If you don’t like art museums or concert halls, you probably won’t enjoy this movie. While it is categorized as a documentary, it is more of a music video – except that the music is to support the visual images rather than the other way around. There are no words, and no apparent message. As with much non-verbal art, it is left to the viewer to discern its meaning – or simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience.
It does start out very slowly, and I was afraid I was going to be rather bored. I like the views of the Grand Canyon (I imagine it must have been spectacular when originally showed on an IMAX screen) and the movement of clouds across the sky, but eventually you want to see some kind of action. I had mistakenly thought, from the subtitle, “A Visual and Musical Journey Through Time,” that there would be a progression from prehistory to the present. Scenes of Stonehenge reinforced this notion – but then suddenly I was viewing traffic in a modern city, its alternating rhythms enhanced by the time-lapse photography.
The juxtaposition of these two types of scenes was memorable, however. First there is the leisurely movement of light and dark across ancient, unmoving objects, so slow as to be nearly imperceptible at times. In contrast the frantic rush of cars from one block to the next, only to stop, start, stop, over and over, highlights the difference in the way the passing of a given increment of time is so different depending on the context.
Then there were unpeopled landscapes again, though this time the moving camera gave the scene more of a dynamic rather than static feel. The music continued its eerie patterns, neither the relaxing classical or “nature” music I had expected, nor developing in concert with the scenery to any apparent destination. I commented to my 9-year-old (who was initially bored but ended up watching the entire movie with me, occasionally trying to guess the locations depicted on the screen) that the music reminded me of the sort used in a movie to build up tension toward a climax. But it didn’t go anywhere, except on and one.
Finally we did begin to see more signs of human civilization, not in the presence of people but of buildings and artwork they had left behind. I particularly liked the scene where the tide rushes up (interesting to see the tide come in with time compressed in this way) toward the lonely monastery of Mont- Saint-Michel in Normandy (I had to look up this identification later in the bonus materials). The camera takes us inside, but it is as quiet and solitary as the ocean, and as it must have been for the monks who lived there in ages past.
Depictions of artwork indoors were less effective, I thought, because there is little to show of the passage of time (though there is one impressive scene where the sunlight pouring in a window on the upper right slowly moves across to come in by the upper left instead). I tried to figure out where we were – was Michelangelo’s David in Florence or another Italian city? – was this hugely decorated cathedral St. Peter’s in Rome? But these indoor sequences lacked any real sense of movement – except when people came on the scene.
There is an apparently well-known scene of people going up and down escalators. (Actually there are several such scenes, filmed in different cities.) Here the music matches the movement on screen, faster and faster until individual faces and forms can no longer be distinguished, only a rush of colors (which are not after all very colorful, as so many people are wearing dark-colored clothing for traveling). It was visually stimulating and a pleasure to watch – yet I began to want to return to the slower rhythms of the desert or seascape.
At one point my son asked me how long the movie was. I had no idea, so he checked the box and it said 68 minutes running time. But I had no idea how long we had been watching so far. About half an hour, perhaps? But about a minute later, the movie ended. Time flies, I thought, when you’re watching time-lapse photography.
Actually, it turns out the 68 minutes includes bonus material. Chronos itself takes 43 minutes. But the bonus material (most of it apparently not included on the newer high-definition version, unfortunately) is worth watching, especially to see how some of the music was made. There is a strange instrument called the Beam, which explains why there were so many sounds whose source I could not identify. The photographers discuss the difficulties of transporting and maintaining a large-format camera, especially back when it was so new (1985) that hardly anyone knew much about it.
One thing that disappointed me in the bonus material was the list of landscapes (including cityscapes and indoors scenes), which identified locations and in some cases provided additional comments (onscreen text) but no pictures. Sometimes I had been pretty sure of what I was seeing, such as St. Peter’s or Grand Central Station, and the list confirmed that. But in other cases, I had wondered what cathedral or palace I was seeing, and a list of cathedrals or palaces did little for me, without pictures to match them up with.
I’ve read that the film was ground-breaking when it was made. In over two decades since then, technology and techniques have gone so far beyond what was possible in 1985 that it comes off as much less impressive today. And that, too, is a reflection on the effects of time. (That thought isn’t original with me, I read it one of the reviews, though I don’t remember which one. And that is yet another effect of time…)