by Daniel O’Brien
by Daniel O’Brien
This twenty-six-minute video essay explores ideas of the time-loop on screen. It examines a range of films to argue that the concept of the time-loop can be found within the mechanics of the computer game, particularly in the aspect of failure and repetition (considered through ludologist Jesper Juul’s 2013 essay ‘The Art of Failure’), which a wide range of time-looping narratives incorporate. Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) which turned thirty this year (2023) is one of these and is used as an entry point into this investigation. Its canonical status within the time-loop genre, combined with the film’s anniversary, prompted a videographic project earlier this year called The Groundhog Diary which I explain within the video essay. The Groundhog Diary was an opportunity to begin a playful approach of interacting with the film rather than just watching it, which initiated this investigative approach towards time-loop narratives in film and television programmes. Within the video essay I consider these in contrast to a player’s participation in the grind of gaming (the act of repetition to achieve a desired result). Films such as Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014) explicitly takes its cue from the grind of the computer game (as well as Groundhog Day) to reach a conclusion – a process that can be found in most time-loop narratives.
The video essay explores the way different games and avatars have developed, with more cinematic avatars such as Maxine Caulfield from Life is Strange (2015) using the time-loop (like a film character) to shape her knowledge and experience. This is in contrast to avatars like Super Mario who remain seemingly unaware of past failed game attempts. The videographic work also takes a look at early uses of the time-loop, tracing it back to 1947, to reveal a pattern of how the time-loop genre is usually reserved for white protagonists striving towards betterment or a happy conclusion. This prompts a question as to whether the time-loop can be considered a racially biased structure.
This is the focus of the final third of the video essay, where I consider Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe’s powerful Two Distant Strangers (2020) and Cynthia Kao’s short film Groundhog Day for a Black Man (2016). Unlike the majority of time-loop films, which often depict white characters turning the loop to their advantage for self-improvement or to overcome personal challenges (the blueprint of Groundhog Day), Two Distant Strangers and Groundhog Day for a Black Man use the loop differently, as a way to explore the cycles of abuse that African-American people face on a daily basis. Returning to my experience of The Groundhog Diary, I was surprised at how little people of colour featured in the film, and subsequently how the time loop served primarily to aid the eventual fulfilment of white characters. Two Distant Strangers and Groundhog Day for a Black Man, however, invert this to show the daily struggle that Black people face in an ongoing cycle of abuse, raising the question as to whether the time-loop can be considered a racist plot device. This video essay concludes with these ideas to emphasise that the time-loop is not just a narrative function or a game mechanic but also a political commentary on the often unjust cycle of life.
Daniel O’Brien is a Lecturer in Film and Digital Media at The University of Essex. His teaching and areas of research span across film, video game studies, interactive media art, and video essaying. Recent publications include Digital Love: Through the Screen/Of the Screen (Bloomsbury, 2023), Media Ownership and Digital Authenticity in Slum TV (Routledge, 2022), and Zoom’s Performative Window: Affordances and Constraints (Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2024). He is working on a monograph titled Postphenomenology and Narrative Across Cinema, Interactive Art and Gaming with Edinburgh University Press.