The Sun’s One Good Eye
the sun’s one good eye
is on/ you/ rise up n shine
like you sposed to
– Ruth Forman
Went to see Source Code yesterday. It’s fun and a little mind-bend-y, a combination I like. I’m going to break my pattern and post today’s nove otto now before I start talking about the movie. I’ll say that the film inspired the poem.
You and I here in this moment,
this bright flash of time quickly spent.
Our lives turn, our stories unfold,
our present running to future,
to end. But where the timelines blur
opens a door, breaks from the mold.
And here is the delicate twist
of tale. This bit of story, missed,
that turns the world, spins straw to gold.
If you haven’t seen this movie and plan to, STOP READING NOW. Seriously. Go check out something else because I’m about to give away all kinds of important details. Not clear enough?
* * * S P O I L E R A L E R T * * *
Ok? Ok. Let’s begin.
I love stories that mess with the “when” of things, that muck around with our linear perception of time. Movies like Before the Rain do this wonderfully. I love when writers throw in quiet little references to things that will only be noticed if you’re paying very close attention and if your memory is fully switched on. Think of that cheroot at the end of Jack Finney’s Time and Again. Source Code has both of these elements, and both are part of why I really enjoyed this film.
I like the revised take on Groundhog Day and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”¹, the idea that we can repeat and repeat and repeat a pivotal moment until we can “get it right,” the idea that we have life — thought, feeling, the ability to imagine a world — after we’ve died. The way Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to his understanding of what his eight minutes of life mean is intelligent and feels real. His insistence on the reality of the world that exists in his mind makes that world much more believable than the one we see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) living. Even though we are told what’s “true” for Stevens, even though we are shown that he isn’t just Stevens on that train but Stevens in the body of some guy named Sean Fentress, it’s still easier to believe the repeated ride on that doomed Chicago commuter train than to focus on the truth. Which is, of course, the point. We want the hero to win. We want the romantic couple to have a chance. We want the fantasy.
But as we watch the fantasy play out, as we ride that train with Stevens again and again — pulling for him, waiting for him to uncover the secret that will save the day — we know how it’s going to end. We know that Stevens is dead, that Christina (Michelle Monaghan) is dead, that everyone on that train is dead, that they were all dead before we even entered the story. We know it because Goodwin and Rutledge have explained reality and their story makes more sense than Stevens reliving that same eight minutes and having any kind of power to change what happens at their end.
I love that, love all the ways that plays with my mind, all the ways it makes me think of possibilities, all the ways my brain fights against Goodwin and Rutledge’s truth even as I believe what they’ve said.
And I love the question mark of the ending, the whiplash moment when time bends and we somehow find the story unrolling in a present that shouldn’t exist and a present that should have been past … or part past, part … not possible? We find messages passed between two shouldn’t-be-happening moments that somehow tie the story together and make it … impossible. It’s perfectly perfect, just like the gorgeous Cloud Gate bean we see Stevens and Christina reflected in at the end.
But what about that cheroot? That’s the detail that tipped my judgment of Time and Again from “this is a good book,” to “this is an amazing and perfect book.” Details. I love the skillful handling of details. And Source Code has the most perfect detail use ever:
We hear a recording of Colter Stevens’ dad describing and mourning his son. We listen to his words but not his voice. Later, Stevens calls his father from the train (as Sean Fentress) and again we hear his father’s words but his voice is just a voice, not the important part. And then the movie ends.
The movie ends and the credits roll and the people around us start standing and leaving and I stay because I like watching credits. And I’m talking to my friend and really only half-watching the credits. And then I see that Stevens’ father — that voice — is played by Scott Bakula.
Scott Bakula, people. Scott Bakula. Who would ever ask Scott Bakula to take a 10½-second part in which he is only a voice? Why would Bakula ever say yes?
There’s the cheroot: to have the voice of Sam Beckett, Mr. Quantum Leap himself, tickling the edges of this let’s-bend-the-space-time-continuum story is so brilliant, I lack words.
It’s the details, the beautiful, perfect, my-brain-is-exploding details that win me every time. I liked this movie a lot. Seeing Scott Bakula in the credits made me love this movie. All good storytelling is about good juggling, about keeping all the balls in the air, seeing all the moving parts that make the whole. I’m glad someone (Duncan Jones? Ben Ripley?) knew enough to put this last and most perfect detail into place.
¹ Not familiar? An excellent short story by Ambrose Bierce. Always makes for interesting classroom discussion.