November 29, 2016

Issue 5: The time machine

This is the story of a village.

In the beginning, for me at least, there was Gene Kelly. The golden-era-MGM singing, dancing, smoldering superstar was my first crush, celebrity or otherwise, our love enabled by my obsessive VHS viewing habit of Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris. I tried very hard to open the vehicles of my preadolescent love affair to include Brigadoon, but for some reason it never quite stuck. It always kind of creeped me out a little. It always felt a little wrong.

I watched An American in Paris a few nights ago (eh, doesn't hold up so well), which got me thinking about Brigadoon again, and it all came together. Brigadoon isn't a love story — I mean, it is, of course, because it's a musical, but it really shouldn't be. It's a horror movie, a grotesquerie, a terrifying sci-fi cautionary tale with extraordinarily threatening religious undertones. It shouldn't be a lushly produced, Vincente Minelli-directed Cinemascope tentpole with an iconic Lerner-and-Loewe book and score (respectively), it should be a deeply chilling, very special episode of the Twilight Zone.

This is primarily due to a fundamental failure of narrative worldbuilding. And oh my lord, what a failure it is. Let's discuss.

Brigadoon isn't just a fairy tale, it's an exceedingly, diabetically sentimental one. The movie is great (except that it's horrifying) and you should watch it, if only for Cyd Charisse's mesmerizingly elegant clavicle. (If you're near any sort of regional theater group mounting a stage production, maybe skip that? Unless your brand of masochism extends to an aural bath of earnestly insistent faux-Scottish burrs.) 

Okay, this plot is bonkers (SPOILERS, NOT SORRY):
It's 1935, and Jeff and Tommy are Americans who go on a hunting trip in the Scottish highlands. They're in the middle of nowhere and stumble on a village, Tommy sees a beautiful girl who he falls in instant movie-musical love with, she's kinda weird for many reasons, he asks what's up with that, she sends him to talk to Mr. Lundie the schoolteacher who'll explain everything, Mr. Lundie explains that 200 years ago, the minister prayed to God to preserve Brigadoon forever because there were witches roaming Scotland turning people away from God and toward the Devil, and God granted his prayer by making Brigadoon only appear in the world for one day every hundred years. Some stuff happens. Tommy and Jeff leave at the end of the day, Brigadoon fades into mist, Tommy spends months in America moping over his lost Fiona, he drags Jeff back to Scotland, they stand in the place where Brigadoon was and Tommy just loves Fiona so dang hard that his love summons Brigadoon back into reality and wakes Mr. Lundie up and Mr. Lundie brings Tommy into the town where he can go be with Fiona pretty much literally forever the end.

Back in the real world (plot summary over!) this story (which was invented from whole cloth by Alan Lerner, with a disputed assist from a beautifully melancholy and delightfully creepy German fable called Germelshausen) has loaned its name to some real-world phenomena. The Brigadoon effect is the name shared by two different, but interestingly related, occurances. In archaeology, the phrase references something from Tommy's perspective: The Brigadoon effect is when objects, structures, or markings appear and disappear depending on when you observe them (certain irrigation markers may only be visible in the rainy season, for example). In science fiction, the Brigadoon effect is from Fiona's perspective — it refers to the dilation of time in one space relative to another, e.g. a day here might be a a year elsewhere. (Yes, fantasy/folklore fans, it's true that this happens all the time vis a vis Narnia and its antecedents and descendants, and yes, it is a core tenet of the intra-world fuckuppery of Faerie. Yes. Stay with us.) 

This, the sci-fi version of the Brigadoon effect, is where my unease is given form. If we accept as canon the world as presented to us by Messrs. Lerner and Loewe, a somewhat troubling reality slowly begins — like a village from the mist — to emerge. Let's go to the facts:
  1. It's May of 1935, and Jeff and Tommy are in Scotland. 
  2. Exactly two hundred years before — May of 1735 — the minister in Brigadoon fervently prayed to preserve the village from change.
  3. The prayer was granted in such a way that Brigadoon only exists in the world for one day every 100 years.
  4. The residents of Brigadoon spend the century between each real-world day asleep. (Source: When, at the end of the story, the force of Tommy's love for Fiona extremely sappily re-summons Brigadoon, Mr. Lundie says "You woke me up.")
Coupla things here, folks.

First: Effectively, the residents of Brigadoon are experiencing a normal, continuous life, going to bed and then waking up, except that when they wake up, it's 100 years later than when they fell asleep. Where the village goes when it disappears, and whether the residents literally sleep for 100 years without aging or whether they in fact are in a Brigadoon-effect bubble of time dilation and sleep for just one night is unclear, but since the source of the village's magic in this world is actually, literally, Yaweh the Judeo-Christian god, let's just wave away the question and file it under "omnipotence, idk." Functionally, when you go to sleep in Brigadoon, you wake up a century in the future.

Second: If the village was cursed blessed with its time-dilation bubble 200 years ago, and it's on a century cycle, that means that this is only the second time ever that the village has reappeared. More to the point, because the Brigadoonians experience time continuously, it's only two days later for them. The priest prayed his magic wish-prayer and it was granted by apparently Loki-Yahweh or someone and the entire town is trapped in a time-dilation bubble and it's ONLY BEEN TWO DAYS and they are all SHOCKINGLY CALM ABOUT THIS which is ABSOLUTELY INSANE. 

A brief, embarrassing digression: I was on the debate team in college, which come on, how is this a surprise to any of you, and one year at the Brandeis tournament (or maybe Harvard? It was Boston-ish) I consumed an illegal-drug brownie at the Friday-night party (nobody parties harder than college debaters, except maybe college theater techs) and it didn't seem to take, so I scarfed two (or was it three?) more, and when I woke up the next morning I was only negligibly on handshake terms with reality. My first debate round of the day was against a very good team from Yale, against whom my partner wanted us to run an alternate-history case about free speech in the Confederacy, or something, which I in my bouldered state unilaterally overrode in favor of a case I developed ad hoc about TIME PRISONS, to wit: Let's say we've invented a technology where prisoners can serve out their terms in chronobubbles in which time appears to pass normally for them, but which are experienced by the rest of the world as a minute or so per year. Now let's say you've been convicted of a crime and sentenced to 30 years: Would you choose Time Prison, or Normal Prison? Somewhere between me delivering my opening speech in the debate round, laying out this scenario and passionately expounding on why Normal Prison is the correct move, and my closing speech in which I was supposed to crystallize all the reasons our side's arguments were right and the opposition's were wrong, the THC finally worked its way out of my system and I'm pretty sure I just stood up there and wanted to die and tried to ignore how much my partner viciously agreed with my newfound interest in my own death. Anyway, we lost the round.

So, okay, not only is every single resident of Brigadoon totally chill with only the day before yesterday having been flat-out dragooned into a village-size time machine hurtling forward at a frankly terrifying pace (more on that in the next paragraph), but they also know all the rules already! When Tommy asks Mr. Lundie what the deal is with, y'know, everything, Mr. Lundie tells him that first of all, everyone who currently lives in Brigadoon is forbidden to ever leave, because if one person leaves the entire town will disappear forever. (Hang on to this, it will also be important in the next paragraph.) Second, a stranger may be permitted to join Brigadoon on its time journey, as long as (quoting the Broadway show here) "he loves someone here—not just Brigadoon, mind ye, but someone in Brigadoon—enough to want to give up everything and stay with that one person." (Mr. Lundie attributes these rules specifically to the priest's intent — "Mr. Forsyth provided for that," he says when Tommy asks about a person coming to stay in the town — which to my mind feels like an uncommon amount of complexity and forethought for an eighteenth century priest mad with witch-related terror to put into his prayerwish, but lo, the text is the text.) 

That second rule is pretty standard love's-true-kiss stuff, but it's the first rule that's the stuff of Rod Serling send-em-to-the-cornfield terror: If anyone from the village leaves, the village disappears forever. This is the opposite of what you might expect if you're familiar with the tropes of folklore: generally, if the terms of a multi-state blessing/curse are violated, the curséd entity is simply removed from its metamorphic cycle. You'd expect that if someone left Brigadoon, the village would just leave its chronobubble and reënter (diaeresis!) the standard timeline. But instead, the village disappears forever — which means, effectively, that all its residents die. (In both the musical and the film, part of the plot concerns a Brigadoonian named Harry who tries to leave the town, knowing full well that he's killing everyone who remains, and in the process of attempting to escape he's accidentally killed himself. I maintain that the story would be way, way stronger if he were killed on purpose, and Shirley Jackson probably agrees.) 

So, to recap, it's not possible for any of the townspeople to leave Brigadoon without instantly murdering anyone who remains behind. And when they go to bed each night, they wake up the next morning 100 years into the future. At the time of the play/movie, they're two days into their strange God-given adventure and have already rocketed from 1735 — a time which, in the Scottish Highlands, was defined mostly by the Jacobite rebellions, and the attempted disarmament of the clans in their wake, not to mention a serious case of Calvinism with all the joylessness that implies (in his chronicle of 1940s Broadway, Ethan Mordden refers to "the fascism latent in Brigadoon's confining moral and religious structures"!) — and arrive in the Gomorrah of 1935, where there was premarital sex! And women wore pants occasionally! And airplanes existed! And vaccines! (~~FuN fAcT zOnE~~: In his memoirs, the show's director Robert Lewis writes that the original draft of Brigadoon took place in 1949, but a Scottish singer pointed out that kilts were banned in Scotland in 1749, so Lerner just shoved it back fourteen years and poof!, the tartan costume design was saved.)

But imagine what happens when the Brigadoonians wake up the next day, Tommy among their number, and it's 2035. Or the day after that, in 2135. Or just two weeks after that darn minister prayed to God for the village to be untouched by time, and it's 3135, and humanity has been largely wiped out, and also contiguous Scotland is now a string of tropical islands. If you sleep for 100 years every time you go to bed, a month of your life is three thousand years. In the early 1700s, the average lifespan of a Scotsman who made it out of infancy was about 55, so if you were at 25-year-old Brigadoonian when the curse hit in 1735, and you hoped to live out your natural life, you would live to see your village travel through about 1.1 million years in standard time, which among other things is enough time that the standard expansion rate of the universe will render all Earth-visible constellations unrecognizable ten times over. HOW IS THAT NOT PANTS-SOILINGLY TERRIFYING?!?

More to the point, though, how is this nightmare reality in which they now live not the entire focus of the story? I should admit, before going any further, that I'm not a fiction writer, probably for reasons that all this (imagine here that I am gesturing in a way so as to indicate both the length and inanity of this missive) makes clear. But it seems to me that a foundational allure of creating a world in which magic/weird science/God-induced miracles exists would be sitting down and seeing what the logical consequences are of your authorial tweak to the fabric of reality. (For example, I am constantly annoyed whenever characters in stories encounter ghosts or the spirits of dead people, and don't immediately reassess their metaphysical understanding of reality, particularly their own corporeal forms, and also just completely recalibrate their own fear of death. Wouldn't you?)

But seriously. If you're going to create a world where an entire town of Puritanical eighteenth-century Scots(wo)men have their town converted into a forward-motion-only time machine that will, in the span of just one year in their eyes, deposit them in the year 38235 — that's thirty-eight thousand two hundred thirty five — in what frickin universe does it make any sense whatsoever to make your story about a guy one of the village girls develops a crush on, on day goddamn two!?!

If I were a fiction writer, I'd attempt to write the real story of Brigadoon. I'm not, though, so all I have is this, and you, and the flaming husk of the earth, and the knowledge of my own mortality, and our shared understanding that it all could have been, so easily, so much better. And Gene Kelly. I also have Gene Kelly. And his beautiful, perfect ass

So, as clarified, I am definitely not a fiction writer (ell oh ell I accidentally wrote "fuction writer" which maybe I should have stetted!) but if you are a fiction writer, or a filmmaker or a cartoonist or a whateverist, and you want to take a stab at telling the terrifying story of what it's like to be trapped inside Brigadoon — well gosh! Please do that! And let me know about it because I would like to read/view/consume that! 

Our previous installment on the steak-eating habits of Donald J. Trump met with a small, if predictable, level of resistance, mostly from folks in the world who also prefer eating their stake fully cooked and do not appreciate being informed that, psychologically speaking, they're self-destructively both resistant to outside input and dismissive of expertise. I mean, who wouldn't bristle at that! But guys, I'm not wrong! Examine yr choices! One compelling counterpoint, however, came by way of my mother (hi Mom!) who told me that my grandfather ate all his meat well-done because of a worry about blood — the presence of blood, of course, being sufficient to render
treyf a steak from a nonetheless kosher-raised, kosher-slaughtered cow. So if that's your excuse, you get a pass, even though [tk long-winded explanation about how the red in meat isn't actually blood]. Otherwise, nah.

As always, these little newsletters are basically me shouting into the abyss, so I welcome (ok, let's be real, I crave) your feedback, positive or negative, either by email or on twitter or by whatever mechanism you want, as long as it will feed my endless hunger for attention. As always, these are fairly formless thoughts that I hope someday will coalesce into something pithy and profound that we can all rejoice in together, even if we are trapped in a time machine from which we cannot escape, which given our unavoidable mortality is just time itself I guess? As always, more than anything, more than anyone, I love you.