Reverse Chronology


Reverse chronology is a method of story-telling whereby the plot is revealed in reverse order. In a story employing this technique, the first scene shown is actually the conclusion to the plot. Once that scene ends, the penultimate scene is shown, and so on, so that the final scene the viewer sees is the first chronologically. Many stories employ flashback, showing prior events, but whereas the scene order of most conventional films is chronological. The unusual nature of this method means it is only used in stories of a specific nature.

For example, ‘Memento’ features a man with anterograde amnesia, meaning he is unable to form new memories. The film parallels the protagonist’s perspective by unfolding in reverse chronological order, leaving the audience as ignorant of the events that occurred prior to each scene (which, played in reverse chronological order, will not be revealed until later) as the protagonist is.

In the film ‘Irréversible,’ an act of homicidal violence takes place at the start of the movie (i.e. it is the final event to take place). During the remainder of the film we learn not only that the violence is an act of vengeance, but what exactly is being avenged. The film was highly controversial for its graphic nature; had the scenes been shown in chronological order, this violent content would make it a simple, and pointlessly brutal, revenge movie. However, as it is, told in reverse, the audience is made to consider the exact consequences of each action, and there is often ‘more than meets the eye.’

The epic poem ‘Aeneid,’ written by Virgil in the 1st century BCE, uses reverse chronology within scenes. In ‘The Three Apples,’ a murder mystery in the Arabian ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ the middle part of the story shows a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of a dead body at the beginning of the story. The action of W. R. Burnett’s novel, ‘Goodbye to the Past’ (1934), moves continually from 1929 to 1873. Edward Lewis Wallant uses flashbacks in reverse chronology in ‘The Human Season’ (1960). The pessimistic masterpiece ‘Christopher Homm’ (1965), a novel by C. H. Sisson, is also told in reverse chronology. Philip K. Dick, in his 1967 novel ‘Counter-Clock World,’ describes a future in which time has started to move in reverse, resulting in the dead reviving in their own graves (‘old-birth’), living their lives in reverse, eventually ending in returning to the womb, and splitting into an egg and a sperm during copulation between a recipient woman and a man. The novel was expanded from Dick’s short story ‘Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday,’ first published in ‘Amazing Stories.’

Martin Amis’s novel ‘Time’s Arrow’ (1991) tells the story of a man who, it seems, brings dead people to life. Eventually it is revealed that the story is being seen backwards, and he was a doctor at Auschwitz who brought death to live people. He escaped to America, and the novel starts with his death and ends with his birth. Amis writes in the Afterword that he had a ‘certain paragraph’ from Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969), in mind: ‘As he waits to be taken by aliens to the planet Tralfamadore, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, watches a war movie backwards. American planes full of holes fly backwards as German planes suck bullets from them; bombers take their bombs back to base where they are returned to the States, reduced to ore and buried. The American fliers became high school kids again, and, Billy guesses, Hitler ultimately returns to babyhood.’ Iain Banks’s novel ‘Use of Weapons’ interweaves two parallel stories, one told in standard chronology and one in reverse. Julia Alvarez’s novel ‘How the García Girls Lost Their Accents’ opens in 1989 with one of the characters returning to her Native Dominican Republic. The story of why the family left and their attempts to succeed in New York are told in reverse chronological order, with the last events happening in 1956.

A number of plays have employed this technique. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play, ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ is told in reverse order, as is the Harold Pinter play ‘Betrayal’ (1978), which was made into a film in 1983. This was the first important film set in reverse chronology, though it was preceded by the Czech comedy ‘Happy End,’ (1968), a farce which starts with a guillotined man finding his head popped back on his shoulders and ends with him as a new-born being pushed back into his mother’s womb.  Earlier still, Jean Epstein’s ‘La glace à trois faces’ (‘The Three Sided Mirror’) in 1927 features a sequence where the events happen in reverse, beginning with the protagonist’s exit from a room until the viewer sees the entrance.

The technique was later employed in ‘Peppermint Candy’ (2000), by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong; and in Jean-Luc Godard’s short film ‘De l’origine du XXIe siècle pour moi’ (2000). In ‘Irréversible’ (2002), the technique is used so thoroughly that the end credits are not only shown at the beginning of the movie, but they roll down the screen, rather than upwards as is familiar. The 2004 film ‘5×2,’ directed by François Ozon, tells the story of a relationship between two people in five episodes using reverse chronology. Atom Egoyan, influenced by Pinter’s plays, tells the story of ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ (1997) in reverse chronology, with the first scene of the film set in 1977 and the last in 1968. In ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004), a main subplot is told in reverse.

The made-for-television drama ‘Two Friends’ (1986), by Jane Campion, and the 1997 episode, ‘The Betrayal,’ of the hit sitcom ‘Seinfeld,’ employs the technique. The Seinfeld episode is a take-off of the Harold Pinter play ‘Betrayal’ and has a character named ‘Pinter.’ Other shows have also employed the technique, such as the 2000 X-Files episode ‘Redrum’ (in which a character experiences the events in reverse along with the audience) and the 2002 ‘ER’ episode, ‘Hindsight.’ A 1997 ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ episode, ‘Before and After,’ which writer Kenneth Biller claimed was based on a Martin Amis novel ‘Time’s Arrow,’ also features a character experiencing the events in reverse along with the audience.

The story ‘The Time Eater’ from the comic ‘Vampirella,’ scripted by Jack Butterworth and published in 1975, included the concept of human lives running backwards. People were shown to be exhumed, reunited with families, separated from their spouses in order to attend school, and finally returned to the womb. Dialogue was reversed also. Alan Moore’s 1983 short story ‘The Reversible Man’ from ‘2000AD’ told an ordinary man’s life backwards, using the same concept as Butterworth but recasting it as a first-person narrative.

The lyrics to ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ written by Bob Dylan, are, he says, ‘in a rather reverse order”; indeed, the final verse begins with the words ‘All along the watchtower,’ and if reversed, the verses would tell the story in the correct order.’

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