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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Film Time - Meditation #1

In film there is an illusion of present time; events happen on the screen and we take them as happening in the now, not in the past when they were shot. A spectator is encouraged to acknowledge the onscreen action as a sort of live broadcast from some other place. Editing, dialogue, acting and choice of shots help to create this very effective illusion. In fact, scripts are written in the present tense, for example:


A black dog sleeps on the shoulder of the highway, head between his paws, curled up next to the barricade that separates the north and southbound lanes.

Traffic rumbles past him: yellow cabs, blue police cruisers, white limousines with tinted glass and Jersey plates. We hear the squeal of brakes. A black '65 Ford Mustang, mint condition, pulls onto the shoulder, ten yards past the dog, and backs up. The dog raises its head.

Two men step out of the car. The driver, MONTY BROGAN, midtwenties, is pale-skinned in the flickering light. A small silver crucifix hangs from a silver chain around his neck; his fingers are adorned with silver rings.

(from the The 25th Hour script by David Benioff)

A script is written as if an account or transcript of a movie that's already been shot. The screenwriter imagines the sights and sounds in his head and then transcribes them on a formatted script (this use of the present tense is of course a carryover of stageplays which were the basis of early cinema).

Contrast this with prose fiction which is mostly in the past tense. Both film and prose tell stories, yet they use a different tense. Why is that? To be sure, there are some films which use a prose-inherited narrator that uses the past tense, i.e. It happened in the summer of nineteen-fifty-nine, but as soon as that introduction is over everything that is onscreen is in the present.

So for all intents and purposes film is supposed to take place in the here and now... or is it?

There are big differences between living something (present) and recalling it later (past). As we remember, we organise. We create causal connections between events (this happened because of that), we try to justify motivations and actions through psychology or rationality, we order events chronologically so they can be more easily understood later. On the other hand, an actual live experience that touches us emotionally is rarely understood immediately. We act and react according to our impulses, previous experience and nature. Later we might try to look back and understand the whys and whats, but not as it happens.

My proposal is that film leaves the past tense to start taking place now.

Placing film time firmly in the present solidifies the veneer of realism and suspension of disbelief that any dramatic (i.e. with conflict, events, etc.) story requires. Because it is happening right now it becomes easier to accept and believe.

Let's film the present and include the honesty of ambiguity, decision-making, boredom, thought, contemplation, dialogue that's not clever or witty, actions that are not entirely understood or justified; let's film our stories as they happen now in front of the camera.

If film is to shed its ever larger affiliation with prose fiction* it must claim the present as its natural tense.

* - adaptations make up around 80% of the projects currently being made, source: industry journal Screen International, December 2007

1 comment:

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for Cross-posting this Carlos. :)