The Ballad of Narayama (1958) concerns the Japanese legendary practice of ubasute, or, abandoning the elderly in the mountains to die. Different characters obediently accept the practice or violently reject it. Image Source: QBranch.
In story-telling, there are several famous characters who try to freeze time before a watershed moment changes everything. They are traumatized by the moment of change and their rigid attachment to the past is almost always self-destructive. Perhaps this is a way of defining a ghost, someone who acts against the course of the world's destiny and becomes trapped in one frame of time, rather than moving along through many frames of time.
The need to accept change in order to live in a healthy manner is the larger reason for the ancient injunction: Don't look back. This is the message in myth and religion, as with Orpheus and Eurydice or Lot's wife. Fables, ghost stories and superstitions are full of warnings against mirrors that can capture a hostile past, reflect it back at you, and trap you forever.
Sodom's destruction. Lot and his daughters escape, while his wife turns to a pillar of salt. 12th century mosaic, Duomo di Monreale, Sicily. Image Source: Wiki.
Lot leaving Sodom, with his wife looking back. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) by Michel Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurf.
Any character in these stories who refuses to change begins to embody an attack against the reason for change. The fate of that character demonstrates why the change occurs and must occur. Sometimes the change involves a personal struggle with a familial past. In other stories, the change envelops the entire society, and whole groups become trapped at a watershed moment in regressive time pockets.
For decades, Miss Havisham in Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) freezes her wedding day, when she was jilted at the altar. She dies after her wedding veil catches fire. Chekhov's Cherry Orchard (1904) features aristocrats who will not sell their cherry orchard to save their property; in the end, they lose both to a former serf. In The Big House of Inver (1925) by Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross, an illegitimate, middle-aged daughter of a ruined Anglo-Irish family tries to maintain the family property to pass it to the family's last legitimate son. She embodies the futility of fighting a fate that has already played out all around her. Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is a story of a man so fixated on the memory of a prepubescent love that he later becomes a child molester.
Grey Gardens (1975) is a famous American documentary recounting the decline of two Bouvier cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. A mother and a daughter, they shared the same first name, lived at the Grey Gardens estate in East Hampton, New York, and subsisted on the dwindling resources of a past life that had long since disappeared, while the squalor of the present surrounded them and dragged them down.
Image Source: addicted2glamour.
Their tale was all the more grim because it was real. Both women's former wealth and great beauty became a chilling warning about the frailty of American materialism and what can happen if you cling to your possessions and cannot let go of old memories associated with lavish lifestyles.
The mother: Edith (known as "Big Edie") Ewing Bouvier Beale, wedding photo. Image Source: Gopixpic.
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale in Grey Gardens (1975); the portrait is of her in better days. Image Source: KPBS.
The daughter: Little Edie Bouvier Beale in her youth. Image Source: Wiki.
A film still from the documentary Grey Gardens (1975) featuring Little Edie Bouvier Beale. Image Source: The Sag Harbor Express.
The House of Yes (1997), a disturbing American film, presents two siblings in an incestuous relationship who key their mutual seduction to reenactments of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The day of the assassination coincided with the day their father tried to leave their mother; their mother shot their father, then buried him secretly in the back yard. The siblings are trapped in a loop of sex and death associated with that terrible day, and they can't escape it. Their nightmare also symbolizes a larger American optimism and glamour irretrievably lost on the day JFK died.
Clip from The House of Yes (1997). Video Source: Youtube.
There are many other films in this genre, notably 12 Monkeys (1995) and The Others (2001). A Reddit thread (here) discusses other movies with characters who are stuck in the past. There are more fractured examples, where the character's amnesiac need to discover and preserve the past begins to break down the narrative structure of the story, such as Dark City (1998) and Memento (2000).
The eponymous hero in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) is frozen in suspended animation from the 1940s until he is reawakened to serve his country in the present day. Much of the original comic book drama of Captain America's story paralleled the story of his country. The war hero originally debuted in March 1941, at the height of gung-ho patriotism. Captain America was co-created by Jack Kirby, who worked with Stan Lee to revive the character at Marvel Comics in 1964. At that time, these creators added the Arthurian 'frozen in time' element to Captain America's story. Captain America is haunted by the past, but he makes the transition from his country's (seemingly) shinier and more innocent past to a dark present, and he remains heroic. His story describes renewed values in changing times and he does not display a broken and frightening regression.
In Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America visits his 1940s' girlfriend, who has aged during his time in stasis to become an old woman. Video Source: Youtube.
Sometimes, freezing time inspires comedy rather than horror or tragedy. Comedies allow characters facing this dilemma to have happy endings. Time Marches On is a trope at TV Tropes; the trope's sub-genres give many examples in books, film media, pop culture and real life of the hilarity or cringe-worthiness of anachronistic missteps:
- Cosmetically Advanced Prequel
- Dated History
- Failed Future Forecast (with sub-sub-genres such as: Apocalypse Day Planner; and I Want My Jetpack (when technological or scientific developments did not come to pass by the designated year))
- Heartwarming In Hindsight
- Get Thee to a Nunnery (in which vocabulary changes so much over time that dialogue becomes incomprehensible to modern audiences)
- Not So Crazy Anymore
- Science Marches On
- Society Marches On
- Technology Marches On
- Steam Never Dies
- Unintentional Period Piece
- Values Dissonance
In the classic, 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil, a narcissistic, self-centered weatherman whose superficial, on-camera charm quickly evaporates off-camera. When Phil is sent on a loathsome assignment to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, he brushes off any attempts by the townsfolk to get to know him, treats his cameraman and producer with contempt and is hyper to get the heck out of there. However, an unexpected snowstorm keeps him stuck, and, incredibly, when he wakes up the next day, and each day after that, it’s Groundhog day again. Everything that he accomplished the day before evaporates in a strange type of deja vu. After many desperate, failed attempts to escape, his fate, Phil eventually learns to accept his situation. He begins to care about other people, becomes the town hero, and finds love and happiness.
Groundhog Day is a powerful allegory and morality tale. Phil is Everyman in modern society –so focused on increasing his own status and resources that he misses the present moment and opportunities to build satisfying relationships. Phil, like many of us, is locked in a futile struggle to control and change a life situation that is essentially unchangeable. The only solution is to learn to accept our circumstances, adopt an “attitude of gratitude”, and put our best efforts into improving areas of life that we can control. In Phil’s case, his knowledge of what is about to happen allows him to show up at the right time to protect the townsfolk from disaster and injury.
The movie Groundhog Day was made 20 years ago, prior to the expansion of scientific knowledge about brain plasticity, mindfulness, and the neuroscience of attachment. ...
In life, as in Groundhog Day, there is a better solution – learning to mindfully accept the current circumstances of our lives – changing ourselves, rather than expecting other people and circumstances to change. As spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle so wisely states: “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you have chosen it.” If things are not going our way, perhaps it is because circumstances are leading us on a different path. If we have the courage to try new ways of thinking and behaving, we might be pleasantly surprised by how things turn out. According to Buddhist philosophy, life contains uncontrollable suffering, but fear, greed, and delusion add a second layer of controllable suffering. When we move from self-absorption to compassion and service, our lives and brain pathways expand and we begin to heal old insecure attachment patterns and negative beliefs about self and others. In fact, research shows that strong social ties and high-quality relationships are some of the strongest predictors of health and longevity.