Riff: The All-Important Present Moment

July 2nd, 2013

Illustration by Tom Gauld

1. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film “Stalker” may be the slowest movie ever made. At 163 perversely action-sapped minutes, it makes shifting tectonic plates look positively sprightly by comparison.

To the extent that it’s about anything, “Stalker” is about two men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, who hire a guide (the Stalker) to lead them through a post-apocalyptic wasteland called the Zone to a mystical place called the Room, where their deepest desires will be fulfilled.

The payoff is paltry. When the three men arrive at the entrance to the Room, the Professor reveals his plan to blow it up. His plan is thwarted, nobody goes inside and no desires are granted. “In any case, the whole idea of the Room is a joke,” writes Geoff Dyer in “Zona,” his book on the film. “Perhaps our deepest wish in life is that there could be a place like this, a Room where our deepest wish comes true. Extrapolating from that, we don’t want to get to the point where we discover that we actually don’t want this room to exist. . . . One’s deepest desire changes from day to day, moment to moment.”

Dyer has likened the Zone to the cinema — a place “where ultimate truths are revealed.” And perhaps the truth can thrive there, Dyer writes jokingly, because the Zone “is one of the few territories left — possibly the only one — where the rights to ‘Top Gear’ have not been sold.” And it’s true. There really aren’t many places left on Earth — real, fictional, imaginary or otherwise — where we’re not being told exactly what to long for, and where to get it, all the time.

2. Tarkovsky wrote a book about cinema called “Sculpting in Time.” At least this was the English title. It can be translated more literally as “Depicted Time” or “Written Time,” which sound less poetic but feel more accurate. A devotee of eternal takes and glacial tracking shots, Tarkovsky was a sworn nemesis of rapid-cut editing and other filmic conventions that alter our perception of time, which we, the audience, often expect and demand. For Tarkovsky, the cinematic image was “essentially the observation of a phenomenon passing through time,” and an image became “authentically cinematic when (amongst other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it.”

3. If you’re looking for a brief definition of exactly what Hollywood movies are not at this moment, you could do a lot worse than this characterization.

4. The other day I passed a billboard for “Man of Steel,” the new Superman movie, and for a second I imagined what would happen if it were instead marketed as something like “This Again.” Of course that would never happen, because the culture is now locked in an infinite, recursive feedback loop that can never be officially acknowledged lest it short-circuit and cease to self-perpetuate.

Our experience of time and space has radically shifted as technology has collapsed, compressed, chopped, flipped and scrambled it, teppanyaki-style. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in “Present Shock,” his new book about technology and time: “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment.” As a result, our experience has become, he notes, “an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment. . . . What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important — which is behavioristically doomed.”

Most mainstream movies are less interested in observing phenomena passing through time than they are in observing objects flying through space (teppanyaki-style) and less concerned with revealing ultimate truths than selling infinite tickets. This has always been so, only more so lately. It seems as if the more a movie promises to manipulate, negate, ignore or just plain refuse to acknowledge or engage with the passage of time, the more entertaining and therefore commercial it’s perceived to be. Which is behavioristically doomed.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 1, 2013

An earlier version of this article misidentified the publication in which the filmmaker Andrew Bujalski discussed his coming movie “Computer Chess.” It is Cinema Scope magazine, not (The magazine’s Web site is )

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