Thinking about the relationship between still photographs and motion pictures, with particular reference to time travel cinema, I had a read of what Vivian Sobchack argued in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992) about the peculiar existential potency of the still image. This is where I had got to before consulting Sobchack:
1. Cinema is itself not only a time-defined but a time-travel-ish idiom. As its inherent obviousness implies, this is an observation very far from being original to me. 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. Film can realise a counter-clock world. Film also has at least two methods of slowing time down: one by filming at a much higher rate, such that the footage projected back at the normal rate creates a sense of fluid and graceful slowness which in turn can bring to light things (the bumblebee's wing action, the bullet emerging from the muzzle amongst pleats and folds of smoke like a white paper rose) hidden from the normally observant eye. But another way of slowing film is simply to slow it down, a jerkier process which eventually reveals the constituent images out of which the original footage is composed. The end-point for this strategy might indeed be a movie like La Jetée; which we can read, if we choose, not as a string of still photographs so much as a monstrously slowed-down, temporally retarded motion picture.
2. Accordingly, it should not surprise us that there have been so many and such popular examples of time travel cinema. A thumbnail history of this form brings out two main phases. Despite the popularity of H G Wells' 1895 novella, it is not until 1960 that a film text is made that resonates in a broader sense. This is George Pal's technicolour film of The Time Machine, There are, of course, earlier examples of time travel cinema: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was filmed twice (dir Emmett J Flynn, 1921 and Tay Garnett 1949); and there are such movies as Time Flies (Walter Forde, 1944) in which an actor uses a professor's time machine to travel back to Elizabethan England, and Fiddlers Three (Harry Watt, 1944) in which two sailors and a WREN visit Stonehenge and find themselves back in Ancient Rome. But these are all very minor film texts; I'd be amazed if you've heard of, et alone seen, them. Pal's Time Machine was a different matter: not only was it a hit in its own time, and an enduring film with a broad cultural penetration, it also inaugurated a particular mode of 1960s time travel story. . 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 US production The Time Travelers (dir Ib Melchior, 1964) though little known inspired the short-running but much syndicated US TV Show The Time Tunnel (1966-67). More enduring were the various Planet of the Apes movies from 1968 to 1971. What these texts share is a strange construal of the future (often the far future) in the habiliments of the past.
The mode went rather out of fashion in the 1970s, but came back in a big way in the 1980s, occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in future-set nostalgia but instead 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.
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.
3. Since the 80s there have been a number of often interesting time travel movies, but I don't think there has been a text or franchise with quiet the cultural impact of resonance of these. A few—let's say Groundhog Day (1993); Bill and Ted (1989); Donnie Darko (2001); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)—made a splash. Others have cult followings: the goofily ribald Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) or the clever but ultimately over-intricate thriller Looper (2012). But none of these titles have the cultural importance of those 1980s blockbusters. It would be only mildly distorting to see these twin peaks in the conceptual landscape of the Time Travel movie as expressing broader cultural concerns in concentrated form. Of many things that occur to me, a couple: these are films that construe the future in terms of the past, either by travelling to a future that is in some sense a version of the past (back to an ancient Greek idyll with the Eloi, or back to an alt-evolutionary deep past where the apes speak), or else by conceiving the future in terms of its threat to the present, as with the Terminator franchise. A commitment to the past, as with (say) the Beatles dressing in Edwardian clobber to front up Sgt Pepper, or Rod Sterling's splendid three piece suit, or Doctor Who's old world English eccentricity and dress -- this is the antithesis to the thesis of futurism, modernism, concrete, the white heat of technology. That's the dialectic these films work out, and the interesting this is how many of them go into the future in order to the return to the past. Which is precisely the arc of La Jetée. Funny how I keep coming back to that movie.
4. Finally, for now (and following on from 3., obviously enough) is the way the still photograph is so crucial an icon of this mode of film.
What's this about? It has something to do with memory, I'd say (obviously enough); and something to do with an implicit connection with an ideal baseline and an extra-temporal baseline. And so to Sobchack, whose Merleau-Ponty inspired phenomenological readings of film seemed so startling and original back in the 80s and 90s after decades of deconstructive and post-Freudian heterodox orthodoxies of interpretation. This is what The Address of the Eye has to say about the still photograph.
In the still photograph time and space are abstractions. Although the image still has a presence, it neither partakes of nor describes the present. Indeed, the photograph’s fascination is that it is a figure of transcendental time made available against the ground of a lived and finite temporality. Although included in our experience of the present, the photograph transcends both our immediate present and our lived experience of temporality because it exists for us as never engaged in the activity of becoming. Although it announces the possibility of becoming, it never presents itself as the coming into being of being. It is a presence without past, present future. Thus, when we experience the “timelessness” that a photograph confers on its subject matter, we are experiencing the photograph’s compelling emptiness; it exists as the possibility of temporality, but is a vacancy within it. This temporal vacancy, this lack of finitude, affects the space of the still photograph. It is peculiarly flattened. … The lack of depth and dimension in the still photograph seems less a function of the phenomenal thickness of the subjects and objects that it displays than of the temporal hole it opens within the world in which we gaze at it. [59-60]She goes on to discuss La Jetée specifically:
On the other hand, although necessarily dependent upon the possibility of temporality that the still photograph announces but does not fulfil, the motion picture is not a transcendental structure. If the photograph is a “hole” in temporality and announces a vacancy, then the motion picture in its motion sufficiently fills up that vacancy and inaugurates a fullness. The images of a film exist in the world as a temporal flow, within finitude and situation. Indeed, the fascination of the film is that it does not transcend out lived-experience of temporality, but rather than it seems to partake of it, to share it. Unlike the still photograph, the film exists for us as always the act of becoming. Thus, although made almost entirely using still photographs rather than live action, a film such as La Jetée (1962) nonetheless projects temporality and an existential becoming, even as it foregrounds the transcendental and atemporal potentiality of the photograph and its non-becoming. It is this explicit dialectic between the transcendental moment and existence as momentum that gives La Jetée its power and peculiar significance, providing both its structure and its theme and explicitly representing the dialectical impulse of all film. [60-61]I don't want to make too facile a point, but this 'transcendence' from time is what time travel actualises as a narrative shift or imaginative conceit. Perhaps it's not surprising that still photos have this special place in such stories. I'm on the edge of declaring that Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn is the first true time travel story -- which it sort-of is, I suppose.