THE DIGITAL ERA: REAL-TIME FILMS FROM 2000 TO TODAY
40 years before, in 1960, lighter cameras enabled a cinéma vérité-flavored revolution in street realism. By 2000, new digital cameras suggested a whole new set of promises, including telling stories that would have been unimaginable within minimum budgets for features even ten years before. In 2000, film purists warned that digital still didn’t look as good as celluloid, but that didn’t stop at least three innovative filmmakers from boldly going where no filmmaker had gone before. Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) was the first star-supported (Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Holly Hunter, among many others) single-shot project since Rope, underlining that earlier film’s timelessness. If Run Lola Run could do one story three times, then Timecode would do three or four stories one time: the movie is four separate ninety-minute shots shown all at the same time, each in one quadrant of the screen. Where do you look? Sometimes, that’s up to you; at least one-third of the time, two cameras focus on one “scene,” drawing your attention to two characters in dialogue who aren’t bound by cinema’s usual shot/reverse-shot convention. Timecode still feels like a worthy experiment, a film that had to be made at least once, but one does regret its cheap look and expensive milieu (the characters are Hollywood types complaining about adultery, running around chic Sunset Boulevard), which seem to have inadvertently diminished chances for such a film ever to be made again.
The far more accomplished Rope of the early 21st century is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a vertiginous triumph of the human spirit – and unlike any film you’ve ever seen. Technically, there’s a threadbare plot about our unseen protagonist who tries to recover a memory, or perhaps a dream, and wanders through a museum, where he sees apparent spirits who can’t see him, except for one who interacts with him and the other spirits…but who are we kidding, this film is really about its single shot, its one take through all of Russian culture as represented in and through the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. We see dancers, actors, dinner guests, bourgeois, proletariat, and all manner of artist-performers as the camera (the POV of our protagonist), with all the confidence of Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) traipses through the apparently never-ending opulent hallways of the city-sized palace. Like Gravity or The Artist (2011), this is an experimental film you can recommend to your non-experimental friends, because the breathless audacity of the staging never quite fails to astonish. Rope had to cut no more than every 10 minutes; Timecode had fades to black on each of the four views; in Russian Ark, the how-the-heck-are-they-doing-that? goes on for 99 damn minutes. Probably no film has come closer to the I-can’t-breathe-yet-I-can’t-stop-smiling feeling of Cirque du Soleil – including Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012).
Back in the United States, another filmmaker was determined to combine a more conventional drama with real-time with video technology, and in Stephen Belber’s play he found the perfect source material, right down to the title, Tape (2001), that would excuse the shoddy look of the piece. If you just revisited Dead Poets Society (1989) after the tragic passing of Robin Williams, you may find the first moments of Richard Linklater’s Tape a little awkward, as the two non-Williams leads from that film, upon reuniting, hug, Ethan Hawke saying “It’s great to be alive!” while horseplay-reanimating Robert Sean Leonard with fake “clear!” paddles. Actually, Tape is also great if you hated Dead Poets Society for being over-cloying, because Tape is the story of how neither Hawke (now as Vince) and Leonard (John) were as perfect in high school as they may have seemed. Vince accuses John of raping his then-girlfriend, who eventually shows up, played by (Hawke’s then-real-life wife) Uma Thurman, offering a perspective that surprises both men. As with Slacker, the words hold up, and even the bad video quality, along with the real-time, give us a vibe that we have stumbled upon a surveillance video (despite traditional cuts and perspective changes) that probably shouldn’t have been made public. It’s an underrated gem in the Linklater canon, now also interesting for what it may tell us about Linklater’s mindset going into 2002.
Why would that matter? Well, because 2002 is when Linklater embarked upon the 12-year journey that became Boyhood, a remediation on cinematic time unlike any before or since. If Alfred Hitchcock wanted to trap us in time, if Andy Warhol wanted to see time go by…well, Linklater would raise the stakes even further. The audacity of planning Boyhood (and keeping it secret) boggles the mind. Linklater had revisited his characters from 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), when he cast them in one of his Slacker-like shorts in the all-rotoscope-animation Waking Life (2001), and perhaps it was then that he also considered what it might be like to revisit those characters in a more extended form. The eventual result was Before Sunset (2004), the only one of the three Before films to take place strictly in real-time, Linklater well applying what he’d only tinkered with in Tape. Nine years after a one-night stand became a love connection, Jesse and Celine re-meet to decide what they were and are to each other. Is Before Sunset the second film in one of cinema’s greatest trilogies, or the second feature in cinema’s greatest ongoing love story? God, let’s hope for the second.
There must be a few curmudgeons complaining about the first world problems of Jesse and Celine trying to resolve their separate worlds, but come on. Early on, Jesse mentions that his book shows “if you’re a romantic or a cynic” but the rest of Before Sunset shows how you can be so amazingly both. Jesse and Celine manage to communicate both through the hard work of apparently effortless conversation. Before Sunset may be a sequel, but it’s no knock-off, no less-than; this is where Jesse and Celine come to terms with love, loss, and the possibility of going more years of never seeing each other again. It probably helps that the whole thing is shot in the magic hour, the soft yellow light illuminating the tender, young, vulnerable hearts of our not-as-young-as-they-were hero and heroine. This is one 80-minute film that you wish were twice as long. The only slight real-time asterisk is that Jesse flashes back to memories of Celine (actually moments from the first film) – but this is kept to a bare minimum of flash-cuts while we hear overlaps of present-day Jesse’s voice. And for further clues to Linklater’s Boyhood planning at the time, note Jesse the novelist discussing his next central character, “It’s obvious to him that time is a lie, and it’s all happening all the time, and inside every moment is another moment, you know, happening simultaneously.”
If Linklater was thinking in 2002 that he liked real-time, but wanted to stand out from the flood (and thus make Boyhood), we can say that more than any film, the TV show 24 should be credited with said flood. Beginning in 2001 shortly (and, it must be said, serendipitously) after the events of 9/11, 24 grabbed all the techniques of all the films in the previous paragraphs of this essay – and then some – and wed them near-seamlessly to the story of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the patriotic agent of “CTU” (Counter-Terrorism Unit), who, in 24 real-time one-hour episodes of trying to save Los Angeles, the President, his wife, his daughter, and his agency from moles, pretty much has the worst day of anyone’s life. Every season. No more need to film clocks at separate intervals, as Robert Wise had in The Set-Up; post-production could put the ticking digital clock in black at just the right moments. For any filmmakers who were ever criticized for over-use of split-screen (like Brian DePalma with Carrie, 1976), 24 was revenge – and cold comfort. Although this essay can’t possibly cover all the TV experiments in real-time, 24 was special, its influence felt far beyond the small screen. (Ever notice that spy-agent heroes without super-powers are a lot more humorless since 9/11? They just grimly get it done? For example, Jason Bourne, Jason Statham, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Liam Neeson? Kiefer Sutherland gets credit for minting the type.) Thanks to 24’s ubiquity, the challenge to filmmakers was: what else can you do with real-time?
Many rose to the challenge. Despite internet blowhards who will never forgive him for Bat-nipples, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2003) is a competently made thriller with just enough twists to keep you rooting for Colin Farrell – that’s not nothing. 11:14 is the Memento of real-time films, flashing back to the moment of 11:14…not bad, but not really real-time and not essential either. Though its first 15 minutes or so disqualifies it as true real-time, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) qualifies as almost an anti-24, the tense September 11th narrative married to a shaky-cam, edit-on-movement style that, in its refusal to glorify (or really condemn) any characters, becomes almost as populist as Lumet, Altman, or Malle at their best. If you hate Greengrass’s jumpy style, please don’t see Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank (2006), which qualifies as one of the best movies that wishes it was a video game. Statham’s doctor’s flight from Vegas to L.A. (taking about 15 film minutes) rules this out as true real-time, but it’s not the worst update of the High Noon-pioneered solve-this-in-an-hour-or-death thing. Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), based on a splendid play called God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, never quite floats beyond its source material like its most obvious filmic referent, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), but it’s worth seeing for Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet’s performances, and the real-time helps with the sense of impending doom.
The 21st century has proven that real-time doesn’t have to mean quality. Real-time is used almost as a prop – and rarely scrupulously – in horror films like the Rec franchise (first one, 2007), Quarantine (2008), Exam (2009), and ATM (2012). One sign that real-time had become just another grab at gravitas was the emergence of half-hearted star vehicles like Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006), starring Bruce Willis escorting Mos Def, and Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes (2008), which threatens Al Pacino with 88 minutes to live and then flashes back way too often to be true real-time. Buried (2010), featuring Ryan Reynolds trying to get out of a coffin, would qualify as such a star vehicle if Reynolds qualified as a star. Or heck, perhaps we should say the sub-genre jumped the shark with the release of Real Time (2008) at Slamdance, about a hit man (Randy Quaid) who gives a compulsive gambler (Jay Baruchel) one hour to live. The film’s 75 minutes of Real Time may also represent how long the film stayed in multiplexes.
Real-time has been better this century when done by foreigners and married to other sorts of formal experimentation, particularly the single-shot film. Three years after Russian Ark, Korean filmmaker Song Il-Gon unveiled a similarly half-haunted film called The Magicians (2005), set in and around a bar in a wooded area where the three surviving members of the rock band Magician gather, as they do each year, for a memorial for their female guitarist Jae-eun. Anticipating Birdman, within the film’s single take, flashbacks before Jae-eun’s suicide and the circumstances leading up to it are handled with boldly theatrical techniques: music cues, lighting changes, and a character’s movement out of the bar or up a staircase takes us back into the past. The film isn’t perfect (or perfectly single-shot), but unlike in the case of Russian Ark, we have likable performers on something of a 90-minute high-wire, and the single-shot helps the film’s message that we can’t really run from who we are.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to live in Colombia in the midst of drug violence – okay, if you’ve ever wondered if you could see a film version – PVC-1 (2007) is for you. Spiros Stathoulopoulos directed and shot the single-shot film about an ordinary Colombian wife, who, winding up on the wrong side of FARC, gets an explosive device attached to her neck that her family can’t remove or deactivate. Boldly realistic and grimly disturbing, PVC-1 is a lot less shaky-cam than you might guess, thanks to the Glidecam Smooth Shooter Stathoulopoulos used. The film won various awards and was an official selection at Cannes. Not for the faint of heart, particularly not the ending.
La Casa Muda (The Silent House, 2010) is a Uruguayan horror film that was also supposedly filmed in one shot, though creeping darkness provided plenty of chances for the edits that must have been necessary, considering La Casa Muda was made with a low-budget Canon EOS that can only film 15 minutes at a time. One timeless aspect of La Casa Muda is its plot: a father and adult daughter plan to spend a night in a…haunted house…before repairing it for sale. It’s authentically scary, and its scary authenticity was enough for Uruguay to submit it for their country’s official Oscar consideration (it didn’t make the shortlist). The low cost and short shooting schedule (four days) make this a rather impressive achievement, somewhat like The Blair Witch Project (1999) with less navel-gazing. The idea was picked up seemingly within minutes by Universal Pictures, who paid a one-time fee for the story and produced a real-time English-language version, Silent House (2011) starring Elizabeth Olsen, before the Uruguayans could even get their American video deals completed. If real-time and even single-shot films are now basically part of the horror aesthetic (as found-footage films seem to have become), then real-time films could be said to have culturally triumphed…by their descent into cultural mediocrity.
Enter the brilliant Mexican filmmakers who became internationally famous at the turn of the century with Amores Perros (2000) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), namely Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, and their oft-used director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuarón and Lubezki labored for almost seven years on what became Gravity (2013), and considering all the complicated effects, you’d like to think that real-time was the furthest thing from their minds. However, not so unlike their horror brethren (and many have called Gravity a glorified horror film), Cuarón and Lubezki needed real-time to give Gravity, ahem, gravitas. If you’ve been living in space or something, Gravity is the story of a doctor, Ryan (Sandra Bullock), and her colleague Matt (George Clooney), who are fixing some part of a satellite, when a field of space debris cuts them off from their fellow astronauts and their shuttle. Cuarón had been playing with long takes for quite a while, but they’re so innovative here, so vital to the action, so 360-degree amazing when seen in 3-D IMAX, that America’s breath was taken away. (No, the whole film isn’t one take; it has about 200 cuts, or at least 1000 less than each of the last 10 winners of the Best Film Editing Oscar, an award it won.) The absolutely outstanding 88-minute film has been described as a game-changer and even the first personal blockbuster. You’d love to think that Hollywood filmmakers would try to emulate Cuarón, but they probably won’t, because you can’t think short-term when you want to achieve Gravity’s real-time pull.
No one’s accusing Emmanuel Lubezki or Alejandro Iñárritu of thinking short-term, and here they are with Birdman, a single-shot film that stands in many ways as the culmination of 66 years and 33 boldly innovative real-time films including 11 in the sub-set of single-shots. See the Sound on Sight review here).
So where does real-time go from here? More horror? More 24? (Really, Fox?) More knock-offs? Instead, let’s hope that if we are careening toward the interactive, video-game-movie-hybrid future that some have predicted, creative artists will remember to dance with the ones that brung them…the vertiginous how-do-they-do-it? virtuosity of the best real-time films. If the relatively minor Rope can be remembered as a great example for half a century, our hopes for Gravity and its peers can remain as high as a satellite.
Top 20 Real-Time Films by Rotten Tomatoes Score (using audience score as tiebreak)
- 12 Angry Men 100%
- Dr. Strangelove 100%
- Fail-Safe 100%*
- Rope 97%
- Gravity 97%
- High Noon 96%
- Cleo From 5 to 7 96%
- The Exterminating Angel 95%
- Before Sunset 95%
- Last Year at Marienbad 95%
- Run Lola Run 93%
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night 93%
- Fantastic Voyage 93%
- Birdman 91%
- United 93 91%
- My Dinner With Andre 90%
- Russian Ark 89%
- Slacker 85%
- The Set-Up 83%
- Inserts 80%
*Fail-Safe (1964) has no RT score. Fail-Safe (2000), the televised remake, has an RT score of 100. This list does not include TV; because most of the remake’s reviewers remarked that the original was at least as good (or better), a projected score of 100 doesn’t seem out of bounds.
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey