Time Is of the Essence, Really

One of my favorite TV shows of the last decade was the Fox drama 24, which ran for eight seasons and was recently revived as 24: Live Another Day. The cool thing about that series was that it was shot in “real time,” meaning that each episode was meant to depict the same amount of narrative time as it took to watch it – minus commercials, of course. The value of using the real time device is that it creates an underlying tension that helps propel the narrative. Every tiny moment, every little action takes on added significance. That means that a filmmaker attempting to mirror real time had better have a tightly plotted script to make the trick pay off. Real time movies are all about pacing and concision. For instance, a real time film showing two guys playing chess probably wouldn’t hold interest for most viewers, but an edgy dramatic story or a wacky comic situation amped up with real time probably will.

As for 24, I’ll grant you that there were plenty of logical implausibilities in forcing a major political crisis (sometimes two) into twenty-four, hour-long, neatly-packaged episodes each season. The action, however, was delivered at such breakneck pace – frequently underscored by the use of a ticking digital clock – that it didn’t give you much time to think about the flaws. I’m talking about things like people constantly traversing Los Angeles by car in the space of a commercial break, or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer character never stopping to use a restroom or getting a bite to eat (it’s no wonder he always seemed so irritable!). Flaws and all, however, it was just big action-crammed fun!

A year after 24 premiered, NBC tried using the real time gimmick for a half-hour sitcom starring popular comic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Watching Ellie ran for two seasons, but only the first was filmed as a real time series. The network was so disappointed with the results of that first season, however, that it never aired three of the thirteen episodes that had been shot. When it returned a year later, it had dropped the real time angle, but to no avail, as NBC cancelled it after just six new episodes. To my knowledge, 24 and Watching Ellie are the only two scripted shows ever to appear on American network television that attempted to film every episode of an entire season in real time.

Single episodes of American TV shows, on the other hand, have been shot to reflect real time on numerous occasions. Quite obviously, it’s far easier to employ the real time stunt for a single half-hour or hour television episode than it is to film an entire series that way. Among the many TV series that have used the device for individual episodes are M*A*S*H (“Life Time,” the eleventh episode of season eight), Seinfeld ("The Chinese Restaurant,” the eleventh episode of season two), Frasier (“My Coffee with Niles,” the twenty-fourth episode of season one, and “Dinner Party,” the seventeenth episode of season six), Friends (“The One Where No One's Ready,” the second episode of season three), The X-Files (“Triangle,” the third episode of season six), and Stargate: Atlantis (“Thirty-Eight Minutes,” the fourth episode of season one).

The very first feature film to be shot in real time may be the 1936 movie 90 Minutes Stop (or Neunzig Minuten Aufenthalt in the original German), directed by and starring Harry Piel. The plot concerns a criminal investigator from Berlin and a Scotland Yard inspector who are traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina to attend a boxing competition. They meet up in Lisbon, Portugal, where they will board an ocean liner for the trans-Atlantic crossing. In the brief hour and a half they have between their arrival and departure, they meet a young woman whose uncle has been murdered. The detectives then race to solve the crime before their ship leaves. Piel, who played the Berliner, was a major star of German cinema during the teens, twenties, and thirties. Unfortunately, he was also a Nazi and a patron member (financial supporter) of the SS. After the fall of Germany in 1945, the allies sentenced him to six months detention and five years professional disqualification, from which his career never really recovered.

Possibly the first American narrative film to be shot in real time was director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, released in 1948. Rope is about a thrill kill perpetrated by two college classmates on a third whom they consider their intellectual inferior. With his corpse stuffed into a trunk, the overconfident killers throw a dinner party in which they use the unlocked trunk as a table to serve their unsuspecting guests. James Stewart stars as a party guest, a prep school instructor who had previously taught the three boys. This murder mystery also has a second cinematic distinction: it was edited to appear as if it was shot in one long, continuous take, which was physically impossible to do at the time using 35mm film.

In the following year of 1949, Robert Wise directed the taut boxing drama The Set-Up, with an intense performance by Robert Ryan The DVD cover for the Robert Wise film The Set-Up.as a washed-up pugilist who’s still looking to win one more big fight, unaware that everyone around him is working against him. In 1952, Gary Cooper delivered one of his most iconic roles portraying Marshal Will Kane, a man whose strict moral code prevents him from taking the easy way out, in the Fred Zinnemann western High Noon. The brief opening and closing segments of the 1957 jury room drama 12 Angry Men weren't filmed in real time, but the rest of the picture was, so it makes the list. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of unknown Broadway actors in supporting roles alongside star Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men immediately established TV director Sidney Lumet in the world of film. Surprisingly, after those four classics, there wasn’t another major American movie shot in real time for nearly thirty years!

In between the fifties and eighties, however, there was a handful of foreign and low-budget American real time films. One really worth seeking out is French director Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), which, despite the title, only lasts ninety minutes. A year later, The Sadist appeared, a better-than-average drive-in flick starring cult-figure Arch Hall Jr. Another low-budget movie (filmed just as Richard Dreyfuss was on the verge of stardom – released before Jaws in Europe, but after it here) was Inserts. It’s a period piece about a young Hollywood director whose initial industry success in the silent era ended with the coming of sound, resulting in his being reduced to making stag films by the early thirties.

In 1981, an independent film starring a pair of relatively unknown playwright/actors garnered a surprising amount of attention. In My Dinner with André, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory meet at a restaurant, then eat and talk for the remaining length of the movie. Clue, based on the popular board game, finally broke the long, real time movie drought at Hollywood studios in 1985. Blessed with a talented comic cast, that mystery farce also had a distinction that is perhaps unique in the history of film distribution: it was simultaneously released with three different endings!

Another decade passed before Hollywood began employing the real time gambit regularly. Starting in 1995 with Nick of Time, Tinseltown has released a number of mostly undistinguished crime dramas shot “on the clock.” In addition to Nick of Time, these include Running Time (1997), Phone Booth (2002), 16 Blocks (2006), and 88 Minutes (2008), as well as the Canadian-made comic crime drama Real Time (2008). In 2011, the horror genre, which often uses extended sequences reflecting real time, had an entire film dedicated to the narrative technique with Silent House. That movie, like Rope, was edited to appear as if shot in one continuous take. Unfortunately, the results were mediocre on both counts.

Most of the best uses of real time have been in movies with higher aspirations. One of these was Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000), which splits the frame into four synchronized quadrants, with characters from one quadrant occasionally interacting with characters from another. It was a brave and noteworthy experiment, but ultimately fell short of its ambitions due to its own visually chaotic nature. Still, it’s worth seeing once. Likewise, 2002’s Russian Ark, is a grand experiment. That Russian-language film was actually shot (thanks to the wonders of modern digital filmmaking) in one continuous take. Lensed in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum utilizing hundreds of actors in dozens of rooms, it’s an impressive logistical accomplishment. The fantastical narrative, however, isn’t likely to win over all viewers.

As I’ve discussed the work of filmmaker Richard Linklater in a previous post, I’ll only mention his two real time movies – Tape (2001) The DVD cover for the Paul Greengrass film United 93.and Before Sunset (2004) – and again recommend that you see them. Another great real time movie of recent vintage is Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006), a straightforward recounting of the United Flight 93 hijacking on 9/11, which was foiled by the passengers, but still ended in tragedy. It is eerily realistic in that the “heroes” are simply average people trying to step up in a crisis situation, while the hijackers are similarly average people, just ones who believe that their horrific actions are justified. I haven’t had the opportunity to see The Death of Mr. Lazarescu yet (though I do have it on order!), but I understand that that 2005 Romanian film, a very dark comedic look at the final ninety minutes of a man’s life, is one of the best eastern European films of the last decade.

If you haven’t enjoyed the experience of watching TV shows or movies depicting real time, consider giving them a shot. Check out a few DVDs from the Des Moines Public Library and keep it “real.”