I appreciate this looks like a rather peculiar question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Would you say that 'time travel' has to do with permanence, or impermanence? We might say: the former, either because the very fact of being able to travel in time ('fact' in the thought-experiment we are conducting) speaks to some mode of subsisting architecture of temporality, permanent in the way that the house through which we walk is permanent. The permanence of the house is what enables the transience of the walk. Or else, perhaps, we might say: time travel shores up all the stuff that might otherwise be impermanent: if an object, an action, a person is doomed to transience, the existence of time travel would enable us to avert death, resurrect the fallen and so on.
But I wonder. 'Time', the necessary medium of any time travel, is the idiom of impermanence; and movies, which stage their narratives in motion across time, embody this impermanent logic. The static figures on the side of Keats's 'Grecian Urn' are in a different state (indeed, the whole point of the poem is to contrast this perfect but unconsummatable stasis with the fleeting joys of sorrowful life). It's this cusp, I think, that is the really important one: I mean the cusp between images in motion and images in stasis. The first give us the kinetic dynamism of the movies, a dynamism unrestrained by the actual arrow of time, and which can run its footage backwards or forwards, can slow down or speed up the passage of time and so on. The second, though, have an aura that film lacks, precisely because they stand outside of the entropic logic of movies. [I could say something more about that, if only to try and defend the use of so modish and oft-misused a word as 'entropy'; but I don't really have time, here and now. In a nutshell, then: a film can be watched, and then can of course be re-watched, but the re-watch is lossy in ways that trump what is gained. Gains can be detail and the comfort of familiarity; but loss necessarily includes the initial immediacy and punch, the potency of visual surprise, and that goes to the heart of the matter.]
I need to be careful that this post doesn't congeal into a series of notations towards a conceptual shorthand that will make sense only to me. So let me put it this way: the time travel film (a large and varied body of texts) very often uses the still photograph as crucial visual rebus. In Back to the Future, for instance, a still photograph represents the authentic 'baseline' reality that jonbar-point-style mucking about threatens, with individuals literally fading out of the photographic artefact before our very eyes.
In the Terminator movie, it is a photograph of Sarah Connor that future-warrior Kyle has somehow obtained, that motivates his actions and so the narrative loop of the whole film -- he falls in love with the image in the still, goes back in time to find her and impregnates her with the future world saviour.
The image at the top of this post suggests where I'm going with this: Marker's La Jetée (composed almost entirely, of course, out of a string of 'still photograph' images) seems to me one of the most significant of all time travel movies, and not just because it has been so often imitated and remade: to the most obvious case of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995) we can add music videos by Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Isis and Panda Bear; short films like La puppé (2003) or Lucy Benson's 2011 'homage to La Jetée'; and more broadly to works like The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and if we stretch it a little to the whole genre of time loop and time paradox movies up to Looper, including both Back to the Future and Terminator.
This 'time loop' structure takes its cue from written science fiction, of course. By the 1950s and 60s hundreds of ‘time travel’ stories had been written, effectively codifying the parameters of the conceit. These cluster around two main varieties of temporal paradox that time travel, were it actually possible, might generate -- what we might call the 'positive' and 'negative' (or productive and destructive) archetype.
1: the ‘time loop’ paradox, whereby it might be possible for me to go back and become my own ancestor, or even my own parent.The key texts as far as this first paradox is concerned are two Robert Heinlein short stories; ‘By His Bootstraps’ (1941) and ‘—All You Zombies—‘ (1958). In the latter the contortions of a temporally dislocated plot result in the main character impregnating a sex-change earlier version of himself who thus gives birth to himself. This is, we could say, a kind of limit case of ‘control’: the ultimate male fantasy of perfect self-reliance and self-containment, bare existence itself created out of the self unsullied by interaction with others. That there is something claustrophobic and even psychopathological about this fantasy hasn’t stopped it becoming a staple of the genre. Cinema has been particularly taken with the structural neatness of this loopy trope: Groundhog Day (1993), Donnie Darko (2001), Déjà Vu (2006), Source Code (2011) Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the aptly named Looper (2012) all rehearse this structure.
2: the so-called ‘grandparent paradox’ (if I went back in time and killed my grandparents, my parents would never be born, so I would never be born; but then I wouldn’t exist to be able to go back in time and kill my grandparents, in which case they would exist and I would have been born able to go back in time and kill …’ And so on.
A paradox naturally invites attempts at solution, and this one has most commonly been ‘solved’ in fiction with the possibility that travelling back in time results in an alternate reality or ‘time line’ branching off from the moment of one’s arrival. An influential and much-parodied version of this is Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), where a time travelling big game hunter travelling back to on a licensed Tyrannosaurus Rex hunt accidentally steps on a butterfly, such that when he returns to his own time finds everything different. This is a premise that has informed thousands of SF stories and films, in various ways; but we can say, a little more precisely, that the trope almost always posits the 'alternate timeline' only in order to fit-in bridges, doorways, paths, connections—in a word, loops—between the 'baseline' reality and our own. The point is rarely simply to present a version of history in which things are variously different; the point is much more often to reflect upon our own course of history by gifting a hero the chance to 'change' the future in a practical sense.
You may feel I am overplaying the significance of La Jetée a little. It could be. I’d say there are good grounds for identifying two main vogues for ‘time travel cinema’ (despite the more or less continuous presence of time travel films and TV serials throughout the postwar period): one in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. Let’s take the 60s first, and argue that La Jetée, which construes time travel as into the past (with one brief excursion into the future), embodies the loopy ‘negative’ pole; the other, much more commercially successful movie is George Pal’s adaptation of Wells’s cornerstone time-travel story, The Time Machine (1960), mostly concerned with the 'positive' journey into the future. Interestingly, though forward-looking in the content of its narrative, this film took as much pleasure in the fixtures and fittings of its (by the 60s) quaintly retro Edwardian clothes and props as in its sciencefictional future. BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits.
The 1980s resurgence in time-travel cinema was occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in nostalgia but high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers. Both, in other words, look back to the Wellsian logic of the Edwardian machine, although with different emphases.
The aspect that needs explanation, I think, is the reason the ‘loop’ and ‘paradox’ conceits of time travel as a genre are realised in these movies in ways that give a visual pride of place to still photography. To dwell on La Jetée (1963) is set after a devastating third world war. A prisoner (Davos Hanich) is sent decades back in time to pre-war Paris, where he uncovers the truth behind a memory he has been obsessively rehearsing from his own childhood—standing with a woman (Hélène Chatelain) on the observation pier or ‘jetty’ of Orly Airport and seeing a man die. The film is composed almost wholly out of black and white still-images, a mode that resists the ‘temporal’ fluidity of conventional cinema, and also invokes the memorious habit of consulting still photos of one’s own past—because this is a film about childhood memory and trauma working itself out, on a global scale, in adulthood. The key to the memory (the dying man the child saw is that same child as a time-travelling adult) is a surprisingly resonant semiotic knot. It speaks to the way our anticipation of our death folds back into our past; time travel figures as a kind of feedback loop.
Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) plays the future-built humanoid robot of the movie’s title, sent back in time by a malign, intelligent computer system to kill a woman called Sarah Connor who, in 1980s LA, will give birth to the child John Connor who will grow up to defeat the computer system in its global war against humankind. Future humanity sends one of their own to protect Sarah Connor, and the movie strings together a series of exciting set-pieces in which this future-human fights the Schwarzenegger future-robot. The twist is that the future-human and Sarah Connor fall in love; he is John Connor’s by-his-bootstraps father, and by attempting to snuff-out the threat of Sarah Connor the wicked ‘Skynet’ computer system is actually guaranteeing the birth of the very man it was trying to prevent. His love was kindled by a photograph of the young Sarah that he carried with him through the future wastelands, and which he brings back. As with La Jetée the narrative loop has a pleasing symmetry to it, and it flatters our (human) sensibilities to think that ‘Chronology’, howsoever it is messed-about-with, will shake down into a timeline in which human beings win. The first film is about implacability. Future-soldier Kyle Reese describes the Terminator to its target, Sarah Connor: ‘it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’ This draws its imaginative heft from the cultural traditions of momenti mori—the ‘true form’ of the Terminator, stripped of its ersatz human fleshly covering, is that of a chromium skeleton complete with grinning death’s head. The implacability of death used to figure in human culture as a feature of the natural world, through plague, famine and old age. Now it is embodied by a man-made device, as if we actually are terrified of the future because of what we will make of it. But as cinema the Terminator (and to an even greater degree in Terminator 2) construes motion—the characters must constantly move on, the film is one long chase sequence in which the implacable agent of time travel continually and relentlessly pursues the human characters. It has something of the same forceful kinetic momentum that made Speed such a hit. This, we might think, is at the very other end of the conceptual spectrum from the still photograph.
The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.
Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.
There is in other words a kind of existential conservatism to the cinematic time-travel story, something that links back to its own form. Several critics have explored the analogues between the formal qualities of cinematic representation and time travel. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered.
We can see this if we step back to the early history of the mode, and watch a film like René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1925), a 35-minute silent picture released in anglophone countries under the title The Crazy Ray. A man wakes one morning, at the top of the Eiffel tower, to discover that most (though not all) of the population of Paris have been frozen in place. Though not specifically a time travel narrative, its ludic exploitation of the possibilities of the camera’s eye: the same machine that creates the illusion of movement can stop it, slow it down, speed it up and reverse it. The relationship between the La Jetée-esque still photograph and the kinetic always-in-motion of the Terminator films is embodied in the interaction of moving and frozen Parisians in this delightful film. It is, of course, a movie about movies, as all the best time travel films are. We start the history of time-travel in the 1890s with H G Wells; but it is no co-incidence that this is also the decade when motion pictures themselves begin as a serious form of art. There are metaphorical, as well as actual, points of comparison between photons and tachyons.
Which brings me back to the initial question. The 'loop' that I posited might guarantee permanence turns out to be a short-circuit pathway leading only to death. This seems to be because the loop is a backward-looking topography, linking the 'present' (whenever that is, for the movie) with the past. The loop is always a tangle, and the nature of the motion of these moving pictures always draws that tangle into a tight knot. Time travel into the future is different, but rather less popular. I suppose this is because 'time travel to the future' tropes prophecy (itself notoriously unreliable), prediction, planning and so on; variously arid and intellectual exercises, in most cases. But 'time travel into the past' tropes memory, and memory, in its tyranny as well as its pliability and intermittency, always haunts the now. Is constitutive of the now. All stories are the story of the man, or woman, marked by the frozen moment of his/her childhood; and the secret truth of time travel is the this mark, this static visualisation of the deep past, is actually our own death.
The momento mori is as much a memorious as morbid, after all.
Now I'm willing to concede that this style of lucubration tempts the writer into the cod-profundity of flat paradox. We can't actually remember our own death, and the images that haunt us from our youth are not of our own dying. But they are, by their very nature, of our own passing, and passage is the grammar of the motion picture. 'Passage' in this sense of moving on, moving through, of time passing and actors passing and the film passing through the gate (or the digitally coiled line of data passes beneath its reader) is what film is, in one sense. We love film because it passes, and we recognise as Keats did before us the pathological element in our urge to hold on to moment as stasis. Man is in love and loves what vanishes, as Yeats once said; and his own gloss on this assertion ('What more is there to say?') implies that understanding this horizons other understandings. Back in the fourteenth century Yoshida Kenko expressed this sense that without the pathos of passage the world would be powerful to move us. In his Essays in Idleness he wrote: 'if man were to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.' Kenko saw loopishness (he would never have deployed so ungainly a word of course) as the veritable reality: 'truth is the beginning of anything and its end are alike touching.' But what the loop guarantees is not permnance but a kind of saving transience.
I suppose that's what the still photograph 'means'. It reifies memory, and therefore visualises precisely the impermanence of things, the impossibility of fully recapturing the past and therefore of time travel. The photo in Back to the Future fades; the photograph in Terminator burns; the photographs in La Jetée draw the protagonist only back to his death.