Playing with Time

Many years ago, Jean-Luc Godard responded to a detractor’s stuffy insistence that all films have a beginning, middle, and end. “Certainly,” he said. “But not necessarily in that order.” While most films, especially those of classical Hollywood cinema, structure their stories chronologically, those that have challenged this convention have significantly furthered the art of film. Citizen Kane‘s long-held status as the greatest movie every made owes that honor in part to its play with time, while Alejandro González Iñárritu’s acclaimed 21 Grams (2003) is just one of the recent additions to this alternative tradition. Here are a few others, listed (I hope appropriately) in non-chronological order:

Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000). Complex flashback structures are not unusual in film noir. Classic noirs like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard begin at the end, with character-narrators looking back to tell their stories. But typically those stories, once begun, are narrated in chronological order, even if interrupted by returns to the present. Memento, however, takes this reverse structure to its logical conclusion. It literally tells its story, scene by scene, in reverse order, continuing backward until the motivation and circumstances of the murder that begins the film is revealed. More than mere gimmick, the film’s structure mirrors the predicament of its protagonist, who, suffering from memory loss, operates without complete understanding of his actions or purpose.

Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000). Much like Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Inarritu’s film presents us with three overlapping stories. The three collide momentarily in the opening scene, which ends in a car crash on the streets of Mexico City. From that point on, each of the stories is taken up one at a time, with occasional glimpses of characters from the other two stories embedded within them. Each plotline follows a linear structure but begins at different times before the crash, allowing us not only to witness the event from three points of view but to understand its causes and effects from those perspectives as well.

Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916). However shameful the racism of Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s next film was truly an epic achievement, alternating among four plotlines – the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and class injustice in modern-day America – each of the stories dramatizing the destructiveness of hatred and prejudice. Griffith’s crosscutting, which builds toward a series of frenetic climaxes, was revered and imitated by the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). This landmark film of the French New Wave is the most influential of Resnais’ many meditations on time and memory. In Hiroshima, a reconstructed city that is itself a monument to public tragedy, a Japanese architect “reconstructs” his French lover’s repressed memories of personal tragedy-the wartime death of her German lover and the private trauma that followed.

The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997). A school bus accident in a small town in British Columbia is at the center of this complexly structured adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel. Events before the accident and the traumatic aftermath are presented – but not in that order. The film moves backward and forward, not only to specific moments but also to generalized moments for which the time is eerily indeterminate.

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999). Beginning with his first feature film, sex, lies and videotape (1989), Soderbergh has experimented with non-chronological narrative structure. In this thriller, he fragments the order of his story to an unusual degree. Wilson, played by Terrence Stamp, is a British ex-con, who has traveled to LA to investigate the “accidental” death of his daughter. Many sequences are fragmented with flashforwards as well as flashbacks, as Wilson pursues her killer and his own past.

Time Regained (Paul Ruiz, 1999). Appropriately this adaptation of the final volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past moves freely backward and forward in time to represent the novel’s nonlinear structure and the working of involuntary memory itself. Bolder is the representation of multiple times within one space–the adult narrator Marcel on screen with the child Marcel, or secondary characters slipping back and forth between their younger selves and aged incarnations, played by different actors within the same scene.

This list is far from complete, with many important films left off. Hopefully, though, it will serve as a useful starting point for thinking about this fascinating countercurrent in film history.