Film, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

3. Space, time and film

We can now see an important sense in which film is both a spatial and a temporal medium. Film represents space by means of space, and time by means of time. It is the spatial (temporal) properties of the cinematic representation that we observe and rely upon in order to figure out what spatial (temporal) properties of the fictional characters and events are portrayed. It is correctly said that painting and still photography are capable of representing the temporal: by inference, by juxtaposition of distinct static images, by transforming temporal properties into spatial ones (where, say, being further to the right represents being later in time), and by special techniques such as blurring and multiple exposure. But these possibilities do not constitute grounds for calling painting and still photography arts of time in the way that cinema is, for they do not represent time by means of time.

So far we have considered untensed temporal properties of duration and precedence. What about the representation of tensed temporal properties: pastness, presentness and futurity? Theorists have often argued that film represents fictional events as occurring now, in the sense that viewers are to think of those events going on in the present as they watch. This is one consequence of the doctrine of realism of effect, according to which film typically creates an illusion in viewers’ minds that the fictional events represented on screen are real, and that they, the viewers, are present (spatially and temporally) at their occurrence. Realism of effect will be discussed in the next section; here we concentrate on the claim of temporal presentness. One problem with the view that film represents fictional events as occurring in the viewer’s present is that it then becomes difficult to make sense of the idea of ‘anachrony’ in film – the flashback or flashforward. If viewers are to think of the image they see as representing something occurring now, an anachronous sequence would require them to imagine travelling in time, viewing what is objectively past or future in their subjective present. But this is neither plausible psychologically, since viewers of anachronous material do not seem to imagine themselves travellers in time, nor helpful in maintaining the integrity of the action, since time travel introduces an element of fantasy that would be unwelcome in our experience of many naturalistic films that none the less display anachrony in their narratives.

If, on the other hand, we say that film does not represent fictional events as present to the viewer, but merely as standing in untensed relations of precedence and simultaneity to one another, how shall we explain anachrony? After all, anachronous representations seem to be ones that represent the past (as in flashback) and the future (as in flashforward). In fact, we can explain anachrony in untensed terms as follows: we have anachrony when an event occurring earlier in fictional time than another occurs later in the time of narrative exposition; here we appeal only to untensed notions of precedence. Such a tenseless approach implies a certain relativity and even arbitrariness in the application of the notions of flashback and flashforward; a film’s narrative structure, or part of it, could sometimes equally well be described as employing the one as the other. If, on the other hand, we could appeal to tense and identify non-anachronous material as temporally present, we would have an absolute distinction between flashback (past) and flashforward (future). But this relativity in the tenseless account of anachrony is arguably no drawback. The fact that one of the two labels (flashforward, flashback) often seems more natural than the other may be accounted for by appeal to the fact that one of them allows a simpler, and therefore preferable, description of the film’s temporal structure. It may also be that one or other description accords better with the dramatic structure of the film at that point, which may involve an episode of memory (in which case the description in terms of flashback will seem preferable) or premonition (which favours flashforward). There will, on this view, be occasions when there is nothing to choose between the two descriptions; and indeed there are films (Last Year at Marienbad, for example) of which it seems right to say that there is no uniquely correct description of their temporal structure. In that case, while anachrony itself is a notion definable in temporal but tenseless terms, the direction of anachrony needs to be defined in pragmatic and dramatic terms.

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. Space, time and film. Film, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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