Feature Article

The Watch and the Sparkler: Time and Movement in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

Author: Patrick Keating (Trinity University)

  • The Watch and the Sparkler: Time and Movement in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

    Feature Article

    The Watch and the Sparkler: Time and Movement in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

    Author:

Abstract

The accompanying audiovisual essay is a close analysis of Bi Gan's 2018 movie Long Day's Journey into Night. Inspired by the movie, the video divides into two parts. The first half outlines Long Day's split structure; the second analyzes the spectacular moving shot that concludes the movie.

How to Cite:

Keating, P., (2023) “The Watch and the Sparkler: Time and Movement in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)”, Film Criticism 47(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.4733

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Published on
31 Oct 2023
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CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://vimeo.com/722809765

My contribution is an audiovisual essay about Bi Gan’s 2018 movie Long Day’s Journey into Night. See the link above. Bi’s movie begins as a film noir, following the protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) as he searches for Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman from his past. When Luo is on the verge of finding her, he falls asleep in a theater showing a 3D movie. The remainder of Long Day’s Journey into Night appears to be an extended dream sequence. Luo wanders around a strange new setting, and he finds a woman who may or may not be Wan. The dream sequence unfolds over the course of a 59-minute shot, ideally experienced in 3D.

Inspired by Bi’s movie, my video divides into two parts: an analysis of Long Day’s split structure and an analysis of the spectacular moving shot that concludes the movie. Rather than repeat the video’s arguments, I would like to use this introductory essay to offer additional reflections on a rather dense quotation that appears in the video’s first half. The quotation comes from the first volume of Paul Ricoeur’s three-volume study, Time and Narrative. The passage is not about movies, but I think it offers a fresh way of thinking about camera movement in narrative cinema. Ricoeur writes:

To follow a story is to move forward in the midst of contingencies and peripeteia under the guidance of an expectation that finds its fulfillment in the ‘conclusion’ of the story. The conclusion is not logically implied by some previous premises. […] [It] furnishes the point of view from which the story can be perceived as forming a whole. 1

This passage defines narrative not in terms of causes and effects but in terms of temporal experience. Ricoeur uses the word move in its temporal sense: a reader moves forward in time as the story unfolds. This movement is experienced as a movement toward something: some ending that will require a look back. The recipient of the tale expects a conclusion that might reshape the understanding of the story.

Ricoeur presents this theory as a synthesis of ideas from Aristotle and Augustine. From the former, he borrows the idea of narrative as the representation of action; from the latter, the idea of the threefold present as an experience of memory, attention, and expectation. 2 And much of the richness of Ricoeur’s theory stems from the inevitable tension between these two ideas. A narrative might represent an action and yet fail to engage us in the full complexity of temporal experience, perhaps because the sequence of events is too predictable or because the ending does not offer a valuable way of rethinking the past. Alternatively, a sparsely constructed narrative might offer a fully engaging experience of time even when very little is happening, as long as each moment is infused with memories and expectations. When Ricoeur writes in the previously quoted passage that the “conclusion is not logically implied by some previous premises,” he questions narrative theory’s traditional emphasis on causal linkage in favor of a model that prioritizes uncertainty and possibility.

Although Ricoeur was not writing about the cinema specifically, his theory can help us account for the power of certain cinematic techniques in narrative film. Many moving-camera shots generate the intense interplay of attention, memory, and expectation that is at the heart of Ricoeur’s theory. For instance, one six-minute shot in Long Day’s Journey into Night ends with a slow movement following a glass of water that is sliding toward the edge of a table. The glass of water is both a citation (quoting the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and a motif (associating Wan with water imagery). The glass’s movement also creates a miniature narrative, generating suspense about whether or not the glass will fall. The camera’s movement intensifies these emotions, not just by directing our attention to the glass itself but by complicating our experience of time as the scene develops. The camera moves away from the characters and toward the glass of water, even as the glass itself moves slowly farther away. The directedness of the camera generates expectations that are charged with uncertainty: uncertainty about the fate of the glass (Will it fall off the table?), but also uncertainty about the path of the camera (Will it follow the glass to the end of the table? Or will it change course entirely?). Each of these expectations carries a set of memories—and here it would be better to speak of potential memories. By potential memories, I mean that each expectation combines an anticipation, such as a hypothesis, a hope, or simply a hunch, with a sense that the anticipated ending, if it comes to pass, will reshape our understanding of what has come before. Maybe the shot will end with a tight close-up of the glass of water; if so, then that composition will provide one sort of scene-closing image from which to rethink the significance of the shot as a whole. Or maybe the shot will end with the camera panning away from the glass; if so, then that composition will provide a different way to rethink the significance of the shot as a whole. As it happens, the camera appears to be slowing down as the shot comes to a close, and it is almost stationary when the glass begins to fall. The visible process of slowing down heightens the expectation of an imminent ending to the shot. The camera has been moving, and now it appears to be stopping. Perhaps it will stop before the glass falls? This expectation produces a small surprise when the glass falls before the camera has, in fact, stopped.

A skeptic might say that the glass’s fall seems like a foregone conclusion—exactly the sort of logically implied result that Ricoeur has warned against. The movement of the glass is not, after all, an action; it is a physical process caused by the passing of a nearby train. But the moment remains charged with possibilities, some arising from the event itself but most arising from the event’s cinematic unfolding. The scene could end before the glass falls; the glass could stop moving at the last second; Luo or Wan could reach out and grab it; the glass could do something magical; the glass could fall exactly when the laws of physics would require it to fall and still be surprising to us because we cannot calculate the moment down to the instant; or the glass could fall exactly when we have predicted it to fall.

So far, I have been emphasizing the interaction of memory and expectation, but in fact the shot generates a powerful experience of attention on the present moment. Will the glass fall now? No. How about now? Will the camera stop now? No. How about now? The cut comes right at the moment when the glass begins to fall, and this rather astonishing conclusion to the shot ends up evoking the (admittedly inconclusive) idea of incompleteness: of a physical process that does not quite reach its culmination, and of a dolly shot that does not quite come to a rest. The intense interest of this moment is difficult to explain from the perspective of an Aristotelian theory that analyzes narrative in terms of actions. To be sure, the scene does represent an action. Luo and Wan see the glass move, and they let it fall. Letting something fall is definitely an action, and that action is deeply meaningful, embodying their fatalistic worldview. But the interest of the action is intensified immeasurably in the way that it unfolds onscreen, via a moving-camera shot that plays on our attention, memory, and expectation, moment by moment.

The accompanying audiovisual essay applies some of Ricoeur’s insights about narrative to an analysis of Bi’s movie, with a particular focus on the 59-minute shot that concludes it. The first half of Long Day’s Journey into Night tells a familiar noir story, but the story is broken off before it reaches a conclusion. In the second half, the camera moves through an unfamiliar space and introduces a new cast of characters. For much of the shot, this new space seems largely unconnected to the world of the first half. Since the causal links seem to be severed or at least called into question, we might conclude that the movie is opening up a new story altogether. But the movie is doing something stranger: it is opening up a new story-world while asking us to experience this world and its events as a continuation of the same narrative. The expectations and memories generated in the first half continue to shape every moment of the still-unfolding movie, whether Luo is in the same world or not. Around every corner there may be a character or an image that will help us make some new kind of sense of the whole. Or there may not be: the event will be shaped by the accumulation of temporal experience nonetheless. The result is not an end to the movie’s narrative but an expansion of its potential, creating an interplay of memory, attention, and expectation that grows ever more layered and ever more puzzling as the movie heads toward its conclusion.

Notes

  1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 66–67. I quote and discuss this passage in Patrick Keating, “Light and Time in the Narrative Fiction Film,” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 61, no. 3 (Spring 2022): 63.
  2. The first chapter of the first volume provides a critical overview of Augustine’s theory; the second chapter, of Aristotle’s theory. The third chapter presents Ricoeur’s synthesis.