Well, actually time does go linearly in real life. But this is fiction I’m talking about. Y’know those stories where events are told in the order of the sequence of events? Well this isn’t about that.
Lost’s early episodes followed a basic format: focus particularly on one character on the Island all the while showing us flashbacks to their life before. We see Sawyer’s escapades as a con man while we see him attempting to pull a con now. Charlie failed repeatedly when he was given responsibility, so now he’s trying desperately to prove himself worthy on the island. By juxtaposing who they were before with who they are now, we’re given a very clear picture of the character. Telling it in the order it happened just wouldn’t be the same. Flashbacks (and flashforwards) aside, Lost also used the character Desmond – a man unstuck in time – to tell stories that took place all over a timeline. This wasn’t for exposition or drama, it was the earnest story of a man trying to get his mind to stay still.
But enough harping about Lost. Let’s chart new territory!
Firefly* has an episode, “Out of Gas”, which stands as probably my favorite (*y’know what I said about charting new territory? I lied). It’s my favorite since it really hammers home the constant theme of being an Artificial Family, but it’s a fantastic achievement in storytelling. See, the story does not take place in ‘order.’ There are three concurrent storylines: the ‘present’, the train of events leading up to the ‘present’, and the moment when each member of the crew joined the ship.
It’s vital for the episode. “Out of Gas” is about the crew and their bond, so we need to see motivation. It’s also needed to build tension in the plot. The more we see of how Mal got to be bleeding out in a derelict Serenity the more invested we become — especially when we see him thinking back on meeting his crew.
But the thing with telling a story out of order is that it can quickly become confusing as to just which parts are happening when. “Out of Gas” skillfully avoids confusion by giving each ‘timezone’ it’s own palette. The ‘present’ is very cool; lots of blues dominate the scene. The sequence of events leading up to the ‘present‘ — Simon’s birthday celebration and so on — is relatively untouched. The past is very saturated; colors are brighter and richer, almost dreamlike. This color washing means that we can instantly tell when each scene would be set linearly. Combined with deft writing and setups that informs us whether each part takes place way before, before, or now, we never get lost in the storytelling. The end result is a beautiful episode about family and Home that wouldn’t have worked any other way.
So now let’s take it another step further. What if a whole movie were set in anachronistic order?
Enter (500) Days of Summer. Y’know how when you look back on a relationship or a period of your life it doesn’t quite come back in the order it happened? Yeah, this movie is like that. We start on Day 488 of Tom and Summer’s relationship, which is long after they’ve ‘broken up’ (it’s complicated). Then we see Day 1, then we go forward 200 odd days, then back to Day 7. The movie avoids temporal confusion in two ways. First off, the movie’s incredibly postmodern. We have a narrator reminding us here and there as well as title cards that pop up most of the time to introduce a new day (be it forward or backward in time). Second: Tom and Summer’s relationship happens in stages. Are Tom and Summer in the flirty stage? Then it’s in the early days. Are they really close? Towards the middle. Tom trying to win her back? A bit later. Trying desperately to get over her? Towards the last hundredish. Finally moving on? Almost 500. Basically: as confusing as it sounds, it’s not.
But why not just tell the story in order like a normal movie?
Because (500) Days of Summer isn’t out to tell a love story. It’s a story about love as remembered. What better what better way to capture the highs and lows and the humor and desperation than to show it all in contrast? We laugh empathetically when Tom’s best morning ever (Day 35) cuts forward a couple hundred days to where we see him dejectedly walking into the office. It’s self-aware and honest, something that its nonlinear storytelling helps push along.
If well done, this sort of storytelling can do wonders. One just has to look at any of many How I Met Your Mother episodes, or Vantage Point telling the same story from different perspectives, or even Bataman Begins to see how it can be used for humor and/or drama. It’s fun, so long as everything stays clear in the audience’s mind.
In any case, I hear Memento is pretty good…
Also: buy my book In Transit! It, well, yeah, it takes place linearly.