December 7, 2009

It's About Time: A Murky Take on a Familiar Concept

Documentary Time: Film and Phenomenology
From the Visible Evidence Series
by Malin Wahlberg
University of Minnesota Press
192 pages

The older I get, the more important the concept of time becomes. Are we humans the only creatures on earth who perceive time and think about it as an intellectual and academic exercise? As I began to (attempt) to read Malin Wahlberg's book on documentary time, I overheard an interview on NPR about dogs. Apparently, they experience time through their nose; they literally "smell" time. Given the difficulty I was having getting past the first chapter, "The Phenomenology of Image and Time," I began to wish I could just smell my way through this book and, magically, these complex and demanding ideas would enter my brain.

 "Who is your target audience?" is one of the first questions I ask documentary filmmakers who come to me for guidance on developing a business plan and treatment for their film projects. In answering that question for Wahlberg's book, I would have to say it is an extremely rarified audience, as only those folks with a thorough grounding in philosophy, and an in-depth knowledge of existentialism, semiotics, post-structuralism and the classical phenomenology of Husserel will be able to derive much from these pages.

It was very difficult for me to determine what, if any, of the ideas in this book sprung from the mind of Malin Wahlberg, as nearly every page had multiple references to some great thinker that I had either never heard of or never read. The first sentence of the introduction begins, "Jacques Aumont once suggested...," moving on to, "...Gilles Deleuze recognized..."... "Pierre Bourdieu's uncompromising opinion..."..."Paul Ricoeur provided an ongoing hermeneutic approach..."..."Mary Ann Doane's the Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive is... "...associated with the theory of Christian Metz..."..."Jean-Marie Schaeffer provides a third perspective..."... "...issues that are in sync with those of Emmanuel Lévinas..."..."Laura  U. Marks addresses the phenomenology and semiotics of haptic visuality..." ..."Jean Epstein transformed..."..."...most notably Maurice Merleau-Ponty"..."In Allen Casebier's Film and Phenomenology: Toward a Realist Theory of Cinematic Representation, the early work of Husserel..."..."With reference to Jean-Pierre Meunier (a Belgian psychologist heavily influenced..."...

These represent just a selection of references from the first 15 pages of the book. I flipped through the remaining 155 pages (including the notes section and the index) with a sense of dread.

In the introduction, when I came upon a clear, unambiguous statement about the subject of this book-i.e. "The chapters in this book provide a context and problem-oriented discussion on the aesthetics and experience of image and time."--I would mark it with a giant asterisk: "FINALLY! A sentence I understood." My brain relaxed and I began to think I might be able to eke something out of this after all.

But beyond the continued references to philosophers and theorists whose work I had only the most cursory knowledge of was the use of words that were, on the surface, simple, but my understanding of them was opaque--such as "a pro-filmic space." That stopped me, once again, in my tracks. What, I asked myself, is a "pro-filmic space"? Is it a movie studio? Is it a place where you have permission to film? Or is it just a place, a space where something is happening that was filmed...coincidentally?

Chapter 3, "Frame-Breaking Events and Motifs Beyond Representation," begins with the following sentence: "The following sections will focus on the time-image and the trace as events of defamiliarization or visceral chock, consequently upsetting both film viewing and any presumed analogy between the phenomenology of cinema and the phenomenology of time experience." Wahlberg goes on to reference Maurice Merleau-Ponty with several annotated sentences, which translate in my brain to gobbledygook, but ends up with a statement that borders on the simplistic: "How is it that some sequences, camera movements and so forth strike us as either pleasant or disturbingly hard to watch?" So what's it going to be? Convoluted intellectualism or the reverse?

However, it was also in Chapter 3 when Wahlberg took on one of the more accessible and compelling concepts of the book--the classical problem of image and death. "The philosophy of time is intrinsically related to and propelled by human's awareness of his or her death. Ever since the execution genre of classical cinema, new modes of death in moving images have been added, although the framing of somebody actually dying or being killed remains highly provocative." It is further along in this chapter where the ethics of recording death are covered as is reference to The Zapruder Film "with its amateur record of Kennedy's assassination offers a famous illustration of human death as cinematic metamorphosis....Death is a motif that is both excessively visual and impossible to represent." It is here that Wahlberg recalls the visual records of September 11, 2001, a fitting example of the quoted statement from Chapter 3.

In the final chapters, Wahlberg uses familiar historical events that have been visually documented, to discuss imagery, time and contemporary media. I found this device was helpful in grasping the meaning behind the words. The book was not completely devoid of rewards, but getting through it presented many intellectual challenges, which I tried to overcome.

The battle we humans wage with time is one we can't win, but we never cease trying to understand it in the hope we can, by some great stroke of good fortune, transcend it.

Philosophy and those who practice it are presumably providing tools for the rest of us to understand the human condition. But if Malin Wahlberg's intent is to provide one of those tools to assist us in understanding the human condition through the analysis of documentary film, I'd suggest this book needs to be reworked.           

Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.