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Virtual Refractions 1.5: Ulmer/"Beyond the Time Barrier" (The Blackout Cataclysm)

Just in time for Anthology Film Archives' Edgar G. Ulmer retrospective in New York.

Beyond the Time Barrier is part of Anthology Film Archives' Edgar G. Ulmer retrospective in New York.

Above: The Light Ahead (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1939).

“Nicholson was able to photograph the parked F-102a from a matched angle to complete the second side of the split-screen shot begun at the abandoned airfield the previous day. Fortunately, the weather had remained consistent, or the composite could never have been assembled. For the film, the jet would now appear in the same shot with the wrecked control tower and Clarke, though existing in actuality some twenty miles apart.

At every step, Ulmer sought production value and realism whenever he could squeeze it in, even when barely possible. Says Clarke: ‘We were very exited about [trying to get] a B-36 as it was taxiing along. We were so hopeful that the actors playing the officials from the Pentagon would get their dialogue correct and that their car would move just the way it should so the camera could get the plane taxiing in the background. And it worked. We got lucky.’”

—“A Grave New World,” Robert Skotak, in The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer, Bernd Herzogenrath, ed.

In Ulmer, total credibility can seem as much a barrier to the imagination as total disbelief. Films turned inside out, polar inversions of CGI believability or the Method dramas that have dominated the Hollywood art-house since the late 50s, Ulmer’s movies earn credit only as speculations: muslin shades become tokens of the clenched fists of fate; foreign lands, past and present, become the hypothesis of plywood. Exotic allegories as backyard productions, tipped between opera and documentary, they seem to work better cheaper, as director and viewer both are left to project a few backstage props, found locations, and motley actors into radiant figures of fantasy that never pretend to be anything else. But beyond a usual, B-movie insight that the pleasure of noirish tall tales is as much the inexorable fate of the doomed hero as the liberated storyteller free to embellish the path towards it, Ulmer’s movies offer a spectacle of their own production, a series of signs for the viewer to follow if he chooses to believe. “It’s 1959!” rails an incredulous astronaut (Robert Clarke), transported to Ulmer’s tinfoil future, in Beyond the Time Barrier, but his speech seems as much like obliging sci-fi naivité as it sounds completely accurate—of course we’re on-set in 1959, but time, here, is just a set of signs and rules to play along with. To break beyond the time barrier costs Ulmer a couple thousand dollars, a Dallas hangar, and a week.

Time Barrier’s future is only some worst case variation of the present, a post-plague 2024 that we’re solemnly warned could be the only alternative left. Doubt has to be an operational principle here: it’s doubt, in Ulmer, that enables possibilities that one world might be another, and like a kid seeing time machines in abandoned tires, Ulmer asks his audience to summon Shangri-las out of billowing drop cloths. For all of his mysticism, the desperate faith (Tag Gallagher’s suggestion) in sacred or libidinous forces just off-screen that can be glimpsed only in the flickering shadows they cast on characters’ faces, Ulmer’s basically a material mystic who furnishes the signs from household ingredients and backwoods Edens, and lets his viewers’ own faith project them into new realities. Basically, Time Barrier becomes some conjecture of time in which the present might be mistaken for the future, as the astronaut wanders apocalyptic ruins that are nothing more than Texas shantytowns caught on location: the principle, if one squints, seems almost Rossellinian that fiction need only entail home movie footage of a person walking in ruins, wondering what world he’s in; or be an impromptu documentary, stripped of documentary context and claims, so that each image becomes a reaction shot to some unseen, unpronounced transformation.

Almost. Once the astronaut enters the pyramid fortress of the future, Time Barrier shirks doc leanings for self-contained theatricality—a world of mute soldiers clanking in rhythm as they jog down corridors that seems so regimented that the merest hunch of Red Morgan’s back radiates human sensitivity. Of course this is another sort of documentary, not so far from backstage exposé—maybe one day, some enterprising critic with nothing better to do will compare the salience of Morgan’s tacked-on goatee and the mutants’ bathing cap baldness to the visibility of broken brushstrokes in Renoir and Monet. In any case, this self-contained stage is also a time warp that points to all possible contexts: forward to the future, reflexively at its own production, and backwards to a vaguely Orientalist tale of a lone Westerner in a sterile, enchanted land, which is almost identical to Lang’s Indian Tomb from the same year (and from which AIG would incongruously insert footage of a mutant rebellion into Time Barrier, their new acquisition). Each role is as neatly perfected as in classical theater or a mechanistic state, and Time Barrier partakes of both. The mutants moan, the scientists pontificate, and the pretty girl doesn’t speak—a rationalist hell in which everyone has their place. Maybe it makes sense that two Jew-ish Austrians, exiled in and out of Hollywood in wake of incomparable political cleansings in Europe, HUAC, and urban development, would myths about and for a banished underclass. But which sense? Obviously this is only more idle speculation.

For all its boxed-in drama, each shot framed frontally at two characters poring over a table, any sense of dimension in Time Barrier is an obvious simulation: the movie plays as much in a time warp as space warp. Ulmer’s suggestion of a pilot flying into the cosmos (a tilted camera, so the actor’s head angles upward), a jet growing closer across the stars (a miniature plane pulled forward and back against a scrolling, speckled black matte) or an epic battle for civilization (a few shots framed toward the ground, to create a dynamic line of movement towards the camera, as a meager set only has to occupy a distant horizon line looming up top) could all seem like art beget of thrift, the practical solutions to logicial problems of Ulmer, the cash-strapped visionary, who made his pyramids mobile so he could reassemble sets in minutes. But this usual view of Ulmer, as an arty artisan (J. Hoberman: "Ulmerian mise-en-scène is synonymous with problem solving—and vice-versa"), could also be reversed: that Ulmer’s thrift is the product of a sensibility dedicated less to creating self-standing worlds on-set than to transforming these worlds cinematically, so that even the most banal objects on-screen can become otherworldly with the right framing, footlights, and fresnel lenses. The most prominent object in Time Barrier, a trapezoidal drafting table ornamented with two obstructive orbs that serves as the fairly useless desk of “The Supreme,” seems custom-built for Ulmer’s framing, as it inscribes a perspective line onto a vacant stage and, tapering towards the background, exaggerates the spatial recession to make a confined area delusionaly larger.

The creation of a world is basically a compositional conceit. As dimensions are simulated, sizes of objects are determined only by their size on-screen: the miniature airplanes and future cities deployed throughout are funhouse reflections not only of whatever they’re supposed to represent, but of the identical models the general and scientists in the film use themselves to diagram case studies. Characteristically, the lead scientist explains time travel by sketching three oblong circles onto a chalkboard: the earth, the sun, the universe.

It’s enough to be told what the things we’re looking at should represent. At some point, the characters enter an elevator and exit, the next shot, into what looks like the exact same space, redecorated as a different floor (as in Feuillade). Thrift prods the imagination; in the three-room future of Time Barrier, a world in which almost every object is a graphic variation of a dimensionless triangle, in which each room is a variation off the same space, each composition a variation off another, each reality a variation off a model, each time frame a variation off the other, limitless possibilities seem to exist only because of limited resources. As in Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X, the nuclear age allegory collapses into ambiguity against the possibilities it’s raised. “Gentlemen, we’ve got a lot of thinking to do,” are the final lines. In Ulmer’s world of signs, the meanings attributed to each keep malleable.

Written by candlelight and cabin lighting, between New York and Florida, in the time/space warps between Obama, Romney, and Sandy. Special thanks to Noah Isenberg, Cullen Gallagher, and Charles Silver—and especially Jed Rapfogel and Marcine Miller.

Whoa, good call on the appropriated Lang footage. Just saw the Time Barrier screening last night and was scratching my head about where I’d seen that dungeon staircase before. Thanks, great write-up.
Lovely piece, David. I find AIP’s insertion of Lang’s shot from INDIAN TOMB, of the lepers, actually congruous in its triangular composition (here: with Ulmer’s film; it rhymes with the triangle/pyramid motifs that saturate Ulmer’s film. Even this bit of (unexpected or destined between filmmakers?) plastics, as you point out about the whole, goes beyond the task of fulfilling sets or finding the shortest distance between two points; rather it is expansive by means of cinema (as opposed to scheduling and budget!). For me the greatest science fiction Ulmer of the period is THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN; it deals directly with the crimes of science, and even ends with an old refugee directly addressing the audience about its era’s nuclear choices…
“they seem to work better cheaper, as director and viewer both are left to project a few backstage props, found locations, and motley actors into radiant figures of fantasy that never pretend to be anything else.” Yes! Never heard of Time Barrier, look forward to seeing it.

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