Now Playing! Not All Time Travel Films Need to Include Explosions

Guy Boyd as Janitor in 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things,' 2020. (Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX)

The seasons are changing, and parents of school-age children may feel it most acutely. Yet time in the COVID-19 era also seems to be standing still, or (like the timeless Groundhog Day) repeating itself. Consequently, our answers to the big questions may be mutable: Does time heal all wounds? Does tragedy + time = comedy?

This week’s highlighted movies invite us to feel and experience time in ways that, in normal circumstances, would be out of the ordinary. These three films offer, or at least suggest, a bouquet of redemption.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Netflix

Charlie Kaufman came to public attention as a screenwriter of absurdist, turn-of-the-century fables of colliding realities (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). When he was given the opportunity, with Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, to direct his scripts, he confirmed that linear time was way too prosaic for his restless mind.

If you’re a Kaufman fan, you’ve already seen his latest obsessively constructed opus, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which premiered on Netflix at the front end of the Labor Day weekend. If not, the less you know the better. (Except that a familiarity with the 1950s musical Oklahoma! is exceedingly helpful.) It’s the kind of movie whose surprises, from one moment to the next, and steady accretion of detail provoke evolving interpretations.

Jessie Buckley as Young Woman, Jesse Plemons as Jake in 'I'm Thinking Of Ending Things,' 2020. (Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX)

So I won’t deprive you of the pleasure of discovery. Well, other than to say that the film, inspired by Canadian author Iain Reid’s 2016 novel, is mainly structured as two long, car-bound, snow-swept conversations between culturally astute college students (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) driving to and from his parents’ farmhouse, sandwiched around that awkward and disconcerting visit.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes its title from Buckley’s character’s first words, which she says to herself as a tentative first step toward breaking up. The yarn expands and inflates beyond this narrow circumstance to encompass, in my reading, an entire life span. Time is fluid: Now is then is the future. The whole ball of snow, uh, wax, if you will.

I’ll refrain from offering my interpretation of this brilliant movie, but I’ll make this observation: (spoiler alert) Plemons’ performance is an homage and a monument to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (who starred in Synecdoche).

Our Time Machine
Opens Sept. 11, streaming via local theaters, and airing Sept. 28 on KQED

Bay Area filmmaker S. Leo Chiang and Chinese director Yang Sun collaborated on this lovely and touching documentary about the intersection of art, work and family. And time, as the title temptingly promises.

As a way of connecting with and honoring his father, the Shanghai artist Maleonn devises the idea of an ambitious theatrical piece entitled Papa’s Time Machine: A Sci-Fi Stage Play with Mechanical Puppetry. Maleonn’s primary aim, among several goals, is to acknowledge, confront and transcend the fact of his father’s gradually fading memory.

Sponsored

The filmmakers do an exquisite job, especially in the first 30 minutes, of interweaving the real-life adult child-parent dynamic with the process of making art. Originally (and improbably) envisioned as a six-month project, Papa’s Time Machine requires ever more time and money, like many theater pieces. If everyone’s goal is a live performance before paying customers—which would also provide the film with a crowd-pleasing climax—it gradually becomes, as months turn into years, a slow-motion race against Papa’s declining faculties.

Papa’s long career as the director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater adds a layer of poignancy to Maleonn’s endeavor. Art is a medium through which father and son can relate, even if their work is worlds apart. Tender, soulful and life-affirming, Our Time Machine is a movie for all seasons.

Edo Avant Garde
BAMPFA

The Edo period in Japanese history spanned more than 250 years before it came to an end in 1868. It was a time of peace and prosperity, and gave rise to an extraordinary art movement that is preserved today through remarkable screen and scroll paintings in museums and collections. I would have thought that the only way to appreciate this work was in person, until I saw Linda Hoaglund’s immersive documentary Edo Avant Garde.

Most art history docs suck the life from their subject by alternating pictures and talking head experts. Although Hoaglund employs a wide array of Japanese and U.S. historians, curators and collectors, she is judicious with their words, a choice that allows us to enter the paintings.

And we do so with an altered sensibility. “Most Western art depicts nature as seen from a human perspective, at a specific time of day,” explains one expert. “But in the Japanese way of thinking about art, nature is the timeless, awe-inspiring environment and humans are just one of the creatures living there.”

From the studio of Sotatsu, 'Summer and Autumn Flowers,' 1600s. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

The result is that we see the paintings simultaneously of their time and outside of time. Edo Avant Garde has an educational function, of course, but it is primarily an experiential work. And it is far better for it.

One last thing: From its title, I anticipated the documentary would seek to persuade that Edo painters were ahead of their time and more influential on subsequent artists than they have gotten credit for. Hoaglund does go there in the last 10 minutes, but it’s almost incidental by that point. We’ve been transported to another, spiritual reality.

You may be aware that a big-budget Hollywood exercise involving time travel is getting all the movie-hype these days. I promise a trip with any of the three films above will reap greater rewards.