Do you know what day of the week it is?
A new Perspective from Dominic Nazeri
When I first started writing this it was April and we were in the middle of lockdown in the UK. Many people were commenting on how they felt time was moving at different speeds and, coupled with finishing off the filmography of one of my favourite directors, I felt compelled to write something about the perception of time. I couldn’t figure out how to end it though. After hiding it away for a number of weeks, I now realise that ironically, I needed time to move forward, in order to finish writing about the subject itself.
“I have always liked people who can’t adapt themselves to the world pragmatically” Andrei Tarkovsky.
I seem to have lost track of time. You might have too, as someone online so aptly put it: “the last two weeks have been a strange ten years”. Right now, the whole world has become intensely aware of its relationship with time, and I can only see that as a great thing. Within the last few months, some people feel time has flown by; without our routines providing the usual memorable events happening, our days blur together and speed up. Others feel time is passing painfully slow; the result of us adapting to new daily structures, our brains taking in more new information, therefore time feeling slower. Some are experiencing it both ways, and if that isn’t confusing enough, it's worth noting this is only the tip of the iceberg, as how you perceive time in the moment and in reflection can be different too. Whatever your experience has been, this signals one clear thing to me: our perception of time, and therefore how we each experience it, is unique for every single one of us.
I’ve always found the subject of time fascinating. I find myself thinking about it daily. Do parallel timelines exist? Can time actually be reversed? What if we could see the future before it happened?
If that sounds stressful to you, know it comes from the opposite place of anxiety. I find it invigorating to ask these questions, probably because they are paradoxically both unsolvable, whilst also having many answers. It’s why I love cinema, as I feel it is capable of forming an attempt to answer these questions. I return to films that have non-linear structures, jumping timelines, dream exploration or extended takes (in the right hands, of course). Christopher Nolan and Richard Linklater are two of my favourite directors. Time is at the very core of their narratives; it's how they explore and create their own worlds and the stories within them.
There’s one more favourite director of mine who’s filmography I recently finished watching. Someone who spent his life exploring his own relationship with time: Andrei Tarkovsky. The now famous Russian filmmaker born in Russia in 1932, made only seven feature films and a handful of shorts. Having already seen two of them, that clocks a total runtime of seven hours of recent watching across five films. It's his love of long, extended takes that adds up. Suffice to say, I needed a few quarantine walks to take it all in. It’s ironic, given both the filmmaker and subject at hand, that I have only achieved this Netflix-approved feat of watching due to having an abundance of one thing right now: time.
It’s not an overstatement to say there’s no other film-maker who made films like Tarkovsky. As he himself put it “there are filmmakers who re-create the world, and there are filmmakers who create their own world”. As a fan and a cinephile, I was convinced I had a fairly decent grasp on the extent of his influence on cinema. The more I look however, the more I see his influence everywhere. Jonathan Nolan cited him as one of the inspirations in creating Westworld. It's too long a list to mention the many music videos produced today that pull from the atmosphere and texture of his films. Cate Blanchett claims that every frame of Stalker is “burned onto her retinas”, and if you need Leonardo DiCaprio to convince you, google, and watch, the 4-minute film “The Revenant directed by Andrei Tarkovsky”.
The reason for this continued inspiration is that he invented his own cinematic language, throwing out any generally accepted or universally understood notion of plot or conflict you would find in most films. This had a dizzying effect.
On the one hand, the lessening of conflict in the external world meant he could be free to explore the conflict of people’s inner world. On the other hand, his films make for a dense watch that modern mass audiences would likely need multiple viewings, though I’m more than happy to be proven wrong. You can’t approach his films with standard logic, I find it best to sit back, just watch and not try to work anything out. Although he only made seven features, in a sense he made many more, as on each viewing we come away feeling different from the time before. This I would say, is what gives his films a quality that is so close to life. Things usually are hard to understand, and we often revisit things in our head, each time finding new meaning.
The perception and use of time is key to Tarkovsky's filmmaking and how he envisioned cinema. His films are slow, meditative and reflective, which gives them a texture that others just don’t have. He cuts between time periods with no warning or logical explanation (taken to the extreme in his film Mirror, 1975). Shots go on for minutes at a time providing space for people to talk and explore their own thoughts. The cinematography is simply beautiful on the most filmic level you can imagine and are often of things that would not be considered so. The stories don’t work in a traditional plot by plot ‘and then this happens’ basis. Watching his films is like learning a new language. Once you understand it a whole new way of seeing is open for you to explore. I believe this is why Tarkovsky films resonate with people so much, because they are structured in a way that is far closer to how we actually experience life.
During my marathon watch, I couldn’t help but relate his filmmaking to our own experience of time during lockdown. Just like a Tarkovsky film, the trodden plots of our lives have been thrown out for something unusual. There is no logical plan to follow. Nothing quite makes sense on the surface. Our perception of time is warped as we have suddenly amassed more of it than we are capable or comfortable in using. Yet...the whole removal of any plan, and therefore ‘planned time’, has given a texture to life that feels unusual and somehow more alive. I get the impression everyone is connecting more than they usually do, and diving into their own inner worlds more than they might have. Maybe you know your neighbours, your friends, your local area or even yourself better than you did before. You’ve likely talked with your family more than all your Christmases put together. Without the controlled, succinct pressure of traditional time structures, you’re probably indulging in and enjoying more of the things that you’d consider to be part of your life outside of your work. I know I have. Reading more, exercising more, watching movies more. Puzzlingly, due to the obvious confinements, socialising more.
It's funny how modern society obsesses over time as a finite commodity to be squeezed at any cost. We’re either trying our hardest to keep as much of it as possible, feel conflicted for wasting it, or uneasy about how much of it is left. It’s a constant battle, and you’re always the one losing.
It’s viewed as just a number, and one that keeps going down despite any of our desperate attempts to control it. Rarely do we stop and assess our own perception of it. Only when someone asks something seemingly throwaway such as “this morning feels a bit slow, doesn’t it?” are we forced to think to ourselves, yes, perhaps it does, before returning to whatever it was we were doing.
Yet it seems that the less obsessed we are with constantly checking and attempting to control it, the more it works in our favour. Notice when people use the phrase “Sorry, I completely lost track of time”, more often than not they were just off enjoying themselves. I’m uncertain if we were ever meant to be governed so strictly by time as much as we are, that a means of success has become how much you can fit into one day. When we really think about it, shouldn’t it be the opposite? And come to think of it, the best times of our lives were probably the most unplanned, give-a-shit-about-time decisions we’ve made. It could be argued that learning how to better perceive something as complex as time, is as much about knowing when not to perceive it at all.
On a world stage, we used to track time with natural elements like the sun and moon. This meant that everywhere had varying experiences of time. In 1847 the Railway Clearing House adopted GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) as the standard across Britain. In 1884, the rest of the world pinned their time zones to the same measure. Within one generation, humans stopped linking time to nature and actually conceived of their own way of defining it. On the timeline of human evolution, this has only just happened. On reflection, it's quite a monumental event for the world to agree on a single reference point for something as integral to life as time. For me, it shows that time is not only a highly tangible and ever evolving subject, but that conversely many people are born in the modern world with a pre-acceptance of the subject. Really at no point in your life are you strongly challenged in your understanding or perception of time. The parallels run deep here with Tarkovsky: all of his films predominantly take place within nature (bar Solaris, which although mainly set on a space station has one of the most beautiful opening shots of nature in a film I have seen). Natural phenomena often dictate the rhythm and therefore feeling of time within his films, furthering this disconnect from the usual way we experience time.
That’s what I love about Tarkovsky. It seemed all he thought about was his own perception of time. So much so, he wrote a book called Sculpting In Time. Sharing the title of the book, sculpting in time is his definition of what a film director does. Like a painter who uses paints to achieve their vision, filmmakers use time to create their films. In the case of Tarkovsky, time is something that he sculpted and embedded into the story and atmosphere of all his films, you can feel it living within every single frame. So much so that Stalker (1979, my personal favourite) has just 142 cuts, over 163 minutes of film.
I like this phrase, Sculpting In Time. Maybe it's because it makes me feel like I have some control over it, that in some small way I can affect its course in my favour. The original Russian text can also be translated as Imprinted Time which I might even prefer. It makes me feel that I’ve done something worthwhile, something that fills my soul so much so it’s imprinted in my memory, in my own timeline. Exactly as a filmmaker captures and imprints a unique, elusive moment onto a roll of film.
I find it fitting that Tarkovsky was not a fan of the technique of montage (defined as the technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate sections of film to form a continuous whole). He felt that the time given to each section was so inconsequential it did not have an effect on the audience, that there was no ‘air’, no elusiveness to be captivating. I find this to be parallel to how we lived our lives a few short months ago before lockdown. Compressing our time with so many events, that there was no space for anything to be captivating beyond the short amount of time or attention we allowed it to have. There’s so much to be experienced in giving things the time they deserve, whatever they might be, however short or long, however seemingly trivial or everyday.
Now with the world, second-wave-pending, seemingly coming out of lockdown, as the calendars, emails and schedules undoubtedly fill up the moment we’re unlocked, remember that there is much to be had by not always bowing to the usual time keepers that run our lives. Don’t forget this short period that you became awoken to your perception of time and all the worthwhile things achieved because of it. Anyone who says that it’s better to pack lots in, have zest and go for it, or who says to slow down, be methodical and have intent behind all you do are perhaps both wrong. To have any control of your time is to remember to even perceive it, and in doing so you’ll find your own rhythm, one that isn’t dictated wholly by everyone (and everything) else.
By the way, don’t worry about letting me know which day of the week it is. Come to think of it, it’s probably better I don’t know. Let’s just say...it's a Sunday.