Contacting the Past

Thinking out loud again. I’m sorting through some ideas for my book project on time-travel films and came across this essay by Henry Jenkins: “Contacting the Past.” In the essay, Jenkins mentions the opening sequence of Contact, which portrays how sound waves travel through space:

As the camera pulls back through our solar system, the soundtrack goes back into time, past landmark moments in the history of broadcasting — the release of the Iran Hostages, All in the Family, The Beatles, Milton Berle, the end of World War II, FDR’s fireside chats — and then, the silent void of space.

Jenkins is right, I think, to connect this silence to an “erasure of history,” with the film omitting the sounds of early radio and amateur radio operators. It’s also worth noting the sound images director Robert Zemeckis chooses to emphasize (all of the sounds have profound links to US national identity, except the Beatles, and even their appearance on Ed Sullivan has been re-appropriated as a landmark event in US media history).

While I found Contact’s portrayal of the profound silence of space intriguing, I’d actually forgotten these earlier sounds (I haven’t seen the entire film since it debuted in 1997), and Jenkins’ descripotion reminded me of a more recent time-travel film, Frequency, in which a son (Jim Caviezel), living in the 1990s, is able to talk to his father (Dennis Quaid), who died in 1969, through a ham radio the father used as a hobby. While Frequency’s father-and-son story is fairly standard family values fare, the opening sequence is eerily similar to the opening scene of Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, with sounds of 1960s songs (“Crimson and Clover”) mixing with famous political speeches in a historical pastiche of the sixties. I don’t know that I have a larger connection to make just yet, but I think that it might be productive to reframe my discussion of Frequency via Contact, especially given both films’ heavy emphasis on sound in the opening sequence. Jenkins’ comments on Contact might also be a productive way to launch some of my other arguments about time-travel narratives and history.


  1. Dylan Said,

    April 13, 2005 @ 2:35 pm

    It’s interesting that you bring up Contact in the context of time travel, because I never really thought of it that way. Despite being a Sagan book, I guess they get a little latitude because the film was a more introspective look into the intersection of religion and science.

    You know, for someone taking a break from blogging, you sure have been prolific!

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 13, 2005 @ 3:08 pm

    I don’t see the plot of Contact as “time travel,” but the opening sequences are worth comparing because of their similarity in terms of their treatment of sound (radio waves) and the past.

  3. Chuck Said,

    April 13, 2005 @ 3:11 pm

    You know, as soon as I say I want to break, I always find things to blog about. In part, it’s an attempt to distract myself, but some of these entries are actually related to the reason that my schedule is currently “crowded.”

  4. Said,

    April 13, 2005 @ 4:52 pm

    listening to faraway conversation

    Chutry points to an older Henry Jenkins piece that relates to my favorite class to blog about this semester, “Media/History/Collective Memory.” In the piece, Jenkins relates how the the movie Contact depicts a spacecraft picking up broadcast signals fr…

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