Movies are Time Machines
Elan Mastai curates The Review and explains why every filmmaker wants to change the past
"You know what drives me crazy? It's all these people talking about how great technology is, and how it saves all this time. But what good is saved time, if nobody uses it?" — Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Before Sunrise (1995)
Elan Mastai is the author of the new time-travel novel All Our Wrong Todays, out in stores now through Penguin Random House.(Paramount Pictures has already bought the rights, and Mastai is writing the screenplay.) He is also the screenwriter behind the charming and relatable Canadian romantic comedy The F-Word, which plays for free across the country for National Canadian Film Day on April 19. He lives in Toronto.
Time defines everything about our existence. We move in space, but we live in time. Constantly propelled forward, our only path backward is through memory — and movies.
For me, time travel is an essential human longing. To try again. To go back. To fix our stupid mistakes, our bad decisions, and our painful regrets. To get a second chance.
Filmmakers love time-travel stories because making a movie is like operating your own time machine. The technical apparatus of the cinema is built to freeze time, drawing a frame around the fleeting moments of existence that hurry past the lens. Whether out in the everyday world, or on constructed sets with actors, lights, makeup, and costumes, the camera erects four walls around reality and saves the view.
Life only gives you one take, but as a filmmaker, you get as many as you want — or as many as your schedule allows. In life, we have free will. In film, we have line producers, union restrictions, waning sunlight, tired actors, company moves. Filmmakers get the existential privilege denied to us everywhere else in life — to try again.
No take is perfect. It’s the consequence of choices, haphazardly made in the wind tunnel of a production schedule. But in the editing suite, you can watch and rewatch takes — captured fragments of time, smuggled in from the past — selecting the best options and fitting them into a structure that just might, if you do it right, convince the audience not to look away.
In life, we look away from almost everything we see. But in film, we sit in the dark and stare. The fact of the screen makes every shot crucial and gloriously inevitable. But when you’ve made a movie, you don’t just see the film itself. You see the experience of making it. Each movie is also a documentary about the making of that film.
Every shot preserves a record of the actors’ lives as they existed in that moment, both a performance and also an image of a person performing. For every shot, there’s the story about what happened on set between action and cut — the creative challenges of that particular scene and how it fits into the labyrinthine campaign to bring the story to the screen. The real lives of the people who made the film, showing up to work, doing their jobs, trying to make something good, despite the cosmic arc of movie production toward mediocrity and compromise.
The essential tragicomedy of filmmaking is that just as much drama happens off-screen as on. Usually more. Absurdity, heartbreak, betrayal, vengeance, despair, and even the occasional fugitive triumph, hidden from the audience’s sight. A secret code discernible only to those who were at the scene of the crime. Evidence scrawled in the impenetrable language of the film set. The hard, shiny mirror of documentary shattered and reassembled into the gauzy pop art of fiction.
Movies construct a coherent alternate reality that the audience can visit for the running time, a pocket universe that exists in a fixed time loop, forever repeating the same sequence of events again and again, from the first to last shot.
The movie doesn’t change. You change.
You age. You learn. You grow. You become a different version of yourself, while the movie stays the same.
We visit the past only through the distortions of memory. If anything, movies make the distortions starker. In memory, a movie was funnier, sadder, scarier, more fun, evocative, dazzling. Returning to a beloved movie can feel delightful and comforting, like a childhood bedroom. Or disconcerting and awkward, also like a childhood bedroom.
The movie reminds us, for better or for worse, that it is what we can never be — unchanged.
My favourite time-travel movie is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because it revels in the complex juxtapositions of time, memory, artifice, and truth that are fundamental to all cinema. Joel (Jim Carrey) finds out his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has erased all of her memories of their time together. Hurt, he elects to do the same thing. During the process, trapped in his own memory, watching both painful and treasured recollections destroyed, he realizes he doesn’t want to lose them. But it’s too late.
For him, not for us. Because the movie has staged all the memories and preserved them for as long as the corporation that owns the distribution rights keeps updating it to successive media.
In the end, Joel and Clementine meet again and rekindle their romance. When they learn they’ve been through this cycle before, they decide to go for it anyway. For better or for worse, they’ll remake their movie. A prophetic statement for an off-kilter love story made by a Hollywood studio in 2004, before the current vogue for reboots had accelerated to its current baroque phase.
In 1997, I saw Trainspotting with a friend who was an exchange student from Edinburgh studying in Canada. It was fun to watch a movie set in another place with a person from that place. As an aspiring filmmaker in a country that at the time rarely told stories about itself on film, it was inspiring to see something so vivid and confident, not just in its telling, but in its location. It made the film not just a terrific story but an enduring document of its time and place.
Last month, I was in London on a book tour for my first novel and I met up with that same exchange-student friend, who now lives there.
We went to dinner in Islington and, when we saw T2: Trainspotting was playing in a movie theatre just a few blocks from the restaurant — well, we had to go.
So, I watched a sequel made 20 years later sitting next to the person I’d seen its predecessor with 20 years earlier. As a movie, the second Trainspotting is compulsively obsessed with nostalgia, aging, and the knotty question: can you go home again when home is in the past? It’s a sequel that frantically and neurotically asks if sequels are a bad idea and asserts: yes, but we can’t help ourselves.
In 1995, I saw Before Sunrise with my girlfriend at the time. Two months ago, while in Denver on the same book tour, she came to a bookstore signing that I did and afterwards, we caught up. This is, of course, also the plot of Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise that came out in 2004, the same year as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We saw a movie and then lived its sequel. Somehow, we couldn’t help it.
In Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has written a novel about his experience with Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years earlier, when they spent an unplanned day and night together in Vienna — which is itself the plot of Before Sunrise. At Jesse’s bookstore signing in Paris, Celine shows up unannounced and they spend the afternoon together. Complications ensue.
Part of the film’s aura of bittersweet longing and gnarly emotional tension is that the actors themselves are nine years older, aged in real-time along with their characters. The third movie in the series, Before Midnight, released nine years later in 2013, finds the couple in Greece, exploring the complications that ensued from the complications that ensued from the previous film. The actors are nine years older and so is the audience, 18 years removed from the first film, both on screen and off.
In Denver after my book launch, I had dinner with my ex-girlfriend and her wife. The last time I saw her was just after my mother’s funeral in 2001, 16 years earlier. As a sequel, it was less dramatic than Before Sunset — or at least, fewer complications ensued. When the life we lead remakes the movies we watch, it follows its own script.
While Richard Linklater was co-writing and directing the second and third installments of the Before series, he was also shooting Boyhood in chronological order over a period of 12 years. For me, watching the actors age on camera, not between films but within the temporal frame of a single movie, felt intensely emotional. This simple, funny, thoughtful story became momentous and revelatory by rooting everyday human experiences in the physical embodiment of time, propelled through its effortlessly casual cuts between the years.
In stories, time travel requires magic wands, technological contraptions, cosmic anomalies, divine interventions. But in film, it’s just an edit, two shots filmed a year apart, seamlessly joined together. Just as they are in our memories.
That’s what it felt like in that London cinema, sitting next to my friend, watching the Trainspotting sequel. I kept remembering the original Trainspotting, who we were then versus who we are now. Our bodies in the same pose across 20 years, seated side-by-side, staring up at the glowing screen. We are also two people who have physically aged over the decades, watching actors who have physically aged over the decades, pretending to be the same people they pretended to be the last time we sat together staring at a glowing screen.
T2: Trainspotting is a restless and dynamic movie, but by far, the best special effect is when the film cuts from the contemporary faces of the actors to their youthful avatars, frozen in time with their grins, grimaces, and bony, petulant beauty.
We were all bony, petulant beauties once.
Twenty years after watching Trainspotting, Before Sunrise, or any number of other films that have aged well or badly (as I've aged well or badly), I can fire up the time machine and revisit the unchanged past through my changed eyes. The effortlessly casual edits of life seem as surreal and disconcerting as Ewan McGregor climbing out of the worst toilet in Scotland.
It’s 1997, and I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life. It's 2017, and I'm a screenwriter, a novelist, a husband, a father. It's 1997, and the idea that anyone would ever pay me to write seems laughably unlikely, marriage and fatherhood even more so. It's 2017, and I have deadlines and contracts, five feature films and a novel to my name, a ring on my finger, children at school, while I write this sentence. It's 1997, and I’m living away from home, calling infrequently, barely seeing the family I adore and take for granted. It's 2017, and my mother is dead, my sisters are married with children, my father has a girlfriend I hardly know, I've built a whole other family, one I now live with in a different city, still seeing the family I adore all-too infrequently and trying not to take them for granted because I know how easy it is for everything you believe will last forever to fall apart. It's 1997, and I'm watching Trainspotting with my friend. It's 2017, and I’m watching Trainspotting with my friend. Two moments, 20 years apart, joined together as past and present, seamless.
As a kid, one of my favourite movies was The NeverEnding Story. A few months ago, it played at the movie theatre in my neighbourhood in Toronto, so I took my daughter to see it for the first time. I was expecting one kind of nostalgia — the sheepish kind, where you watch a movie you once loved and recognize how hokey and unconvincing it all is, but you don’t care because the halo of your affection is bright enough to bleach away most flaws. I was hoping for another kind of nostalgia — the surrogate kind, where you enjoy your child’s enjoyment of a thing you once enjoyed, delighted as they thrill, worry, and cheer, as you once thrilled, worried, and cheered so many years ago.
But I experienced a very different kind of nostalgia — the unexpected kind. I had no idea at the time that The NeverEnding Story was filmed in Vancouver in 1984, where I was born and raised. As Bastian (Barret Oliver) rode Falkor the Luck Dragon, flying down the street to chase away some bullies, I recognized the Vancouver of my childhood. Not today’s sleekly towered metropolis, but the half-formed port town that it was in the 1980s, squat and low-slung, the trees usually taller than the buildings. The NeverEnding Story had preserved it on screen exactly as I remembered it — as I’d forgotten it, frankly.
Inside a film that's fiction at its most ornamental was hidden a portal to another time and place. For me, it evoked so many lost things, like a flower pressed in an old book, waiting to be found. Movies can do that. Movies are made to do that. Movies are time machines. Not the kind where you change the past, but the kind where the past reveals how you’ve changed too.