Saturday 10 March 2018

Alienation, Modernity, and Nostalgia in The Twilight Zone and Somewhere in Time

Today's special post is part of the Time Travel Blogathon hosted by Wide Screen World and Silver Screenings. Click on the banner above to see more excellent time-tossed movie reviews.

A recurring theme in The Twilight Zone is the existential angst of the modern male. Its canon of episodes is replete with middle-age guys who just can't catch a break, who just can't keep up with the pace of life in the jet age. The most famous is Henry Bemis, played by Burgess Meredith in the classic Time Enough at Last (1959), a henpecked bookworm who just wants to curl up with a good story. A well-timed outbreak of nuclear war does a fine job of taking care of distractions, but as you can imagine, there is always a catch in... The Twilight Zone.

Rejection of the modern day for the allure of the past was a recurring exploration of this theme. It was played comically in Once Upon a Time (1961), starring Buster Keaton as a man from the silent film era who trades places with an inventor from the 1960's, both discovering that the grass is not always greener on the other side. A more serious, and heartbreaking, exploration of the idea came with A Stop at Willoughby (1960), penned by Rod Serling himself. It was later adapted as a television film, For All Time (2000) starring Mark Harmon and Mary McDonnell. Richard Matheson, writer of many Twilight Zone episodes including Once Upon a Time and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963), delivered his take on it for a 1975 novel Bid Time Return. That was, in turn, adapted to cinemas as Somewhere in Time (1980) starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. In both For All Time and Somewhere in Time, the alienated modern man seeks love and fulfillment in the Gay Nineties, with varying degrees of success as lovers and as films.  

In A Stop at Willoughby, an ulcerated advertising executive (James Daly as "Gart Williams") can't deal with the merciless business he's in, nor his coldly materialistic wife at home. His work is literally killing him with ulcers and anxiety, brought on by the incessant drone of  his boss... "Push push push, push push push, this is a push push push business Williams, push push push..." The only thing trapping him in this job is the ambitious woman he married (Patricia Donahue), whose appetites for large houses in good neighbourhoods requires lots of money. She keeps the spigot open by her emasculating cruelty. His only reprieve is on the long commute aboard a sleek, modern train. Whenever he falls asleep, he catches glimpses of an idyllic 19th century village. This little town is the perfect picture of Gay Nineties nostalgia: horse-drawn carts, boys with fishin' poles, ladies in bustle skirts on promenade with their top-hatted beaus. It's exactly the kind of life he wants, the kind of life where "a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure." After finally cracking under the pressure, he decides that next time he's going to get off at Willoughby.

Gart Williams sees Willoughby for the first time.

And then makes the mistake of trying to tell his wife about it.

Sometimes Rod Serling's protagonists get a second chance and sometimes they don't. Whether or not they do almost always depends on their ability to reconcile themselves to the modern age and, in doing so, find renewed life and purpose. Those who cannot or will not suffer cruel fates. That might seem gratuitously mean-spirited to such beleaguered men, except for the resonance that Serling has with his angst-ridden middle-aged male characters. For example, when A Stop at Willoughby aired, Serling was 36 and his character Gart Williams was 38. He was a bit weathered for a 38 year old, as James Daly (father of Tim and Tyne Daly) was 42 at the time, but then Serling looked older than his actual age too. In a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, Daly had been struggling with his own closeted homosexuality, which was treated as a mental illness at the time, giving further gravitas to his performance. The fates suffered by characters unable to reconcile to modernity would be cruel if it didn't have the context of Serling largely psychoanalyzing himself.

A Stop at Willoughby aired at the height of post-WWII Gay Nineties nostalgia, contemporaneous with such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1965), Moulin Rouge (1952), Show Boat (1951), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Pollyanna (1960), and Disneyland's Main Street USA. The days when grandpa wooed grandma was one of the many mental escapes, like Tiki culture, that mid-century Americans indulged in. A Stop at Willoughby was undoubtedly Serling's commentary on that particular mode of escapism. Through the series, his affection for the time period does show: well over a dozen episodes take place during the Gay Nineties, Civil War, or Wild West. However, the fates suffered by his protagonists suggest that he is entirely unsympathetic to this retreat into nostalgia. Do not lose yourself in it, he seems to warn, for indeed you will be lost. 

The original 22-minute episode was pushed by brevity to drive home its full emotional effect. Serling had to communicate clearly and quickly that Gart Williams was losing his health and his sanity to the demands of modernity. When he makes the desperate choice to get off the train at Willoughby, it is a clear escape from the wretchedness of his life. Bloated to two hours and saddled with a romance angle as the made-for-television movie For All Time, it does not fare so well.

For All Time stars Mark Harmon as a man who is vaguely unsatisfied with his life in the modern age and learns that he might as well be better off living in a small town 100 years ago. Charles Lattimer (Harmon) is a successful, easy-going illustrator at an ad company whose personable partner is also his closest friend. He comes home in mid-afternoon to a nice, well-decorated house with his own comfortable rumpus room in the basement, which houses his model trains and antique collection. His wife has her own successful career, but they still care for each other, have good conversations together over dinner, and do things that married couples do. Even the city he lives in appears nice, clean and spacious... I can vouch that it is: For All Time was filmed in Calgary, Canada, where I live. I've commuted on the same train he does in the film, only it's been much, much more crowded when I've done it. Nor did it ever drop me off right inside Heritage Park - our local historical village - like his did. That would have been really handy when I worked there 20 years ago, in the very same newspaper office where they filmed (in fact, doing the math, I was probably still employed there when they filmed For All Time, unbeknownst to me).

Oh, but he wants to do an ad campaign with a Gibson Girl-looking figure and they won't let him, so that kinda' sucks. Luckily he buys an enchanted pocket watch from a fictional antique store across the street from one of my favourite coffee shops that transports him to 100 years in the past. There he meets the spitting image of the very woman he drew for the ad campaign (Mary McDonnell) and discovers that he's kind of more satisfied living in the past than today, even though his wife and friend and co-workers and everyone are getting worried sick by his frequent disappearances. Too bad for them, because this is where he feels he belongs, despite injecting modern ideas into the community as soon as he arrives. Eventually he is forced to make his decision between living in today or (literally) living in the past, with a happy ending directly antithetical to The Twilight Zone.

Charles Lattimer expresses mild discontent with modernity.

A married man goes a-courtin' and a-typesettin'.

Suffice it to say that The Twilight Zone is not the most ideal source material for placidly romantic TV movies. A few things would have certainly helped the film along: making the modern city more crowded, more noisy, more pushy, more obnoxious, more anxious; making his job an equally pushy, intense, competitive environment where his heritage branding ideas aren't in fashion right now and it's costing him clients; making his home life more alienating, like he and his wife occupy the same space but are miles and centuries apart. The Gibson Girl would not merely be a figure he drew once, but a recurring dream that suddenly becomes manifest, raising the question of whether he is only dreaming all of this or whether it is real. Somerville, the town, should have been all sunshine, marching bands and smiles, less like the cold, blue tones one gets from filming in Canada and more like the bright hyper-reality of Main Street USA.

More successful as a film on the same themes, and as an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, is Somewhere in Time. One of the true geniuses of Science Fiction and Horror writing, Richard Matheson was not only responsible for 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, but also The Incredible Shrinking Man, the largest number of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, What Dreams May Come, and his most famous work, I Am Legend. Whereas What Dreams May Come deals with love that transcends death, Somewhere in Time deals with love that transcends time.

The origin of the story came when Matheson, on vacation with his family, fell in love with a photograph of turn-of-the-century Broadway actress Maude Adams. Studying her life, he decided to write a story about a modern man who travels back in time to be with a character very much like her and having to cope with an overprotective manager like her own. The novel was set at the iconic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, where Matheson checked himself in to research and write. It was a very personal fantasy for the author.

For the film's purposes, the location was changed to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. By 1979, when filming for Somewhere in Time took place, the Grand Hotel had become one of those dowager hotels of faded glory that were trying to keeps up with modernity by changing out its lovely, albeit dusty, Victorian furnishing with ugly, Seventies replacements. To the dowager comes Christopher Reeve as Richard Collier, a successful but alienated playwright whose malaise brings him to the Grand Hotel. Eight years before, on the premiere evening of his first play, he was visited by an elderly woman who gave him a pocket watch and the enigmatic plea to "Come back to me." Now in the hotel, he is entranced by the oddly familiar photograph of actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), who stayed at the hotel in 1912. Piecing together her life, he comes to the realization that, somehow, by some strange power, he too had been at the Grand Hotel in 1912.

Through a form of mental transference via self-hypnosis - including the critically important rule that he must hide all evidence of modernity from himself - he arrives in 1912 and meets McKenna, who greets him with another enigmatic phrase: "Is it you?" The two pursue a romance, much to the chagrin of her manager W.F. Robinson (Christopher Plummer), who sees Collier as a threat to his dreams of crafting McKenna into the greatest star of the American stage. He does his best to plot against them while they take off on beachfront walks, carriage rides, and old-fashioned rowboat dates. Just as their moment of happiness arrives, so does the end, with a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone.

Trailer for Somewhere in Time, possibly one of the worst trailers ever made.

The similarity of Somewhere in Time to an episode of The Twilight Zone is not unexpected. Like Planet of the Apes, scripted by Rod Serling, it hits all the same beats and preoccupations of the series they both originated from. Just as someone has done for Planet of the Apes, an enterprising editor could make an interesting project of distilling Somewhere in Time down to a 26-minute pseudo-episode. Commercially, it might fared better if it had been an episode after all.

Various forces conspired to make Somewhere in Time a commercial and critical failure. It was only home video and TV airings that brought it back from the brink of obscurity and gained it a cult following. Universal Studios recently re-released it on DVD as part of the "pop-art" series and the Grand Hotel hosts an annual Somewhere in Time Weekend convention. Not all of the criticism levied at the film is undeserved... It is, for example, somewhat emotionally flat, save for a few piquant moments... Nevertheless, it still taps into a number of primal longings. This is especially true for men, who are reported to makeup at least half of Somewhere in Time's fandom, which is unheard of for a romantic film of the sort.

Though unusual, it's not difficult to understand with some sensitivity to the complex romantic lives of men. Without overgeneralizing them, lingering alienation is a common experience for many men, who for assorted cultural and biological reasons find themselves born into a world that values them for what they produce more than for any intrinsic value to who they are. The utilitarian view of men is what promulgates ideas of male disposability, defaults attacks on male productivity (e.g.: "You're just some fat neckbeard virgin loser in his parents' basement"), and leads to heavily disproportionate rates of male suicide. Though a growing number of men in Western (and Japanese) society are simply "checking out", the traditional means for men to compensate for this utilitarian view has been to ennoble it. The daily grind to provide for others becomes the mighty quest, the hero's journey archetype becomes the personal journey to adopting the heroic role of protector and provider. Regardless of whether this is good or bad (the answer being "yes, it is good and bad."), it certainly explains why more than a few men and women alike react negatively to unheroic depictions of traditionally heroic men, as in the recent controversy over Star Wars: The Last Jedi or whenever Marvel Comics replaces one of their established Caucasian male heroes with a diverse alternative. Stripping heroism from men doesn't free them from the oppression of "patriarchal" values, because it doesn't free them from the labour expected of them... It expresses an existential threat that reduces men to a mere joyless, unheroic, humiliating, utilitarian servility which, unsurprisingly, they're not terribly excited about.

Recognizing that we are speaking in generalities, life's greatest quest for many men is love. "Behind every great man is a great woman." An entire body of literature and social theory developed during the Middle Ages to give shape to this quest: the chivalric romance. The generalized male heroic journey becomes instantiated through love, devotion, and protecting and providing for a specific person. In Hinduism, it is expressed in how the male Trimurti - Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer - instantiate their power through their female companions, such as Shiva's consort Kali. She is regularly depicted as standing atop the prone figure of Shiva, reflecting unchanging universal reality and consciousness (Shiva) activated through matter and energy (Kali). At the very least, the love of a good woman gives the red-blooded heterosexual man something to quest for, with the reward of eventual acceptance, not only for the utilitarian role a man can play in general, but for his own intrinsic value as the specific person he is. Thus love becomes the antidote to male alienation by satisfying the deep human longing to be valued for one's own sake.

Elise McKenna confesses her love for Richard Collier.

Likewise, to be quested for provides a certain degree of satisfaction for many women. Somewhere in Time has a bit of something for everyone in this respect. Collier, the protagonist, is a success by any material measure, but as he heads off to the Grand Hotel we find out that his girlfriend just broke up with him. McKenna becomes his new quest, a most impossible quest to fulfill except that, through sheer force of will, he does accomplish it. Though he never explicitly tells McKenna where (or when) he is from, the viewer knows very well that dreamy Christopher Reeve broke the laws of physics to pursue her. Swoon! There is ample opportunity for self-projection by both main genders.

For All Time, on the other hand, fails at its task because there is no great adversity. A Stop at Willoughby presents adversity in spades, but without allowing Gart Williams to overcome his adversity, at least not directly, it turns to tragedy. Somewhere in Time also faces down adversity, and despite a certain tragic twist, still has true love win in the end. That victory makes Somewhere in Time a quite appealing fantasy. Collier's quest and McKenna's being quested for are wedded to the quaintly gallant formalities of an Edwardian setting for a lovely, indulgent little film.

Though Somewhere in Time may be indulgent of the fantasy, Rod Serling was more inclined to deconstruct nostalgia escapism and the refusal to adapt to the demands of modernity. A relatively recent take on it came from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011). The angst-ridden modern male, played by Owen Wilson, dreams of the bygone age of the Twenties in Paris during the Lost Generation. He dreams of escape, and dreams, and then it happens. This time around, the protagonist survives thanks to the realization he has about his desire to escape. There is also the comedy Austenland (2013), starring Jane Seymour again, which tackles many similar issues through the contrived fantasy of a terrible Jane Austen theme park. Every age looks back on ages past, seeking nostalgic escape from the challenges and alienation of its own modernity.

The trick is to allow the beautiful things of the past to inform rather than replace the present. 
The past, which cannot be regained through force of will or a pocketwatch or a passenger train, is meant to add beauty, depth, tradition, and definition to our lives in the here-and-now rather than make the here-and-now even more unsatisfying. That is the purpose of history. To lose sight of that is to court tragedy. 


Quiggy said...

I have yet to see Somewhere in Time. I'm not much of a romance movie kind of guy. But I may yet check it out. I love all the Twilight Zone episodes that dealt with Time Travel, though. This was an interesting read.

Caftan Woman said...

A very interesting and insightful article that gave me much to remember, and to consider.

Silver Screenings said...

It's tempting to be nostalgic about the past because we feel it was a "simpler time". Was it, though? Not having all our modern conveniences, and having to haul water & chop wood, etc. doesn't seem that simple to me. History as guide and teacher, yes – I agree. Much to be learned from studying it, as they say.

I've never seen "The Twilight Zone" but I have read many rave reviews about it, and your observation of Modern Male Angst strikes a chord. I plan to start watching the series soon, and I'll keep that observation in mind.

Thank you for joining the blogathon with your insightful essay. You've given all of us much to think about.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

"Was it, though?"

Better movies at least ;)