Movie Mondays: Seivom Sdrawkcab = Backwards Movies

~posted by Library Staff

I love movies that play with time: the “parallel-universe” narratives of Run Lola Run and Mr. Nobody, the event-shuffling of (500) Days of Summer, the dizzyingly-intercut centuries of Cloud Atlas and The Fountain, the decade-hopping of The Hours, the surreal repetitions of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, or the real-time progressions of Boyhood and the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy. But one of my favorite time-twisting devices is reverse chronology, in which the events of the movie unfold in backwards order. One might even call these Seivom Sdrawkcab, or Backwards Movies!

Directors use this device for a variety of reasons: as a sort of cinematic puzzle whose pleasure lies in the viewer decoding the reverse order; to enhance a sense of danger or mystery; as a way of highlighting the cause-and-effect of various events; and to give the viewer an experience from a particular character’s perspective, who for a variety of reasons may not have access to the preceding events. One of the earliest examples is The Three-Sided Mirror [La glace à trois faces], a short experimental film from 1927. Although most of this silent movie is not presented backwards, in one scene a woman recalls the events of the previous evening, and we see them unfold quickly in reverse chronological order.

The backwards movie achieved widespread recognition in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Memento. Guy Pearce plays a man with short-term memory loss who’s trying to find his wife’s killer. In order to keep track of events, he writes notes to himself, tattoos information on his body, and takes polaroid photos. Through the reverse chronology of the film, we experience each scene the way the character does, not knowing what events preceded it, where he is, or how he got there. For example, in one scene the protagonist and a gun-toting man are running in an RV park: is he the chaser, or the chased? At the end of each subsequent scene in this cinematic brain-twister, we discover how he ended up at the start of the previous scene.

In the Korean movie Peppermint Candy, we encounter a group of friends having a riverside picnic during which one of them commits suicide. We then travel back in time across the previous two decades—sometimes jumping years at a time–to show the events leading up to this. To underscore the time-reversal theme, each new scene is introduced by footage shot from the rear of a train but played backwards, so that it appears to be travelling forward. Another movie known for its reverse chronology is Irréversible, a French film about the events surrounding a brutal rape. This difficult and problematic movie is not one that I’d recommend, but here the reverse chronology stands in ironic counterpoint to the irreversibility of the events themselves.

An earlier backwards movie is Betrayal, based on a play by Harold Pinter and starring Jeremy Irons. Unfortunately this film isn’t available on DVD. However, it did inspire an episode from a well-known TV series… can you guess which one? Tune in next week (or is that last week?) to find out, when we survey some backwards TV shows!

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