Although my next book to come out is Zombies of Byzantium, I’m working in fits and starts–and have been for over 2 years now–on another book called The Valley of Forever. The subject of this book is, quite simply, time.
Considering how much time and our perceptions of time affect our lives, it’s kind of surprising that there aren’t more movies that explore the nature and implications of time. In a way this is the theme behind The Valley of Forever, but I’m not going to talk about that book and instead say a few words about what I think the best movies are that portray time the way I really think it is.
First, a word of explanation. My experiences and beliefs have taught me to reject the usual conception of time: that it’s linear, regular and moves in one direction only. The usual counterpoint to that conception is the notion that time is cyclical, meaning, sort of circular. I’m not sure I buy that either. I don’t think either one is really accurate. Yes, clearly our perception of time is inexorably linear, but I don’t think the perception matches the reality. Personally I believe that time flows at an irregular rate, that on some occasions it moves faster than at others (even when you’re not traveling at close to the speed of light), and that it sometimes loops back onto itself. I don’t think you need a “time machine” to see this effect. Maybe it’s an arcane belief, but I think time does these things quite often, but we just don’t notice it because we’re locked into our linear conception of time.
So, without further ado, here are my five favorite movies that I think depict time closer to the way it really is. The list might be surprising. After it I’ll explain why I picked these movies and not, say, some other movies dealing with time.
1. Groundhog Day.
If you know anything about the book I’m writing, this should come as no surprise to you! The concept behind this quirky 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray is, in a sense, similar to what I’m writing about in my book. In the movie, Bill Murray plays an apathetic weatherman who goes to a small Pennsylvania town to cover Groundhog Day, only to find himself repeating that very day over and over again endlessly. Andie McDowell is the love interest and there are numerous other fun characters that drift in and out of the story. It’s a fun movie, but the concept behind it is worth thinking about as more than just a plot gimmick. Writers Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (who also directed) have fun with the idea, and also make a subtle comment about how our perceptions of time might just be wrong.
I like this film first because it’s a funny and engaging comedy, and also because it resists the temptation to explain everything. You never find out, for instance, why Bill Murray is trapped in what I could call a static temporal bubble, or how he got there, or why he can’t get out. A lesser movie would try to answer these questions, but Groundhog Day leaves you with the mystique and the likely reality that, if this happened to you, you’d probably never be able to explain it. Interestingly, the movie also treats as funny and eye-opening an experience that could be an unendurable hell. Groundhog Day could just as easily have been a horror film. This highlights the fact that weird experiences with time have a different effect depending on who’s experiencing them.
If you haven’t seen Groundhog Day, I highly recommend it! Here’s the trailer for those who are interested.
This is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s pretty obscure, having been the first movie of Australian director Peter Weir which came out way back in 1975 before Weir got famous for Witness, The Truman Show and Master and Commander. This has got to be one of the most hypnotic movies ever made, but be warned: if you’re expecting a typical Hollywood production, you’re liable to be disappointed…if not infuriated!
The plot is pretty simple. On Valentine’s Day 1900, in Australia (where February falls in mid-summer), a group of boarding school girls and their teacher go on a field trip to a remote geologic formation called Hanging Rock. In the afternoon, after lunch, many of the girls fall asleep. For reasons unknown four of them are lured to hike further up the mountain. Three of them vanish. Their teacher goes after them and she vanishes too. Amid lots of frilly collars, haunting pan flute music by Zamphir and some homoerotic suggestions, the reasons for the disappearance are never really explained. Again, like in Groundhog Day, the filmmakers resist the impulse to lay it all out for you.
What does this have to do with time? I love this film because the way it’s shot, directed and edited makes it seem like time stands still, or is at least moving very slowly. One of the bizarre clues is that the teacher’s watch stops for no reason. Later in the film the characters in their minds keep returning to the afternoon in question, trying to unravel its intricacies or even re-live it to change their own role in it–and this is done without any gimmicks or corny flashback scenes. I think Picnic at Hanging Rock depicts a static temporal bubble very similar to the one shown in Groundhog Day, but, because of course we’re filtering it through different perceptions, it looks very different to us.
This is a terrific movie. You should definitely see it. Here’s the trailer:
This 1986 British comedy, starring John Cleese, might seem like another strange choice. There’s no time travel, no time warps, no flashbacks, and unlike the two choices above, no supernatural events or unsolved mysteries. But what this film can teach us about time is a lesson worth learning.
The plot is classic Brit-com setup: John Cleese plays a stuck-up British school headmaster who’s very fastidious about time. Everything happens on the clock, and he expects everyone around him to play by those same rules. On this particular day–the movie is one of those it-takes-place-all-in-the-same-day stories–he’s trying to get to a conference across England where he has to make a speech. One thing after another goes disastrously wrong, making him late and rattling his nerves. The point of the film is to provoke laughs, not deep thoughts about the nature of time, but I found myself thinking a lot about this movie and what it says.
The John Cleese character is here totally ruled by a linear conception of time. The lesson is that our perception of what time really is–our need, in our modern society, to continually know “what time is it?”–has the capability of enslaving us. The schoolmaster in the movie couldn’t imagine breaking out of a rigid, linear conception of time, but the events that befall him, though funny to the audience, would have the effect of shaking that conception for a real person. This movie was conceived as just a fun farce, which it is, and not too deep or thought-provoking…but I like it because it manages to provoke thought even though it didn’t really intend to.
Here’s the trailer.
This is a classic “time in disarray” story, based on the famous novel by Kurt Vonnegut. With as popular as the novel is, I’m surprised this movie didn’t have a bigger impact than it did. It’s old (1972) and the special effects are pretty hokey by today’s standards, but Slaughterhouse-Five still holds up over the years.
In case you haven’t read the book, the story is about Billy Pilgrim, an ordinary guy in Middle America who has come “unstuck in time.” Essentially he lives in three times simultaneously: as a young American GI, a POW, who survives the Dresden firebombing in 1945, as a middle-aged eye doctor in suburban New York in the ’60s, and in the future as an old man who’s been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The alien stuff is pretty cheesy, but I really like how the movie shuttles back and forth through time, seemingly at random. Billy seems especially drawn to the Dresden tragedy (the source of the title), and I had the impression that he re-lives it many times, that being (horribly) the central experience of his life.
Time, I think, is like this. I think it’s quite possible that we may live in the past, present and future simultaneously, but we refuse to let ourselves see it that way because we’re too locked into a linear conception of time.
Incidentally, the Slaughterhouse-Five conception of time was used again in various other media, most notably the 1994 season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Here’s the trailer, which is much longer than a usual trailer and gives you a great summary of the movie…if not really an explanation!
This 1999 horror film, famous for being a low-budget indie film that took the box office by storm, might also seem like a very odd choice for this list. However, I have a particular reason for including it, and one that’s not very evident unless you think about it.
You probably know the scenario. Three young people take off into the woods of rural Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend called the “Blair Witch.” The movie tells us in its opening minutes that they vanished without a trace, and a year later their footage of their ordeal is found. The movie is supposedly pieced together from that “found” footage. There’s lots of shaky camera angles, weird crackling noises in the woods and some scary moments, but you never actually see what’s chasing them–if anything. The movie goes for spooks rather than shocks, which is a good thing in my book.
What does it have to do with “twisted time?” Well, one of the spooky things that happens to the filmmakers is that they hike around the woods, looking for the way back to their car, but they never find it–instead they seem to be going around in circles. Now, most viewers would interpret this as spatial disorientation, meaning, they think they know where they’re headed but they’re wrong, or else they’re just hopelessly lost and can’t recognize any landmarks. However, there’s another interpretation: suppose it’s temporal disorientation? Meaning, it’s not that they’re necessarily wandering in circles, covering the same ground at different times, but perhaps actually repeating events, again, as if trapped in a temporal bubble.
I think the movie suggests this possibility very obliquely. Midway through the film it’s like time ceases to have any meaning at all. Even the characters get confused about what day it is. Watch the film carefully and try to keep track of the days they’re out there by counting the “setting up camp” scenes. You can’t do it. Say for the sake of argument that the characters did wander into a bubble of time where events (such as hiking endlessly looking for a landmark they’ll never find) repeat themselves over and over again. What would that look like to them? Probably exactly the way it’s shown in this movie.
I remember Blair Witch was super popular when it came out but has been kind of maligned since then. Too bad–it’s a great triumph of low-budget creative filmmaking. It’s also a fascinating look at twisted time. Twelve years on, it’s worth another look.
Here’s the trailer.
What’s not on my list, and why?
You might notice that there are no “classic” time-travel movies on my list–like Back to the Future, the Terminator movies, etc. This is because my list is about movies that I think portray the nature of time closer to the way it really is. Time travel movies like the ones I just mentioned can be enormously entertaining, but they depart from the assumption that time is absolutely linear–in fact, the plot of the entire Back to the Future series absolutely depends on that conception! I may tackle this subject in a future blog specifically about time travel movies.
Hope you enjoyed the list!