A time-travel theoretical
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This question originally emerged as a discussion topic from comedian/actor Patton Oswalt over dinner with some AVC staffers; one editor who’s eaten with him repeatedly says she’s discussed this with him at length on multiple occasions, so it seems to be a favorite topic. We asked him to write it up for us, then give us his answer to start us off. Because it seemed like an interesting question, we also fired it over to fellow critic Roger Ebert, who quickly came back with his own response.
Where and when would you most want to live for five years, restricted to a five-mile radius?
Everyone says things like “Oh man, how cool would it be to be in Dealey Plaza during the JFK assassination, or see The Beatles during one of their Cavern Club concerts, or witness ancient Rome?” Well, what if you were given the chance?
Here are the conditions. You’ve been granted a hypothetical ticket to live, in comfort and coherence, during one five-year time period. Maybe you want to be in New York in Chicago during Prohibition, or Victorian London, or France right before the Revolution. (Or during—no judgments.) You’ll be able to understand and speak the language (if needed), have enough disposable cash to live at leisure, and experience whatever you want, with no need for a job. You’ll have a comfy apartment or house to return to, full period wardrobe, and as much time as you need before making this trip to study up on the period you’ll live in.
But you must stay within a five-mile radius of where/whenever you choose to live. Thus you can’t go see the Kennedy assassination, then go zipping around the world to London to watch the birth of the British Invasion, or New York for the early years of Greenwich Village. Want to see the Kennedy assassination? Fine. But then you’re stuck in Dallas for the next five years.
What historical period (and place), in your opinion, offers the most enticing experiences in one five-year period?
My answer: Philadelphia between 1775 and 1780. With access to the First Continental Congress—full access, too. Side rooms, hallways… I’d love to see all the deals and laws that might have been. Yes, I’d have to experience the British evacuating Philadelphia in 1778, and I’d only get to hang out with Benjamin Franklin for under a year before he kicked off for France, but it’d be worth it. Were the Founding Fathers really reluctant to have Franklin write the Declaration of Independence because they were afraid he’d sneak a joke into it? Was Patrick Henry kind of an asshole? And I hear the City Tavern banquet of honor for the Marquis de Lafayette was a total piss-up.
I would choose to live within a five-mile radius of Piccadilly Circus starting in 1851. The geographical restriction wouldn’t discourage me in the least, for within that radius, I could not begin to sample the variety. London at that time was the greatest city the Earth had ever known, the center of Western Civilization. It was the time of Dickens and Darwin. Victoria reigned with her serene commonplace values, and Edward Lear gave her watercolor lessons. The Lake Poets came down to town. Keats and Coleridge met in an alley of trees on the heath. All of the races and nations of man had colonized outposts, and all of their knowledge was held safe in the British Library. Cockneys, the London race, thrived in their unadulterated form. The city was being transformed by ambitious architectural planning. I could attend the Great Exposition in the Crystal Palace, and see the treasures of Empire, in riches, inventions, and the arts, laid out for Victoria and Albert on opening day. They found them nice. Very nice indeed. Splendid, in fact.
I’ve always thought that the most important year of my life, politically, culturally, and socially, was the one just before I was born. 1968 was a year of tectonic shifts all over the world, but France, in particular, underwent a social upheaval that was nothing short of miraculous, and while it fell short of the total transformation promised by the slogans, “Mai 68” has still become a shorthand for the country’s shift from authoritarian conservativism to progressive liberalism. That’s partly why I’d use my time-travel ticket to live in Paris from 1965 to 1969. Not only would I have the chance to hang out with Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein, Ivan Chtcheglov, and the other Situationists as they came within a tantalizing centimeter of changing the world, but I could walk from one part of town to another and sit in on classes being taught by some of the most brilliant thinkers of the century: Claude Lévi-Strauss was teaching at the Collège de France at that time; Jean Baudrillard was holding court at the Sorbonne; Roland Barthes was stationed at the CNRS, and Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida were at the ENS. After the ’68 revolt, it got even better: in response to student demands, the experimental University of Paris VIII at Vincennes was set up, and the initial faculty included Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, and Lyotard. I could conceivably see (alongside other students like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Julia Kristeva) every one of the thinkers who most heavily influenced my life in a week’s time without leaving that five-mile radius.
And that’s not even considering what an embarrassment of cultural riches Paris held at the time; hundreds of brilliant artists, almost all of them sympathetic to the “events of May,” lived and worked in the city at the time. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir still ruled the scene. (Sartre was actually arrested during the ’68 riots.) The Oulipo group was producing amazing work on a near-weekly basis; in ’67, they were joined by Italo Calvino, who, excited by France’s political progress and frustrated with conditions in his native Italy, relocated to Paris. The film scene was almost absurdly rich, with both the Left Bank group and the New Wave directors cranking out one great movie after another. And while I can’t make any great claims for French music of the time, Paris loved its jazz, and every great jazz musician of the ’60s routinely played there. (A few of them even moved there, thinking for some reason it was a tad more hospitable than America.)
During my senior year of high school, I had a free period at the end of the school day, which I usually spent in the library, reading newspapers and magazines. I especially liked poring over the Sunday New York Times, and reading about what was going on in the various parallel artistic movements of the mid-’80s in New York City: hip-hop, avant-garde classical music, graffiti, performance art, the more adventurous fringe of punk-rock, and the like. It took me years of reading and haunting record stores before I was able to explore it all, and get a sense for the connections. Now I wish I could take the next step and actually live in lower Manhattan from 1979-1984. That predates my high-school library time by a couple of years, but it would be the prime era to see a lot of what I was interested in firsthand: Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Arthur Russell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and so on. Plus I could check out the early years of Late Night With David Letterman, catch some of the rising stars of ’80s stand-up comedy, see the original production of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday In The Park With George, and the first Broadway run of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and experience Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch’s early films at the local arthouses. With my proximity to Madison Square Garden, I could even see some of the best touring acts of one of rock’s great arena eras. (Hello, four-hour Bruce Springsteen shows!) I know a lot of people would be more interested in the late-’70s New York of punk, disco, and Son Of Sam, and I can respect that. But give me the go-go early ’80s, when the money came pouring back into the city and the culture thrived.
Like many in my generation, I have fetishized, romanticized, and idealized the Hollywood of the 1970s, though for rebel Hollywood, at least, the 1970s began with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde. I’ll see any American movie from the 1970s, just about, so I might as well hop inside a time machine, perhaps in the form of a plutonium-powered DeLorean (I also love the ’80s, it should be noted) and travel back to Hollywood from 1970 to 1974. In my fantasy, I live next door to Jennifer Salt/Margot Kidder, who served as the unofficial epicenter of 1970s Hollywood. I’d come to town full of passion and fire, clutching a screenplay that encapsulates all my hopes and dreams, a quirky comedy-drama about, I dunno, an epileptic firefighter and his tragicomic romance with a tough but tender prostitute. While waiting for someone to appreciate the script’s idiosyncratic genius (in the back of my mind, I’d realize that it sucked, but I’d linger in the town of hope all the same), I’d go to parties with the leading lights of American cinema, attending drunken, sordid, pot-and-coked-up bacchanals with the Brian De Palmas, Robert Altmans, Robert Townes, and Julia Phillipses of the world. Altman would eviscerate me verbally during a particularly out-of-control party, and it would devastate me, as I’d secretly view him as a father/mentor figure and desperately need his approval. Sure, I’d get frustrated and jealous when my friends made one masterpiece after another while my career remained stuck in neutral, and my drinking and drug use would get out of hand even by the extremely lenient standards of New Hollywood, but I’d feel proud to be even a tiny part of such a massive cultural wave of cinematic greatness all the same.
Manchester, England from 1979-1984, but goddamn this question, because it means I have to choose between seeing the Sex Pistols play legendary small gigs in 1976, and seeing Joy Division, The Smiths, and New Order. But I’m going with the latter, because it’s actually nearer and dearer to my heart. I’d of course need to live near the Hacienda club, which opened in 1982 and featured amazing performances pretty much every night—The Smiths three times in 1983! Madonna in 1984! The Buzzcocks, New Order, etc. etc. I’d be able to watch Joy Division triumph (at the “Factory I” events in ’79, and I’d even be close enough to go to the Bowdon Vale Youth Club gig), then see the Factory Records New Year’s Eve party at Woolworth’s on Oldham Street. Sadly, I guess I wouldn’t be able to warn Ian Curtis’ bandmates about his imminent suicide, but maybe he’d let me watch Werner Herzog’s Stroszek with him before he did it. (How goth would that be?) Living in Manchester in the depressed late ’70s would also allow me to fulfill a fantasy of being a street tough who lives on a council estate, but without any of the danger. I can’t get murdered by heavily accented Manc thugs, can I, Patton?
My parents have a Time-Life series called This Fabulous Century, and when I was a kid, I pored over the books, getting stuck on the 1920s edition again and again, so I’ll say Manhattan, 1924-1929, so I could plausibly visit Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, see The Wild Party when it comes out, and linger in the Algonquin hotel to try to get a glimpse of the Vicious Circle. To me, it seemed like the first exciting time in the nation to be a young woman: It’s always appealed to me that the youthquake movement of that era consisted both of superficial pleasures (jazz, movies, dancing, daring fashion, flashy cars, clandestine booze, cigarettes) and more substantive cultural milestones as well (suffrage, college education, more sexual freedom). Being a girl who can hang with the boys has always appealed to me, and that era seemed like the first time where women could get away with doing what the guys did. Not to mention, the heroes of those years must have been thrilling to follow in real time: Imagine turning on your radio and hearing what Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, or Clarence Darrow were up to that day. It always struck me as an era that was truly exciting and sexy, yet somehow still full of wonder and the ability to make fun of itself.
I’d fully indulge my literary pretensions and go snob it up with the “Lost Generation” of expatriate writers and artists living in Paris during the 1920s—specifically 1922 to 1926, let’s say, since I only have a five-year window, and that was pretty much its golden age. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it’s truly the place where the 20th century was created—and more importantly, it was one of the few places on earth where a writer (even a passably proficient one, by Internet standards) could survive on a meager paycheck and an iota of charm, so long as he avoided syphilis. I would loiter around Shakespeare And Co. or Les Deux Magots until I finally curried favor with Ernest Hemingway or he punched me in the face. I’d wrangle an invite to Stein’s salon and mingle there with a half-blind James Joyce, who would be celebrating (or bitching about) the recent underground publication of Ulysses, and thus probably down for sharing a whiskey or three. There, I’d also run into other writers, like Ezra Pound, Erich Maria Remarque, and T.S. Eliot, whom I would try to warn about Andrew Lloyd Webber at some point. Eventually, F. Scott Fitzgerald would take up more permanent residence in the city and begin drinking himself to death, leaving me free to brazenly court Zelda Fitzgerald behind his back; she’d be at her most emotionally fragile, and thus the most open to my designs. (Pablo Picasso is in there somewhere too, but in spite of what Jonathan Richman says, I hear he was kind of an asshole, so whatever.) If I grew bored with discussing modernism or World War I or what Hemingway could kill with his bare hands, I could always go party down at Le Grand Duc or any of the other jazz clubs, or go watch Josephine Baker do her banana dance at the Folies Bergère, because it’s rare you’ll find a good banana dance here in the 21st century. I could also go and witness the explosion of Art Deco at the International Exposition Of Modern Industrial And Decorative Arts in 1925, and stand around making IKEA jokes that no one would get. But who am I kidding: I’d probably just spend most of my time getting plastered around the Montparnasse and deluding myself into thinking I was worthy of that esteemed company, which is what a lot of modern writers do anyway.
The period in history that most fascinates me is the Protestant Reformation, but no way I’d want to live through it. The rapid pace of radical change, the crumbling of long-standing orthodoxies, their replacement by untethered flights of theological and political fancy—all best watched from a distance, since the participants had an unfortunate habit of burning each other at the stake. So I’d like to set up my homestead in Alexandria, Egypt, starting in 300 C.E. The religious invention of the future was going on there at almost as rapid a pace as in the 16th century, but the debates were less bloody. And for good reason: The folks trying to construct a version of Christianity that made sense had to do so in the well-established lingua franca of making sense—Greek philosophy, which everyone shared. (The Reformation is marked by the shocking deterioration of any shared foundation of thinking.) So polytheists, Christians, and Jews operated from a position of common values and a common storehouse of knowledge, more or less. The remarkable creativity on display in their debates didn’t arise from clashing worldviews, but from attempts to spin out the implications of the worldview held by the whole world. Call it naive globalism, call it McWorld if you like, but that’s the kind of vigorous conversation about the true, the good, and the beautiful I’d like to see. As a bonus, if I could interject into the letters flying back and forth across the Mediterranean, maybe I could temper the Alexandrian church fathers’ insistence on a high Christology, the result of which has been more negative than positive in my opinion. Also, the library system was pretty good there for awhile, I understand.
The Leopard. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Woman In The Dunes. La Dolce Vita. Directors like Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, L’Eclisse) and Luis Buñuel (The Young One, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel) working at the height of their power. International cinema was flourishing at Cannes between 1960-1964, and I’d be there watching some of my all-time favorite movies première at the jewel of all film festivals. (And though I’m not the sort to be awed by celebrities, I do have a pulse, and the sight of Anita Ekberg walking the red carpet would quicken it.) Granted, the festival only takes up two glorious weeks in May, but I’d be spending the rest of the year on the French Riviera, enjoying the sand and surf, gnawing on baguettes and other buttery culinary delights, and generally indulging myself like a slothful Roman emperor.
Having grown up outside of Detroit, I’ve often wished I could experience the city as a vibrant metropolitan center, rather than the hub of corruption and broken promises it has become. With that in mind, a more reasonable person would visit the city during its Gilded Age “Paris of the west” phase, or the pre-Depression boom years where the city’s skyline was shaped by the Penobscot Building, Cadillac Place, and other stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. But The MC5 weren’t playing the Grande Ballroom in the late 1800s, and Al Kaline didn’t sign with the Tigers until 1953, so I’d prefer to live in the Motor City from 1966 through 1970. That way, I’d get one good year of sitting in on Berry Gordy’s quality-control meetings (including those for The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love”) and scarfing down burgers at the Lindell A.C. before all hell breaks loose during the 12th Street Riots in 1967. Bearing witness to the oft-cited catalyst of the city’s decline only seems like it goes against the central reason for my visit—once the fires go out, there’s still a Tigers World Series victory to get swept up in. I’d probably spend my last few years in town watching The MC5 and The Stooges playing sloppy midwives to punk rock while dropping off various notices of praise (“Don’t dismiss The Jackson 5”) and damnation (“Down with The Bob Seger System”) at Creem’s Cass Avenue offices. Leaving in 1971 would mean I’d miss my chance to spend long nights arguing about Lou Reed with the Creem-imported Lester Bangs, but that’s fine—this vacation is steeped in enough self-destruction as it is.
For me, it’s go big or go home on this question. So despite all its problems, and maybe because of them, I would choose to live in New York City’s Lower East Side between 1855 and 1859. Brooklyn’s own Walt Whitman, who released Leaves Of Grass in 1855, said that while others might see chaos in that time, he saw, “one continued, ceaseless, devilish provoking, delicious, glorious jam,” and that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see the start of Tammany Hall under Boss Tweed. I want to be around for the influx of Irish Catholics into the US, watch as people figure out how to live in horrible tenements, and check out the run on the banks during the abysmal Panic of 1857. I absolutely know that these were horrible conditions (Anyone who hasn’t been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC, go.), but that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see how things ran, how people went about their daily lives, and what a real shady bar was like in that era. Heck, there were bare-knuckle boxing matches, police riots, and gang battles on the regular. Martin Scorsese later bastardized all that for Gangs Of New York, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something a little interesting about a gang member named “Jack The Rat,” who reportedly would bite the head off a mouse for 10 cents and decapitate a rat for a quarter. On the flip side of things, New York was just expanding north. It hadn’t yet reached Central Park, the plans for which came from Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858. Darwin’s Origin Of The Species hit bookstores in 1859. I’d also pony up a quarter almost every single day to just hang out in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, filled with exotic animals, a theater, a freaking loom run by a dog, a tree the apostles supposedly sat under, a real live flea circus, and the famous Tom Thumb. It even held an oyster bar, because in the 19th century, oysters were picked by the million out of the East and Hudson rivers and brought to port, for consumption by the masses. That alone might be worth the trip for me.
Really, guys? We’re all going to travel to years mostly since 1950? Too few of you are thinking big here. I get that part of the idea is that we have to live without the Internet and TV and modern medicine and stuff for five years, but I’m going to assume that I could acquit myself with aplomb by merely washing my hands and paying attention to what I ate, and go back to London between 1601 and 1606, which is the period when William Shakespeare most likely wrote his greatest works. Honestly, I spent a little time while contemplating this question thinking about going back to some sort of monastery to check out and slow down for a few years, going back to the Great Depression or the Black Death (since I like death and destruction so much, apparently). But this very quickly came down to a battle of two totally stereotypical ideas: Do I go back to hang out with Jesus, or to hang out with Shakespeare? Eventually, I decided that much as I’d like to know what was really up with Jesus, I’d much prefer living in 17th-century London, so Shakespeare won out.
I’m fascinated by people who are thinking on a whole different level from most of us, those rare geniuses who pop along only once or twice every century and shake the world up. Honestly, I can’t say that anyone like this has lived within my lifetime, since I was born well after Einstein died, but because I’m vaguely literary, I’d like to see if I could ingratiate myself to the man who invented much of the English language, seemingly without even trying, as well as plenty of philosophical and critical concepts, including (arguably) modernism. The best thing about Shakespeare is how little we know about him. He could be the biggest asshole alive, which would make my whole trip seem without meaning very quickly! But because he worked in close collaboration with the folks at the Globe theater, I’m choosing to believe that he was as collaborative and fun to hang out with as the theater people I spent much of college hanging around. And it’s not like he’s the only attraction. I’d get to hang out in a bustling London that’s shrugging off the Middle Ages and heading pell-mell toward the Industrial Revolution, or already starting the earliest steps toward it. I’d get to wait around to see whether Queen Elizabeth I will ride by in the streets that day, and experience all the complicated political machinations in the Europe of the day. And even if Shakespeare didn’t want to hang out, I could go see his plays performed at the Globe. I’d miss TV. I’d miss the Internet. But part of the appeal of this is to go back to a time before that constant connectedness, to get back to a world where entertainment consisted, pretty much, of a guy taking the stage and saying “Let me tell you a story.” I’d probably miss plenty of creature comforts in 17th-century England, but getting to see Hamlet performed for the first time? Yeah, that’d make up for it. (Plus, if I could prove Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe? I’d definitely get a book deal out of that. Do I get to take a camera back? I should get to take a camera back.)
Like Todd, my impulse with this question is to go big and travel to a time period that at least predates any of my living relatives, but unlike him, I kept getting hung up on finding an earlier time period that wouldn’t completely suck to live in as a woman who’s been raised in a post-feminist world. Elizabethan London or Victorian New York might offer a lot of exciting cultural opportunities, but I probably wouldn’t get to attend many of them without male escorts or chaperones tagging along, and they might get testy about my constant swearing. Basically, I’m looking for a time period where a little gender subversion might get me some disapproving looks, but probably won’t earn me a whipping. Factor in my affinity for high spectacle and raucous nightlife, and the destination is clear: fin de siècle Paris, 1896-1900 to be exact, probably in the vicinity of the Montmartre district, if we’re adhering strictly to the five-mile rule. Sure, I wouldn’t be able to vote, but I don’t know anything about French politics anyway; I’d still get to witness the rise of the “New Woman” movement, maybe even take part in it by contributing some of my radical 21st-century ideas to the feminist newspaper La Fronde. Or I could leave the rabble-rousing to Marguerite Durand and just soak in everything the pleasure center of Europe had to offer at the time: cabarets, experimental theater and avant-garde performance art, the spreading influence of haute couture and Art Nouveau, and the birth of the can-can at the Moulin Rouge. Then, to cap off my tenure, I’d check out the first talking films at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, cheer on the female athletes who were competing in the summer Olympic Games for the first time, and pick up a souvenir to take back home to 2010: a couple of early sketches from this punk kid named Pablo Picasso, who’d just moved to town.
I know this is pathetically nostalgic and/or lazy of me, but since Patton didn’t expressly forbid it, I’m picking a time and place I just so happen to have already lived through: Denver from 1993 to 1997. What can I say? I more or less came of age then and there, and I’d give my left leg to be able to re-experience some of my hometown’s greatest bands—and some of my fondest, most formative memories. Angel Hair, a seminal post-hardcore band whose music still blows away any contenders, was from Boulder (as was its offshoot, The VSS, before the latter moved to San Francisco). Seeing those guys spaz and thrash around in cramped campus venues and shitty warehouses across the front range was a revelation to me. So was seeing emo legend Christie Front Drive on a regular basis, not to mention Pinhead Circus, a gritty pop-punk band on BYO Records that never got its full due.
There was other exciting stuff going on in the Mile High City at the time that many non-Denverites may not realize, although they ought to. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum lived in our fair city for a while during that period, as did Olivia Tremor Control’s Will Cullen Hart—and they shared a basement apartment in the Baker neighborhood with most members of the scrappy indie-pop outfit The Apples, who had yet to attach “In Stereo” to their name. In fact, Mangum recorded both classic Neutral Milk albums in Denver in the mid-’90s, and it was truly exciting shit, even before those albums were unleashed upon the world and gained the well-deserved notoriety they have now. As for The Apples: They’re still great, but there was an accidental, self-destructive magic to their early live shows that nothing since has matched.
And then there was the Felt Pilotes, a Galaxie 500-esque outfit led by John Porcellino of King-Cat Comics fame. They were probably my Denver favorite: As bravely simple and heart-wrenchingly gentle as King-Cat itself, the Felt Pilotes’ music inspired me, moved me, and made me realize what a rock ’n’ roll band could (and probably should) be. This is all just the tip of the iceberg, of course, and I was far from being a mere spectator in that scene. But if I had the chance to live it all over again, I’d probably slow down, take a step back, and savor it a whole hell of a lot more than I did when I was a hyperactive kid in my early ’20s. At the time, I never thought it would end. But it did. And I miss it.
This is a real bitch of a question, and everyone’s answers make it even tougher. Suddenly I feel silly wishing to be in D.C. in the mid-’80s so I could see lots of awesome punk shows. So, fine, I’ll pick something outside of my lifetime: New York, 1946-1950. World War II sent a lot of European artists fleeing to the U.S., so unsurprisingly, New York became the center of the art world after the fighting ended. By stopping the DeLorean in 1946, I could check out some of the final exhibits at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art Of This Century Gallery and see the opening of the Betty Parsons Gallery. I’d witness the rise of abstract expressionism: Jackson Pollock before he became a real bastard, Mark Rothko as he settled on his multiform style, Franz Kline deciding to ditch all color, and Willem De Kooning discovering how much he liked painting ladies. (And needless to say, considering the company I’d keep, I’d be getting loaded a lot.) Beyond that, post-war New York was the center of the industrialized world. I wouldn’t have any problem finding other stuff to do, which would come in handy when Pollock inevitably took a swing at me in a drunken rage.
As I told Kyle earlier, I’ve had a hard time answering this. And not because I haven’t been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’ve had the same problem I’ve always had inserting myself into one of those stories with three wishes: You don’t want to squander this sort of opportunity, right? I mean, really, do we just want to go somewhere where we can see some good shows? That seems kind of frivolous. And chances are, your heroes won’t really want to hang out with you, right? I know we’re strictly playing around in the realm of imagination here, but I keep worrying about the monkey’s-paw-like consequences of my choice. That said, I can’t really think of anything better than to go back and see music history as it happens, particularly if the surroundings are right. My first instinct is to want to be at Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1962 when Stevie Wonder cut the live version of “Fingertips,” because that surely would have been something. But if I’m going to invest five years, let’s go with New Orleans from 1914 to 1918. I’m no expert on early jazz or New Orleans, just an enthusiast. But I would have loved to have been there in the years when jazz was coming into its own. Jelly Roll Morton would have been gone by then, but Dixieland would have been at its height before a young Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and the rest left for more profitable—but I think it’s safe to say, less remarkable—cities.
When I was a kid, I always thought I was living during the best time in all of human history. I’m not exactly sure why I felt so strongly about it, but I do remember feeling sorry for all previous generations that didn’t have my comforts and technological advances. (I loved my portable cassette player.) Then somewhere along the way, I started wishing I’d grown up during a gentler, simpler time—I think Magic Johnson getting AIDS as I was going through my formative sexual years had something to do with it, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but my portable CD player was about as technologically advanced as I was going to get. By college, I was proudly calling myself a Luddite, and not surprisingly, I’ve only gotten worse with age. I love Mad Men because it’s a great show, but I really love Mad Men because they’re all going about their daily lives without computers, smartphones, and all the other things we can’t ignore, but which suck so much time from our lives. Which brings me to the five years I’d like to live in: 1930-1934 in the American Southwest, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. When I mentioned this to a friend, her first response was “Didn’t you read The Grapes Of Wrath?” And I did just see a History Channel show about the Dust Bowl that looked pretty terrible.
But I’m sticking to my original plan: I think I’m pretty soft, and I want to know what kind of person I’d become if I lived during a time where survival required not taking a single thing for granted. Without the burden of expecting instant gratification, getting something I wanted or needed would be that much sweeter. I’d be a farmer or a cattle rancher (yes, I’m a vegetarian, but without Morrissey around, I probably wouldn’t have become one in the ’30s), and I’d learn to treat water like gold. It’s not like there wasn’t any culture or quality entertainment during the Depression—I’d be alive during the birth of swing, and I’d be around when my A’s (of Philadelphia, but still) actually won a World Series—but residing far from a big city, I wouldn’t have much access to it. Instead, I’d be forced to create my own entertainment, learning to master the guitar or piano and playing for my family and the ranch hands. I’d be shocked at stories of families back East getting indoor plumbing and actually shitting where they ate—the horror!—and I’d appreciate living in a time and place where teenage girls traveled hundreds of miles alone on horseback without fear of being raped and killed. (For a better understanding of my romantic notions related to the Great Depression, pick up Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses.) I’d hopefully develop a resiliency as well as a mind-body-spirit enlightenment that people spend thousands of dollars these days to get from yoga. Then again, maybe it’ll be as terrible as it was taught in school, and I’ll end up getting blood poisoning from my bad teeth and destroying my liver with the moonshine I’d make in my bathtub.
I’ll go ahead and waste my time-travel ticket on an era I actually did live through, but was much too young to be a part of: Los Angeles, 1984-1989. My answer really only has one basis, and that’s to hang out with rebellious boys with long hair. Though I considered responding with something more worldly or intellectual, my gut was immediately drawn to the early days of street skating and to the social circles of skateboarders like Stacy Peralta, Tommy Guerro, Rodney Mullen, and the rest of the Bones Brigade crew. I’ve long been fascinated by youth subcultures, and to witness the burgeoning of one that I’ve always admired from afar would be really exciting for me. Plus maybe I could sneak into the background of such influential/legendary skate videos as 1984’s The Bones Brigade Video Show and 1985’s Future Primitive. Boys and boards—I’m a pretty simple lady.
Now, I’m not sure if this is allowed, but the first thing that came to mind is a little out there. I’d like to live in San Francisco, for the five years after I die. I’m fascinated by technology and by how it affects pop culture. The other day, I was at a family dinner and my great aunt was marveling over my iPhone—how it’s essentially a computer you carry around in your pocket. My great uncle made some joke about how he remembers when computers were the size of rooms and needed the lowest air conditioning setting imaginable to function. Yet it was a mere few years ago that computers were, like, at home. And a few years before that, barely anyone had laptops, because they were prohibitively expensive. My point is that things change faster than any of us ever imagined, and so goes the rate of pop-culture saturation. You’ve probably heard of and/or experienced way more bands, films, TV shows, comedians, and videogames than you ever could only a few years ago. There’s just so much that my biggest fear has become missing out on something I’d love.
I’d certainly miss out on a lot if I were dead, so thanks to the magic of Patton Oswalt, I’d get to experience it all. (San Francisco was chosen for its access to the tech community, its status as a hub for touring bands and comics, and for ancillary things like weather and the ease with which I could recreate the Full House opening credits.) For five years, I’d read every future book or news article I could, play with future gadgets, listen to every future band I could, watch awesome future comedy, TV, and film nonstop, and play future videogames on future systems. Maybe I’ll eat some moon food. Who knows? Pop culture is fascinating, trumped only by my fascination with watching how it ebbs and flows in unexpected ways.
I thought long and hard about this one, but I’m not sure I can come up with an appropriate response. Theoretically, I love the idea—it’d be great to bump into some of the famous minds of the past, to find out what really happened and what’s just bullshit. But you know what? I like the modern age. I like electricity, I like the Internet. I like not smelling of piss and shit all the damn time. I can’t imagine a single period in the past where five years wouldn’t eventually start to wear thin for me. You can argue that’s a failure of imagination on my part, but c’mon—that’s longer than I spent in college, and I had regular access to some pretty sweet drugs back then, and even that got old after a while. So now I don’t want to sacrifice running water and ethernet just so I can find out who the real Shakespeare was, and I don’t want to die of the rickets just so I can real-life the Oregon Trail. So you show me a time machine and a strict lease, I’m gonna avoid signing. And if you put a gun to my head, well screw it, I’ll be pushing the lever forward instead of back. We know what the past was like. I want to see space travel and other planets and aliens with weird forehead ridges. Gimme a hundred years from now, I’ll take my chances. Maybe the human race’ll be gone by then, and when I come back, I’ll finally get why Sarah Palin is so funny. But please, don’t send me to Before. I have enough troubles getting by as is. I don’t need to worry about polio and Black Death and getting thrown to the wolves because I have occasional asthma attacks.
I’ll go you guys one better. I don’t have Zack’s fear of the past; my first impulse for this question was Alexandria, Egypt just a few decades after the era Donna picked, and we almost had to fight over who got it. But while there are a lot of past eras that would be fascinating to visit, we have at least some idea how all of them went—even the most inaccurate of our histories at least give us an idea of what the past was like. The future, on the other hand, is an unwritten map, and given the radical changes in technology, society, art, and culture even over the past couple of decades, I can’t think of any past era I’d want full details on more than I want to know what the far future is going to be like. So I’m going to say lower Manhattan from 2999 A.D. to 3003 A.D. There’s a chance that I’m dooming myself to five years of ducking and covering in a radiation-ravaged ashy hellhole full of pollution-mutants, but I’d say there’s just as good a chance that by that time, I’ll be able to upload my consciousness into a tachyon and send it to Andromeda to check out local conditions while my body stays at home in its cradle, living up to the letter of Patton’s laws. More likely, though, by that time humanity will have either wiped itself out, or evolved culturally and technologically into something none of us could predict—and short of this thought experiment (or Futurama-like cryonics or brains-in-jars technology), none of us are likely to find out. So why wouldn’t I take the chance? And why would the relics of the past be more interesting than the unlimited potential of the unanticipatable future? (Not to mention the third-millennium party I’m anticipating in Times Square on December 31, 2999.)
Thanks to Patton Oswalt and Roger Ebert for participating in this milestone AVQ&A. We would be remiss hosts if we did not mention that Roger Ebert’s latest book, The Great Movies III—his third essay collection about major cinematic landmarks—is coming out October 15, and is available now on Amazon. And Patton Oswalt’s website is a terrific place to find out what he’s up to and where you can see him perform live in the near future.