A huge amount of discussion over at Crooked Timber, and now Calpudit, about the use of Time Travel in fictional narratives. I have to say that I find Brian Weatherson’s approach to be very limiting. He says:
Philosophers normally break time-travel stories into two categories: those that do make sense within a ‘one-dimensional’ view of time and those that don’t.
By this distinction he means movies “require that there be a single complete and coherent story that can be told of the history of the world” and those which don’t. He offers 12 Monkies as an example of the one-dimensional view (albeit a clever one), and Back to the Future as one where time-travel produces alternate versions of the future. But here is my problem — as a philosopher why does he feel constrained by the same narrative conventions as the works he addresses? That is, why does he feel it necessary to talk about time-travel movies in their own terms? While it does have the benefit of simplifying the discussion, isn’t it important to recognize that time-travel is simply a narrative device? Once we accept that, how is the one-dimensional view of time-travel any different from a flashback? Think about a movie like Memento. How is that any different from a time travel movie?
I raise this point because I think Momento is actually a better interpretation of the notion of time represented by La Jetée, the film that inspired 12 Monkies. The reason is that narratively La Jetée is told as a series of still pictures. Chris Marker (the director of La Jetée) is actually playing with the whole concept of cinematic narrative which is usually told linearly at 24 frames per a second. Instead, he makes us question what it means for one picture to follow another, much the same way that the main character in Momento must reconstruct his past each day from the still pictures he took the day before. On the other hand, 12 Monkies is really just another linear Hollywood movie.
Once we open up the discussion in this way, it is possible to include movies like Last Year at Marienbad and Rashomon. Both of these films involve the actors narratively reconstructing the past, rather than simply “going back in time” in some literal sense. This introduces a third relationship between the past and the present — one in which the past and the present are constantly influencing each other through the stories we tell about them.
UPDATE: Here is an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about.