Between Suspense and Time Terror

As a result of the paper I gave at the University of Stirling at the beginning of the month, I looked more into aspects of terror. In my paper I used the term “time terror” to describe the feeling Lav Diaz generates in Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008) and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). One question that came up in the Q&A after my presentation was for whom Diaz created this “time terror”. I originally only thought of the characters, who are always found in situations of anxiety, paranoia, fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty.

But then there is this odd feeling I get when I watch those films, and I concluded that the “time terror” applies to both film character and film spectator. It was in a different context, namely the use of endless duration in scenes of characters walking along roads, that Diaz one said he aimed at making the viewer feel time. I don’t think this is the only circumstance where this feeling of time comes into play. I see his films as trying to convey the sensation of what life is like for the characters.

In any case, I’m only playing around with thoughts, so I have by no way an answer to another really interesting (and helpful) question: what do I see as the difference between suspense and time terror? This is a very good point, and there is somewhat an agreement that Lav Diaz does not create suspense as such. It is something else, but what exactly is it?

I found a book I thought could be interesting, called The Aesthetics of Terror. It had very little to do with what I actually wanted. However, there was one argument in the book that made me think: terror comes quick, often without expectations. It appears as quick as it disappears. From that point of view, my idea of terror in Diaz’s films does not seem to fit. Not if we take the modern post-9/11 sense of terror.

My thought about terror stems from my reading on sociological and psychological aspects in concentration camps, where the prisoners’ time-consciousness was deliberately shattered so as to remove frameworks they could hold on to. The shattered time-consciousness led to disorientation. As I detailed in my paper, time in the camps was either experientially stretched by endless roll calls, or accelerated by sudden beatings. There was thus a persistent switch between slowness and speed. This was called terror, or totalitarianism, but because all writers came back to the same aspects of time, I termed it time terror, which suited my research, and makes this specific form of terror much clearer.

Now, you do find the same aspects in Diaz’s films. There is an endless duration in his films, obviously mainly evoked by extreme long-takes, but also by long periods of silence or little action. All of this together slows down the narrative and stretches time, often to an extreme. And then you have brief intermissions, for instance in Florentina, where those stretches of endless duration are interrupted by sudden violence. This is obviously not only felt by the character. It is also the viewer who is put into states of shock after periods of peace, followed by periods of sudden violence.

This all makes sense, and it only needs a few clarifications, which I’m working on in my head at the moment. But how about suspense? Hitchcock’s approach was mentioned…put the bomb under the table and have the family have dinner at it. You don’t need to see the bomb going off or anything. It’s just there. This is indeed similar to Diaz, who often prefers not to show violence, but who much rather creates sensations. So why am I speaking of ‘time terror’ and not of suspense?

I’m not entirely sure at the moment, and I’d be grateful for any thoughts on this. My own thoughts were going back to the play on time. I do see a link between terror/suspense and time. I do not necessarily agree with the above mentioned argument that terror comes quick. The actual act of violence comes quick, but terror is a much larger concept. If we face it, the (Western) world has lived in fear since 9/11. This is terror. The violent attacks that we have seen since then are only a part of it, but they are not terror in itself.

For me, time terror means endless duration first of all, often quite literally because we have no idea when something ends. I also think that terror is a long process, and it therefore goes well with Diaz’s extremely long films, in which he uses the time he has at his hands to create a sensation of terror. Suspense for me is more short-lived. We know suspense from pretty much all contemporary films; horror, thrillers, even comedies do contain suspense at times. But these scenes of suspense are short-lived. You do not live through hours of uncertainty before something may or may not happen. It is rare that you feel suspense for an entire two hour long film. Horror films may be a different thing to look at here. I’m not sure whether duration alone is enough to explain terror (as opposed to suspense). I think I could make a case for it, but I’m happy to hear any feedback on this issue that could help me explain my time terror theory in clearer terms.

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