Time itself bends to our will as we discuss Predestination, Timecrimes, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Primer, Run Lola Run, Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, and Je t’aime, je t’aime. What’s worth spending a few of your precious hours with? Join us and find out!
Part of that glut of late seventies Czech time travel comedies, and yes, I’m sure you’re as tired of hearing about them as I am writing about them.
I’ll keep this brief as I can’t imagine anyone listening to this isn’t intimately familiar with it, but on the off-chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years, we’re introduced to twins Jan and Karel, one a mild mannered engineer who invented the process of time travel and used it to set up a chrono-tourist business, the other a brash, womanising drunk and also pilot/astronaut of the spacecraft used to bend time to our will.
His reckless lifestyle leads Karel into financial difficulty, making him an easy target for a group of Nazis who have hatched a plan to take an advanced weapon back to Hitler mid WW2 to change the course of history. There’re safeguards against such things, of course, but the pilot can over-ride them. Finding this less risky than a payday loan service, Karel agrees to sell his soul to the Nazis. Not long after, he chokes to death on a roll.
While Jan’s upset by his brother’s death, he also sees an opportunity to make a change to a life that he’s finding mundane and unfulfilling. He assumes Karel’s identity, and all of the hassle that comes along with it – with angry husbands being the least of it – and before long he’s an unwitting Nazi accomplice, trying to foil their plans while keeping himself alive.
Being a comedy, there’s a fair amount of bumbling ineptitude from everyone involved, leading to a nicely convoluted final act where there’s something of a do-over with multiple, day-apart versions of people flailing around, the details of which I’ll leave to the interested.
It would be cynical to say that we chose to cover Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea purely on the strength of the title. Cynical, but entirely accurate, it being up there with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as needlessly specific titles go. Apparently something of a cult classic in the UK following a terrestrial TV screening some decades back, I’d never heard of this, presumably for the reason that, hipsterism aside, it’s not all that remarkable a film.
I mean, it’s fine: the high level concept’s good, and there are enough chuckles raised throughout that I don’t think I’ve wasted my time watching it. But is it worth, hypothetically speaking, registering on Czech language piracy message boards to hunt down a copy? Probably not. It has quite the soundtrack, though.
In the admittedly astronomically unlikely event you stumble upon an easily accessible copy of this and you’re in the mood for some light, knockabout comedy, and I suppose also the disturbing increase in Actual Nazis knocking about these days hasn’t put them into the “no laughing matter” category for you, it’s an enjoyable enough watch.
The time travel mechanic in Nacho Vigalondo’s Los cronocrímenes (Timecrimes) is similar to that of the more traditional “grandfather paradox” type, though in a massively compressed time frame, where travel to earlier in your life causes unforeseen, and hugely undesired, consequences.
Karra Elejalde plays Héctor, a pretty average middle-aged guy who is in the process of moving into his new house with his wife. Sitting in a deck chair in his back garden and idly using binoculars, he sees an attractive young woman in the woods at the edge of his property. The woman proceeds to take off her shirt and, for some reason intrigued by this, he decides to investigate while his wife goes to buy food.
In the woods Héctor finds the woman naked and unconscious, but before he can check on her he is stabbed in the arm by a mystery assailant, a man in a trench coat with his face shrouded in pink bandages. Héctor flees, and eventually finds himself inside of a laboratory underneath a building. Here he finds a walkie-talkie, and begins talking with someone who tells Héctor that he can see his pursuer on the security monitors, and instructs him to exit the lab by the rear and make his way up the hill to the silo, where he will be safe.
Once inside the silo, Héctor meets the man behind the voice, a young scientist (director Vigalondo) doing extra work on an experiment while everyone else has gone home for the weekend. He instructs Héctor to hide inside of the large tank in the centre of the room, where his attacker won’t think to look for him. The lid of the tank closes, and just as soon opens again. The scientist is still there, but the attacker is gone and, despite night having fallen by the time Héctor arrived at the silo it is now daylight. Though he is unwilling to believe it at first, Héctor has travelled back in time, by about 80 minutes, and things are about to go, in the parlance of our times, tits up.
Makoto (Riisa Naka) seems to be, in most respects an ordinary teenage girl. She muddles through school adequately enough, and plays baseball with her best friends, the dependable Kousuke and more flighty Chiaki. Mundanity continues until one day, while riding her bike, Makoto’s brakes fail and contrive to engineer an unfortunate train / flesh interface that by rights should have killed her, if she hadn’t reflexively jumped back in time to that morning.
On discovering this handy skill, at least after a short period of understandable shock and surprise, she uses these powers to, well, have a better, less death-filled day, mainly. Seeing as “not dying” is a low bar, she goes further, seeking to avoid pain and embarrassment to herself and her friends as she attempts to engineer a better day for them all, while avoiding changes to the interpersonal relationship status quo as far as possible. As is usually the case when meddling with this sort of thing, changing one small event may lead to many unanticipated changes elsewhere that seem to continually hamper her efforts.
Indeed, the whole time-travelling gimmick is little more than a hook to hang what is for the most part a melancholy exploration of friendships, love and missed opportunities as the dynamics of the main trio’s friendship changes in various ways for various reasons. The take home message appears to be that change is inevitable, and even if you could head back in time, you can’t stop it marching right back on again.
I liked this a lot, a decade or so ago, but haven’t thought about it much since. However, I’m happy to report it holds up about as well on a second viewing. The characters are all still utterly charming, and the film has an endearing sense of understatement. Indeed, one of Makoto’s main reasons for returning in time appears to be to prevent her sister stealing her pudding.
The characters feel very real and restrained, apart from an understandable but ill-advised ramping up of cheese and saccharine at the very end of the film to attempt to give a dramatic emotional punch that feels out of keeping with the rest of the film. Also, whoever was given the job of animating tears needs to back off the drama just a smidgen, given how wildly out of place it looks in an otherwise beautifully animated and drawn piece of work.
If it has an outright flaw it’s actually the time-travelling mechanism itself. When it’s an inexplicable McGuffin it’s fine, but the explanation for it is something of a stretch and rather dull to have explict’d to you. For me, at least, there’s enough goodwill built in the hour-twenty-odds before that to excuse the last ten.
Another winner from Madhouse, the studio responsible for the sublime Metropolis, the affecting Perfect Blue and the laughable Wicked City.
While science fiction films can often be massively-budgeted, effects-heavy monoliths, it is also possible to create a very effective film with not much more than a clever idea and a simple (in terms of technique and effects) execution, and certainly without a lot of money. And just how little money? Well, in the case of Shane Carruth’s lo-fi debut feature Primer, about $7,000. Which, is frankly, miraculous, especially given it was shot in colour (for comparison, that’s about 1/10th of the cost of Darren Aronofsky’s monochromatic Pi, shot more than half a decade earlier).
But Carruth’s extremely careful storyboarding, almost infeasibly low shooting ratio of 2:1 and a skeleton crew, with him taking on multiple jobs himself, allowed him to produce this gem that grossed nearly $850,000 at the box office.
Four friends, all employees of various tech firms, work in their spare time out of a suburban garage, early Apple-style, taking turns to try to develop different technologies in the hope of making it rich. Two of these friends, Abe and Aaron, collaborate on creating a machine that will reduce the mass of an object (in the first case, a Weeble – “Weebles Wobble, But They Don’t Weigh Much”) placed within the field it creates. It works, sort of, but like many of the greatest discoveries the inventors aren’t entirely sure, at first, how it works, and are certainly even more perplexed when they discover that they seem to have inadvertently created a time machine (“Weebles Wobble But They Fall Through Time”).
It takes not too long until they decide the smart thing to do is to scale up and try sending something slightly smarter than a Weeble through time (to wit: themselves), and while they begin with the obvious things of using future knowledge to make gains on the stock market, and they at least attempt to avert paradoxes and the like, it isn’t long until things go wrong. And weird.
We spoke about Alain Resnais’ first two films in our Left Bank episode back in May 2016. How time flies: somewhere between this episode and our next marks our three year anniversary in this form and closing in on eleven years podcasting when including our previous form. I’m going to book myself in for a hip replacement.
Anyway, skipping two films and seven years from Last Year at Marienbad brings us to Je t’aime, je t’aime, wherein Claude Rich’s Claude Ridder leaves hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Obviously. If he left after a successful suicide attempt it’s a very different genre we’re talking about. He’s approached by representatives of a presumably secret organisation to take part in a time travel experiment as a guinea pig, presumably because he’s already shown a disregard for his own life.
Still, it’s worked with mice, or at least a mouse, for a minute, so it’s probably ready for prime-time, right? Claude is led to a country estate where, after some general, largely dispensable exposition he enters what I’ll call the Time Egg and the switch is thrown, with the intent of moving him in time by a minute.
It doesn’t work. At least not as intended. Alain goes on a magical mystery tour throughout his relationship with his chronically ill, seemingly clinically depressed girlfriend, Olga Georges-Picot’s Catrine, flying through his memories on shuffle play with a dizzying succession of edits that’s as disorientating for the audience as it must be for Claude.
Through the course of an hour or so we uncover a picture, fuzzy as it is, of Claude’s life, and the decisions that led to him attempting to kill himself. Your mileage will vary, of course, and like Marienbad it’s sophistication through obfuscation rather than any genuinely challenging narrative, but it turns out I continue to be a complete sucker for Resnais’ tricks.
It’s some solid character work, and its narrative is presented in an interesting way. It’d be remiss of me not to point out that the actual narrative, when defragmented, isn’t all that complex or the final reveal of what drove Claude to desperation all that affecting. Sad, for him and his girlfriend, and for us, assuming you’ve warmed to them, which I had, but not the powerful emotion gut-punch I think it was hoping to be.
Also, I suppose, on reflection, this is a “time-travel” film in the loosest sense only, and is really just a mechanism for a fractured narrative that these days would probably just be presented without explanation. Does that mean it’s here under false pretences? Well, it was either this or Timecop, so count your blessings.
So, for me, good, but not great. Edging towards it, though.
There are a great many different takes on time travel, some less conventionally time-travelly than others. One such is Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola Run), which opts for the “time loops until you get it right” approach of Groundhog Day, albeit a massively shortened version of Phil Connors’ karmic purgatory (I know I’m mixing religions here, but I feel pretty confident that description works), though in both films it becomes a case of love winning out.
Franka Potente’s Lola and Moritz Bleibtreu’s Manni are a young couple who do low level work for a criminal gang, but Manni in particular is looking to move up, and is being trusted with a large sum of money as a test. Not his lucky day, then, when Lola, who was to collect him after the deal, has her moped stolen and never arrives. Forced to walk a long distance and then get the subway, a stressed Manni panics when he sees security guards enter the train and flees, leaving behind the bag with the money, which is found by a homeless man.
Manni phones Lola to tell her that he is in trouble. It’s no biggie, really, except for the part where he needs to find 100,000 DM in the next 20 minutes or the gang boss will kill him. It occurs to him that it would be a spiffing idea to rob the supermarket across the road from the phone booth he is in (for some reason he believes a supermarket will have that sort of money by midday), but Lola pleads with him not to. Manni gives her an ultimatum: if she is not there by 12, which is in only 20 minutes, then he’s going in.
A frantic Lola desperately tries to think of ways in which she can obtain that much money and reach Manni in time, and begins by going to see her bank manager father. A kinetic run through and around Berlin ensues, and we see glimpses of how the lives of those who cross Lola’s path play out after their encounters, accompanied by a by now painfully mid-90s techno soundtrack.
Lola’s attempt to reach Manni doesn’t end well, though, and Lola dies. But she’s not ready to give up just yet, and it seems the universe is willing to give her another chance, and she finds herself back in her house, taking Manni’s call. Another two sprints through the German capital follow, with some subtle (and some not so subtle) differences that proceed from things as simple as a delay of a few seconds (and the deliberate actions of a blind woman who seems to know far more than she possibly could).
Tough one to talk about considerately, this. I’d say it’s best enjoyed by knowing as little as possible going into it. Even the curiously oblique character names will prompt questions. I’ll obfuscate this to the best of my ability.
We’re introduced to Ethan Hawke’s character, who the credits say we should call The Barkeep, shuffling around in the shadows attempting to foil a bombing and partially succeeding, containing the damage to an enclosure built for such duty, and his face, which wasn’t. He scrambles for a device which blasts him back to his own time period, and one quick Ethan Hawke-shaped face transplant later, he’s back with his boss, Noah Taylor’s Mr. Robertson, in some government time travel agency or other.
After recuperating, he’s given one last job – this sort of chrono-crimefighting apparently taking its toll on the mind as well as the body. It’s actually the same job that got him into trouble in the first place; find and stop the Fizzle Bomber, who, despite the name, is bombing buildings with people in them, not fizzles.
As part of this work he’s sent to the seventies, undercover as a bar keeper, where he meets Sarah Snook’s The Unmarried Mother, and weasels her life story out of her in what turns out to be another axis of Mr. Robertson’s plan – to hire his own replacement.
Convincing her to take this opportunity, and along the way enact some vengeance for a previous misfortune that befell her, off the two go hopping through a convoluted narrative that goes some way to explain why The Unmarried Mother’s life story is so convoluted, but the details of which are perhaps best left to the interested.
If you’d asked me what I thought of this as the credits roll, I’d have a much more straightforward answer for you. It’s a very engaging piece of work indeed, and perhaps the film on this list that I was most awed by on first view. It often looks exceptionally pretty, even in a grim industrial setting, and props should go to The Brothers Spierig, or their cinematographer Ben Nott perhaps, for creating such an arresting movie on, well, not a pittance, exactly, but well below the budget this sort of thing normally requires.
Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook both ably work through a complex maximally twisty turny script, particularly from a character standpoint, and I found both characters quite compelling indeed, and combined with a narrative that does a pretty good job of keeping you guessing where it’s going, most of the time, it’s easy enough to heartily recommend that you pop this on your watch list.
I then recommend not thinking about it at all, because for me at least the more I think about this the less I like it. All the points just mentioned remain true, but the plot is, when you think about it, nonsense on stilts. You can let some extraordinarily unusual things go – given the nature of a government agency such as this it could have the effectively perfect knowledge required for parts of this, but it’s then baffling that their apparent solution for the stated aim of the agency is quite so indiscriminately murdery.
And that’s even given the most generous interpretation of Mr. Robertson being some extraordinary puppet master, capable of complete manipulation of his agents and circumstances, which to my mind is a pretty unsustainable load to bear on his, what, ten lines of dialogue, max? If we assume instead that he is just some random civil servant, well, the plot gets a whole lot less sensible.
I guess all I can say is that, even despite mentally picking this apart over the past few days, I enjoyed both watching it, and that picking apart process, so, well, I suppose that makes it one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen over the past few years, and much like their previous Daybreakers, a novel spin on a well-trodden formula. Like I said, pop this on your watch list.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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