'Cutting Across Time: Oblique Editing in Arrival' examines the technical challenges of adapting into film the premise of Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life, a fictional memoir of a linguist who experiences a novel form of time travel: as she learns to decode the tense structure of an alien ideographic language, the protagonist, Louise, is presented with visions of a daughter she has yet to conceive and who, paradoxically, has already died. These 'future memories' are symptomatic of—and sympathetic with—what Anne Carruthers calls the 'split and decentered' experience of pregnant embodiment, 'because it is both understood to have happened and "not-yet" happened to Louise’s body' (324). Our video essay advances Carruthers’s thesis by demonstrating how this embodied form of time travel similarly resides in the rhetoric of the visual field. Prompted by Tijana Mamula’s observation that Villeneuve equates the alien language with cinematic language (543), the video essay examines Arrival’s departure from the conventional wisdom that films, in Béla Balázs’s words, 'show only the present—they cannot express either a past or a future tense'. We argue that as a film image, the child-vision articulates the grammatical realm of the 'futur antérieur': in Roland Barthes’s formulation, 'this has been and this will be'. Louise can not only grasp the future, but must reach beyond it to a future past. This torsion of multiple tenses contained within the film image generates Arrival’s temporal and emotional ambivalence.
The video essay opens with a split-screen presentation of Arrival’s opening and closing montage sequences. The composition of these sequences—with soft light filters, shallow focus and haunting score—ostensibly presents moments of Louise’s life with her daughter as flashback and flashforward. The split screen, however, disrupts a straight-forward or causal reading of these sequences. While the closing montage of Louise’s familial life subsequent to the aliens’ departure seemingly functions as epilogue, its relation to the opening sequence is not sequential. To treat this parting glimpse into Louise’s future as a simple flash-forward is to neglect not only the narrative complexity of the film, but the existential dilemma of linear existence made painfully aware to Louise through her relationship with her unborn child. When she asks her future partner, Ian, in the closing sequence 'If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?' the question has already been answered in images of her child, who, as her palindromic name 'Hannah' suggests, exists in both sequences to Louise and the viewer in the future anterior. Rewinding Louise’s tortuous passage through the circular hospital corridors, the video essay 'walks back' with Louise through her enigmatic statement about temporal and narrative ambiguity: 'now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings anymore'.
The remainder of the video essay focuses on two sequences that depict the operation of the film’s compound tense. First, the 'Time Bomb' sequence employs cross-cutting, an editing technique that gives the audience alternating glimpses of events happening concurrently in separate spaces, building suspense with the anticipation that these events will intersect in the same time-space. Conveyed by the bomb’s digital timer, the count-down binds together these spaces, and, leveraging one against the other, ratchets up the sense of urgency in the knowledge that time is of the essence. While building prolepsis into the diegetic flow of the action sequence, cross-cutting nonetheless sustains the illusion of continuity, an illusion we 'explode' in our video essay through a split-screen rendering of the simultaneous actions occurring inside and outside of the alien craft. We further delay this forward momentum by defusing the time-bomb with reverse-motion photography, returning Louise to the interior of the spaceship where she, amidst this drama, writes a 'semagram'—the film’s emblem of compound temporality—which triggers proleptic memories of Hannah. The propulsive shuttle between two spaces in one time that produces the drama of cross-cutting gives way to what we call 'oblique' editing, which generates the paradox of two times inhabiting one space. The digital timer’s inexorable countdown (which we reverse and destabilize) belies the complex experience of time expressed by the semagram, whose circular form exposes Louise to her future anterior life with her daughter.
We conclude by elucidating the mechanics of oblique editing in Louise’s 'processing' scene. Her diagonal cut into a semagram produces a montage sequence of Hannah, a meta-cinematic gesture that cuts across concerns of plot to expose the compound nature of time that Louise extracts from the alien language. Hannah holds up for inspection a caterpillar; its backward arch resembles the whiskered curl of the semagram Louise has just dissected, the graphic match drawing Hannah into the present as pure visual form. We argue through the film’s own sensual grammar that Louise is no passive spectator of a future that 'arrives' through her examination of the aliens’ visual language, but is herself a film editor who actively and purposefully 'cuts' her daughter into the present through the principle of montage. By arresting the present to offer the future a glimpse of its past, these gestures invite us to expose the cinematic image to its own future anteriority.
Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016. Paramount.
Balázs, Béla. 1972. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. Translated by Edith Bone, Arno P.
Barthes, Roland. 1982. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang.
Carruthers, Anne. 2018. 'Temporality, Reproduction and the Not-Yet in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival', Film-Philosophy, vol. 22, no. 3, 2018, pp. 321-39. doi: 10.3366/film.2018.0083
Chiang, Ted. 2016. 'The Story of Your Life', Stories of Your Life and Others, Vintage Books.
Mamula, Tijana. 2018. 'Denis Villeneuve, Film Theorist; Or, Cinema’s Arrival in a Multilingual World', Screen, vol. 59, no.4, 2018, pp. 542-51. doi: 10.1093/screen/hjy053
Gregory Brophy and Shawn Malley teach literature and film in the department of English at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Experimenting with team-based pedagogy and its potential for co-authorship, they are currently working on a videographic book, entitled Adaptive Forms: Videographic Criticism and Contemporary Science Fiction Film, forthcoming at Lever Press in 2024.
Brophy and Malley have jointly published 'Unsettling Pedagogy: Sifting the Midden Heaps of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9' (Science Fiction Film and Television, 2020), and ‘"There is no Time": Parsing the Future Perfect in Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival' (Literature/Film Quarterly, Winter 2023). Brophy’s research spans film and literature, including work recently published in The New Review of Film and Television (Spring 2021), Victorian Review (Spring 2020) and The Journal of Victorian Culture (October 2019). Malley includes among his publications on science fiction film and visual media Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television (Liverpool University Press, 2018).