The Conversation is a new feature at Sound on Sight bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their inaugural piece, they will discuss Tom Tykwer’s film, Run Lola Run (1999).
Amongst the many films included in 1999’s “year that changed movies,” Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run seems an essential text. Fifteen years ago, the film blew through national and arthouse borders, presenting an exhilarating image of an approach to filmmaking free from formal restraint or linear narrative logic. An engrossing exercise in style, Tykwer’s breakthrough film seemed to simultaneously beat Hollywood at its own game of fast-paced entertainment, integrate music video aesthetics harmoniously into the machinations of feature filmmaking, and present an art film thoroughly interested in film as an art form looking toward the 21st century, free from the modernist concerns that previously united festival-friendly European exports.
I recently revisited Run Lola Run after more than a decade since I last saw it, and I was struck by how superficial the film seemed so many years on. Yes, admittedly, this point is obvious to some degree. Tykwer is clearly interested in exercising and exploring the supposed boundaries of film form and style here, incorporating animation, still photography, alterations between the binaries of film/video and color/B&W, not to mention incorporating a variety of music cues from techno-to-jazz. So the narrative – or, why Lola is running – seems an afterthought by comparison. We accept the film school premise of an attractive, hip drug dealer accidentally losing a bag of 100,000 marks to a homeless drifter as a given because of its urgently paced presentation. But Lola’s running is less suspenseful than it is spectacular, an explicit demonstration of accelerated aesthetics accompanied by brief gestures to existentialism as each of Lola’s time-space-defying runs have her encounter strangers who lives all go in remarkably diverse directions as a result of their serendipitous rendezvous. Or because of the chaos theory. Or free will. Or something.
Run Lola Run was the perfect gateway film for me when I first saw it at age 15. It was unabashedly different from everything a film had taught me to be by that point. But at the same time, it was still perfectly legible in the way it broke supposed rules of style and narrative, imbuing a strict linear structure over its fleeting runtime and expecting little of the audience beyond a ride through a catalogue of formal techniques. What long-term value does Run Lola Run have as a cinematic object in a context in which it seems no longer as new, fashionable, or inventive? If a film’s place in history mostly begins and ends with style, does its own influence deplete its importance? Perhaps it’s the haze of nostalgia, but where this film was once an essential piece of my cinematic education over half my lifetime ago, it now stands as a confounding object: something that used to be an important topic of conversation that signaled a profound shift in filmmaking, but now bears notable a weightlessness and triviality.
Yet though the film does not carry the political demands of art cinema scene through which it traveled, it certainly carries a catalogue of qualifying references. The aforementioned non-linear structure is a seeming nod to Kieslowski’s Blind Chance. The video segments greatly resemble the first Dogme 95 films. Initial English-language reviews pronounced Tykwer the next Fassbinder or Winders or any other go-to name in the New German Cinema catalogue. But unlike those filmmakers, Tykwer shows less an interest in Berlin as a place bearing sociality and politics and history than Berlin as a playground. Run Lola Run as much about a Berlin underground culture is as Guy Ritchie’s early films are an exploration of crime in London – in other words, the milieu is something stable, uninterrogated, a mere platform for an exercise in contemporary style.
Jonathan Rosenbaum notably said that Run Lola Run is “About as entertaining as a no-brainer can be–a lot more fun, for my money, than a cornball theme-park ride like Speed, and every bit as fast moving. But don’t expect much of an aftertaste.” Rosenbaum’s comparison of Run Lola Run to a ‘90s Hollywood movie is on point, as it possesses some of the same features of the new cinema of attractions at the dusk of the 20th century: action without consequence, an emphasis on fast-paced cutting, expressions of hipness as a form of currency with style to burn. Sporting an openly arbitrary “happy ending,” Run Lola Run takes these defining aspects of ‘90s Hollywood to their logical extent, almost parodying them by foregrounding a coincidental and inconsequential movie logic, heightening the style of the characters onscreen and the authorial personality offscreen, and imbuing the entire film with the prevalent characteristics of music video, including rhythmic cutting and formal experimentation that’s never too confrontational. Music video, after all, a form of moving image-making that is as often as avant-garde as it is blatantly commercial.
Over a decade later, after Tykwer (and Guy Ritchie, for that matter) have both taken their shots within Hollywood, it’s safe to say that Run Lola Run was neither a radical screed against convention or an example of Germany-gone-Hollywood. Rather, it’s instructive of how, by the late 1990s, there was little to distinguish between “mainstream” and “arthouse” in terms of film form alone. Hollywood has long had little reason to abide by the supposed rules of its Classical Era, putting aside economic approaches to narrative closure and “invisible” style for a fractured franchise logic and stylistic excess. Run Lola Run is, for better or worse, the perfect film for its time because it evinces a moment of harmony in which the fast pace of recent Hollywood could meet the experimentation of less-than-mainstream filmmaking. With the film’s generic content largely beside the point in view of a stylistic experience, Run Lola Run was a film both ill-fitting and perfectly fluid, a Rorschach test for film audiences who came to it carrying varying relationships to Hollywood and the arthouse.
And Run Lola Run seems to know this. After opening over black with two unlikely juxtaposed quotes by T.S. Eliot and German footballer Sepp Herberger, Run Lola Run fades in on a crowd of anonymous people, with an unnamed narrator posing dorm room-worthy existential questions like “Who are we?” and “How do we know what we think we know?” A security guard (Armin Rodhe) who will later have a role in the film’s diegesis comes to frame center with a football, stating, “The ball is round. The game last ninety minutes,” etc, before kicking the ball into the air and revealing the opening title as the crowd gathers together. Run Lola Run is a game played on the pendulum between profundity and exhilaration, with clear preference for the latter. It is an art film made according to the logic of a football match: a brief foray into watching a runner, and one that’s engrossing and important only as long as the game lasts.
Like Landon, the year 1999 was also my gateway into the cinema and ultimately Cinema Studies. There was a certain excitement when I sat down to watch The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, or Being John Malkovich – an excitement that was driven by brazen explorations of cinematic style and narrative. The hybrids of arthouse and mainstream that came out that year made formalism accessible once again. I think I learned most of my film vocabulary that fall, discussing the opening montage of Magnolia or narrative ambiguity in Eyes Wide Shut with my high school classmates. Needless to say, there’s a reason I’m teaching a class this semester on 1999.
Oddly, the one film that I did not get around to until later was Run Lola Run. Free from the mists of cinephilic nostalgia, I first saw the film when I was an M.A. student at UCLA in one of Steve Mamber’s classes on the overlap between Cinema and New Media. I mention this because I think the context is important. If I had seen Run Lola Run casually almost ten years after its release, my initial reaction probably would have been similar to Landon’s re-visit. Sure, it’s stylish – but does it have any depth? Instead of that question, I found myself asking how the film relates to gaming.
Reading Landon’s reaction, I began to wonder if any narratives based around a repeating cycle (Groundhog Day (1993) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) come immediately to mind) have a bit more depth in terms of characterization and theme and – if so – where does it come from? There is a fundamental difference between Run Lola Run and the other films: a continuity of consciousness. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s weather man is aware of his placement within a temporal loop. He progresses through curiosity, depression, and ultimately self-examination (which breaks the pattern). Similarly, Tom Cruise’s soldier in Edge of Tomorrow uses the temporal loop to improve his training and gain insight into the alien race he is tasked to defeat (this is neglecting to mention the romantic subplots that both films have). Essentially, unlike Lola, the metaphysics of the temporal loops in these other films allows the protagonists to have an arc. They learn. They grow. They change.
Lola, on the other hand, cannot. With the exception of learning how a gun functions (she does not know how the safety catch works in the first loop, but she knows how it works in the second variation), Lola never “learns” from her previous lives. This is unlike most games – in which repetition and death/losses typically become teachable moments. Lola makes the same central folly repeatedly: she counts on her dad the banker to bail her out, despite being rejected in two “playthroughs,” eating up most of her twenty minutes. She doesn’t learn. She doesn’t grow. She doesn’t change. In Run Lola Run, the only truly evolving variable is the playing field. Thus, despite the film’s attempts to link itself with gaming in terms of theme (the opening sequence), narrative structure (repetition of a level), it is ultimately missing the key ingredient.
Yet, while Run Lola Run fails as a cinematic game, I agree with Landon that is also borrows heavily from the stylistics of the music video. Yet, I would take Landon’s observation one step further. Watching Run Lola Run on the heels of Spring Breakers (2012), which Harmony Korine describes as having the structure of electronic dance music, I could not help but think that Run Lola Run as a similar musical experience. The repetition produces a “chorus” of shots (the opening swoop into the neighbor’s apartment, the shot of Lola running across the bridge in which the camera leads her) and dialogue. The rhythm of the cutting and use techno (which quotes the work of Charles Ives) provides brings the tight narrative up to the appropriate BPM. Moreover, the aesthetic collage of animation, black and white film, low-res digital video, and celluloid takes on the function of a sample. Like LCD Soundsystem’s “45:33” (an ambient track commissioned by Nike to have the musical structure of a run – complete with pushes and intervals), Run Lola Run is succeeds in mobilizing formalism to produce a sensation.
Of course, like most films that have similar aims (Gravity also comes to mind), Run Lola Run is as (philosophically) lean as its protagonist. Yet, unlike Rosenbaum or Landon, I’m not quite as willing to write that objective off. Movies were born out of producing sensation via movement and repetition. The audiences that went to see “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” or “Workers Leaving the Factory” were not peeping into a Kinetoscope or going to the Grand Cafe for stories (let alone a film that couples a story with philosophy). Now, I am not arguing that one form (the sensational) should come at the expense of the other (the philosophical). Nor am I arguing that the forms are incompatible with one another (2001, Under the Skin). I am arguing that sometimes we (viewers, critics, filmmakers) need to be reminded of cinema’s roots in what Tom Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions” or “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” Unlike Lola, contemporary filmmakers can learn from what has come before and while their memories or tastes may not allow them to go back to Thomas Edison or Georges Méliès. However, the lure of 1999 is potent and perhaps Korine needed the aesthetically loaded, philosophical emptiness of Run Lola Run to get to the more balanced Spring Breakers.