“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the film Gravity, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fulfills what appears to be a prerequisite for women in films: She undresses alone:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

As a science fiction film fan, I immediately thought of Sigourney Weaver in Alien:

Sigourney Weaver, Alien

At the end of the film, when Ryan Stone crawls out of the water, again in her underwear, I was by then struck as well by Stone’s cropped hair and the camera’s apparent fascination with Stone’s (Bullock’s) physique, both of which can be fairly described as man-like—not unlike her name:

Matt Kowalski: What kind of name is Ryan for a girl?
Ryan Stone: Dad wanted a boy.

While I found Gravity to be a powerful and well-crafted film—stunning cinematography, stellar acting, tight and compelling narrative—I am less enamored by the rugged individualism theme and the need to frame Stone as a (wo)man. The triumph of Stone is one grounded entirely in her conforming to male norms, much of which is portrayed in her androgynous body, boyish haircut, and man’s name (even the “stone” of her last name erases the emotional core of the character that could have been celebrated more fully than the weightless tear scene).

Instead of Gravity, the film possibly should have been titled Oxygen or Breathe, but Gravity ultimately does capture the weight of the male gaze and the weight of the male norm that anchor the motifs and theme of the film—regretfully, not elements celebrating Stone as a woman, but ones that reduce her to the same tired messages coming from Hollywood about the Great White Masculine Hope.

While the film appears to downplay Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—the quintessential man’s man in film and life and Stone’s cavalier Obi-Wan Kenobi, always there (even in delusion) to make sure she bucks up—that secondary role proves to be a distraction because Stone must assume the qualities Kowalski would have played if the roles were reversed—lest we forget Clooney strips alone in films as well:

George Clooney, The American

The larger message found in Gravity is the inability of mainstream films to celebrate women as women. Consider the superhero makeover of Katniss in the Hunger Games films, as revealed in the second film’s poster:

Catching Fire promotional poster

And Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, notably her Batman-esque scenes in leather and on her motorcycle (as well as her snarled, “There will be blood”):

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in U.S. film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

A week ago today, I was in the delivery room while my only daughter gave birth to my first granddaughter. That experience was surrounded by the professional brilliance of a nursing staff (all women) who provided my daughter the medical and emotional support that made a difficult and painful experience far less difficult than it could have been.

As a father, I was helpless, watching, worrying.

Once my granddaughter was born, and the baby and mother were healthy and safe, I could not stop considering how this day had held up to everyone the unbearable lightness of being a woman.

Yes, childbirth is a solitary thing, and maybe even heroic, but it is nothing like the rugged individualism myth (childbirth is communal and life-affirming; rugged individualism is competitive and conquering) and it is everything like the essential qualities of women that we should be celebrating: the selflessness, the endurance, and that which we call “maternal.”

But the nurses as well—with their professionalism and care—demonstrated a woman’s world, their pay and status secondary to the doctor (a man).

Just the day before the birth of my granddaughter, Nikki Lee wrote Ride like a girl, a blog exploring how riding a bicycle captures something like being a woman daily: vulnerability, being blamed even when a victim. Lee ends with:

These are just a few of the thousand little environmental microaggressions that you don’t have to deal with when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car. Any individual one isn’t a big deal, and plenty of cyclists don’t pay active attention to them at all. After a while you just kind of deal with it, because listing out these small annoyances mostly serves to make you feel bad.

At the end of the day, you can always hang up your helmet and declare bike commuting “a great idea and all, but just not worth it”.

What if you didn’t have a choice?

And that brings me back to Gravity, where filmmakers do have choices, and audiences have choices.

Objectifying and reducing women to the male gaze appears to be the choice we are bound to, a gravity of another kind.

Debating Common Core Is Proof that Educators Have Lost

Recently, many within and among the AFT and NEA communities have been applauding that summer conventions have devoted time to debating the Common Core, some going as far as hailing that debate as proof of democracy in action.

The key problem with those claims is that the Common Core debate has been decided for educators, and not by educators. And thus, debating the Common Core is proof that educators have lost.

AFT, NEA, and the Democratic party (all long associated with supporting public education) are failing that commitment because each is focused primarily on preserving the organization and not seeking the principles that these organizations were intended to honor (see Susan Ohanian).

The entire Common Core charade, in fact, has revealed the worst aspect of partisanship—the need to support Team A over Team B in the pursuit of winning, ethics and principles be damned. Ultimately, that educators are applauding the debate about Common Core is further evidence that who controls the table wins. And thus, I want to repost the following:

Who Controls the Table Wins

NOTE: The current education reform agenda focusing primarily on Common Core remains to be a failure of leadership. Public school teachers, public schools, and public school students are little more than collateral damage in the battle to see who can out-standard and out-test and out-rigor whom. Professional organizations, unions, and political leadership are fighting for a place at the table—not securing the sort of future public schools should offer all children in the U.S.

In her discussion of science fiction (SF), Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among SF, speculative fiction, fantasy, and utopian/dystopian fiction, and throughout, she highlights the power of these overlapping genres to explore the “What if?” by blending dramatizations of human history with human possibility. These genres have the power as well to force us to re-see now in the imagined context of other times and places. [1]

So in the spirit of “What if?” let’s consider a brief thought experiment.

Let’s imagine an other world where the Discovery Institute—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the current state of evolutionary understanding in the sciences—decides to evaluate how evolution is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S., with the stated goal of reforming the content and teaching of evolution by labeling and ranking the current departments of biology based on standards for teaching the origin and evolution of humans designed by the Discovery Institute.

Let’s also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the Discovery Institute has reached an agreement with a major magazine—let’s say U.S. & News World Report—to publish these reports because the U.S. public holds views rejecting evolution and embracing Creationism that appear to match more closely the Discovery Institute than the current knowledge-base of evolutionary biologists.

Now, let’s imagine what the response of those biologists and their departments would be? Would they clamor to fill the seats at this table set by the Discovery Institute and the political leadership among the states and in the federal government? My speculation is to say no they wouldn’t because biologists trust and work at the table they set for their field, and as a central aspect of their professionalism, they would sit firmly at their table, that is in fact not a fixed or dogmatic setting, but a place where those with expertise and experience in the field create and wrestle with the agenda.

Having the Common Core Debate Is Conceding the Table

As with many works of SF, my thought experiment above is a thin mask for exactly what has occurred in education and education reform over the past three decades and intensified in the last decade.

From the accountability movement begun in the 1980s to the implementation of No Child Left Behind to the call for Common Core State Standards (CC) and to the demonizing of teachers along with the rise of calls for teacher education reform (such as the National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]), the pattern in the thought experiment above has been identical to what education has experienced except for one key element: Educators, administrators, union leaders, and professional organizations have knocked each other down and tripped over their own feet to grab the seats at the table being established and set by think-tanks, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and politicians.

And here is the essential problem and distinction between K-12 education and higher education. K-12 education is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and blinded by a market ideology (customer service) that de-professionalizes teachers; college education has been historically more apt to embrace academic freedom, professor expertise and autonomy, and field integrity (although these qualities are certainly under assault and eroding).

Calls to join the agendas that are de-professionalizing and marginalizing teachers are concessions to those without expertise and experience establishing the table, and in effect, they’re winning before the discussion ever starts. Hollow rings the refrains that cry out for joining the table because joining the table immediately silences any credible call for questioning the efficacy of the table.

Joining the CC table concedes that education somehow fails due to a lack of standards, that teachers somehow in 2014 need someone else to tell them what to teach.

Joining the CC table to make sure they are implemented “properly” admits teachers are not professionals, not experts as every biologist in U.S. colleges and universities demands for herself or himself.

Joining the teacher education reform movement, participating in NCTQ’s assault on teacher education masked as reform, concedes that a think-tank knows something the entire field of teacher education has yet to determine.

Joining the test-prep mantra and the “no excuses” tables acknowledges and confirms a deficit view of children and transmissional view of knowledge/learning/teaching that dehumanize children and teachers while working against democracy, human agency, and human autonomy.

In my critical examination of school choice, I did not speculate about some other world, but compared the education reform movement to the medical profession. In the late twentieth century doctors fell victim to the market, allowing patients to exert their “customer” muscle when those patients demanded antibiotics. Doctors who acquiesced maintained and gained patients-as-customers; doctors who followed their professional autonomy and did not prescribe antibiotics unless they were warranted lost patients.

Inexpert customers determine standards and evaluate professionals in the market paradigm that promotes a simplistic view of choice proclaiming the customer is always right.

When doctors let patients set the table, what was the result? MRSA and a whole new medical dilemma, one that the medical profession had to reclaim by asserting their expertise and experience. [2]

Begging to join the tables built by the self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience is abdicating any potential power among teachers unions, teacher professional organizations, and educators.

Instead, teachers—as well as any unions or professional organizations formed in their names—must establish and participate fully in our own tables because who controls the table wins.

The education reform movement, then, is not about educators claiming our place at self-proclaimed reformers’ tables, but about having the professional integrity and autonomy to decide what tables matter based on our expertise.

Notes

[1] Originally published at Daily Kos April 15, 2012.

[2] DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. Retrieved from http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/Educ/CME/BBB.pdf ; Ong, S. et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

What do NPR, conservative talk radio/media, and ESPN radio have in common?

Upon first blush, likely nothing. And that proves both what they have in common as well as how that unrecognized is the problem.

Let’s start with NPR, as Tracie Powell reports:

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s education team lead blogger, used one of the network’s official Twitter accounts to tweet that she reaches out to diverse sources, but “only white guys get back to” her. Naturally, the post is catching a lot of attention on Twitter, and rightfully so.

And while this admission is being framed as controversial, I have noted that NPR represents a pattern of whitewashing (see HERE, HERE, and HERE); in other words, what is presented as objective or balanced journalism is actually honoring a white male (and thus dominant) perspective as the unexamined given.

From George Will and Cal Thomas—the old-guard right-wing punditocracy—to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and others in the so-called new conservative media, whitewashing is the not-so-subtle racism, misogyny, and classism that pass for credible public discourse.

But as long as media objectivity remains a thin mask for (white) mansplaining, the so-called liberal media (NPR, for example) and the right-wing media are fundamentally indistinguishable. It is, then, important that we look closely at ESPN radio, the tour-de-force of (white) mansplaining.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

ESPN radio offers listeners a line up that is the antithesis of diversity: Mike & Mike, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, and SVP & Russillo.

This is hour upon hour of white guys holding forth as if their perspective has credibility (often it does not), as if their topics are monumentally important (often they are not), and as if their 20-something, fraternity view of the universe deserves our undivided attention (and that never does).

While the ESPN radio line up is solidly a bunch of white guys (and mostly snarky, arrogant white guys), it is also worth noting that African Americans and women serve roles as side-kicks (and on-air, the women look awfully similar to the eye-candy norm of Fox news).

Instead of careful, nuanced, or informed journalism, ESPN radio offers discourse driven by personality, arrogance, and the corrosive power of (white) mansplaining.

And while it may seem easy or justifiable to discount the danger of this dynamic because this is just sports, the obscene professional sport complex in the U.S. (like ESPN radio itself) is actually fertile ground for exploring lingering issues of race, class, and gender plaguing U.S. efforts at democracy and equity. If anything in the U.S. remains a man’s hostile world, it is professional sport (see HERE and HERE).

If only some in the media would step away from the alluring norm of (white) mansplaining that lulls us deeper into complacency.

The U.S. needs a critical free press whether that press is covering things great or small because major and so-called mainstream media continue to carry George Will and Cal Thomas as if their world views are credible, and not the toxic nastiness they perpetuate.

I invite you to suffer through 20 or 30 minutes of Limbaugh and then about the same time spent with Colin Cowherd. The nearly incoherent navel-gazing mansplaining between the two of them is indistinguishable—but it takes a bit of care to understand that among almost all of the mainstream media the space between right-wing talk radio, ESPN radio, and so-called credible outlets such as NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and many others is negligible.

If a white man isn’t telling us what and how to think (with a heaping dose of arrogance and juvenile glee), then the foundation of any and all being presented is (white) mansplaining—whether someone is contemplating whether LeBron James is holding the NBA hostage or NPR is fawning over schools teaching impoverished children of color “grit” through the whitewashed story of Steve Jobs.

For those of us fighting the fight and working daily in public education, that the teaching profession is dominated by women and that the students most in need of public education are living in poverty and children of color represent the pervasive and corrosive power of (white) mansplaining at all levels of society, but nowhere is that more distinct than in all aspects of the media, whether we are considering news or entertainment (as if there is a difference).

Too often, as well, when mainstream media allow surface diversity (gender [1] or race), those journalists are throttled by the fair-and-balanced norms—(white) mansplaining—that whitewashes any real diversity of thought.

In the 21st century, the U.S. is ample evidence that we have failed democracy, the free press, and universal public education. And those failures feed the current state of inequity that constitutes the country.

It cannot be stated often enough, then, that the U.S. needs a critical free press and that public narratives need a new mythology, one that not only replaces but refutes the current culture of (white) mansplaining that surrounds us daily.

[1] Consider the female lead of Gravity and how the narrative and motifs of the film play to and re-enforce a rugged individualism theme. The woman (played by Sandra Bullock) has a man’s name, Ryan Stone, and presents a physical presence that walks a thin line between objectifying a woman and highlighting her man-like “look,” athletic, hair cropped short. This is no celebration of a powerful female, but a message that this woman deserves our praise because she rises to the norms of men, created by men. Again, this is not substantially different than the motif on ESPN of praising African American athletes as “articulate.”

Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still

Since it is just sports, that LeBran James and Carmelo Anthony are wielding a significant amount of power during the NBA off-season could easily go unnoticed except for sports fans and those enthralled by ESPN and sports media.

But how James and Anthony are framed should be placed in context, notably the recent confrontation and arrest of an African American female professor at Arizona State University and this post, It’s Not Race, It’s Class…And Other Stories Folks Now Tell.

The U.S. is not post-racial, and claims that the country is may be that most powerful evidence that racism is not even below the surface, that denying racism has an evidence problem. It seems important—much like the “thug” labeling of Richard Sherman—that James is being accused of holding the NBA hostage.

Shouldn’t we investigate how often powerful and wealthy white men are framed in such language? (Never.)

In that context, I think we should revisit, then, the NBA finals from 2011, one in which the framing of James and Nowitzki reveal how professional sports in the U.S. expose the enduring power of racism as well as illuminate the pervasive influence of racism throughout education reform.

NBA Finals and “No Excuses” Charters

After game one of the 2011 NBA Finals, pundits began to clamor to reappraise the status of the Miami Heat, a team nearly equally loved and despised for the same reason—the acquisition of LeBron James. But in the closing seconds of game two, Dirk Nowitzki made a spinning, driving lay up with his splinted left hand to seal a huge fourth-quarter comeback, spurring Gregg Doyel at CBSSports.com to write a column titled “Heat return to their smug ways and Mavs make them pay.”

Consider some of Doyel’s comments. Frame this about the Heat—”Ultimately, this was everything we have come to expect from these fascinating, infuriating Miami Heat: Hollywood as hell. Damn good. But a bit too full of themselves”—with this comment about Nowitzki:

Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Heat—a quiet, humble, mentally tough SOB. He played with a splint on the middle finger of his left hand, and for more than 45 minutes he didn’t play well. But he scored Dallas’ final nine points, seven in the last minute, four with his left hand. That game-winning layup? He created it, then finished it, with his left hand. It probably hurt, but Nowitzki had more important things to worry about than pain. He had a game to win.

When I read this column, I immediately thought about a recent column by Dana Goldstein,“Integration and the ‘No Excuses’ Charter School Movement.” In her piece, she examines “no excuses” ideologies connected with the new charter school movement:

That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model—the “No Excuses” model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network—is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.

Later in her essay, Goldstein makes one comment that continues to trouble me: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.”

It is the intersection of the column about game two of the NBA finals and Goldstein’s article on “no excuses” charter schools that reveals for us the powerful influence of middle-class norms (a code for “white”) on every aspect of American society.

Throughout the NBA playoffs this year, the story no one is talking about has been the narratives following Nowitzki and LeBron James.

The NBA in Black and White

Nowitzki, a German-born centerpiece of the Dallas Mavericks, has been repeatedly compared to Larry Bird, one of the NBA all-time greats who shares with Nowitzki an important quality—race—which appears to translate into a default assessment—working-class ethos, the ability to rise above limitations through hard work (the personification of middle-class myths).

James, while often championed as the “next” Michael Jordan, has increasingly been compared to Magic Johnson, the arch-rival of Bird from an era decades in the past. Also like the Magic comparison, James now carries the “Hollywood” label—and that means too much talent and not enough humility, not enough effort.

And as the narrative about the Heat and the Mavericks (let’s not ignore the coincidental symbolism in the team names and the geographical significance of Miami beach against Texas) continues to play out, we read the subtext of class and race that drives not what happens on the court but how the media and public craft those narratives as a response to the players.

Culturally, we want Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win because that proves us right [1], the triumph of the middle-class norm. And we hope that a Nowitzki/Maverick win will go one step further by putting James and the Heat in their place, creating the ultimate personification of the middle-class norm—James’s talent plus Nowitzki’s humble working-class persona.

And this is what troubles me about Goldstein’s sentence from above: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone.” This leaves open an endorsement for continuing to champion “no excuses” schools as long as they target children of color, children trapped in poverty, and children struggling against being English language learners.

Middle-class and affluent children don’t need “no excuses” schools, the unspoken message goes, because they are already on board; they are a part of the normalization of middle-class (white) myths of who people should be, what people should say, and how people should behave.

We should not be contemplating for whom “no excuses” schools are appropriate because “no excuses” schools are not appropriate for any children in a free society. “No excuses” schools are the worst type of classism and racism, and they are the ultimate reduction of education to enculturation.

“No excuses” ideology denies human agency, human dignity, perpetuating a Western caste system of knowing ones place.

Yes, as a society, we want LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh to sit down and shut up, but we also want some children to learn this as well. The elite remain elite as long as the rest remain compliant.

Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150). [2]

And Bill Ayers (2001) recognizes the silencing purposes of schools:

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (p. 51) [3]

The “no excuses” miracle schools are no miracles at all. They are mirages carefully crafted to reinforce cultural myths. They are nightmares for childhood and the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are tragic examples of allowing the ends to justify the means.

If we are a people who embrace human freedom and agency, if we are a people who believe all people are created equal, if we are a people who trust the power of education as central to that freedom and equality, then there simply is no excuse for perpetuating “no excuses” charter schools that are designed to squelch the possibility of LeBron James-type agency among more people and throughout our society, and not just safely within the confines of a basketball court.

For Further Reading

Other People’s Racism: Race, Rednecks, and Riots in a Southern High School

[1] Consider the same dynamic in the 2014 finals in terms of the San Antonio Spurs as a hard-working franchise, not a star franchise.

[2] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

[3] Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

If you believe shoddy commentary at The New York Times (and you shouldn’t), we have more to fear from balanced literacy than the zombie apocalypse.

The central problem with the sudden surge in assaults on balanced literacy is that–like almost all of the “sky is falling” rants against progressivism, whole language, etc.–this round of “beware balance literacy” is not about teaching reading (or students) at all, but tired and ill-informed ideological misinformation.

However, these partisan political shots masked as education reform are illustrative, nonetheless. And like the mostly garbled public debates about Common Core (also usually misinformed and about politics but not students, teaching, or education), we must look beyond the terminology.

First, public and media uses of any terms such as “balanced literacy” or “whole language” are problematic because what a term means within a field is often quite distinct from how those terms are used in practice–especially once a guiding philosophy or theory (such as whole language, balanced literacy, or literature circles) becomes a program.

So with the current media assaults on balance literacy, we are likely faced with a real difficult paradox: the media rants are insincere and misguided, but it is also likely that far too often programs called “balance literacy” have been deeply flawed (but because the programs failed balance literacy and not because balance literacy is a flawed guiding principle for teaching).

Next, then, we must recognize that our media and public debates about balanced literacy and Common Core are missing just what is wrong with the historical and current contexts for how to teach students: Our job as teachers is to teach students, not standards, not programs.

All the time, energy, and funding spent training teachers in this or that program, this or that new set of standards is time, energy, and funds misspent because the reality of teaching day-to-day is that regardless of the set of standards or the required program, we teachers are charged with starting where each student is and then to take each student where she/he is capable of going.

To demand that we meet or hold us accountable for meeting some general standard of where all children should be or to hold us accountable for meeting the dictates of a program–that is educational malpractice.

And that is why the specific attacks on balanced literacy are potentially powerful lessons in all that is wrong with education reform. If balanced literacy were the grounding principle of literacy education, teachers would have the professional autonomy to identify student needs and then provide whatever instructional practices serve those student needs–instead of being bound to meet standards, raise test scores, or implement programs in uniform and bureaucratic ways.

But teacher autonomy (while serving the needs of students) does not serve the needs of political leaders or the monetizing zeal of corporate America. Bluntly stated, teacher autonomy does not elect politicians or line the pockets of Pearson or the legions of corporatists feeding on the public dime.

U.S. public education has never had a standards problem; it has never lacked an ample array of ready-made programs. Teachers have never had the sort of professional space that supports what students need and deserve, however.

U.S. public education has always been bogged down in the pursuit of both the “right” standards and the “right” programs–both inexcusable distractions.

It is counter-intuitive, but Henry David Thoreau’s dictum–“Simplify, simplify, simplify!”–may be our best new guiding principle for education reform.

The in-school key to fulfilling the promise of universal public education is teacher autonomy in an environment of community and support–not bureaucratic accountability in an environment of blame, punishment, and coercion.

Balanced literacy as a mandated program may not be as horrifying as the zombie apocalypse, but it is more evidence that we are failing balanced literacy, and thus students, not that balanced literacy is failing students.

We teachers must teach students, not standards or programs. But we teachers need the space required to do the job we have chosen and the job that is central to a free people.

“About Time” about Looking Hard Enough

I don’t get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls
Brought me here

“The Luckiest,” Ben Folds

The second time around Dad says about his son Tim at Tim’s wedding:

I’d only give one piece of advice to anyone marrying. We’re all quite similar in the end. We all get old and tell the same tales too many times. But try and marry someone kind. And this is a kind man with a good heart.

I’m not particularly proud of many things in my life, but I am very proud to be the father of my son.

It is easy to be tricked into believing that Richard Curtis’s About Time is yet another derivative British romantic/comedy from the director/writer responsible for Notting Hill, Love Actually, and The Girl in the Cafe—especially with Rachel McAdams in the rain on the film poster:

About Time

Yes, this film has more than echoes of lines and characters from Curtis’s filmography (which I must confess is among my favorite), and the film is both romantic and funny, the sort of charming British funny I find perfect in Curtis’s movie along with his ability to walk that thin line between cheesy and genuinely sweet, always remaining on the right side.

But the opening scene quoted above between Dad (Bill Nighy) and Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) captures that About Time is about the human condition and the human heart—and ultimately about looking hard enough.

The major difference in this Curtis production is that Tim discovers on his twenty-first birthday that he is part of a lineage of men who can time travel. Like romance, time travel in films is ripe for bungling, but Curtis has joined for me a small group of works that allow the time travel trope to enhance a much greater purpose: Kurt Vonnegut’s rip-roaring Slaughterhouse-Five and David Lynch’s time wrap-around metamorphosis Lost Highways, just to name two in which time travel is central but dwarfed by larger elements.

In About Time, time travel allows the bumbling and lonely Tim to sharpen that kindness that his father loves; without his ability to re-do, Tim would have been nothing more than a sad butt of his own jokes for the length of a film.

Instead, Tim finds, loses, and finds again Mary (Rachel McAdams)—and that happens very early and quickly in the film. That is our first hint that this film is not mainly about Tim and Mary (although their story is quite sweet, quirky, and endearing).

As Tim becomes a husband and father himself, the narrative returns again and again to Dad and Tim—men bound by a private gift (or curse) and by the very human frailty most men share, the inability to engage emotionally with the world and other people in ways that are full and healthy. Even when most things are good and should be easy to manage on an emotional level.

The plot has ample moments of tension, of the very real possibility of disaster, and Tim discovers that his time traveling has incredibly difficult limitations along with quite a few opportunities for Tim to set things right (the first sex scene is predictable, but still quite good, mostly because we come to like Tim and Mary).

About Time is a beautiful and bittersweet film, and time travel gradually reveals itself to Tim and the audience as merely a device for the central argument of the film—one that Tim explains in voice-over through lessons from Dad:

And so he told me his secret formula for happiness. Part one of the two part plan was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else.

But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.

As Tim comes to understand his father’s secret formula, About Time reveals that it belongs in another lineage along with well done time travel works—those works that return to the scene between Emily and the Stage Director in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as I examined in relationship with Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers:

In Wilder’s play, Emily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

We can now add because of About Time, it seems, time travelers also:

And in the end I think I’ve learned the final lesson from my travels in time; and I’ve even gone one step further than my father did: The truth is I now don’t travel back at all, not even for the day, I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.

The human condition is fraught with difficulties, and often the greatest truths sound simple while they continue to elude us. I’m not optimistic this latest cry for each of us to “look at everything hard enough” will work, and I’m also not even sure we’d do it right if we all could travel back in time for another shot—as Dad and Tim do so well in the film.

But I am sure that About Time speaks about and to the human heart in a way that reminds us of the most wonderful moments of being fully human. It is the sort of film that makes me want to lie close to the one I love watching the film, maybe for the 16th time—like a scene from Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man: “What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also, reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

Life is but one chance, and nothing is guaranteed. Being human is only bittersweet and we are always better for having looked hard enough, for reaching out and holding on.

It is ours to kiss that first time, to say “I love you,” or course, without needing a second chance:

Tim: I used to think my phone was old and shit, but it’s suddenly my most valuable possession.
Mary: You really like me? Even my frock?
Tim: I love your frock.
Mary: And, um, my hair. It’s not too brown?
Tim: I love brown.
Mary: My fringe is new.
Tim: Your fringe is perfect. Fringe is the best fit.

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