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.