My lolo and I were going through old photographs when I came across an image of him from after he graduated from medical school. Through the grain of the image, under the sleeve of his gown, I could just make out the butt of a cigarette between his fingers. When I pointed this out to him, Lolo replied, “Oh, that’s just some artifact,” one of the funnier evasions I’ve heard. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen him smoke, though most of his now-adult sons have had the habit at one time or another. For a while, I chalked up his odd phrasing to a failure to choose between Tagalog and English. Recognizing ourselves through the items and habits we no longer have is a way to talk about our past selves: the negative identification affirms who we are in the present. No matter how familiar our current traits are to someone else, there’s always some distance between then and now. Could we really be the same person, after all this time? Once, a friend of mine, when I asked about a photo of her with what I thought was an unfathomable haircut, explained, “Yeah, that was two or three personalities ago.”
These comments were brought on by physical objects—or at least their digital copies—but the artifact in question seems to be time itself, how it manifests most perceptibly in these jarring changes. The more I think about it, the more it seems like artifact is exactly the right word to describe the physical detritus of our past selves, whether in the form of objects or more corporeal things like scars or tattoos. But that still doesn’t touch on the person, who pushes against objectification wherever possible. With Lolo, the past—a past—sat between us on the table, that moment in time as much a thing as the photo itself. When someone is caught acting so aberrantly, he could be accused of being unrecognizable: Who are you? I don’t know you anymore. This reaction has always seemed flippant to me, even if it voices a real feeling. But another kind of negative identification is happening in moments like these. It’s not that the person is unfamiliar. Their behavior, which is always mutable, simply changed.
Behavior is how actors tend to describe their work. Robin Wright (quoting David Fincher) said that directing, an essential facet of acting, is a math equation: behavior over time. The building of recognition for a character is as much about clocking a familiar face as about understanding the augmentation of their movements, their speech, or their way of listening. Some actors are lauded for their stark transformations (Steve Carell in Foxcatcher comes to mind). Others are criticized for bringing too much of themselves to their roles (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson). I don’t believe the distinction between the two inherently matters. Their behavior has to be believable within the context of the story, and if that involves a performance that draws on real life, so be it. What’s more relevant is if the illusion can be maintained from start to finish.
You would assume film is uniquely poised to show similarities and differences over time in the same person. But the dramatization of how someone is shaped physically over a lifetime tends to manifest itself through makeup, prosthetics, and computer-generated imagery rather than through behavior. Part of this is due simply to the time constraints of film production. Unlike television shows, movies don’t benefit from the long-term creation of a character’s personality (Richard Linklater’s opus Boyhood—shot over twelve years with the same lead actor, from ages six to eighteen—is a notable exception). I also think it comes down to filmmakers’ distrust that audiences will recognize behavior as much as physical presence.
Which may be why the movie-magic transition of seeing an actor in heavy, elder’s makeup—or of seeing a character as a child before they transition to their adult counterpart—can sometimes be so jarring. Time has obviously weathered this person’s body, deepened their voice, withered their bones, but we didn’t get to see how. Sure, they might have the same conspicuous mole (as Emun Elliott does in Old when he becomes the adult version of the same character, played by Alex Wolff), or, improbably, the same haircut after so many years (Ewan McGregor as a young Albert Finney in Big Fish; Andy Bean as an older Wyatt Oleff in It: Chapter 2; Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 3). But more often than not, one version of the person exits at screen right and another comes back from screen left without any real connective tissue bridging the gap. In that cut sit years or decades. Only on the screen are we asked to suspend this kind of disbelief.
Take Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (5’9″) as a mercenary who fights against his future self, played by Bruce Willis (6’0″). Veteran makeup artist Kazu Hiro (formerly Kazuhiro Tsuji) subtly tweaked Gordon-Levitt’s elfin facial features, particularly his nose and lips, to imply the connection to the beefier Willis without completely transforming his face. But most of the transformational weight is carried by Gordon-Levitt’s careful observation of Willis’s mannerisms, his slow and somber vocal quality, the frown line his mouth naturally makes. By the time the two finally meet, the big ask of believing that both actors are the same person isn’t as absurd as it otherwise would be. But Looper is a particularly unique case, a film whose very concept not only plays on the idea that divergent behaviors and personalities can drastically alter who a person is and how they present themselves, but also relies on the audience’s familiarity with two extremely distinct actors to determine the success or failure of this endeavor. In a way, Looper takes almost two hours to massage your doubt away, less a sleight of hand than a slow reveal.
Taiwanese photographer Annie Wang’s series The Mother as Creator features the artist and her son over the course of seventeen years. The first photo shows Wang pregnant, sitting in a bra and underwear, with the words “My Belly My Baby Annie 4 Jun 2001” written on her stomach. The second, taken the following year, shows Wang sitting beside a print of the first photograph, her one-year-old son in her lap. Each successive installment furthers the number of frames within a given image, the previous year’s photograph photographed in front of the previous one, a kind of budding mise en abyme. All the while, we watch as Wang’s son grows, eventually standing taller than his mother. I tend to think of The Mother as Creator as an over-the-top, static representation of a match cut that is forever zooming out.
Writer Namwali Serpell says, “You could think of a match cut as a visual analogy or metaphor: a purposive claim that one thing is like another thing, a ‘perception of the similarity in the dissimilar,’ as Aristotle put it.” The match cut is arguably cinema’s quickest sleight of hand trick, where one image in a film’s sequence is immediately juxtaposed with another, separate image. The elements in both images tend to mirror each other, in both shape and orientation. A cut marries the prehistoric bone club of the apes to the rocket bus millions of years later in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Smoke from a candle flame aligns with the smoke from a train’s chimney in Schindler’s List. It’s one of the least jarring ways to transition from one scene to the next, an edit that doesn’t require the audience’s eyes to travel on the screen. “Or,” Serpell continues, “you could think of a match cut as a visual pun: a trifling way to play with the fact that two things echo each other. Either way, as a technique for juxtaposition, match cuts raise two questions: What’s the relationship between the things juxtaposed? And how is the juxtaposition itself justified?”
The answers to both questions tend to be split between “There is a relationship, which the juxtaposition exaggerates” and “There is no obvious relationship, but the resulting edit creates a pleasing pattern.” At the end of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock matches a cut of Cary Grant pulling Eva Marie Saint to safety from the edge of Mount Rushmore, with a cut of Cary Grant safely pulling Eva Marie Saint into bed on a train car. A director like Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) utilizes both motivations, matching shots to bridge gaps in time (often from day to night) as well as in geography. The extraneous is removed: no traveling, no thinking, no time. Indiana Jones as a boy wears his famous hat, looks up, and smiles as an adult, River Phoenix to Harrison Ford.
My favorite occurs in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, during an investigation montage. David Dencik plays the Swedish detective Morell, who searches for a missing girl in the countryside. We never hear him speak throughout the sequence, which enhances the strength of the cut and its association to follow; there is no voice to compare his older counterpart to. Then, in the middle of a dark forest, as Morell takes out a cigarette, we finally hear him speak in a voice-over from the present. Young Morell lights his cigarette and the older Morell (played by Donald Sumpter) takes a drag from it. Of course, though the actors aren’t sharing the object, the character might as well be. The cut that joins them is made seamlessly, both cigarettes pointed in the same direction, the motion of an arm pulling away from the past to the present, uninterrupted. Here it no longer matters which two or three people are playing the same character, how similar they appear, whether or not they nail each other’s way of speaking. Everything collapses, one structure of life falling perfectly on top of another, so there is no room to think anything other than, There they are.
Recall my lolo, the ex-smoker. Stand him before a line of trees some thirty to forty feet away. Have him smile. Tilt his head just so. Then cut, back and forth, before and after, to the man he was and the man he is now. There can be no mistaking him, whatever may be in his hands, wherever he is, whatever he may be thinking. The trick is invisible because it’s the only one there is: time.