Itâs amazing that up until this point Happy Accidents has escaped me. Itâs been out since 2000 and stars Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei. On the surface this is a sort of quirky, cute indie romantic comedy produced by IFC when there really was a sort of thing called âindependent filmâ? in the U.S. To some extent this would be enough for me. On a deeper level, however, Happy Accidents follows a line of logic concerning the nature of time-travel and the question of emotion and memory that started in 1962 with a little french film called La Jetee.
That film, perhaps my favorite short film, is probably the best known from French director Chris Marker and is shot entirely as a series of photo stills. It is a sort of pre-pc powerpoint presentation with no moving action. It relies on a narrator to drive the story. Despite this form it manages to tell a complex and moving story of a man who is sent back from a dystopic future to the present day. He and the woman develop a relationship which is doomed by his future overlords who do not him to disturb the time-line. (spoiler) This eventually causes his death — witnessed by himself as a child.
If this sounds familiar to you it could be perhaps because La Jetee is the basis for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys and thankfully has led to the preservation and popularization of the Chris Marker original. Happy Accidents is another film in this thread in that it has all of the elements, a picture of the past, a strong memory that make the character ideal for time travel, falling in love with the woman from another time, a tragic accident that he must prevent and over-all conspiracy underlying much of the plot.
These films also all make reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo. The scene in that movie where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak visit the Sequoia National Forest and look at a felled tree is made reference to in each of the films. The trunk comes to symbolize the passage of time and the cyclical nature of time. Whatâs interesting about Vertigo is that it isnât ostensively about time-travel. What sparked the connection then between this film about an ailed detective in a conspiracy? While researching this article I found that others have asked similar questions.
I think whatâs interesting about Vertigo (which is also one of my favorites) in relation to these other, more scifi-tinged narratives is the connection of emotion and identity wrapped up with a cyclical reality. Towards the beginning of Vertigo Stewartâs Scottie is hired on to follow Madeline because she is obsessed (perhaps possessed?) by the spirit of a woman from the past Carlotta Valdes. The hauntings are symbolized visually by a painting hanging in the Legion of Art in San Francisco. This idea of an image of the past haunting the present at the same time imitating and influencing it has a relation to a quasi-sci-fi work.
Later in the film when Scottie attempts to remake Judy as Madeline, he is forcing the reinterpretation of the present by an image of the past — his lost love. This time, however, it is Scottieâs own infatuation and not Madelineâs which drives the overlap with the past. The visual motif of the spiral, as well, which in Vertigo directly symbolizes Scottieâs fear of heights could be viewed as a reference to the cyclical nature of time and how the charactersâ emotional ties to the past and fascination with images influence their actions in the present.
The key link between all of the films is the emotional nature pent up within the characters’ desires to remake the past. All men are driven by a kind of obsession and are lead down erratic paths that may or may not directly indicate some form of insanity. The implication is perception of time/history/memory and one’s ability to maneuver it is dependent on a heightened state of emotion.
With all of these films posing a similar question: is fate unmovable? Itâs interesting to wonder whether the different endings to the films matter. They vary radically from happy endings to more open-ended. In my mind, however, none of these âendingsâ? really matter. Their climax instead comes when the present wraps back upon the past, and future — the emotional point causing this temporal overlap. Whether in the end a character dies or the two lovers get together doesnât matter, it’s simply one of the possible tangents from a great spiral flowing from the tangled knot of time.
P.S. I had originally planned on titling this article: La Happy Monkeys with Vertigo but decided the post needed a more serious title given the nature of the content. I still like the original title though.