The five canonical tempos, from literature, then film

We’ve talked a lot about how narrative produces various tempos, for various effects, by shifting the relative “speeds” of story time and discourse time. For instance, a stretch, better known from film as slow-motion, occurs when discourse time seems much longer than story time (e.g., an action lasting three seconds is described in minute detail over a long paragraph, as in this passage from Joseph Conrad’s great novel The Secret Agent (1907):

Mr Verloc did not see that.  He was lying on his back and staring upwards.  He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife.  It flickered up and down.  Its movements were leisurely.  They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon.

They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge.  His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad.  They were leisurely enough for the first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that armed lunatic.  They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair.  But they were not leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot.  The knife was already planted in his breast.  It met no resistance on its way.  Hazard has such accuracies.  Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.  Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the word “Don’t” by way of protest. (Joseph Conrad. The Secret Agent. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998. 262-63.)

Some remarkable examples of the same tempo, but in film, are available in these excerpts from the amazing BBC series Planet Earth (be warned that this video contains some disorienting, rapidly-flashing images). Or you could watch any John Woo movie: Woo is a unapologetic and unironic user of slow-motion for emotional effect. Using slow-motion is a bit of a liability for a film maker, I’d think. What is intended to be serious and intense could easily look grotesque (so many awkward facial expressions) or parodic (how many parodies of this iconic scene are there? For a sense of the answer, type “Chariots of Fire slow motion” into Google videos and you’ll see what I mean).

A summary, known from film as a time-lapse, is the opposite temporal relation: when story time is relatively longer than discourse time (for example, five months are narrated in two sentences). For example, the following sentences report in a short discourse time (a few seconds worth of reading) what would take Verloc at least a minute to walk:

Chesham Square was at least sixty yards away, and Mr Verloc, cosmopolitan enough not to be deceived by London’s topographical mysteries, held on steadily, without a sign of surprise or indignation.  At last, with business-like persistency, he reached the Square, and made diagonally for the number 10. (Conrad. Ibid. 14)

Planet Earth gives us another stunning filmic version here. Movies often use time-lapse to give the impression of time’s passage without literally spanning that amount of time. The opening credits of the American version of House of Cards uses time-lapse photography of Washington D.C. The film Adaptation uses an extreme time-lapse (simulation) to show the history of the world from the emergence of bacteria to the protagonist’s attempt to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief to film. The same tempo is used to a much less contemplative effect in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, during a threesome scene at fast-forward speed to the tune of the William Tell Overture (more famously associated with the television series The Lone Ranger). The effect of speeding up the sex scene is, among others, to strip it of eroticism in order to emphasize humour and, to a certain extent, the mechanical, almost automatic, and even inhuman attitude the protagonist has towards sex and women. If you want to see the scene, you’ll have to find it yourself!

In a scene, a tempo only theoretically possible in written narratives but easily done practically in staged or filmed narratives, discourse time is equal to story time. A very literal example is the movie Nick of Time (1995), one of Johnny Depp’s less memorable ventures, whose running time of 90 minutes matches the story time. In theory, this is supposed to add tension to the thriller: no convenient fudging of time being allowed, the idea that every seconds counts becomes most literally foisted onto the viewer. Unfortunately, the thriller is pretty lacklustre, so the whole “real time” device is a bit wasted. The closest you can get to this tempo in written narratives is in passages with a lot of dialogue (where the condition of the drama is approached), but even so, we can never know exactly how long it took for each speaker to speak, or how long they pause between speeches, etc. Still, we can be more or less happy with the knowledge that the time it takes Mr. Vladimir to say the following in the world of the story is more or less equal to the time it takes to read it on the page:

“You can be facetious, I see…. That’s all right.  It may enliven your oratory at socialistic congresses.  But this room is no place for it.  It would be infinitely safer for you to follow carefully what I am saying.  As you are being called upon to furnish facts instead of cock-and-bull stories, you had better try to make your profit off what I am taking the trouble to explain to you.  The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science.” (Conrad. Ibid. 31).

No need for a filmic equivalent here, I think. Any continuous shot played at normal speed will give us this scenic tempo. By the way, writers have found all kinds of tricks for mimicking “real time.” A famous instance is James Thurber’s justification for the (strictly speaking unnecessary) comma in “After dinner, the men went into the living room”: this comma is “giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up” (source: Lynn Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Chapter 2). A bit facetious, but the point is worth considering: by slowing the “flow” of the sentence, the comma seems to bring the discourse time closer to story time.

Then there are two tempos which strictly speaking have zero or infinite duration (depending on your choice of nominator and denominator). First, there is the pause (or achrony), in which the story is suspended while the narrator provides description, waxes philosophical, or what have you. In the following passage, the pause begins in earnest with the second paragraph about the shop:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar. (Conrad. Ibid. 3.)

This tempo is almost ubiquitous in written narratives but difficult to do well in film, except in films that are metafictional. One such example is from Alexander Paine’s movie Election, when the frame freezes while Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is in mid-speech, allowing the narrator (Matthew Broderick) to give us some information and back-story on Tracy. See the story here (this is a still from the film, so if you want both story and discourse, you’ll have to check out the movie itself: it’s on Netflix, and well-worth watching both as a comedy and as a satire of suburban life and American politics as well).

The reciprocal tempo is ellipsis, where there is no discourse but (we can infer) some amount of story time. In comics, we find this whenever we encounter a “gutter” between panels, and actually the same goes for film (ellipses between shots) and written narratives (there is always an interval of time between the words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.). This tempo becomes more interesting when the story time is long, however. Here is the transition between Chapters III and IV in The Secret Agent:

Mrs Verloc’s voice ceased, and the expression of her motionless eyes became more and more contemplative and veiled during the long pause.  “Comfortable, dear?” she asked in a faint, far-away voice.  “Shall I put out the light now?”

The dreary conviction that there was no sleep for him held Mr Verloc mute and hopelessly inert in his fear of darkness.  He made a great effort.

“Yes.  Put it out,” he said at last in a hollow tone.

                                   CHAPTER IV

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in mediæval costumes.  Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer. (Conrad. Ibid. 60-61.)

We know from the change of setting (Verloc’s bedroom to what seems to be a bar) that some indefinite amount of time has passed during a space of non-discourse, but it takes several pages for us to discover that “a month” has passed (75).

The last film we viewed in class, Martha Marcy May Marlene, uses ellipses quite effectively, especially because it isn’t always clear whether the amount of story time is relatively short (thus separating two moments during Martha’s life with the cult) or relatively long (thus separating Martha’s life with the cult from a moment in her post-cult life living with her sister).

Of course, this movie does many other things with story/discourse that aren’t explanable as tempo: it also plays with the order of events, repeatedly giving us analepses (shift to a moment earlier in the story) and prolepses (shift to a moment later in the story) (these, by the way, are not exactly the same as flash-backs and flash-forwards, which have more to do with straight-up memory than with actually shifts in narrative order). Incidentally, The Secret Agent also uses, extremely sneakily and very effectively, a monumental time-shift (or anachrony) of this kind. Aside from tempo and order, there is also the temporal category of frequency, which has to do with the relation between how often events occur (in the story) and how often they are narrated (discourse).

All this I have picked up from theorists like Gerard Genette, Mieke Bal, and others.


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