January 10, 2006

The past is an alien planet


Why do stories of time travel into the past have so much more of an uncanny lure than those about time travel into the future?

Partly it is because they correspond with a fantasy that the past has never really, finally gone; time that seemed to be lost can, in fact, be regained. The idea that the past is a foreign country, that it is (only) a different place implies that it is still there, a parallel reality waiting for us to step (back) into.

The Bergsonian evanescence of Time, its aleatory senselessness, its radical unrepeatability, is a Horror we - creatures of repetition - can no more accept than we can accept the reality of our own deaths, in part because to accept that Time was irreversible, that it could not be re-iterated except ritualistically or psychoanalytically, would be to accept Death, our own and that of other people. If the death of others is bearable it is not only because we believe that they have survived, but because we have not given up, cannot give up, the thought that somehow, somewhere the time we spent with them remains available to be lived through again. Thus the prospect of time travel into the past is reassuring for similiar reasons that ghost stories are (remember Kubrick's observation that ghost stories are comforting because they imply that death is not the end). Ghost stories suggest, yes, a form of survival after physical death but more than that, the persistence of the past, its ineradicability - precisely the notion that time travel narratives are predicated upon.

To say that these reflections were prompted by BBC 1's new SF drama Life on Mars (the first episode of which was shown earlier tonight) would be to give the series more credit than it deserves. Yet, perfunctory and predictable as it so far largely is, Life on Mars is symptomatic enough to be interesting. Symptomatic of what? Well, of a culture that has lost confidence not just that the future will be good, but that any sort of future is possible. And also: Life on Mars suggests that one of the chief resources of recent British culture - the past - is reaching the point of exhaustion.

The scenario is that Sam Tyler, a detective from 2006, is hit by a car and finds himself back in 1973. (Almost a direct reversal of Michael Barrymore's situation in Celebrity Big Brother: he is like a man from 1983 who has inexplicably fetched up in 2006. Is it really only two years since he left the UK? I mean, impressions of Bernie Winters and Worzel Gummidge???)

The game that you can't help playing as you watch is: how convincing is the simulation of 1973? You're constantly on the look out for period anachronisms (so that, when I switched channel and began watching another, 2006-set programme, I kept thinking: 'Did they have THOSE in 1973?') The answer is that it isn't very convincing. But not because of anachronisms. The problem is that this is a 73 that doesn't feel lived in. The actual post-psychedelic, quasi-Eastern Bloc seediness of the 70s is unretrievable; kitsch wallpaper and bell bottoms are transformed instantly into Style quotations the moment the camera falls upon them.

(There must be some technical reason - maybe it's the film stock they use - that accounts for why British TV is no longer capable of rendering any sense of a lived-in world. No matter what is filmed, everything always looks as if it has been thickly, slickly painted in gloss, like it's all a corporate video. That remains my problem with the new Dr Who as it happens: the contemporary British scenes look like a theme park, a very stagey stage-set, too well lit.)

(And you think: can 1973 REALLY be THIRTY THREE YEARS ago..)

And it's all too (ha!) ICONIC ... 'Look Out There's a Thief About' public information films on black and white TV, Open University lecturers with preposterous moustaches and voluminous collars, the test card... The thing with icons, after all, is that they evoke nothing. (Presumably such nullity was what fascinated Andy Warhol about them, these white hole vortices which have escaped space and time, that suck fantasies into themselves but which give out nothing.) The icon is the very opposite of the Madeleine, Chris Marker's name - rhyming Hitchcock and Proust - for those totemic triggers that suddenly abduct you into the past. The point being that the Madeleine can only manage this time-snatching function because it has avoided museumification and memorialization, stayed out of the photographs, been forgotten in a corner. As I've pointed out before, hearing T-Rex now doesn't remind you of 73, it reminds you of nostalgia progs about 1973.

And isn't part of OUR problem that every cultural object from 1963 on has been so thoroughly, forensically, mulled over that nothing can any longer transport us back? (A problem of digital memory: Baudrillard observes somewhere that computers don't really remember because they lack the ability to forget.)

Posted by mark at January 10, 2006 01:21 AM | TrackBack