Once upon a time, there was a great green world, inhabited by creatures known as humans. The humans lived all over the great green world, and they were stronger, faster, and smarter than any other animal who lived there. Over time, the humans only grew greater: they created languages so as to communicate with one another, and learned how to write them down as things called words. They built great structures and cultivated vast empires and kingdoms. They established communities and societies which grouped people together, making them happier with their lives. They looked inside their bodies and discovered how they work. They wove themselves into the fabric of the great green world, developing culture and ideology and theory and science and all kinds of magnificence, firmly entrenching themselves as the most amazing creatures to have ever lived.
But, in spite of their epic achievements, the humans were not happy.
Truthfully, the humans had never been happy – even before they created languages, and learned how to read and write, and built great structures and cultivated vast empires and kingdoms. Their words and their empires and their nations and their culture and ideology and theory and science was all, really, just an attempt to fill a deep hole at the core of their self. A hole which, no matter how hard they tried, would always be consumed by a monumental dread which was the first thing on the humans’ mind in the morning, and the last thing when they returned to bed at the end of the day. A sweeping, existential dread existing solely within a single question – the oldest question in the universe.
The humans did not know why they were on the great green world, nor how they got there, nor whether they were supposed to be doing anything. They did not know how they became the greatest creatures in the world, or whether that meant they were special or not. They did not know where their souls came from, or what a soul was, and they did not know what happened to them when they died. They did not know what was good and what was evil, as their attempts to define it only led to further questions. They did not know why they felt emotions, or what emotions were, or why they thought certain things, or how they even had the power to think, or what thinking and feeling even was. They did not know why some people acted differently to others, why some people hurt others. They did not know whether there were other creatures in other worlds. If there were not, then how did they arrive on their great green one? For all their apparent power, the humans knew very little – and this made them angry.
For all the humans wanted to do was understand the question of why. They wanted to know, but, as there were no other creatures as strong or as fast or as smart as them, the only place to discover the answer was within and amongst themselves – and they did not know. Human turned against human; sometimes they would attack each other’s bodies, sometimes their minds would wage wars of words. All humans believed they were right, you see, even though it is impossible for everybody to be right. But how did they know what was right? How did they know that everything they think they know is real? How did they even know whether they were real or not?
The humans tried, and tried, and tried again, but they could not answer these questions with fact. Instead, they answered them with story.
Over the past year, I’ve become incredibly interested in narrative. That’s storytelling, for you plebs. I mean, I’ve always been interested in storytelling, and I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but it’s only in the past year I’ve begun to think about storytelling as a concept, why we’re so obsessed with stories, and why I want to force others to endure my telling of them. For many, stories are a service, created in a vacuum and existing solely for the entertainment of the masses, to be disposed of thereafter. Indeed, as the above illustration illustrates, an integral factor in the enduring appeal of storytelling to humanity is how entertaining stories can be. You cannot watch Indiana Jones or Doctor Who and feel bored. Even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is somewhat fun.
How modest we are. The truth of the matter is that we need stories. We lie to ourselves and others, which is a form of storytelling; we manipulate past events within our minds so as to make ourselves feel better, and we construct future ones for the same purpose. Many believe that, in our enduring search to answer the question of why, we centred our entire western civilisation around a single story of a Father and his Son, a tale which has permeated and transformed the collective human psyche over thousands of years in a manner we never could have predicted. Stories are grand, creaking warships, blazing forth on a course of discovery: discovery both of the self, on behalf of their creator, and of the greater whole – studies in humanity, of people. Ironically, we lie to each other about even this, thereby telling ourselves a story about why we have always consumed stories. Humans are really quite silly.
This manifests itself in numerous different places. I argued last summer that we voted for Brexit because the Leave campaign constructed an effective David vs Goliath narrative, the kind of story which has always proved immensely effective with audiences. All politicians win elections because of the story they tell, after all.
My English Literature coursework examined narrative as a thematic concept in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, two novels which explore our relationship with storytelling and why we utilize it. The lessons I learned over the course of that project were then fed into my half-hour sci-fi short film, Unstuck, the tale of a young woman who meets a man claiming to be a time traveller.
I’m gonna look at Unstuck a little bit more, because I’m a self-obsessed narcissist and I enjoy talking about the things that I do. Notice how many times I threw in ‘I’ there? I did it again. And again. Not that time. Damn.
Unstuck means two things. Two contradictory, antithetical things, yet things which co-exist within the context of the film, might I add. If you search the term on YouTube, the third and fourth results are my film and its trailer – by far the most important things on that page, which you should definitely watch (twice) – but every other video is an instruction, a direction, on how to become unstuck from bad habits and bad life choices. One of them is even a TED talk. This presumes that to come unstuck is to chase freedom, to liberate oneself from darkness and despair.
The second meaning I went for is an inversion of that: what if we shouldn’t become unstuck? Is it ever good to be stuck? Does stuck-y-ness provide a sense of clarity, of order, of purpose? This is where I brought in time, represented in the form of Stuart Little: our time traveller, beautifully played as a gentle giant by the real-life gentle giant, Tapuwa. Unstuck is not a film about time travel in the sense we know it to be (which the rabid fanboy side of me hates: I want my time travel and paradoxes and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-ness, and I want it NOW!), but rather a depiction of time as a metaphor. No. Not a metaphor. That’s crap. A thematic concept – like I tried to do with narrative, and I’ll get to that in a little while. Stop nagging me, mum.
Like narrative, I have always been fascinated by time. Like narrative, it is only recently I have begun to pick apart why that is, and what it is about myself which necessitates I share such a close bond with the very idea of time. That’s another thing wrapped up in the big old question of why: what is time? We – literally – have no idea, beyond the knowledge that it’s intertwined with gravity and the speed of light (did you know it takes light from the Sun eight minutes to reach us? If the sun ever explodes, we won’t actually see it: a tidal wave of fire and brimstone will merely wash over us, leaving behind a scorched, befuddled wasteland). Time is a construct: time travel is impossible because we invented the very notion of minutes and days and years, and so forth. In the absence of some concrete information on time, we simply made it all up. It means zilch. It’s all arbitrary, human-made rubbish, existing solely so that we get ourselves to work on time. Good golly gosh: it’s almost as if we made up a story! Just a fairly dull one.
If time represents structure, then what happens when you become unstuck from that? As Martha – also beautifully played by the beautiful Livvie – says right at the beginning, in a line stolen from the pages of Slaughterhouse-Five (sorry, Kurt; when I get the TARDIS fixed I’ll buy you a drink): “I have become unstuck in time.” After the loss of her boyfriend, Alfie – ALSO beautifully played by the beautiful Harry, even more so than the others because he had three minutes to make us fall in love with him – Martha was directionless. She had no sense of time or space, and was simply wandering in a forest, itself a historical symbol of time. Forests are expansive, open places, with an abundance of things to see and explore. Yet, when something is so open, does it not become scary? Does it not become its own kind of entrapment? Is one, dare I say it, “trapped in the amber of this moment”?
Another stolen line. I’ll buy you TWO drinks, and a week in the Barbados, Kurt.
In becoming unstuck in time, Martha has only gone and got herself stuck in a perpetual cycle of emptiness and aimlessness, represented in those opening few seconds with the repetition of a single clip – of light dancing amongst the trees, the leaves blowing in the wind, with Martha stood in the midst of it all. She, essentially, has come unstuck in time, leading to her becoming stuck in a loop of depression, which she needs to become unstuck from, so that she can become stuck again… in time.
“Well, that’s great, Jasper. Wasn’t this essay about storytelling?”
Ah, yes, that.
Err, slight spoiler territory now. Go away and watch Unstuck (which you totally should have done as soon as I embedded it here, silly), and then read this bit.
Martha becomes unstuck for a second time by telling a story. She informs the viewer that she used to write stories when she was little – big, intergalactic adventures – but it’s fallen by the wayside a bit. She tells herself a story that a time traveller, emblazoned with all of her favourite childhood memories, has fallen out of the sky to help her move on from Alfie. Like her, he is stuck: his time machine is broken, and it can only be fixed – and he can only move forward in time once again, back to the future(!) – with the batteries from the phone which Alfie broke when they first met. It needs to be handed over to somebody else and taken apart: a physical representation of moving on. If Stuart Little were a real person, then this would still be a nice way to tie everything together, looping the story back to the very first scene, rendering the mobile phone a plot device rather than just an excuse to get two characters talking. But, Stuart is not: he lives inside Martha’s brain. He is Martha – her conscience, the mirror image of herself; where she wears a green jumper and black trousers, he wears a black top and green trousers. Where she is outspoken and rude, he is soft and mild-mannered. Where she is short, he is tall. Where she is white, he is bla- ooookay slow down there jaspy
As the final shot details, Martha simply leaves the phone on the viewpoint and walks away (a shot which took weeks and multiple hours-long trips up that hill, in the freezing winter weather, to capture – so yes, I will take your praise for it), but her handing it over to a time traveller so that he can fix his retrofitted Nintendo DS time machine and return to the future is a way cooler story. Ultimately, that’s all I was trying to get across with this film. We listen to stories, and we tell them to ourselves, so that we can better understand who we are. In a world characterised with why, we invent entire worlds of which we are the god of to feel a sense of control. Much like time, stories provide structure and coherence in a world of lurid chaos. This doesn’t even only count for “professional” storytellers; when we lie, or exaggerate, or employ a dash of hyperbole, we’re creating a fictional narrative which is – 99% of the time – dedicated to shining a promising light upon us, intended to impress swathes of people. We’re all storytellers, in one way or another, and we’re all stories in the end, as a wise Doctor once said. Just make it a good one, ‘eh?
I suspect that I will continue to explore the ramifications of narrative in my future films. It’s too vast and gorgeous a topic to ignore – as well as one vastly underappreciated. Yet, I like to think that, deep down, we all know the special role that stories play within our lives, and the emotions and understanding they evoke within us. Whether it’s the lessons of parenthood which Finding Nemo delivers, or the message to always be kind which Doctor Who brings, or the teaching that with great power comes great responsibility that Uncle Ben imbues within Spider-Man, at the end of the day, we open ourselves up through storytelling – and, in doing so, we allow others to learn things about themselves too.
Or perhaps it’s just me. Where’s Professor X when I need him?