Posts Tagged ‘Terry Gilliam’

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).

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BIFF 2009, Day One

October 23, 2009

Bergen International Film Festival tries to market itself as a documentary festival. However, the program sports plenty of fiction films as well. Some of these are the usual festival circuit films; i.e. independent films and foreign films with small chances of a wide distribution. And then there are early premieres of films that will see a regular distribution later on, normally Hollywood films or films directed by relatively big art house names.
I admit that I’m not a big fan of documentaries per se. In my experience, it’s seldom that a documentary manages to be original either in subject matter or in execution. And I’m so, so tired of Michael Moore. I have enjoyed some of the work of Errol Morris and the occasional other documentary, but films like Super Size Me just seems a dumbing down of subject matters best left for newspaper articles. Often documentaries struggle to escape their talking heads format and even more often they are extremely self important, seldom if never allowing competing realities in their narratives. This works in propaganda, but a good documentary would often be better with a bit of balance in its presentation. For some reason documentaries generally get better reviews than fiction films even though they can be just as trite in execution as well as in choice of topic.

the-imaginarium-of-doctor-parnassus I was initially disappointed upon glancing through this year’s program, but after some rumination, I have picked some 25 films that I plan to see. I don’t expect every one of these to be masterpieces, but it would be nice if at least 2 or 3 of them will cut the mustard.

Yesterday, day 1 of the festival, I started what will surely be a more or less exhausting cinematic week by catching Terry Gilliam’s latest personal project; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While overlong and probably plagued by the death of Heath Ledger towards the end of the filming, I liked this. It is certainly much better than the work for hire he did in the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps Gilliam could have needed some script revision from, say, a Tom Stoppard, who whipped Brazil into shape, as Gilliam left to his own devices can be a bit much whimsy. I hate to say it, but as much as unbridled imagination is what gives Gilliam’s films their particular qualities, a bit of streamlining on the plot-side of things would probably have helped the film. The risk is always that his films can lose some of their Gilliamness in this way, but perhaps that wouldn’t have to be an unqualified bad thing. There are scenes here, though, that make me excuse much of the meandering in the dialogue and the “real world”-segments, and the actors are all very fine. Just don’t expect a Twelve Monkeys kind of hit, as this is a more idiosyncratic feature.

The documentary Reporter, by Eric Daniel Metzgar follows the New York Times journalist/columnist Nicholas D. Kristof to Congo. It attempts three things: To be a kind of portrait of Kristof, to examine his methods of reporting atrocities/catastrophes and finally to question whether this kind of reporting has a future in the modern world of media with cut backs and less resources for this kind of journalistic enterprise. While it is impossible to remain unmoved by some of the things we witness in the film, I have to say that it misses all three of its aims. We learn little about the journalist; apart from a brief biographical sequence early on. The film seldom asks the eponymous reporter any illuminating questions and his reasons for which places to go, what cases to report, as well as his personal stance and reflections, never quite comes into focus. As for his methods, at one point the film maker says that he has begun to question Kristof’s insistence upon finding the worst cases in order for his readers to maximize their sympathy with the sufferers. That is the only critical question in the film, and it is not even put to the Kristof himself. Tellingly, the director never picks up this thread later on.Thirdly, the part of the future of journalism is kept to two sentences lasting about thirty seconds at the very end of the film, and are put there almost as an afterthought. Needless to say, in that time it would be impossible for anyone to say anything that would be news to most people. I’d suggest you see the last season of the Wire, flawed as that season is, for more insight into this matter.

In a way I found this film to represent many of the things I dislike about the documentary genre, particularly documentaries that try to say something about human rights, relief or third world problems: It is so easy to show us images of starving people and make us vicariously suffer. And certainly I found myself touched by the destinies we meet. However, I don’t know if this makes for a good film. Kristof has received much acclaim for being an insistent reporter; even though a crisis is out of vogue or has been reported upon many times before, he continues to press the matter home, reporting on many similar incidents that, by themselves, are perhaps not news in the hard news sense. In his quest to do so, he tries to find those special cases that can sum up the larger suffering of a people in the extreme suffering of single victims – of starvation, war or usually both. I would at least venture to suggest that this method is not without problems; perhaps even unethical both in a human and journalistic sense. Kristof claims that the end justifies the means: to activate “the people back home”, the readers of his articles. I won’t say that he’s wrong, but surely it would be worth looking into while making a documentary of this type! As it turns out, the film only serves as an extension of Kristof’s own methods and concerns, and as such it presents itself as something which it is not, which only makes the single line of objection in the film pathetic and dishonest.

3122 After the horrors of Kongo, I found myself in need of some escapism, and what better way than a celebration of some of the most tasteless films ever made? OK, I exaggerate for effect. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood charts the so called Ozploitation wave of the 70s and 80s. The Australian film industry was almost non-existent until the late 60s, when more or less shady characters began to produce B- or C- films with cheap titillation as its main effect and goal. After a while Australia got a reputation as a serious film industry with films like Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. Concurrent with these artsy and serious period films, there thrived a sub-industry based on lowbrow humour, tits, gore, ridiculous action and over the top car scenes. This, as you have guessed, is what Not Quite Hollywood is about.
As a documentary, the film is no great shakes. Various talking heads talk in 10 second snippets, offering the odd anecdote, but never any real reflection. This is interspersed with a generous offering of short scenes from the films mentioned. Quentin Tarantino is there, of course, Mad Max-director George Miller, Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean and most of the players of the time, including Brian Trenchard-Smith, perhaps the biggest name of Ozploitation. In a way I felt as if this could be the extra features on a DVD disc; any DVD of the films “discussed”. While never pretending to be more than a presentation of the type of films of the Australian exploitation scene, the film is pleasant enough and entertaining – at least for those with even a marginal interest in the subject matter.