By Fred A. Reed
Time’s arrow has been loosed. It now speeds toward that precise instant when it will strike its target. Such is the ironclad law that applies to each of us, contributors to this blog and faithful readers. The same law that applies as well to the Universe. Begun by act of God and/or the current theoretical favorite, the Big Bang, the same arrow will complete its course.
These are rather grand notions, I admit. But they came to mind the other day as I was reflecting on the apparent acceleration of time that accompanies advancing age. This despite the fact that clock and calendar have not increased their speed. How could I forget the endless summer afternoons of adolescence when I sat in front of the television set watching a Pacific Coast League double header, glass of lemonade in hand. With any luck, the game might never end, and the two teams, one of which would be the aptly named Hollywood Stars, would play on into eternity: in baseball a theoretical possibility.
Tomorrow? It might never come. And when it did come, it would be indistinguishable from the present moment.
Now, older but arguably little wiser, I note that no sooner has the sun set than it rises again. Hardly has the crescent moon appeared than it shines full and silvery over Agadir.
Decades ago, there still remained some leeway. Tasks had to be performed, deadlines met, but there was always—so it seemed—time. If not plenty, enough.
What was the hurry? Why hasten to complete a task when you could enjoy contemplating and thereby postponing its eventual accomplishment? These were some of the considerations that led me to appreciate slowness. Not idleness, for that would depreciate the energy-charged potential of inaction. No, the quality of time that permits sampling, tasting, postponing pleasure with the certain knowledge that these are the moment’s vital elements.
Allow me then to share with you two experiences of slowness. One from long ago, but time-burnished in memory; the other, recent. What these slow movements, nay, instants, share is that they pivot upon and evoke the personalities whose work formed my understanding of events and of the world itself.
In the late 1970s, when I was still gainfully employed at the Gazette, Concordia University projected art films in its new auditorium on Friday evenings. It was there that we viewed Mozart: Aufzeichnungen einer Jungend (Mozart: a Childhood Chronicle) by the German master Klaus Kirchner. This film—all three hours and forty-five minutes of it—has remained firmly lodged in my memory. Because of its subject matter and because of its exceptionally deliberate pace.
So deliberate was that pace that a colleague we’d invited along excused himself at the two-hour mark and stepped out for a hamburger. His girlfriend, to her credit, stayed the course.
Kirchner’s film chronicles the youth of the child genius as he made his way by diligence from Salzburg to France, Italy and England. Young Wolfgang and his family travelled by coach, along routes that were often dangerous and always time-consuming. As the carriage makes its way south through Italy, we see the youthful prodigy’s face as light and shadow play over it, while hearing in the soundtrack the composition he was working on in his mind. For that was where Mozart composed, before writing it all down.
Earlier, when Leopold, Wolfgang’s father, becomes indisposed in London, he hires a sedan chair to carry him to a park with family in tow. There, beneath the trees, the young prodigy plops himself down on the grass, pulls out his quill pen and scored paper and begins to transcribe the notes he has already captured, totally absorbed by the task at hand.
Kirchner then cuts to Wolfgang’s only slightly less gifted sister Nannerl, who describes how her little brother does most of his composing in bed, in the morning. This she says as a smile flickers across her face. She would not have known then, in 1764, that fifteen years later she would join her brother in a performance of his Concerto for two pianos in E-flat major, a work that prefigures nothing, as it already contains and embodies perfection.
The film, while slow, evokes in the attentive viewer—me? you?—a combination of visual and musical depth. Its slowness allows the family to breathe, and Mozart’s music to sustain that measured respiration.
But it was when I encountered Alexander Kluge’s monumental nine-hour News from Ideological Antiquity, I had at last found a film in which slowness is the unstated but clear purpose.
Where else does any film, whatever mixture of documentary, speculative and fictional footage it may be, actually present the entirety, uncut, of an interview. Fortunate viewers we, who can enjoy more than an hour of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, or an even more leisurely exchange between two German academics who actually read aloud from Karl Marx’s earth-shaping masterpiece Das Capital and who discuss and manipulate the core concepts of the master’s labour theory of value in language that is no longer spoken, less understood.
Who then could deny that patience is its own reward? To Kluge’s monumental opus we owe the account of an encounter between two of the major creative spirits of the twentieth century (and incidentally, personal idols): Sergei Eisenstein and James Joyce. But not only that.
Joyce’s Ulysses, famously accused of obscenity, is actually an account of the world as it experienced itself June 16 1904. It was a work that fascinated Eisenstein, who had just completed filming of October, which compresses the history of the Soviet Revolution into less than one and one-half hours. But Eisenstein, who was in a state of amphetamine sustained near-madness as he rushed to complete the edit of his film, had greater, wilder, ambitions.
Like Joyce, he wanted nothing less than to reproduce, on his own terms, the entirety of history. His method would be to do so by filming Karl Marx’s seminal work. It would be the only film that could possibly follow October. Knowing and esteeming Joyce, Eisenstein sought the Irish exile’s advice. Joyce agreed to meet the man who gave cinema a language to match its then-revolutionary ambitions in Paris on November 29, one month after the collapse of the New York stock exchange.
To relate this extraordinary tale, Kluge recruits Russian film historian Oksana Bulgakova. By the time they met, she observes, these two figures’ dimensions hugely exceeded those of mere mortals. Joyce was blind but his inner eye, which was at work on Finnegan’s Wake, was more alert than ever before. He tells Eisenstein that he has seen Potemkin. And in his memoirs, the filmmaker asserts that Joyce read something to him. Which he could not have done. Joyce, instead, puts on a record of himself reading. The Irishman is convinced that only Eisenstein could bring Ulysses to the screen. But Eisenstein had plans that were infinitely more ambitious: he wanted to film Das Capital as « Ulysses. » That is, to cram all existence, in the form of the Homeric legend, into one afternoon and evening, ending with the internal monologue of a worker’s wife. In this brief period, Eisenstein believed he could relate the entire history of mankind: the relations of production, goods, cooperation, heavy machinery, class struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat and similar artifacts of ideological antiquity.
Then the interviewer, Kluge himself, likens in a flash of brilliance Eisenstein’s extra-corporal capacity and overflowing imagination to Mozart.
Exactly. As in the double piano concerto he wrote, at age 22, for himself and his sister.
The sole difference being that while Eisenstein’s Joyce project never came about, Wolfgang and Nannerl did perform E-flat major concerto, perhaps exactly as he had conceived it as future potentiality there on the grass in a London park.
Only in watching these two monuments of slowness, and in all deliberateness drawing the connections that emerge only from slowness, can we appreciate the power of the creative act as a phenomenon conceived in the twinkling of an eye that offers itself to us over time, slowly. No faster, but no slower than the speed of time’s arrow as it rushes forward.