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SubStance 31.1 (2002) 88-104

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Film Futures

David Bordwell

In the story by Jorge Luis Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths," a character discovers that the sage Ts'ui Pen has devised a labyrinthine novel:

In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually-impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses-simultaneously-all of them. He creates, thereby, several future, several times, which themselves proliferate and fork....In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur: each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend. (125)

Ts'ui Pen did not shrink from the ultimate consequences of this:

He believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. (127)

Borges's conceit has its counterpart in quantum physics, which has played host to the idea of parallel universes-an infinite array of possible worlds, each as real as the one we apparently know. 1

To this conception of time Gary Saul Morson objects, in his exacting and stimulating study Narrative and Freedom. If all possibilities exist equally, then ethical action, indeed personal identity, is rendered impossible. "Because all choices are made somewhere, the totality of good and evil in existence becomes a zero-sum game.....Everything that happens had to happen, and nothing that could have taken place fails to take place" (232). For Morson, this idea cannot ground a responsible conception of human action, let alone an adequate scheme of narrative time.

Yet Morson need not worry, I think. While he finds many examples in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy of his preferred method of conjuring up alternate futures (he calls it "sideshadowing"), narratives derived from the forking-path conception don't really approach Borges's "growing, dizzying web." [End Page 88] In fiction, alternative futures seem pretty limited affairs. Folklore bequeaths us the two-doors problem (the lady or the tiger?) and the motif of the three paths leading to three fates. If we take A Christmas Carol as a forking-path plot, Scrooge is offered a meagre binary choice about his future, and in "Roads of Destiny," O. Henry's 1903 short story, the poet-hero faces only three futures: to take the road on the left, to take the one on the right, or to return to town.

As for film, recent years have brought us several intriguing efforts at forking-path plots. Like "Roads of Destiny," they proceed from a fixed point-the fork--and purportedly present mutually exclusive lines of action, leading to different futures. Consider Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981), which after a rather enigmatic prologue shows the medical student Witek racing for the train that will take him on his sabbatical from medical school. He leaps aboard just in time and is carried to a life as a Communist functionary. But when he reaches a crisis in that life, the film cuts back to the railroad station, and he is a young man again, once more racing for the train. Now he fails to catch it, he stays at home, and is given a brand-new future. That future will be altered once more when the narration flashes back to his run along the platform and a new chain of events starts. A similar pattern is enacted in the Hong Kong film Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Yat goh chi tan dik daan sang, 1997) and Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998). These films present their futures seriatim, returning to the switchpoint after each trajectory...