Reverse Chronology in Cinema – Part II

Ostranenie Color


Another interesting aspect of reverse chronology in movies is that when a story-line or a narrative goes backwards, it’s a different story altogether. So to simplify, if X is seen backwards, it’s about Y. Now doing this might add a light of humor, or irony, or probably as we discussed in the previous section, curiosity, but the question which I ask here is what exactly makes X in one direction, Y in the reverse?

On February 20th, 2009, Redditor sixdoublefive321 posted a thread using the Jaws line as the topic. Several people in the comments began posting their own versions of the what if X was shown backwards concept and the thread eventually amassed over 3500 points overall. This information is about a specific genre of meme. A concept can be classified as a meme only when it becomes viral and is spread as a part of our culture and lifestyle. There were several posters created regarding this concept and most of it targeting humor or irony. This concept had an immense effect in the internet world leading to the creation of several such posters. What made this concept viral? Why was the reversal of an established narrative seemingly more interesting? For example, one said “If you watch Scarface backwards, it’s about a man who gives up cocaine and crime to follow his wish of becoming a dish-washer to earn enough money so that he can visit Cuba.” This concept on its own is known as temporal reversal and anotnymizing, where from start to finish, the movie is shown in reverse, by action and time frame, in a continuous manner.

In the late twentieth century, a new sort of narrative began to appear which systematically and continually goes backwards. Brian Richardson, in his excellent typology of unusual discourse processes, calls these reversals antinomies (from Gk. anti- “opposite” or “against” + nomos “rule,” “law”). The first movie which featured temporal reversal and antonymizing as its structure was Oldrich Lipsky’s 1967 movie – Happy End.


The whole movie is a reversal of all the events of a clichéd story of a cuckolded husband. However, the narratives are the description of the reversals.  The voice of the actor playing Bedrich serves two functions: as character-protagonist and as after-the-fact narrator.  As narrator, the off-screen voice is clearly distinguished from the character’s onscreen voice, the latter being lip-synchronized with the action.  For example, in the scene in which he finds Jenik, the lover, in bed with his wife, Bedrich’s onscreen voice yells in rage, but his narrator’s voice-over calmly reminisces about the event. This method has not only added a pure comical motive to the movie, but however, it adds a lot of irony to the incidents in our lives.

For example, the movie starts off with the lines “Love stories are all the same. Fortuneless beginnings and happy endings.” This statement is obviously speaking of time in a reversed manner, i.e., it’s making a pun at all love stories many novels and films are based on. Another incidence in the movie is when all the prison inmates were giving back the food to the distributor followed by the lines “I remember one educational method – Food Returning. When we handed over the very last grain of rice, we’ve all had the same. We weren’t spoiled by greed or by other vices.” Here, the scenes are shown antonymized, but the narratives were a description of an ideal setting.


Happy End goes beyond simple physical jokes and into dimension of irony. The stereotyped cuckolding of a husband is universally known, and we can quickly predict what has happened, even if presented backwards.  Irony, on the other hand, requires a more knowing audience, those who recognize something about the wider implications of an event. For example, the garbled reverse dialogue of the judges speaks both to the universal gibberish of the law and to the special political repression of the then Communist government.


Reverse chronology brings in a sense of objectivity; objectivity that highlights the differences between fiction and experience, between what is told and what is enacted, between what is made and what creates, what is understood and what happens. The present tense – the tense of drama’s enactment–is constantly doing battle with the narrative preterit, which is the tense for that which is told and repeated.

“In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people’s home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm! I rest my case.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            — “My Next Life Backwards,” by Woody Allen


A widely believed concept is that backward narration increase intensification.

“Though the film moves backward through time, it doesn’t have the lugubrious manner of an extended flashback. It moves forward from a sense of lovelessness and loss to discover, at the film’s end, the initial ecstasy, which, knowing what we do, is all the more haunting.”                     – Vincent Canby on The Betrayal.

“All the more haunting” is clearly a way of expressing thematic intensity. Canby implies that the novelty of Betrayal’s plot reversal preempts any recourse to the usual adultery cliché. So how does this instensification take place? Which aspects of a specific narrative are intensified? How would a text go if it were narrated in a different manner? Which aspects are brought out to help us understand the guiding curves of the discourse? Intensification depends very much on a narrative’s particular intention.

Sometimes, this intention is defamiliarization, or sometimes it is to match content and form. Intensification is a motive for defamiliarization, as the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky named it (ostranenie), a practice well-defined by someone in Wikipedia:

The artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar” (the Holocaust was not “common,” but it certainly is familiar to many people). This strangeness makes mundane subjects interesting once again by somehow recasting them so that the reader must work to understand them. The word force can be replaced by guided, because we are viewing everything in accordance to the film-maker’s perspective. If there is a concept as common as betrayal or cuckolding a husband in the cases of Betrayal and Happy End, watching it forwards would change the perspective and would become cliché.


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