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The Past, Present, and Future of Real-Time Films Part Three

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THE POST-1960S, PRE-DIGITAL AGE: REAL-TIME ONE-OFFS, 1975-1998

British filmmaker John Byrum is responsible for the first (and in some ways only) real-time period film. Inserts (1975), set in the early 1930s, is about a Boy Wonder movie director (called Boy Wonder, played by Richard Dreyfuss fresh from American Graffiti (1973) and Jaws (1975)) now washed up before the age of 30, resigned to making porn because of Hollywood’s conversion to sound. Not only is Inserts scrupulously real-time (with the exception of the opening credits sequence, which offers glimpses of the stag film we’re about to see made) and period, but it’s rather long for such a film, just shy of two hours. To tell the entire story would be spoiling the fun, but the Boy Wonder deals with recalcitrant actresses, the problem of his own potency, career problems, death, sex, after-death and after-sex…and in the end, as the Boy Wonder wonders what he’ll have for lunch, we’re reminded that two hours haven’t even passed. If he can do this much in a morning, perhaps he’ll have that career again after all.

A few months later, hot on the heels of the Oscar-winning, Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Columbia released Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976), a similarly star-studded vehicle that attempted to satirize the murder mystery genre, right down to its iconic detectives: Peter Sellers plays a Charlie Chan knockoff, David Niven and Maggie Smith echo the couple from the Thin Man films, James Coco is a watered-down Hercule Poirot, and Peter Falk is Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, depending which egg he hard-boils. Alec Guinness, Eileen Brennan, and Truman Capote (!) also pop up. Murder by Death could be said to satirize not only Agatha Christie but the then-current all-star-cast disaster films that were, as J. Hoberman memorably described them, Old Hollywood’s last gasp at relevance: unlike the typically hardy survivors (as stars and characters) of films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), stars in Murder by Death get bumped off one by one, like “ten little Indians” in one reviewer’s phrase. So what’s to complain about? Everyone looks like they’re slumming while waiting for Broadway or better Hollywood scripts. Some of the jokes land, while others give the impression that the star had better things to do. If it retains a degree of watchability, that’s partly because of the scrupulous real-time.

By the time Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory decided to make a conversation, that is, a movie, about their lives, their choices, New York in the 1970s, and the possibility that life isn’t actually what we perceive it as (!!!), My Dinner With Andre (1981) could hardly have felt more original. Louis Malle had been on the fringes of the French New Wave filmmakers, yet by the end of the 1970s, Malle’s career was flourishing beyond any of theirs…which is one reason Shawn assumed that Malle’s phone call was a prank, when he offered his services out of the clear blue sky (he’d read the script through a friend). As director, Malle steered the two actor/characters to a restaurant, trimmed Shawn and Gregory’s three-hour conversation down by about an hour, and edited the footage so as to seem like real-time. If real-time had already well-lampooned the dinner party, now it provided something much closer to the fullness of a great, long-rangin chat with an old friend. Asked to name a film without clichés many years later, Roger Ebert thought of My Dinner With Andre; it should be retitled My Dinner With Cachet for all the people who’ve since made reference to it. My Dinner was ahead of its time in so many ways, including being among the first to put the sixties in its proper, heart-rending place; Andre tells Wallace, “You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.”

The American filmmaker perhaps most closely associated with the end of the 1960s was the director of Nashville (1975), Robert Altman, though his characters were more likely to worry about the diminishment of the American Dream. By 1984, Altman’s career was itself severely diminished; he was considered an old relic, the guy who’d perfected the ensemble film (also as in M*A*S*H, 1970) and not much more. What a perfect choice, then, for him to direct the one-man, one-act, one-location play Secret Honor (1984), which imagines Richard Nixon in twilight, working through America’s ghosts and his own. Exiled to his boudoir, Nixon has made the unfortunate choice of lining his inner sanctum with portraits of figures like Jack Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, for whom he can’t resist jumping out from behind his desk and excoriating. In the end, this very real-time film is something of a minor triumph, one that didn’t make major money, but did make a minor star out of Philip Baker Hall, who plays Nixon to a creepy tee. Speaking of Roger Ebert, he wrote, “A strange thing happened to me as I watched this film. I knew it was fiction. I didn’t approach it in the spirit of learning the ‘truth about Nixon.’ But as a movie, it created a deeper truth, an artistic truth, and after Secret Honor was over, you know what? I had a deeper sympathy for Richard Nixon than I have ever had before.”

Think “oddball,” “one-off,” “category-less,” and yet “Hollywood-brand-exploitation,” and you’ll eventually get yourself a Clue (1985), Paramount’s adaptation of the board game into something like a diet soda version Murder by Death (which was already a diet soda version of Agatha Christie), starring then-B-list comedy talent Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeleine Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael McKean. Had it been directed by Mel Brooks or Christopher Guest, this might have had a timeless zaniness, but in the hands of the unremarkable Jonathan Lynn, we never know if we’re meant to be laughing or cringing, and we wind up mostly worrying. The film seems to be relying on you not having seen Murder by Death, particularly in its tone-deaf appropriation of un-urgent real-time. On the other hand, this film might get eventually cited by history books written in an interactive future, because of screenwriter John Landis’ idea of filming three separate endings. Did this film-based-on-a-game presage the era of real-time video games with various endings? Well, probably not, but if your kids love the game Clue, you can do worse than to get them this.

Much ink has already been spilled about the first Miramax-Sundance generation, the late-80s, early-90s film movement which gave us, among many others, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Moore, Robert Rodriguez, Ang Lee, and Quentin Tarantino. In retrospect, it seems odd that only one film from that period would have bothered with the real-time aesthetic, but only one did, and real-time was (as it usually is) crucial to the story it wanted to tell. The film was called Slacker (1991), and it was like Robert Altman played in a minor key: the movie is naught but scenes between disparate characters in Austin, Texas, each vignette joined to the next one by some clever bit of business involving character or camera movement, as though Forrest Gump’s feather was landing and floating next door every five minutes or so. Like My Dinner With Andre and Secret Honor (but unlike most real-time films before), Slacker all but dispenses with the three-act formula and stakes all its chips on the often-profound words of its characters, giving it a refreshing feeling even today. Slacker’s director, Richard Linklater, would continue to experiment with abbreviated time in his next film, the tremendous, multi-star-making Dazed and Confused (1993), which takes place in a single night. After dealing with real-time almost by necessity for his breakthrough, one might have thought Linklater was done with the conceit; turns out, one would have been wrong.

30 years after Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and Fantastic Voyage, Hollywood decided it could try to milk the real-time idea as though for the first time (assuming no one noticed Murder by Death or Clue, which was a reasonable assumption, based on their box office), and so it released Nick of Time (1995), a somewhat ludicrous story about Christopher Walken forcing Johnny Depp to kill a gubernatorial candidate (or they’ll kill his daughter). It’s not just that half of these sorts of conversations were done better two years before by In the Line of Fire (1993); in that film, at least the antagonist was typically on the phone. Here, Walken is constantly popping up to check on Depp, making you wonder why he doesn’t simply pull the trigger himself. The film might have saved itself by being perfectly real-time, but it isn’t, quite; the many train-station clocks give it away as cheating by at least five minutes. At this point, the film is only worth renting for die-hard Walken fans and people who want to remember that Depp used to sometimes play normal people – let’s face it, not an insignificant constituency.

Leave it to filmmakers outside Hollywood to make the final two vital real-time films of the 20th century – both films with “run” in the title. The first, Running Time (1997) (how could that title have gone unused all these years?), warmly earns a place in the single-shot sub-set; it does look a lot like a single shot, though the DVD commentary reveals there were 30 edits. Writer-director Josh Becker described the film as Hitchcock’s Rope “but on location.” Bruce Campbell, he of all the great Sam Raimi films, plays a convict getting out of prison and right back into trouble with a friend who’s engineering a prison heist. Black-and-white and sometimes cheesy, Running Time nevertheless has a dynamic energy that only a single-shot, real-time movie can provide. Low-budget horror fans are accustomed to Bruce Campbell saving the movie, as he does here. But can he save himself?

The better and better-remembered real-time “run” film is Tom Tykwer’s Lola Rennt (1998), released in America as Run Lola Run, a smash-splash-crash of one German woman’s dash to save her boyfriend…told three times in three different 25-minute sequences. The “race-against-the-clock” film is here cubed and told in metaphysical triplicate, forcing us to question our own biases about filmic urgency and the convention (in cinema, and outside it) that the third time’s the charm. Run Lola Run is pure, thought-provoking, near-feminist kinetic energy, but is it really a real-time film? After all, it’s one short story told three times – sort of. Perhaps real-time films are at their best when they break new form as they follow old ones, and by that standard, Run Lola Run is a dazzling dose of real-time, real-world adrenaline.

Next: THE DIGITAL ERA: REAL-TIME FILMS FROM 2000 TO TODAY


The Past, Present, and Future of Real-Time Films Part Two

The Past, Present, and Future of Real-Time Films Part Four