The defragmenting image : stories in cinematic time travel

Ó Maoilearca, John (2020) The defragmenting image : stories in cinematic time travel. In: Rubinstein, Daniel, (ed.) Fragmentation of the Photographic Image in the Digital Age. New York, NY : Routledge. pp. 189-203. (Routledge History of Photography) ISBN 9781138493490


Can we will ourselves to go back in time? In one sense, Henri Bergson thought that we could do so. He was an advocate of attention training – educating our senses to the specificities of every image in order to expand our experience of time (‘duration’) – or what he called an ‘attention to life’. This image perception was not simply about noticing spatial differences alone however, for, in expanding one’s attention, one also expands one’s temporal horizon – at least according to Bergson. One ‘travels’ into the so-called past (if only for a few ‘moments’) by expanding, or defragmenting, one’s present. This is not a supersensuous escape from perceiving the present, but rather an expansion of the present through a deepening of the senses – an excess of materiality rather than a disembodying spirit. This paper will cross-examine Bergson’s ‘attention to life’ by intersecting it with Jeannot Szwarc’s cult film of 1980, Somewhere in Time. We do this in order to unearth the strange conception of time-travel underlying the story (one different to Bergson’s in part, but still kindred). From Richard Matheson’s film script (adapted from his own 1975 novel, Bid Time Return), through to the ideas of time, attention, and memory that it relays via the metaphysical theories of J.W. Dunne and J.B. Priestley, we will see that, as with Bergson, it is not through any disembodied, supernatural will alone that the hero of the story (played by Christopher Reeve) operates his time machine. Rather, it is also through his use of ordinary objects and performative acts (self-hypnosis being one) and an attention to reversing certain discontinuities within his surrounding imagery that a kind of Proustian space-time-travel is activated: not by escaping the present, but by expanding and multiplying ‘it’, in a manner compatible with Bergson’s theories. And, indeed, it is Szwarc’s film itself – taken as a set of actual images in the process of defragmenting themselves – that demonstrates how we might create a new (dis)continuity with a so-called ‘past’, thereby offering us a model for image-based time travel that is both material and spiritual, at once.

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