Cleo in the Park
In Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7, a popular singer named Cleo wanders around the city of Paris while anxiously waiting for her medical test result. She is afraid that she has cancer, which makes her question her familiar environment and become more aware of her body in time. After several strange trips in the city, our anxious heroine comes to a park (Parc Montsouris), where she meets Antoine, a soldier on leave. This is also the place where she begins to reclaim her sense of self and world by measuring her own temporality against objective time and clock time.
When she enters the park, she passes through a lively scene of children playing to become alone and worried about her own situation. She descends a scenic staircase, singing about 'my precious, so capricious body' and 'he yearns for my pleasures, the flavour of my luscious lips'. But after this brief burst of live force that speaks of the vanity and objectification in her singing career, her face quickly turns sombre when she finishes her descent. The camera now follows her from behind as she walks along an empty path towards dark-coloured trees. The film uses the geography and social activities of the urban park to create juxtapositions of light and dark, high and low, life and death.
Descending more steps, Cleo arrives at a small waterfall where Antoine joins her in beholding the flowing stream of water. The conversation that follows is filled with time markers. Antoine tells Cleo that it is summer solstice, the longest day of the year when the sun leaves Gemini for Cancer. Cleo acknowledges that it is indeed the longest day since she has been in distress all day but is startled by the mention of cancer and steps away. In the film's real-time fashion, subtitles announce that this section happens between 18:12 and 18:15. Cleo asks what time it is since she is finding out about her result tonight. He does not have a watch but tells her that it is six or quarter past. Perhaps he does not have a watch because he needs none - he not only knows about summer solstice but also tells time quite precisely. He goes on to tell her that he has been on leave for three weeks and is due to leave tonight. How remarkable it is for someone who has a train to catch to not own a watch!
Sitting down on a bench with Antoine, Cleo reaffirms her superstitions and fear of death. Antoine quickly responds that 'In Algeria, you'd be scared all the time. Dying for nothing. That's what upsets us. I'd rather die of love for a woman.' Then, Antoine and Cleo both admit to not having been in (true) love since they 'stop halfway', unable to give themselves in to the risks of love. In this scene, Cleo and Antoine sit in the shades in the foreground contrasted with an overexposed grass field in the background. The geography of the park juxtaposes light and dark again, but here the scorching sunlight shone on grass paradoxically conveys death - the overexposure approximates a sun so blazing that makes grass fade on screen. The light that dominates the top half of the frame threatens to seep into the darker bottom half, where Antoine and Cleo are conversing about their insufficiencies. It is almost as if their reluctance to commit fully also hinders their ability to be fully alive, so they must hide in the shade. Yet in the meantime they are so close to the light that both signifies life and threatens death.
Following the realisation of their shared impediment, Antoine suggests to Cleo that they cut the fearful waiting and go to the hospital to find out the result immediately. Antoine knows clock time by heart as well as how not to be its slave. To show this shift in tone, the film cuts to a shot from behind them, revealing another part of park geography: a stone wall wrapped around by trees. In the previous shot, Antoine and Cleo's figures are prominent against a flat grass field. Now that they are taking charge of their own time, they are surrounded by park landscape that towers over them. Prompted by Antoine who is a master of time, Cleo transitions from a self-absorbed temporality trapped by objective time to a subjective temporality in which she seeks control over personal time. In this process, she comes to terms with her place in the world and 'herself in time, primarily by seeing herself […] as animated in time and re-engaged with the changing world' (Pratt and Juan, 2014: 89). At long last, she and Antoine completes a final descent down some steps that connects the park to the street. They have now left the park, an arena of temporal possibilities, for a journey in the city where the negotiation with time and death continues.
In Cleo, the urban park actively participates in the making of cinematic temporality. Its intrinsic paradoxes become raw materials for temporal and spatial heterogeneity. My reading of the park in the film does not lead to fixed meanings. Rather, the park generates flexible and paradoxical meanings that are at once in tune with the film's narrative and productive of temporal dynamism. The film does not represent a park but makes a cinematic park that exists in the running time of the film and creates experiential temporality for the film. 21/02/2023
The Time of Cinematic Landscapes
Throughout film history, much theorisation about cinematic time has revolved around its paradoxical accommodation of two types of time. For Mary Ann Doane, there is the rationalised time ordered by narrative structure and continuity editing and the contingency embedded in the cinematographic image (2002). For Deleuze, there is time that is subordinate to movement (movement-image) and time in its pure, independent form (time-image) (1985). For Tom Gunning, cinema both resists the tyranny of clock-time and 'bears the imprint of the tyranny it confronts' (2022). For Laura Mulvey, digital technology allows individual manipulation of cinematic time that traditional cinema viewing does not, implying a divergence of cinematic temporality between private time and public time (2005). In each of these examples, there is a tension between a type of time that is structured, rationalised, and public and another type of time that is personal, lived, and open to contingencies and affect.
Urban parks as landscape also carry distinct and paradoxical temporalities. They were first constructed in the 19th century by public authorities to promote public health and improve the urban environment. They are both meant for the public's leisure in private time (as opposed to working, public time) and regulated by public ordering of time (e.g. their opening and closing times). As such, urban parks are part of both public and private time. In the meantime, the natural elements of urban parks respond to the cyclical time of seasons, while our engagement with them is always imbricated in the linear time of history (Bender, 2002).
Space, place, and landscape are basic physical elements that help us form the cognition of abstract concepts, including time (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). According to anthropologist and archaeologist Barbara Bender, landscape is time materialising (2002: S103). Therefore, place and landscape inform our experience of time and always bear the imprints of time. How, then, is this intimacy between landscape and time conceptualised in relation to cinematic time? Writing about cinematic landscapes, Graeme Harper and Jonathan Rayner contend that because landscape is so fundamental to our understanding of our being-in-the-world, its cinematic portrayal evokes an 'innate and primal sense of self and of the world' that can transcend cinematic time (2010: 18). In other words, the intrinsic temporality of place and landscape enable them to produce and stimulate memories, thoughts, and feelings that are external to cinematic temporality. While urban parks share temporal affinities with cinema (i.e. the paradoxical relation between two types of time), they are potentially capable of creating atemporal experiences within cinema.
This insight creates tension with Gilles Deleuze's valorisation of the time-image. For Deleuze, the time-image is able to directly represent time because it frees time from external spatiality and makes space become time (Dunat, 2022). In contrast to Harper and Rayner's view that landscape evokes our innate sense of self and the world in an atemporal fashion, in the Deleuzian time-image, it is time, having already subordinated space, that maps directly onto the mental. If we distinguish these two paradigms by categorising the former's effect as affective and the latter's as cognitive, we would not only fall back into Deleuze's binary division between the movement-image and time-image but also divorce space from cinematic time by adhering to a representational regime. The former imagines cinematic landscape as a representation of external space that leads to an extra-cinematic atemporality; the latter seeks a representation of time that subordinates movement and spatiality. By failing to recognise cinema's ability to actively create time and space rather than merely represent them, they make space unproductive of cinematic time.
How, then, does cinema create landscapes that are productive of temporality? First of all, while landscapes in cinema are represented in the sense that they (sometimes) index actual places, they are virtual places that exist within the temporal flow of cinema. Just as actual landscapes always bear the imprints of time, virtual landscapes are always pregnant with cinematic time. They are not any-space-whatever (to take this term literally) that is subservient to the representation of pure time. Rather, they are uniquely positioned to engage with and actively create cinematic temporality; their actual temporalities (e.g. public and private time) imbue their virtual forms with a culturally imagined set of thoughts and feelings, which in turn become instrumental to cinema's expression and creation of its temporality. 10/02/2023