During the first half-century of American film history, watching films was largely a cinematic (i.e. social) event. Films rolled according to some pre-ordained (quasi-religious) time schedule operating well beyond the control of the audience. One of the striking facets of the digital age is the new capacity for audiences to manipulate films as emblems of time.
Standard features on DVDs include the ability to manipulate size and aspect ratio. Others include the power to skip to several commentaries on a film being watched, literally opening up multiple narratives or meta-narratives at the same time. One can jump forward or backward in the diegesis, skipping whole chunks of the film. And of course, DVD audiences can control film time. Film can be sped up, slowed down, paused, repeated, etc. It goes without saying that digital audiences now have unprecedented access to the previously transcendent authority of the film’s start time.
Several films made in the 1990s seem to subtly reference the changing relationship between watching films and watching time in the digital era. Films like Groundhog Day (1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and Nick of Time (1995) signal America’s realization that some aspects of time are malleable (such as our time-keeping devices which were about to switch from one millennium to another: remember Y2K?) and other aspects of time transcend our human intervention.
In this clip from The Hudsucker Proxy the mechanics of time (a watch and a clock) are constructed in quite a darkly comical way to reference the end of life. Hudsucker’s last minute of life is framed by pre-digital time-keeping devices which made up the very cultural and economic architecture of modern society. Is this clip suggesting that we are able to control time or that we are enslaved by it? Knowing that this film was originally released in the first decade of mainstream DVD technology, what might the filmmakers be suggesting about the ability of home viewers to stop, reverse, or otherwise manipulate film time? What is the film’s attitude concerning our access to pre-digital modes of keeping time through the medium of film?
Visibility of time
Dear Matthew, I was intrigued by your idea of watching time. By this, do you mean being hyper-conscious of time? And/or are you suggesting there is a distinctly visual component at work?
While the movie theater experience allows a spectator to lose oneself (the theatre is dark, daylight/darkness is shut out, there are never clocks on the wall), DVD watching rarely occurs without the visibility of constantly advancing digital numbers. Perhaps there is an anxiety here, because while users have the ability to control all the DVD features you mentioned, they often choose not to.
Last night, a few friends and I watched Robert Rodriguez’s Machete on DVD. We waited until all were assembled to press start. We only pressed stop after the credits rolled, not even when one friend had to grab a drink or another had to use the bathroom. This is one way to interact with DVDs, perhaps an effort to forge a less digital relationship with time…
Time, Death and DVDS
Thanks for your observations. The clip that you've posted is quite intriguing. There is, as you suggest, the potential to control time--in the ability to time one's death. Yet given the majority of the members in the board room are quite old, one knows that they will die soon, there is a lack of control over time. I haven't seen the film I was wondering how it plays out in the rest of the film.
Suzanne's comments are also useful where in certain cases due to habit, desire or anxiety, audiences like to recreate "exhibition" time.
The organization of the DVD, its division into scenes or chapters and in the case of Indian commercial films, songs, does seem to invite a differernt temporal engagement with the film. Certainly for those of us who teach or research film, it's made it infinitely easier to jump over time.
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