Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Cat in the Hat progression of time

It's unusual that you'd watch a movie for the seventh? maybe? time, and still have significant new takeaways.

In the case of Run Lola Run, my 12th favorite film of all time according to Flickchart, I actually have two.

We watched it Saturday night as research for a project my wife is working on, though this is at least her third time seeing it, probably her fourth. As I like only 11 films better than this, and had not seen it since 2014, I was more than game.

And I realized while watching it that my love for it is as high as it is despite something that nags me every time while watching it, this time being no exception:

Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

Forty, maybe. Not 20.

It's something I've felt about the film ever since I named it my #1 movie of 1999 (it was released in Germany in 1998, but didn't get to us until the following year). And while I'm obviously able to suspend disbelief in this case, still: Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, then shame on you -- go watch Run Lola Run right now. But in case you'd rather finish this post before doing so, well, I should tell you that there are spoilers about Run Lola Run ahead. But if you're not worried about that and still require an explanation, Franka Potente plays the title character, the girlfriend of a low-level criminal who accidentally abandons a bag containing 100,000 marks on the subway on his way to giving it to his boss. He was only on that subway in the first place because she could not meet him at the designated spot due to her moped being stolen. When he calls her in desperation, it's up to her to try to find the money in the next 20 minutes before noon -- or else his boss will rub him out. Or really, or else he'll rob the grocery store across the street, making him a wanted criminal and putting their lives on a significantly different trajectory.

So Lola runs, of course.

The thing is, it takes her fully half the available time to actually arrive at the bank where her father works, leaving only ten more minutes to hastily extract the money from him with enough finesse that he'd actually agree to do it, then get to the meeting spot with Manni before he pulls a gun on the grocery clerks.

Never happen.

I mean, even if she ran into her dad on the front steps of the bank, he had the 100,000 marks in his pocket, and he forked it over to her within 30 seconds of her arrival, she wouldn't seem to have the time to get to Manni. And of course it doesn't go like that on any of the three attempts as the movie restarts the crucial 20-minute period twice. There are logistical problems each of the times, not to mention time lost on learning things like the fact that her dad is cheating on her mom and that he's not actually her biological father.

Yet each time she actually does show up by noon, not always with any money in her hands, but with the possibility of having money if everything had gone right.

I call bullshit.

Except I don't care. Just as I don't really care that the kids in The Cat in the Hat could not possibly accomplish as much as they accomplish in the time it takes for the fish to see their mother approaching on the sidewalk outside, and when she actually reaches the front door.

I read this Dr. Seuss classic for the umpteenth time Thursday night to my younger son -- well, third or fourth to him, with the remaining part of the umpteen having been expended on his older brother. It's not my favorite Dr. Seuss by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like it quite a bit, and have distinct voices for the titular cat, the aforementioned fish, the boy, and even the one line of dialogue belonging to his mother, after she finally arrives home.

But every time I read The Cat in the Hat I can't help but think "Damn! Why does it take so long for the mum to reach the front door?" (See, I live in Australia now, and sometimes I think the word "mum" rather than "mom.")

If you need a fuller explanation of this, I will give one, this time without the spoiler warning. The goldfish, who is basically the house's resident narc, has spent the entire book in an apoplexy of anxiety, worried that the titular cat, his two Things and the two children should not be destroying the house while Mom is out. His fears are finally vindicated when he spies the approaching leg of the mom, as indicated in the picture above.

The problem is, the house is a total mess. It's not only a mess, but there are two Things running loose creating havoc, not to mention a giant cat in a ridiculous hat kicking his feet up and having a grand old time with all the chaos. In reality, the fish probably wouldn't even have the time to read them the full riot act before the mom reached the front door. But in this book, the boy then has to go get his net, has to have luck enough to catch both Things in his net on the first attempt, return the Things to their box, watch the cat leave in a huff, watch the cat return with a crazy device that will clean up "the cake and the rake and the gown" and everything else that's on the floor, and then leave again.


The timing of watching Lola again was fortuitous as I had actually just posted the following on Facebook shortly after reading: "One of the world's great mysteries: Why does it take the mom in Cat in the Hat so long to walk from the sidewalk outside her house to the front door of her house?" I got 17 likes and five comments. People other than me have thought about this.

I think the unrealistically productive 30 seconds in Cat in the Hat bothers me more than the unrealistically productive 20 minutes in Lola, but in both cases I accept it because the work of art in question is doing so much else right. I do think there's an important difference between the two, though. While both rely on a sense of urgency and a need to act immediately, I think Theodore Geisel could have figured out a way to herald the approach of the mother without the fish looking out the window and seeing her approaching footfall. I mean, the way that's drawn, that means she's going to be at the door in like ten seconds, let alone 30, let alone the 20 minutes it might take to do everything they need to do indoors to get the house ready. Pivoting on that 20 minutes, I don't think Tom Tykwer could have stretched that out to 30 or 40, because although that's still an incredibly small amount of time in which to acquire 100,000 marks, it would stretch out the available time period enough to damage the sense of immediacy.

And as I said, I'm happy to suspend disbelief. If I'm going to start quibbling with how much (or really, how little) time it takes Lola to run to far-flung corners of Berlin, there are also a number of movies I'll need to reckon with involving ticking time bombs and people holding their breath underwater.

Oh, I said I had a second takeaway. And it has to do with who has free will in this universe and who determines the course of the action on each of the film's three attempts at getting the money.

If you answer "Lola" to that question, you're wrong.

It's the guy on the stairs.

You know how the movie becomes momentarily animated as Lola drops the phone and bolts her apartment? This is the key sequence of the whole movie, as there is a punk with a dog on one of the lower landings of the stairwell she sprints down.

On the first time through, Lola notes the guy and his dog, but just passes them and they have no impact on her. In fact, they are really nothing more than scenery.

Not true on the second time through, though. The second time, the guy has an otherwise unexplained injection of free will, and decides to stick out a leg to trip Lola. As she falls down the stairs, it's a great start to the second iteration of the film's narrative, as we already know this is destined to be a failure right from the start.

Improbably, this only slows her down a small amount, even though she suffers a nasty spill and has to limp her way out of the apartment building. I guess she gets back up to speed pretty quickly or maybe makes up the time somewhere else, because when she proceeds through the other series of events and people in her path, she's only a few seconds off the pace of the first iteration, when she went down the stairwell unmolested.

Interestingly, no one else in the narrative makes a free choice of any kind. They end up doing slightly different things as a result of her slightly different arrival times, but only the change in her arrival time dictates these differences. They don't decide to do something different one time to the next, which, granted, could be because the guy on the stairs has taken the decision out of their hands. You could say that once he has made his choice, the rest of them are just pawns destined to act out the proscribed series of involuntary responses that result from the particular compositions of the chemistries in their brains.

So why does the guy on the stairs get to be different? Is he the god of this universe? If he had not made a different choice, would someone else have?

It's interesting to note that in the third iteration, he again decides to be a passive observer, not an active participant in this nascent journey which he couldn't possibly know anything about it. But the interaction is slightly different. The dog growls, but instead of shrinking from it in an instinct of self-preservation, Lola jumps over it and growls back at it.

It's meant to indicate that these experiences have not occurred in a vacuum for Lola. She has learned something from having lived each of the previous ones already. She still makes a very poor initial choice, to get the money from her father, each time. But she's clearly carrying something with her, as by the third attempt she has gained enough confidence, enough of an edge on the situation, to growl back at the dog rather than shrinking from it.

However, only Lola and the guy on the stairs seem to be accumulating any knowledge over the course of the three iterations. No one else seems to behave differently as a result of a vague sense of deja vu. This guy clearly does, as he actively decides to throw a wrench in her second attempt by doing something he didn't do the first time, and you can't argue that his decision was the result of something she did differently, because she hasn't done anything differently in the albeit very short amount of those 20 minutes that have elapsed. She clearly did retain some knowledge from the first to the second -- in the second, for example, we see her removing the safety on the gun, something she learned to do the first time through, in a different context involving a gun -- but it doesn't seem as though she's used any of her retained knowledge to alter anything prior to the interaction with the man on the stairs.

So is he the god of this universe? Or possibly the devil?

I guess I'll leave that one to my eighth viewing.

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