"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Deja Vu and Time Travel Fiction

Denzel Washington contemplates the past in Deja Vu.
Two time travel movies are premiering today, one of those astounding mysteries of the universe that Hollywood creates every couple of months. Tony Scott's Deja Vu (directed with his usual great skill and creativity) is the bigger-budgeted and promoted film, and will probably do well at the box office. Darren Arnofsky's The Fountain promises to be a bit quirkier and probably won't make as much money but might obtain more critical accolades.

Time travel fictions are certainly interesting and have been around for a long time. Peter Suderman suggests, in National Review Online, that their appeal is based on a natural human obsession with mortality, which time travel naturally brings to the fore. I can't say I agree that human mortality is a special interest in time travel fictions, given that pretty much any narrative has a good deal to do with human mortality.

I think that the real appeal of time travel is in the possibility of changing things—time travel is the ultimate power trip. We've all done things we wish we hadn't, and failed to do things we wish we had. (Cf. the Lutheran rite of confession and absolution.) And we've all experienced things that we wish hadn't happened. Thinking about what things would be like if we had done things differently is a natural human endeavor, every bit as natural as mortality itself. And this is a particularly strong element in time travel narratives, and is in fact the central issue in time-repetition stories such as Groundhog Day and Daybreak.

That's what is really behind Deja Vu. Denzel Washington plays a BATF agent investigating a terrorist bombing, who discovers that he might just be able to go into the past—at a good deal of risk to his personal well-being—and prevent the attack, thereby saving several-hundred lives and possibly the lives of his ATF partner and of a beautiful, young, single woman who was murdered as part of the "collateral damage."

Of course, he does what people typically do in such movies, but this being a Denzel Washington film, there is a good deal of Christian imagery and thematic material, including a couple of prominent acts of self-sacrifice and a resurrection from death. There is a brief exchange about morality early in the film, but what is always at the forefront of the story is the desire to change our conditions, to make things right and avert trouble for other people.

As in Back to the Future, The Time Machine, and other such narratives, Deja Vu is most intensely concerned with the here and now, the present conditions of our lives. That's what makes it so absorbing and interesting, and well worth seeing.

From Karnick on Culture.

9 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

... but this being a Denzel Washington film, there is a good deal of Christian imagery and thematic material...

You tease. Tell us more.

Pascal Fervor said...

And, of course, this being out of our postmodernist, PC Hollywood, the "terrorist" is a morally conflicted white guy (Jim Caviezel). Another predictable propagandic plot cliché is somehow unsuitable for you to warn us of?

S. T. Karnick said...

Sorry, Pascal, but I really don't think that's an interesting observation. OK, you wanted the terrorist to be a Muslim, and you're disappointed, but I don't fault the producers for not going there. It would have added to the film something I think it really doesn't need and would simply be a distraction from the more important thematic issues of our regret for our sins and our often-sinful desire to control our destiny. But if you think it's important for all film villains to be something other than caucasian Americans, you're free to bring it up whenever you like. However, please don't accuse me of irresponsibility for not sharing your obsession.

Tom, Christian imagery and the theme of self-sacrifice are particularly important and evident in Washington's 2004 film Man on Fire; the 2003 film Out of Time is driven by themes of sin, guilt, and redemption; temptation and the danger of seeing things in shades of gray are the central idea of Training Day; the value of every human life suffuses The Bone Collector; and such ideas and motifs are common in other films he has done in recent years.

Pascal Fervor said...

I am sorry too Mr. Karnick. I permitted my reaction to a series of events rub off on you.

My response to your review coincided with having just read at the Belmont Club of the latest Western exhibition of cowardice. This was the fresh accounting of the Australian publisher pulling a novel -- naming a terrorist as Muslim -- due to fear. That same report that did not make it to MSM in Los Angeles until today, three days late.

In that link above, Wretchard first noted the strengths that have inherently been vested in the West: "Counterterrorism doesn't necessarily involve matching fear with fear, it can use other methods: the selective and precision destruction of enemy leaders; the systematic delegitimization of the enemy ideology; the ruthless application of technological and operational superiority to offset raw enemy intimidation. But most importantly, counterterrorism must send the message that it will prevail and that resistance is futile."

And what do you know? The story-line of this movie, being chocked full of the Western dazzle of modern technological advancement, certainly demonstrated that without missing a beat.

So why was I annoyed? What was missing, both in the storyline and in the production, was confidence.

As a critic, I would hope you'd be struck by the irony of the movie makers demonstrating regret for our sins while committing new ones in the reel production.

Fran Porretto only yesterday pointed out how we show ourselves to be fools: ”A fool is one who knows better but does worse. “

Beyond irony, our cultural dispensers seem to be afflicted with a mad blend of stupidity and cowardice. On one hand Hollywood displays an impunity by acting as if they have no care for the consequences how their output is viewed. If Muslims consider their smutty effluent to be both proof of our decadence and an attempt to corrupt them, “so what?” But on the other hand, they can’t fail to miss some consequences, “look what happened to Theo Van Gogh.” Okay, now that it’s their gut that may be knifed, they think twice.

And in that sudden concern for how they portray the clearest threat to our way of life is revealed the cowardice of which Wretchard warns: “Indeed, it is the enemy which has succeeded in portraying itself as the ‘good guys’; they cannot even be mentioned as ‘bad guys’ even in works of fiction.
And so disarming ourselves, even the capitals of the West become haunted by fear. The radioactive pellet; fatwa, CAIR lawsuit, knife in the stomach; academic blacklisting. Fear. And fear is the first symptom of civilizational death; the slow forgetfulness; the pathological uncertainty; the creeping paralysis. Franklin Roosevelt once said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Hear, hear.”

Pascal Fervor said...

[missing closing paragraph to the last post:]

Can you think of what Hollywood classics wouldn't be?

Imagine “Casablanca” without the Gestapo and Vichy France spelled out as the bad guys. Were Hollywood as confused and fearful as today, but in that day and age, it would have then felt it safer – my own irony here – to have cast the mujahiden as the bad guys.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks for the clarification, Pascal. I fully agree with the substance of your remarks on this issue. It's important to recognize that not every movie has to reflect our national concerns, you are quite correct to point out that is is very strange and sad if almost none do so. And you are correct to observe that in theatrical films today that is very much the case.

Pascal Fervor said...

Sam,

It is now three months later. There was a piece in the LA Times today by Andrew Klavin Is Hollywood too timid for the war on terror? revealing the depth of the problem I identified.

Hat tip again to Wretchard at the Belmont club.

Since your beat addresses cultural concerns, I thought you might want to know.

S. T. Karnick said...

It's a nice article, and Andrew Klavan is a solid guy and an excellent writer. Klavan confirms the point we both agreed on earlier, that Hollywood theatrical films do not directly reflect the important concerns of our time, and he ackknowledges the point I made earlier, that TV programming is much better in this regard.

I have some thoughts on why theatrical films today don't reflect present realities, and will offer them soon.

kathy larson said...

the main reason this movie has Christian imagery and thematic material is because the screenwriter is a Christian