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 Loser's Guide to Life

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Messing Around With Time 

Quite a few movies employ the narrative structure found in the old jokes about the guy who walks into a bar with whatever, and the bartender asks, “Whoa, buddy, how did you get”, etc. For example, we're confronted with a man drowning in a lifeboat, and in voiceover he muses “Strange to imagine that a few weeks ago I was perfectly happy working in an insurance office. But it all started when ...” and we go back to the beginning of his story to view the unusual (though logical) process that took him from his innocent suroundings to this sinking boat.

In Betrayal, the plan is similar: we see an unhappy situtation, and the path to it is illustrated in several segments progressively further back in the past. It's really the same as the boat example but with multiple, sequential instances. It works in Betrayal because the movie charts the changing relationship of three people via several slightly different situtations, and not a simple chain of events. If anything, it emphasizes how people are the authors of their own fate, especially if we consider fate to be the general predicament of one's life, and not some catastrophic eventuality. (E.g., being generally miserable as opposed to drowning.)

Now what happens if you play around with this, as Quentin Tarantino has done? I think the danger is that the siuzhet writes more cheques than the fabula can pay. It's still entertaining, of course. But it's a little like watching a terribly amusing ad. I laughed myself sick last year over these two ads for (I think) a car and some kind of cereal. But I don't drive and I never eat cereal.

A few nights ago I watched a movie called Chasing Sleep (2000). It's hugely promising: guy who suffers from insomnia wakes up to find his wife missing. Next the cops are at the door. He spends the whole movie in his deteriorating suburban house wondering what the hell happened and how the, uh, that thing ended up in the bathtub. But here I think the writer ran out of narrative. He must have thought, “Well, did my hero kill his wife or not?”, but he hasn't done much one way or the other. There appear to be time lapses in the story: one minute it's afternoon, the next it's nightfall, but it's not clear that anything significant has happened in those periods. Some of the characters also appear to be imaginary, but we're out of time before this can be resolved.

This is a case where you could probably improve the story by making the order of events (as presented) more ambiguous, as in Memento. Otherwise the viewer remains just as baffled as the poor hero.



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Watching TV is a good way to tear yourself away from the computer.