Abstract: This article investigates the closely related mechanisms of cinema, time travel, and desire. Through analysis of films that exemplify the subgenre of time-travel romance, and through philosophical engagement with the work of Freud, Bergson, and Deleuze, the article considers whether time machines (and cinema) spatialize time or "temporalize" space. Is desire a matter of assembling time machines to escape from chronological, spatialized time? The spiral, understood as a figure of time, proves instructive in approaching this question.
The highest desire desires both to be alone and to be connected to all the machines of desire.
--Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1)
"?Por que tuviste que encender la maquina?" It is almost dawn. Bruised and swollen, Hector 3 (Karra Elejalde)--the third iteration of the middle-aged protagonist of Timecrimes (Los cronocrimenes; Nacho Vigalondo, 2007)--utters the question that the film seems designed to pose: "Why did you have to turn on the machine?" Unlike Hectors 1 and 2, this wiser iteration knows he cannot, in actuality, alter the events he is now witnessing (again), but only view them from a different angle. Thanks to the time machine at a nearby laboratory, Hectors 1 and 2 have each experienced this sequence of events already, from their own vantage points, and Hector 3 is in the middle of it once more. By now he is badly injured (Figure 1)--his just reward, perhaps, for breaking the laws of time--and troubled by the foreknowledge that his wife will soon fall victim to the fatal chain of events that seems to have been set in motion by the machine. He is about to realize, however, that this loop has a loophole: there might be a chance to save his wife. By way of a kind of substitution trick, Hector 3 will figure out how to undo the apparent actuality that haunts him--that is, to fix things so that Hector 2 will not see, will not have seen, what he is about to think he sees. It is an optical illusion, but it makes all the difference.
As in many time-travel stories, this film's temporal play prompts tricky questions: How could this happen? Where did Hector's misadventure begin? The trick of this temporal paradox, and perhaps any other, rests in the narrative separation of two different kinds of time: external and internal; objective and subjective; or, in philosopher David Lewis's terminology, external time and personal time--a distinction that allows for "time itself" to coexist parallel with "that which occupies a certain role in the pattern of events that comprise the time traveler's life." (2) As such, "an event in a time traveler's life may have more than one location in his personal time. If he doubles back toward the past, but not too far, he may be able to talk to himself. The conversation involves two of his stages, separated in personal time but simultaneous in external time." (3) Personal time has its own order, and for a time traveler this order differs drastically from that of external...