The Odd Illusion of Cinematic Time

You may not always know when you’re being manipulated

Hsiao-kang in Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is It There? (image from

inematic theories of time have existed even before the advent of cinema studies as an academic field.

Henri Bergson’s notion of the durée, for example, questioned Immanuel Kant’s account of how human subjects experience time.

Bergson asks a phenomenological question:

How can the same image belong in two different systems at once, namely in my body and in the universe?

If my body perceives an image, how is this different from an image “existing” as such outside my own subjective position?

Bergson attempts to explain the phenomenon by dividing the perception of images into two categories and placing them in contrast with one another: subjective idealism versus material realism.

In Bergson’s understanding of subjective realism, the images that we perceive are variable, they can change depending on certain conditions, the person viewing them, etc.; hence in this sense they are subjective.

On the other hand, in his understanding of material realism, images “exist” in the universe regardless of whether or not we perceive them, and in this sense these images are invariable, or material so to speak.

Bergson makes a further distinction: if perception can be defined as something external to the body, affection should be defined as something that occurs within the body.

Bergson thought that the relationship between subjects and objects should be discussed in terms of temporality, not spatiality.

This idea, that subjects and objects, the perceiver and the perceived, must be thought about in terms of their temporal relation to one another, is extremely important to our understanding of how more recent film theorists view cinematic time.

French theorist Gilles Deleuze’s reformulation of film studies into a new mode of viewing the world, and as a way of mapping the movement of images in time, is no less than remarkable.

In his Cinema books, Deleuze uses Bergson’s concept of pure perception to redefine the idea of the simulacrum for his own philosophical purposes.

For Deleuze, the simulacrum is not an impression or re-creation of life that is secondary or once removed from life, the simulacrum is life. He posits that nothing we perceive in the world (as humans) is more than a subjective image.

He furthermore posits that there is nothing particularly stable about objects in the world, and that humans stabilize the objects they perceive in order to make sense out of them.

When we think, we are maximizing the power of the virtual, because there are only simulations and not “proper images” as Claire Colebrook calls them.

It is easy to see how such a phenomenological view of the world might lend itself well to the study of film. The belief that technology is an invaluable tool for humans is by no means new, but Deleuze views technology as positive for somewhat unconventional reasons.

He does not think that the camera (a piece of technology) supplements humans, but rather that technology approaches the inhuman.

This follows from Deleuze’s logic, because if all seeing is a form of technology, then the camera eye allows us access to an alternative way of seeing; time in its pure state, outside the taint of human perception.

Consequently, Deleuze rejects entirely the idea that cinema is a manifestation of the human subject.

Deleuze goes one step farther, and calls for a certain type of cinema, one that is powerful enough to shock the film-viewer out of a lazy state of mind, and towards a world in which human movement does not always map directly onto time.

The powerful cinema of the time-image executes precisely this move, (as opposed to the cinema of the movement-image, which generally does not move beyond linear movement).

Unlike Deleuze, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Mary Ann Doane offers us a clear historical context in which to situate the early development of cinema as a new art form in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

She grounds her study in the work of a multitude of thinkers from the time period such as Bergson, Étienne-Jules Marey (the inventor of chronophotography), Charles Sanders Peirce (a semiologist), and Sigmund Freud.

Doane argues that with the advent of film came a renewed attention to Zeno’s paradox and the problems associated with applying it to camera movements.

She also argues that there are two competing yet not irreconcilable tendencies within modernity:

Abstraction/rationalization and an emphasis on the contingent, chance, and the ephemeral.

Her central contention within this book is that it is indeed possible, and moreover fruitful, to demonstrate the inextricable connection between these two tendencies.

As society becomes increasingly industrialized, so does the necessity to rationalize time into even, measurable units.

Yet at the same time, this overwhelming need for structure is accompanied by a competing need to offer the subject a feeling of freedom from excessive structure and rationalization.

Although this new sense of freedom that arises within modernity can be refreshing and liberating, it also has the potential to be dangerous and threatening.

Doane believes that it was this very concept of the “contingency of time” that allowed for, and helped along, the development of creative cinema throughout the past century.

These three theoretical models lead me to my own understanding of how time functions in cinema.

Mine is a hybrid theory: I propose that film directors employ certain particular cinematic techniques (i.e. varying lengths and types of shots, differing narrative structures) for the purposes of manipulating the spectator’s subjective notion of cinematic time.

I am skeptical of Deleuze’s notion that the camera as a technological apparatus encroaches upon the inhuman, simply because there is no way to watch a movie through anyone’s eyes but our own!

Perhaps one might be able to claim that a film “exists” in some abstract sense outside the realm of human vision, but I do not see any way to escape the fact that our experience of cinema is necessarily mediated by human subjectivity.

In fact, I would add that film is an entirely subjective experience, however, be careful to note that this does not mean that film is without structure.

I am in line with Doane here; there are two conflicting tendencies within time in cinema.

On the one hand, directors create structure (either intentionally or not) in order to create a certain effect for the viewer. This structure might have an unintended effect, no effect, or an opposing effect on the viewer, but this does not mean that it is not “present” in some significant sense.

On the other hand, the masterful filmmaker will be able to give us the illusion that we are free from structure — this relates back to Doane’s “contingency of time” concept.

In an effort to defend and expand upon my hybrid theory, I will briefly discuss four films: Luis Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7), Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There? as they relate to the idea of subjective or contingent time from the perspective of the spectator.

In each of these films, slightly different (but at times overlapping techniques) interact and play with each other to form a specific illusion: as we become immersed in the lives of these fictional characters, we come to believe that time is passing for them in some sort of “true” sense.

Yet at the same time, if we are distracted from the film for even a moment, we might become aware that time is passing for us as we sit in the theater, and that our notion of time diverges tremendously from that of the characters’.

Nevertheless, there is a strong illusion of what I call “true narrative time.”

How, then, does each of these films construct or deconstruct the illusion of “true narrative time”?

In An Andalusian Dog, the spectator is very much aware that time is not functioning normally throughout the course of this film. The film is punctuated by indicators of time that we, as spectators, grow to recognize as false.

Eye cutting scene from Andalusian Dog.
Eye-cutting scene in An Andalusian Dog (image from

The opening words of the film are: “Il était une fois…” [once upon a time] as if Buñuel is beginning a fairy-tale — the phrase connotes pleasant magical images and the whimsy of the distant past.

But just a few minutes after the opening, we come to realize that the film is in fact filled with disturbing images of violence and sexuality.

If there were any doubt, the famous eye-slicing scene puts a swift end to any remaining hopes for a fairy-tale film.

There are three other time punctuations or markers in the film: “eight years later,” “at about three in the morning,” “sixteen years before,” and finally “in spring.”

We soon come to realize that these markers are meaningless and have little purpose except to confuse and disorient us.

Adding to the surreality, the characters in the film appear to have the ability to control the images that appear or disappear from the shot. For instance, a man gropes the main woman of the film and her clothes seem to magically disappear as he drools over her.

Buñuel employs many special effects to create a self-reflexive film: the superimpositions, montage sequences, and gory fake body parts all call attention to the camera-as-technological-apparatus and to the trickery of cinema in general.

In Cléo de 5 à 7, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and “true narrative time” becomes almost undistinguishable from the spectator’s experience of time.

The narrative is constructed such that the spectator feels as if he or she is following a chunk out of the life of the protagonist, Cléo (Corinne Marchand).

We are never allowed to forget that time is passing, because the film is divided into “chapters,” or five to seven minute segments.

In the opening scene of the film, we hear a clock ticking in the background as the tarot card reader tells Cléo her fortune. At the end of the film, we hear the chime of the church bell as Cléo hears her final diagnosis from the doctor.

The entire film is based around the premise that Cléo is waiting in suspense from five o’clock to seven o’clock in the evening to find out the results of her biopsy.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (image from

Yet the film’s title is intentionally misleading, since in spectator time, the story really only follows her from five to six thirty (the film is only ninety minutes long).

So even though Varda wants us to imagine that we are watching a two hour-long chunk of Cléo’s life, in reality she is manipulating our sense of “true narrative time.”

Hiroshima mon amour is similar to Cléo in that there is a similar feeling of inevitability, a similar sense of impending doom, associated with the representation of time.

In Hiroshima however, time is not presented in a linear fashion and is instead broken up by constant flashbacks.

The flashbacks are of course related to the idea of history as it links to memory; they dominate the narrative so that we as spectators become psychologically invested in the unnamed French woman, called simply “Elle”(Emmanuelle Riva).

At one point in the film, Elle is roaming around the streets of Hiroshima, thinking about Nevers. A succession of street shots of Hiroshima and Nevers appear one after the other as Elle thinks to herself in an interior monologue (translated from French):

A time will come. When we’ll no more know what thing it is that binds us. By slow degrees the word will fade from our memory. Then it will disappear altogether.

These shots, in combination with the monologue, indicate to the spectator that even though Elle is walking in the streets of Hiroshima in the present, she is simultaneously still living in Nevers in her mind.

Elle being comforted by her lover in Hiroshima mon amour (image from

The film functions non-linearly for two reasons in Hiroshima:

  1. So that we as spectators will become familiar with Elle’s past at the point that she is revealing it for the first time, and we will feel sympathetic.
  2. So that historical memory becomes inevitably tied to private memory within the context of the film.

In other words, although “true narrative time” does not much diverge from “real time,” real time is divided between diegetic (or narrative-driven) and psychological events.

Finally, in What Time is it There?, the narrative is divided between China and France, a man’s story and a woman’s story, existing simultaneously within the context of the narrative; strangers whose lives intersected for one brief moment, “caught” in turn by the film apparatus.

Tsai employs two important methods of cinematic time manipulation within the film:

  1. The excruciatingly long take with an absolutely still camera, and
  2. The division of simultaneous time into two parallel stories between two central protagonists, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and Shiang-chyi.

When he uses the first method, Tsai positions the camera in a particular spot to film the “private moments” of his characters.

The camera is so static yet so carefully positioned, that it often seems as if we are watching surveillance footage of these characters as they move in and out of the frames of their private worlds.

We must, for instance, watch Hsiao-kang as he pees in random things that are everything but toilets, has sex with a prostitute, drinks from a water bottle, and watches François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

These unfathomably long takes serve to make us, as spectators, feel as if we are observing the lives of the characters in “real time” such that it is nearly indistinguishable from “true narrative time.”

The long takes also add to the overall cringe-worthy factor of the film, but at the same time, they are eloquently and artistically framed. Of course, the long takes also fool us into believing that we are witnessing “real time,” but the film is divided and carefully manipulated by Tsai for a particular effect.

As much as Tsai might like us to imagine that we are viewing the lives of his characters in “real time,” the fact that we are witnesses to these highly privileged moments is proof of the fact that the film is a cleverly constructed illusion.

My book, New Taiwanese Cinema in Focus: Moving Within and Beyond the Frame, is on Amazon.

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.

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