Lifeline and Ten Minutes Older

Short film compilations commissioned for a theme have been a staple genre of the festival circuit for years, and although they rarely achieve artistic cohesion, they sometimes have their stand-out works and a few of them even manage to get released on video (for example, ’60s collections like Rogopag or Six in Paris or more recent entries like LumiËre and Company or 11’09″01). I’ve watched the first of the two-part Ten Minutes Older (2002) series entitled The Trumpet (the other is The Cello), recently released on DVD in Korea, and found it to be a typical compilation of world-renowned filmmakers, highly conceptual sketches, and mixed results in attempting to illustrate an abstract principal–this time, time itself.

Fifteen directors were asked to create ten-minute films revealing their unique interpretation of “time,” seven of which contributed to The Trumpet. Aki Kaurismaki delivers an engaging, if slight, deadpan sketch about a romance in crisis; Werner Herzog offers an eccentric documentary about the modernization of a remote tribe in Brazil; Jim Jarmusch creates a tepid piece about an actress in her trailer during a production break; Wim Wenders communicates what an unexpected acid trip might look like on a desert road; Spike Lee offers a straightforward account of the illegal purging of thousands of voters in Florida’s 2000 presidential election; and Chen Kaige presents a derivative absurdist tale about workers hired to move the contents of a seemingly imaginary apartment.

But the film that stands out from them all is Lifeline by Victor Erice, the poetic Spanish filmmaker whose only features to date are The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), El Sur (1983), and Dream of Light (The Quince Tree Sun, 1992). Most of the cinephiles I know are dearly hoping this new piece won’t be his only cinematic contribution to the first decade of the 21st century, as it merely confirms his exceptional talent–it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen all year.

The film, shot in luminous black-and-white, offers only the barest narrative situation through evocative dissolves connecting people and objects on a quiet afternoon in the Spanish countryside. A young boy draws a watch on his arm and imagines its tick-tocking, aided by the sounds of a real clock and the rhythmic labor of people around him: an elderly woman kneads dough in the kitchen, men scythe tall grass outside; young women scrub shoes. Beyond these people, children play in a parked car; an elderly man plays solitaire and next to him, a middle-aged man sleeps with the remnants of a cigar perched between his limp fingers. A mother sleeps beside her newborn infant, and there is an atmosphere of stillness and peace. Erice dissolves between the characters and various visual details, some nostalgic (family photographs from Cuba) and some menacing (a newspaper article describing Nazis in Spain). The news and decor place the film within a mid-century timeframe and remind the viewer of Franco’s close relations with Germany during World War II.

Suddenly, a dark stain appears on the baby’s blanket and begins to spread. No one, however, seems to notice. Time moves steadily forward as the danger looms. At a critical moment, however, the mother wakes up and cries for help; everyone drops their chores and rushes to her aid. The young boy wipes the image of the watch from his wrist.

Lifeline unfolds in sublimely poetic fashion, soft dissolves connect its beautifully-lit interiors and strong exterior compositions. Its visual and aural textures are lovingly merged and it’s clearly the work of someone who has lived this life and remembers it vividly.

I’ve watched the film a number of times now, and it’s a deeply compelling mixture of elements–rural life and historical detail, physical labor and a child’s imagination–that continually unveils new meaning. On trying to parse the relationship between its disparate elements, Erice’s own comments on the film have been helpful: “Chronos, with its watchful eye, attempts to control life… but life drains away.”

Chronos, of course, was the Greek god of time who devoured his children because he was told one would eventually slay him. (Unfortunately, he was tricked into forgetting one named Zeus.) Moreover, the ancient Greeks used two words to describe time: chronos (measuring the ever-diminishing quantity of time) and kairos (measuring the quality of time in special, unique, restorative moments). Erice’s citation of Chronos suggests the real philosophical conflict at the heart of his film: chronos identifies Spain at a moment in the early-’40s on the brink of war while an infectious danger spreads beneath its ritualized home life, and kairos interrupts that flow and ushers in a defining moment of hope. Such an interplay could describe that specific historical moment of the people of Spain as well as its larger historical experience. Like Erice’s previous work, Lifeline poetically asserts the relationship between personal meaning and history through its intoxicatingly potent sights and sounds that ultimately convey a love of human resilience.

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