Thursday, June 20, 2013

Where Would You Like to Go in Time?

Last month, my wife and I decided it was way past time to get rid of our old cassette and VHS tapes.

I think that Ann was surprised by how easily I parted with things. (She had reason to wonder: I still have all my old vinyl record albums, even though I haven't had a working turntable in years.)

I did keep one VHS tape, though. It's a video of a 1998 Hallmark Hall of Fame film starring Campbell Scott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Estelle Parsons called The Love Letter.

Based on a short story by Jack Finney, it's about a modern-day game designer (Scott) who's also a Civil War buff. He picks up a nineteenth-century desk at a second-hand store. It turns out to have a secret compartment containing a plaintive cry from a twenty-nine year old woman (Leigh) to an imaginary man of her dreams. In 1863, her father and mother were (are) pressuring her to marry a man for whom she has no feelings.

You can guess what happens: Twentieth century man and nineteenth century woman begin a correspondence and despite the hopelessness and impossibility of it all, fall in love.

I won't give things away in case you might want to watch The Love Letter yourself. But, in part, it's a paean to romance, the notion of finding and falling in love with the perfect someone, a match so perfect that the two lovers never have to put any work into their relationship. That idea has probably caused as many broken hearts as arranged marriages ever did. But I digress.

The reason I enjoy The Love Letter, admittedly not a classic, is because, in a way, it's an example of a type of movie that's always intrigued me, the ones about time travel.

The whole idea of time travel has always interested me, I guess, because I've always had an interest in history. It was one of the few subjects for which I could muster any interest in school and, when I went to Ohio State, I majored in Social Studies Education, the core of which involved as many History courses as the History majors over in the College of Arts and Sciences took. My parents fueled my interest in the past by always taking us to historical landmarks during family vacations. That interest has stuck: To this day, I'm always in the middle of reading a book of history or biography.

Curiosity about history then, has probably made me a sucker for period pieces and time travel stories.

For example, The Twilight Zone spooked and intrigued me as a kid. But one episode became my all-time favorite: Back There.

Scripted by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and starring Russell Johnson (best known for playing the professor on Gilligan's Island), it tells the story of an intellectual member of one of those stodgy old school men's clubs, this one in Washington, D.C. Over a game of cards, he argues that traveling into the past is impossible, that what's happened has happened and that history is immutable.

Serling then throws this character back in time, to April 14, 1865, the night when Abraham Lincoln was shot, and to a frantic effort to convince the skeptical that Lincoln needs to be saved from inevitable assassination.

Between reruns on local TV, Twilight Zone marathons, and Netflix, I've probably watched that episode twenty to thirty times.

Time travel television shows and movies have never grown old for me. I loved The Time Tunnel, a short-lived Irwin Allen series aired on ABC in 1966-67, as well as the 1960 movie loosely based on the 1895 novel by H.G. Wells and starring Rod Taylor, The Time Machine.

In 1979, another film spun off of the Wells classic, Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, became a favorite.

In fact, the film I always name as my second all-time favorite, Field of Dreams, in addition to being about dads and baseball, is a time travel film. Ray Kinsella's baseball field in the middle of Iowa corn is a place where the greatest players of the past, a might-have-been player who fortuitously became a doctor, and Ray's deceased dad all gather in the present.

And, of course, I loved Spielberg's Back to the Future movies! (Spielberg was having a little time travel fun when he cast Steenburgen as the wife of Doc, played by Christopher Lloyd in BTTF3. The difference between the characters she portrays in the two projects is that in Back to the Future 3, Steenburgen, a woman of the past, falls for a guy from the future, while in Time After Time, her love interest Wells, played by her then real-life husband, McDowell, was a man from the past and she from the present.)

The whole notion of time travel is crazy, of course. Like Johnson's character at the beginning of Back There, we know that, in this world, what's past is past.

As a Christian, I believe in the existence of what C.S. Lewis called "the eternal now," the realm of God, eternity, and I think human beings were meant to live in it. (Though we can hardly imagine what it's like!)

Time and its accompanying decay and death are, I believe, a consequence of the fall of human beings into sin, a condition into which we're all born and leaves us (and the world over which we're supposed to exercise stewardship) alienated from God.

Through Christ, I believe, eternity has invaded this world and one day when Christ returns, He'll replace this time-bound and decaying universe with a new heaven and a new earth. Those who have trusted in Him will rule over this new creation with God. And in this new realm, time won't exist any longer because eternity is the absence of time.

In this world though, what's past is past. We live in a succession of todays.

But, I always think it's cool when writers imagine what it might be like for someone from this today to travel into or touch the past. (Or, less interestingly to me, the future.)

That begs the question: If I could go back in time, what era would I choose?

I think that I'd take a pass.

To tell you the truth, I always think about what diseases and unsanitary conditions would exist "back there" if a person really could go to another time. I like being able to take for granted--more or less--clean water supplies, inspected foods, indoor plumbing, and modern medicine. (I'm sort of Adrian Monkish that way.) So, I'd probably wimp out if I had the chance to leave the ball field and head into Ray's corn or have a seat on Wells' time machine.

How about you? If it were possible, where would you go in time?

UPDATE: Of course, Napoleon Dynamite's Uncle Rico wanted to go back in time. Something tells me he probably wouldn't have gone to State, though.


Steve Martin said...

I'd like to go back into the 1970's and 80's

And maybe not live such a debotched life and and possibly not mess up so many others in the process.

Who knows...I'd probably screw it up, again.

Mark Daniels said...

HA! If I went back, I'd probably find new ways to mess up.