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Sailing along the river time.

KURT VONNEGUT DESCRIBES the random time travel of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) antihero Billy Pilgrim as becoming "unstuck in time." I always have enjoyed this theme in literature, starting with H.G. Wells' signature work, The lime Machine. Naturally, I also like to watch the many screen adaptations of these stories, though sometimes the filming creates provocative problems. For instance, the time-tripping antihero of "The Time Traveler's Wife" (2009) always arrives in his new destination sans clothes. Unless you are Lady Godiva, or maybe Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, public nudity is seldom a good thing, especially when these time trips occur randomly.

What makes the nudity especially edgy in "The Time Traveler's Wife" is that he meets his future spouse on several occasions when she still is a child. While everything strictly is PG on the printed page, such as that he is in the bushes or behind a tree, when these scenes are innocently replicated on the screen, one half expects a subplot involving the vice squad.

In novels in which time machines are involved, the vehicles always are described with a scientifically real panache, and readers like myself immediately buy into the concept. Yet, when the movies visualize them, they invariably seem like an Einstein Edsel. That is, a bit old-fashioned and rickety for pinballing through time--with the exception of the slick DeLorean from the inspired "Back to the Future" franchise.

For argument's sake, however, even if the time machine's design suits one's fantasy, such as the quaint bauble showcased in the charming "Time After Time" (1979) in which H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) chases Jack the Ripper into the future, the now-dated special effects undercut the time-tripping. Thus, Wells' "purple haze" exit from London to modem San Francisco looks like an LSD outtake from the Jack Nicholson-scripted film "The Trip" (1967, with Peter Fonda).

George Pal's screen adaptation of "The Time Machine" (1960, with Rod Taylor) remains my favorite take on Wells' novella, but the Oscar-winning special effects now seem a bit like flat champagne. Conversely, the more recent "Time Machine" (2002, with Guy Pearce) adaptation, directed by Simon Wells (H.G.'s great-grandson), takes such a special-effects-on-steroids approach that the characters are MIA, but the film would have received the stock satirical rave from John Candy's SCTV mock movie reviewer: "It blowed up real good."

Typically, neither novels nor movies tend to linger long on how time travel is possible. Instead, lovers of the phenomenon simply accept this "suspension of disbelief," just as fans of the musicals accept New York gang members bursting into song during "West Side Story" (1961). Ironically, when a movie does suggest some time travel explanation, such as the wacky "Kate & Leopold" twist (2001, Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman), where catching a portal in time involves jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, critics can be cruel. Of course, even this fantasy fan had trouble with Christopher Reeve's formula in "Somewhere in Time" (1980, with Jane Seymour): make yourself and your hotel room look like 1912, think as hard about this date as Dorothy did about going home to Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), and presto--flying monkeys, I mean, 1912.

Though many high-schoolers devoted to time travel might now think of Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" (1981) or "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989), at a comparable age I was focused upon the aforementioned Vonnegut classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, and George Roy Hill's screen adaptation. I still find Vonnegut's notion that time-tripping beats death--you remain alive by pinballing through one's personal history--soothingly poignant.

Of course, I might be biased. Vonnegut wrote the novel while he was an artist in residence at the University of Iowa, my alma mater. Vonnegut footnoted Iowa in Slaughterhouse-Five by having Pilgrim's zoo habitat on the planet Tralfamadore be a simulated Earthling apartment decorated with "furnishings ... stolen from Sears Roe buck warehouse in Iowa City." As Casey Stengel used to say, "You can look it up."

I later found a teaching position in Vonnegut's home state (Indiana), and occasionally had the opportunity to hear the shaggy-haired, Mark Twain lookalike speak, and he was equally commanding on the dais--but one of these comic talks produced a tongue-in-cheek warning about time-travel literature. Vonnegut confessed that the most grief he ever had received from his writing involved a short story about a time-tripper investigating Bible stories. Here's the kicker, while Vonnegut's time detective found the Good Book basically to be true, the revelation that Jesus was only 5-foot-6 set off a firestorm of protest. Vonnegut added, "This was an insult. This was the most sacrilegious thing. I could have said his eyes weren't blue, too, but I didn't go that far .... That must have been the average size of a man back then. Richard the Lionhearted was about that size. You could tell from his armor."

I cannot help wondering if Vonnegnt would have recycled his darkly comic Slaughterhouse-Five mantra--"and so it goes"--as an answer to such criticism or, more likely, he might have mined a nonsensical reply from his later time-travel novel, Timequake (1997): "I have never made a serious study of different religions.... All I know for certain is that devout Muslims do not believe in Santa Claus."

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and the author of several books on cinema.
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Title Annotation:movies on time travel; REEL WORLD
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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