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Art as Inheritance, part 3: Reverse Chronology

I’ve been doing some research into reverse chronology (for the follow-up to my post “From ‘Doom House’ to ‘Mood House'”), and I thought I’d compile the results here.

Reverse chronology is probably as old as narration itself. Once one has the idea of telling a story forward, it’s a simple enough matter to tell it backwards:

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the goat…
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog…
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

How far back does this idea go?

I’ve no idea. (Retrograde writing has been discovered in the Egyptian pyramids.) One modern-day place where we can begin, however, is with Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978), one of the best-known contemporary uses of the device. It reverses its scenic order to relate the story of a deteriorating relationship from its end to its beginning, and it influenced dozens of other works that tell their stories backwards…

…although, of course, it can be difficult to tell whether a later work has actually been inspired by an earlier one. Once an idea is put out there in the culture, it’s possible for it to become detached from the work that introduced it:

“Have you heard about this play with all its scenes in reverse order? I forget who made it.”

“Oh, I like that idea; I’ll try it in my new novel.”

Or potentially:

“I like your new play, but [thinking of Pinter] why don’t you try rearranging the scenes so they run backward?”

“Oh! That’s a brilliant idea!”

Even in this age of easy access to information, there’s no reason to believe that just because something exists, everyone’s heard of it (or can remember it correctly). However, we will see a few clear lines of influence as we proceed…

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Merrily We Roll Along (1980–1):

Like in the Pinter, the scenes are presented in reverse order. And while it’s possible that the timing of Pinter’s celebrated play motivated Sondheim and Furth to produce their musical a mere two years later, this is in fact an adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart play from the 1930s (see below), which does in fact order its scenes in reverse.

Alan Moore and Mike White’s comics story “The Reversible Man” (in 2000AD #308) (1983).

You can read that entire four-page comic here.

This is a beautiful little story. And while it’s possible Moore thought it up out of whole cloth, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five (which, as we shall see below, inspired several other works), or any other number of works we’ll shortly get to.

David Hugh Jones’s film adaptation of Pinter’s play (1983):

Jane Campion’s television movie Two Friends (1986).

This one recounts the story of a friendship from its end to its beginning. A couple reviews mention Betrayal, and one has Campion claiming Pinter’s influence, but I can’t authenticate the connection.

Iain M. Banks’s novel Use of Weapons (1990).

Banks claims he first drafted this book in 1974. One often runs across claims like this when dealing with more conceptual work: since so much of the work’s value depends on the concept being novel, authors have a lot of motivation to claim that they thought it up before anyone else, or at the very least “never heard of” another work that famously employed it. (I’m not saying I don’t believe Banks—I’m just pointing out that his claim strikes me as a familiar one.)

Martin Amis’s novel Time’s Arrow (1991).

Amis has stated that he was directly inspired by Slaughterhouse-five.

The Pet Shop Boys’s song “One Thing Leads to Another” (1993):

The lyrics tell the story backwards. They’re somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s  and White’s “Reversible Man,” but I don’t know of any direct connection. Instead it seems to me that, once one has the idea to tell a life story backward, an obvious starting point is the central character’s death.

Spike Jonez’s music video for The Pharcyde’s “Drop” (1995):

This one is pretty cute; Jonez keeps the concept fresh throughout. Note, from 2:11–2:18, the appearance of a cheap mascot’s costume (a dog or a bear?), an indie trope that’s still being mined for all it’s worth.

I’d be surprised if Jonez wasn’t inspired by the short film The Existentialist (1963; see below).

Let’s pause here to note that there are at least two different kinds of reverse chronology. The first kind is the type employed in Betrayal, where the individual scenes themselves proceed chronologically, but are ordered in reverse sequence. The second kind runs everything backward, from start to finish (or is that from finish to start?). This is easier to do in film than in theater or fiction, and we’ll see several examples like the above video as we proceed. (Literary equivalents include “The Reversible Man” and Time’s Arrow.)

Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s 1991 novel The Sweet Hereafter (1997):

This reverses the scenic order, like Betrayal. I haven’t read Banks’s original book, but this conceit seems something Egoyan brought to the film. (His films tend toward the nonlinear.)

The Seinfeld episode “The Betrayal” (1997).

You can watch most of the opening here. This episode was undoubtedly influenced by Betrayal, as evidenced by its title and inclusion of a character named Pinter.

The Star Trek: Voyager episode “Before and After” (1997):

Parts 1 and 4 seem to be missing. You can read a summary of the episode here, and a detailed review here.

That episode’s writer, Kenneth Biller, claimed Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow as inspiration. So here we see one example of how an artistic device can become detached from its originating work: Vonnegut inspired Amis, who in turn inspired Biller.

That said, it does seem to me that Vonnegut inspired Biller, even if indirectly: Kes’s situation—she’s been exposed to “chroniton radiation,” causing her to leap backwards through her life—is strikingly similar to that if the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-five, Billy Pilgrim, who’s “come unstuck in time” (29). (It’s also somewhat reminiscent of the main plot device used in Quantum Leap.)

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s film Memento (2000):

You can read Jonathan Nolan’s original story, “Memento Mori,” here. I haven’t seen any claims as to where he himself got the idea from.

Lee Chang-dong’s film Bakha satang (Peppermint Candy) (2000):

This one opens with a death scene, too, then shows us how we got there.

I have to wonder what influence Thornton Wilder’s short novel The Bridge at San Luis Rey (1927) has had on the use of reverse chronology. That book uses flashbacks (under cover of an investigation) to relate its backstory, but it also begins with a tragedy, then seeks to explain what circumstances led to it. (It seems if nothing else the origin for the “intersecting plotlines” structure seen in several of Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s films, and elsewhere.)

The X-Files episode “Redrum” (2000).

I haven’t seen this, and there doesn’t seem to be any footage from it online. A review here describes it as another story where a man lives his life backwards after dying in the opening scene.

Jamie Thraves’s music video for Coldplay’s song “The Scientist” (2001):

Another example of completely reversed footage, starting with death, then regressing to show how we got there.

Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002):

Another example of a story where the later (earlier) scenes explain an initial death scene (here, a violent murder).

The ER episode “Hindsight” (2002):

This is another case of beginning with a tragedy (here, a car accident), then showing us how we got there.

François Ozon’s film 5×2 (2004):

Like Betrayal, this tells the story of a relationship from its dissolution to its inception; Ozon claims, however, to have been inspired by Jane Campion’s Two Friends, and not Harold Pinter (although we’ve seen that Pinter may have inspired Campion).

Ozon also observes (in that same interview) that failed relationships are well-suited to this narrative method:

When a love affair comes to an end and you reflect back on it, you concentrate essentially on the most recent events, those that culminated in the break-up. So starting at the end and working gradually backwards to the first encounter seemed like a good way of attaining a true, lucid reading of a couple’s story. As we go back in time, the form becomes lighter, almost idealized. I wanted the audience to see the range of different emotions two people experience in the course of their life together: indifference, disgust, dread, jealousy, rivalry, closeness, attraction… I also wanted each episode to reflect a different style of cinema. We start with an intense psychological drama, then move into the second part, which is more socially anchored, in the tradition of French cinema. For the wedding, American films were my reference, and for the couple’s initial encounter I aimed for something along the lines of Rohmer’s summer films. I wanted the film to evolve in such a way that the tone and issues would change from chapter to chapter. It was amusing to open the film with the most powerful scenes and see whether the dramatic progression would function as we worked our way backwards. On set, my joke was: “we’re starting with Bergman, we’ll end with Lelouch”.

Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004):

One (long) section of this film proceeds in reverse order, as Jim Carrey’s character’s memories are erased. This is another “failed relationship” type story, albeit one that ends with the two characters able to try again.

The Sealab 2021 episode “Shrabster” (2005).

You can watch this one here, though for how long, I cannot say.

Marc Webb’s film (500) Days of Summer (2009):

While not a strict example of reverse chronology, this one begins with yet another failed relationship, then proceeds backwards to see how this came about. The plot also involves some other non-chronological jumping around. Many have observed similarities with Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall (1977), which may have been an influence. (Annie Hall proceeds mostly chronologically, albeit in large flashbacks.)

Jay DiPietro’s film Peter and Vandy (2009), an adaptation of his 2002 play:

This came out around the same time as (500) Days of Summer; they share a similar premise.

The promo video for Techland’s forthcoming video game Dead Island (2011):

Note the opening’s similarities with the Jonez and Coldplay videos above.

OK, so that—and I’ve no doubt I’m missing many more examples—brings us from 1978 to the present. But as we’ve already seen, reverse chronology wasn’t “new” when Pinter did it. Other, earlier artworks that make prominent use of the device include:

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five (1969).

Only one scene in this book is in reverse order—one wherein the time-traveling protagonist Billy Pilgrim experiences a movie backwards—but it had a big impact:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed. (92–4)

Oldrich Lipský film Happy End (1967).

Here we see the principle of running footage backwards taken to its logical conclusion—the entire film is presented backwards:

C. H. Sisson’s novel Christopher Homm (1965).

I’ve not read this; it’s purportedly another example of beginning with the central character’s death, then proceeding backwards to his birth. Possibly an inspiration for “The Reversible Man”?

Leon Prochnik’s short film The Existentialist (1963):

A dynamite film. I’m afraid I don’t know much about Prochnik, other than that he edited the Beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959).

Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Human Season (1960).

There’s not much about this book online. From what little is up, as well as what I could see at Google books, each chapter seems to begin in June 1956, following the sudden death of the protagonist’s wife, then proceed backwards from there.

W. R. Burnett’s novel Goodbye to the Past: Scenes from the Life of William Meadows (1934).

This is another book I’m afraid I don’t know all that much about.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play Merrily We Roll Along (1934).

The action begins with the main character middle-aged and washed-up, then proceeds backwards to his more promising youth.

Jean Epstein’s La glace à trois faces (The Three Sided Mirror) (1927):

This is a puzzling film, made by the experimental director who mentored Luis Buñuel, collaborating with him the following year to make the astonishing Fall of the House of Usher. Here’s the IMDb’s plot summary, written by one Hans Winter:

Psychological narrative avantgarde film about a wealthy young businessman who consecutively falls in love with a classy English woman (Pearl), a Russian sculptress (Athalia), and a naive working-class girl (Lucie). Overpowered by weakness, the coward sidesteps the obligations that love affairs impose: rather than living up to his dates he takes his sports-car from an ultra-modern garage and speeds to the fashionable beaches of Deauville. On his way, he is fatally hit by a descending swallow. The film is divided into three segments each of which consists of events the woman experienced. These sequences are embedded in scenes in which each of the three women is telling and casting her mind back to her own love affair. Thus, present, future and past merge and cannot be distinguished clearly. The intertwinement of several layers of time experience, recollection, telling and showing have been regarded as a source of inspiration of Alain Resnais and this film prefigures his “L’Année dernière à Mariënbad” to a certain extent.

[Update 1: I should clarify that only one small section of this film uses reverse chronology—see the curious section that runs from 5:00–7:11. Still, it’s a very early example. The remainder of the film’s action proceeds chronologically, even though much of it takes place in three separate flashbacks. … If you haven’t seen this film, do check it out! The protagonist’s lakeside date with Lucie, from 25:30–32:02, is heartbreakingly beautiful; the film’s second half in general contains some some of the finest filmmaking I’ve seen. (The first half is also quite good, but little can compete with Lucie’s story, the unbelievable climax that follows it, and the incredible final shot.) This is also a very good-looking version, with excellent music, and marvelously droll voice-over narration by the sorely missed Jean-Pierre Aumont (providing translations).] [Update 2: The IMDb user comment by allenrogerj is insightful.]

In summary, most of the works using reverse chronology conform to at least one of two primary patterns:

  • a failed relationship is told backwards, proceeding to its beginning;
  • a person’s life (or a key episode in their life) is told backwards, beginning with their death or with a tragedy, and proceeding to a more peaceful time.

In both cases, the reverse chronological structure allows the artist to begin with the climax of the work, then progressively lighten the mood. The gradual reveal of the exposition (backstory) also potentially provides suspense.

Those were all the instances that I could find (for now). Please chime in in the comments if you know of any others! See also this post by David Bordwell, “Seduced by Structure,” which examines not only reverse chronology but also crosscutting, “network narratives,” and other temporal alternatives to straight chronology. (He mentions another reverse chronology film, Xu Ruotao’s Ruminations, that I wasn’t able to find much of anything on.)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

22 thoughts on “Art as Inheritance, part 3: Reverse Chronology

  1. Adam,

    I’m going to be teaching Cinefiction again this fall, and once again you’ve given my lesson plan a turbo-boost (I do a week on reverse chronology). Amazing stuff here. On the literary front, I’d add Justin Sirois’s wonderful “Uncooking” chapter in Mlkng Sckls, which he talks about briefly here: http://bigother.com/2009/11/16/justin-sirois-answers-all-the-questions/.

    One of my favorite children’s books of recent times is Previously by Allan Ahlberg, which does this with various fairy tales and intertwines them.

    Anyway, thanks!

  2. Adam, in panning back from this panorama of anti-chronological works, you arrive at the two patterns of failed relationships being traced back to their inception and tragedy/death being undone, in a sense, to return to an earlier time which is presumably tragic once one knows the outcome. I guess what I want to propose or provoke is a conversation about the larger claims that these works might make on us in terms of subject matter. When it comes to Time’s Arrow, for instance, it is anything but a tragic death regressing to a more innocent earlier time, and in fact it seems to me, without revealing too much about the book, that Amis is commenting on a series of events that make so little sense when one tries to place them within the traditional framework of cause and effect that one might as well reverse them, invert cause and effect, challenging us to rethink logic and causality themselves. And given the subject matter of Slaughterhouse Five one might say something similar about Vonnegut, that the writers are essentially making a case that forward narratives are inadequate to the horrors of the 20th century, and pulling a sort of a Brechtian attention-snaring device in order to get us to rethink events that we might be distant from or that have settled too neatly into A–>B narratives in our collective minds.

    1. I’m afraid artist psychology isn’t my strong suit! I imagine different artists would employ reverse chronology for different reasons—some for the more philosophical reasons you suggest, others perhaps simply because they think it’s cool. (Spike Jonez, for instance, might claim that second motivation, and I wouldn’t fault him for it—that Pharcyde video is cool.)

      That said, I was particularly struck by how moving I found that Alan Moore/Mike White comic, “The Reversible Man.” It’s a pretty mundane story, really, when arranged chronologically—certainly it’s a very familiar one, a very everyday tragedy—but the two of them crafted it into something with a great deal of pathos. And I feel much the same way when I watch that Coldplay video. In both cases, the artists involved have managed to de-familiarize unhappy stories in ways that allowed me to see them more clearly as tragedies.

      I think also that the pathos in those works arises from a tension particular to the form: we know up front that the ending is unhappy, so when time runs backwards, bringing us to a “happy ending,” we may want to believe in it, but we can’t. The structure denies us any catharsis—indeed, that denial of catharsis seems an essential aspect of this narrative technique. Which is existentially troubling, perhaps.

      …This might simply be what you said in your comment, but in different language.

    1. Some hilarious stuff in there. And how could I forget…I just saw him read from it the other night, Peter Straub’s “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” from the new Conjunctions (#56) does some interesting play with reverse chrono.

  3. Counter Clock World by Philip K. Dick
    An Age by Brian W. Aldiss, plus heaven knows how many other sf works.
    Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald (and there are several other works where the protagonist ages in reverse, see for example Merlin in T.H. White’s Once and Future King).

    On the Amis novel: it has always bothered me that the reverse chronology actually upsets the morality of the story, medical experiments in the Nazi death camps can be read as the moral equivalent of surgery in a modern hospital. I just don’t think Amis is a good enough writer to carry the moral weight this story really needs.

    And Banks is probably telling the truth about first writing Use of Weapons in 1974. Most of his early sf novels were written before The Wasp Factory, and Use of Weapons is known to be one of the earliest of them.

    1. Thanks, Paul!

      Despite being a keen fan of both Dick and Aldiss, I’ve never read those respective texts. (A quick sidenote: a friend of mine just read Aldiss’s Report on Probability A. Have you read that one? Looks fascinating—like Aldiss’s response to the Nouveau Roman? I’m planning to read it as soon as I can pick up a copy.)

      I remember despising that Amis novel when I read it, but that was 15 years ago, give or take. Certainly it’s received many critical drubbings.

      I believe Banks, too. My comment was perhaps unfair, implying otherwise. But I did want to point out that one comes across that kind of statement a lot in this kind of situation. I’ve not read that particular book, or anything by the man (what have I read? just Time’s Arrow? meh), but I’ve intended to look into him for a while. And surely that’s worth something…?


      1. Report on Probability A was specifically Aldiss’s attempt to write nouveau roman. A fascinating experiment, but I’m not sure how successful it was (though I’m not a big fan of nouveau roman, so I’m probably not the best judge).

        On Amis, I sometimes think my reading of the novel is too subtle. Certainly there are a lot of people who really like the book, but no, try as I might, I can’t get past the sense that there is something deeply rotten at the heart of the book.

        On Banks, he’s a mate so I may be biased, but I suspect you’d really appreciate Wasp Factory, and probably The Crow Road (any book that begins with his grandmother exploding can’t be all bad), Use of Weapons and possibly Feersum Endjinn.

        1. Do you know if Aldiss has claimed that anywhere? It’s pretty obvious, looking at the book, but I’d enjoy reading his thoughts on the subject (or another analysis).

          “Something rotten” is well said. Although the book’s amorality is perhaps interesting… I still remember it pretty well, many years later.

          Was that book Amis’s first literary setback? I was coming of age at the time, and my impression is foggy. (I mainly remember The Rachel Papers getting adapted (now there’s a film that’s disappeared), then a lot of stink over Time’s Arrow).

          You’ve made me bump Banks up much higher in my reading list. Thanks!

          1. I’m certain that Aldiss has specifically stated that, and on more than one occasion, but off the top of my head I couldn’t give you the reference. (Was there an introduction/preface to the book? I have the feeling I learned this at about the same time I first read the book.)

            Yes, Time’s Arrow does tend to stick in the memory, doesn’t it. The trouble is, I don’t think it’s meant to be amoral. I think it’s meant to be a very moral book, but the morality gets screwed by the rather ineffectual use of the structure.

            Was it his first setback? Didn’t the collection Einstein’s Children get a lukewarm response before that? Whatever, I don’t think anything he’s produced since then has been unequivocally welcomed.

            1. re: Probability A

              I haven’t seen a copy; my friend told me about it, rather (which is how I read most books).

              Yeah, my impression is that Amis’s star dimmed sharply around the time of Time’s Arrow, and precisely because many found it ineffective. Which is kind of too bad, really. Even if the book’s a failure, it’s just one book, and he’s a good writer, overall.

              (Adding, I read Time’s Arrow mainly because a (different) friend gave it to me; he adored it.)

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