Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.71]Over the last few years, there have been reels and reels of films about time travel—have you noticed? “Back to the Future” is the most recent biggie, but there have been many others. It got so I couldn’t even keep them straight—“Time after Time” and “The Time Bandits” and “The Time Machine” plus the others whose titles were not so immediately identifiable.
We saw Peggy Sue shoot back in time to the days before she got married. And in the best of the Star Trek movies to date, we watched Kirk & Crew boldly go, not to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, but to that bizarre frontier, present-day San Francisco. TV movies feature time travellers as well—“The Final Countdown” with Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas and “The Philadelphia Experiment.” In one low-budget but ambitious Twilight Zone quickie, a planeload of 1960’s passengers got so badly warped they first saw dinosaurs out their windows and then, a few minutes later, the 1939 World’s Fair.
And in addition to films, we see that the time-travel theme continues to be popular in literature—from a forgettable adoles-[p.72]cent novel called Hangin’ Out with Ceci to Marge Piercy’s flawed but powerful feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, in which a struggling contemporary woman makes repeated trips ahead to the future, including an alternate future when the luckiest women are pumped full of silicon and penned in expensive apartment prisons, playthings for the most affluent men.
I have a theory about our response to these time-travel operas, the movies in particular. Simply put, what we viewers most want to see is not the way we were (Streisand and Redford notwithstanding), nor even the way we may be, but the way we are. I submit that for most of us, the highlights of the time travel films come when we can see ourselves and our present world, as we might appear to an ancestor or a descendant. Time-travel films are in reality, then, not portholes onto the past or the future, as we might expect, but mirrors.
Think of “Back to the Future.” Where does the film really click? Certainly not in the depiction of the plutonium-powered DeLorean car that is the means of the time-trick. And the plot is almost lost in the paraphernalia—we don’t really care if Marty’s wimpy father finds his courage. The fun in the movie is seeing the reaction of the 50’s population to Marty’s down vest, which they think of as a life-jacket, or to his request for “a Tab” (Counterman: “I can’t give you a tab until you order something”) or a Pepsi-Free (‘If I give you a Pepsi, you’re going to pay for it”). The smiles come in his mother’s reaction to his underpants; she thinks his name is Calvin Klein because the words are printed inside the waistband of his shorts. The real mechanical wonder of the movie is not the magical car, but Marty’s skateboard and his antics thereon. TV reruns and rock music—as seen by those who never knew them—these are what charm us: our own artifacts. We are enchanted anthropologists exploring our own dig, so to speak.
Although Marge Piercy’s book does a much better than average job of detailing a possible Utopian future, a great part of the interest even here lies in the shocked response of the woman from the future to our present lifestyles: from cigarettes, which really terrify her, to sewage that pollutes the rivers, to our institutional treatment of the “mentally ill” which she had previously never believed, chalking it up to myth and historical distortion.
[p.73]What do you remember from the film version of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine? For me, the interesting aspects focused on the Victorian gentleman’s encounter with a liberated twentieth-century woman. A similar then-meets-now romantic theme shows up in “The Final Countdown” and in a TV movie featuring a 50’s kid who comes back from death to teach an 80’s nerd how to be cool. “Show the girls who’s boss. Take charge, all the time.” The nerd tries to update Mr. Cool, but without success. In all cases, the question is the same: How do they see us? How do we look from the outside?
It reminds me of college students whom I have frequently heard, in question-and-answer sessions with guest speakers brought from all corners of the world to lecture on their areas of expertise. Inevitably, the question is asked, “What do you think of Utah?” (Or BYU or the Mormons or whatever.) From Mark Twain to Madeline L’Engle, we listen politely to the visitor tell of his or her world, but what we’re really interested in is us.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” King Lear asks sarcastically in the first act of his great play. By the third act, the question is asked in deadly seriousness. “Who do you think you are?” shouts Ruby Turpin, the self-satisfied hero of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” The revelation she receives doesn’t answer that question, but it does show Ruby, vividly and without equivocation, who she is.
So perhaps it should be no surprise that for all their gimmicks and technology, time travel movies satisfy us most when they hold a mirror up to our lives. More power to them to do so.
Maybe soon we can move from watching outsiders marvel over aluminum cans and down vests and panty hose and skateboards to a deeper look at how our lives would seem to earlier or later generations, at what sociological and psychological shifts have taken place while we weren’t looking. Such a view from the outside has an honored position in art; it’s called perspective.
The great Utah-born poet, May Swenson, begins a poem with these wise words: “Distance and a certain light make anything artistic; / It doesn’t matter what.” Distance brings the perspective.
And a certain light brings insight.