Well before Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit was released, it had already caused controversy among tentative fans due to two disclosed revelations. The first is a decision taken by the director to divide J.R.R. Tolkien’s book into three back-to-back epics. Considering the text itself is shorter than any of the books in the Lord of the Rings series – each of which were made into three-hour-plus films by Jackson – the announcement was met with confusion. Purists of Jackson’s highly respected Lord of the Rings series quickly brought about conspiracies of a money-grabbing film studio, and unwanted comparisons with the three clunky Star Wars prequels seemed unfortunately apt. The second was an innovation the film is introducing whereby it is recorded at the radical new speed of 48 frames-per-second – twice the industry standard. Oddly, this bid for further clarity and fluidity of picture quality was pandered by an audience shown ten minutes of the film at the CinemaCorn event in Las Vegas last March: “Moaners argued that the super-sharp, hyper-real images suggested sports broadcasts on high-definition television.”
Both issues feed an interesting experiment when we compare with Douglas Gordon’s 1993 art-work 24 Hour Psycho. As can be gleaned from the title, the work is a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller masterpiece Psycho slowed down to last a full 24 hours. The original film having been recorded at what is still the standard rate today – 24 frames-per-second – and having a duration of 109 minutes, this leaves the resulting frame-rate at 1.8 frames-per-second, allowing us, for about half a second, to clearly see and comprehend each frame, a novelty unheard of in contemporary cinema especially now with The Hobbit’s almighty new frame-rate. (You can get an idea of what it looks like here.) In order to facilitate the same experience of The Hobbit’s individual frames – considering the first film’s proposed length of 166 minutes and, indeed, to include the entire series considering it is based on a relatively concise story – the resulting piece would probably need to acquire the title 9 Day Hobbit. On an analytical level, though, both issues are also relevant as themes raised by 24 Hour Psycho. Both concern the notion of time in cinema – one on a narrative level and one on a formal level. The decision to expand The Hobbit was made not as a money-making venture but to pay more respect, for once, to the novel’s narrative (Palmer 2012), as opposed to the often unwelcome common practice of condensing a larger novel into a commercially accessible average-length film. Psycho is a fitting centre-piece for Gordon’s work because it itself challenged the conventions of cinematic narrative structure. The star, Janet Leigh, is killed off barely halfway through the film, an action traditionally reserved for the denouement. In 24 Hour Psycho, “theatrical elements such as suspense, climax, turning-point, and conclusion become quite abstract”, and memorable scenes – such as Leigh’s murder in the shower – become events whose times were advertised (Biesenbach 2006: 14). Also, “slowness undercuts our expectations, even as it ratchets up the idea of suspense to a level approaching absurdity” (Ferguson 2001: 16).
Klaus Beisenbach notes how 24 Hour Psycho brings to light French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of “duration,” which is made perceptible in cinema. Physical time “can be measured with a watch or movement of the sun,” whereas duration “unfolds in the unconscious and is independent of surrounding space […] a past summer could seem long or short depending on one’s memories of it. A single second can be etched in the memory.” Gordon’s work exposes “Psycho’s subliminal, nearly imperceptible moments,” also stripping back the narrative’s condensing of time to the raw “physical time” of the frame-rate (Beisenbach 2006: 15). Interestingly, if we look at Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), the director employs the concept of cinematic “duration” in a way which also presents the viewer with the raw material of film through use of the freeze-frame. Many occur at certain points in the life of Henry Hill, the young gangster rising through the ranks, and their significance, says Scorsese, is that they are markers of “the sort of things that make an imprint” on his life. The screen freezes momentarily, for instance, as Henry is being beaten by his father, or as he sees a dead body for the first time (quoted from Thompson and Ian Christie [eds] 1989: 154). Undoubtedly, this resonates with the split-second “etched in the memory” that Beisenbach speaks of and is a cinematic technique being used to portray this sense of “duration.” But it is also an example of a single frame, amid the tens of thousands that indiscernibly make up a film, being exposed to the audience. Contemporary, high-quality films such as The Hobbit are simply too fast and pristine to crash to this absolute stop. The contemporary equivalent to the freeze-frame is something like what we see in The Matrix (1999): action that slows down almost to a halt but not due to any change in frame-rate. Rather, it is bullet-time CGI effects, and we expect the camera to impossibly revolve and show us new angles of the stalled subject-matter. It seems contemporary cinema, in its pace, is running away from the film’s all too unexciting elements of the completely still image.
This is a shame when we consider what is achieved in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). The entire story is told by a narrator while the visual elements consist almost completely of still images set two or three seconds apart. Here, the issue of time arises consistently in analysis, beginning with the plot which concerns a prisoner of war being subjected to various torturous experiments in time-travel. The antithesis to The Hobbit, the film technically labours to a frame-rate of just half a frame-per-second, but – also conversely to The Hobbit – it manages to condense a hugely complex narrative into just twenty eight minutes. In that time, our futuristic protagonist is tossed back and forth in time like a pendulum; falls in love with a woman from the past and leaves her; acquires a power source from the future to rebuild his own destroyed present and witnesses his own death. This is possible due perhaps to Roland Barthes’ ideas of the limitless connotative power of the photograph. In one scene in La Jetée, for instance, an entire utopian, technologically advanced future is understood thanks to a limited view of several characters who wear a tiny, Star Trek-like bead on their foreheads. In this way, La Jetée can avoid conventional narrative structure – the unveiling of a spectacular future Paris would be hard to resist for a contemporary special-effects artist – but also allude to conventional cinematic mythology. In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes talks of how a photograph of his mother in life forms an unshakeable link with the occasion of her death: “There is no need for me to experience a body in order for me to experience this vertigo of time defeated” (Barthes 1981: 96, 97). This can also be said about the famous image of the girl from the protagonist’s childhood at the start of La Jetée. This beautiful moment instead connotes melancholia and becomes a lament for love lost. And, as Scorsese’s freeze-frames do for Henry Hill, the character is inescapably burned by the image, here making him a prime candidate for the time-travel experiments.
In 24 Hour Psycho, it was an aim of Douglas Gordon’s to likewise exploit our own memory of Hitchcock’s film. He wanted the viewer to be “catapulted back into the past by his recollection of the original” and also “drawn into the future by his expectations of an already familiar narrative” (Ferguson 2001: 16). What initiates this is the slowness but also perhaps the fact that these are now a series of still images and we experience visions of our past as photographic icons, the same way as La Jetée’s protagonist. At this speed, we can also understand Walter Benjamin’s theory around the dynamics of film: “the way each single image is understood seems prescribed by the sequence of all the preceding images.” An equivalent to this, for Benjamin, is the fact that a photograph requires a caption to be understood (Benjamin 2002: 108). This relationship is clearly illustrated in La Jetée and Goodfellas’ freeze-frames and also reveals the limitations of the technique. Without a narrator to supply a “caption”, or explanation, to the images, the viewer would be lost; something taken care of in The Hobbit by the high-speed frame-rate: providing the action in which the story is told.
James Monaco questions whether the individual frame is something films must venerate: “It would seem that a real science of film, as in physics, would depend on our being able to define the smallest unit of construction. We can do that technically, at least for the image: it is the single frame. But this is certainly not the smallest unit of meaning.” In film, the meaning doesn’t lie in the signifier, because this is all but equal to the signified (Monaco 2000: 160). Instead, it is found in creative depictions of the world, through editing and camera angles, rather than experimenting with the materiality of the roll of film. As an early critic, Siegried Kracaeur, explains: film is “uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality, and, hence, gravitates towards it” (quoted in Monaco 2000: 399). But opponents to The Hobbit’s hyper-real frame-rate would tend more towards the view of the even earlier critic Rudolf Arnheim: “the closer film comes to reproducing reality, the less room there is in which the artist can create his effects” (quoted in Monaco 2000: 397). Marker, Scorsese and Gordon show sympathy with this view in their use of the still frame, but Stan Brakhage, an avant-garde film-maker of the sixties and seventies, complied with Arnheim’s statement in another way entirely: by removing the film’s function as a reproducer of reality. His film Mothlight (1963) involved the process of pressing moth wings between strips of Mylar film to comprise the frames. The resulting footage is a movie which visibly exposes the frame as both the physical structure of the film and a versatile artistic medium in itself, achieving the same feat as 24 Hour Psycho but, remarkably, using the standard speed. Even so, each wing is still clearly comprehensible, composed as they may be of extremely intricate patterns, and this suggests that, even in the hyper-real contemporary world of The Hobbit, the individual frame may still be graspable for an audience.
Diarmuid Corkery is a 3rd year Fine Arts student at The National College of Art and Design, Dublin.
Barthes, Roland (1981), Camera Lucida, Toronto: Harper Collins.
Benjamin, Walter (2002), “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 3, 1935-1938, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 101-136.
Biesenbach, Klaus (2006), “Sympathy for the Devil,” in Klaus Beisenbach (ed.), Douglas Gordon: Timeline, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 10-31.
Ferguson, Russell (2001), “Trust Me” in Russell Ferguson (ed.), Douglas Gordon, Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, pp.15-50.
Monaco, James (2000), How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media and Multimedia; Language, History, Theory, New York: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, David and Ian Christie (eds.) (1989), Scorsese on Scorsese, London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, Martin (2012), “You’d be dancing too” in The Sunday Times: Magazine, 18 November, p. 3.