In steamboat time, Yesterday Was A Lie arrived in my drinking water in a very synchronistic time of my life in which it seemed like everything was pointing in the same direction. Everything I picked up, all the disparate sources all seemed to be laser beams triangulating a point in the distance, and I just had to carefully follow them to find the message at the end. It was a surreal period: I was waist deep in my first viewing of the X-Files (25 is about when I stopped being terrified of an alien abduction), and I was taking an Oxford Inklings class as well as a William Blake class. If you ever want your understanding of reality utterly shattered, do those things I just described. Also, I’d somehow happened upon this movie while it was still in development and everything it was saying (or the director said it was saying) was the stuff being shouted at me from every other corner of my life.
Yesterday purported to be about the truth of reality being that it’s a sham (o hai Matrix), time being non-linear, how the stuff medieval monks were thinking about reality lined up with the stuff our most revered physicists were discovering. I mean, to articulate all these thoughts would require their own blog post because they are tangled and ponderous. But let it be said that I was convinced that upon viewing this movie, I would instantly convert to a five dimensional god being and disseminate across third dimensional space. Not really. Also: it didn’t happen.
The plot is difficult to sum up in that it’s really hard to effectively communicate why it’s hard to sum up. It’s the story of Hoyle, noir’s probably only female detective, investigating a murder whose clues seemed to be wrapped up in T.S. Eliot quotes, Carl Jung, quantum physics, and medieval cosmology. The more she investigates, the more she’s haunted by the feeling that something isn’t quite right with the world, though she can’t articulate what. Along the way she meets a lounge singer who seems way too smart to be a lounge singer, and a physics student who knows a lot about mysterious Nazi experiments.
That’s pretty much the plot. Relatively simple, but the way it’s done is head scratching: the narrative jumps around, and a scene will replay itself with moderate alterations so slight you’re not sure if you’ve missed something. At times the narrative stomps around like a bull with a head full of cocaine, and you’re not sure if the movie’s being sloppy or profound (it’s both). Aesthetically, the movie delivers on the promise of a 40s noir-scape (except Hoyle looks grossly out of place in her trench coat and hat). But who cares about all that? The movie is sloppy and confusing, and once again, it hangs its story on love so that it can put a bow on it, but its worth watching.
Where it gets fascinating is the carefree application of physics and quantum physics that dovetails in a fantastic (and unplanned) explanation of the archaic-technology-as-magic theme I’ve been noticing. See, Hoyle’s problem is that time has stopped being linear for her, and it takes her awhile to catch on. She starts to experience déjà vu and has that nagging inarticulate sense that something’s wrong with reality. In a meeting with a physics student, she starts to figure out why: he tells her of a lost Nazi journal in which they were beginning to uncover the true structure of time, and that the act of simply knowing the truth effectively makes you a time traveler. He illustrates the nature of time by lining up the shot glasses they’ve been drinking from. Time, he says, only appears linear to us. We can only ever look back, and that’s how we orient ourselves within time. The second shot glass can only see the first behind it (remember: we can only look back), and that’s how it knows its second. Really, the student clarifies, time happens all at once, everywhere, but consciousness binds us into looking at it, retroactively, as a linear process. The second shot glass can be moved anywhere in its lineup, but it will only ever know how many shot glasses are behind it. That looking back is memory, the building block of consciousness, the great illusionist of time.
Which I don’t think I caught the first time because it would have made my head invert. I remember having that exact same conversation with my best friend (the John Carter, Avatar guy, in the room while we were watching this. I’m going to call him Buddy, because he remembers his Buddy and Me doll turning to look at him in the middle of the night when he was six, and if he sees this, he will lay a neat row of bricks in the middle of the floor). I said to him that I was pretty sure animals experienced all time at once and their experience of reality was inherently psychedelic, but language was the gatekeeper of consciousness that put a mandate of order onto events. That was our conversation. And no, I’ve never done any drugs. The point is that neither of us must have caught that line the first time we saw it because our heads would have lifted off their necks, rotated 360 degrees twice, then flown to the Moon to marry Moon women and start Moon families.
But this is exactly why I think these movies (and others I’m going to be talking about) link outdated technology with something miraculous: memory is our only certain link to the past. Sure, the old 1940s typewriter sitting on my shelf claims to be the from the future, but without that memory I don’t know for certain. On the other hand, I know for a fact what exactly my relationship in time is with my cat: I remember the day we adopted him from the shelter and can roughly orient it within a chain of memories that allow me to count how many links away and orient the adorable scamp. These artifacts of the past feel like a real link to some other time, but in reality any link we feel is imagined. Which is a let down, because all these movies show that memory is perhaps even less reliable than imagination.
But it’s that link between what can be remembered and what can be imagined that moves us. It’s a link that’s easier to attach to objects outside of our current experience (that old typewriter, DOS 1.0, an unknowable VHS found in a box in a house with no VCR), a link that begs the object be remembered and placed in time, but without the direct experience to assemble the necessary row of shot glasses, imagination has to fill that void. Imagination likes to expand, however, filling in that row of shot glasses both behind and in front since imagination isn’t bound by causality.
main photo credit of Dark City to New Line Cinema