What do film directors Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Agnès Varda, Robert Wise, Fred Zinnemann, Luis Buñuel, Alain Resnais, Roman Polanski, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, Louis Malle, Richard Linklater, Tom Tykwer, Alexander Sokurov, Paul Greengrass, Song Il-Gon, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro Iñárritu have in common? More specifically, what type of film have they directed, setting them apart from fewer than 50 of their filmmaking peers? Sorry, “comedy” or “drama” isn’t right. If you’ve looked at this article’s headline, you’ve probably already guessed that the answer is that they’ve all made “real-time” films, or films that seemed to take about as long as their running time.
The real-time film has long been a sub-genre without much critical attention, but the time of the real-time film has come. Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), which was shot and edited so as to seem like a real-time film, floated away with the most 2014 Oscars, including awards for cinematography, directing, and editing. Now, its director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, is back with another fellow Mexican, Iñárritu, and a film, Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), that purports to tell its story in one extended shot. If the real-time virtuosity of Birdman winds up facing off against Linklater’s Boyhood for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, let us be the first to say that that will be no small irony, as though Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in Moneyball) had been using a certain strategy for the Oakland A’s for years, tweaked it, and shepherded the A’s to the World Series only to compete with another team who mastered his former strategy. Or, perhaps more comparably, as though Sidney Lumet had been working on a certain kind of film, perfected it, and then lost critics and audiences to someone else’s version. As we’ll see, that pretty much happened.
This article is the brief history of the real-time film. But first, why does anyone bother to make a film appear as though it happened in real time? The shortest answer is gravitas. As a device, real-time underlines the urgency and difficulty of solving a given problem in the amount of time it takes for French people to eat dinner. Imagine, if you will, halfway through the exquisite 80-minute conversation that is Linklater’s Before Sunset, a title card saying “THREE HOURS LATER.” We would have felt an immediate diminishment of the gossamer-web preciousness of Jesse and Celine’s reunion. Real-time isn’t appropriate for genres like the musical or broad comedy – these genres present life “with the bad bits cut out.” If cinema should be “pure entertainment,” as a few philistines have implied, then real-time stands as a rebuke to turning off your mind and letting the editor and director tell you where and when to look. Real-time shares this with horror: done poorly, it brings tedium, but done well, it forces an uncomfortable identification that serves to make dramatic pathos feel closer to the bone. Most films are dreamlike and often hokey; real-time films short circuit the usual distanciation by putting us in the same, often claustrophobic position as the actor-characters. They implicitly say to us, “Oh, you’re running out of time to finish this film? We’re running out of time to solve this problem!”
But real-time films share more than forced gravitas. They also tend to contain characters who put great faith in the power of language to solve problems, often to indicate the folly of such faith. In the forced realism of cinema, at first, words soothe, then they clunk, then we can only hope against hope that they are enough. Even Gravity, perhaps the least dialogue-cluttered real-time film, includes Matt (George Clooney) insisting that Ryan (Sandra Bullock) talk through her problems. By giving “plastic reality to subjective material,” as Peter Dellolio put it, the “synthesis of real-time and filmic space forces the viewer to absorb narrative information on multiple, often distastefully ironic levels.” Real-time suggests almost a forced purification, on the order of the Dogme 95 manifesto, though beyond that document’s rules. Perhaps “real” real-time films shouldn’t include any flashbacks or flashforwards or any tricks that directly call into question narrative flow…or perhaps filmmakers should be commended for establishing and then occasionally breaking form.
Real-time films share the non-freedom of freeing themselves from the implied potential elision of time in every single edit unbridged by diegetic sound (in most films). Real-time films acknowledge cinema’s properties of mummification, of freezing time into a sort of forced nobility: they both construct and deconstruct that nobility, giving us the thrill of continuity and the agony of contingency. This was what Gilles Deleuze was getting at in The Time-Image when he wrote that, in most modern films, “perceptions and actions ceased to be linked together, and spaces are now neither co-ordinated nor filled.” For cinema to be true to itself, Deleuze wrote, it should unfold images in the same manner that we know from our lives and bodies and selves…in real-time. It’s easy to respond, “But not every story should be in real-time!” True, but filmmakers don’t often use real-time even when asked to essay a 2-hour-or-less story. There are hundreds of filmic adaptations of plays that took place in one place and time (say, A Raisin in the Sun (1961)), but few that consist exclusively of 60 minutes (or more) of contiguous real-time. (To “make it more cinematic,” scenes and flashbacks are often added.) With all the expense and planning that goes into films, real-time can never be other than a difficult deliberate choice on the filmmakers’ parts. Let’s give them their due.
For some time now, critics have marveled at the power of the extended shot, as seen in films like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), and in some ways, the real-time film extends some of the same qualities: prolonged tension, apparent acting without a net, a how-are-they-doing-that? feeling, the camera becoming the proverbial “bomb under the table.” (Hitchcock famously said that after viewers see the bomb under the table, they are riveted by even the most mundane dinner conversation.) Perhaps the single-shot film – and here we are only permitted to speak, as we shall at more length, of Rope (1948), Sleep (1963), Empire (1964), Running Time (1997), Timecode (2000), Russian Ark (2002), The Magicians (2005), PVC-1 (2007), La Casa Muda (2010), Silent House (2011), and Birdman – is just the real-time film squared. But before we can conclude that, we have to ask where did the real-time film come from? And where is it going?
REACTING TO NEO-REALISM: REAL-TIME 1948-1952
For Deleuze, the European postwar situation moved cinema from the “movement-image,” where all meaning was contained in rapidly moving plots and performances, to the “time-image,” where signs could no longer be trusted, and images had to work harder to represent reality. Deleuze cited spaces and situations “we no longer know how to describe,” like deserted yet inhabited buildings, razed cities under reconstruction, and the people bearing witness to this, rather than doing things with purpose and confidence as in classical narrative. Film scholars will not be shocked to hear that Deleuze traced the “time-image” to the immediate postwar, Italian neo-realist films of Visconti, Rossellini, and DeSica – films like Ossessione (1943), La Terra Trema (1948), Roma Citta Aperta (1945), Paisa (1946), Sciuscia (1947), and La Lidri Bicicletta (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948). None of these films claimed its events took place even during one day, never mind two hours, but they certainly showed the world an aesthetic of (seemingly) unlit street-level realism, (seemingly) unmade-up actors who were their alienated characters, and a disquieting sense of long periods of (screen) time wasted and squandered.
Hollywood was well aware of neo-realism; in 1947, the Academy Awards created the first-ever Oscar for a Foreign Language Film in order to recognize Sciuscia (Shoeshine). No doubt, some American filmmakers were mildly peeved to hear waves of critics praising new Italian films as “realistic” in a manner that implied that 20 years of Hollywood films had been anything but. At the time, one of the few filmmakers with both the position and predilection to react to “neo-realism” was Best Picture Oscar Winner (The Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947) Elia Kazan, who consciously filmed Panic in the Streets (1950) in a neo-realist style. Another one was Alfred Hitchcock, who also had a Best Picture (Rebecca, 1940) under his belt, and who also liked formal experiments; he’d made Lifeboat (1944) all in the one location of the lifeboat, the action taking place over a day, a night, and another day.
Rope (1948) is based on a play loosely based on the famous Leopold and Loeb case of two pretentious, nihilist peers murdering a third, and daring their professor to unearth their crime. It’s quite astonishing how well Rope holds up, considering it could barely have been more sui generis. It was the first film Hitchcock produced himself, not under the aegis of British or American producers. It was his first film in color and his first to star Jimmy Stewart. It was almost certainly the first American film to feature homosexual characters as two of three lead roles – not that such representation was exactly unproblematic, as well documented in both book and film of The Celluloid Closet. And oh yes, it was the first real-time film as well as the first single-shot film…sort of. Hitchcock liked promoting it as a film without cuts – or at least as far as that was possible in the 1940s, when a camera’s roll couldn’t hold more than 10 minutes of film – but Hitchcock cut even when he didn’t need to.
Rope is about a pair of 20-something “school chums” who kill a third chum just before a dinner party, then try to persuade their Nietzsche-loving professor into admiring their crime. As with the best of films, Rope’s form and style work in synchronous harmony: the nowhere-to-hide-ness of the form suits the increasingly uncomfortable reality of Phillip and Brandon. Considering Hitchcock didn’t know if anyone had ever done such a thing before, his hand is remarkably assured, the dollying camera feeling more like an interrogator, the setting sun suggesting a long dark night for the pro(-an)tagonists. (Few films on this list dare go from day to night.) If Rope is the granddaddy of real-time films, it’s a distinguished ancestor who can feel safe that he did the proper trailblazing for his descendants. Rope anticipates almost everything that would characterize the real-time film, like the theatrical syntax, like the march of time being both too short and too long, like the sinking feeling that all of the culture espoused by the leads won’t be enough to save them in the end.
Now that Sight and Sound has seen its way to anointing another Hitchcock film (Vertigo, 1958) the Best Film Ever, it’s probably not difficult to move to anoint Hitchcock as the originator of the real-time sub-genre (and its own single-shot sub-sub-genre). However, what most people don’t know is that Hitchcock followed Rope with another real-time experiment called Under Capricorn, starring Ingrid Bergman, which did not produce anywhere near as felicitous results. Under Capricorn is about reunited lovers in 19th-century Australia who learn each other’s dark secrets. The film never clicks; it’s a historical thriller without thrills. Or as Hitchcock told Truffaut, “As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven, but it was definitely a mistake when I insisted on applying the same techniques to Under Capricorn.” Not that Under Capricorn was ever going to be quite as real-time as Rope, but we shouldn’t remember Hitchcock as a master of the long take, or otherwise, who couldn’t do anything wrong. Hitchcock regretted the project from the start, involving himself only to reunite with his star of Spellbound and Notorious, as he told Truffaut: “I was literally intoxicated at the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at Bergman and myself at the London airport.” (The master of suspense also recounted how “Bergman got angry with me one evening because of those long shots” and kept yelling at him after he’d left the room. Bergman, apparently frustrated with Hitchcock’s version of realism, wrote to Roberto Rossellini to put herself in his hands, went to Italy to star in Rossellini’s Stromboli [1950, as memorialized in the Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg song “Ingrid Bergman”], had a baby with the married director, was denounced on the Senate floor, and may or may not, with the similarly decamping-for-Europe Grace Kelly, have inspired the misogynist betrayal themes of Vertigo, Psycho , and The Birds . All this over real-time scenes!)
In 1949, Under Capricorn shared space in newspaper film sections with a movie called The Set-Up. Director Robert Wise had something to prove since his editing of Citizen Kane had catapulted him to the directors’ ranks (before he would win two Best Picture and two Best Director Oscars in the 1960s), and The Set-Up remains the only case of feature-length real-time joined to the intuitively appropriate, claustrophobic, fear-riddled atmosphere of film noir. The old story of an old boxer’s one last chance is invigorated by the real-time tension and a surprisingly sensitive performance by the Adonis-like Robert Ryan in the lead. Wise explains on the DVD commentary that he filmed the street-clock seen in the opening and closing shots set to several intervals (a few minutes apart), so that however he had to edit it, the movie would play out in real-time. At a tough, lean 72 minutes, The Set-Up is one heavyweight with no extra paunch; on the commentary, Wise and Martin Scorsese both marvel at the way the near-music-free real-time heightens the street-grime. Though Wise uses a few clever dollying cameras, on the commentary he criticizes directors who force audiences to notice the camera. Presumably, as we’ll see, Wise wouldn’t have been thrilled with all of his real-time descendants.
A funny thing happened on the way to more real-time films…called television. 1949 marked the television’s first appearance in a Sears-Roebuck catalog; by 1950, ABC, NBC and CBS were producing variety shows, like those hosted by Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, as well as original programming performed live like Man Against Crime (starring Ralph Bellamy), The Trap, The Clock, Sure As Fate, and Lights Out (starring Leslie Nielsen). Videotape was still a couple of years off, which is both why we can’t see them today and why shows had to be performed live. Though these fiction shows were of course interrupted by commercials, they nevertheless made the “real-time” aesthetic seem part of television, at the exact moment when Hollywood wanted most to distinguish itself from television.
In early 1952, along came a film that split the difference: real-time, as real as neo-realism, yet with the sort of outdoor panoramas and pulse-pounding action that neither TV nor neo-realists had done. High Noon is about a middle-aged sheriff, Will Kane, marrying and retiring while a bandit he long ago incarcerated is returning with a gang to enact revenge on Kane’s town. Howard Suber wrote, “The running time of the story almost exactly parallels the running time of the film itself…High Noon is one of the few American films that follow the classic Aristotelian principle of the ‘classic unities’ of time, place and action.” Actually, Phillip Drummond carefully explains that the film isn’t quite real-time – some of its pictured clocks are off, including the one behind Will and Amy during their wedding, showing 10:35, in an 80-minute film that certainly gets past the stroke of noon – but that’s mere quibbling, because director Fred Zinnemann achieves the time-TIME-TIME! effect all the same. High Noon both inaugurated and perfected cinema’s version of the well-worn radio-play device of saying something like: “you have an hour until something terrible happens” and then underlining that tension by forcing the audience to live through that hour. (One reason 007 films never seemed all that realistic is that they would show us two minutes left on the bomb, but the rest of the film’s editing made us doubt how many of those 120 seconds would be elided or stretched. The first Die Hard  did slightly better – John McClane names Gary Cooper over John Wayne to attempt to invoke real-time tension.) Drummond’s book on High Noon walks readers through the film’s remarkably realized artistry, including Gary Cooper’s career-defining performance…and the drama, not unlike that confronting the more daring TV producers, behind screenwriter Carl Foreman’s blacklisting because of the film’s script, which supposedly advocated accommodating North Korea during the heart of the McCarthy era. Oddly, to contemporary audiences, Will Kane’s lone vigilantism seems right-wing.
The Academy Awards seemed to understand the nuance, and prepared to hand High Noon the Best Picture Oscar (Variety wrote “High Noon was a cinch to win”) when, to the crowd’s astonishment, the envelope revealed High Noon had lost to The Greatest Show on Earth. (According to Oscar lore, NBC was so taken aback that the cameraman failed to find the winning film’s producer until he was onstage. No tears for director Fred Zinnemann: he won Best Director the following year for the Best Picture-winning epic From Here to Eternity.) Putting TV aside, if Hollywood produced a total of about 5000 westerns (Suber’s estimate), we might say that a strain of them got sparer and more stripped-down leading up to High Noon…perhaps even culminating in the stark, all-too-real church scene at the heart of High Noon. From there, westerns – and most other films – could only add more details. How could anyone improve on High Noon? Instead Hollywood produced a few knock-offs, like 3:10 to Yuma, whose real-time begins in its second half. The wave of realism (and what historians call the “social problem” film) crescendoed even in Italy, and Hollywood would combat the television aesthetic with big-scale productions that certainly encompassed more than 2 hours of their characters’ lives.