My friend Vern Cisney recently gave a brilliant paper at a philosophy conference where he used Derrida’s account of the self to illuminate the film Looper (Johnson, 2013). Derrida is beyond my expertise, but the gist of the paper was to show that we have to relate to ourselves as if we were relating another being. I see a similar point in The Sickness Unto Death where Kierkegaard says “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself”. But Cisney goes further: the very possibility of being a human person assumes temporality, to be a person means to relate oneself to the future, to be a person means to be open to change, etc. It is easy to see why all this seems relevant to a movie about a man who travels back in time and meets himself.
Cisney argues that it is not until Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes face to face with himself (Bruce Willis) that he is able to become a self at all – that he is able to take responsibility for his life and decide for himself who he is going to be. Up until that moment he is just doing what other people tell him to do. The best example is how he is studying French but ends up going to China simply because his boss told him to.
At the same time, Joe is very self-involved. He works only for himself until he comes face to face with himself and sees what evil he is capable of. Then, instead of holding on tightly to “what is mine”, he learns to open himself to others. Thus, as Cisney puts it, Joe is able to transform his relation to himself through affirming life even in the midst of Nietzschean Eternal Return. Or, as I thought of it before reading Cisney, Joe learns the Buddhist lesson to let go of himself, and in so doing he closes his loop, ending the cycle of suffering.
The Buddhist reading is probably closer to what filmmaker Rian Johnson had in mind when he made Looper, but Cisney’s reading of the film is no less brilliant for that. In fact, as I have reflected on his reading, I have come to think Cisney is actually giving us an insight into the nature of cinema itself.
Every time we watch a movie, we are traveling back in time. We are seeing something that happened in the past. This is more clear in old movies when we see someone who has died, for example when I watch The Maltese Falcon, I see Humphrey Bogart doing things he did on a Warner Brothers sound stage more than 70 years ago. But it is also true in current movies. When I watch Gravity, I’m seeing things Sandra Bullock did two years ago in front of a green screen in London. The scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise talks to holographic videos of his dead son is a good example of the power this sort of time travel can have.
But there is another way movies allow us to time travel. They allow us to imaginatively project our consciousness back in time. When we watch a movie like Lincoln, we literally see something Daniel Day Lewis did two years ago, but we imaginatively see things Abraham Lincoln did 150 years ago. When this is done well, it gives us a new kind of knowledge of what the past was like – knowledge that could only be had otherwise by time travel. The TV show Hannibal might be a good example, where Will Graham empathically projects himself into the position of a serial killer to get clues. Moreover we can travel to the future, too. We can imaginatively project our consciousness forward in time as when we watch a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey which gives us a way to understand what the future might be like if it continues on its current path.
There is yet a third way movies allow us to time travel, perhaps the most important way. (Here is where I come back around to Looper.) We can travel into our own past and future. By seeing characters we identify with, we can remember our own past actions and even come to new knowledge of and their current effects. By watching a movie like Star Wars, I am taken back to my childhood, and I remember what it was like to see that movie as a child. Or, more directly, by watching a movie like E.T. I am reminded of what it was like to be myself as a child. But even a movie that is not from my childhood can help me understand myself. Even though I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, seeing Tree of Life helped me understand my relationship with my father. It was like time traveling in my consciousness back to my childhood and coming to understand my present day better. Likewise, something like Big Fish can help me imagine what the future of my relationship with my son might be like.
So Cisney’s analysis of Looper is actually analysis of the potential power of film. Just as Joe is able to become himself for the first time by seeing himself as another person, so we can all see ourselves externalized in film.
Shakespeare, of course, knew this. Hamlet uses a play to hold a mirror up to his uncle’s nature and thereby “catch the conscience of the king”. Dickens, too, seems to be onto the same idea when he has Ebenezer Scrooge see scenes from his past and future in order to come to self-knowledge. This is the same method is used in The Master where Philip Seymour Hoffman teaches people to imaginatively project their consciousness into their past to understand their present better – a method he calls “time travel”. And that’s a pretty good description of what happens to Scrooge, too. Scrooge seems to travel back and forward in time. Yet, perhaps he doesn’t really travel. Perhaps he only sees visions – visions analogous to modern day movies.
Thus watching movies is itself a form of time travel.