January 10, 2023

Lumière Brothers

Motion picture pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière created a sensation before the turn of the last century with their actualités, or “actuality films.”  These were one-minute documentaries of everyday life in Lyons, Paris and elsewhere, shot by setting up a camera on a street corner or railway platform and just letting the world pass by.  Once the novelty of life-sized images moving on a screen had worn off, the Lumière brothers dispatched camera crews to Russia, Japan and the Middle East in search of new and exotic locales.  Eventually, however, audiences demanded that films do what it turned out they were made for: storytelling. 

With narrative films, you can’t just set the camera up and watch the world go by.  You have to create scenes that advance the narrative and then edit them so that audiences can follow the storyline.  Stories can rarely be told minute by minute in real time in a single shot.  Andy Warhol released an avant-garde film in 1964 called Empire  in which a camera was trained on the Empire State Building at night for eight hours straight without moving.  Warhol’s announced intention was "to see time go by."  In this he succeeded.  But the film was unwatchable, causing one cultural critic to observe: "If I were the camera, I would faint with boredom, staring that long at one thing...." 

To tell a story, you have to move things along both in time and in space.  The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the earliest narrative films, featured 20 separate shots in 10 separate indoor and outdoor locations during 12 minutes of total running time.  Filmmakers had previously been reluctant to splice together different scenes for fear for confusing audiences.  However, viewers had little difficulty following the story in this early classic Western, even without dialogue or title cards.  It was understood that when an exterior shot of robbers boarding a train was followed by an interior shot of those bad guys breaking into a mail car, the mail car was on that same train.  One scene lead to another as the robbers made off with the loot and were eventually gunned down by a posse that gave chase on horseback.
Nothing in more than four million years of hominid evolution would seemingly have prepared viewers to make sense of discontinuous visual information, and yet they do it with ease.  As University of Washington psychologist Jeffrey M. Zacks puts it, “Why don’t our brains explode when we watch movies?”  The short answer is that even though we evolved in a continuous physical world, that’s not how we see things.  We are constantly sampling bits and pieces of the world around us and putting them together to form a coherent picture of reality.  Intentionally or not, early filmmakers developed editing techniques that closely track with how we normally perceive the world. 

University of North Carolina professors Todd Berliner and Dale J. Cohen write that “the brain perceives spatial coherence when observing classically edited cinema because the perceptual system evolved to accept imperfect and disjointed visual information, to reconstruct the fragmented information into a model of the physical world, and to ignore gaps and discontinuities.”  This enables filmmakers to manipulate time and space without any sense of dislocation in telling their stories.  Thus, The Great Train Robbery was able seamlessly to take audiences on an extended journey by train and horseback within 12 minutes of actual running time and without leaving their seats.

The mental processes we use to track the action in a movie and to make sense of the real world are essentially the same.  In each case, memory plays a prominent role.  A person who is suffering from severe anterograde amnesia and who is unable to form new memories would be incapable of following a movie’s plot, because every scene would appear sui generis, unconnected to its vanished predecessor or to the scene that follows.  Such persons are also incapable of functioning in the real world, because for them time itself has effectively come to a standstill.

The term filmmakers use for techniques to move a story forward is “continuity.”  The physical world, of course, is presumably already continuous.  But the mind’s perceptual apparatus doesn’t see it that way.  The mind must stitch together its fragmentary perceptions into the facsimile of a continuous whole, much as a film editor would.  This enables us to wake up, get ready for the day ahead, eat breakfast, bring in the morning paper and go about our business each day without any sense of dislocation in time or space.  And yet, if we were to try to retrace our steps from moment to moment, we would quickly discover that our short-term memory has been emptied of everything that is not needed to keep things moving forward. 

There are no doubt sound evolutionary reasons for this.  Imagine if every moment of your life, no matter how fleeting or trivial, were engraved in memory forever.  You would be unable to recall anything without subjecting yourself to the mnemonic equivalent of Warhol’s Empire.  The effect would be as paralyzing as being unable to form new memories at all.  Your life would lose any sense of continuity because you would be stuck in an endless feedback loop, condemned to relive every moment in excruciating detail from start to finish every time you remembered it.  

Our sense of continuity comes from being able to remember what happened before now but then of forgetting the details and allowing events to recede into the past.  This may account for the apparent foreshortening of perceived time as we grow older and accumulate more experience.  Time seems to speed up, and distant events appear closer than they actually are — a psychological phenomenon called “telescopy,” much like objects seen through a telescope.  Of course, time doesn’t actually have a spatial dimension, so you can’t really call a past event “distant.”  If you retrace a journey of 70 miles, there is no getting around the distance you would have to travel.  But if you retrace a journey of 70 years, you would find you have forgotten most of it.  Perhaps this why we come to think life is so short.  The mechanisms that control our sense of continuity have edited out all the boring bits.




November 24, 2022

"Ancient Japanese Maple" by Eric Rennie (2021)

My photograph, "Ancient Japanese Maple," is one of 55 images accepted in a juried competition (out of more than 1,000 submissions) at the A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, TX near Austin.  The exhibition, called "Botanical," runs from November 25, 2022 until January 5, 2023.  My photo was taken in a pet cemetery at the Harkness Estate near New London, CT.  It previously appeared last year in an exhibition at the Las Laguna Gallery in Las Lagunas, CA. 

Fading Photograph

November 14, 2022

In Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, the filmmakers used a clever visual device to illustrate the so-called “grandfather paradox.” Back to the Future, as its name suggests, is a film about time travel. What happens if you go back in time and alter events in such a way that you accidentally kill your own grandfather — or, in this case, keep your parents from getting together before they have children? In effect, you have committed suicide by ending your family line before you are born.  
In the film, the teenaged protagonist, Marty McFly, played by Michael P. Fox, time-travels back 30 years to the period when his parents met in high school, and he discovers to his horror that his future mother, then a teenager, is developing a crush on him. If his mom never gets it on with his nerdy dad to be, Marty will cease to exist. To drive home the point, the filmmakers show a snapshot of Marty and his two siblings standing in front of a wishing well as they start to fade away. Presumably Marty himself will soon fade into nonexistence as well if he can’t find a way to get his parents together, so he can gracefully step out of their pic-ture until it’s time for him to be born back into it the old-fashioned way.

The grandfather paradox is hard to explain in a few words, but you can demonstrate it with a fading photograph and a couple of lines of dialog. Back to the Future is a feature film, after all, not a science documentary on Nova. The mantra is “show, don’t tell.” In the movie, Marty McFly saves his future father from being hit by a car and becomes the object of his future mother’s amorous intentions. The snapshot of Marty and his two older siblings that he had been carrying around in this wallet starts to fade, beginning with his brother, who is the first-born. A younger version of Doc Brown, the mad scientist who later invents the time machine that will transport Marty back to 1955, realizes that Marty has already interfered with his parents’ courtship, which is why his brother is disappearing from the picture. “Your sister will follow,” he tells Marty, “and unless you can repair the damage, you’ll be next.”

Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1905. However, the protagonist of Wells’ novel travelled into the future, not the past, thereby sidestepping the complications that are bound to ensue if you go monkeying around with your own family tree. Speculations about exactly what might ensue began appearing in the letters columns of pulp science fiction magazines in the late 1920s. The first story to explore the topic was Nat Schnachner’s “Ancestral Voices,” published in Astounding Tales in 1933. In Schnachner’s tale, an inventor named Emmet Penny-packer lands his time machine in the Roman city of Aquileia just as Attila the Hun’s hordes break through the city walls. In the ensuing melee, Pennypacker kills a Hun who turns out to be his own great-grandfather many times over. History is instantly reshuffled, and Pennypacker is also history, along with some 50,000 fellow descendants who disappear without a trace. Now imagine if Zemeckis had tried to make a movie out of that story in order to explore the theme of the grandfather paradox. First, there would be the expense of Attila the Hun’s hordes laying siege to Aquileia. Then, how do you show Pennybacker and 50,000 fellow descendants disappearing without trace?

In Back to the Future, Zemeckis manages to convey essentially the same idea with a single fading photograph of three siblings posing in front of a wishing well. A photograph is a perfect metaphor in this circumstance because it is inherently about time. In order to take a picture in the first place, you have to time the exposure. The image itself stops time and preserves the moment forever. This may not be so apparent if you are just posting a selfie on the Internet. But with each passing year it becomes more apparent that the moment frozen in the photograph has become a window into another time. As time goes on, the snapshot itself may begin to fade in the sunlight, quite apart from any monkeying around with the family tree.

Spoiler alert: In the end, Marty succeeds in getting his parents’ romance back on track, and the snapshot with his siblings is restored to its original condition. But everything doesn’t end exactly where it began. With help from the young Doc Brown, Marty gets the time machine powered up again, and he makes his way back to his point of departure in 1985. End of story? No, the world Marty left is not the world he returns to.

He discovers there are unintended consequences to his untimely interventions in 1955. For one thing, his nerdy father has gained confidence from his unknowing encounter with his future son, and every indication is that he has had a much more successful life. But this raises another thorny question related to the grandfather paradox. Marty may not have been erased from history, but what about the father as he remembered him growing up? And what about everybody else whose lives had been changed in large and small ways as a result of Mary’s untimely interventions? Do their original selves continue on unchanged in some parallel universe — not the least the Marty who had grown up before his time-traveling adventure transformed everything? Are there now two Martys, too sets of parents, two sets of siblings — indeed, two 1985s?

These and other potential complications have prompted many physicists to dismiss time travel as a possibility, at least the prospect of revisiting the past. It is true that time travel is theoretically achievable, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s friend and colleague, Kurt Gödel, worked out the math, which demonstrated that four-dimensional spacetime could in some circumstances loop back on itself. However, you still need to contend with the second law of thermodynamics, which has the arrow of time pointing from past to future, never the other way around. And all that is before you try to grapple with what happens when you inadvertently keep your parents from getting together and then have to scramble to play matchmaker. And what happens if you fail and your own existence is erased? In such a case you presumably would never travel back to 1955 and your parents’ romance would proceed unimpeded. Try to sort that one out!

Time travel is predicated on the assumption that past and future are places you can get to from the present. Each moment exists somewhere in perpetuity. According to the more familiar linear conception of time, each moment is like a single frame of a movie spooling through a projector. However, Einstein’s old mathematics professor, Hermann Minkowski proposed that time and space did not exist as separate dimensions but rather formed a seamless four-dimensional universe he called spacetime in which past, present and future exist eternally and concurrently. Minkowski reasoned that there had never been a "place other than at a time and a time other than at a place.”

Minkowski’s block universe, as it is sometimes called, solves the grandfather paradox, since each moment of spacetime is baked in and can’t be altered. So even if you could hop from one point of spacetime to another, there is no possibility that you could step out of your time machine and do anything to threaten your own existence or otherwise screw up the course of history. This, however, begs the question of how you can go time-traveling if you aren’t actually there in any tangible sense. There is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the grandfather paradox could never twist time into a cosmic pretzel. The possibility of time travel depends on the assumption that the past is tucked away somewhere after it has happened, and the future is already waiting in the wings for its turn on stage. But what if time has no duration, and exists only in the present moment? According to this understanding, past and future have no tangible existence beyond memory and expectation. Things still change, of course, but only within the framework of an ever-changing present.

Alone among the attributes of the natural world, time has no physical characteristics. It is not directly detectable by any of the five senses. Whether we think of time running like film through a projector or as four-dimensional spacetime, we all have a sense of duration, of something moving. But apart from actual physical changes in the world around us, we’d be hard pressed to say what it is that passes when we refer to the passage of time. We can see what is happening right now, and we remember what happened before now. Those memories are like stepping-stones in the stream of time — except that there is no stream, only memories with nothing in between.

We use spatial metaphors to talking about time, since we can’t point to the thing itself. When we say the arrow of time moves in one direction only, what is actually moving? The only arrows of time we can say for certain really move are the hands of a clock, and they may be measuring nothing more than their own ticking.

In Back to the Future, Doc Brown’s time machine is installed in a souped-up DeLorean sports car powered by plutonium. When the DeLorean accelerates to exactly 88 mph, a gizmo called a “flux capacitor” kicks in, and with a blinding flash the vehicle makes the leap into another dimension. On a test run late at night at the mall, nothing is left behind but flaming tire tracks and a vanity license plate reading OUTATIME that has come loose when the DeLorean dematerializes. In the original script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the vanity license plate has a different message that hints at an altogether different understanding of what is happening. It reads: NO TIME.


The Mists of Time

October 14, 2022

"Tracks in Fog 4" by Eric Rennie

I'm looking at a photograph I took more than a year ago.  When I snapped the picture, I was standing on rusty railroad tracks that ran straight down the center of the resulting photograph before disappearing into the foggy distance.  The picture was taken early one morning in late fall.  There are bare trees and scrubby bushes down the rocky embankments on either side of the track.   The sun was starting to break through in the foreground, but the fog predominated in the middle distance. A little way further on, the tracks dissolved into silvery oblivion before they could converge on the horizon.  

Looking at the picture now, it occurs to me it is a perfect representation of time.  Spatial metaphors are often used to delineate time. The nearer an object, the closer to the present time, whether in the past or in future.  Here objects become progressively more obscure as they recede into the distance.  You might say they disappear into the mists of time.

In reality, of course, time does not move either forward or backward, at least not in the sense of an object moving through physical space.  Time has no spatial direction or dimension whatsoever.  If you strip away the metaphors, you are left with the thing itself, which can be measured with great precision but which essentially remains an enigma.  We all have a sense of time passing — of duration — but what exactly passes?  Time is not detectable by any of the physical senses, and clocks measure nothing beyond their own ticking.  Time, for all practical purposes, doesn’t appear to have any tangible existence, except as an abstract measure of change.

An astronomer can look through a telescope at stars and galaxies as they existed billions of years ago, but their light can only be seen right now.  The actual celestial bodies may have burned themselves out long ago.  Similarly, a geologist may study rocks that were formed when our planet was new, but his hypotheses about their origins depend on what he sees right now.  A paleontologist digs up bones from creatures that roamed the earth tens of millions of years ago, but his findings are based on what is in hand right now.  There is evidence aplenty of things that existed before now, but the fact remains that right now is all we have to work with — and all we will ever have to work with.  Right now is really all there is.           

So what is it that disappears into the mist?  I might vividly recall something that happened just yesterday, yet my memories of last week or decades ago are less and less distinct, much like the railroad tracks in my picture receding into the fog. But do past events recede into the mists of time, whatever that might be — or is it just the mists of memory?  If the present moment is all that tangibly exists, and it has no duration in itself, then our sense of time passing must come from our recollection of previous moments.  If we have no memory of prior events, every moment is sui generis.  But, of course, we do remember previous moments, and we assume we are looking through a window into the past.  But the memory isn’t happening in the past; it’s occurring right now.  

Memory, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “the thread on which the beads of man are strung.”  Without memory, the moments of our life follow one another in meaningless succession.  Like time itself, my understanding of who I am exists only in relation to my past.  Without memory there is no past and no duration, no sense of time moving forward.  I am reborn from moment to moment but die just as quickly.  

I gained crucial insights into the interplay of time, memory and identity as caregiver to my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia in the final years of her life.· As her memory faded, she lost not only any sense of her own past but even a firm sense of time passing.  Familiar people in her life became strangers, and in the end she became a stranger to herself.  I watched helplessly as her life slowly faded into the mist before disappearing altogether into oblivion.


Family Photos

September 23, 2022

My Grandmother, Agostina Moreno Fisk (circa. 1900)

I remember seeing a black-and-white snapshot in one of my mother’s old photo albums of an older woman I did not recognize.  I believe the picture was taken in the late 1940s when my parents were living outside Washington, DC, and I was a baby.  I learned much later that the woman was my mother’s birth mother.  The woman’s existence was a secret kept from my siblings and me until I was 40.  It was then my mother disclosed to us the shameful fact that she had been adopted as a baby by the couple I had previously taken to be my natural grandparents.  Of course, social attitudes toward unwed mothers had changed markedly by the time her own children reached adulthood, and none of us felt the least stigma about our supposedly tarnished lineage.  We just felt bad that my mother saw the need to keep her adoption a dark secret all those years.

The woman I had previously assumed to be my grandmother had died of congestive heart failure when my mother was only 15, so I never knew her.  But I had a framed photograph of her hanging in my upstairs hall.  Judging by her hairstyle and dress, the picture must have been taken around the turn of the last century.  She was a Mexican-American beauty in a silk gown, standing by a lace curtain window. How had I failed to notice that this diminutive woman had somehow produced a tall, blond-haired daughter?

As it turned out, my mother’s revelation wasn’t the end of the story.  She and my father had tracked down her birth mother when I was still an infant.  My original grandmother had been a schoolteacher who had never married, a graduate of the University of Maine.  My parents found her through the alumni office.  The only information they had on the father was that he was been a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War I.  Tracking him down took a bit more detective work, which my younger sister undertook much later.  She used her own DNA sample to identify him through   

What she found was also a bit of a revelation.  It turns out our grandfather was a very enterprising man, although not in a good way.  He had twice been convicted of bigamy, and none of the four women involved was our grandmother.  He did a stretch in Sing Sing after two of his wives found out about each other and turned him in.  Apart from his criminal record, the only other thing we learned about him is that he once lived in the same Greenwich Village townhouse later occupied by the novelist James Baldwin.

My mother never knew about any of this, thank God.  She passed away before it was possible for people routinely to uncover skeletons in their closets through DNA testing.  It was enough for my mother to deal with the fact that she was a illegitimate daughter of an otherwise respectable spinster schoolteacher from Maine. 

What do I think about this skeleton in my closet?  The fact that I am disclosing it here might suggest that I’m not overly concerned about this blemish on my family history.  You might even say it adds a certain colorful twist to a narrative that would otherwise involve a dreary fling between an unwed schoolteacher and an anonymous sailor.  I do not think their indiscretion reflects badly on me, my mother or even that poor young schoolteacher who allowed herself to get carried away by her feelings for a sailor who would go on to greater glory as a bigamist. 

My tangled family tree reminds me of a saying popular among born-again Christians: “God has no grandchildren.”  By that they mean what matters is your immediate relationship with God the Father, not who your earthly parents or grandparents are.  I can be the descendent of a saint and still be estranged from God.  This case is the reverse of that.  I can be the grandchild of a criminal and still be no less a child of God.

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