Marking Time


IN A FILM EDITING bay or a music recording studio, just like in a Las Vegas casino, there is no natural evidence of the passage of time. There are no windows, because windows are not soundproof. Nevertheless: despite the absence of natural time, man-made or artificial time rules everything that happens in that room. In music and film, time inhabits and controls the machines that enable recording and editing, to such an extent that given the advances in broadband speed and the precision of these machines’ internal clocks, recording sessions can now take place continents away, simultaneously. The ghost in the machine makes a ticking sound, if it speaks at all, and seeks only to regulate the natural world’s inclination towards relativity.

In other words, say a really awful band has recorded a drum part in Los Angeles, but their lead guitarist is in London pretending to go out with a supermodel to establish tabloid cred. He/she can go into a London studio, connect via broadband using Pro Tools (or whichever commercial recording/editing software he/she prefers; we are platform agnostic at The Weeklings), and lay down a suitably mediocre guitar solo that will sync perfectly with the mediocre drum part. Similarly, with regard to movies, a scene shot in a crumbling French chateau, even if originally shot on film (less and less likely these days), will be transferred to a digital format and imprinted with timecode so that a NLE (non-linear editing program), such as Final Cut Pro or Avid, can be used to link previously shot footage to the more recent work. The creative possibilities presented by the ease of use and extreme portability of NLEs has led directly to experiments in time dislocation of the sort that used to be considered radical, when they involved time-consuming cut-and-paste of actual film stock, but are now as commonplace as the rearrangement of entire paragraphs on a word processor. A few keystrokes on the computer, and one scene in a film swaps places with another, entirely changing the tone, rhythm, and sometimes meaning. A film like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which unspools back-to-front like a videotape slowly rewinding in a mirror, might have been possible before the advent of the NLE, but would certainly have been more difficult to assemble, and perhaps as a result, too expensive to consider.

At their heart NLEs and music software like Pro Tools or Logic operate using SMPTE time code (SMPTE stands for Society Of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and SMPTE timecode simply refers to the standards adopted by that group to label individual frames of video or film or audio material), which is embedded on every digital frame or musical byte recorded by computers. These time codes, some of which are based on what’s called “wall clock” or natural time (whatever that is), others on “notional time,” which bears no relation to natural time and is for purposes of synchronization only, are generated by machines and embedded into the metadata of the audio/visual information itself. The kind of time code that you can see in the movie Time Code, for instance, is called BITC, which stands for Burned-In Time Code. And when you see outtakes on DVD from excellent movies like Talladega Nights: The Story Of Ricky Bobby, you can often see these bits of discontinuous timecode in the picture frame, which, if you’re interested, provide some insight into how a film is constructed.

All films and all recordings are constructs. An ambient electronica album made up of clicks and cuts from skipping CDs is no less authentic than a bluegrass band recorded in a barn in West Virginia. Both are representations of a thing that happened in time. A Dogme 95 film has more constraints and is in some respects more artificial than a Michael Bay movie. The construction process, whether in music or in film, has traditionally been one of choice: its most important function has been to choose the best performance, however defined, of a song or a scene, whether as a whole or in specific parts, and to assemble these parts, or parts of parts, into a whole, in accord with a pre-determined schematic, whether that be a song structure or a screenplay. Remove the necessity to make a choice, however, which is a by-product of removing the laborious reconstruction of a song or a film by splicing actual physical things, and you have instead limitless possibility. An easy illustration of this is the now-passé vogue for the mash-up, where the backing track of one song is married to the vocal track of another, producing a third, sometimes entirely different song. This was generally accomplished by a new technology that allowed the user to change the tempo of the song without altering its pitch, or vice versa. This technology did not exist fifteen years ago, and is a direct result of the move from analog to digital recording methods, which in itself is a direct result of the apparently inescapable urge of humanity (or at least engineers) to conquer the ironic inflexibility of man-made or artificial time. Like all such movements, which carry with them loaded notions of progress against which anyone with ambiguous feelings about what’s been gained versus what’s been lost is often self-labeled a Luddite or reactionary, the advance is neither an advance nor a regression. Analog versus digital is a false opposition. One is not better than another. There are things that film and tape can do that you can’t reproduce in the digital realm. There are things that you can do in the digital realm that can’t be done with film and tape. Some artists will look at the possibilities offered by new methods and stretch them in unexpected and exciting ways. Some will simply look at them as new ways to do old things, with predictably duller results.

One inarguable effect across the board is to reduce the costs involved in mounting complicated productions, and increasing their feasibility and accessibility. In other words, these days, if you have a good idea, and a lot less money than you used to need, chances are you can find a way to make it work. A musician friend of mine commented to me the other night, “I don’t know why anyone goes into a recording studio anymore,” having just finished three songs using only his laptop and Logic. On the other hand, I’m headed into a recording studio for a month tomorrow. That doesn’t mean the songs my band records will be any better or worse than the ones my friend did. They will, however, cost more money to make.

What might be called the domestication of time is nothing new, but the pace at which it has developed, like the pace at which most things have developed, seems to have recently accelerated. For centuries, because the human race was a predominantly agrarian society, ruled by the ‘sun-up, sun-down’ method of time-keeping, relying on circadian rhythms to regulate our activities, the sundial provided a sufficient answer to the eternal human question, ‘Why can’t anyone ever be on time for anything?’ During the Middle Ages, monks needed a more reliable system for keeping track of the time during the hours of the day when the sun was not available for consultation, or the moon or the stars for that matter, because the monks, even while indoors, even at night, were required by monk law to keep strict track of the passing of time for the purpose of knowing at what hour a particular prayer was to be performed. They therefore developed (or stole the idea from the Greeks, whatever) a water clock, which worked by allowing water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. This was apparently not good enough: between 1280 and 1320 AD, reference to mechanical clocks can be found in church records, indicating that the water-clock had been developed to the point where its power was controlled by some sort of oscillating mechanism. The controlled release of power by means of a spring —technical term: the escapement — marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock. From there it wasn’t a huge technological step to the purely mechanical clock — prodded in large part because of the twin developments of the Industrial Revolution (factory workers needed to show up on time) and the railroad (it would be nice if ten o’clock in London meant the same thing everywhere in England) — and to the uncanny pendulum, which is more or less how your grandfather’s grandfather clock still operates, thanks to the rotation of the earth (you can see Foucault’s Pendulum, probably the most famous version, in the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris), and then, much later, to the development of wristwatches, digital clocks (producing an entire generation of children who cannot tell time from a standard clock-face), and ultimately to those cheap Casio digital wristwatches that people bought for like twenty-five cents in the 70s and threw away when they broke, only to discover thirty years on that they would become ironically fashionable again and therefore ridiculously expensive on eBay. We have arrived today at the atomic clock, the most accurate thus devised, and the one to which many if not most “official” clocks are linked, which measures time using the very precise rate of decay of the element cesium. It is hidden away, like many mysterious things, in Boulder, Colorado. As quantum physics develops, we may yet see more accurate clocks, which will be useful to astrophysicists everywhere trying to fix the coordinates and movement of distant celestial objects.

And that’s great for them. But for us, for ordinary people, the clock is a tyrant. The tyranny of the clock has, all-but-unnoticed, burrowed its way into the fabric of our daily lives  — flashed on our iPhones, embedded into every email we send, printed on every ATM withdrawal slip, if we had any money in our checking account. We never do not know what time it is anymore, and this, I think, is either an extension or a by-product of our growing appetite for speed. Many of us are old enough to remember the first computer modems, which connected us to the internet at the then lightning-quick rate of 14.4 kb/second, a speed so slow as to now appear positively Neolithic. We may as well have carved our messages into stone and flung them into the sea, compared to the 30+ megabit rates now achievable by broadband technology. Though it has yet to materialize, it’s long been reported that one side-benefit of the Large Hadron Collider will be something called The Grid, which will make the internet seem like a very old man walking his broken bike on the emergency lane alongside a highway. And we’ll be on that highway, driving over the speed limit, except there won’t be a speed limit.

We are moving from a society desirous of instant gratification to a society of instant anticipation. We no longer want things that can be delivered immediately, we want to move the future forward, towards us, so that the future is no longer the future but a kind of extended present. “Now” is no longer a way to measure time but an adjective, a quality that can be possessed or divested. This is not a phenomenon confined, as one might think, to great urban centers where technology is worshiped in giant glowing Apple Stores. There is no longer any pastoral idyll untouched by the speed of things. We have television commercials that prove this: ads for giant telecoms that show people on top of what looks like Mount Everest teleconferencing with their kids back home in what may well be Iowa. Which seems like a long way to go to make a phone call, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the ad. The point is: there is no where you can go that’s far enough. You can always be found, should you choose, and how giant a step is it, Neil Armstrong, from ‘when you choose’ to ‘when we choose?’ It’s a little disorienting, and for precisely this reason: artificial codes have erased natural time. The speed of sound is irrelevant: time zones are irrelevant: we can implant SMPTE on anything, transmit it over a fiber optic cable or via satellite, and machines on any side of the globe will be in sync.

The very notion of “on time” has been replaced by the notion of “in sync.” The world as we now know it is ahead of its time, where everyone, everywhere, always, seems to be ceaselessly scanning RSS feeds or Tivoing their favorite programs so as not to miss out on the general conversation, or iSyncing their iCalendar with everyone in their iCompany so that everyone always knows where iYou are, sometimes before you do. In other words, the same innovative drive that has produced new ways of creating, constructing, and rearranging movies and music, to say nothing of writing  — the personal computer, in a sense, was the first NLE, and if it weren’t for the digital clock at the top of my computer screen that keeps track of time in four different parts of the world, I would not know what to do, or when, or why (though I suspect I don’t want to know the answer to the last question) — drives us to connect everything to everything else, and this restless connecting of dots may yet solve every human problem, or create a whole new set that someone else will have to solve. I only hope whoever’s responsible for that has enough time.

Until then, I expect — like most of us — to be running late.

About James Greer

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light(LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010), and the non-fiction book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, a biography of a band for which he played bass guitar. He’s written or co-written movies for Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Chan, and Steven Soderbergh, among others. He is a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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