Thursday, October 22, 2009

Inconsolable grief

I know exactly where the tape is, in which box, on which shelf. It's an old reel-to-reel tape I used with the tape recorder my dad bought me in grade school. It has his voice on it. The box has moved around with me for a long time, but I have never listened to the tape since my dad died. I don't think I could stand it. It would be too heartbreaking.

I thought about the tape as I was watching Gregory Hoblit's "Frequency." Here is a movie that uses the notion of time travel to set up a situation where a man in 1999 is able to talk to his father in 1969, even though his father died when the man was 6. The movie harnesses this notion to a lot of nonsense, including a double showdown with a killer, but the central idea is strong and carries us along. There must be something universal about our desire to defeat time, which in the end defeats us.

There may be holes and inconsistencies in the plot. I was too confused to be sure. And I don't much care, anyway, because the underlying idea is so appealing--that a son who doesn't remember his father could talk to him via radio and they could try to help each other.

Moviegoers seem to like supernatural stories that promise some kind of escape from our mutual doom. "Frequency" is likely to appeal to the fans of "The Sixth Sense," "Ghost" and other movies where the characters find a loophole in reality. What it also has in common with those two movies is warmth and emotion. Quaid and Caviezel bond over the radio, and we believe the feelings they share. The ending of the movie is contrived, but then of course it is: The whole movie is contrived. The screenplay conferences on "Frequency" must have gone on and on, as writer Toby Emmerich and the filmmakers tried to fight their way through the maze they were creating. The result, however, appeals to us for reasons as simple as hearing the voice of a father who you thought you would never hear again.

This illustrates the dilemma of the unbeliever.

On the one hand, Ebert can’t bear to part with this memento of his late father. Wherever he moves, wherever he lives, he takes it with him. From house to house and move to move, it’s something that remains a part of his life. Something he always takes along. Something he always keeps alongside.

On the other hand, he can’t bear to hear it. It stays in a box on a shelf–unheard. There it sits–month-after-month and year-after-year.

He clings to this little remnant of his late father. This tangible contact with the now intangible person he knew and loved and lost. He can’t bring himself to break that tenuous connection. It’s all he’s got. He can't let go. Can’t put his dad behind him or sever the tie.

And yet, he can’t bring himself to turn around. To look back. For that would only remind him of something he no longer has, something irrevocable. It would only serve to rub in the aching, incurable sense of loss–an absence made present by the present reminder of an irretrievable past.

It may also be true that we love time-travel scenarios because they express our frustration with life under the curse. A yearning to escape the curse. Escape the domino effect of youthful sin. Redeem our lost opportunities.

But in this unyielding world, with the inexorable march of time, with the inexorable effects of ill-considered deeds, there is not escape–except the illusory world of science fiction.

We seek deliverance in our imagination. By turning within. To our daydreams of a better world. A world in which we can change the past to amend the future. A world in which we have a second chance. A world in which it’s never too late. Never to late to profit from our hard-earned experience.

But if this world is all there is, then the dream of the daydreamer is trapped inside a rigid world of linear time and linear effects. Sooner or later, even a daydreamer must awaken. The alarm clock of a real world is too insistent to tune out for very long.

He can, for a time, escape into his celluloid dreams, but when he awakens he’s right back in his prison. In his dreams, he’s on the lam. But when he wakes up, as he must, he instantly return to his cell–which makes his momentary freedom all the worse.

But for the Christian, our fallen world is the dream. The nightmare. The prison. When he awakens in death, another world awaits him–outside the walls he left behind.

1 comment:

  1. "But for the Christian, our fallen world is the dream. The nightmare. The prison. When he awakens in death, another world awaits him–outside the walls he left behind."

    Sort of like the ending to Dark City - which Ebert loved, ironically enough.