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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Time Out (originally published 7/98)

There's a story they tell about French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. It seems that an exasperated critic once asked the iconoclastic director if he didn't think, as a matter of principle, that a movie ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. "Certainly," Godard is supposed to have replied, "but not necessarily in that order." If you've seen "Out of Sight," the latest film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, you may have found yourself sharing the frustration expressed by Godard's inquisitor. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank spin out the story in chronologically piecemeal fashion, almost daring you to keep up.

We know, of course, that movies don't always proceed in rigid chronological fashion from beginning to end. Flashbacks are a staple of movie storytelling, a way of sandwiching a bit of backstory into the flow of the main storyline without disrupting our sense of continuity. Usually, however, filmmakers are careful to bracket their flashbacks in such a way that we see them coming. A slightly more adventurous approach is to spring a time-shift on us without warning, relying purely on contextual cues to tip us off. "Out of Sight" pushes at the boundaries in a way that is playful but not really radical. If you found this narrative technique stimulating, you might want to look for the following titles on video. Each one pushes the envelope of nontraditional chronology a bit further than the last.

"The Go-Between" (1971). Director Joseph Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter joined forces to adapt L.P. Hartley's novel about an English schoolboy who becomes the intermediary between an upper class lady and a common farmer whose passion for each other can never see the light of day. Pinter chose to intermingle past and present, weaving scenes of the title character as an adult in with the main storyline. As in "Out of Sight," these shifts in narrative time can be briefly disorienting, but not enough to make the story difficult to follow.

"Betrayal" (1983). Here's a story you've seen before. It's a love triangle consisting of a man, his wife, and the wife's lover, who is also the husband's best friend. Familiar territory, yes, but you've probably never seen it presented quite this way. This is Pinter at work again, this time adapting his own play. As in his script for "The Go-Between," he manipulates time, but here he doesn't merely inject the present into the past. He actually reverses the arrow of time, telling the story chronologically backward. The beginning of the movie shows the emotional fallout from the affair, which ended two years before. Then Pinter takes us back to the last meeting of the two lovers, at which they broke off the affair. And so on until we reach the party almost a decade ago where the flirtation between the lovers began. The point seems to be to portray life not as we experience it but rather as we remember it.

"Slaughterhouse Five" (1972). When director George Roy Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller took on the daunting task of adapting Kurt Vonnegut's way-out fantasy novel for the screen, it was a foregone conclusion that the story would not be told chronologically. The very premise of the novel, after all, was that the main character, Billy Pilgrim, has come "unstuck" in time. He is yanked willy-nilly back and forth through the experiences of his life, from the harrowing fire bombing of Dresden during World War II to his future experience as a sort of lab specimen for a race of extraterrestrials. Here the time sequence has not merely been toyed with. It has been pulled up by the roots and cast to the four winds. To say the least, it makes for challenging viewing. Still, if you can stick with it, and maybe watch it a second or third time, you'll find that it will richly reward your efforts.

That, for me, is the attraction of films that toy with chronology in this way. The gratification may not be immediate, but the very fact that it doesn't all sink in right away extends the pleasure of perceiving what the story has to offer. The narrative riches are there, and the patient viewer will reap them. It's just a matter of time.

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