“But I suppose film is distinctive because of its nature, of its being able to cut through time with editing.”—Oliver Stone
Ever since storytelling became the standard practice of movies has the depiction of time been instrumental. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Méliès stumbled upon the praxis of stop motion as early as 1896, a mere year after the first public film screening in history. Economic and narrative imperatives would have brought about such a development, by which the camera is stopped at the end of a shot before being rolled again once the next shot is set up for, sooner than later. Since humans experience time as moving forward (even when Time is cyclical, as it is in a number of cultural traditions), stories mostly replicate this, though not always.
Movies have hardly ever represented the passage of time realistically. A ninety minute film often tells a story spanning years. Representative moments significant to the plot are depicted, while ensuring that audiences acknowledge intermitting time through clues ranging from wardrobe changes to aging the characters using makeup to printing dates on frames ushering scenes. Yet, even when time is leapt across, most films have done so in a forward direction.
The cinema arrived along with a variety of technologies that, along with drastic sociopolitical changes, ushered the era of modernism. Modernist philosophy concerned itself with how humans responded to such changes, including in the phenomenology of time. Thomas Mann would make this central to his magnum opus The Magic Mountain (1924). Marcel Proust slowed time down to a trickle in In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927). Virginia Woolf and James Joyce isolated time in the moment. In the US, William Falkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) would deploy the same stream of consciousness yarn in its first of four parts, before confounding the reader by moving the story a generation earlier in the second part then returning it to the present for the remainder of the novel.
Such literary experimentation was not lost on filmmakers of the 1920s, two of whom would make a deliberate and uncommon filmic representation of time a dramatic instrument in and of itself—both Soviet. Sergei Eisenstein’s exceedingly influential Battleship Potemkin (1925), especially in its famed “Odessa steps” sequence, stretched out the duration of events overtly, so as to heighten the emotional charge relating, including a particular emotion that would figure in much of the tempering with linearity in future cinema—suspense. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) aimed to overthrow narrative filmmaking, in part by sabotaging the linearity inherent to cinematic depiction—through editing.
Soviet cinema did visit America—Eisenstein did personally—but 1930s Hollywood was not the time for formal experimentation in the medium of film, rather a time to ride out the Great Depression, while negotiating the cost of incorporating sound into film recording and exhibition. Moreover, the Hollywood studios by the ‘30s had minted aligned formulae to producing films that would insure profitability, formulae which did not welcome narrative presentations that would challenge audience understanding. Thus, it is not surprising that it took a filmmaker with a vision to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling and a contractual agreement to permit him to get away with it; the film was Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Well’s masterpiece opens with the protagonist’s passing then recounts it in two ways—first through a newsreel of Kane’s life that is watched by journalists in the film. Second through the depiction of remembrances of Kane by people who had been closest to him, remembrances told by these characters to one of the journalists who had watched the earlier newsreel. Citizen Kane’s storytelling methodology suggests to the audience that no story is told through an omniscient eye, because no such eye exists. Instead the stories of our lives are told through what others know of us, in patches drawn from different times. If the story is important enough it is edited by media people—just like movies themselves! The remembrances do conveniently recall Kane’s life chronologically, though convenient is not a description that befits Citizen Kane nor many of the films that have deliberately, even defiantly, presented human time in ways uncommon to our experience of life or of the movies.
Whereas the remembrances of Kane were assumed to be more-or-less truthful, the veracity of recollection would be questioned in a later film—Rashomon (1950). Witnesses tell divergent accounts of a violent crime that has occurred, including one witness who testifies to court as a ghost—accounts modulated to self-serve. Rashomon questions the veracity of memory, because of our impulse to protect ourselves, even our legacies (the ghost). So influential was this Japanese classic that an English language term has borrowed it—the rashomon effect refers to a condition whereby an incident is recalled in conflicting ways by different people. Nevertheless, it would take more than philosophical utility to convince Hollywood studios to greenlight scripts that challenged the default depiction of time as moving forward, permitting for the occasional leap backward in flashback, often made obvious to viewers by cutting to it using a dissolve. It would take a movement.
The French New Wave exploded on the world cinema scene in the late fifties and had a profound, enduring effect on it, even on hitherto trenchant Hollywood cinema. The best known of the French New Wave filmmakers was Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless (1960) deployed a time fracturing editing technique (introduced in Man with a Movie Camera) called the jump-cut. The jump-cut had the effect of deliberately privileging those moments when our consciousness resurfaces, before submerging while we carry out the perfunctory and the quotidian.
It was Godard’s contemporary, however, Alain Resnais whose works suggest his standing as the first great filmmaker whose foremost cinematic interest was the dissection of time—thematically and formally. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) takes semi-autobiographical material rendering it a conventional, albeit miscegenational, melodrama before disintegrating into a stream of blotted memories of discord and hurt, but also of amour. Resnais’s follow-up Last Year at Marienbad (1961) recast melodrama as an abstraction in which memory is only slightly more suspect than consciousness, a consciousness coinciding baroque opulence, shadowless trees, and ephemerality.
By the late 1960s, Hollywood studios faced two realities: diminished profits over the course of the decade and the emergence of a culture of defiance and rejection of societal strictures and subjugation, particularly among the youth, a target market considered the most valuable throughout much of the industry’s history. With a relaxing of restrictions on how stories should be told arrived the opportunity to deploy non-linear narrative. Two films that did so were Two for the Road (1967) and Point Blank of the same year. Two for the Road intercut scenes drawn from multiple road trips that the lead couple make to continental Europe over the span of over a decade, so as to serve a glossy, charismatic and intimate observation of a romantic relationship’s verisimilitudes, meanwhile generating suspense in unpredictable temporal movements, not only in looking forward. The film well represents two tropes common to such non-linear cinematic storytelling: They generate suspense inductively, instead of deductively, in that the audience is prodded to consider “I wonder what might have caused this?” instead of “I wonder what is to happen next?” Secondly, non-linear storytelling is often deployed reflexively, so that characters may assess how their lives have led them to where they currently are. Point Blank rendered its flashback scenes not only hazy, but also suspect by way of inconsistent semiotic clues, though no less suspect than the “present” in the picture, which itself is depicted as uncanny. Whereas Marienbad married incongruous narration and action, Point Blank does so for dialogue and sound effects.
The Godfather Part II (1974) broke new ground in serving as sequel and prequel at once. Boldly, the central character of Vito Corleone, performed by Marlon Brando, who dies in the first Godfather, is resurrected in the second as a younger man whom moves to New York from Sicily, as performed by Robert De Niro. The Godfather Part II intercuts scenes of the younger Vito with scenes that follow chronologically from where the first film had left off.
In 1980, Wood Allen delivered his commercially unsuccessful Stardust Memories, inspired by the Bergman masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957) in that it deploys prolonged memory sequences to reflect upon its protagonist’s career and life. While Betrayal (1983) was probably the first film whose narrative moves counter-chronologically throughout its scenes. Though this method would be redeployed in Memento (2000) not as successfully—Whereas Memento uses the counter-chronological approach to engender inductive suspense, it does so in augmentation to a rather humdrum genre plot, so that the audience is asked to piece the puzzle backwards. Betrayal, on the other hand, having exposed its audience to the dissolution of the intimacy in a love triangle, mines significant episodes of their earlier lives, so that the audience can trace the cracks back to their fissures—to haunting effect.
Not only did two films in the early 90s make use of non-linear storytelling, they have earned their renown to it in good part. Groundhog Day (1993) had its protagonist relive the same day—helplessly reliving it, while learning about then trying to improve himself. Pulp Fiction (1994) not only deploys flashbacks, but at one point has its lead character killed, before resurrecting him by featuring him in scenes to follow that had taken place before he had met his demise.
A number of films in recent years have deployed non-linear storytelling. The boldest of these and most gimmicky is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), which tries to locate poignancy in the ridiculous condition of its eponymous character whereby he begins his life aged then gets younger, ending it as a …, while all around him pass through our world normally. The financial and critical success of this film, which takes itself entirely seriously, is indicative of the gullibility of even professional observers to a finely packaged, handsomely rendered melodrama that foregrounds its nonconformity.
This year alone, a handful of films have skewed linear storytelling. Perhaps audiences at this point in the medium’s history are familiar enough with such an approach that their potential confusion is not the prohibitive concern that it was once. Perhaps filmmakers could take advantage of such a methodological allowance to render what has always matter about movies, that they tell their stories effectively and memorably.
Note: At least two renowned films thaat instrumentally employ non-linearity have come to mind since writing this essay--D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Certainly, many more have slipped my mind or had never entered it!