A love once new has now grown old: 24 memorable cinematic time transitions
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1. Bone to spaceship, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It may be the single most famous cut in movie history, bridging a million years in a hummingbird’s flap. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opens with “The Dawn Of Man,” a long sequence documenting prehistoric man-apes fighting over a water hole—a conflict that ends when one ape discovers that a bone can be used both as a tool and a weapon. After this evolutionary advance leads his tribe to victory, the ape leader flings the bone into the air, and in one glorious match cut, we’re in outer space in the 21st century, and that bone has taken the form of a satellite orbiting the Earth. Kubrick is drawing a direct connection between one technological leap and another, but an intriguing question lingers: Are such advancements good for mankind? Some have speculated that the satellite is a nuclear device aimed at the planet—the bone as weapon, a symbol of our capacity for violence and devastation—while others have a more generous reading—the bone as tool, a symbol of our capacity for innovation. Whatever the case, it’s a breathtaking cut, putting the events to come in the full context of evolutionary history.
2. The match cut, Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s biopic of iconoclastic British Army officer T.E. Lawrence deals as much with the man’s poetic soul as with his brilliant military strategy in rousing Arabian tribes to fight the Turks. Lawrence Of Arabia announces itself as a different kind of epic early on, during a scene in which Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is assigned by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), a chief at the Arab Bureau, to head into the desert to observe a local prince. The two gentlemen discuss strategy in an immaculate Cairo office, decorated with antiquities, where Dryden describes Lawrence’s destination as a “fiery furnace.” When an ebullient Lawrence says the job sounds like fun, Dryden laughs, “It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.” He says this as Lawrence holds a match that he lets burn almost down to his fingers before blowing it out. On the exhale, the movie cuts to a desert horizon at sunrise, as Maurice Jarre’s score gradually rises. It’s a bold edit—a literal “match cut”—connecting heat to heat, and the remote, boys-club idea of living dangerously with the real peril of the desert, where the fire never goes out.
3. The Transamerica Pyramid, Zodiac (2007)
Time is an essential component of Zodiac, David Fincher’s haunting procedural about the hunt for the Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s and was ultimately never unveiled. Fincher marks time and place with an obsessive-compulsiveness that’s almost comical: When attention on the case reaches its zenith in the late summer and fall of 1969, Fincher charts not only the days between developments, but the hours, as the FBI, the CIA, the media, and civilians alike devote their full resources to tracking the killer down. But as the trail grows cold and people move on with their lives, those hours and days between revelations become months and years, and Fincher finds innovative ways to document the transitions. In a particularly brilliant sequence, Fincher passes the time with stop-motion shots of San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid being built, finishing construction in 1972. It’s a sign of both a dormant case and a city that’s evolved past it.
4. Holiday cheer, Citizen Kane (1941)
Among the many storytelling innovations of Orson Welles’ debut feature, Citizen Kane, was the film’s approach to storytelling: weaving together multiple flashbacks, jumping around in time, and compressing information artfully. Citizen Kane is packed with examples of clever time transitions (including a montage in which the arc of an entire marriage, from newlywed bliss to chilly animosity, is dispatched in a few brisk minutes), but one of the cleverest comes when banker Walter Thatcher says “Merry Christmas” to the little-kid version of Charles Foster Kane, then dictates “…and a Happy New Year” in a letter to the 25-year-old Kane. Welles, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and editor Robert Wise convey so much with that jump: how much time has passed, yes, but also the persistent animosity of the relationship between Thatcher and Kane, which is so raw that they no longer communicate face-to-face. The film then jumps again, from Thatcher preparing to recite a list of Kane’s holdings to a letter back from Kane, saying the only holding he cares about is a dinky little New York newspaper. Just like that, a titan is born.
5. Rescued from Rushmore, North By Northwest (1959)
The art of filmmaking—screenwriting, directing, acting, and editing alike—has a lot to do with how much information the audience really needs to understand what’s happening. At the end of North By Northwest, beleaguered ad exec Cary Grant is clinging to the face of Mount Rushmore with secret agent Eva Marie Saint, after they survive an attempt on their lives by the movie’s villains. Grant reaches for Saint’s arm, straining, straining, and just when the tension of the scene—and the Bernard Herrmann score—hits a peak, we hear Grant’s voice saying, “Come along, Mrs. Thornhill,” and the movie cuts to Grant pulling Saint to a train compartment’s upper berth, while the music swells romantically. There follows another quick cut, to the train heading suggestively into a tunnel. In mere seconds, we know all we have to know: He saved her, they got married, and now they’re doin’ it.
6. Ageless through the ages, Highlander (1986)
Time transitions can be used to make associations between time periods, but they can also suggest continuity. The 1986 cult favorite Highlander isn’t a great movie by any stretch, but its chief technical gimmick—moving from various points in the past to the present in one single, seamless camera move—turns out to be a stroke of genius. Shots like one that transitions from a murky fish tank in an ’80s bachelor pad to a Scottish lake in 1536 are cool for their own sake, but they also serve the film’s story about immortal warriors. In the 400-plus years between events, the world has changed significantly, but Christopher Lambert, the swarthy hero, hasn’t changed a bit. Time wears on his soul, as he witnesses generation after generation dying off while he doesn’t add so much as a wrinkle, but he’s still the same brooding swordsman this century as he was in centuries past.
7. “Yesterday,” Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s era-hopping gangster epic was infamously reassembled in chronological order in a disastrous studio-mandated American edit. But even the 229-minute version has its mysteries, like a cut from a dark night in 1968 to Robert De Niro getting out of prison 36 years earlier, signaled by an inexplicable Frisbee flying overhead. Better is the moment in 1933 when the bankrupt, heartbroken protagonist buys a ticket for the next bus to anywhere. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like, whistling theme plays on the soundtrack as he gets a newspaper—and then it resolves into another kind of dirge, a mostly instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” By the time De Niro reaches the mirror he was walking toward, more than three decades have passed in the blink of a now-current pop song. He’s gray-haired and weary, and like the McCartney tune, mired in backward-looking regret in his first trip home since that day.
8. A reconstructed Monica Bellucci, Irréversible (2002)
Few movies can put viewers in more torment than Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, which half-cleared a theater-full of formally dressed cineastes during its Cannes première and has only seen its notoriety grow from there. But while the visceral impact of sequences like the descent into a hellish sex club called “Le Rectum” and the single-shot nine-minute rape scene cannot be denied, the film turns the screws in subtler ways, too. In sequencing the action in reverse chronology, Noé serves his thesis statement (“Time destroys everything”) by showing the innocent and at times ecstatic hours leading up to the tragedy we already know is coming. The unkindest cut in the entire film comes in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent beating that leaves victim Monica Bellucci bloodied and virtually unrecognizable. As she’s on a gurney, being rolled into an ambulance, Noé cuts to the minutes before her fateful detour into an underground tunnel: Bellucci, one of the most beautiful women in the world, emerges from a doorway in a silky party dress, blissfully unaware of what awaits her as she steps into the night air. In its way, it’s the most sadistic moment in the entire film.
9. Scene from a marriage, Revolutionary Road (2008)
Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel of post-war suburban discontent has much to recommend it, but it’s never better, or more devastating, than in its opening moments. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet meet, flirt, dance, and fall in love at a swinging bohemian party. It’s a lovely snapshot of a seemingly predestined love snapping into place before our eyes. Cut to the married years. DiCaprio watches Winslet falter in the lead role of a community theater production, and on the way home, their mutual disappointment with the directions of their lives spills over into a fight. Another fight. It’s taken years to erode the promise of their first moments together, but the film snatches it away in an instant.
10. Hunting trophies, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Released during the height of World War II, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film is a salute to British stiff-upper-lippedness that, in one long flashback, tracks the dashing earlier life of battle and romance experienced by the now portly and somewhat ridiculous Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey). The film leaps from war to war, making its most memorable transition in the break between the era of the Boer War in South Africa and the First World War. The doughty hero has returned to his aunt’s house to nurse a broken heart; she assures him that he always has a home with her, and that “whatever you shoot, there’s always room for them too.” And so the next few years pass, marked by a terribly British, wildlife-unfriendly pan along the hunting trophies of the wall—a warthog from Sudan, 1904, an Indian elephant from the Central Provinces, 1914—ending on a German helmet labeled “Hun, Flanders, 1918.” As promised, the most dangerous game is man.
11. Brainstorming the hula hoop, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Coen brothers’ screwball-comedy pastiche is all about the passage of time and its effect on the rising and falling fortunes of fast-talking New Yorkers and naïve Muncie business grad Tim Robbins. Its most memorable signal of time going by is a sly goof on an earlier cinematic era’s more literal tendencies to show, say, pages flying off a calendar. After Robbins’ invention (“You know, for kids!”) is approved, the film shows a montage of the different Hudsucker Industries departments working furiously on the product launch. Outside of the “Creative Bullpen,” as three silhouettes brainstorm possible names for what’s eventually deemed a hula-hoop, an aging secretary reads a book. The first two times we glimpse her, it’s War & Peace, but by the third time, as the hoops roll out of the warehouse, she’s well into Anna Karenina. Presumably the well-read administrative assistant will have moved on to Dostoyevsky by the time Robbins’ next toy concept gets its label.
12. Pool mattress to bed mattress, The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate isn’t really about sex; it’s about youthful ennui. Dustin Hoffman eventually gives in to Anne Bancroft’s advances, but mostly out of boredom. Director Mike Nichols depicts the progression of their affair with a montage that also highlights Hoffman’s stasis—a visual motif throughout the entire film. As he floats in his parents’ pool, drinking a beer, “The Sounds Of Silence” begins to play. He walks to the door of the pool house, opens it, and suddenly he’s in a hotel room, where Bancroft begins to undress him. The camera zooms in on his affectless face, then pulls back; Hoffman, now in his family den, slams the door on his parents. As the music switches to “April Come She Will,” Hoffman, again framed in a close-up, lies smoking in a hotel bed as Bancroft flits about the room. The camera zooms in, then out. Back at his parents’ home, Hoffman ignores his concerned mother, and dives wordlessly into the pool. Leaping onto a pool float, he lands in bed with Bancroft, and the sequence is over. It’s unclear how much time has passed—it could be days, weeks, or even months. The point isn’t how much time has passed, it’s that it simply has.
13. By the pool, The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Few movies are as time-obsessed as Nicolas Roeg’s science-fiction head trip. The title character, an extraterrestrial visitor played by David Bowie, doesn’t visibly age, and even though he’s on a time-sensitive mission to save his home planet, the only way to tell that decades are passing, or guess at how quickly, is to note the rate at which the human beings around him are ripening and deteriorating. Perhaps the most ambiguously beautiful-looking scene comes when agents working at Bernie Casey’s behest murder Bowie’s lawyer (Buck Henry) and Henry’s bodybuilder lover. The men are thrown from the window of their penthouse apartment, and as the bodies fall to Earth, there’s an almost imperceptible cut to Casey’s nude, youthful body, outlined against blue sky, gracefully arcing into his swimming pool at home. The next time we see Casey, a couple of scenes later, he’s in the same place, but his hair has become thickly streaked with gray, indicating that a) an indeterminate but not inconsiderable amount of time has passed, and b) there are forces working to bring us all down that can’t be eliminated as easily as Buck Henry.
14. Putting a price on art, Vincent & Theo (1990)
Robert Altman opens Vincent & Theo, his offbeat Van Gogh biopic, with archival footage of Christie’s auctioning off “Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers” in 1987, then cuts to the artist himself living in squalor a century earlier. The juxtaposition itself is banal, but Altman, as usual, has something more singular in mind. When the 19th-century action begins, the sound of the auction fades, yet lingers. For the next five minutes, as the destitute Vincent (Tim Roth) squabbles with his brother Theo (Paul Rhys), we can still faintly hear, underneath their dialogue, the bids on “Sunflowers” going up, and up, and up, and up. (It sold for £25 million—a record at that time, about $80 million in today’s U.S. currency.) It’s an uncanny effect in which the distant future seems to cruelly mock the abject present, as well as an extremely rare case of a filmmaker collapsing two time periods into a single scene. It’s a remarkable device that might be adapted to other films in interesting ways—imagine 2001’s “Dawn Of Man” sequence with a barely audible soundtrack of orders being taken at McDonald’s.
15. On heroin time, Trainspotting (1996)
Danny Boyle’s stylish Trainspotting is filled with literalized versions of subjective feelings: When junkie protagonist Ewan McGregor takes a near-fatal hit of heroin, he slides into a deep, grave-like pit and experiences the world around him through the rectangular mouth of that grave, even as he’s being delivered to a doctor. When his parents lock him in his room and force him through detox, the walls warp and elongate into an intimidating tunnel full of nightmares. And after he’s forced off the drug that provided his only sense of well-being, Boyle plays with time in a scene at a bar where McGregor sits perfectly still, staring vacantly into space as people zoom around him in fast-forward mode. It’s an easy camera trick—though presumably physically challenging for McGregor, who barely seems to breathe during what must have been a long, long take—but the results are impressively disorienting, as he freezes while the world around him blurs into chattery, noisy meaninglessness. The meaning is clear: Time is whirring by for the normal people doing their normal things, but for a junkie without his drugs, and with no investment in his family, friends, or life, every single second seems to drag by painfully. It’s a creative way of expressing the subjectivity of time, and the way boredom and misery can make everything slow to a crawl.
16. Having children, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Capturing the passage of time is a sticky wicket for any biopic, but director Michael Apted came up with an elegant solution for his portrait of Loretta Lynn. Rather than resort to a birthing montage to convey the fact that Lynn had four children by age 19, Apted cuts forward in time and presents her entire brood in one flowing shot. Panning from a stovetop radio playing Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God That Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the camera passes over Sissy Spacek’s Lynn holding her eldest daughter on her hip, moves downward to follow a younger daughter as she crosses the screen, then from right to left as Lynn tends to a son peeling apples at the kitchen table, and left again to find yet another son perched on the counter. In a single fluid movement, Apted conveys that Lynn has had three children since last we saw her, and implies the constant vigilance necessary to raise so many children at once. Apted liked the shot so much, he copied it for his documentary 28 Up.
17. Seasons change, Notting Hill (1999)
There’s more to Notting Hill then Hugh Grant’s floppy hair and Julie Roberts’ blazing smile. Roger Michell’s charming romantic comedy also pays homage to the once-hip London neighborhood of the same name. Grant plays the down-on-his-luck owner of a failing travel bookstore; he falls for Roberts, the world’s biggest movie star, but she abruptly dumps him. Afterward, the heartbroken Grant indulges in a prolonged period of mourning, which Michell illustrates with a lovely little musical interlude. To the sounds of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he wanders the stalls at the famed Portobello Road Market. Jacket draped over his shoulder, he sets out on a sunny spring day. He waves to his eccentric sister, who has her arms around her latest boyfriend. Nearby, a pregnant woman browses the wares at a clothing stall. And as Grant continues to wander down Portobello Road, the sun gives way to rain, then snow. Now wearing a jacket, Grant strolls past Christmas shoppers. Gradually, the snow subsides, and the market stalls again brim with fresh produce and flowers. His sister fights with her beau, and the pregnant shopper we witnessed earlier now holds a bouncing baby in her arms; a year has passed, and life continues to buzz in the city. A title card reading “ONE YEAR LATER” might have been more economical, but Michell’s picturesque slice of urban life is certainly more memorable.
18. Three years later, The Fisher King (1991)
When Jeff Bridges’ radio shock jock is introduced in The Fisher King, he’s on top of the world and poised to go higher. Alone in his eye-poppingly huge, ruthlessly modern Manhattan apartment, he entertains himself by trying out different readings of the catchphrase he’ll get to deliver in a new sitcom the network wants him to star in. Then, without warning, the TV turns on him, and news comes across the airwaves that wipes out his life. The words “THREE YEARS LATER” flash on the screen, which is useful information. But what makes it tangible is seeing Bridges, in the shitbox where he now lives, torturing himself by staring at the TV and seeing Harry Shearer bring down the house by delivering what was supposed to be his catchphrase.
19. Ray Liotta grows up fast, Goodfellas (1990)
Music permeates Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas—it scores the action, sets the mood, and comments on the arc of the story. One of the most memorable pieces of soundtracking also marks the passage of time, and the associated melancholy. When young Ray Liotta gets “pinched” for selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck, he makes sure to follow the sage advice of his mob-appointed father figure, Robert De Niro: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” Once he’s survived his first real test as a hood, a baptism into a lifestyle that will be his ruin, Liotta’s moment of triumph is held in freeze-frame while Billy Ward And The Dominoes’ version of Hoagy Carmichael’s timeless love song “Stardust” plays on the soundtrack. A lament about looking back on lost love, “Stardust” ushers in a jump cut several years in the future to Henry in his 20s, now fully absorbed in the mafia life. The edit is sweeping and romantic, but it also subtly hints at a fateful turning point in Liotta’s life that isn’t destined to end well.
20. Marriage in a montage, Up (2009)
As terrific and moving as the 2009 Pixar film Up is right until the end, the movie never really tops its lovely opening sequence, which presents the childhood, aging, courtship, and marriage of Carl Fredricksen and his wife Ellie over the course of a few minutes. Really a series of memorable time transitions, this painfully poignant montage presents a lifetime of peaks and valleys via beautifully rendered sketches—a first house, unrealized family plans, shared post-retirement dreams, and inevitable sickness and death. It’s a tribute to Up that the sequence is broadly relatable and yet specific to the characters, all while briskly setting up the rest of the film. But the scene is so powerfully tear-jerky that it might require a moment or two of reflection before continuing on.
21-22. Gerry/Silent Light (2002/2007)
In contrast to North By Northwest (and nearly every other movie on this list), sometimes it’s more effective for a filmmaker to convey the passage of time by making audiences experience every ticking second. After spending a few years dabbling in big-time Hollywood filmmaking, Gus Van Sant returned to his indie roots by collaborating with actors Casey Affleck and Matt Damon on the elliptical, hallucinatory Gerry, a movie partly inspired by the work of Hungarian long-take specialist Béla Tarr. The extended walking scenes in Gerry reach an apotheosis when Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides show Affleck and Damon’s characters—both nicknamed “Gerry”—trudging slowly through a barren landscape as the sky gradually lightens with the sunrise. Similarly, Carlos Reygadas’ meditative Silent Light—about a love affair that shakes up a Mexican Mennonite community—sets the tone with its opening scene, in which the sounds of the countryside play over a disorienting shot of a night sky, which gradually stabilizes to an image of trees, backlit by the rising sun, followed by a push in to an open field. Time moves slowly out in the middle of nowhere, but patient viewers can see change.
23. A life not lived, 25th Hour (2002)
The ending sequence of 25th Hour has gotten a lot of ink at The A.V. Club over the years, but that’s because it’s such a remarkable accomplishment—of tone, acting, storytelling, and concept. As Brian Cox drives his son, convicted drug dealer Edward Norton, to prison to begin his sentence, Cox suggests they could just keep driving instead, that Norton could run off to start over elsewhere. In a somber, quiet montage bound together with Cox’s intense narration, director Spike Lee lays out a fairy-tale version of the rest of Norton’s life, step by step: the road trip to the western desert, their final parting, Norton’s new job and friends, and eventually the new family that would grow up around him. It’s a fairy tale delivered from father to son, a final comfort before the real world painfully asserts itself. But it unfolds as a gentle, nurturing image of time’s passage as something to be cherished, rather than endured, the way Norton has endured the time leading up to his incarceration, and plans to endure prison itself. By the end of Cox’s story, Norton has finally managed to slide away into the restful sleep that’s escaped him throughout the movie: Time has finally stopped for him for just a moment.
24. Escape from Alcatraz, Point Blank (1967)
Betrayed, shot, and left for dead by his wife and best friend, Lee Marvin somehow staggers out of the abandoned prison at Alcatraz Island, lowers himself into the choppy waters, and starts trying to swim, or maybe just float, to shore. On the soundtrack, a woman’s voice seems to be mocking him by reciting all the reasons—the “treacherous currents,” the frigid temperatures—that “escape is virtually impossible.” Then, suddenly, Marvin is healthy and natty and aboard the tour boat circling the island, which is revealed to be the source of the woman’s uninterrupted spiel. How the hell did he make it? If you demand a plausible, literal interpretation, you’re probably best off with the idea that Marvin is still where his wife and pal left him, and that most of the movie is the revenge dream of a dying man. But one thing dreams have in common with good movies is that both construct their own logic and make you believe them, which is why movies may be mankind’s best revenge on time itself.