Time in the Movies

John August on film time:

In movies, unless something seems wildly impossible — driving from LA to New York in an hour — audiences are extremely forgiving about time, particularly if overall story logic seems to be consistent. In many of my favorite movies, I couldn’t tell you how many hours or days or months have elapsed in story time.

When movies work, you don’t care.

He brings up the point of temporal space in reference to a recently reprinted article from the September 2002 issue of Scientific American. In an aside to Antonio R. Damasio’s “Remembering When,” the author discusses the use of time in Hitchcock’s Rope. Damasio tries to explain how 25 minutes of the film are missing as Hitchcock said on record that story takes place over 105 minutes but the film only runs for 80.

I’m with August, naturally, who is coming at this from a filmmaking perspective instead of a neurological one. Damasio’s piece isn’t without some great arguments though:

The emotional content of the material may also extend time. When we are uncomfortable or worried, we often experience time more slowly because we focus on negative images associated with our anxiety. Studies in my laboratory show that the brain generates images at faster rates when we are experiencing positive emotions (perhaps this is why time flies when we’re having fun) and reduces the rate of image making during negative emotions. On a recent flight with heavy turbulence, for instance, I experienced the passage of time as achingly slow because my attention was directed to the discomfort of the experience. Perhaps the unpleasantness of the situation in Rope similarly conspires to stretch time.

Now that blows my mind a little.

SA’s new special issue in which this article appears, A Matter of Time, looks well worth the few bucks they’re asking for it.