Imagining time in cinema

This is a collaborative piece.
Text: Amit Upadhya
Art: Harman Taneja

Marvel,  by Harman Taneja for TLJ, inspired by the spinning top from Christopher Nolan's  Inception . 

Marvel, by Harman Taneja for TLJ, inspired by the spinning top from Christopher Nolan's Inception

Christopher Nolan, next year’s big Oscar hopeful, broke through with his second feature Memento in 2000. Oft-described as ‘mind-bending’, the film begins with its end. A pretty straightforward story about revenge, Memento achieved greatness owing to its milestone ‘backwards’ narrative arc in the storytelling.

That was the start of a long experiment.

Over the next 16 years, and 8 films, Nolan has tried, with a single-minded devotion unlike anyone before, to play with time in narrative cinema. From a tale about rival magicians to the metaphysical sci-fi about space-time, Nolan has tried it all. He expanded time, contracted time, began stories with their end, and ended them with a starting point.

The mystery at hand?
What constitutes beginning? Is it needed at all?

Cinema, a spatiotemporal art, allows for manipulation of time, unlike most other art forms.

Narrative cinema, lying on the foundations of stories, has forever been beholden to the understood limits of space and time. There’s a beginning, middle and an end. Cause has to precede effect.
Non-narrative cinema, though inaccessible to most cinema-watchers, doesn’t have that restriction. Free flowing images and sounds that are allowed their individual meanings, manage to evoke momentary sensations. They can get to the most basic human instincts without having to engage one in a defined story.

Most beings, whether they plunge in the past on nostalgia, or imagine an unseemly future, experience these momentary stings. Even when they are predicated on the pre-existence of memories, and insecurities. And perhaps that’s why the need for a structure isn’t that vital.

Within the constraints of an inherent storytelling, filmmakers dealing with narrative crave that freedom. To rid themselves of the structure.

Quentin Tarantino, though not necessarily a pioneer, ripped through that conventionality with his puzzle-like Palme d’Or winner Pulp Fiction. Divided into several out-of-chronology chunks, the narrative begins with what’s essentially the middle of the story, and ends with an in-between sequence. World over, film viewers as well as makers were stunned by how the out-of-place narrative was able to create a single most enduring emotion—thrill.

Pulp Fiction was an indie experiment but ended up in revolutionizing mainstream filmmaking with its blatant disregard for conventional Hollywood screenplay techniques. It became a precursor to works like Before Sunrise, Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among a handful of others, all of which differ in their usage of chronology in telling a story.

Mumbai has had its share of non-linear stuff, be it Shyam Benegal’s Bhoomika or Kamal Swaroop’s avant-garde Om-Dar-Ba-Dar. But an intriguing case, in the last decade, has been Imtiaz Ali and his love stories, most prominently Rockstar.

Lessons from the Screenplay on Youtube analyses Christopher Nolan's Memento and it's compelling reverse chronological order storyline.

A simple tale of an artist created, and destroyed, by the nature of his tumultuous relationship with a woman becomes something different because of its structure. Effect precedes cause. The disintegration of his life acquires the nature of an emotional probe. Its opening sequence presents Jordan, a lunatic singer, who may not deserve the slightest bit of adulation that comes his way. The venue, a stadium, just at the moment he gets to the mic, turns into a college audition from many moons ago. From there on, it’s the how that becomes the driving force, not the what. And the fundamental issue with any love story, familiarity, is overcome. All with a play on structure and how time renders characters the way they exist.

Past is, however, easy to relate. Future is trickier.

Not for Denis Villeneuve.
In his trademark symbology-driven approach, he adapted Ted Chiang’s short Story of Your Life as a sci-fi thriller, Arrival. The film, about a linguist who witnesses events as memories while attempting to translate the language of an alien species only to realize towards the end that the events are taking place in the future, is anchored by haunting, unseen imagery. The aliens she’s interacting with teach her their circular language. Time, therefore, for them is non-linear with all events happening at the same time.

And that’s what Nolan finally nailed in Dunkirk. His long running experiment reached its pinnacle here. He made a film that’s pretty much fluid in its portrayal of time. It’s not just non-linear. It collapses the idea of time as is understood in conventional fictional narrative cinema.

Based on the famous battle in World War II, Dunkirk is about “survival (of British soldiers) at the point of annihilation.” Three narrative arcs, set on land, sea and air, have no singular protagonist even as the film plays out as a war thriller.

1 week. 1 day. 1 hour. The three arcs play out in different time spans. The visceral impact of it, though, owes to just that. Even when time differs quantitatively for the soldiers in different states, the emotional journey, from torment to hope, is the same. The viewer, too, is thrust into the same zone. And consequently, the narrative, buoyed by its genre and freed from the spectacular but unidimensional story, overcomes the boundaries of beginnings and ends.

And that’s what Nolan finally nailed in Dunkirk...the narrative, buoyed by its genre and freed from the spectacular but unidimensional story, overcomes the boundaries of beginnings and ends.

It starts at some point, and gets over at some point. There is no before. There is no after. Just the here and now.

In his introduction to A Brief History of Time, astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote of the book as Stephen Hawking’s attempt to understand the mind of God: “...And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far; a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.”

The sequential nature of human languages comes with well-defined past, present and future. Cinema, with its own language and grammar, can afford the luxury of being more divergent in its outlook of time.


Amit Upadhyaya is a copy editor who walks large stretches of Delhi by foot out of boredom. When he's not reluctant to go back home, he's found watching a movie there. 
Harman Taneja is an architect whose passion is to illustrate. Her paints and canvasses are like oases in a burning day.