Archive for time

Pausing image; pausing sound

Posted in Film, rant with tags , , on July 11, 2008 by Lightborne

I was at a conference recently where a question was put to a speaker about the temporality of the paused film image. The question related roughly to Laura Mulvey’s work on the subject in Death 24x a Second, complicated by the issue of the impossibility of perceiving paused sound. We can see a paused image, but we can’t hear a paused sound. So how much authority over the minutiae of the film can we really gain from scrutinising the paused image? We may pore over a frozen frame in a cinephiliac way, but all we really have before us is a partial cross-section of the film – static image plus silence. The audiovisual experience of film here becomes the purely visual experience of the paused image.

The seemingly sensible decision returned to the audience was that the temporal perception of image and sound are simply different. But I’m not sure I agree with this.

When we pause a sound we get silence, a negation of sound. Here, the sound is stopped at a precise moment and can later be restarted from that point. Pausing a sound recording is something you do to allow for some other act in between (answering a phone, making tea, going to the bathroom). When we pause a film we get a still image. This is a negation of motion, but not of image. The purpose of this act may be the same as with sound (answering a phone, making tea etc.). The image remains on screen unlooked at. However, we may also pause the image to scrutinise it, to take pleasure in the unhurried examination of a frozen tableau, the lingering gaze at a petrified face. We gain this privilege at the expense of sound and movement.

But what would it be like to pause sound in the same way? To freeze an instant in a piece of music or dialogue to scrutinise its composition? How do you take a cross-section of sound? The intuitive answer, as evinced by the reply given at the conference, was that you simply can’t. The temporal perception of the visual and the sonic are just different. Now this may indeed be true, but not in the way that this difficulty in conceiving one and not the other immediately suggests.

The difference is less in the way we actually perceive sound and image, than in the way we think about these two kinds of perception. We find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to listen to a paused sound because we can’t think of sound outside of its temporality. Nevertheless we can quite readily accept the idea of pausing vision.

We can imagine a frozen moment, but that moment will always be silent. Notice how any hypothetical frozen moment we can think of is always deathly quiet. We see this in fictional representations of frozen time also, most representatively in the television series Heroes, wherein the character Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) has the power to freeze time. Hiro freezes time at several points throughout the series, to allow him to change the positions of objects or to stop a fatal action mid-execution. When he performs this trick everything around him, including other characters, freeze mid-motion, yet he continues to move. His movements take place within a landscape of suspended movement, presenting a surreal juxtaposition. The surreality is underlined by the silence of these scenes. Ambient sound drains away as time freezes, leaving only the sounds that Hiro himself makes. He can make sound because he still exists in duration, though everything around him has lost this characteristic. Without time, things can’t make sounds. But even without time, it would appear, things can still be seen….

So, we know what a frozen moment would look like, but not what it would sound like. Or, at least we seem to think that it would sound like silence, the absence of sound. Again, this is because sound seems to require temporal extension just to be sound, whereas vision seems to be able to exist independently of time. This conceptualisation of the frozen moment, or what it is to pause sound and moving image, can be refuted in two opposite, but connected, ways. Either paused sound (as we understand it) isn’t really paused sound, or a paused moving image is something other than a cross-section of the film, an instant frozen for enhanced scrutiny. In the first case, we might suggest that a paused sound, were it to be treated in a manner consistent with how we conceive of a paused image, would actually have to be represented by a continuous tone – a cross-section of the sound at the precise instant of the pause repeated at a frequency that would allow it to give the impression of continuous sound.

On the other hand, perhaps the difficulty in comprehending paused sound, and the intuitive reaction against the idea of a continuous tone as frozen time, should be extended to our idea of the paused image. Perhaps image cannot exist outside of time either…

The paused image is not frozen. It is not, like a photograph, a static object – it is a constantly refreshing image, functioning as it would if we were watching an unpaused action sequence. It just happens in this case that the image is constantly being replaced by a copy of itself. The impression that what we are seeing is a frozen moment, a cross-section of the film, is in fact a fallacy. The perception of image, moving or still, requires time just as much as the perception of sound does. To pause a DVD is to gain a certain kind of insight into the composition of the frame at a given moment, but it can only ever be a partial cross-section, an aberrant manipulation in itself of the audiovisual fabric of the film. Cinema is temporal in the way that sound is temporal, and outside of the persuasion strategy of the pause button we should really find the same kind of difficulty in thinking the frozen film moment.


The Pre-Socratics were totally awesome.

Posted in Film, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2008 by Lightborne

I’m currently trying to finish my chapter on Tarkovsky’s film theory and how useful it can be. One very specific issue (Tarkovsky’s use of the elements to create detectable flux and pulsations within the frame) leads me to the work of Heraclitus, one of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Tarkovsky, at least as I understand him, was all about flux or change being the dominant force on both our lives and in the universe. This is why his theory is so compatible with the work of Henri Bergson. For both, time passes as a process of continuous change – one alteration is not distinct from another, so any determinations as to beginnings and endings must be arbitrary. How do we decide where one process stops and another begins? There is a fundamental difference between a conception of time as the successive series of states of a system, and as a single continuous process It becomes less a question of arbitrariness, and more one of perspective. One conception sees time as a vast, unfathomable accumulation of states (this was so then etc.), the other as a singularity, a monism – just one thing. That one thing can be either gigantic or tiny, depending on the point from which you are looking at it. It is this way of conceiving of time that links Bergson and Tarkovsky, and now, I find, Heraclitus, who lived about two and a half thousand years before either of them.

Tarkovsky uses water, wind, fire and earth (particularly in the form of mud) a lot. They often serve as a way of visually rendering flux/process/change/pulse/rhythm/vibrations. One of Heraclitus’ main concepts was the idea of ‘Nature’s Bonfire’. He used fire to express the way that he believed the universe worked – a process of constant change. Fire captures both the idea of constant destruction and process, and of the impossibility of distinguishing the ending of one state from the beginning of another. Can you imagine breaking flames down into discrete sections?

“This world neither any god nor man made, but it always was and is and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” – Heraclitus

His other catchphrase was panta rhei – ‘everything flows’. Nothing is ever at rest, ever in a constant, unchanging state. Everything is rather in constant motion/process/change (even if it appears to be immensely solid and everlasting like a mountain – this again depends on perspective. A mountain would certainly appear immensely solid and permanent to an organism of a height about 5 – 6 feet, with a life span of around 90 years.)

But then, Jonathon Barnes, grumpy english philosophy dude, says that Heraclitus is easily read whatever way you want because his work is so fragmentary and aphoristic. He writes that “Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Barnes also explains Heraclitus’ theory of flux as “the furniture of the world is in constant, if imperceptible change.” I like ‘furniture of the world’ – I imagine a nervous God constantly re-arranging his living room.

Heraclitus, on his mobile.

Heraclitus 2
Heraclitus, trying to crack open a walnut.