realities scaffolded over the passage of time itself.

Time is that force which never leaves us. It lurks inside every moment of our experience. In the cinema, authorship means creating a succession of images that can only be understood over the course of seconds, minutes, and hours. Through this eventuality, the medium grants unique privileges to filmmakers to inform our understanding of the very cosmic forces to which we ourselves are always beholden to.

Unlike other inescapable forces, the perception of time and the passage of time are uniquely subjective. In life, and in the cinema, we all experience the passing of moments, and the memory of experiences, with unique latitude.

It is this realm that a cinema informed primarily by time can transcend mechanics and enter the arena of poetry.

For a filmmaker like Linklater this means observing the effects of time on people and places. The Before Trilogy remains one of the greatest examples in cinema of the human experience of time. Each film exists like a capsule, floating in-between the nine years of silence that connect and inform each continuing episode.

For Ackerman, time is something that dictates each grueling moment. It is recognized as an oppressive force, deadening our reality and imprisoning us alongside so many other cultural and economic forces.

Davies’ experience of time is more concerned with the construction of memory, and how our subjective experience of moments takes on its own life and power. There is a sacredness to the vignettes that comprise his best known works. They feel like recovered documents, recounting a lost past that has defined the author’s present.

Each of these directors is keenly aware of the power and flexibility of the whole language of cinema. But rather than remain content solving narrative problems with the tools at their disposal, they meditate on the forces of nature themselves which are at the core of the DNA of cinema.

The cinema is multifaceted. It can express many different kinds of experiences, tell many different kinds of stories, and there are certainly directors whose work may be described as conventional but nonetheless contain unique splendors which have little to do with the manipulation of time.

That said, I think that for a film to offer something extraordinary, or something uniquely cinematic to the audience, it must account for time. It may choose to do so subtlely or incidentally, but it cannot ever truly escape the burden owed to time, no more than it can ignore the necessity of light to expose an image.

Understanding these things has helped me come to terms with the cinema of Tarr. When I first encountered Tarr I had not endured nearly as much of slow cinema as I have now enjoyed. I found the experience grueling, and grating. I am used to films that demand a lot out of the audience, but watching Damnation I felt as if I had met a film that was asking too much.

Revisiting Tarr in the Turin Horse, I find a filmmaker who is anything but deadening. His images, his construction of moments, seem now vividly alive to me. There is intensity and certainly a demanding quality to the film, but letting the film work on me and tuning into the wavelength of the film’s conception of time, transported me emotionally in a way only Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, and Linklater have done.

These masters of time offer us experiences that speak to the core of our humanity. They aspire to make poetry out of the nature of our consciousness.

In the words of Pynchon: “…yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.”