Frozen moment, flow, eternal return


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An essay on the representation of time in film and photography with two case studies, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó and Chris Marker’s La jetée

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Frozen moment, flow, eternal return

  1. 1. Frozen moment, flow, eternal returnAn essay on the representation of time in film and photography with two case studies, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó and Chris Marker’s La jetéeAlina Livia Lazăr/MA PHOTOGRAPHY12/13/2010<br />‘The photograph’s freezing of reality (...) marks a transition from the animate to inanimate, from life to death. The cinema reverses the process, by means of an illusion that animates the inanimate frames of its origin.’Laura Mulvey<br />Cinema and photography have come to be commonly associated with time: the cinema with the idea of time in passing, photography with the frozen moment. Both in film and cinema, through stills or moving images, the time has been represented as a metaphor in relation to death and memory. Using Super 8 cameras, 35mm black and white film or digital technology, the filmmakers and photographers have been fascinated by the idea of time, trying to expand or compress it, to make the viewer live in it or beyond it. <br />In the collection of essays edited by Patrice Petro, Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, Régis Durand argues that ‘the photograph (...) bears the imprint, the accent of movement and time’, and is deprived of ‘the diegetic combination and linearity which characterize the still’ (Petro 1995, p. 144). On the other hand, Roland Barthes tried to reduce the cinematic image to the frame still which he considered as being the ideal object because it is free of the narrative of the film while retaining its dynamics. Philip Dubois stresses on the importance of understanding and approaching film, photography and video in a relation of interdependence, underlying that ‘the best lens on photography will be found outside photography. Thus, to grasp something of photography we must enter through the door of cinema.’ (Petro 1995, p. 152). <br />In this essay I try to identify the area of confluence between film and photography through different ways of expressing time; I was particularly interested in the death of the moment captured in film as well as in photography, and the critical thinking developed in this area by Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson and Roland Barthes. My fascination for the confluence and intersection of film and photography has been triggered on one hand by Béla Tarr’s 450 minutes magnus opus, Sátántangó (1994) which uses extremely long takes, with the camera only moving extremely slowly and often remaining static and, on the other hand, by Chris Marker’s short film, La jetée (1962) which is constructed almost entirely of photos. <br />Thomas Eakins, History of a Jump, 1885<br />American realist painter and watercolorist, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) used photography as an aid in preparing paintings; being a devoted and passionate photographer as well, he developed a camera which could record several sequential exposures of a moving person in a single photograph. The camera was able to do this with the means of a rotating disc. Eakins saw a different role for photography, being driven by his interest in understanding of the human figure and trying to perfect photographs of human movement. History of a Jump is an indivisible moment (a photograph) but, at the same time, a divisible one through the sequences it comprises; the juxtaposition of the instant and the continuum creates a dual representation of time in this image: the stillness of the photograph in itself and the dynamics of its representation. <br />As Henri Bergson stated in The Creative Evolution (2002, p. 70), ‘it is principally by the help of motion that duration assumes the form of a homogenous medium, and that time is projected in space’, adding later that besides the time measured by the clock, and the variable of space, there are other times, for instance, those that measure inner processes and contents. The perception of time in a photograph must be understood beyond the time of representation and viewing (neutralising duration in the time of photography itself, as it will be shown below). It is what Roland Barthes called punctum (2002, p. 43), a detail that resonates with something situated outside the photo, which ‘should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it’ (Barthes 2002, p. 53). A portrait taken years ago becomes a permanence which will be registered as such for as long as the photo will exist in its physical (or digital) form; it is time which fights to resist the perisability of time itself; it concentrates both the time when the photo was taken, the time when the photo is viewed as well as the experiences, cultural knowledge, emotional links and psychological structure of the person who looks at it; it is one of the ways in which time becomes dynamic in a photograph, even if it depicts a static portrait; moreover, this permanence of the time makes the portrait in itself a presence, defying death and in some instances, even memory, becoming, as Barthes argues, a ‘counter-memory’ (2002, p. 91). <br />What happens with a flow of still images? Do they still preserve this character of permanence when included in a montage and being conferred a narrative voice? Are independent images lost in the overall memory of the film or do they claim their singular place, frozen and conserved in sequences? Can image survive its own death, its own perplexity through film? <br />Chris Marker’s short film (29 minutes), La jetée (1962) consists of a series of photogrammetric images (still images withdrawn from a larger sequence). In the aftermath of a nuclear war that has destroyed Paris, a prisoner is dispatched across time to secure the resources that the present lacks. Chosen for his attachment to a childhood memory – the image of a man shot dead on the observation pier at Orly airport – he travels inevitably back to that moment, which is finally revealed as the scene of his own death, in an image resembling Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936).<br />La jetée (1962) Robert Capa, Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, 1936<br />The dynamic tension between stillness and movement, crystallized around gesture is an illustration of the mutable mechanisms of memory. In The Movement-Image, Gilles Deleuze (2001, p. 30) argues that the montage is ‘the operation which bears on the movement-images to release the whole from them, that is, the image of time’; in the context of the present research, this implies that the dynamics of film is paradoxically constructed through the stillness of the images assembled and interconnected in a montage. Photographs receive, apart from the magical illusion of movement, a certain rhythm; the speed of the montage changes throughout the film, reaching a culminating point in the only moving image of the film (the woman opening her eyes, fixing the viewer, giving him an unexpected breath of air before the images freeze again). It is a natural flow, a serene liberation from the static, the fixed and the pose. The fragmented construction of time creates the grounds for the dissolution of personal memory into the historical real (the destruction of Paris during the Occupation, concentration camps, German scientists. The character flows through time in the past and in the future but is completely devoid of present. The present is intentionally emptied, probably because Marker wants the viewer to interpret it, according to the variables of his or her own time. <br />With the aid of today’s technology, cinema’s stillness can be easily revealed at the simple touch of a button. But what happens when, as opposed to the still images becoming dynamic as exemplified in La jetée, the filmed images slow the pace of time and become stills? How does the viewer perceive the time in such cases? What he looks at is still a film or rather a photograph? <br />The effect of the long takes is ‘to build the long dramatic tension, emphasize the continuity of time and space and allow directors to focus on the movement of actors in the space of the mise-en-scène’ (Pramaggiore, Wallis, 2005, p. 104); the long takes were broadly used in the European cinema after WWII (e.g. Antonioni and Jancsó). There are a few examples of little seen films but perceived as near-mythical due to the fact that they represent an extreme challenge to the conception of the duration of time in the cinema: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplaz (Germany, 1980) - 15 hours long, Rivette’s Out 1 (France, 1971) - 13 hours long and Lanzmann’s Shoah (Germany, 1985) - 9 hours long. Directed by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango) (Hungary, 1994) completes this list as it runs 7 hours and 12 minutes; it was filmed with very long takes of 10 minutes each. The film depicts a very complex social environment, the collapse of a collective farm in Hungary near the end of Communism, with people being trapped in a miserable existence, having no intention to change something around them or in them, torn by mutual distrust, fear, helplessness, deceit, ignorance. <br />In constructing the scenes of this film, Tarr proved a great sense of meticulousness, depicting in great detail every aspect of the farm’s life, focusing on the degradation of houses and people alike under the hidden force of a hidden Evil. Time passes extremely slowly and some of the scenes lead to exhaustion, which stresses the idea of lost hope, the inevitability of destiny and the sense of nowhere. <br />In her study on the Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema of uncertainty and delay, Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey (2009, p. 129) says: ‘The cinema of record, observation and delay tends to work with elongated shots, enabling a presence of time to appear on the screen. The duration of the shots draws attention to time as it passes on the screen, the film is present, but the lack of action confronts the audience with a palpable sense of cinematic registration’. This aesthetic of delay, the disproportion between the action and the unity of length in which it is rendered on screen creates this uncanny ambience of Sátántangó, which has been compared with that in Tarkovsky’s films. Apart from the long takes, there are several techniques used to create the impression of an extremely decelerated time, for example, the ceaseless rain which accentuates the continuum of the long takes and the visual pressure of the close-ups. Thus, not the space in itself (on which there is no clear indication), not the story, but the Time becomes the main character. The slow-paced movement of time makes the scenes to appear frozen, like photographs. <br />Photography might be defined through the object or subject is represents while the film, as Andre Bazin stated, ‘is no longer content to preserve the object. (...) the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were.’ (Bazin 1997, p. 15). This obsessive insistence on a scene in Sátántangó challenges the viewer with a particular nervous tension, as it questions not only the time of the film but also his own time, the time of watching and perceiving. That is because the film develops a sense of imprisonment, a labyrinth centred on the reminiscent Evil (a metaphor for the Communism itself). The space is closed (all the muddy roads seem to get nowhere) and the time is ‘closed’ as well (there is no past and no future, no ambition, no ideal, no desire to escape). There is only the sense of an infinite present which makes such scenes look like photographs with little or no sense of movement. The camera stays still as the characters move along on this muddy path until they become three little silhouettes on the horizon, forcing the viewer to zoom in and try to reach them in the distance. <br /> <br />Scenes from Sátántangó<br />This collective farm is best characterised by ‘lethargy and inertia’ (Davis, 2009); even when they are on the move, there is something about these characters that is static: their spirit, caught in a vegetative state and routine. The slow, long scenes of subhuman life capture the viewer in this community’s hell (Satan’s tango) which is, in fact, their banal, soulless reality and benevolent captivity as well as the essential Evil which is in the background of everything; as opposed to La jetée in which the still images become dynamic through the flow of memory in an attempt ‘to rescue the present’ (Bíro 2008, p. 84), in Sátántangó the monotony, the absence of memory, the vicious circle which cannot be accelerated transform the moving image into a still, continuous, infinite photograph. <br />I have analysed the possibilities of extending or compressing time in film and photography, referring to cinematographic and photographic techniques as well as to mechanisms of perception, trying to identify time as a character, beyond the narrative scheme of a film and the aura of a photograph; the problematic of time, movement and perception is vast and cannot be comprised in a few pages. The subject remains open as there are other factors at the level of composition which should be taken into account as well as perspectives from which this topic should be studied, for example, history, memory, biography, autobiography, dreams, aura, interpretation and construction of meaning which should bring into discussion new and different points of view. <br />BibliographyBarthes, R., 2000. Camera Lucida. London. Vintage Books. Bazin, A., 1997. What is Cinema? Barkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California PressBergson, H., 2002. The Creative Evolution. London: ContinuumBíro, Y., 2008. Turbulence and Flow in Film. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Davis, R., 2009. Piercing the Hermetic Skin of Sátántangó. Unspoken: Journal for Contemplative Cinema. Available at [Accessed date: November 3rd, 2010]Deleuze, G., 2001. Cinema 1. The Movement-Image. London: The Athlone PressDeleuze, G., 2000. Cinema 2. The Time-Image. London: The Athlone PressMulvey, L., 2009. Death 24x a Second. London: Reaktion Books. Petro, P., 1995. Fugitive Images. From Photography to Video. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University PressPramaggiore, M., Wallis, T., 2005. Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King Publishing <br />