Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Film and Time Travel

March 9, 2011

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…


For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.


The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…


Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.

Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.


The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.

“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)

Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.

Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!

Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.

Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)

“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…

A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.


A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.

While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.


One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.


What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried.  Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong

Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)

Terminator (1&2)

Time After Time

Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)

Los Cronocrimenes

Primer

12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).

BIFF, Day Four. The Festival Strikes Back.

October 26, 2009

Such a good start of this day! The Swedish Film Burrowing (Man Tänker Sitt) is the first true masterpiece of the festival. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better (new) film this year. Experiences like this make everything worth it; the amount of mediocrity and pretentiousness (hello again, Un Lac!) one usually has to wade through in order to happen upon small jewels like this. The film is directed by first time directors Henrik Hellstrøm and Fredrik Wentzel. If they stick with their partnership, I can’t but think that we have much to look forward to in the coming years.

BURROWING_POSTER_WWWThis is a small film, both in length and, I presume, in budget. This means nothing more than that every scene is the perfect length, everything the film wants to tell, it tells admirably and with confidence. Hellstrøm and Wentzel has made a true film, in that the sentiments it wants to communicate are not easily reduced to words, but created by images and sound. The result is at times heartbreaking. More than being just a simple back to nature fable, the film lets us see people interacting with other people and how they have each discovered an emptiness in the world that perhaps has no remedy, but that in nature can somehow be reduced. A society needs rules, but when these rules take over each aspect of human interaction, they have a deadening effect on the soul, and personal identity becomes suspect.

I feel that it is difficult to address these issues through formal language, as the very uttering of the sentiment is based on a need to be understood by as many as possible, an agreed upon system. This is where Burrowing so admirably does the job better than I can in this review, as the film is not easily reduced to a clearly delineated argument. Some of the best novels of the world has talked about these issues, the estrangement of man in society is one of the oldest tales and constitutes an important part of what we call tragedy.

cabin_walden1The film starts with a quotation of Henry David Thoreau, famous for his Walden, about a man retreating from civilized society into the wilderness, into nature, for two years and two months. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he says in that book, which could have been used in the film as well. Instead they use another Walden quotation, from the economy chapter: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior“. The film then cuts to a young boy walking along a lake. We hear his voice narrating. This innocent, yet wise in its way, voiceover will intermittently accompany us to the very end of the film. And what an end it is! Damn, if my eyes didn’t fill up… I could write about the poetry of the scene and how well the words illuminates all the preceding scenes we have witnessed, but that would be to deprive you of the pleasure of finding the beauty of the film for yourselves.

man tenker sittAs I mention an innocent-sounding voiceover and a longing and fascination for nature, I guess most will come in mind the films of Terrence Malick, and they wouldn’t be wrong. If Malick had been raised in Swedish suburbia, this is the film he would have made. Or something close to it. There is a scene of the boy walking through high grass, or weeds, while his voice tells of his understanding of the grown ups’ world, partly naively, partly containing a wisdom that disappears with the death of innocence, of the Eden of childhood. Soon enough the boy will be put in a suit and forced to nod politely to meaningless conversations about meaningless non-topics. It is at this point he reaches a decision. That decision has to do with the other small tragedies we witness.

man_tanker_sitt_2_press1One of these is the estrangement in a young man “without direction”, always carrying his baby in his arms. The scene where he changes diapers in a parking lot and is accosted by a well-meaning woman who threatens to report him to the social services seems very real and true. She doesn’t know anything about him, but has a vague feeling that society will punish her if she does not report such an obvious break with society’s norms. The young man is seemingly unable to take “control of his life” and thus has no place in the world of humans.

Then there is the Russian émigré who meant to stay a few months in Sweden, but has now lived there thirty years. He spends his days trying to spear fish in the small brook that runs between the houses. Who are you?, a suspicious neighbour asks him. He laughs, as if he has been told a joke.

There are others, all with a restlessness they seem unable to put into words, even in their own heads. Everyone stretched so thin in the need to show their neighbours “good behaviour”, that something is about to break, to break out into violence or self destruction. I think this is a feeling that is not limited to Scandinavia and their political model of social democracy, although I assume that plays a part in it.

I’ll end my recommendation by talking briefly about the music used in the film. I have never before heard of the composer, Erik Enocksson, but the way his music was used in the film made him an integral part of the experience. He has composed some almost Bach-like polyphonic and beautiful songs. They are very explicitly linked to the theme of the film. I think all the songs are in Latin, and although I’m not exactly fluent, I was able to discern some snippets.
Somnio, somnio, I heard repeated some times, meaning “to dream“, or “imagine follishly“, I think. Other lines were “Hic non serenitas regit”, which I think means something like “There is no peace/serenity here”. Hic qui virem regit, I think can mean “Here where Man – or perhaps Green – reigns“. Non Qui Periculi Imminent must be translated as something like “There is no danger here”. And other lines about wolves and bears, possibly star signs. The final line I was able to work out was Non Spiriti Mali, “there are no bad spirits here“, or something to that effect. I mention these lines as they can tell a bit about the simple, yet complicated feelings that the film addresses.

All this might lead you to think the film is boring. It is not, certainly not if you think that you can contribute a bit yourself to the little plot there is. The film is really put together like a series of situations that are linked by the characters’ mutual discontent, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the wonderful images, there are situations bound to draw a smile or a tear out of recognition. The film will have a Norwegian premiere in November, and hopefully other countries will also be able to see it outside festivals. It deserves a much bigger audience than I fear that it will have. Please see this!

mary_and_max1The next film of the day was the Australian claymation film Mary and Max, by Adam Elliot. This is a bittersweet tale of two outsiders, who find comfort and the possibility for a meaningful life in each other’s correspondence. One is a young unattractive Australian girl, the other an older fat New York Jew with Asperger syndrome. The result is a kind of 84 Charing Cross Road for extreme outsiders. The film is by no means as depressing as it sounds, although it deals with depression and many of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In fact, it is very funny. I think the entire cinema was laughing every two minutes. I really liked this, and the animation – or claymation, to be correct – is fantastic. And it’s for adults, so the filmmakers deserve credit for making a film in this format that doesn’t depend on millions of children or unethical merchandising to keep the production afloat. Recommended!

Fryktelig_lykkelig_141457bAfter Mary and Max, I had to go to work, so I was unable to see more films before the last film of the day. This was the Danish Fryktelig Lykkelig, Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, most known for his TV-work. Terribly Happy wants to be a Coen brothers film, but is no such thing. A policeman is transferred to the countryside where the local village is peopled by all kinds of weirdoes and the Danish version of Texan good ole boys. The protagonist is a bit of a moron right from the start, and thus his fall from grace doesn’t contain any grace to begin with. This makes for a very bad story, clichéd and contrived. For some reason this was among the most popular films in Denmark last year, even among critics. Don’t, I say, make the same mistake as the Danish. They tell me there is something rotten in that state. Had this film been on TV, I don’t think I’d bothered to watch it through. I guess it is passable entertainment, or rather, hardly even that.

However, even the mediocrity of the Danish couldn’t take away the satisfaction of the Swedish neighbours’ Burrowing. Remember this title, should it present itself to a cinema near you. Or even at some distance.