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Time is valuable. Time is Money. Time is precious. We’ve all heard the sayings, so much so that they have almost become a cliché. Personally if someone asks me as a Swiss-watchmaker for my favourite time related quote, I am not drawn to philosophers or mathematicians, instead I am immediately transported to Casablanca and hearing the cool delivery of Bogey’s Rick Blaine give the instruction “Sam, Play As Time Goes by”.
Unlike treasured gems, prized possessions, and precious metals time can’t be purchased, earned, or collected. We either use it or lose it. For many of us, it seems there aren’t enough hours in a day, however in the hands of filmmakers, time is a tool. Just like the Swiss watch industry, precision is everything, every cog and component lovingly pieced together to create something beautiful. From Akira Kurosawa to Christopher Nolan, the silver screen provides these artists a canvas to do the impossible, quite simply they are able to manipulate time. They create worlds where you can watch 100 years flash before your eyes in a 20 second montage or one second artistically slowed down to 1 hour. Whether you are seeing 2 people’s relationship develop over the course of 30 years or you are watching 1000 soldiers storm the beach of Normandy in real time, the magic-trick of cinema has worked on you. You are invested.
To me the cinema has always been a refuge, a place where you can switch off your phone, shut yourself away from the social media machine and forget about the world around you because from the moment the lights go down, the only thing that matters is the journey you are about to go on.
Over the years, popcorn in hand, I have witnessed the dawn of time, I have seen people travel back in time, I have been shown what the technologies in the year 2049 look like, I have seen a man stop time and I have of course been sent back to the future. From hidden gems to timeless classics, one thing is for sure, if you have an interest in the study of horology or the art of filmmaking, this blog will not be a waste of your time.
In the Swiss watch industry I have been fortunate to meet many interesting people, when they hear about my profession the conversation inevitably goes to what is sat on their wrist. Watches are not just a device to tell time, they are a conversation piece, they have stories attached and are often handed down as heirlooms through the generations to keep the memory of a certain someone alive. A 100 year old watch can tell us its entire life story without saying a single word, every little imperfection or scratch has history attached, the smell of the leather on the strap can evoke memories of good times, hardship or even world war. As a result, we develop a relationship with a watch in the same way we would with a family member and should the watch ever stop, we feel we have to do everything to get it ticking again, by saving its life the memories will never die.
It’s a rare feeling when a film can make you feel the exact same way, in this instance there is no greater example than Disney Pixar’s UP (2009). The film opens and we are introduced to two characters Karl and Ellie. What follows is a beautifully animated story of their relationship, we watch them meet as kids dreaming of going on adventures together, we see them get married, buy their first house, suffer a devastating loss at childbirth, retire together in their old age and then suddenly it happens. Ellie gets sick and after a short illness passes away, leaving Karl alone in their house in his eighties glancing over at the armchair that once contained his beloved wife. A film with great story telling will always result in the audience being invested in a relationship, in this case as a first time viewer I sat in the audience with tears running down my face, glad that the film was in 3D meaning I was camouflaged behind the glasses. Ellies loss is even more impactful because you feel like you have lived the whole 60 year relationship with them, however the true magic trick that stands this film apart from any other example is that this entire sequence is presented to us with not one word of dialogue and more impressively when I glanced down at my watch I realised that the movie had only been playing for 6 minutes.
Time is relative, despite the fact that the entire world live their life by the same 24 hour clock, divided into hours and minutes we have all at one point or another experienced moments where time appears to stand still or speed up depending on our circumstances at that moment. A common example of this would be “clock watching” in an office, you glance at the time and see that it is 4pm, you finish at 5pm, you then proceed to work for what feels like 30 minutes doing reports or even typing this blog, look up and it’s still 4pm. On the reverse side, you could attend an all night rave headlined by Red Rum Club, the music booming and the adrenaline pumping resulting in you looking at your watch the following morning and thinking, “where did that night go”?
Time Paradoxes in real life are fascinating, especially to someone in the Swiss watchmaking industry. Many theories exist to help us try to better understand the reasons behind this phenomenon with research completed by acclaimed astronomers and critical thinkers, however filmmakers take a different approach. They too have the mind of philosophers, but unlike the textbooks, they have the unique ability to take these theories and present them to us visually in the form of a gripping story and allow us as an audience to change our perception of the overall question. From “Why?” to “What If?”.
Christopher Nolan is in my opinion the most interesting director of the 21st century. Many people will be aware of Nolan’s work as he has a tendency to make big budget Hollywood blockbusters that break box office records, many people consider him to be the “new Spielberg” which is possibly the highest compliment anyone in his field can be given. Although to casual viewers the films may appear to be nothing more than Batman punching the Joker, each one of Nolan’s films has a deeply personal feel to it. Watching one of his movies you get the sense that he has made this for himself, not the audience and its up to us as viewers to keep up with his mind and his theories, he will not spell it out for you in a traditional Hollywood way. In a world where almost every big movie is some form of remake or retelling of classic I.P, Nolan’s fondness for non-linear storytelling and fascination of time philosophy and paradoxes have allowed him to create visually stunning original works that will, if you’ll excuse the pun stand the test of time.
Be it the reverse amnesia driven story telling of Memento (2000), the theory of how time works differently in dreams in Inception (2010) or Tenet’s (2019) impossible to explain Temporal paradox, perception of time has been a handwriting across all of Nolan’s films from the very beginning.
The most effective example of this is Dunkirk (2017) an intense and harrowing film depicting the miraculous evacuation of thousands of British soldiers from the beaches of France during WWII. Following in the footsteps or perhaps even referencing the likes of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1999) or Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) the story is told from 3 points of view. The soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue, the civilian sailboats who are coming to their aid and the RAF spitfire in the skies battling the German Luftwaffe. We get to know characters in each location and as an audience we assume that we are watching the story unfold in real time, as we enter the third act and all the character’s points of view begin to align at the pivotal rescue scene, we suddenly realise that in true Nolan fashion nothing is what it seemed. We learn that the events on the beach have taken place over 1 week, the events on the sea over 1 day and in the air 1 hour. This non-linear presentation while at times confusing, is essential in giving each of the film's three plots the screen time and focus necessary to present the audience their individual roles in evacuation. If told in a strictly chronological manner, then the spitfire contribution would have seemed so much less than that of the civilian boats, which in actuality, is how it appeared to the men stranded on the beach, many of whom criticized the RAF for not doing enough. Plus, by presenting the film in such a chaotic manner, it really does give the feeling that time is relative depending on your point of view. The final master stroke is the soundtrack, Frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer underscores the film with a “ticking sound” throughout its entire duration. Upon first viewing it appears this is used as a tension building device to symbolise that time is running out for the soldiers on the beach, but once you understand the timeline it takes on new meaning. But most interesting of all, it has since been discovered that the sound design is a tick-tock effect woven into the score that originated, fittingly, from Christopher Nolan's own stopwatch.
“Real Time” is one of the most difficult things to master, wherein filmic events are portrayed simultaneous with the viewers’ experiences. For example, if a movie that is shot in real time is two hours long, then the plot of that movie covers two hours of fictional time. This technique can be enforced by varying levels of precision, when done well we feel a deeper connection with the characters than in other films, like a well performed stage play we have been with them every step of their journey. Therefore, we feel a sense of accomplishment when ultimately our protagonist achieves their goal Run Lola Run (1998) or we feel a deeper sense of sadness when everything we have seen them work for over last 2 hours ends in tragedy Birdman (2014).
This method of storytelling has become more prominent in recent years, with the world moving so fast and so much content being readily available, studios understand that people’s time is precious and they need to do something different with their techniques in order to get maximum audience investment. This has even began to make its way into some television shows, such as 24 (2001-2010), every minute of screen time is a minute of real time, ignoring the fact that we never see Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer eat or go to the toilet we still relate to him as a man who has had a very long day and we have been there the entire time.
Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rope (1948) is the best example of a film you can “set your watch to”. The plot centres around two men attempting to prove they have committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death. Not only does the entire story take place in real time but the 1 hour 20 min film is seemingly presented as one continuous take. Hitchcock is known as “The master of suspense” therefore he knows how to manipulate an audience, with this film he abandons any editing or camera tricks (unless you are eagle eyed and spot the disguised cuts to change film reels) and opts to let time be the main tension building device. An audience watching Rope for the first time has a rare film viewing experience, we never miss an expression on the character’s faces, we never wonder what’s happening in another scene or another location. By shooting the film as a stage play and letting the entire 80 minutes playout in real time Hitchcock creates a time capsule. By the conclusion of the picture, when Jimmy Stewart’s college professor gets wise to what we as an audience have known all along you are truly on the edge of your seat and as the credits role you realise that was literally time well spent.
At TRIBUS we use the phrase “Change Your Perception of Time” this has been interpreted in many different ways. People have asked us, is it changing the way we think of the Swiss watch industry? Is it changing our perception of what a watch brand should look like or behave? Or is it changing how we see time in general? … the answer is all of the above. Like the great films and filmmakers I have just paid tribute to, we too are artists in our own field and we want you to ask these questions and come up with your own answers. Will anyone ever have a definitive one? … only time will tell.
A great and thoughtful article Jonny. Time being the only thing we can’t buy or can we?
Being a movie and watch enthusiast I found this to be a throughly enjoyable read. It’s a clever use of time.