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October 11, 2004

The Butterfly Effect

I had a brief moment of job market panic last night, so I decided to take a brief break and watch the Ashton Kutcher vehicle, The Butterfly Effect. (IMDB). Note: possible spoilers ahead, but I figure that if you're interested in this film at all, you've probably seen it by now. I'm not quite ready to work through the film's time-travel logic, which it associates with chaos theory, but I will note that the film may be loosely relevant to my project, especially in its use of the main character's diaries, and eventually home movies, as the mode of conveyance through time.

I'm also intrigued by the film's fear of unpredictablility, especially when it comes to the safety of children. Butterfly constantly puts small children, including the Ashton Kutcher character, Evan Treborn, in physically or psychologically dangerous situations that have a profound effect on Evan's adult life (as well as the lives of three of his friends). It's a strange, somewhat troubling film, one that seems desperate to protect innocence in the face of a dangerous, hostile world. Also interesting that Evan is essentially raised by a single mother (his father has been institutionalized due to his similar claims about time travel). Although Evan's mom is portrayed as caring and protective, she is rarely around when Evan places himself in dangerous situations. Finally, the film, like many other time travel films, has a fairly explicit religious subtext, which becomes more explicit when you listen to the directors' commentary, in which they note that the time traveler's name was originally supposed to be Chris Treborn.

The question of unpredictability raised in this film (and it comes up in other films as well) was sparked when I was reading a colleague's work this afternoon, and she mentioned Anthony Giddens' Reith Lectures, where Giddens discusses the relationship between globalization and uncertainty or unpredictability, using the phrase "runaway world." PDFs of several of the lectures are available at the Lectures on Key Topics website linked above, but his discussion of globalization seems particularly relevant.

Posted by chuck at October 11, 2004 3:59 PM

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Evan means young warrior.

interesting onomasitc inflection on the christian considerations raised by the earlier name

Posted by: Francois Lachance at October 13, 2004 12:11 PM

Yeah, there's something to the use of names in time travel films. Many time travelers have the initials, J.C. James Cole in 12 Monkeys and John Connor in The Terminator films are the two examples that most quickly spring to mind.

Of course, as one critic noted, James Cameron (director-screenwriter of the Terminator films) also has the initials, J.C.

Posted by: chuck at October 13, 2004 1:33 PM

Not sure how much of a DVD extras person you are, but while you have The Butterfly Effect rented, it may be worth your while to check out the alternate endings. I have not seen the film myself, but I have read that one of the endings involved the main character going back in time to strange himself in his mother's womb.

I'm reading over the globalization article you linked near the end of your post now (thanks) and there may be something there with regards to how one of the alternatives to constant attempts to correct or make predictable the future is to remove the primary variable in the equation--yourself. Definitely resonates with your theological reading of the film and may have some interesting implications with regards to the globalization/predictability issue.

Posted by: eric at October 14, 2004 3:13 PM

Thanks, Eric. One of my students mentioned the alternate endings, and fortunately, I still have the DVD checked out. The womb re-entry fantasy sounds bizarre. Interesting connections...

Posted by: chuck at October 14, 2004 4:32 PM

The play of names, initials, anagrams and such led me to reread a passage in Isaac Bonewits _Real Magic_ where he writes "Even to this day most Western occultists, including many who claim to be Pagans, insist on cluttering up their rituals with the same monotonous mystic mispronounciatiosn of mangled monotheisitic mantras." (Gotta love that alliteration.) Then by praise of the East, writes "In Tantra, therefore, every word could be a 'Word of Power.' Even 'garbage' is a sacred word, sicne it is a collection of the gods g,a,r,b,a,g. and e. You can see how this could lead to lots of fun and games in religion and meditation, especially when you consider how many people worship the great god just mentioned."

Silly but valid in that neither east nor west is superior ... Bonewits writes also about the western practices "All the Grimoires [...] These books give the names, powers, ranks, appearances, and signatures of all major angels and deomons, as well as collections of recipes for spells and charms. Except to the literary analyst and the thaumaturgical theorist, they are totally useless."

So in the name of useless but fruitful discovery, next time the J.C. initials crop up in a game of textual pursuit would it be appropriate to send the hounds atracking for the reversed c.j.? Bet you Wordherder Calamity Jane might have a thing or two to say about the ekphrastic and hence narratological aspects of names. Gee, cj could be read as a Latin numberal for 101.

The use of the Christ story/name as an interpretative element is as valid as any. It begins the process of redescription (ekphrasis) and so uncovers the field of narrative possibilities. Jamieson might recognize such activity as a step in a transcoding process. Freud would certainly be astounded at the condensation, displacement and secondary revision that can and do take place when considerations of representabilitly drive the dream-work in its cinematic form.

:) :(

Posted by: Francois Lachance at October 17, 2004 11:31 PM

Francois, I've always been a fan of alliteration. Not sure why, but it certainly brought a smile. Jameson is certainly one of the major figures in my interpretive constellations (and, by default, so is Freud).

Posted by: chuck at October 19, 2004 1:34 AM

Alliteration and the fascination of name calling...

fun with the frolicking fricatives

chattering with the challenging character

There is a dual pleasure : how long can the string of similar sound continue ? at what point does a difference startle with amusement ?

very similar to _filmic_ pleasure [watching movie sequences whether or not one is engaged with the _cinematic_ appartus]

Posted by: Francois Lachance at October 19, 2004 9:06 AM

i just watched this film and i watched only the director's cut, which has the self-strangulation in the womb ending, so i was surprised to read here that that is not the ending everyone else knows! i'll have to check out the ending for the theatrical release...

Posted by: cynthia at October 22, 2004 1:09 AM

I didn't get a a chance to watch the director's cut, but it sounds like it would lead to an interesting comparative anaylsis between the two (or more) versions of this film. I didn't get to see teh director's cut, so I'm curious: is the film critical of Evan for this womb return or does it approve of the character's willingness to sacrifice himself?

In a weird sort of way, one could even make a (potentially creepy) comparison between Terminator's primal scene fantasy and Evan Treborn's womb-return fantasy (I know that Constance Penley has already talked about time travel and the primal scene, so I *might just* skip writing that paper).

Posted by: chuck at October 22, 2004 12:48 PM

it's not critical at all of evan's return to the womb/suicide--it's presented as it's a "righting" of everything, because he was never meant to be born in the first place. i don't know if this thread was in the theatrical release or not--the scene where evan and his mother go to a psychic and she tells him he has no lifeline and "isn't supposed to be here," and his mother freaks out and tells him she had three stillborn babies before she had him. so in the end when he goes back into the womb and kills himself, he's righting a wrong. and my personal interpretation is that it's implied that he would have been stillborn too but somehow his father went back in time and did something to fix that, therefore he literally isn't supposed to be alive, and that all the bad things that happened to everyone around him were a result of his very existence. there's a montage at the end, after he kills himself, of all the characters in his life living perfect, happy lives without him.

Posted by: cynthia at October 22, 2004 7:11 PM

Wow, that's very different. I could be wrong, but I don't remeber the scene with the psychic, and there's no reference at all to the stilborn siblings in the theatrical release (this might explain wht Melora Walters' performance seemed a little *too* somber).

Interesting that his father may have been responsible for ensuring/trying to ensure that Evan lived (i.e. some weird Oedipal stuff going on there). That end montage is implied in a sense when we see Evan make eye contact with an adult version of the neighbor girl at the end of the film. Definitely similar to Donnie Darko's ending montage. I'll have to rent Butterfly again...

Posted by: chuck at October 22, 2004 8:07 PM

sorry if i'm being dense, but i don't get the oedipal implications, can you explain? i just see it as a pretty clear-cut (but clumsy) christ allegory, with the father bringing the son back to life (after three stillbirths--like jesus' 3 days?).

Posted by: cynthia at October 23, 2004 7:55 PM

"Oedipal" probably wasn't the right description, come to think of it. I was just thinking about the battle between father and son over the mother's womb when I made that comment.

The (clumsy) Christ allegory is certainly stronger, and it may have been the sloppiness of that allegory that tempted me to take up the Freudian angle.

Posted by: chuck at October 23, 2004 9:30 PM

This is a brilliant movie.

Not one for the dimwits, though...

Posted by: jack at November 14, 2005 12:27 AM

I just watched the director's cut for the second time and noticed that in the psychic scene evan's mom says that she had only 2 stillbirths before evan however in the end of the movie when you can only hear her voice she says she had 3 stillbirths before her new baby. I don't think she is talking to evan at the very end of the movie, rather her new son, whoever that may be. The director's cut is a much more difficult movie to understand, especially watching it for a second time. Anyone care to try to explain teh 3 stillbriths at the end in comparison to the 2 talked about in the beginning

Posted by: Branden at December 26, 2005 6:47 PM

i thought that the two still births she was telling him about after shes seen the psychic are the stillbirts tht happen before he's "born" and strangles himself. thn he becomes the THIRD still birth.i watcht this version todai and i thought his mom then has a fourth kid & she's telling the 4th boy that she had 3 till births and he's her little "miracle baby". andddd i think tht the 4th son marries kayleigh.
i didnt like this ending tho. i prefferd the one wher he chnged the past so tht he ws mean 2 kayleigh as a kid & they just didnt become frends and then they walk past each otha in th street and like glance bak, and thats it. that endings a lot better.

Posted by: Flikk at May 16, 2006 8:18 PM

this is a great film , but what i dont get it even after evan kills himself in his mothers womb, why is he still alive in the ending and walks past kaylee?

Posted by: John at September 12, 2006 7:48 AM

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