The Asynchronous Storytelling of Manchevski
Non-linear storytelling incorporating flashbacks is common in modernist cinema. But there is another way of playing with the temporality of events that New York-based Macedonian film director Milcho Manchevski classifies as cinematic Cubism: “Cubism restructures spatial and temporal events to create a graphic narrative, but artistically, film is the medium which, by its nature, can accommodate most easily a simultaneity of viewpoints, and demonstrate most clearly the indivisibility of events.” In essence, a Cubist narrative is a story or multiple stories that have been deconstructed and assembled back together. The main idea is to create a more complex narrative and invite the viewer to abandon her passivity in interpreting the movie. Besides narrative complexity and viewer engagement, however, Manchevski uses the deconstruction and reconstruction of events to create a temporal sequence that is subjective to the characters. This temporal sequence is asynchronous: events are not defined by linear or causal relations, but by their singular, subjective nature.
I. Objective and Subjective Time
Time is the way people measure and experience change. Time gives meaning and order to change. Some changes are repetitive: trees lose their leaves in the fall and regain them in the spring. Observing such cycles gives us a sense of security and certainty: things unfold in patterns. At this very moment the leaves are green, while two months ago the branches were bare. In two months, the leaves will turn yellow again. We tie this regular transformation to our sense of the present by remembering how things used to be and projecting how they will be.
It is, however, non-repetitive and unpredictable change that is dominant in our day-to-day lives. To describe it, people rely first and foremost on memory, on how things used to be. The juxtaposition of the now and the used-to-be-ness of things allows for the recognition of change. In some sense, we use our knowledge of natural cycles to interpret unpredictable change. Noticing that something is not what it was and making assumptions of what it could be in the future is how we construct the three temporal dimensions of past, present and future. These are made up of the human experience of the world and are essentially subjective.
To subtract subjective experience from time would turn time into an abstraction a person could speculate about but never experience. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev defines this process as the objectification of time. Berdyaev recognizes that we can talk about two types of objective time – cosmic and historical. “Cosmic time is an abstract, uniform, divisible and measurable flow form past to future.” It constitutes existence irrespective of any subjective presence in it and is uninterpretable. History, on the other hand, arises from human activity but, again, it remains uninfluenced by subjective perceptions of it. History follows the “irreversible movement from possibility to actuality” and it consists of subject-caused events, rather than abstract uniform units like minutes, years or centuries as in cosmic time. Both these concepts of time are abstract schematizations of concrete durations. For example, the year 2020 can be described either by the 365 days it was comprised of or by the global pandemic taking place. Both would demarcate the period of time irrespective of how subjects experienced it.
In contrast to time as an objective dimension, Berdyaev uses another term to refer to it: “existential time” is how the subject experiences time. This concept is closely related to the emotions, to imagination and creativity. It is best identified in moments of creative or ecstatic bursts, which can be emotionally, cognitively, artistically or spiritually triggered. Here the only relevant point in time is the present. The past is a present memory and the future is a present aspiration, and all that ties them together is the moment of now. The human being constitutes this “existential time” as duration tightly related to individual experience. For example, if one is euphoric during an experience, she might refer to it as an experience of several seconds, even though the event could have lasted for hours. On the contrary, if a situation makes someone feel uncomfortable, it might feel as if hours have passed even though it had been only minutes.
A similar logic applies to memories and aspirations. Subjects cannot help but project current feelings, biases or personal preferences onto events that they recall or foresee. This is how subjective time is stretched or shrunk, deconstructed and pieced back together. Past and future get to coexist in the present in a narrative driven by the subject.
II. Subjectivity Through Cubist Narrative
In an interview in 2003, Manchevski shares that the storytelling that disassembles and reassembles events fascinates him and helps him escape the mainstream: “…Dust  is close to Cubism mostly in how it deconstructs the material when re-presenting it. But, whereas in painting Cubism refers to visual material, in film, or in Dust at least, we have narrative material, decomposed and recomposed in time…. I did not set off with the idea of making a Cubist film. But I did intend to play with time and structure.” Undoubtedly, Manchevski wanted to break away from the conventional paradigm of the mainstream movie industry. The predictability of narrative and emotional impact was to be avoided.
The Cubist approach is an interpretation in itself. It does not rely on the linear or logical portrayal of events, time or space. The core principle of this approach is the subjectivity of the artist and their feel for what they are creating. Manchevski’s de- and reconstruction of stories is more unusual than the mere incorporation of flashbacks. His narratives mix up years and places; jump back and forth, allowing for the simultaneous co-existence of past and present, of several instances that never quite loop back to a beginning.
Manchevski uses precisely such structures in his movies Before the Rain (1995) and Dust (2001). The time-space continuum of both movies is quite distinctive. Neither follows a linear development; the events moving the plot are not chronologically ordered, and at first glance they seem illogical. Manchevski’s Cubist style makes subjective time the driving force of the narrative. But how exactly is the linearity of time broken in these movies? And what features of the plot can be read as subjective alterations of events that we could describe through Berdyaev’s idea of existential time?
III. Temporal Structures in Dust and Before the Rain
The common denominator in Manchevski’s Before the Rain and Dust is that they are both essentially love stories. Behind the complex narrative and temporal structure there is a tale about love that ends tragically. In Before the Rain, the main characters are united by love but divided by pointless and ruthless violence. Dust tells the story of two brothers in love with the same woman who kills herself; one of the brothers goes away only to find his own death. A similar tragic sense defines the narrative in Shadows, another of Manchevski’s movies in which the main character falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost. As Sean Homer points out, “Manchevski’s stories, then, are rather conventional; it is the form, the plot, that undermines our expectations and opens up the possibility of alternative readings.” The complex ordering of events in these movies is also characterized by strong polarizing emotions – intense love and deep-rooted hatred.
As mentioned above, the main feature of existential time according to Berdyaev is the subject’s emotionality attached to it. Hence, the time conflicts, apparent contradictions and plot inconsistencies can be interpreted through the character’s emotions, which in turn influence the perception of the events. The narrative is not driven by subjects causing the events but by the events affecting the subjects and thus by the latter’s perception of time.
Dust is the more complex of the two movies in terms of temporal and spatial structure. The narrative is comprised of two stories that, like two curves, come together at some points, then move apart, only to cross again in the end. The two stories take place in different years and places, and involve different characters. In the present, there is Edge (Adrian Lester), a burglar who breaks into Angela’s (Rosemary Murphy) apartment. He is held at gun point by the old lady and is forced to listen to her. Angela proceeds to tell a story about two brothers – Luke (David Wenham) and Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), both of whom fall for the prostitute Lilith (Anne Brochet). The story follows the brothers’ journey from the American “Wild West” to the “Wild East” of Macedonia and continues to unfold after Angela’s death.
The seemingly impossible plot is illuminated by the motto of the movie – “Where does your voice go when you're no more?” Angela mumbles these words while on her death bed, struggling to continue the story she had begun. The question reinforces the idea that this is indeed Angela’s story. Regardless of the accuracy of the facts and the veracity of the events, it is Angela’s voice. Her voicing of the story is what draws the past into the present, her memories constitute the story in the now. The past only exists as long as it is being told. The story outlives the storyteller because it is picked up by another subject who continues to voice it.
There is no traditional embedding of stories here. According to Homer, “The narrative does not follow the familiar convention of a story within a story, on the contrary, both stories seem to co-exist on the same temporal plain.” And both have their distinctive visual and aural features from the beginning. The Wild West is depicted in black and white, while contemporary New York is in color. This distinction is present when Luke goes back to Paris but once he proceeds to Macedonia, the visual continuity of the story breaks. The flashbacks are no longer black and white, blending with the present on a visual level.
The breaking of expectations is further enforced by the soundtrack of Dust, as the director alternates diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. In the revealing summary of Homer:
In the central sequence of scenes, where Luke is captured by Ottoman forces, the diegetic sound of Ottoman soldiers hysterically laughing is abruptly interrupted by (non-diegetic) rap music, “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA. There is a clear disjunction between the visual and the aural here, but a jump cut to the present reveals Edge shouting out of the hospital window to someone to turn the music, “Straight Outta Compton”, down.”
Although not clear at first, both in the past and in the present story the sounds are diegetic. The disjunction comes from our expectations as viewers who try to compartmentalize narrative time into the neat boxes of a past and a present.
Sound also marks Angela’s subjectivity on several occasions. For instance, when Luke is being held at gunpoint by the Ottomans, the diegetic sound is broken by Angela’s desperate attempts to take a breath. She even visually appears among the soldiers in the middle of the field, struggling to breathe. Angela seems to be illogically thrown into the story at that moment, but this is not exactly the case. At that point, the flashback stops, as time nearly stops for Angela while she struggles to breathe. Her experience of the current moment alters the narrative she is constructing and puts it on pause. There are other scenes full of apparent discrepancies. For example, when Angela recalls Luke’s capturing, she continuously changes the number of soldiers – 20, 200, 2000. This also confirms subjectivity as the leading principle in the storytelling in Dust.
Before the Rain constructs its own temporal space, where time is neither linear nor circular. The movie consists of three parts – Words, Faces and Pictures. The narrative time seems to be circular, with the Prologue and Epilogue being the same scene. The dialogue, however, differs slightly, which suggests an inconsistent plot opening possibilities for alternative readings. As in Dust, Before the Rain’s temporal structure suggests that experience is crucial to the present moment as it is the only tie the past has with the present. The fact that the two scenes do not match perfectly suggests that subjectivity defines the story more than the mere repetition of facts. The subjective perception of events which constitutes existential time in Berdyaev’s theory prevents the occurrence of an exact same event twice, an idea reinforced by the narrative in Before the Rain. Not being linear or circular allows the movie to follow its own timeline.
Dust and Before the Rain have different narrative temporal structures. Both, however, create the asynchronistic atmosphere characteristic of Manchevski’s Cubist style. In Dust the linearity of time is ruptured by flashbacks until they become one with the present. The temporal-spatial situation of the movie does away with time as a line, constituting it instead as a point at which everything is happening. Before the Rain, on the other hand, builds an almost circular timeline but rejects it with what seem to be plot inconsistencies. It suggests that events resurface, but they are never exactly the same because people experience them differently. In each movie the past finds its way into the present, assuming different forms depending on the characters’ experiences. Neither movie follows a linear structure; each in some sense remains more faithful to human experience by dynamically constituting its own temporality.
 Burger, 69.
 Gaughran, 124.
 Dye, 121.
 Ibid, 123.
 Tängerstad, 232.
 Nixon, 25.
 Homer, 98.
 Ibid, 99.
 Ibid, 99.
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Before the Rain (Republic of Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski 1994)
Dust (Republic of Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski 2001)
Shadows (Republic of Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski 2010)