In the early days of cinema, moving images were often perceived as something akin to a magic trick. Most likely this had something to do with the veracity of the images; audiences famously bolted out of a room when a train drove straight toward the lens. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” yet that is not quite what is going on here. After all, most people understand how film works, that it is little more than a rapid succession of images. With moving images, the emphasis is not so much on the “magic” as on the “trick”: the movement we see before our eyes is only an implied movement. Our brains fill in the blanks.
Nevertheless, the invention of film, together with Freud’s revolutionary theories of the mind, led philosopher Henri Bergson to evolve a new theory of what he called “psychological time.” Bergson sought to make a distinction between time as discussed in science and time as perceived by human beings. He argued vehemently that a purely scientific notion of time would not suffice. In particular, he was trying to account for the commonplace observation that time can move faster or slower, depending on its observer. Roughly speaking, Bergson stated that—as with the cinema—our life was also merely a succession of moments. The movement we see before our eyes is only implied movement, and our brains fill in the blanks.
It is unlikely that any film could still send whole audiences flying for the exit, or even collectively shock them—like Psycho once did, for example. Nevertheless, we have our own issues: our connections fail, phones die, hard disks crash. Our own existential crises, too: in Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island, the protagonist sits, waiting for a video to load, intently watching the “little spinning circle”: “What if it were just a circle, spinning on my screen, and nothing else? What if the supply-chain, its great bounty, had dried up, or been cut off, or never been connected in the first place?”
Another such a breakdown happened recently as I was watching a documentary called Out of the Marvellous, on the poet Seamus Heaney. The film was nearing the end, and it seemed to be conceding that the end of any film is a death, and that this issue needs to be confronted. So while the camera traversed a snow-covered road, the disembodied voice of Seamus Heaney began to muse on what it means to die. But just then, it all fell apart. The camera skirted forward in fits and starts. Frames were skipped, wedged out of the projection room and banished into hell. Meanwhile, Heaney detailed eternal judgment. My laptop seemed to be crushed by the impetus of the poet’s words, by the speed with which we traveled unto the end of the road, by the weight of the snow. The image stuttered as if we were losing power, freezing at times while the voice of the poet unerringly moved forward.
This breakdown fit so perfectly with the film’s subject matter that I no longer knew what was going on. Was this a technical failure or rather an integral part of the film? It might well have been an artistic choice, a metaphor for death—which is, after all, less the deliberate flick of a switch and more a kind of hardware failure. For a while I dithered over whether I even wanted to know which of the two it was, but in the end I had to find out. I revisited the scene: this time, the camera glided smoothly down the road. A perfectly planned death. What shocked me most was that there had been nothing to revisit; the breakdown, the glitch, was irretrievable.
I’ve written before about the appeal of the livestream, an inherent appeal separable from its particular contents. I quoted Don DeLillo, who wrote of a livestream of a highway somewhere in Finland that it was “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on.” The eerie experience I had with Out of the Marvellous was a bit like that, even though it was not a livestream but recorded video, meticulously calibrated in zeros and ones on hard disks and DVDs all over the world. Nevertheless, while viewing the documentary was not a unique moment per se, through a weakness in whatever link of the chain, it became unique all the same. It became performative, fleeting.
The documentary starts and ends with a road. What happens in-between—the chronological build-up of a life—is contained within these metaphorical bookends. So what happens if you take out a few of the paving stones in between? Is the road still one road, or has it split in two separate entities? Isn’t the point of a road—certainly of a road as metaphor—that it forms an undisturbed line from one place to another? Surely this is the idea of life as a road, that it literally represents a lifeline from being born to dying. Undoubtedly this metaphor can bear the inevitable bumps in the pavement everyone encounters; what it cannot bear is for the road to temporarily disappear. That would be a kind of magic trick, or a resurrection even: the feat of being, then not being, then being again.
The documentary is named after and opens with an excerpt from Heaney’s poem “Lightenings viii”:
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
What is so moving in this poem is that the banal has become the marvellous, and vice-versa. The “marvellous” referred to is the quotidian monastic life the man “climbed back out of,” not the unlikely spectacle of a ship sailing through the air. The man, according to Heaney, is like “a successful Orpheus”: he goes into the otherworld and retrieves what he set out for. He has the power to step in and out of his life, to go temporarily off-road; yet, it is not a voluntary power—it is the doings of an anchor, a force out of his control. It is a glitch that carries him down from his world and into ours. Moreover, it is the kindness of strangers that brings him back home. As we might expect, then, there is little volition in not-being.
Russell Hoban once wrote a novel set in a near future, revolving around a technology called “flicker drive”: a way of teleporting near-instantaneously around the galaxy, based on the discovery that people “flicker” or oscillate; we are constantly here, then not here:
He wired both rat and cage to a camera with a nanosecond quartz flash, the circuit that activated the camera being completed only in the intervals in zoetic and inanimate currents; Lossiter’s film showed frame after frame of empty laboratory table, thereby demonstrating that life and matter are not continuous but intermittent, a nonlinear alternation of being and nonbeing at varying frequencies in the ultraband.
There is more than a nod to Bergson’s philosophy in Hoban’s words—yet he is attempting to reify the idea, to turn it from a psychological reality into a physical one. Loosely inspired by the zanier theories of quantum physics, “flicker drive” as a concept borders on the grotesque, yet it fascinates. I think of Hoban’s frames of nonbeing as the moments in which Zeno’s paradoxical arrow moves forward; unaccountable, off-road moments. They are the “marvellous” into which we are sometimes borne. For Hoban, “it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of the mystery in which we are never allowed to rest.”
Yet what I experienced when the film faltered was not spaces of black; rather, it was what might be termed intercessional time. The road was still there on my screen—the camera had merely ceased to move, or so it seemed. Through the stillness, Heaney’s voice carefully strode ahead, exploring the marvellous. He would do so—and we would as well—in the full knowledge that the respite was temporary, and all the better for it; that we are “never allowed to rest” in it is after all precisely what creates the mystery. For an incalculable instance, Heaney and I flickered about, freed from the constraints of time and space, before returning back “into the heartland of the ordinary,” as Heaney would write in a later poem. We were “nine-to-five [men] who had seen poetry.”
Perhaps this is just one more thing technology hath wrought: making the irretrievable poetic—for crucially, in Bergson’s theory, “moments” only become moments after the fact. No one experiences the present as a succession of moments. But in an on-demand media landscape with endless storage capacities and a camera always at hand, more of these moments might come into being after the fact, because they are codified and classified somewhere. Technology does virtually the same thing Hoban tried to do to “psychological time”: give it a physical reality.
If poetry indeed happens in the otherworld—in the spaces of the black between the succession of moments—then the increased audiovisual registration of our lives should give us pause. Perhaps we need to burrow, like moles, back into the black and let the sands of time slip through our hands again—if only every once in a while.