It was the most important American city west of the Mississippi in the 19th century. Today, it‘s just a small town clinging to a mountainside on the edge of the dry heart of Nevada.
Mark Twain used to be a reporter for the local newspaper during the glory years of the Comstock, covering the dance hall girls in the saloons and bar fights and the occasional shoot out. He and many others searched for gold and silver. Most of the time, they didn’t find much. Back in town, they were thirsty for whiskey and entertainment.
Piper’s Opera House was the crown jewel and cultural center of Virginia City. It was home to musicals, plays, melodrama, orchestras, fancy balls, Shakespeare, and some of the biggest stars of the time. Virtually every entertainer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries found his or her way to it’s stage.
All the world’s a stage.
Shakespeare said that, and a picture of the immortal bard himself hangs over the stage of Piper’s Opera House. It would have been the first thing that writer Richard Matheson saw when he first walked up the stairs and entered the theater. The second thing he saw was an old photograph of the reclusive, Victorian actress Maude Adams framed on the wall.
Better known for his tales of science fiction and horror, Matheson saw the photograph of Maude Adams and came up with a captivating and romantic premise:
What if you were a dying young man, visiting a gorgeous resort hotel that had been built during gilded age of the last century? And what if you fell in love with a portrait of a beautiful stage actress . . . but she had lived and died a century before? What if your love was so strong that you could literally will yourself back in time to become part of her world?
In Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return, Richard Collier is a 36-year-old screenwriter who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and has decided, after a coin flip, to spend his last days hanging around the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. He becomes mystified and obsessed with an old photograph of a famous stage actress, Elise McKenna, who once performed at the hotel theater during the turn of the century. Through painstaking research, he also learns that she seemed to have had a brief affair with a mysterious man while staying at the hotel in 1896. Richard Collier becomes convinced that it is his destiny to travel back in time and become that mysterious man.
I can still remember watching the movie version in the theater.
Not that it was a cinematic masterpiece or anything, but the story had such an impact on me that I sat through it two more times. I’m not apologizing. Like something from out of the past itself, Somewhere in Time is an old-fashioned romance that came out when Hollywood didn’t make movies like this anymore.
The film’s soundtrack absolutely haunted me.
Music like that could hurt you. It gave you back your disappointment and your emptiness. It said, Life can be this. Remember this. And just like Richard Collier after he first discovers the portrait, I couldn’t sleep that night. The movie didn’t stay in theaters very long, but before it was pulled from circulation, I went back and saw it again.
With buttery fingers dipped in my popcorn, I watched in fascination at the scene where Elise McKenna performs in the hotel’s theater and decides to change her lines. Dreamily, she stares off into the audience and says, “The man of my dreams has almost faded now . . .” . . Her ensuing soliloquy is the best part of the movie, and probably one of the most transfiguring speeches ever delivered in any movie. It is her confession, her public soul-baring that she has found the man of her dreams and finally recognized him.
Years later, I learned that there had been problems with the original footage of the scene, and it had to be re-shot. Christopher Reeve had finished his role and was busy working on another film, so the second time around, Jane Seymour delivered the speech to Richard Matheson, who sat alone in front of the actress. He was supposedly so moved and upset by the experience, he had to call his wife and return home immediately.
With a voice that’s one of the wonders of the world, Lara Fabian’s music video for Adagio is a subtle reference to the stage soliloquy, in which she’s surrounded by symbols of the past come to life. The sumptuous visual splendor of Richard and Elise’s only day together was inspired by the color palette of French Impressionism, in particular, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by nineteenth-century artist George Seurat. The movie gives Seurat a clever little nod by having Elise casually pause to watch the artist himself working on a canvas. In the music video, the painting is prominently displayed behind Lara at the back of the stage.
I remember, at twenty, helping a neighbor move some furniture at a nearby home on the edge of our German village. His mother, nearly eighty herself, took care of a ninety-six-year-old woman for whom she’d worked in the past. This older woman was completely bedridden. She was paralyzed, she was deaf, she was blind, she wet her bed. I feel shame about it now, but I laughed when she called out in her frail, quavering voice, that she wanted to get up. Those words only, over and over, from the lips of a shriveled up old crone that couldn’t possibly get up. Later, when I went to use the phone, I noticed a photograph of a lovely young woman in an old-fashioned dress, her hair long and dark and glossy, eyes dancing and intelligent, and she was smiling on summer‘s day not unlike the one we had outside. It was the bedridden old lady when she was young. I could hear the bright, methodical ticking from the pendulum of a grandfather clock, and the strangest feeling of disorientation took hold of me. Because that luminous young woman attracted me while, at the same moment, I could hear her in the nearby bedroom calling out, in her ancient voice, in her blindness and deafness and her total helplessness, that she wanted to get up.
I can‘t watch Somewhere in Time without that memory surfacing in me. In a strange way, the past and present can exist simultaneously. There’s a new field of neuroscience devoted to it called Chronesthesia. Mental time is a product of our consciousness and it differs very much from time that is measured by clocks and calendars.
Okay, okay, I’m not saying we can hypnotize ourselves into the reality of being able to step backwards in time. We can be so mentally obsessed that we believe we live in the past, but our bodies stay right here and get hospitalized in institutions. Those are insane people who eat their own scabs. Part of the charm of Matheson’s novel is that he never acknowledges his character actually traveled into the past, only that he gravitated towards the conviction that the past existed in some approachable way. Collier’s mind was stunned by fear of death and unresolved needs, he wanted desperately to escape reality, so it takes no imagination to understand the character’s obsession. It isn’t stated, but we know its possible that Collier remained in his hotel room the whole time, in a state of hypnotic dreaming.
This delusional aspect only enhances the novel for me.
As to the movie, I’m perfectly aware of its weaknesses. It’s so desperately earnest about its tale of time-spanning love that you almost wish for a cheap flatulence gag just to break the solemn mood. It’s the kind of romance so sacred, so serious, so awesome, that we have to lower our voice in the presence of it. But there’s also something so unabashedly gushy and entertaining about Somewhere in Time that you can’t help but smile at its enduring cult popularity. The audience may have been missing in the theater, but the movie has become a staple of romantic cinema ever since. Anyone familiar with both film’s, will no doubt recognize that, seventeen years later, James Cameron stole copious handfuls of Somewhere in Time for his Academy-award winning blockbuster Titanic. Shame, shame. He even copied the ethereal ending:
Those who say the film is the ultimate chick flick aren’t thinking deeply enough. Just like James Cameron, the majority of it’s fans are grown men and this is essentially, a man‘s story. It was written by a male, for the male psyche, and it’s about the masculine obsession with an unattainable ideal.
Bringing romance to the laboratory table, I know intellectually that Somewhere in Time is just another variation on the romantic tragedies told by men throughout the ages. Abelard and Heloise. Romeo and Juliette. Jay Gatsby was killed trying to shape Daisy Buchanan into his idealized image of her, the way Pygmalion created Galatea. The only way Don Quixote could possess Dulcinea was through his own decaying, chivalric mind. A hard-boiled detective falls in love with the haunting portrait of Laura as he investigates her murder.
Only last year, in the Portuguese film The Strange Case of Angelica, a young man experiences an avant-garde equivalent of Somewhere in Time when he falls in love with a dead girl he is summoned to photograph. Peeking through his lens, he sees what nobody else does. Angelica opens her eyes and smiles at him. With a theme that’s as old as storytelling itself, another representative of the male psyche secretly yearns for that place of absolute love, and finds it in the impossible.