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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Time and Time Again (originally published 12/01)

One of the many fascinations of the motion picture medium is its ability to confer on its artisans complete mastery over time and space. It can annihilate distance by showing, say, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a single split-screen image. Even more impressively, it can ignore the constraints of time by compressing many years of a character's life into a few seconds of screen time with just a couple of judiciously chosen transitions. We might see a youngster toddling around his playpen, followed by pages falling from a calendar, then a shot of him playing little league baseball, more pages, then a shot of him receiving his college degree.

Martin Lawrence's new film, "Black Knight," plays with time in yet another way, actually propelling its protagonist back through the ages to live out an adventure in the 14th Century. Of course, movie makers didn't originate this sort of manipulation of chronology. It has been a favorite device of science fiction and fantasy writers since before movies were invented. Still, when you combine this fantasy theme with the camera-eye realism of the movie screen, the result is particularly potent. If the idea of grabbing hold of the arrow of time and twisting it around like a pretzel stimulates your sense of wonder, here are some titles to look for on home video.

"The Time Machine" (1960). The H. G. Wells time travel classic was lovingly rendered by producer/director George Pal. Rod Taylor stars as the 19th Century tinkerer who is so convinced that the future will be a utopia that he builds a machine to take him there. After a disillusioning glimpse of the world wars to come, he pushes on to the far, far future and finds what seems to be the carefree world he had envisioned. But beneath the surface a horrifying secret awaits him. Pal took some liberties with Wells's original story, but he had earned the right. He wasn't just a Hollywood deal-maker cashing in on a famous book. Pal had a deep love and reverence for science fiction and fantasy. I met him shortly before his death in 1980 and can testify that he was not only an imaginative filmmaker but also that rarest of birds in Hollywood: a true gentleman. Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for "The Time Machine," courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Time After Time" (1979). How's this for a premise: H.G. Wells, in addition to writing "The Time Machine," has actually constructed a working time machine. One of his acquaintances, who just happens to be Jack the Ripper, learns of this and steals the machine in order to elude the police by escaping to the future. A fail-safe device built into the machine returns it to Wells's time, whereupon Wells pursues Jack into the future. Nicholas Meyer's script is as clever as his premise is ingenious.

"Somewhere In Time" (1980). Christopher Reeve plays a writer who becomes entranced by the image of a woman in a 70 year old painting. Propelled back in time, apparently by the sheer force of his infatuation, he meets the woman (Jane Seymour) and they fall in love. Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the best episodes of the "Twilight Zone" TV series, adapted the script from his own novel, "Bid Time Return."

"Time Bandits" (1980). Terry Gilliam, the only American member of the Monty Python team, has proved in recent years to be one of our most imaginative filmmakers. This is one of his first directorial efforts. Any attempt to summarize the plot is doomed right from the start, but it has something to do with six dwarfs knocking around the universe through "time holes," looting and pillaging as they go. Along the way they encounter Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese, in a hysterical portrayal), and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). As is to be expected from Gilliam, the humor is irreverent and the imagery is striking, even breathtaking at times. The promise Gilliam showed in this film has since been amply fulfilled by such visionary works as "Brazil" (1985) and "The Fisher King" (1991).

The one time travel title I haven't mentioned in connection with "Black Knight" is the most obvious one. That's because Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" has provided the inspiration for not one film, but several, "Black Knight" being only the most recent. Next week we'll look at the many cinematic variations on Twain's classic story.

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