For my grandmother’s 80th birthday, my aunt and my cousin made a slideshow. It was 22 minutes long with a soundtrack of the highest schmaltz, including Bette Midler, Celine Dion, and, in case we missed the point, Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Had someone snuck me this synopsis in advance, I would have taken the opportunity to stretch my legs. But, as it turned out, those 22 minutes moved me more deeply than any video I’d ever seen.
The photos were arranged in chronological order. There was my grandmother as a newborn, as a girl, as a young woman with the steno pool, as a beaming bride, as a honeymooner, as a new mother (holding my infant father), with her boys on the front steps, with her boys graduating from high school, at her son’s wedding (to my mom), at her younger son’s wedding (to my aunt), as a grandmother (holding my infant brother), as a grandmother again (holding an infant me), until the photos resembled the woman sitting across the room, the woman watching the video with us.
Part of what was moving was that in photo after photo, there she was with the same high forehead, the same fixed and flattered smile, while all around her time was progressing. The clothes, the hairstyles, the cars, even the quality of the film itself — all of it was changing. You could see her moving through time, and you could also see time moving through her and everything around her.
I was reminded of that video recently because of a new film and a new book. The film, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” follows a boy from age 7 to 18. Shot over the course of 12 years, with the characters aging as the actors did, the film has been hailed as “a tribute to the fading moments of the now.” A book, volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume “My Struggle,” has received similar praise. The marvel of the work is that by detailing a few days, many of them quite ordinary (for instance, the attempt as a teenager to bring beer to a party, which runs nearly 70 pages), Knausgaard evokes the feeling of an entire life.
Linklater and Knausgaard are hardly the first artists to consider the passage of time. Think of Gauguin’s famous triptych “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (now at the Museum of Fine Arts) or Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” But, in recent years, there has been a surge of this type of work — work that seeks to dilate time, to slow it down so we might peer into its inner workings. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, “The Clock” by Christian Marclay, to name just a few. And critics have responded with a Pulitzer Prize, a Palme D’Or, and a Venice Biennale Golden Lion, respectively.
So why now — why is our cultural moment ripe for art like my grandmother’s video, for art that offers a long perspective of time?
One answer may be that we’re overloaded with the present. Technology has unleashed an unprecedented flood of information into our daily lives. Indeed, a new study shows that injuries to pedestrian cellphone users have more than quintupled since 2005. One woman even walked off a bridge. It’s hard for us to be in the present, literally to look up and see where we are, because we’re surrounded by a kind of echolalia of the present; so many voices clamor for our attention, we lose track of where the present actually is.
Another answer may be that our sense of time is contracting. Picture a gauge with the present being in the middle — how far forward or back does your thinking go during most of the day? Studies show that multitasking makes it harder not only to consolidate new memories, but also to understand their meaning in the larger context of our lives. With less time to reflect on the past or the future, our big picture actually grows smaller.
One trick our brain has always had for keeping a long perspective of time is involuntary memory. A familiar scent transports us to our childhood home; a familiar song is memory’s limousine back to the prom. But if our attention is scattered, we’re less available for this kind of time travel. While it’s easier than ever to find the memories we’re looking for — the name of that book, the band who played that song — it’s harder than ever for involuntary memories, which are often more meaningful, to find us.
And without the past, as Gauguin knew, it becomes harder for us to understand who we are now, and where we might be going. To carry the past comfortably is to be whole.
Last August, my grandmother turned 100. Several relatives who’d watched the slideshow with us at her 80th, including my aunt, were no longer alive. At the party, to watch those 22 minutes again wasn’t easy. Time’s shadow had spread from the screen into the room. But, once again, time seemed to slow down, which gave us more space to accommodate the past, and which made the present feel larger.
And when the lights came back up, there was my grandmother, carrying all those years with her. She toasted to the future.
Howard Axelrod is a writer living in Boston. His memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont, will be released in the fall of 2015.