A Brief History of Time (1991)

Dir. Errol Morris.

There are more famous and prolific director-composer pairs out there than Errol Morris and Philip Glass, but I’m not sure that there’s a pair which more perfectly suits each other. Glass favors repetition and small variations on a theme; in A Brief History of Time, the only instrument used is the piano. Some of the music is respectful and distant in tone, fitting for discussions about the origins of the universe and the mystery of black holes; one melody, frequently used for memories of Hawking, is almost upbeat. The whole score, as a character in the documentary in itself, fits in seamlessly. Morris is much the same way with his visuals as Glass is with his music. Given control over the image (in other words, when he isn’t interviewing someone), it’s rare to see more than three or four colors at a time. In the scene where the teacup breaks, we have the matching whites of the cup, saucer, and floor, plus the black of the checkerboard floor and the background where the teacup flew from, and the brown of the tea. In a favorite shot towards the beginning, where Hawking is asking about the chicken or the egg, a chicken is superimposed on deep space. White of the chicken and stars, black of deep space, red of the chicken’s comb and wattles. Photographs of Hawking are usually in black and white, partly because they’re old. Hawking had, as the name of the documentary implies, gained significant fame by 1991; certainly there were color photos of him to use? But those are rarely chosen, which fits in with the delightful minimalist themes reinforced by Glass’ score.

Morris prefers long, still shots, although every now and again, as he does with a book which holds Hawking’s final signature, he’ll indulge a slow zoom. Talking heads are not much suited to a moving camera, of course, but staircases are. There are two different staircases pictured in the film. One represents the stairs at university which Hawking tumbled down so violently that he, according to the talking head, lost his memory. The last other is at his home, where he had to literally pull himself up the stairs so that he might hold on to motor functions and coordination as long as possible. The staircases are shot with voiceovers over them, in perfectly static shots. One might expect some sort of movement up or down given what people usually do with stairs, but this is better. For Hawking, these are staircases which are representative as much as they are architectural: a few moments of profound harm brought on by his ALS, minutes worth of struggle necessitated by his ALS.

Hawking’s illness is given a significant role in the movie, probably taking up more time overall than any other single element (black holes, his upbringing, his genius, the Big Bang, etc.). Morris and his interviewees don’t go full Gladwell here, but they do argue that Hawking’s condition is a significant factor in his career. Much is made, for example, of the unfocused quality of Hawking’s genius as a young man. A college friend tells a story about how in three hours, Hawking solved ten incredibly difficult physics problems; two of his friends working together finished one and a half over the course of a week. He hovered between a first and a second before graduation, having made a bad bet that he could coast on the mathematics for his final and ignore the purely historical/informational elements. The ALS diagnosis did not inspire him to work harder, since everyone thought he would be dead by the time he was 24 and thus there wasn’t much point in research. However, Hawking himself credits his romance with Jane Wilde as having given him a reason to continue living and working. His ALS, according to one talking head, is responsible for giving Hawking different “tools” for seeing the universe, which Hawking less implicitly agrees with. Because he could not do as many figures, he relied on a more pictorial and graphic way of visualizing problems – illustrated in a stunning sequence by Morris – which is a testament to his adaptability. Morris, on the whole, portrays the ALS as an obstacle which has never been insuperable. It was supposed to kill Hawking and it didn’t. It was supposed to render him completely uncommunicative, but in the popular imagination Hawking is as famous for his talking wheelchair and computer program as he is for his physics. It was supposed to end his career, but he was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge and has probably become the most famous scientist on the planet. It was supposed to sap his spirit, but in the long run he appears to have done plenty well for himself. (Hawking’s wit is on display for certain throughout the documentary; rarely does he speak over a whole segment without throwing in some joke.)

I was a little wary of the documentary after the first twenty minutes or so, as it seemed to be heading for a primarily biographical bent at the expense of Hawking’s science; it’s not necessarily a wrong interpretation of A Brief History of Time, even after having seen the whole thing. The best popularizers of science have a Jesus-like gift for parables which illustrate some abstruse concept; Carl Sagan, probably the best of the bunch, brought the idea of the “cosmic calendar” to the forefront as a way of representing humanity’s portion of time in the universe. Hawking’s voiceovers of Morris’ images are accessible and engrossing: an astronaut wearing a watch falls into a black hole, a teacup only smashes in one temporal direction, two particles obliterate each other or don’t. Sometimes Hawking is explaining the way that we think the universe came to be and how the universe will end. Sometimes he is talking about the way we’ve begun to understand black holes more and more over the course of just a few decades. What’s wonderful about the movie is the way that when it does hit on the science, it does so in a way which inspires this joyous wonder. In the first minutes post-opening credits, Hawking is heard to wonder “What is the difference between past and future?” This sounds like a question for Rory Cochrane’s character in Dazed and Confused to ponder once he’s finished lecturing us on the drug habits of the Founding Fathers, but it’s so much more than that. From a physics perspective, he’ll say later, particles do not recognize past and future; they do not behave differently based on time. Another physicist says that time is a human invention (which of course it is even if we’re not often of that mindset when we’re running late for an appointment); yet another, discussing the way that the Big Bang might have happened, argues that our understanding of the beginning of the universe is hobbled by verb tenses (for language is an even more imperfect and necessary aspect of humanity than time).

Hawking’s hypotheses have not all come true, and the documentary is not shy about noting his failures or the incorrect guesses of other physicists. One of the physicists interviewed who challenged some of Hawking’s conclusions notes that science at its best is “give-and-take,” and that he thinks it is of stupendous importance to ensure that scientific discourse engages in this sort of thought. It would be easy, I think, to make a documentary about a preeminent scientist whose continuing contributions to the field are maintained through cutting edge computer technology and then pretend that science is the key to finding all the answers. Yet the documentary does not embrace scientism, which so often displays itself as a logical fallacy for the self-importantly bright. Hawking, like many intelligent atheists, does not reject religious language simply because it is religious. “God does not play dice,” Einstein said during his lifetime, although the documentary sure makes it seem like God’s doing something based on chance. The last lines of the film, again in Hawking’s voiceover, refer to God again. If we were to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics, which human minds have never been able to do, it would allow us to understand the why of the universe as well as the how. As it is, Hawking notes, the how is well understood only by “a few scientists.” Finding the why, however:

If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.

Knowing Hawking’s religious preference as we do from A Brief History of Time – although the Internet, if anyone is interested, wants you to know the exact quotes delineating every famous person’s atheistic tendencies – we get a very anti-scientism attitude. Hawking’s moving and true statement is both optimistic and pessimistic: the latter because he does not believe in God, the former because Hawking is right about what knowing “a complete theory of the universe” would entail.


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