Friday, September 05, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Somewhere in Time (1980)

Very often, it seems that science fiction films are designed and mounted with a hard technological edge. It's easy to detect why this is so, and I imply no criticism of that fact.

Understandably, the specific visual nature of the cinema offers the perfect opportunity to showcase state-of-the-art special effects, fancy modern vehicles, cool costumes and colorful flourishes. And the movie - a medium primarily of action and movement (hence the descriptor "moving pictures") -- also lends itself organically to physical conflict: car chases, fisticuffs, sword-fights and the like.

Yet the upshot of this fact is that it's much easier to sell a science fiction film about laser swords, superheroes, and transforming robot armies than one authentically about the mysteries of the human heart. A reliance on instrumentation (the camera) results to a large degree in a genre medium about instrumentation (batmobiles, HAL, atom bombs, etc.)

By explicit contrast, stories of the heart are always more difficult to dramatize...and downright chancy. In or out of the genre. The looming danger in crafting a truly emotional and romantic genre film is that by necessity it appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. And, well, some hearts are irrevocably...cold. Some hearts are guarded, impenetrable. And some are so stony and unresponsive that there's absolutely nothing that can be done about it.

To the cynical, mocking ear, sweet nothings and other deeply-held admissions of romantic affection -- shared between gazing and swooning lovers -- can sound alarmingly purple in perfectly-tuned stereo. These days, we love to say that such things are "campy" or "corny" if they make a direct appeal to the heart. Witness the backlash against Titanic (1997). Recall the accusing, snickering, pointed-fingers over Anakin's "sand" speech to Amidala in Attack of the Clones (2002). These days, it's so much easier to blow up romantic leads (like Maggie Gyllenhaal) than to write heartfelt romantic dialogue for them.

Why is this so? A couple reasons, I think. But when it comes down to it, it may be this: love is a deeply personal thing, isn't it? An emotion shared between two; one not easily transmitted between the masses via a technological medium. Film, after all, is homogenized, collaborative...technical. As an audience - as a mob even - we are primed to laugh, shriek and gasp. But not necessarily, to open ourselves up; to peel away our defenses.

Yet by the same token, who can truly deny that the best movies in history- like real love itself - transcend such barriers of the medium and seem...magical. How intellectual, for instance, is "chemistry" between two actors? How is that alchemical relationship quantified in scientific terms? Film records it; film registers it; film captures it. But people (the actors involved) make it happen. Sometimes between the lines.

I raise this meditation on love and film because I had the opportunity this week to screen another 1980s time travel movie (after Time After Time and The Final Countdown). Specifically, I watched Somewhere in Time (1980), the romantic film based on Richard Matheson's 1975 novel Bid Time Return.

The premise is simply that a lonely, empty man, a writer named Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a photograph of a radiant, long-dead stage actress, Elise, McKenna (Jane Seymour). He becomes so consumed with her image, in fact, that he actually hypnotizes himself into time traveling from 1980 to 1912...to court her.

In other words, this film is one romantic notion constructed upon another romantic notion, constructed upon another one. For some viewers in today's caustic pop culture, perhaps this is simply too much to accept.

Some viewers maybe. But not me.

Gazing across the vast swath of time travel films, the queue is replete with efforts that boast epic, earth-shattering concerns. What if the time traveler changes our past? What if history is altered? What if one action in the past changes everything that we have come to know? Indeed, this is the beauty, opportunity and terrain of time travel films as a format.

Yet, Somewhere in Time differentiates itself from the temporal pack by brushing aside such cosmic concerns. Here we are simply drawn into another life; another world....because of love. There are no explicit conversations about paradoxes, about time machines, or about any of the time travel boilerplate we have come to expect from the sub-genre. Rather, this film asks us to ponder a love so powerful, so out of the ordinary, that it goes beyond the veil of our reality. This element imbues Somewhere in Time with some sense of the spiritual; of the longing for the impossible in our every day lives.

A lush, impossibly affecting score from John Barry serves as our constant companion on this voyage to the distant world of 1912. The setting, a picturesque Grand Hotel, is romantic in and of itself, and the time period -- the last age of innocence and simplicity before the first "technological" war (World War I) -- also evokes feelings of innocence, simplicity and lyricism. It is a world without e-mail or television. Without cell phones or other modern distractions. Against this backdrop, a man of the present and a woman of the past fall in love before our eyes. And this is where you either accept the story the film wants to vet; or you denounce it as cheesy and corny.

And of course, some romance literature and film is legitimately cheesy. But that's because it's done poorly. I don't believe that's the case with Somewhere in Time. Specifically, director Jeannot Szwarc has crafted his film with a subtle sense of visual classicism. Many of his compositions, particularly one involving the lovers, a lighthouse, the ocean and a beached rowboat, evoke real paintings from the era. For another thing, Szwarc marshals his camera in a stately, anticipatory way. Anyone who has been separated from a lover for some length of time will know what I suggest by this. Just watch the scene (and camera work) involving Collier's first "real" view of Elise in 1912. We initially catch a glimpse of her (in long shot), in the reflection of a window-pane, and then, as Collier pivots, we cut to this beautiful and stately moving shot -- over the landscape -- as an eclipsed female figure comes slowly into view, the sea behind her. The build-up is deliberate and glorious, and if you've known love, you get it. If not...you're reading the wrong review.

After this, we're into the meat of a star-crossed love story. It's well-written, but what we're ultimately left with here is a rousing soundtrack augmenting the excellent chemistry between the two leads. The late Christopher Reeve is at his goofy, innocent best. He was always wonderful (and charming) playing the fish-out-of-water, the man slightly out-of-step with his time...and such is true here. And Seymour, an ethereal, distant beauty, melts slowly and methodically, until she delivers a rousing, theatrical monologue about love that is a high point for the actress in the film and in a career. Again, if you think it's cheesy, just consider the venue (the stage) on which this soliloquy is presented. Once more, Szwarc has done something more than modesly clever: provided a 1980s audience with an old-fashioned pronouncement of love, but through the appropriate artifice of the 1912 stage. Seen in that light, everything is as it should be.

I have concentrated in this review mostly on the romantic aspects of Somewhere in Time, and yet, in a sense that focus also does the film a disservice. Dig deeply into this movie, and you will find that it is teeming with ambiguities. For instance, ask yourself, where does the gold watch come from, originally? As the film opens in 1972, an elderly Elise McKenna gives a watch to young Richard Collier. She says the words "come back to me." After Collier has obliged, and traveled back to 1912, he gives the gold watch to Elise...so she can one day again give it to him. It's a mind-bender, because the watch seems to originate...nowhere.

Ask yourself too, what is the real role of Christopher Plummer's character, Robinson? He claims to know who Collier really is; and argues that Collier will "destroy" McKenna. In a sense, that's exactly what happens: when Collier is yanked back into the present, leaving McKenna behind...her career is ruined; she's depressed and lost. So the question becomes: is Robinson a fellow time traveler (perhaps another man who has fallen in love with that photo of Elise?) or is he merely a worried theater agent, fretting about his meal ticket? To its credit, Somewhere in Time makes absolutely no comment on this debate; it lets you sift through the clues and arrive at your own conclusion.

I remember when Somewhere in Time was first released, critics seemed to have a big problem with the idea that Collier had hypnotized himself into traveling through time. But today, after having read so much about quantum physics, II wonder why it is that we so readily accept the idea that a machine could do it. But our brains can't? I mean, a time machine is always invented by the human brain, isn't it? Our mental abilities are the root creative force in both instances. But I very much like the idea here that it is the brain - the dedicated, passionate, individual human brain - that makes the leap without benefit of hardware or instrumentation.

Because if you've ever been in love, you feel like you can move mountains with your bare hands. So why not time travel too?

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:23 PM

    I dont know where you were but I missed you and am glad to have you back. And this review is PERFECT. Is it just me or have you really foud your review voice since that XF: IWTB review?

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  2. Thank you for the kind words.

    It's good to be back.

    The answer to the question: where have I been is - right here, but sleepy!

    My almost two-year old son is teething like mad, and has been waking up every morning at 4:00 am...and staying up right through naptime. Consequently, my blog time has become my nap time. I'm wiped out!!!

    -jkm

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  3. i absolutely love this movie, its the type either you are a fan of it or you're not.
    Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour have the best chemistry in this movie and it is so real you feel they are truly in love, the part is so sad when he is yanked back but its so beautiful when they reunite. I can watch this movie many times and find something different i missed.

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  4. Great review and I am a big fan of this movie. I am confused about the pocket watch ambiguity too. But for the second point you've raised, I have a theory. The manager who's a controlling figure in Elise's life knows a beautiful woman like her will charm men and there will be at least one true love who'll change her forever. More than a psychic premonition, it's a fear he knows will come true one day. Just my 2 cents. :)

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