Time Machines in Cinema
Jumping back and forth in time
This text is published in the catalogue of Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam 2013: http://affr.nl/news/jumping_back_and_forth_in_time.html
In the deepest essence of its existence, film is an intangible product. For a long time film was only available as the projection of a fast beam of light on a large screen, accompanied by muffled sounds from the loudspeakers behind the screen. However, since the arrival of the video recorder we have become accustomed to controlling the films we view: we can stop the film image, wind it forwards or backwards and control the speed at will. And yet we can never hold a film in our hands, it remains an intangible object. As a film viewer we can only surrender ourselves to the illusion of the motion of the images and the suggestions of the sound track.
Film then consists of images and sounds that can only exist in a continuous time frame. This linear period of time is fixed, but within this framework filmmakers are free to jump back and forth in time and to mould it at will: they can stretch a moment in time indefinitely or, on the contrary, condense an action by fragmenting it. Consequently film is in all respects an unparalleled time machine.
Past, future, and the recurring present
A machine for travelling in time is a popular and frequently-used theme in film scripts. The possible existence of such a machine stirs the imagination. Imagine being able to revisit the past or, on the contrary, that you could whizz to the future. However, if the time traveller is not careful the time loop can also come to a standstill, or become trapped in a repetitive cycle.
The recurring motif of a time loop serves as the basis of the highly successful thriller Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011), in which a man on a moving train has just a few minutes to find a bomb and defuse it. He fails time and again but luckily he can start all over again and in this way he gradually comes closer to the solution. Naturally there is a happy ending, but it only comes at the very last moment. The most famous film with a clock that is repeatedly turned back is the comedy Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) in which, thanks to the time loop, a cantankerous and arrogant weatherman transforms himself into a helpful and charming person, as a result of which he, too, becomes happier. This is, indeed, a somewhat moralistic happy ending, but Bill Murray dispels any objections in this respect with his charm.
A voyage into the past can also be a splendid means of giving mild, moralistic criticism about one’s own time. Part one of Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) is a delightful comedy with a light, philosophical edge, but most especially a film that takes great pleasure in giving the viewer cursory winks as it merrily polishes up some old clichés. For example, the trendy teenager from the eighties soon notices that a body warmer in the fifties is an unknown garment, everyone thinks it is a life jacket. His time travel transforms him from being a cool and composed guy into the village idiot, but he also has skills that are useful in his new environment: take the hilarious scène in which he turns a go-cart into a skateboard. Also his anachronistic, frenzied guitar solo at a school party is a superb aside. In Back to the Future, part two (1989) the characters subsequently travel into the future, set in 2015, in which all manner of disasters threaten that can only narrowly be averted. The tone remains light-hearted, it is, after all, a comedy.
The ultimate time travel
The ultimate film with a time machine as the central theme in my opinion is La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962). It is a marvellous, poetic reverie depicted in black-and-white stills (it is a photo film), accompanied by a hallucinating sound track. The Third World War has broken out and the survivors are forced to live underground. They want to travel in time to save their lives. The scientists experiment with people who can recollect the past vividly. They select a man who, in his dreams, is obsessed by one, impressive image from his childhood when he was standing on an observation platform at a large airport. A woman is looking at him and he sees a man running who is shot dead. This powerful dream image transports him into a time wave. The experiment succeeds: he comes into contact with people from different periods in time, also from the future. He chooses, however, to return to that moment in his past, chiefly to search for the mysterious woman. Suddenly he understands the situation: the man who is shot is himself. This is no plot spoiler, because the story is merely a stepping stone for multi-layered, amazing events. You can look and listen to La Jetée time and time again, and still see new things during this twenty-six minute-long film. For example, the austere, modernistic architecture of Orly Airport in the sixties, and the still-oppressive design of an underground apocalyptic world.
During this edition of the AFFR you too can travel in time, to the past and to the future. Take good care though, because time travel is not without its risks!
France, 1962, 29’, b/w.
Directed by: Chris Marker. Production: Argos Films. Music: Trevor Duncan. Voice-over: Jean Négroni. Editing: Jean Ravel. With: Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux.
- Chris Marker, La Jetée: ciné-roman, New York: Zone Books, 2008. See also http://screenwritersutopia.com/scriptdb/media/954.shtml.
- Janet Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, London: Afterall Books, 2009.
- Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, London: Reaktion, 2005.
- Sarah Cooper, Chris Marker, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2008.
- Jonathan Romney, ‘La Jetée: Unchained Melody’, Criterion Essay, June 25, 2007. URL: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/485-la-jetee-unchained-melody
- Bruce Kawin, ‘Time and Stasis in La Jetée’, in: Film Quarterly (Fall 1982), pp. 15-20.
- Corinn Columpar, ‘Re-membering the time-travel film: from La Jétee to Primer’, in: Refractory (June 4, 2006), URL: http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2006/07/04/re-membering-the-time-travel-film-from-la-jetee-to-primer-corinn-columpar/
LA JETÉE was a source of inspiration for TWELVE MONKEYS (Terry Gilliam, 1995).
- The art academy student student Jae Chui Bae made in 2010 an impressive interactive analyses of the narrative of both films. He uploaded an impression of his work at Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/13089234.
- See also: Elena Del Rio ‘The Remaking of "La Jetée's" Time-Travel Narrative: "Twelve Monkeys" and the Rhetoric of Absolute Visibility’, in: Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3 (November, 2001), pp. 383-398.
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