In film, it is common practice to indicate the passage of time through the use of establishing shots or by explicitly stating the passage of time via a text overlay. These techniques serve their purposes but there are other more efficient ways that the passage of time can be communicated. Charlie Kaufman, an accomplished director and writer, has demonstrated the passage of time through subtle environmental markers in a way that occurs simultaneously with scenes vital to the story without interrupting the plot. His particular way of presenting the passage of time lends itself to the perception of time as fluid while also communicating this passage more efficiently.
In his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, the way that he presents the passage of time through environmental markers can be gleaned from the first few minutes of watching. Fortunately, there’s a youtube clip available for you to watch here. At first, it seems as if one scene from a single moment in time is unfolding, but it is not. Paying closer attention, you’ll notice how the dates cited by the radio broadcaster, the dates of events in the newspapers, and so on are consistently getting later throughout the one scene. The scene begins on the 22nd of September, noted at 49 seconds into the clip. By 2:37, it is now October 8th, as can be heard in the background on the radio. When the main character returns inside the house at 3:11, it can be seen on the newspaper that the date is now October 14th. The scene is being presented as continuous and yet it is clear from the environment that time is constantly passing by. This technique is used in another one of Kaufman’s films, Anomalisa. There is a moment in the film where the main character, Michael, orders hotel room service. Within the same, seemingly continuous scene, he sits down and has a knock at his hotel room follow it immediately. It’s the room service. Without so much as an attempt to show the passage of time (perhaps by the sped-up changing of a clock in the background, as some directors choose), the passage of time has suddenly occurred. What Kaufman has done is indicate the passage of time while keeping the viewer fully immersed in the story, seeing only relevant aspects to the plot. In Synecdoche, New York, this is accomplished through the subtle background markers (e.g. radio broadcasts, newspapers) and, in Anomalisa, it is accomplished through overt foreground markers (e.g. the knocking on the door is brought to the viewer’s attention suddenly).
What this technique serves to accomplish is that it communicates the story more efficiently and it realistically conveys our perception of time. Quite clearly, this method means that less time is spent on establishing the time or passage of time and more time is spent on crucial parts of the story. Following in line with the common maxim, “show, don’t tell,” Kaufman shows us the way that time is unfolding without telling us that it is. Sometimes we will realize it; sometimes we won’t. However, this method does succeed in presenting a coherent whole picture succinctly. The other interesting aspect to this is that it realistically reflects the way that we, as humans, perceive time. When we’re not focusing on time, such as when we’re deeply engrossed in thought or when we’re living automatically according to routine, time seems to flow by incredibly quickly. Most of the time, we fail to realize just how much time is passing us by. For Michael in Anomalisa, the space between his ordering of the room service and its arrival is sudden (for both the audience and for Michael) because he was consumed by his thoughts. For Caden in Synecdoche, New York, the passing of time in the opening scene goes unnoticed and this serves to communicate the way that we, when locked in routines, seem not to notice how days turn into weeks and weeks into months. Time, here, is effectively communicated as fluid and dynamic. Another interesting aspect to this technique is the way that it often communicates the protagonist’s internal world to us as well. We can discern that Caden is living his life automatically as a result of routine based on the way time passes in the opening scene of Synecdoche, New York, and for Michael, we can tell that he is so focused elsewhere that he fails to notice the passing of time as well. In short, Kaufman’s usage of the environment to convey time is efficient in presenting the story, it is realistic in showing us how time is perceived as fluid, and it shows us the way that our protagonists are experiencing the world at that moment.
Charlie Kaufman presents the passage of time in a way that is uncommon in film, but it is certainly more efficient and effective for the audience. Rather than using establishing shots and on-screen text as a shorthand, the passage of time is built-in to the scene, keeping the audience immersed and showing us, rather than telling us, what is going on. It is on this basis that I believe his technique deserves praise and recognition, and it would furthermore be enjoyable to see this technique used more in film. If you haven’t seen his films, especially Synecdoche, New York or Anomalisa, I’d highly recommend them. They’re wonderfully complex and emotionally potent films. In conclusion, by communicating the passage of time in plot-essential scenes through the environment, more time is spent on plot-essential content and he both captures the nature of the human perception of time as well as communicates the mental states of his protagonists to the audience.
Anomalisa. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Paramount Pictures, 2015. Film.
Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. Film.