City on fire (rats in the streets!)

It has been shamefully long since I've updated. Rest assured, things have happened. My bed exploded, I fashioned a new one, I went to the beach a lot, the world lost two Kennedys, I joined a church choir (yep), a woman from home, whom I loved and admired, lost her fight with cancer, and my county has suffered the largest fire in its history. I've had a lot thoughts, but not the energy to order them into pleasant paragraphs. But, in the great tradition of our era, I went to the movies yesterday, to escape the heat, the smoke, and my own spirals of stress and anxiety. That mission was thoroughly accomplished, along with the side effect of giving me something to write about that is unrelated to the sturm und drang of the moment.

I initially went to see District 9. Sci-fi dork that I am, I had every intention of having an ass-kicking good time. However, it was apparent from early on that while District 9 might well be a good movie, it was too dark, the violence too "human", and the allegory too brutal for it to be fun. Perhaps it becomes more hopeful as the story continues, but I'll have to wait to find out until it's released on video. Weak stomached baby that I am, the jerky-wandering movements of the hand held camera made me so nauseous that 40 minutes in, sitting there with my eyes closed trying not to puke, I decided this wasn't the flick for me. I mustered my courage to go out to guest services and ask to exchange my ticket for another movie (I considered just sneaking in, but was immediately overwhelmed with fantasies of uniformed theatre employees entering with giant flashlights, finding me, and banning me from ever returning to the Grove again... a fate worse than death!), and although I lost all my nerd-cred with the obvious Scinephile behind the counter, it was worth is because I successfully finagled a free ticket to see the Time Traveler's Wife.

Despite its obvious girliness, I've known since I first saw the Time Traveler's Wife trailer that it was designed to make me weep (no, I haven't read the book, although having seen the film, it is now definitely on my list). I like Rachel McAdams, I like sentimental stories about true love, and I LOVE time travel . Also, this slate article that I tweeted a couple of weeks ago ( about how the Time Traveler's Wife fits with various theories of time travel whetted my appetite for some relatively plausible space/time goodness. I was not disappointed. Although there is a scientific component to the protagonist's travels, and an inherent relationship between those travels and the laws of the universe, the film wisely aligns itself more with the structure of magical realism than that of science fiction, (along the same lines as Eternal Sunshine...) explaining the concept simply and completely early on, so that thence forth these trips through time are the catalyst for the narrative, rather than its subject. This frees the story to focus on the emotional rather than the technical, and eliminates the liability of creating lofty, convoluted exposition which runs the risk of either confusing the audience, or bastardising the underlying science.

The emotional journey of the central characters, so in tune and yet so out of sync, is the heart of the film. Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana as Claire and Henry are both so lovely and sincere that the few problems I had with the film as a whole (the inconsistent perspective being foremost, I found it odd that we followed neither Henry nor Claire's timeline, but a seemingly random mishmash of the two) were far out weighed by how caught up I was in their love story. I also must give major credit to all four child actors, each of whom played their parts with understated emotional honesty. Mad props to director Robert Schwentke (who also got a solid performance out of the little girl in Flight Plan, his totally awesome Jo-Fo thriller from 2005) for using the children so simply and beautifully, something you rarely see, especially when the little ones make up the supporting cast.

Many reviewers complain about the lack of practical development in the plot (there are no real attempts to stop or control the time travel, he can't change anything, he doesn't learn anything useful) but I think they miss the point. This is not an adventure story about a daring explorer making his way through time. This is a story about destiny, about the beauty and agony of a life in which it is a given that you have no free will. Henry states within the first few minutes of the film that as he grew up he tried to control his travel, tried to change the past, but he learned through trial and error (and advice from his older self) that such attempts were futile. Like legions of fictional Greeks before him, he had come to accept that his story had already been written. This isn't a film about struggling to overcome life's challenges, it's about living with the knowledge that you can't. This theme may be unengaging to some, and bitterly unsatisfying to others, but that doesn't make it any less valid.

Henry's acceptance of his fate allows him to live completely within the moments he's given, whether past, present, or future, without any agenda other than simply being. The best example of this, for me, was his travel back to the time of his early childhood, when he, as a grown man, encounters his mother on a train. He doesn't warn her about the future, attempt to explain who he is, or worry about the odd impression he'll make, he merely tells her that she's wonderful, and that he's sure her son loves her very much. So, while the physical (and metaphysical) journeys belong to Henry, the emotional arc is Claire's. Although she's had a general understanding of her husband's condition since he first visited her in her early childhood, the reality, the inevitability of it doesn't register for her until the end of the story. She's sad or angry when he goes, she believes he could find a way to stop, she fixates on how to undo the future. But, ultimately, she is as helpless against the cruelty of time as he is, as we all are, and she learns to make the most of what she has. I suspect there are many of us for whom this is an important lesson.

And so, I recommend the Time Traveler's Wife with the caveat that it is a film requiring an odd combination of predispositions from its audience. It is a love story, clearly, but one that doesn't conform to the questing, optimistic irrationality of the romance genre. It is resigned, without being cynical, (perhaps betraying Schwentke's German-ness), and faithful to the generally accepted principals of physics, without ever mentioning them. But as an un-"romantic" story about the significance of true love, and its powerlessness against the certainty of time (theoretical or practical), the Time Traveler's wife is deeply moving, and beautifully, purposefully unsatisfying.

ps- Yes, as far as I know, I did coin the term "scinephile", right here, right now, and yes, Jo-Fo is what I call Jodie Foster.


Mimsy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mimsy said...

dear Alice,
over my years as a movie fan, film student, actress & critic, I've read multiplajillions (Scrooge McDuck counting system) of reviews.
I must say, honestly, the way you describe,
The Time Traveler's Wife -- on so many levels, is truly wonderful.
Your ability to respond emotionally to this tale, while instinctively observing the way it's crafted as a work of cinematic art, is a joy to behold. I believe the Director would be very moved to read your response.

Anonymous said...

No one has ever called Jodie Foster anything but Jo-Fo.


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