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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 14, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

About Time, Internal Time

At first the New Yorker movie reviewer made me not want to see the new Richard Curtis movie About Time, even though the trailers had made it seem like a charmingly whimsical romantic comedy.

Then the New Yorker reviewer tipped his hand: He also despised Love Actually, and sneered at writer-director Richard Curtis for being sappy and aiming at the low, base, common, contemptibly large "popular audience."

I don't have to pay the slightest attention to any reviewer who dislikes Love Actually.

So my wife and I went to see About Time at the Carousel on Monday night, and I have this to say about the New Yorker reviewer:

It is sad when superiority and sophistication replace compassion, humanity, love, and truth in the human heart.

The New Yorker reviewer thinks he is above films like those of Richard Curtis, when in fact he is merely outside them, looking in. And it's cold out there. It makes him numb.

I thought Love Actually was the final word on all kinds of human love.

Instead, it's apparently more like the table of contents for Curtis's continuing work.

About Time seems to be a love story, in which a gawky young man (Tim, played magnificently by Domhnall Gleeson) learns that he can jump about in time and redo patches of his own life in order to try for different outcomes.

It's a hereditary gift, which his father (played with glorious eccentricity by Bill Nighy) also had. As the film goes on, we realize that the story is as much about Tim's relationship with his dad, his sister, and his mum as with Mary, the love of his life.

About Time is Richard Curtis's paean to family -- why it's worth creating one, and why even in the midst of pain and loss, a good family can provide the foundation that makes everything make sense.

About Time is also a movie in which nobody is bad. No villains. Not even villains with a heart of gold. Everybody's doing their best, trying to muddle through.

The one "bad guy" -- the man who makes Tim's sister's life hellish -- is mostly just bad for her.

Sometimes I thought I was watching a sane version of You Can't Take It With You -- a family that collects eccentrics and lives in madcap joy without regard for the needs of the real world.

But it's not really so. About Time doesn't so much celebrate oddness as tolerate it with a smile. The family has taken in Uncle D, who never seems to connect with reality. His perpetual bafflement is taken in stride, and by the end of the movie we understand why the family loves him and earns his love.

If anything, that's what About Time is about: Earning love. Overlapping a little bit with Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's horrible character learns how to be a decent human being in order to escape his trap, Tim does try a few repetitions in order to get things right.

But he quickly learns that his time-travel gift isn't particularly useful for that, because each past event he changes also changes things he wants to keep.

For instance, his crabby landlord, Harry, a playwright (played by Tom Hollander), has a disastrous opening night when a leading actor forgets his lines. Naturally, Tim goes back to help the actor get through the rough patch.

Tim saves the show -- but Harry doesn't know what he did, since he only remembers the triumphantly successful version of opening night. Meanwhile, by going back to fix the play, Tim misses out on his chance meeting with the delightful Mary.

Mary gave him her phone number by entering it into his cellphone; but because Tim didn't meet her after all, her number isn't in his phone. Saving Harry's play cost him a chance for love -- without winning any gratitude from Harry.

The time-travel rules are never well-explained. For instance, it's absolutely crucial to the storyline that Tim not only can move backward in his own life, he can also move forward.

That is, after changing an event in the past, he doesn't have to live through all the intervening years, trying to get everything else just as it was -- after making the change he can simply jump forward and see the consequences.

And there's one set of changes that don't follow any rules. But I didn't care; this isn't science fiction (or, rather, it's not serious science fiction) and there are deeper rules at play:

The rules of human relationships. How they're created, how they're preserved, what they cost.

I don't know about you, but I can't watch Love Actually without crying through several well-earned, magnificent epiphanies.

But no movie has ever affect me or my wife more than the ending of About Time. Not because of the actual events, but because of the open challenge the movie makes, for us to live our lives as if each day were the version of that day that we had deliberately chosen.

It's a call for us to experience joy whenever possible, not by changing events, but by enjoying them for what they are, by bringing joy into the moment instead of wishing that joy had simply popped up.

This may sound -- indeed, I'm sure it does sound -- just as sappy as the New Yorker reviewer thought. But when you've lived through the wonderful memories of the movie, sentimentality gives way to truth.

Sophisticated people seem to think that "the truth" must always be dark, disappointing, disillusioning. But this is not so at all. Most of the time, darkness, disappointment, and disillusionment are the illusion.

Truth is neutral. Our decisions determine what darkens and what lightens our lives.

My wife and I had a very important, self-evaluative conversation on the way home from this movie and for a considerable time afterward. We realized that what the movie advocates is not possible at every moment; sometimes you just have to plow through and get things done; sometimes you fail.

What matters is that at key moments you give yourself a shake and turn bleakness into joy, or if that is not possible, turn it into a calm understanding that this, too, is part of life, and is already receding into the past.

About Time doesn't make you wish you had the ability to travel in time. It makes you realize that we all are, in fact, traveling into the unknown future at a steady, unstoppable pace.

My wife and I both agreed that there were many good things in our lives that we didn't remember anymore. Our kids will speak of key events in their past and we have to take it on faith that they happened, because we can't conjure up the moment.

It was important to them; to us, it was just another movement forward, speeding along at one minute per minute.

Likewise, there are things we remember about their childhoods that they don't recall in the slightest. Moments that revealed their character. But of course it didn't seem that way to them -- they, too, were just doing what came naturally, without examining it or being surprised by it.

But then we looked at how they're living now -- how they are, in fact, creating families, creating experiences, shaping their own lives in deliberate ways. Because they make use of Facebook and Instagram, we get glimpses of their memories and insights; we see the tracks they're making in the lives of friends, relatives, and, in the cast of the older ones, their own children.

No doubt they feel the same frantic anxiety sometimes that my wife and I so often felt. But from our more distant perspective, we know that they're doing great.

Life isn't just a walk on the beach. But it has walks on the beach in it.

In one of my conversations while I was attending a science fiction convention in Nantes, France, someone asked me to name movie directors I loved.

This came on the heels of my listing movie directors whose work I despised. I realized, to my chagrin, that I have a much clearer capacity for remembering negatives than positives.

But then I realized: What I remember are not directors, but movies. Then I could pop up with Sense & Sensibility (Ang Lee, working from Emma Thompson's script), and A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, working from Robert Bolt's script).

Both Lee and Zinnemann have an astonishing list of fine films (along with some missteps).

By comparison, Richard Curtis's list of great films is nowhere near as long, and his filmography includes some desperately unfunny (to me) comedies. Mostly he's a writer who sometimes directs.

But he created these two jewels: Love Actually and About Time. Either one would earn him a place on my permanent list. To have created both makes him almost miraculous.

Along the way, Curtis brings in characters who seem to be there just to be silly, annoying, ridiculous. But Curtis doesn't hate his characters: Every one of them is given value.

Maybe About Time won't mean as much to you as it did to me and my wife. Maybe you have to have lived through a lot of years before you understand all the layers of meaning in the story.

The greatest insight in the film, played almost entirely for the laugh, is when Tim realizes that saving his sister from a disastrous experience cost him someone else that he also loved.

So instead of going back and causing his sister to redo her life, avoiding the single key mistake, Tim allows her to keep all the awful things that have happened to her.

Instead of changing her past, Tim and Mary sit with her in the hospital, not preaching, not even talking. They just stay until she's all right -- which comes when Kit Kat, the sister (Lydia Wilson) decides to change her own future.

That's how it's done in the real world.


It's not often that I recommend a poorly written book, but in the case of Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired, by Till Roenneberg, the content is important enough that it's worth the slog.

The subject at first seems simple enough; indeed, most people think they already know the information.

Everybody has an "internal clock" -- a sense of how long things take, and what time of day it is. This is most clearly manifested by our sleep cycles, and those are most sharply brought into focus by jet lag -- the miserable inability to sleep at appropriate times that comes on us when we move too rapidly from one time zone into another too many hours different.

The three-hour jet lag of Pacific-to-Atlantic flight is bad enough, but bicoastal Americans usually tough it out well enough. I just got back from my second trip to European time in three months, and that six-hour jump to the east is shattering.

I'm only beginning to recover by the time I come home. Fortunately, east-to-west jet lag is much easier to recover from.

But Internal Time is not just about time zones and jet lag. Quite the contrary -- that is almost trivial compared to the real social problems generated by our varying internal clocks.

The most vital point is that people really do live by different clocks. When someone declares that he is not a morning person, he isn't kidding. Roenneberg and other researchers have documented that differences between morning people and nighthawks are physiological.

Some people fall asleep easily at night and awaken bright and early, eager for the day. But others -- just about as many -- don't fall asleep just because it's nighttime. They linger in wakefulness, and often the early hours of the night are their most alert.

Then, in the morning, they are groggy and prone to "microsleeps" that give the impression that they're simply not paying attention.

You can see why such differences would have been valuable in the evolution of the human species. Consider a small troop of anthrops (early humans) living on the savannah.

If everyone fell asleep early in the evening, they might awaken bright and early -- only to find that hyenas or other predators had snatched all their babies in the night.

But if about half the people were at their most vigilant in the evening, not falling asleep until the first of the early risers were stirring, then the whole troop would be protected from predators and scavengers.

All the sleep-cycle variants contributed to the survival of our ancestors.

The social problems arise from the fact that early-risers are so cruelly judgmental of us nighthawks. (You notice that I'm taking sides in the quarrel.)

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," Ben Franklin quoted in his Almanac. But this is obviously not true for a night watchman, for instance, or for sailors working through the night.

And I can promise you it isn't true of a lot of other people. Having to get up early makes them groggy, stupid, and rude. This does not contribute to health, wealth, or wisdom.

But if they were allowed to sleep till noon, as God and/or evolution intended, they would be just fine -- and would hit their peak about ten p.m., which is, as every civilized person knows, the proper hour for conviviality.

Alas that many jobs require that employees meet a certain schedule because their work can only be done when all are together at once.

But there are fewer jobs that really require this than society pretends. Consider that most retail establishments don't open till ten in the morning; then they close at eight or nine at night.

Within that framework, early risers could certainly handle the day shift, and late sleepers the afternoon and evening. Why couldn't offices be handled the same way? Most jobs don't require daylight, and if working shifts are staggered, there should be enough overlap for staff meetings at one p.m. to include the larks (morning people) and the owls (night people).

But I personally know leaders of large organizations who don't give even a moment's consideration to the fact that starting meetings at 8:30 is cruel and unusual punishment to about half the people.

The most put-upon victims of our bias toward morning people are teenagers.

Again, we have the scientific data and there is no serious doubt. All teenagers (or, I should say, all pubescent humans) suffer from two changes: They need more sleep -- usually ten hours instead of eight -- and, most cruelly, their sleep cycle is displaced by a couple of hours.

In other words, even the larks among them shift in the owl direction by a significant amount during adolescence. And the owls go off the charts.

This lasts usually until about the age of twenty.

Teachers of middle and high school students (and college freshmen and sophomores), it's not your fault! You aren't boring -- you've simply got a classful of students who have no business even getting out of bed until nine a.m.

Confronted with this data, school principals offer arguments in favor the status quo that mostly come from (a) their own personal preferences or (b) arguments based on "that's how it's done and we can't change it," which is the same as no argument at all.

For instance: "We have to run the school buses all at the same time." Sure, of course; but why does that time have to be so early? Why couldn't high school begin at ten a.m. and end at four-thirty?

"But then the athletic teams would have no time to practice." To which my answer is: Why are schools in the athletics business? Why should academic performance be drastically reduced by early-morning hours because athletes need more daylight at the end of the day? What is school for?

And if athletics really are more important than academics -- as they often seem to be -- please remember that the outdoor sports are in the seasons when there's plenty of daylight long after school is over.

If athletes are really committed, let them do their practicing during the hours of sluggishness and stupidity in the early morning, while academics get teenagers' prime mental hours!

"Parents have to get their kids off to school before they leave for work." This only makes sense until you remember we're talking about middle school, high school, and college students, not third-graders. Are their parents still dressing them?

Maybe if they were allowed to keep hours closer to their internal clocks, we'd find that they could get themselves up and manage the difficult, confusing walk to the bus stop all by themselves.

There is no greater virtue in early rising than in late rising. Both internal clocks have a physiological origin and larks' lecturing owls about the virtues of early rising haven't the slightest effect on them.

And when it comes to teenagers, it should be a relief to parents to realize that there's nothing wrong with their children. It's normal for them to stay up later and sleep longer, and if you care about their health, you'll let them follow their natural clock and get ten hours of sleep.

Things can get even more confusing when you consider that some people are, by nature, not on Earth time. That is, their day is either longer or shorter than 24 hours.

I suspect I'm actually in that latter category. Sometimes I'm on a "good" early-riser schedule ... but within a few days I find myself unable to sleep at night, and then unable to get up until noon.

It's as if my body goes on its own version of "fall back" every few days. I spend half my life groggily trying to stay awake with the rest of the world. A kind of personal jet lag that comes and goes in cycles.

The information in Internal Time is important and valuable. If only it could have been written with the clarity and vigor of the works of, say, Malcolm Gladwell, who, even when he's wrong, is at least interesting.

Though Roenneberg is German, the language of composition was English (the book first appeared in "German translation," implying German was not the language of origin).

Still, it's a rather stiff English.

That would be more easily overlooked if the author had not tried -- and failed -- to make the book more entertaining by using the techniques of fiction writers.

Alas, he did not understand that stories only become entertaining if something is at stake, and if they are complete. Instead, every fictional account contains almost nothing in the way of incident, and if they have a point, that point is concealed until far later in the chapter.

Besides, all the stories are about sleeping. That's the part of life that fiction writers usually skip over because nothing is happening.

In short, the Internal Time is mind-numbingly dull, except for brief flashes of information.

But the flashes are compelling, and they matter.

So why not do what I did? Keep the book beside your bed. If, like me, you struggle to fall asleep at night, Internal Time not only talks about your problem, it also helps provide a solution!


Also reviewed this week in "Uncle Orson On the Fly," a paid subscription service, are the novels Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs and Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven. http://www.hatrack.com/onthefly/

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