Before 'Cosmos,' There Was 'Time': Morris' 'Brief History' Reissued by Criterion
A Brief History of Time A Film by Errol Morris, 1991, 84 minutes
Dual Disc Blu-Ray & DVD Edition
Published by The Criterion Collection 2014
"I was sure that nearly everyone is interested in how the universe operates, but most people cannot follow mathematical equations. I don't care much for equations myself. This is partly because it is difficult for me to write them down, but mainly because I don't have an intuitive feeling for equations. Instead I think in pictorial terms..."
This eye-opening revelation by renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking comes from a chapter of his 2013 memoir, My Brief History. That chapter is included, along with an essay entitled "Macrobiology" by film critic David Sterritt, in a beautifully designed booklet packaged with the new dual Blu-ray and DVD edition from The Criterion Collection of Errol Morris' 1991 film based on Hawking's 1988 book of the same name, A Brief History of Time. The booklet also includes technical information about the restoration and transfer of the film.
The fact that Hawking would admit he doesn't "have an intuitive feeling for equations" makes him an accessible figure to a broad range of the curious yet scientifically and mathematically challenged folk. Bridging this great divide between the rarefied world of the science community and the rest of us was Hawking's fundamental goal in writing A Brief History of Time. The fact that it has sold over 10 million copies, been translated in many languages, and appeared on the London Sunday Times best-seller list an unprecedented 237 weeks is an indication that the book has had an impact far beyond academia.
Hawking's predilection to "think in pictorial terms" and his drive to understand the most difficult of life's questions and present his findings to a mass audience may explain his willingness to collaborate with Morris on the cinematic transformation of his book.
In retrospect, the pairing of Morris with Hawking seems brilliant, given that the filmmaker had studied the history of science as a graduate student at Princeton. But as Morris tells us in his interview on the making of the film, it was not always smooth sailing. Morris interpreted Hawking's book as autobiographical, in part. There was some resistance from Hawking to this approach, but Morris prevailed. The intimate and informative interviews with Hawking's mother and sister help fill in the backstory of his relatively happy childhood. He was regarded as exceptionally bright early on, but he did not value his own intellect. He became somewhat of a party animal in college and was in danger of drinking his way through life, when in graduate school in 1963, as his health problems escalated, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease). He faced a prognosis of two to three years to live. The shock caused him to reassess and refocus his life. He reversed his downward slide by mobilizing the power of his intellect to unravel theories of the origins of the universe. The gradual collapse of Hawking's body, as traced throughout the film, belies the growing power and influence of his mind.
"Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?" The film opens with these questions and before our eyes begin to glaze over, a giant chicken peers at us against a star-studded sky, and we breathe a sigh of relief. We know we may be challenged, but we are also going to be entertained.
Morris first had to decide how to utilize his main subject, a man confined to a wheelchair, who never moves and who speaks with the aid of a computer and voice synthesizer. Morris refers to Hawking as "the first non-talking talking head" in documentary history. It was indeed a challenge, but he managed to seamlessly weave Hawking's life story together with stylish visualizations of his most cutting-edge ideas in theoretical physics. Most of the film was shot at the Elstree Studios in London. Morris built an entire set—an exact replica of Hawking's office, including his Marilyn Monroe posters that appear in a number of frames as the camera slowly pivots around the immobile Hawking.
The film has a surreal quality as we drift through time and space considering the magnitude of the ideas being discussed. We feel our brains being stretched to accommodate what we hear and see on the screen. The original soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, enhances the otherworldly sensibility that pervades the film. Glass had worked with Morris before on his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, and would again in 2003 on The Fog of War. But the conceptual magnitude of the science in the film is offset by the intimacy and humanity at its heart. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, as well as an IDA Award.
At the close of the film, Hawking's distinctive "voice" floats towards us: "If we do discover a complete theory of the universe that should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists, then we shall all—philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people—be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God." This is nearly a direct quote from the end of the book A Brief History of Time. In his memoir, Hawking admits that he had contemplated cutting out that reference to "the mind of God," which, he believed at the time, would have cut the sales of his book by half.
While it is truly astounding that Hawking is still alive, leading a productive life, he will not live forever. His ideas about life and the universe are his legacy. We have Errol Morris, along with The Criterion Collection, to thank for giving us the opportunity to reflect on those ideas, using this exceptional package as our guide.
Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.