Reflection on a Pixar short film called Borrowed Time

Borrowed Time  (6 minutes) is a dark and illuminating animated short that features a sheriff struggling to process death and overcome childhood trauma. Pixar director Andrew Coats, also creator of Inside Out, once again tackles a heavy subject in a way that even children can appreciate.

As the sheriff appears walking over a desert cliff, his tired eyes retrace the past across scattered debris. Alone in nature, he faces mortality armed with only a few belongings and his shiny sheriff’s badge. All the authority and civilization in the world will not likely outlast the vast Western landscape. For now, we watch him struggle.

In Westerns, the frontier was a stage for American victories against “chaos.” It created a world where so-called “Manifest Destiny” and American expansion were justified and inevitable. It was a dominant myth that cast cowboys’ crimes as forgivable and ignored indigenous narratives as irrelevant. Like minstrel shows, Westerns were a selective mirror that (mainly white) Americans enjoyed.

The sheriff’s frontier in Borrowed Time is a more revealing mirror since it exists both across space and over time. Through his memory and the abandoned objects, our sheriff bravely searches past the psychological boundaries that separate now from then. On some level, he must know what happened but he returns to see what more the place can remind him of.

Memory has a habit of massaging life into a simpler story for our peace of mind, but we can know ourselves only to the extent that we can interrogate and remember our history. It is convenient to ignore our darker moments, but who do we become once we forget?

When the main character flashes back to his childhood, we see his younger self as the passenger of a wagon alongside a previous sheriff who is possibly his father. The sheriff of his childhood is imposing yet jolly. He navigates the wagon with ease, conveying safety and promise: this is how we want to be in our prime. In a special moment, the man lets the boy hold his watch and hat. With these gifts, one generation initiates the next into technology and civilization.

Logistically, preparing the next generation takes decades. Parents must know this and children have an idea. In Borrowed Time, this particular man’s efforts to pass the torch are cut short as someone starts shooting at the wagon. He switches his focus to shooting back at his assailant and can no longer navigate the wagon. A parent instinctively protects his child but sometimes the task is too great.

The man hands over the wagon’s reins shouting “you can do this.” The inexperienced child isn’t ready for such responsibility, and the wagon soon crashes leaving his adult chaperone hanging over the side of a cliff. As the young man tries to pull the sheriff up by his rifle, the gun accidentally discharges and kills the adult. By the time the pocket watch falls on the ground and stops ticking, an era has ended.

We often try to bury our guilts in the past along with their causes. Instead of falling into that convenient tendency, the main character in Borrowed Time braves a temporal frontier to face his troubled past and the cause for his guilt. It takes much courage to revisit what happened honestly because history has the potential to disrupt what we think and who we are. We did cheat. We did lie. We did hurt. Slavery happened. Genocide happened. Exploitation is happening.

We often simplify ourselves, our tribe, and our civilization into a continuous narrative of progress, but what do we do when narratives like the American dream fade away? We can easily critique it and derisively laugh it off. That is fine but it is more difficult to replace the hope we lost, which has grounded us and motivated our future. Traumatic experiences create distressing voids and are therefore frequently avoided. Over time, like the sheriff, we inevitably struggle with a crisis of what the past does not hide.

Author David Foster Wallace explains the challenge of overcoming generational voids when discussing our current generation of writers. Many post-modern writers responded to the excesses of world wars, racism, and imperialism by questioning the merit of Western accomplishments and worth of our culture. It is one thing to banish falsehood with the fierceness of Nietzsche and another to live out and create your truth. The post-modern thinkers who severed their ties from the wisdom of a previous generation struggled to build anew since their main function was to merely dismantle and critique.

"The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back.. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents."
-David Foster Wallace

Like the sheriff, we must acknowledge that we are the ones to deal with and emerge from our trauma. If we dance around what is going on, who we are, and what we want, we fail to realize our power and potential. Are we total pussies, indeed?

The story finishes with the man stopping himself from jumping off the cliff after the old pocket watch catches his eye on the ground. It is still there after all these years to remind him that time is a temporary gift. He can cherish it in memory of those who came before or destroy it. When he opens the watch he sees it contains a picture of him and the old sheriff, he cries mourning what he lost. In the process of doing so, he appreciates what he has inherited. The watch reconnects him to a father figure, to his childhood, and to time.

As he picks up the clock, it starts to tick again. He can see himself as a steward of something bigger now. His purpose returns and his role as a sheriff is not just a uniform but an orientation to take care of himself and his world. This is possible because he confronts hard realities and finds strength inside them. We must not ignore what we have inherited, neither the ugliness nor the beauty. We must appreciate the work historians, retreats and truth commissions do to help us remember where it is most difficult. 

There is a song by DMX called Slippin, which he begins by quoting Nietzsche: “To live is to suffer, but to survive, that’s to find meaning in suffering.” Our survival requires that we find how our life is valuable in itself. It might be a temporary phenomenon but finding a reason to continue is our one true victory that we must not ignore or deemphasize. As Audre Lorde says in A Litany for Survival “it is better to speak for we were never meant to survive.”

If we can come to terms with our suffering and its cause, perhaps there is a way to redeem our lives and participate in the world. If we can mourn our being hurt and hurting, perhaps we can free ourselves to live meaningfully. 

We always have the option to sit in silence and passively stare at our many voids. We can even jump off cliffs if we want. But by working through our experiences, chaos and all, we can eventually become empowered creators in our own right.

The clocking is always ticking, the games are usually rigged, and the time is borrowed. Still, your life is yours from the moment you choose to own it.

I'm dedicating this reflection to Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace who wanted me to live, Kendrick Lamar who wants me to fight, and to Mr. Loose who taught me how to appreciate a good film, Westerns in particular.