Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 14, 2013
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
About Time, Internal Time
At first the New Yorker movie reviewer made me not want to see the new Richard Curtis
movie About Time, even though the trailers had made it seem like a charmingly whimsical
Then the New Yorker reviewer tipped his hand: He also despised Love Actually, and sneered at
writer-director Richard Curtis for being sappy and aiming at the low, base, common,
contemptibly large "popular audience."
I don't have to pay the slightest attention to any reviewer who dislikes Love Actually.
So my wife and I went to see About Time at the Carousel on Monday night, and I have this to say
about the New Yorker reviewer:
It is sad when superiority and sophistication replace compassion, humanity, love, and truth
in the human heart.
The New Yorker reviewer thinks he is above films like those of Richard Curtis, when in fact he is
merely outside them, looking in. And it's cold out there. It makes him numb.
I thought Love Actually was the final word on all kinds of human love.
Instead, it's apparently more like the table of contents for Curtis's continuing work.
About Time seems to be a love story, in which a gawky young man (Tim, played magnificently
by Domhnall Gleeson) learns that he can jump about in time and redo patches of his own life in
order to try for different outcomes.
It's a hereditary gift, which his father (played with glorious eccentricity by Bill Nighy) also had.
As the film goes on, we realize that the story is as much about Tim's relationship with his dad,
his sister, and his mum as with Mary, the love of his life.
About Time is Richard Curtis's paean to family -- why it's worth creating one, and why even in
the midst of pain and loss, a good family can provide the foundation that makes everything
About Time is also a movie in which nobody is bad. No villains. Not even villains with a heart
of gold. Everybody's doing their best, trying to muddle through.
The one "bad guy" -- the man who makes Tim's sister's life hellish -- is mostly just bad for
Sometimes I thought I was watching a sane version of You Can't Take It With You -- a family
that collects eccentrics and lives in madcap joy without regard for the needs of the real world.
But it's not really so. About Time doesn't so much celebrate oddness as tolerate it with a smile.
The family has taken in Uncle D, who never seems to connect with reality. His perpetual
bafflement is taken in stride, and by the end of the movie we understand why the family loves
him and earns his love.
If anything, that's what About Time is about: Earning love. Overlapping a little bit with
Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's horrible character learns how to be a decent human
being in order to escape his trap, Tim does try a few repetitions in order to get things right.
But he quickly learns that his time-travel gift isn't particularly useful for that, because each past
event he changes also changes things he wants to keep.
For instance, his crabby landlord, Harry, a playwright (played by Tom Hollander), has a
disastrous opening night when a leading actor forgets his lines. Naturally, Tim goes back to help
the actor get through the rough patch.
Tim saves the show -- but Harry doesn't know what he did, since he only remembers the
triumphantly successful version of opening night. Meanwhile, by going back to fix the play,
Tim misses out on his chance meeting with the delightful Mary.
Mary gave him her phone number by entering it into his cellphone; but because Tim didn't meet
her after all, her number isn't in his phone. Saving Harry's play cost him a chance for love --
without winning any gratitude from Harry.
The time-travel rules are never well-explained. For instance, it's absolutely crucial to the
storyline that Tim not only can move backward in his own life, he can also move forward.
That is, after changing an event in the past, he doesn't have to live through all the intervening
years, trying to get everything else just as it was -- after making the change he can simply jump
forward and see the consequences.
And there's one set of changes that don't follow any rules. But I didn't care; this isn't science
fiction (or, rather, it's not serious science fiction) and there are deeper rules at play:
The rules of human relationships. How they're created, how they're preserved, what they cost.
I don't know about you, but I can't watch Love Actually without crying through several well-earned, magnificent epiphanies.
But no movie has ever affect me or my wife more than the ending of About Time. Not because
of the actual events, but because of the open challenge the movie makes, for us to live our lives
as if each day were the version of that day that we had deliberately chosen.
It's a call for us to experience joy whenever possible, not by changing events, but by enjoying
them for what they are, by bringing joy into the moment instead of wishing that joy had simply
This may sound -- indeed, I'm sure it does sound -- just as sappy as the New Yorker reviewer
thought. But when you've lived through the wonderful memories of the movie, sentimentality
gives way to truth.
Sophisticated people seem to think that "the truth" must always be dark, disappointing,
disillusioning. But this is not so at all. Most of the time, darkness, disappointment, and
disillusionment are the illusion.
Truth is neutral. Our decisions determine what darkens and what lightens our lives.
My wife and I had a very important, self-evaluative conversation on the way home from this
movie and for a considerable time afterward. We realized that what the movie advocates is not
possible at every moment; sometimes you just have to plow through and get things done;
sometimes you fail.
What matters is that at key moments you give yourself a shake and turn bleakness into joy, or if
that is not possible, turn it into a calm understanding that this, too, is part of life, and is already
receding into the past.
About Time doesn't make you wish you had the ability to travel in time. It makes you realize
that we all are, in fact, traveling into the unknown future at a steady, unstoppable pace.
My wife and I both agreed that there were many good things in our lives that we didn't
remember anymore. Our kids will speak of key events in their past and we have to take it on
faith that they happened, because we can't conjure up the moment.
It was important to them; to us, it was just another movement forward, speeding along at one
minute per minute.
Likewise, there are things we remember about their childhoods that they don't recall in the
slightest. Moments that revealed their character. But of course it didn't seem that way to them
-- they, too, were just doing what came naturally, without examining it or being surprised by it.
But then we looked at how they're living now -- how they are, in fact, creating families,
creating experiences, shaping their own lives in deliberate ways. Because they make use of
Facebook and Instagram, we get glimpses of their memories and insights; we see the tracks
they're making in the lives of friends, relatives, and, in the cast of the older ones, their own
No doubt they feel the same frantic anxiety sometimes that my wife and I so often felt. But
from our more distant perspective, we know that they're doing great.
Life isn't just a walk on the beach. But it has walks on the beach in it.
In one of my conversations while I was attending a science fiction convention in Nantes, France,
someone asked me to name movie directors I loved.
This came on the heels of my listing movie directors whose work I despised. I realized, to my
chagrin, that I have a much clearer capacity for remembering negatives than positives.
But then I realized: What I remember are not directors, but movies. Then I could pop up with
Sense & Sensibility (Ang Lee, working from Emma Thompson's script), and A Man for All
Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, working from Robert Bolt's script).
Both Lee and Zinnemann have an astonishing list of fine films (along with some missteps).
By comparison, Richard Curtis's list of great films is nowhere near as long, and his filmography
includes some desperately unfunny (to me) comedies. Mostly he's a writer who sometimes
But he created these two jewels: Love Actually and About Time. Either one would earn him a
place on my permanent list. To have created both makes him almost miraculous.
Along the way, Curtis brings in characters who seem to be there just to be silly, annoying,
ridiculous. But Curtis doesn't hate his characters: Every one of them is given value.
Maybe About Time won't mean as much to you as it did to me and my wife. Maybe you have to
have lived through a lot of years before you understand all the layers of meaning in the story.
The greatest insight in the film, played almost entirely for the laugh, is when Tim realizes that
saving his sister from a disastrous experience cost him someone else that he also loved.
So instead of going back and causing his sister to redo her life, avoiding the single key mistake,
Tim allows her to keep all the awful things that have happened to her.
Instead of changing her past, Tim and Mary sit with her in the hospital, not preaching, not even
talking. They just stay until she's all right -- which comes when Kit Kat, the sister (Lydia
Wilson) decides to change her own future.
That's how it's done in the real world.
It's not often that I recommend a poorly written book, but in the case of Internal Time:
Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired, by Till Roenneberg, the content is
important enough that it's worth the slog.
The subject at first seems simple enough; indeed, most people think they already know the
Everybody has an "internal clock" -- a sense of how long things take, and what time of day it is.
This is most clearly manifested by our sleep cycles, and those are most sharply brought into
focus by jet lag -- the miserable inability to sleep at appropriate times that comes on us
when we move too rapidly from one time zone into another too many hours different.
The three-hour jet lag of Pacific-to-Atlantic flight is bad enough, but bicoastal Americans
usually tough it out well enough. I just got back from my second trip to European time in three
months, and that six-hour jump to the east is shattering.
I'm only beginning to recover by the time I come home. Fortunately, east-to-west jet lag is
much easier to recover from.
But Internal Time is not just about time zones and jet lag. Quite the contrary -- that is almost
trivial compared to the real social problems generated by our varying internal clocks.
The most vital point is that people really do live by different clocks. When someone declares
that he is not a morning person, he isn't kidding. Roenneberg and other researchers have
documented that differences between morning people and nighthawks are physiological.
Some people fall asleep easily at night and awaken bright and early, eager for the day. But
others -- just about as many -- don't fall asleep just because it's nighttime. They linger in
wakefulness, and often the early hours of the night are their most alert.
Then, in the morning, they are groggy and prone to "microsleeps" that give the impression
that they're simply not paying attention.
You can see why such differences would have been valuable in the evolution of the human
species. Consider a small troop of anthrops (early humans) living on the savannah.
If everyone fell asleep early in the evening, they might awaken bright and early -- only to find
that hyenas or other predators had snatched all their babies in the night.
But if about half the people were at their most vigilant in the evening, not falling asleep until the
first of the early risers were stirring, then the whole troop would be protected from predators and
All the sleep-cycle variants contributed to the survival of our ancestors.
The social problems arise from the fact that early-risers are so cruelly judgmental of us
nighthawks. (You notice that I'm taking sides in the quarrel.)
"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," Ben Franklin quoted in
his Almanac. But this is obviously not true for a night watchman, for instance, or for sailors
working through the night.
And I can promise you it isn't true of a lot of other people. Having to get up early makes them
groggy, stupid, and rude. This does not contribute to health, wealth, or wisdom.
But if they were allowed to sleep till noon, as God and/or evolution intended, they would be
just fine -- and would hit their peak about ten p.m., which is, as every civilized person knows,
the proper hour for conviviality.
Alas that many jobs require that employees meet a certain schedule because their work can only
be done when all are together at once.
But there are fewer jobs that really require this than society pretends. Consider that most retail
establishments don't open till ten in the morning; then they close at eight or nine at night.
Within that framework, early risers could certainly handle the day shift, and late sleepers the
afternoon and evening. Why couldn't offices be handled the same way? Most jobs don't
require daylight, and if working shifts are staggered, there should be enough overlap for staff
meetings at one p.m. to include the larks (morning people) and the owls (night people).
But I personally know leaders of large organizations who don't give even a moment's
consideration to the fact that starting meetings at 8:30 is cruel and unusual punishment to about
half the people.
The most put-upon victims of our bias toward morning people are teenagers.
Again, we have the scientific data and there is no serious doubt. All teenagers (or, I should say,
all pubescent humans) suffer from two changes: They need more sleep -- usually ten hours
instead of eight -- and, most cruelly, their sleep cycle is displaced by a couple of hours.
In other words, even the larks among them shift in the owl direction by a significant amount
during adolescence. And the owls go off the charts.
This lasts usually until about the age of twenty.
Teachers of middle and high school students (and college freshmen and sophomores), it's not
your fault! You aren't boring -- you've simply got a classful of students who have no
business even getting out of bed until nine a.m.
Confronted with this data, school principals offer arguments in favor the status quo that mostly
come from (a) their own personal preferences or (b) arguments based on "that's how it's done
and we can't change it," which is the same as no argument at all.
For instance: "We have to run the school buses all at the same time." Sure, of course; but why
does that time have to be so early? Why couldn't high school begin at ten a.m. and end at four-thirty?
"But then the athletic teams would have no time to practice." To which my answer is: Why are
schools in the athletics business? Why should academic performance be drastically reduced by
early-morning hours because athletes need more daylight at the end of the day? What is school
And if athletics really are more important than academics -- as they often seem to be -- please
remember that the outdoor sports are in the seasons when there's plenty of daylight long after
school is over.
If athletes are really committed, let them do their practicing during the hours of sluggishness
and stupidity in the early morning, while academics get teenagers' prime mental hours!
"Parents have to get their kids off to school before they leave for work." This only makes sense
until you remember we're talking about middle school, high school, and college students, not
third-graders. Are their parents still dressing them?
Maybe if they were allowed to keep hours closer to their internal clocks, we'd find that they
could get themselves up and manage the difficult, confusing walk to the bus stop all by
There is no greater virtue in early rising than in late rising. Both internal clocks have a
physiological origin and larks' lecturing owls about the virtues of early rising haven't the
slightest effect on them.
And when it comes to teenagers, it should be a relief to parents to realize that there's nothing
wrong with their children. It's normal for them to stay up later and sleep longer, and if you
care about their health, you'll let them follow their natural clock and get ten hours of sleep.
Things can get even more confusing when you consider that some people are, by nature, not on
Earth time. That is, their day is either longer or shorter than 24 hours.
I suspect I'm actually in that latter category. Sometimes I'm on a "good" early-riser schedule ...
but within a few days I find myself unable to sleep at night, and then unable to get up until noon.
It's as if my body goes on its own version of "fall back" every few days. I spend half my life
groggily trying to stay awake with the rest of the world. A kind of personal jet lag that comes
and goes in cycles.
The information in Internal Time is important and valuable. If only it could have been written
with the clarity and vigor of the works of, say, Malcolm Gladwell, who, even when he's wrong,
is at least interesting.
Though Roenneberg is German, the language of composition was English (the book first
appeared in "German translation," implying German was not the language of origin).
Still, it's a rather stiff English.
That would be more easily overlooked if the author had not tried -- and failed -- to make the
book more entertaining by using the techniques of fiction writers.
Alas, he did not understand that stories only become entertaining if something is at stake, and
if they are complete. Instead, every fictional account contains almost nothing in the way of
incident, and if they have a point, that point is concealed until far later in the chapter.
Besides, all the stories are about sleeping. That's the part of life that fiction writers usually skip
over because nothing is happening.
In short, the Internal Time is mind-numbingly dull, except for brief flashes of information.
But the flashes are compelling, and they matter.
So why not do what I did? Keep the book beside your bed. If, like me, you struggle to fall
asleep at night, Internal Time not only talks about your problem, it also helps provide a
Also reviewed this week in "Uncle Orson On the Fly," a paid subscription service, are the novels
Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs and Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven.