How time defines the human experience with Michael Culbya, director of Keeper Of Time
The thing to understand about 'Keeper of Time' is that it's not really a movie about watches, even though its stars include luminaries such as Roger Smith, FP Journe, and Ben Clymer from Hodinkee.
It's not even really a movie about time, although time is central to the compellingly meandering narrative. Instead, it's more an account of how time defines what human life is. Or at least how we perceive that life to be, through the passage of time.
Incredibly, this is Michael Culyba's first film as a director - even though he has produced and edited many other feature-length documentaries for about 20 years - and it can only be described as a masterpiece. Culyba has created something truly remarkable in the space of just over an hour and a half, although (appropriately enough) that time flies: because this is also a story about the relativity of time.
Michael Culyba is the director and producer of Keeper of Time. - Image credit Michael Culbya
You don't need to be Einstein to understand the concept, although there are many eminent experts who talk about it in such an easy way that it makes you wonder why you never really thought of it yourself earlier.
But consider this: when you are aged two, one year is half a lifetime. With the inflation of years that comes with getting older, those 12 months are worth less - hence the familiar yet uncomfortable sensation of time accelerating as the decades pass; to the point where you often feel as if you're running just to keep up. There are other physiological reasons why this happens, all of which are fascinating and explained in detail.
But as the learned people you will meet in the film will tell you, that's nothing to be scared or worried about. Because the passage of time is life itself, and so how we measure it is central to our being.
It's a realisation that only came to Michael comparatively recently when he bought himself a Tudor Black Bay 36 for his birthday - “nobody else was going to do!' - about four years ago, which is still on his wrist now. He found that watch fascinating, and this fascination soon sparked an obsession.
“At the time I had no idea about the difference between a quartz watch and a mechanical watch: I was so green"‚ he explains. “But then I got really into it and went down the rabbit hole: I started attending classes at the horological society of New York and learned how to take a watch apart and how the movement worked. And I asked myself 'how have I got to 44 years old and not know about this?' Then I realised that if I didn't know about it, there must be lots of other people out there who don't know about it either. It was at that point I realised I wanted to share this and make a film about watches".
The end result took four years to make and led to Michael travelling across the world: from New York to England, to Switzerland. The sequences are loaded with symbolism: the sunlight caught between the skyscrapers in New York at the start of the film echo the way that the sun was used as an ancient clock at the very beginning of time. We learn all about how sundials work, with some of the natural time-keeping patterns of nature giving a truly astonishing perspective on how there are greater forces at work within the universe than we will ever realise.
And that's one of the reasons why this film is so humbling. We're told that there were only 190,000 days since Columbus discovered the American continent and - the sucker punch that comes right at the end, after a montage of home movies - that Michael's father only lived for 23,472 days, passing away at the age of 64 following a massive heart attack out of the blue.
At a simple level, the message is carpe diem. But there's so much more to it than that. It's about celebrating the present, building to a wonderful conclusion.
“It was never actually going to be a film that was a homage to my father: that, and the idea of using home movies, was one that only came about during the editing process" says Michael. “I knew that I wanted the end of the film to be a montage of human life, essentially from conception to death, but it didn't involve my father at the time. Then one day I had this epiphany about how it could work and I knew I just had to do it."
Watching the movie feels like going on a seamless journey, but the realities of production - as is the case with more or less any independent feature film - were somewhat different.
“I'm happy if it looks good, but there were many tough moments and roadblocks along the way" says Michael. “One of the big challenges was weaving in the watchmakers' sections with the history and philosophy. How do you make it all flow? I just wanted the film to reveal itself in the best possible way, but it's never easy to figure that out".
With an undertaking this massive, it sometimes feels like the easiest course of action is to give up and hide. But during those moments, Michael found inspiration from people like Roger Smith - whose story is recounted in his own words, in the movie.
“If Roger Smith had the patience and perseverance to work on making his own watch from scratch, for five whole years, getting it exactly right just so that he could show it to his mentor George Daniels - all in the hope of getting an apprenticeship - then I could at least do this" he says.
Roger Smith, Britain's best-known independent watchmaker, describes himself as a distinct oddball: “There aren't that many people like me around" he says in the film, from his workshop on the Isle of Man. But the same could be said of Michael Culyba. He has the vision to see what other people don't, bringing to life a beautiful illustration of what every single living being has in common: an existence measured in time.
He's helped in this cinematic mission by an extraordinary team of people, but particular mention should go to Max Avery Lichtenstein, who composed the original score to the film. Complementing the underlying themes of the film, these are beautiful pieces of music that culminate in the stunning closing sequence that encapsulates the whole meaning of the film.
“I get that all the time: people asking me who did the score and where can I buy it" says Michael. “Max is an extraordinarily talented individual, and what he's put together enhances the film perfectly. We started working together on how the music would fit in with the film from the very beginning; I wanted it to be quite contemporary-sounding and he just hit it out of the park".
Keeper of Time's world premiere takes place on April 28 in New York (attended by all the expert stars of the movie) and it will be streamed live: there will be other global premiere replays the following day to make sure that people can see it conveniently in their different time zones around the world. For tickets, just visit www.keeperoftimemovie.com.
After that...who knows? It may well end up on one of the big screening platforms: Apple or Netflix or Amazon. It certainly deserves to be there, as it's just as enjoyable to watch for someone who's not especially into watches as it is for the die-hard watch fanatic. And that's the true triumph of this film: it manages to be all things to all people - which is something that every filmmaker aspires to but very few actually achieve.
Michael has created a precious jewel of a film; every bit as exquisite as the timepieces crafted by Philippe Dufour: considered to be the finest watchmaker in the world and another shining star among the panoply of greats that were somehow assembled to make the film.
In his own way, Michael too is a 'keeper of time'. We all are, because our heartbeats and circadian rhythms were the first primaeval measures of time before dials and clocks were even invented. Michael says: “I actually came up with the title straight away. Because when you look at a watch, your next question is: 'what is it actually measuring?' As interesting as the watchmakers and horology are, I wanted the film to go deeper and look into exactly what time is and what it means for us human beings. When my father died, I realised that life was very finite, and you have to try and do something meaningful with it. And - as I found out from some of the academics - if you live an interesting life, you also perceive that you live it for longer".
Whatever happens next - and Michael is even pondering a film about the Japanese independent watchmaking scene in the far-off future - he has already created something truly beautiful, which will stand the test of time. Because long after we are gone, our achievements live on. Time, after all, waits for no man.
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