It’s not about time travel

I just saw Richard Curtis’s 2013 movie, About Time. [1]  I know, it’s about time I saw it, but I had never heard of it and of all the stars, Bill Nighy is the only one I had ever heard of.

In this essay, I am going to reflect on what it was about—specifically, what it was about for me—and I am going to make free with references to the story so if you haven’t seen it or if you don’t like reading about the plots of movies you have not seen, this is your time to bail out.

This is centrally the story of Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) who, at age 21, discovers thattime 4
he can go back in time.  Here is his father (Bill Nighy) performing the magic ritual with him.  You go into some dark place and close your eyes and clench your fists and picture the time and place where you want to be.  Tim learns that he  can’t go forward and he can’t go to any time or place that he did not experience himself. It’s a “do over” sort of superpower.

There are two limits on this power.  One I understand in principle.  It is that you can’t just change one thing.  Everything is connected, so when you change one thing you change a lot of other things.  I get that.  The other is that the birth of a child—it has to be Tim’s child, I think—sets a limit on the time to which he can return. [1]

How it works

Tim uses this power very clumsily at first and for really trivial things.  But he gets more skillful as he goes on and also extends the range of applications.  Needless to say, extending the range of applications does not work out well. He changes all kinds of things he didn’t want to change.  

From that low point, he begins to do by slow, painful, and natural means, the things that anyone would have to do.  His sister Kit Kat, for instance, is a snarl of bad choices and bad habits, and as a result, has a nearly fatal car accident.  Tim’s first response is to go back in time and get her away from the party before that danger develops.  He does that.  It doesn’t work.  Then he and his wife, Mary (Rachel McAdams) sit in Kit Kat’s hospital room and say they are not leaving until she decides to knock off the self-destructive behavior.  That’s a little clumsy, but it is completely natural.

In everything that happens after that, Tim chooses more modest goals and more natural—“time travel” is not natural—means.  He is headed in the direction of using his superpower as part of the way he looks at life.  The “do over” is, at this later stage, not a special power, but a special perspective on how life is to be lived.

Time 3Let me offer a few examples.  One of the difficulties of this kind of time travel is that you get to meet the same girl for the first time, several times.  You know it is several; she experiences each one as the first.  He uses that ability to learn about Mary’s tastes—she is a big Kate Moss fan—and on the next occasion, he uses the lines she used last time as his own views.  She loves it.  He is so insightful.

The next time he sees Mary, she has just acquired a new boyfriend whom she met recently at a party.  No problem.  He goes to that party just a few minutes before that guy shows up so Tim gets to spend time with her and she never really meets “the boyfriend.”

Those are cute, but they are not what the movie is about.

When he gets the hang of it, he goes back to the beginning of a day where he has made a lot of mistakes.  On his first try, his buddy is excoriated by their boss and Tim sits there and does nothing.  The two of them run through a crowded courthouse scarcely noticing where they are.  Time grabs a quick lunch without noticing the person behind the counter. [2]  They win their case showing only relief from the stress; their client does the same.

When he goes back to that day, Tim actively supports his buddy when the boss scolds him.  He stops on his way to court to marvel at just where they are and to feel the truth that they, themselves, are part of it.  The interaction at the counter where Tim grabs a quick lunch to go is personal and satisfying.  They celebrate their win in court with pleasure and good spirits as does their client.

Now THAT, the movie is telling us, is what the do over power is really for.  And then Tim takes the next step, a step his father did not take.  He anticipates events—events like the first court date—with the full knowledge that he could do it this way or that way.  At this point, his super power has provided him with a base of experiences—a point to which I will return—and the clear sense that he can follow path A or path B.  In all the remaining scenes, he chooses path B, the path of full awareness and generosity, taking pleasure in his surroundings and the people in them.

My super power, and yours

What the movie doesn’t deal with directly is that there are events and then there are time 6kinds of events.  The movie gives us a sample day with four events: the boss’s tantrum, the trip to court, the quick lunch, and the victory in court.  But anyone with some life experience will tell you that although those are unique events in a way, they are also very common kinds of events.  The boss will lose his temper and snark at a colleague (or at you) for instance.  You know that.  And having faced it before, you know where path A leads and where path B leads and you can choose one or the other so far as your own behavior is concerned.  That’s your super power.

But it’s only Super Power 101.

It is true that there are kinds of events and you can choose them on the base of anticipation, rather than, as Tim does on the basis of having experienced them before.  On the other hand, within the category, that kind of event, there are important differences.  Tim supports his colleague, but he doesn’t confront the boss.  Maybe the next time, that will be the best thing to do.  Or maybe trying to charm the boss will be the right thing.  Or maybe quitting your job will be the right thing.  It varies and it varies in part because of the choices you made last time.

In Super Power 501, the first of the graduate level courses, you are asked to take account of the uniqueness of the event as well as the commonality of all events of that kind.  In every society, events come in categories that are defined by the characteristics they have in common.  That’s why we call them categories.  But the events themselves differ remarkably.  And you yourself change over time—we call it “development” if we like the changes—so your sense of what should be done about an event and particularly what you, yourself, should do about an event also changes over time.

Sometimes you know you gave in to a childish impulse and vow to show more discipline next time.  Sometimes you look back and note that everyone seemed to be OK with what you did, but you know you could have done more.  You held something back that should have been committed to the battle.  Sometimes you made a mistake and you know you should have just ignored it, rather than making it the center of everyone’s agenda.  And you learn these things by having a sense of who you are and of how that is clarified and expanded by what you do.

I’m not complaining that the movie didn’t give us that.  I loved the movie.  But…really…there is more.  Grad courses await.

[1]  Many thanks to my son, Doug, who counts this movie as one of his favorites, and showed it to me yesterday.  And then, at the end of the day, when he would have rather gone to bed, he showed me the last fifteen minutes again.

[2]They have to accomplish very much the same outcome in To Gillian on her 39th Birthday, but I understand that one. If the woman who has died is no longer remembered and cherished in the hearts of those she left, then she can’t really “be there” for them. I get that one.

[3]  The cinematographer really nails that one.  The young woman at the counter is shown only from behind that time.  In the next round, the do over round, they show her face and Tim’s as they manage the small commercial exchange with everyday courtesy and generosity.

[4]  Note to fathers.  If you think that learning how to deal with your first child has taught you how to deal with either of the next two, you have a surprise coming.  A good share of the lessons you learn with the first are going to have to be jettisoned in order to deal with the second and the third might require a different playbook entirely.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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