Reverse Chronology in Cinema – Part I

Reverse Chronology bw

“”There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”

An excerpt from the song All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan, of a story in reverse which he sings forwards. The most interesting part about this song or any story told in reverse is the curiosity generated in the narrative – curiosity which does not belong to a moment of suspense, rather, a curiosity that belongs to the narrative throughout. If entertainment and projecting vicariousness is one way to keep people attached or intrigued in any form of art; generating, developing, sustaining and doing justice to a piece of missing information or the whole concept of suspense is just another way. The Zeigarnik Effect, in psychology states that people remember incomplete tasks more than complete ones.

What is this quality of curiosity which plays up in times of suspense or missing information? What guides our knowledge and its thirst? Why is there science or philosophy? How is suspense different from curious impatience?

The first thought that comes to my mind in perspective to suspense is missing information which we are about to know; and curiosity in contrast to suspense is something which might last over a longer time frame. Curiosity has all its roots in incomplete information where the solution’s or the missing bit’s revelation is under question.

The importance/priority of the missing renders the concept arguable. “What did the pianist take inspiration from before composing his masterpiece?” would be a question that would strike curiosity only in a few people; people who have some form of attachment to the piano, the pianist, or probably the brand of suit he wore; but not the majority. So what quality of curiosity can interest most people? The quality that triggers insecurity? Or fear? Or moral standings? The quality that tinkers around with our basics of evolution which we do not choose to have or propagate, but are instilled into our associative system. This is pretty evident from various movies which involve building suspense – horror, murder, crimes, paranormal, etc.

Fear of darkness is termed as “fear” because the unknown prepares our body to counter the worst. Why do we fear and keep ourselves away from the unknown? Is it a residual factor of our primitive state or is it still as prevalent? Maybe today our mind has various methods to fill in the holes in our memory without us consciously knowing sometimes. For example, the whole concept of the game Chinese Whispers functions on it. Paraphrased narratives – a situation where a person is retelling a story of a movie or a book, can fill in details his memory doesn’t account for with information he makes up on the spot. That is only because the mind automatically blocks out the realization of the phase where we have forgotten and custom filled our own piece which links the other parts of the narrative. Can we call it instinctive denial? Why do we always need to know the answers? Does it lead to self-formed justifications to many unanswered questions just so that we feel secure with our knowledge? Are the institutions of religions guided by this?

The paradox to this insecurity however, is that we sleep during the time of the day which is the most insecure.

Curiosity is also triggered by the want of the knowledge of origin. This want has always put our society to work – in science, arts and religion. Where do we come from? How did the universe come to existence? How did a problem start? Who are my real parents? Where did it all begin? Why do we ask these questions out of sheer curiosity which escapes logical thinking? Again we might force logic into such questions just to escape a form of insecurity of why we want to know the origin.

The desire of origin is probably guided by the desire to resist reference, time and sign. The desire to resist any form of signification. A point in time which does not signify and does not “time” itself by factors of change. If there is no reference to the origin and no significance, it instigates a natural curiosity in its direction. A point independent of factors which are changing lives around us and making us think every day. So it’s not only about just a point in time, but also a point in time which is irrespective of it.

In cinema, the point of origin is not only about when; it’s also about where. A place where cause and origin coincide. A cinema if working in reverse chronology explores the point of origin as the process of refolding time towards the “moment” of origin that is a time as well as a place. So, does the concept of exploring point of origin in films succeed because it reaches a point where there is no more reference and significance and time ceases to move while we live with time moving around us? Does the concept exploit our satisfaction with the starting point of the movie shown in the end to bring about the security of knowing the source? A feeling of having the answer to all questions?

For example, in Pinter’s play made into a movie – Betrayal, there are nine episodic reversals. It takes the viewer at least two episodic reversals to understand the structure of the movie, i.e., the narrative is forwards starting from a point back in time. So in this movie, can we say that we are watching the movie to reach the singular origin that keeps us intrigued? The origin that would tell us how Emma told Robert about the affair with Jerry and yet, why didn’t Robert choose to reveal the knowledge to Jerry; and yet sustain the friendship. Or when it takes us past the fourth reversal, we understand that the story is not only about the revelation of the above, but also how the affair began and had its bell-curve.


Did the movie take us towards one origin, or did the movie have nine points of origin only because of the structure it was shown in? If shown forwards, the movie would have been very cliché and people would question the start of the movie (the end by structure); i.e. why would Jeremy get attracted to his best-friend’s wife and why would Emma give in so easily? However, since the focus of the movie was not about that question, that particular scene is made the point of origin, and the viewers waiting to know how it all began – the curiosity of origin – do not question the credibility or logic behind that scene. Mainly because, that scene “answers” all their questions. That scene being the start of the affair does not have any other reference. This scene was not only a point in time, but also a place, where there was no movement in time.

Episodic Reversal in Betrayal

“The absolutely brilliant thing about Betrayal is that it is a love story told backward. There is a lot in this movie that is wonderful—the performances, the screenplay by Harold Pinter—but what makes it all work is the structure… The Betrayal structure strips away all artifice. It shows, heartlessly, that the very capacity for love itself is sometimes based on betraying not only other loved ones, but even ourselves.”

Robert Ebert says this on the Chicago Sun Times, and by the word structure he refers to the episodic reversal in time that reveals the nature of the movie. If the movie was shown forwards, there would be more attention to “What happened?” However, that perspective is not the guiding curve for the movie. Pinter went through a similar experience in life, and when he wanted to write about it, he could only think of it backwards. So the significance from the present is not about what happened. It’s more about the sense in which this betrayal worked. He wanted the viewers to understand this perspective and hence, chose to write it as he viewed. In the intensity of who betrayed whom and in what sense, the question of the main theme was justified by the same.

The viewer’s attention was not only limited to the start or the end, but on the contrary, it kept rising through the movie because of its structure. The structure demanded the viewer’s attention and indulgence into the narrative.

“You have to listen like a hawk, and you are swimming in sort of an aquarium of uncertainty all the time.”

A scene from Betrayal –

To be continued.


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