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

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



Throughout the 1950s, Hollywood’s relationship with television was fraught: TV was a hated rival but also a source of cheap talent and material, as in the case of the small-scale Marty (1955), which won the Best Picture Oscar. These contradictions were well represented by the apparently “televisual” 12 Angry Men (1957), which began life as a teleplay concerning a jury with a lone holdout who must, and eventually does, convince his fellow jurors of the defendant’s innocence. Its writer, Reginald Rose, persuaded one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Henry Fonda, to become a first-time producer of the film version. Fonda and Rose took basement-low salaries in favor of future points, and hired a TV director, Sidney Lumet, for next to nothing because Lumet wanted a first feature credit. Technically, there’s an opening bit on the courtroom steps that keeps this from being a true real-time film, but considering the subject matter, the remaining 90 minutes play out in a remarkably flashback-free, tautly paced real-time. Lumet had learned well from live TV; he prepared 387 camera set-ups for the film, half of which he used in the film’s final half-hour, to tighten the screws. Upon its release, 12 Angry Men seemed a case of low budget equating to low returns – the $350,000 film didn’t even earn back that much, and Fonda would never produce again. Yet critics liked it, and 12 Angry Men managed Oscar nominations for Picture and Script – both of which it lost to the epic Bridge on the River Kwai. Esteem for the film has grown since its nominations, and it now seems remarkable that it’s the only film in the Imdb top 15 to have been made before 1972. (Too bad, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz!)

Lumet wrote in Making Movies, “In the late fifties, walking down the Champs Élysées, I saw in neon a sign over a theater: Douze Hommes en Colère – un Film de Sidney Lumet…fortunately for my psyche and my career, I’ve never believed it was un Film de Sidney Lumet.” Lumet knew his place in the pecking order, knew that TV was his bread and butter at the time (he directed 26 TV movies and episodes after 12 Angry Men)…and he also knew he had higher ambitions, but those would not include compromising artistic material. If a Tennessee Williams play like Orpheus Descending needed to cover days and locations, then Lumet could direct it that way, as when he turned that play into the excellent The Fugitive Kind (1960) starring Marlon Brando. If a story was best served by presenting it in real-time, then Lumet would do that, even if the movie starred, say, Katharine Hepburn. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) is about an older wife and husband, cripplingly dependent on drugs and alcohol (respectively), and their interactions with their two adult sons. True to its title, at 174 minutes, it’s the longest movie that could ever be considered a real-time film, and that’s no doubt a large part of why critics don’t remember it well when drawing up their all-time top 100 lists. Lumet altered Eugene O’Neill’s great play for the sake of real-time; though the opening scene is written to take place in the house at breakfast, Lumet sets it outside around a table at an indeterminate time (no one says “breakfast”), to suggest characters falling into old patterns as they return to the house…and to suggest more claustrophobia. Lumet also snips away at any dialogue that suggests that this is a “reunion,” furthering the implication that the sons may have to live this torturous day again and again and again. With towering performances by Hepburn and Ralph Richardson as the parents, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a harrowing masterpiece, even if it’s not quite real-time.

While Lumet was working on Long Day’s, French filmmakers were putting in their own long days taking to heart the signs on the Champs Élysées – they did think of their films as personal expressions, they had a lot to say, and they were determined to exploit the freedom of new light-weight cameras. One of their best films is Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), as true a real-time film as there is, and probably the most feminine version of the form. The young, attractive Cleo has a problem: her doctor feels she may have cancer, and she wanders around Paris for exactly 90 minutes waiting for the results. As Steven Ungar’s book shows, director Agnès Varda didn’t consider herself part of what was already anointed the nouvelle vague, though the feeling wasn’t mutual. The film seizes on the New Wave’s focus on alienated youth, and even its foregrounding of style: titles tell us what the clocks say, precisely calibrated to the film’s running time. A more appropriate, yet less catchy, title would have been Cleo From 5 to 6:30. The femininity of the narrative is only partly because it’s Cleo’s story and she’s in almost every shot…it also has to do with Cleo’s perspicacity, with the absence of familiar melodramatic situations. Middle-class alienation has rarely been given such supple, unforced form. This is just Cleo reflecting on life – granted, wondering if she’ll be diagnosed with cancer – and that’s enough. (Okay, there are minor narrative-driven sequences, and a few men worth talking to.) Here, the real-time is almost a rebuke to other versions of real-time, though entirely appropriate on its own terms.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961), winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and condemned to forever typify the word “artsy,” may be considered a real-time film…or a real-time nightmare. The plot, if you can call it that, concerns a man trying to convince a woman that they met before, and fell in love before, at the same palatial chateau where they now attend some sort of party. Marienbad occasions an exploration of memory and identity even while avant-garde devices dare viewers to interpret the film in various ways. Director Alain Resnais had already fluidly compressed and stretched time in Night and Fog (1955) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), but this time he allied himself with writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (who co-directed, according to many), known for the nouveau roman, a kind of book where the plot is implied rather than stated. Sure enough, Marienbad is elliptical to the point of frustration (for many), its opening chime heard at the finale, its partygoers apparently trapped in a perpetual present. Plentiful flashbacks almost take this film out of real-time consideration, except that the flashbacks are by definition unreliable. Robbe-Grillet said that the “entire story of Marienbad happens neither in two years nor in three days, but exactly in one hour and a half.” One might say the same of any 90-minute film, but that comment resonates differently after you’ve watched an elaborate courting ritual that travels down every imaginable corridor…of memory.

In a sense, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were playing in, and taking to extremes, the surrealist landscape that Luis Buñuel had so assiduously established in films like Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). Buñuel, then in Mexico, took Marienbad, aspects of his own career, and the real-time subgenre to their natural conclusion when he made The Exterminating Angel. In Buñuel’s words, it’s “the story of a group of friends who have dinner together after seeing a play, but when they go into the living room after dinner, they find that for some inexplicable reason they can’t leave.” Perhaps it’s not quite real-time, as Marsha Kinder points out: “we spectators are constantly confronted with continuity errors—repetitions, inconsistencies, contradictions—which can be missed if we focus too exclusively on narrative drive.” Yet this feels within the bounds of establishing the rules so that you can break them…something we desperately wish the characters would do, if they weren’t over-committed to mysterious, inexplicable, bourgeois codes, not unlike…finish this sentence how you like. It’s hard not to think of the film in terms of Buñuel’s brilliant, but interrupted, career: after hostility from Europe and the U.S., he was “in exile” (sort of) in Mexico from 1946 to 1962, during which time producers would (mostly) pay him to make mere melodramas, until the wicked satire Viridiana (1961) became an international smash, allowing him to return to a France that, with the New Wave in full bloom, was obviously ready for him. Kinder calls The Exterminating Angel a “pivot” to Europe as well as Buñuel’s way of proving what he could do in Mexico when granted full artistic control. It may be the best film made in Mexico in the 20th century.

Real-time was just one of many aesthetics that the New Wave played around with; Jean-Luc Godard popularized jump cuts, which are pretty much antithetical to real-time, and yet Godard became famous because of Breathless (1960), a film that, twenty minutes into a lively narrative, stops itself to spend the next twenty minutes in an apartment with lovers in casual real-time conversation. Working in America and typically with much less money, Andy Warhol was well aware of what the nouvelle vague had done…and hadn’t done. Warhol knew that the en vogue French filmmakers purported to combine a stripped-down, almost documentary style with a sort of stylish insouciance, and in many ways Warhol did them one better, with even less regard for what might be called conventional narrative. Kiss, Haircut, Blow Job, Eat, and Henry Geldzahler, all made in 1963 and 1964, were short, silent, black-and-white films that purported to present quotidian events in real-time, unadorned by anything that might be considered distraction, including editing, camerawork, or acting (some question that last one). The films are proudly strange, mostly joyful only for the pleasure one feels at seeing something that doesn’t fit into any previous categories. Perhaps they expanded some notions of cinema.

However, this is an article about real-time feature films, and the real reason to mention Andy Warhol is his two most famous non-shorts, Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964). In the summer of 1963, Warhol told a friend that he wanted to film a person sleeping for eight hours; Warhol’s problem was that his only camera was a silent 16mm Bolex that could only film for four minutes at a time. Warhol made the film anyway, and perhaps ran out of patience (or money) after about four hours of filming; Warhol asked that Sleep be projected at two-thirds its normal speed in exhibitions, making it seem that his friend John Giorno was sleeping for a bit less than six hours. Sleep is its own subversive meditation, forcing us to question why we tend to prioritize being awake. After saving up a bit of money and borrowing a 16mm Auricon that could film for 33 minutes at a time, Warhol executed an experiment that even today retains its stature as one of cinema’s most audacious: on July 25, 1964, Warhol filmed the Empire State Building beginning at 8:06pm and finishing at 2:42am that morning. Again, Warhol asked that his film be projected at 16 frames per second, and so the landmark film is a 12-hour film of a landmark. When asked about the point of Empire, Warhol said it was to “see time go by.” Indeed, Empire may stand as Deleuze’s time-image incarnate, a constant, all-too-real unfolding of a barely inhabited mass construction. There’s something oddly reassuring about the very existence of a 12-hour film that we know, that we can accurately describe, without even seeing it. The longest amounts of time can be somehow captured, like sarcophaguses.

The reassuring placidness of Empire stands in stark contrast to 1964’s two other famous real-time experiments. (One of them ends with a fateful encounter with the Empire State Building – coincidence?) Around the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Sidney Lumet decided to adopt Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s 1962 novel Fail-Safe, and even persuaded his once-burned-twice-shy star of 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda, to come along for a “featured” role as the President. Fail-Safe (1964) is about a technical malfunction that sends nuclear-missile-equipped U.S. Air Force jets to the U.S.S.R., forcing leaders of both countries to work to avoid a worldwide apocalypse. Ari Schulman recently wrote in Slate, “the crisis’s real cause is the logic of the nuclear system at every level—its institutions, structures, procedures, and rationales. This isn’t a movie about why we should fear machines or the people who control them. It’s about how managerial systems can bring about just the things they’re designed to avert.” Normally, parallel action feels like kind of a fun way to be in two places at the same time; here, the real-time aesthetic makes each location change remind us that a terrible reckoning is that much closer. Lumet makes an unusual choice early on, filling up the screen with titles that say “5:30AM: NEW YORK CITY” and “5:30AM: WASHINGTON D.C.” One could say, then, that this film isn’t real real-time – it can’t be 5:30 in New York and 5:30 five minutes later in D.C. But Lumet never brings up any other titles or clocks, leaving us with the discomfiting feeling of a rather consequential timer having begun…and unlike in High Noon, we can’t know when time is up. The real-time aesthetic only adds to the horror-laced drama, and critics and audiences hailed it as the best real-time film ever…right?

No, they didn’t, and that’s largely because of Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), its own almost-real-time version of many of the same plot events, played as scathing satire. (Thomas Allen Nelson wrote, “The film has a running time of 94 minutes that closely approximates the fictional time it covers.”) Kubrick had purchased the film rights to Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert before the Fail-Safe novel was even written, and Kubrick threatened to sue to keep the obviously similar film from being made. That failed, but Kubrick managed to keep Fail-Safe out of theaters until Dr. Strangelove had finished its run, and that was good enough for government work: arriving second, Lumet’s melodrama seemed wooden compared to Kubrick’s high-spirited black comedy. (“You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” is one of Strangelove’s classic lines, and one that could almost be applied to the Lumet-Kubrick standoff.) Dr. Strangelove is by any standards an all-time classic, with an archly cynical tone that no movie has ever really replicated. Perhaps that’s because no other darkly humorous fable has ever been told in real-time. In any event, Hollywood and the public loved Dr. Strangelove, and lavished it with awards and nominations.

Perhaps the timing was circumstantial, but after three somewhat underappreciated real-time masterworks, Lumet then gave up on the form for a while. In fact, he went the other way in terms of borrowing from the French New Wave, bringing flash cuts (under-one-second shots intruding on the main action, like unwanted memories) to his next film, The Pawnbroker (1965), and in turn to Hollywood, according to Matt Zoller Seitz.

By 1965, then, the real-time film had refreshed, invigorated and emboldened the western, the whodunit, the film noir, the legal thriller, the family melodrama, the war drama, the black comedy, the existential exploration, the avant-garde movie, and perhaps the horror film (depending how one reads Buñuel). After all that, why work to make a real-time film when it had already covered those bases? To put it another way, what was left? Well, for one, science fiction. Fantastic Voyage (1966) is about a group of scientists who must shrink to microscopic size, enter a scientist’s body and remove a deadly blood clot…within an hour, or they’ll grow back to normal size. Fantastic Voyage is every inch a studio production, with none of the artistic idiosyncracies I’ve been discussing, yet with the possible exception of a few opening scenes, it’s real-time all the way, even using the device to the point of potential incoherence – the film ends during the moment that the scientists grow back to full size, without actually telling the audience if their life-saving mission was successful. That’s not the film’s only flaw, yet the clunky dialogue tends to be forgiven because of the sheer imaginative beauty seen while navigating the human bloodstream. Fantastic Voyage absolutely remains a fabulous spectacle, and the real-time style makes it essential to see at least once.

Then, the real-time film vanished like men under a shrink-ray. After Fantastic Voyage, there would not be another artistic attempt at real-time for 10 years. One is left with the impression that the first-time-handheld-camera early 1960s really was a time of rare experimentation, and that by comparison, the great films of the late 1960s and early 1970s…wanted to paint on wider canvases.