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Regarding Time Travel

Don’t let that picture of Doc Brown’s absurdly awesome flying locomotive time machine from Back to the Future Part III fool you. As much as I love a good time-travel movie, this isn’t a post about that. It’s a post about how I’m going to travel through time. I’ll get to that shortly . . . Well, actually, not so shortly. If you want to skip all my ruminating and time-travel to the key point, just jump down a little over halfway. I’ve highlighted the relevant paragraph.

Anyway . . . It’s odd, though, isn’t it? In fiction, time travel almost universally turns out to be a Very Bad Idea, but we keep on telling stories where people do it. Why is that, do you suppose? To make some kind of point about messing with history? That hardly seems necessary, right?

“Remember, it may seem like a good idea to go back and kill Hitler/save JFK/screw up your parents’ first meeting, but you’re only inviting greater trouble. Seriously, that last one should be especially obvious. Come on, now.” Maybe it’s a weak, subconscious attempt to convince ourselves that we really wouldn’t want to time travel, even if we could.

Fascinating hypothetical questions and generic thrills aside, part of the appeal has got to be the allure of firsthand experience. For the true enthusiast, no amount of reading can really compare to being there, and the past is the one thing (other than the edge of the universe) that just keeps getting further and further away.

Nothing is going to change that, at least in my lifetime. I know this for a fact, because I haven’t visited myself yet, which obviously I would. Even Stephen Hawking had a similar idea, and carried it out in delightfully geeky fashion:

But that doesn’t get rid of the desire to experience life in the past. Things were so different back then, whenever back then may have been, but what was it really like? A disappointingly small number of time travel movies and shows have had any interest in this question, even though it is obviously the primary source of interest in time travel. What scholar in any of a thousand different fields wouldn’t kill for the chance to choose even one specific point in history to visit?

2003’s Timeline, based on the 1999 Michael Crichton novel, is generally reviled, but I rather liked it, and one of my favorite things is the kid-on-Christmas-morning glee of Gerard Butler’s character, medieval historian and enthusiast Andre Marek. It is disgracefully rare for anyone who really appreciates what is going on to be afforded the privilege of time travel. Even Doc Brown misses out on the maiden voyage of his own time machine.

Anyway, here’s the point: You’re never going to climb into a blue police box or a levitating train and go back in time. I’m sorry. (I’m so sorry.But, good news, we have the movies! Watching a movie is like looking through a window into another time. And that’s not just a simile, it really is like that, because cameras function by capturing reflected light, just like your eyes do. That piece of film image being projected onto the screen is a physical piece of the precise moment when it was captured; “the light of other days,” as Thomas Moore might say.

This is the single most awesome thing about movies. It’s dinosaur-DNA-in-a-prehistoric-mosquito-preserved-in-amber cool, only it’s also a real thing. If you happen to have heard some of the grumbling from critical and academic circles about the death of film and the rise of digital cinema, that loss of the physical connection is behind the discontent. But for most of us, the difference is mainly a  psychological one, and most of us don’t have access to any reels of old film anyway. We watch movies on DVD or as downloaded files. The average movie watcher completed the jump to digital years ago.

But, that’s neither here nor there. Mainly I’m saying, watching a motion picture is watching history happen in front of you. The first movies were short, a few seconds, then minutes, long, and they didn’t tell stories, they were just pictures of things moving. In the beginning, that was enough. Over a century later, that fascination for moving images has come back around and bitten me. For instance, watch this:

That’s 12 seconds of pure magic, captured in New York City in 1896. Everyone you see died decades before I was born, but I can sit in front of my computer in 2012 and look through a (browser) window and watch them go about their daily lives. Here’s an even better one from London a few years later:

I could write a whole series of posts about this minute of footage, from the young woman at the beginning (She appears to be pushing a baby, right? Is she the mother, or a nanny? What is she thinking when she looks directly into the camera?) to the horse-drawn bus that glides by at the end (Still a double-decker, even then! Look at all the advertisements plastered on it. The only one I can definitely make out is for “Pears Soap.” Does the man standing on the rear stairwell notice the camera?).

I feel like there’s too much to see and notice, and I can’t take it all in. Every frame is packed with activity. After it ends, the first thing I want to do is replay it, and I have just watched it over and over several times consecutively. But this one’s my favorite, a long, sustained take in San Francisco shortly before it was devastated by the 1906 earthquake, truly a lost world captured on film:

The full film, “A Trip Down Market Street,” is actually almost 14 minutes long, but it is badly deteriorated. This 9-minute clip eliminates most of the frame-jumping issues and adds some nice background music (I often find it difficult to watch a truly silent film). Watching this is simply hypnotic. There is so much to see: old fashions, vehicles, buildings . . . No amount of description could really conjure up this scene for me. The activity level is truly astounding.

Sometimes when I’m driving down a packed, 4-lane road, I’ve wonder what someone from the past would say if they were suddenly sitting in the seat next to me. (Or, rather, what they would say besides, “Where am I?! What happened?! Who are you?!“) I’ve often thought that they might be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what is going on around them, but I see from this film that almost the reverse is true. I can’t imagine trying to drive a car down a giant, open street without clear lane markings, swarming with people, trolleys, other cars, and horse-drawn wagons of all sizes, all going in every possible direction at once. There are several times during the course of the clip when an accident seems imminent, or you’re sure 50 people must get run-over a day, but that seems not to be the case.

It is an unbelievable privilege to have access to these sorts of things. I wonder if people in 200 years will appreciate being able to watch Barack Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden, or see the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics, or witness the Arab Spring unfold, all in high-definition video. For comparison, imagine watching films of the Lewis and Clark expedition, President Andrew Jackson’s inaugural speech, or Napoleon living in exile. It’s hard to overstate the significance of film.

Of course, when you’re watching a movie, most of the time you’re not watching any actual historical events unfold. What you’re watching instead is a vivid piece of cultural, intellectual, or artistic history; a peek inside the mind of the times, if you will. You’re seeing attitudes, fashions, fears, hopes, and values. You’re learning what they found funny, what moved them, how they saw themselves, and what their dreams were. You’re witnessing what they thought about their past, how they understood their present, and how they imagined their future.

So, by now you’ve already recalled how I said this post is about how I’m going to travel through time and thought, “I knew he meant something totally lame like this.” Sorry . . . But also, duh. I’m still excited by this idea, though, and it’s unlike anything that I’ve done before. As you may or may not be aware, when I started watching films more seriously several years ago, I began keeping a running list of every new movie (that is, no repeats) that I watched along with a little extra information: release year, runtime, date watched, etc. A few days ago, Shane (1953) became the 1900th movie on my list.

As I was contemplating the approach of that number, and the next hundred movies that will follow, it was difficult not to think of the years of the 20th century, which saw the development of cinema from a cheap novelty into a global institution. I began to consider the idea of matching each number on my list of films with a movie from the corresponding release year, and very quickly after I began considering it, I knew that I wanted to do it.

I am going to watch one feature-length film released each year for roughly the past century, consecutively, and reflect on my observations here, probably as I reach the end of each decade.

The first thing to do was identify where I ought to begin. You may be wondering already if I haven’t gone too far by passing the 1900 mark. Actually, the oldest surviving film, the “Roundhay Garden Scene,” was recorded way back in 1888. We have about 2 seconds of it:

While I enjoy and value short films (even films this short, in this case), I only keep track of feature films on my own list. So, we can skip a few decades of movie history right there, actually. It took quite a while for people to make the leap to longer films, and when they finally did, advertisements often boasted about a film’s length in thousands of feet or number of reels rather than in hours or minutes.

The first feature-length film of all time, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released in Australia in 1906. It ran for a little more than an hour, but only 17 minutes of film survive today:

That’s the story of giant swathes of silent film, actually. We know they existed thanks to advertisements and studio catalogues, but most or all of the footage is simply gone, possibly forever, although things pop up unexpectedly all the time.

For example, back in 1996, the American Film Institute discovered a feature-length 1912 production of Richard III, which remains the oldest surviving American feature that we know of. It got a snazzy DVD release about a decade ago. Hopefully I can get my hands on it (though there are a couple of other options from 1912, as well). And that’s still not quite as far back as I can go. I’ve also located an Italian adaptation of Dante’s Inferno from the year before. And, as far as I can tell, that’s where I will have to begin. That’s 102 films, unless this project bleeds over into 2013, which brings me to the challenges.

There is an urgency about watching contemporary films that anyone who is part of the online film community understands. There will always be people talking about older films, albeit some films more than others, but the buzz is always about the new, and it shifts faster than any mere mortal can hope to keep up with. Buzz gathers around new films, whether they be upcoming blockbusters or potential Oscar-bait, and there is a very small window wherein those who have seen the movie can be the first to discuss whether it belongs on the ash-heap of history, or it is a bona fide must-see. The temptation to get caught up in this conversation, shallow though it is, is tremendous.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. At a generous pace, it generally takes me about three months to watch a hundred films. That’s rather a long time for me to contemplate completely abandoning the aforementioned conversation and foregoing visits to the movie theater. I’m not sure I’ve gone a month without visiting the theater in many years. I seldom go two weeks without seeing a movie on the big screen, and multiple visits in a week are not exactly rare. The timing here is critical. The summer season has just ended, and in about two and a half months, the holiday season will begin.

I have a lot of ground to cover, and if I fail to do so, I will have to either abandon my project or contemplate sitting at home while my friends go without me to see the new Bond or Spielberg movies. A few weeks beyond that, and I’m missing The HobbitLes Miserables, and the new Tarantino film. Yikes. I’ll likely break this theatrical fast by attending a new release.

Furthermore, I make a serious effort to watch older films, and it requires a serious effort, because older films are often simply less accessible, both in terms of acquisition and watchability. Even as an enthusiast and a student of film, I remain handicapped by the baggage of my generation. Even though I usually enjoy and appreciate older films immensely, the reality is that many contemporary films, even inferior ones, can require less effort to watch on some level. I feel like a philistine saying that, and it’s certainly not a universal statement, but I’m just acknowledging something that I have to be actively aware of in order to go beyond it.

During the first year I kept track of the films I was watching, the average release year was 1984. It has moved forward slightly slower than the passage of time since then, and I am now practically at 1990. Obviously, I skew contemporary in my watching habits, despite my best efforts to the contrary. Roughly half of the films I have watched have been from the past decade alone. Another quarter are from the two decades before that, leaving a mere one in four films that I have watched belonging to the first 70 years of film history. That seems like a lousy record. I’m 30 years off of the median year of 1961.

Of course, the number of movies released each year has increased considerably over time. Looking at the records of the Internet Movie Database, for example, I observe that 65% of all American-made feature films they list were made in the last 30 years. 33% were made in the 50 years before that. A mere 2% were made during the silent era. That would seem to indicate that, while I’m still a bit off, my viewing habits are not wildly disproportionate with the rate of movie releases over time.

On the other hand, I could have spent the last several years watching the exact same number of movies that I have so far, but limited myself to films made before synchronized sound, and still not have watched every feature-length silent film. I have no idea how many of those are actually available, but even with the percentages being what they are, it would still be quite possible for me to have spread my attention more evenly across the past century. The point is, this will represent a marked departure from my normal viewing habits. The last hundred films I watched have an average release year of 1993. The previous hundred have an average of 2002. The next hundred will shift dramatically back in time.

And that brings me to the benefits. There is, of course, everything that I will learn while planning my way through this project. There is also the useful discipline of departing briefly from the noisy urgency of the present in order to open up the past a bit more (this will nearly double the number of silent films I’ve seen). The real point of the thing, though, is to experience changes in film and culture, year by year, for the past century. It will be a bit like this, but on a grander scale:

And if that’s not time travel, I don’t know what is.

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~ by Jared on August 20, 2012.

One Response to “Regarding Time Travel”

  1. I found A Trip Down Market Street fascinating, and I replayed the films over and over again. I especially found the Roundhay Garden Scene mysterious. I got to look at a glimpse of the earliest film, but I kept wondering who those people were and what they were doing and it’s been on my mind how different things must have been back then than they are now, and I wish I could go back and see for myself…

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