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Time Travel for the Working Class

 "She's gone, and the past is trivia I scribble on these fucking  notes"

-Leonard Shelby, in Memento

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five opens with the words: "Listen, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time". His world is disjointed, he slips from disconnected moment to disconnected moment. Leonard Shelby, the protagonist of memento (Guy Pearce), has a similar problem. He can make no new memories.

Shelby knows that his wife was raped and murdered by someone named John G. He knows that he was injured in the attack, and that his wounds left him without a short term memory. And he knows that he his searching for the killer. For anything more than that he must trust the notes he has written himself.

He has pockets filled with scraps of paper, covered with bits of information he will need. The really important stuff he has tattooed on his body to make notes you can't lose.

He carries a polaroid so he can remember who people are, and what he needs to know about them. One picture, of a girl named Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) says: "she's lost someone too. She will help you out of pity".

It is that Polaroid that gives the film its marvelous opening scene. We see a picture of a dead man. Then, slowly, we watch the picture un-develop. The we see the film swallowed up by the camera. Next we see a gun leap from the floor into Leonard's hand. Then a bullet rips itself from the dead man, and re-enters the gun. We have seen a murder in reverse.

The movie immediately backs up a few minutes, and shows us what happened just before. Each sequence does this, skipping back a bit to show how Leonard got into the situation we just watched him negotiate.

At one point we see him running, and he thinks: "what am I doing? Oh, I'm chasing this guy". All of Leonard's life is like that. If he talks with someone too long he will forget who he is talking to, and why.

Leornard can't even remember his best friend, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Every time he sees him he must refer to a photo with the words: Don't believe his lies.

The entire film isn't in reverse, as the ads claim. Mostly it is, but the movie also uses several cagey flashbacks to illuminate the story. Most of the flashbacks are dreams, and memories from before the incident.

One series of flashbacks that run throughout the film involve a phone call, and are used to tell the story of Sammy Jankis, another man with the same condition as Leonard.

The director (Christopher Nolan who would later become a mega star with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception) has found the perfect tone for his material. It is dense, and confusing, and forces the audience to pay attention. One trip to the snack bar would destroy any continuity the viewer can find in this film.

Every answer leads to a new question, and sometimes they don't fit together. When we are led, finally, to the conclusion (begining?) of the story, the point where it all makes sense (or fails to, depending on your interpretation of the events) we are shocked by what we learn, and what we realize about Leonard's future. He is a man on an unending quest, with an unsolvable riddle. And he likes it that way.

Memento is a highly original film, that is not easily compared to other movies. It manages to do something new.

So, is the structure a gimmick, as some have suggested? Yes, it is. But by the same token Flashbacks, cross cutting, pans, tracking shots, close-ups, wide screen, color, and even sound are gimmicks. Gimmicks are, to a large extent, what make movies fresh and new.

This film, from a certain point of view, like Slaughter-House Five is about time travel. Is that possible? Can we travel in time? To answer that you may want to read Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe by J. Richard Gott.


Before reading Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe by J. Richard Gott, the reader should be aware that much of the science presented within this book is highly speculative. Currently physicists disagree about the possibility of the various methods of time travel presented by Gott. However, all of the ideas that Gott chooses to present have been embraced by at least a few experts in the field. Some of the theories presented are currently taken as fact, but not many.

J. Richard Gott is a well known and highly respected physicist. He currently works as a professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University. He has won many awards, and been published in such notable publications as Nature, Scientific American Time, and American Scientist.

Mr. Gott employs a natural, easy writing style to guide the reader simply through concepts that are difficult, and often highly abstract. He is able to make if the most technical details of science readily digestible by the common reader. This is the singular achievement of his book. Even someone with little science education will, upon finishing this tome, feel at home in discussions concerning the basics of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory.

Gott employs discussions of time travel in literature and film to illustrate his points. He uses H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, as well as a story by Robert Heinlein. He also talks about such diverse films as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Somewhere in Time, and Back to the Future. These illustrations are entertaining, and become useful in Gott’s hands.

Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe looks at all the ways time travel may be achieved. One should understand at the outset, that we are all traveling in time. We move forward in time at the rate of one second per second. This is, of course, a one way trip.

Gott reminds us that it is possible to travel forward in time more quickly. This can be done simply by traveling at a higher velocity. As one’s speed approaches that of light, time slows. Thus, if we were to travel away from earth at 80% of the speed of light for one year, then return to earth at the same speed, we will find that we have aged two years. However, those we left behind will be considerably older. We will have traveled into the future. This is also, unfortunately, a one way trip.

Gott spends considerable space detailing ways in which travel to the past may be possible. These methods use things like gravity wells, black holes, worm holes, and cosmic strings (not to be confused with “super strings”, of super string theory). Most of these methods involve using space-time “short cuts”, which allow one to (in a manner of speaking) travel faster than the speed of light.

Gott also discuses paradoxes that could be caused by time travel into the past, but finds arguments to defeat them as problems for his view.

Many physicists (Stephen Hawking, for instance) believe that these methods are patently impossible. They claim that Relativity’s upper speed limit (that of light in a vacuum) is inviolable. Others, however, disagree. Gott is joined in his ideas by such notables as Kip Thorne.

Gott ends his book with a bit of prediction about the future. He employs the Copernican principle (no observers particular place in space, or time, is special) to develop a method for predicting the longevity of things. His method is quite accurate (within a large range: it doesn’t supply exact dates, but merely approximate ranges that can span from days to millions of years) and interesting.

Gott’s book is not the only one out there to deal with this subject. Hundreds of books have tackled these possibilities. Kip Thorne has written at least two. Stephen Hawking has touched on the subject in his writings. However, Gott’s book may be the most enjoyable read of all of them.

I recommend this book, as long as the reader does not take all of Gott’s suggestions as fact. One must heed the caveat with which this review begins.

In closing, I love this strange little film, and think you will love it as well.

Now, to cleanse the palette, here's something from the show:

One of the films we talk about "may" involve time travel of a sort. Enjoy!


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