I was recently invited by the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth at the University of Sussex to speak at a symposium on qualitative longitudinal research methods in the study of child development. This interdisciplinary event, which was part of a programme of events funded by the National Centre for Research Methods, brought together anthropologists, literary theorists, sociologists and artists, but the focus of my paper was a discussion of cinema’s capacity to document and represent the passage of time.
This paper was prompted by the release of a recent film by the British director Michael Winterbottom, Everyday (2012), which was shot over five years and recounts the experiences of a family, over the same period, as they live with the fact that the father is in prison. The film belongs to a British tradition of socially committed film and television drama that is concerned with ‘ordinary’ lives and questions of social class, precarious labour, and the interaction of families with state institutional apparatuses such as the education and prison systems, but Winterbottom has also said of Everyday that, ‘The starting point was to try and deal with time passing in a story.’ While there are several examples of documentaries that were produced over extended periods of time, the most well known of which is The Seven Up television series (1964-2012), Everyday is possibly unique as a fiction film where the duration of the production period matches the duration of the narrative. The most striking and moving consequence of this experiment is that the film captures the visible ageing of the four young children in the family. In this respect, the film explores cinema’s central preoccupations with children and with time.
The child has a central significance in the history of cinema both as audience and as subject matter. For example, of the ten films shown at the very first commercial film screening by Auguste and Louis Lumière in Paris on December 28th, 1895, two were of infants – a baby being fed, and a toddler trying to catch goldfish from a fish bowl. As a medium, cinema begins – in its own infancy, perhaps - with the image of the child.
On the other hand, from the early 1900s onwards, discussion by reformists, politicians, journalists and academics about the cultural and psychological effects of film viewing upon audiences have centred upon the sentimental, rhetorical figure of the susceptible, sensitive child as a way of measuring the effects of the medium upon audiences. Thinking about the child and child development has offered us a means of conceptualizing the progressive effects of cultural and technological change. For instance, anxieties about the intangible social effects of new entertainment and communications media (and calls for legislation and regulation) are almost always articulated in relation to their damaging, corrupting effect upon children – stretching back from mobile phones, the Internet, though home video and video nasties, television, transistor radios, jukeboxes and record players, to popular theatre. The child is used in such discourses as an uncritical, un-ironic thermometer registering changes in the cultural and technological environment and so has also been instrumental in the formation of public policy.
Cinema’s fascination with the child is multiple then. The child in cinema is a symbolically loaded, semantically flexible figure. The child stands as an affective figure for the domestic and the intimate, or as a plastic symbol of innocence, vulnerability, potentiality and unrealized futures, corruption, mortality, uncanny threat in different narrative contexts¹. Thinking about the figure of the child in cinema invites us to think about the complexity and historical contingency of our conception of childhood, how the child is mobilized to limit access to visual culture, and, more broadly, how ‘the masses’ are always depicted in child-like terms, in need of protection through political representation and top-down governance. As film historian Tom Gunning observes of the ‘Nickel boom’, the explosion of film theatres across the US after 1905, ‘Moving pictures were […] rife with anxieties for the genteel representatives of American culture, including the issues of a working class audience and the sexual awareness of children’ (Gunning 1991: 152).
In another sense, the child’s centrality to cinema can be understood in relation to cinema’s capacity to record and represent the passage of time. The child is one of the ways in which cinematic time is made visible. Indeed for film theorist Michel Chion, time is a central component of the medium, arguing that with the widespread commercialisation of sound-film technology in the mid-late 1920s cinema is transformed from a ‘cinematographic’ medium - written with movement - to a chronographic medium - ‘written in time as well as in movement’ (Chion 1994: 16-17). Whereas a silent film can be projected at different speeds (and silent comedies were often sped up when projected²) or even in reverse-motion, if synchronous sound-film is run at the wrong speed or in reverse its meaning and effect changes radically. Sound film is thus locked into particular temporality (with all sound-film projectors set to run at 24 frames per second). However, for Chion, what sound cinema does that other media can’t is make the passage of time visible since what a film does is manipulate time.
Film-makers do this very effectively in a variety of ways, compressing or dilating it through narrative structures and editing strategies that project us backwards and forwards through time, isolating and emphasizing particularly significant moments. Cinema is a mechanism of time-travel, and one of the key components of this mechanism is the cut from one shot to another, which effects an instantaneous transition from one moment in time to another. It is therefore no surprise that films about time-travel proliferate throughout the history of the medium from the early comic fantasy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Flynn, 1921) onwards and so, although marketed as a feel-good comedy, we might understand Richard Curtis’ latest film, About Time (2013), with its progressively complex narrative, as a sentimental reflection upon cinema’s capacity to move us emotionally by moving us temporally.
As the title suggests, time is the key theme of Curtis’ film and, as with Winterbottom’s film, this is explored through a narrative about family relations. Upon learning that the men in his family have the ability to travel backwards through time, the protagonist uses this power (like a film-maker) to manipulate time as he returns repeatedly from the present to the past, replaying awkward or embarrassing encounters, such as a first meeting with his girlfriends’ parents, trying out different lines and timings in order to steer events in a different direction. The film exploits the comic potential of this intriguing fantasy, but ultimately, the film is a rather melancholy reflection upon loss and the irreversibility of time. A number of people were in tears at the end of the screening in the local cinema, and the film’s conclusion was that what is important is being, intensely, in the moment.
The paradoxes of the time travel film demonstrate in a very direct way that one of the most powerfully affecting properties of narrative cinema is that, by moving us back and forth through time, films can return us to the present, inviting us to look at it anew.
- Michel Chion (1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Columbia University Press: New York
- Tom Gunning (1991) ‘From Obscene films to High-Class Drama’ in D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press
¹See, for example, my 2008 essay on children and cinematic technology, ‘Children and robots, technophobia and cinephilia’, in Bruce Bennett, Marc Furstenau, Adrian Mackenzie (eds.), Cinema and Technology: Cultures, Theories, Practices. London and New York; Palgrave, pp. 168-182
²See, for example, this Buster Keaton short, 'Cops' (Keaton,Cline, 1922)
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