Five Notes on Time, Space, and the Frame

Curator's Note

1. It has not always been appreciated how much Jean-Luc Godard’s late work remains indebted to a systematic reworking of the codes and conventions of Hollywood cinema. In his little-seen but extraordinary 1991 film, Allemagne 90 neuf zero, we follow Lemmy Caution—still played by Eddie Constantine (a quarter century after the end of Alphaville [1965])—as he moves across the recently unified Berlin. At one point, having entered the West, he sees two women exit a cab and walk off-screen right toward a hotel. As they do so, Caution turns to look at them, and Godard inserts a shot from F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) in which two women exit a hotel and walk towards the camera, accompanied by Emil Jannings’s ill-fated doorman.

As with much of Godard, the temptation is to move quickly into large-scale interpretation.[1] But I want to focus on the details of the sequence. Despite the difference in image quality, and the shift from color to black-and-white, the placement of the clip into Allemagne 90 neuf zéro feels natural and seamless because Godard employs one of the most familiar and basic of all cinematic techniques, a point-of-view structure that “sutures” the shot into the world of the film. Caution looks off to the right, and Godard shows us what he sees. And what he “sees” is a scene from a film made in the 1920s.

The cut raises, or ought to raise, a question: Where is the scene shown in the clip? The intuitive answer, I take it, is to say that the events shown in the clip are located in a vaguely defined but clearly present “off-screen space” with respect to the initiating shot of Caution. But something different is going on in Godard’s use of the off-screen, since the jump in time from 1990 to 1924 is much more prominent than the shift in space. The appropriate question to ask of the clip from Der letzte Mann, then, is not “Where is it?” but rather “When is it?” In effect, Godard mimics the logic of off-screen space but substitutes time as the relevant variable. I want to suggest that this is an example of what we might call “off-screen time.”

My proposal here is that off-screen time is an intuitive yet little discussed aspect of the grammar of moving-image media.


2. To the extent that it has been used in criticism, off-screen time is usually employed to describe events in movies that we do not see—it is, as Scott Robert Olson notes, “the narrative apparatus through which detail is left out.”[2]

My interest here is less about narrative and narration than about the grammar of film form. Take an early scene in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), where Noodles returns to New York. Wandering through the restaurant of an old acquaintance, he eventually goes into the restroom and stands on top of the toilet, removing a small section of the wall above it; a hole is visible, light from the other side of the wall shining onto his face. A cut takes us to a shot from the other side of the wall, showing his eyes framed through the hole, as if he were looking at something, and there is a cut to a reverse shot to show what he sees. But what he sees is not so much another space as another time: a young woman (Deborah) practicing ballet on a platform.

The use of off-screen time is fairly evident here. As Noodles looks through the hole in the wall, what he sees is not, or not just, the connected space of the storeroom. The cut, following the logic of his gaze, cues us to read this as belonging to his memory. This kind of structure is also what we find in Sunrise (1927), where the revelation of the past—the now-absent happiness of the couple—is heralded by a look off-screen that functions as a look back into time.


3. Other uses of off-screen time proliferate. One involves cross-cutting, in which we move between multiple lines of action. These lines of action are typically described as happening at the same time, or perhaps sequentially: space is privileged as a variable (how far away are the rescuers?). Yet there is an important temporal dimension that is fundamental to the construction of suspense. In Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913), for example, it is hard to believe that the husband can steal a car and drive home in the time it takes for the tramp to climb the stairs to the room where the wife is hiding with the child. In The Lonedale Operator (1912), the engineer has to travel (impossibly) between two distant stations in the time it takes the thieves to move through two doors. These are sequences built on temporal impossibility. It’s not just that we’re uncertain as to when the rescue might arrive; the lines of action operate on different temporal logics, different kinds of temporality. Alternating montage, in this sense, depends on the play between times, as if the lines of action stood in a relation of off-screen time with respect to one another.

Or take camera movement. At one point in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), the camera pans away from Locke, who is standing at a window and listening to a recording of an earlier conversation with Robertson; it circles around the room and finds him back at the same window—a hidden cut allows the transition to happen—but now in an earlier time, in the midst of the conversation that we had heard the recording of at the beginning of the shot. A similar shot is present in Luchino Visconti’s White Nights (1957), during a conversation between Natalia and Mario on the bridge, when a circular and unbroken pan reveals her encounter with the tenant in the same place at an earlier date. Or there is Notting Hill (Roger Mitchell, 1999), where Will walks through the seasons in his sadness: his movement to the right, tracked by the camera, traverses a range of different times within the same shot, an articulation of the emptiness of time, his indifference to its specificities. We might describe such shots as involving an off-screen time within the frame.


4. In a fairly obvious manner, I have been basing my account of off-screen time on the canonical model of “off-screen space” in Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Praxis. Although he does not phrase it in such terms, Burch’s argument seems to depend heavily on the idea that film is an essentially photographic medium. Writing at the same time as Burch, Stanley Cavell talks about “the implied presence of the rest of the world” that exists outside the frame: “You can always ask, pointing to an object in a photograph—a building, say—what lies behind it, totally obscured by it… You can always ask, of an area photographed, what lies adjacent to that area, beyond the frame.”[3] Within photographic media, off-screen space is always there, outside of what we see.

Initially, this seems to differentiate off-screen space and off-screen time. Where off-screen space involves a necessary continuity across the frame, off-screen time is less an assumed fact; it is, rather, achieved or created in each case. There may be patterns and familiar terms of usage, but its existence outside the frame is far more flexible and uncertain.


5. In this context, I’ve been struck by a feature of the first debates about digital imaging technologies. Around the turn of the millennium, when the first wave of digital theorists got going, it seemed obvious that the central crisis was going to be about the referentiality of the image, namely the crisis of indexicality. Instead, what seems to have come under increasing pressure is the frame itself, the division between on-screen and off. It is a shift highlighted by new technologies of media immersion, from the scale of IMAX (the original posters for Avatar promised that you would “enter the world”) to the eradication of the frame with VR headsets.[4] These forms of immersive experience threaten the conditions that create off-screen space; indeed, they unsettle the very nature of the image as such.

A tension around the frame seems to be manifest elsewhere, and perhaps off-screen time can help us get analytic purchase. Take our smartphone scrolling through Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. We move down—or up—to see what is just off the page, to find what lurks in off-screen space. The “scroll,” noun and verb, is a tantalizing metaphor, suggesting that the rest of the feed is there, that we are simply moving through a pre-existing field of information. This is of course, something like an illusion: the other tweets are called up before and for our eyes, the algorithms working to figure out—from the massive body of potential tweets, our viewing history, and the way we are pausing and moving—what we would actually want to see (and often, as we know, getting it wrong). Our language tells us space when the operative variable is time: the time when the tweets were composed, the time of their recall by the algorithm, and the time involved in the act of scrolling. Is it worth thinking about the tweets we have not yet seen, or the tweets we have just passed, as residing in undefined yet clearly present off-screen time? Does the frame of the (phone) screen create a genuine boundary?

In this light, I find myself wondering if the frame ever mattered in the way we thought it did, and whether the key assumption about photographic media—that it creates the continuous existence of space from within to outside the frame—is in fact true. What if off-screen space only emerges for specific reasons? What if off-screen space was only ever a fluctuating presence in the way that off-screen time is, a standing possibility of moving-image media rather than a necessary and fixed feature?


[1] See Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013): 247-52.

[2] Scott Robert Olson, Hollywood Planet: Global Media and the Competitive Advantage of Narrative Transparency (New York: Routledge, 1999), 82-3.

[3] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed [1971], enlarged edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979): 24, 23.

[4] I am indebted here to the work of Ariel Rogers.

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