Looking Forward, Looking Back: Film Scenes as Liminal Spaces
Liminal spaces, in brief, are moments “in between,” when you’ve already left the concrete known for the chaotic and vast unknown out in the world. In some traditions, these spaces mark the midpoint in a ritual, or a place where possibilities converge—think the key moments in a major battle, or more classically, a crossroads. Film is littered with such examples. Hopefully with the few included here, I can lend a more metaphysical perspective on how the medium uses those spaces to comment on the paths its characters take, or don’t, and what the choice means for them as well as for the audience. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
Primer (2004) - The Bench scene
Primer is a film about a lot of things at once—two struggling engineers striking out on their own, into a far more complex world than they’re ultimately prepared for, further complicated by the inclusion of recursive time travel; past, present, and maybe-future versions of both main characters running around with parallel, divergent or opposed goals, even in the same scenes. The whole movie winds up being a kind of liminal space.
The one scene that best makes the case for Primer’s liminal nature, though, is the bench scene which we see from different perspectives in both main characters’ timelines. First, we see it from Abe’s (David Sullivan) perspective, where he approaches Aaron (Shane Carruth, also the writer/director) to discuss the progress of their garage-built time machine. We also see it later, however, when Aaron takes a quick jaunt into his own past (roughly two days or so) to interfere with the existing timeline. We know he’s done this, because he has a recording of the conversation he and Abe had the first time around. Aaron uses it to queue his own responses for his own gain. But because we don’t have this fact until later, the scene from Abe’s POV comes across as innocuous and the beginning of their journey together. In fact, it’s really much closer to the end. Their paths converging in this manner breaks down the very concept of the progression of time as an objective fact. Hence, a liminal space for the audience, catching up to Aaron’s perception of events. Also, good luck explaining this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Back to the Future Part II (1989) - The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance
Back to the Future Part II is the sequel to the 1985 classic with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) trying to fix mistakes in their own timelines. Where these possible timelines converge is on the singular moment from the previous film, in the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
In Part II, the events as we knew them from the first are thrown back into the air, as the complication of who owns the 2015 copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac is put into the mix. Marty must infiltrate the dance and retrieve the Almanac before Biff (Tom Wilson) can make his first bet with the future information, setting in motion the “bad” timeline in 1985, where he’s basically Donald Trump without the social graces we all know him to hold so dearly. Marty must accomplish this without disrupting the events that led to his own birth—namely, his parents must dance, kiss, and fall in love just as they did before. The film teases out Marty’s mission rather well, with several moments shown from a skewed perspective, and Marty only interfering after the previously-established outcome has come to pass. Marty takes his chance to snag the Almanac from Biff’s jacket after George (Crispin Glover) lays him out in the parking lot.
Here, the liminality is equally the audience’s to experience, as the suspense regarding Marty’s near-misses with his own moment of triumph keeps us right in the moment with him.
Jurassic Park (1993) - Grant finds the Raptor nest
Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is told from the start that all of the dinosaurs in John Hammond’s (David Attenborough) park are incapable of breeding, because of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering that utilized frog DNA to fill in gaps in the ancient beasts’ long-decomposed genetic codes. After some corporate espionage lets the animals out of the zoo, they wreak havoc on the park’s grounds, its workers and a few of the guests. Grant and Hammond’s grandchildren escape the worst of it by venturing further into the park, away from the T-Rex plaguing the island like the typhoon that set it free in the first place. In his journey with the kids, Grant comes across a find that makes him unsure of everything he knows of the island, and everything he’s been told: despite the best efforts of Jurassic Park’s geneticists, there’s a nest of raptor eggs, which have obviously hatched. Already having left the relative safety of the Badlands dig site his research was based around, and doubting the viability of such work in the face of the achievement Jurassic Park represents, Grant now questions everything about the island, the world and himself, all because “life found a way.”
Robocop (1987) - Murphy Goes Home to an Open House
Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) had a bad first day on the Detroit Police Force’s Metro South precinct. His new partner thought he was a bit of a hotshot, his captain wasn’t very inspiring, and, oh yeah, there’s also the part where he died horribly. That’ll put a damper on things for anyone.
When Murphy wakes up months later, with little memory of his existence before OCP turned him into a cyborg, he understandably goes looking for clues to his past. Murphy’s official record lists him as deceased, but also lists a last known home address, and that’s where things go awry for his mental state. He makes his way to the residence to find a “For Sale” sign out front, the door unlocked, and house emptied of both its contents and Murphy’s wife and son.
Confused, embarrassed and terrified that he’s losing the thread of his own mind and everything he knows, Murphy stomps his way through the house amid flashbacks of the life he lost. Unsure if he’s Alex Murphy or just Robocop like everyone calls him, he’s only sure about one thing in this moment: that real estate computer has got to go. So, he turns his anguish outward and lashes out with all his cybernetic effort.
Flatliners (1990) - Half the Damn Movie
I’m not kidding. This is a highly-stylized film in which Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Julia Roberts all bring each other to the brink of death itself, and in the space between our world and the next, they deal with their psychological issues. Some more than others.
Joel Schumacher’s film deals in themes of guilt and self-destruction amid rather incredible achievement. The all-star leads here play medical students, looking to explore what, if anything, happens when they die. Each student manages to straddle the line, and each is haunted by visions and representations of horrors past, either committed by them or upon them.
The visions do not cease once they are resuscitated, either, blurring the line further. As the visions grow bolder, more aggressive and threatening, the students decide to face them head on. From the first moments where the main characters flatline, they are caught between worlds, hunted by their guilt, regrets and pain. And until the last twenty minutes of the film, they are caught in a terrifying liminal space between confronting their own histories and being consumed by them.