Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1992)

5. A Brief History of Time

Let me see if I can get the timeline here straight. Errol Morris has discussed making "A Brief of History of Time" directly after “The Thin Blue Line.” Though “The Dark Wind” was released first, it seems to me that Morris’ return to documentary filmmaking was made before his sole fictional feature. Either way, after “The Dark Wind” came and went with little attention, “A Brief History of Time” brought Morris back into the spotlight. The film would be the first time a world famous figure granted Morris an audience. The man who opened that gate was acclaimed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, agreeing to discuss his work as much as his own life.

Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking book “A Brief History of Time” was designed to explain his important theories about the universe in such a way that most anyone could understand them. “A Brief History of Time,” the movie, spends much of its time discussing Hawking’s ideas and theorems on the nature of space and time. However, the film is equally concerned with Hawking’s personal life. The director interviews the scientist’s mother, childhood nanny, sister, friends and colleagues, as they discuss a brief history of Stephen Hawking and the disease that would change his life forever.

Because of the very nature of Stephen Hawking’s condition, Errol Morris could not interview him in his trademark manner. Stephen Hawking talking directly into the camera, everything unmoving except for his eyes while his computer speaks for him, wouldn’t make for a very interesting experience. Instead, Morris adapts his style to Hawking. Interviewing him inside a recreation of Hawking’s office, amusingly decorated with photos of Marylin Monroe, Morris peers around Hawking’s still body. We see the clicker in his hand and the different menus appearing on his computer screen. Occasionally, Morris will get close on Stephen’s face, focus on the moving eyes inside the motionless face. This technique addresses how iconic Hawking’s appearance, wheelchair, and voice synthesizer have become while also showing that his mind is very much alive inside his ill body.

Something that’s fascinating about “A Brief History of Time” is the peak it gives into Stephen Hawking’s early life. His mother comes off as an especially inviting presence, discussing Stephen’s birth during the war and a serendipitous decision to buy an Atlas before his birth. Listening to childhood friends discuss how Stephen was the only member of his family that didn’t read at the dinner table humanizes the scientific figure. His sister’s anecdote about the different ways they’d sneak into the house at night shows the scientist’s sense of humor and adventure. These interviews make it clear that Hawking’s brilliance didn’t arise in a vacuum. His whole life has been extraordinary. Yet stories from college friends about Stephen slacking in school or being too young to enter a pub prove he’s human too.

While many people discuss Hawking’s life, Stephen himself pointedly does not. The man himself mostly keeps his discussion to his theories and influences. When he occasionally breaks to talk about his condition or his academic history, it’s surprising. These sequences are never dry or boring. Instead, the film makes it clear why Stephen Hawking has become such a beloved pop culture figure. It’s not just because of his cool robot voice. Hawking has an incredible wit and a way with words. Listening to him describe the time his wheelchair was struck by a car might be more relatable. Yet Hawking is always a compelling subject.

“A Brief History of Time” obviously touches upon some heady concepts. The creation and properties of black holes are a major topic of the film. These ideas are then extrapolated to the nature of the universe itself. Whether the universe was created or whether it always existed. Or how about when or how it will end? There’s a lot of math involved in these theories and concepts. However, the more Hawking and his various contemporaries talk, the clearer it becomes that science and philosophy are only so far separated. Hawking’s journey to understand how the universe works is ultimately a quest to understand the nature of God. In truth, he’s like any of us, trying to decipher how the world works and where we fit into it. Except Stephen Hawking has a lot more math and formulas to back his ideas up.

Some of it goes over my head and I’m probably not alone in that. In order to make matters clearer, Morris illustrates many of these ideas with clever visual gags. The state of a universe is compared to a tea cup, which is shown shattering on the floor. When Hawking discusses the possibility of time running backwards, we see the tea cup reassemble and float into the air. The journey of a hypothetical astronaut’s watch across the surface of a black hole is literialized. Radiation is symbolized with different metal coils glowing different colors. A star is shown as a white sphere, changing to red as the properties of the heavenly body changes. This continues the techniques Morris learned on “The Thin Blue Line,” in addition to being a smart way of bringing some very big ideas back down to Earth.

No film about Stephen Hawking would be complete without discussing his illness. Through photographs, we see the slow affect the disease had on his body. In early photos, he stands tall like a healthy young man. At his wedding, he leans on a cane. During his graduation, he is wheelchair bound. Through interviews, we learn of the surgery that would eventually cost Hawking his voice. Some of these anecdotes are harrowing, such as the time Hawking’s wheelchair was struck while crossing the street. Others, like an incident where his wheelchair overturned while climbing a steep hill, are somewhat funny. Others are in-between, like a friend describing Stephen dragging himself up the stairs before bed. The scientist’s determination to continue his research, to survive and persevere, becomes inspiring without being syrupy.

As in “The Thin Blue Line,” the score is once again provided by Philip Glass. It’s not my favorite Glass score and took me a few listens to warm up to. The opening theme initially comes off as a bit dour, the low horns eventually building to an uplifting melody. Despite the downbeat opening, Glass’ score reveals a humanistic side in time. A side, lone piano underscores many scenes. Touching lilts and melodies emerge out of Glass’ trademark repetition. While Glass’ previous collaboration proves a little more sonically palpable, it’s still solid work from the composer.

That the word “brief” is in the film’s title is fitting. Like Errol Morris’ earliest documentaries, “A Brief History of Time” doesn’t run very long. It manages to pack in a lot of information into a run time that’s just a little over eighty minutes. Hawking would approve of the film, only criticizing Morris for changing one minor detail during one of his speeches. While not as endlessly fascinating as some of Morris’ later films, “A Brief History of Time” gives a vivid view into one of the most complex minds of our time. At the very least, it’s easily a better movie than “The Theory of Everything.” [Grade: B+]

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