Have you noticed that quite a few recent movies use non-linear layered time? In 50 First Dates, a man romantically pursues a woman who has suffered a brain injury affecting her long-term memory. Each night she loses all of the memories of the day, and wakes up the next morning thinking it is the morning of the day, years ago, that she sustained her injury. The problem for them is how to have a relationship under the circumstances of her condition. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, star-crossed lovers each engage a service that selectively erases memories to rid them of recollections of the other. During the procedures layers of their individual and joint experiences are wrenched out of chronology as parts of them struggle to retain some of the memories. In Vanilla Sky, there are too many possible layers of what happens to even describe.
In Woody Allen’s romantic comedy, Midnight in Paris, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, and Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, are in Paris, vacationing with family and friends before their wedding. Gil is working on a novel and would like to give up his career as a hack screenwriter and stay in Paris. Inez wants them to move to Malibu. One evening Inez goes out partying with friends and Gil walks the narrow picturesque side streets of Paris to think about his novel. He gets lost and at the stroke of midnight, is beckoned by revelers to get into their antique taxi, and is taken to a party where Cole Porter is playing the piano. At the party and on subsequent nights he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Picasso, etc. Gertrude Stein reads and critiques his novel. He is time traveling to Paris in the 1920s. He meets Adriana, Picasso’s mistress, played by Marion Cotillard, and they fall in love.
Gil ponders his situation in a bar with the Surrealists Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel. Man Ray says, “A man in love with a women from another era—I see a photograph.” Buñuel responds, “I see a film.” Gil states, “I see an insurmountable problem.” Dalí, continuing a personal theme, states, “I see a rhinoceros.” The scene is a delight for anyone who grew up with the work of these figures.
But while Gil loves 1920s Paris, Adriana longs for the 1890s Paris of the Belle Époque, and when they are transported there to the Moulin Rouge and join Toulouse-Lautrec at his table, Adriana decides to stay. Gil realizes that his longing for the past is a mistake and returns to current day Paris to break off his engagement, take up with a charming Parisian antiques sales girl, and finish his novel.
Aside from the layering of time, there is an interesting relationship between Gil and the figures from the 1920s. Gil wonders if he really travels back in time or is it all in his imagination; do these figures reveal anything about themselves he doesn’t already know? (Hemingway talks in the short, concrete sentences about courage and bull fighting that Gil would anticipate.) Then in today’s Paris he comes across an old diary at a bookstall and realizes that it is Adriana’s. She mentions him, so he knows his adventures are “real.” But these figures also survive in Gil’s and our experience of their writing, paintings, and photographs, so real and imagined intermingle.
The best of these kinds movies are not science fiction gimmicks, but dramas, romances, and romantic comedies. They portray the struggle to act out our Western existence, now on a new stage, not one of uniform Newtonian space and time, nor one of Einstein’s relativistic space-time, but are layered in shifting matrices of both space and time and of dream and reality. Why do we feel an affinity with these movies? Often, we relate to strange premises in the arts if at some level we feel they represent what we are experiencing. The linear slice-of-life with an all-seeing objective narrator that characterized the traditional novel; the stream of consciousness that characterized the novels of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf; and the extreme subjectivity of the nouveau roman of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet are no longer with us. We are in another world.