As It Happens: The Strange History of “Real-Time” Movies

Veronica Litt

Towards the end of an action movie, the hero furrows his brow. Good God. There’s only one minute left on that time bomb. If that thing blows, we die. Cue heroic action, interspersed with suspenseful shots of the ticking clock. We watch as our hero looks to the right (ten seconds), tackles a generic bad guy (nine seconds), roundhouse kicks a henchman, eats a protein bar (eight seconds), kisses the heroine, and reads a novel (seven seconds).

Okay, some of those are jokes—but the point stands.

As the movie draws our attention to time, time also slows down to a silly extent. There’s no way that someone could do all this without taking 10 minutes, never mind 10 seconds.

Bauer Time

Bothered by these takes on “real-time” narratives, the team behind 24 showed everyone how to do things right. Drawing on ancient Greek drama and Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense movies, they made sure that each episode lasted 60 minutes (well, 45 with commercials) for both the viewer and the characters. With 24 episodes per season, the show represented “the longest day” of Jack Bauer’s life.

24 lasted nine seasons. Clearly, real-time storytelling appealed to viewers. At its best, it ups the tension and lets us feel closer to the story, like it’s immediate and lifelike, not fake and on TV. If you’re watching an action movie, this guarantees an exciting viewing experience. If you’re watching another genre…not so much.

A Real Downer, Sam

One of the most controversial early examples of “real-time narration” was a very old, very long novel called Clarissa. Published in eight volumes over 1748-49, Samuel Richardson told the harrowing story of a young woman who’s pressured to marry someone she finds repulsive, held captive by evil relatives, and eventually freed by a lothario who proceeds to kidnap and sexually assault her. After many pages of pain, the heroine dies and the novel ends. Not exactly a feel-good read.

Readers hated the downer ending but found it especially devastating because they put so much time into the book. They really felt like they knew Clarissa. Watching her slowly die sent some devoted fans, like the playwright Colley Cibber, into existential crises.

Step by Step

A young novelist named Sarah Fielding hit the nail on the head when she explained how Richardson made readers feel so terrible. Fielding wrote that “by writing in the present tense,” the novel “penetrate[s] immediately to the heart…we not only weep for, but with Clarissa, and accompany her, step by step, through all her distresses.”

For Fielding, Clarissa’s super slow pace marked a new way of engaging readers with a heroine’s plight. By slowing down time, Richardson doesn’t let us watch Clarissa suffer. We suffer with her. It’s the negative side of “real-time” narration. We’re involved, but it’s not exciting like in 24. It’s really freaking upsetting.

In a few years, Fielding used this pace for herself. Alongside her friend Jane Collier, she co-wrote one of the century’s weirdest novels: The Cry. You could describe it as a baffling two for one deal. Half of the book is a regular love story (boy meets girl, family drama keeps them apart, and at the end, they get married). The other half…not so much.

Experimental Novel

Mushing together a philosophical dialogue and a legal trial with the dark world of internet comments, Fielding focuses not on her protagonist Portia’s romance, but on her experiences trying to get people to listen to her. Unfortunately for Portia, her audience is incredibly hostile. If they’re not sleeping or laughing, they’re interrupting or just refusing to believe anything she says.

When Portia tries to propose a new idea, the crowd invariably attacks. “Where’d you get that idea?” “What a stupid thing to say.” Portia has to support every single sentence with explanations and sources. “Well, actually, Aristotle said something similar. If you don’t believe me, you’re also not believing Aristotle.” Imagine that exchange, but for 900 brutal pages.

I Don’t Get It

Reviews of the time didn’t like this part of the book and neither did readers. Why was Fielding holding up a nice love story with this wacko plot about a mean audience?

Well, maybe because Fielding wasn’t that interested in a love story. She was interested in how it feels to describe your experiences and not be believed. In short, she was interested in how women experience time’s passage as repetition instead of progression. Flash forward a few centuries: Fielding was clearly onto something.

History Repeats Itself

In the first 15 minutes of the Netflix show Unbelievable, a young woman, Marie, is forced to describe her sexual assault four times to law enforcement. By the third request, Marie quietly asks, “Again?” Marie may be the victim, but it sure looks like she’s on trial.

The title of the show already indicates its interest in how women are disbelieved. But the first 15 minutes get specific about how disbelief works. The show transforms Marie’s world into a world like Portia’s and Clarissa’s: in other words, a world of repetition and stasis. The heroine can’t move forward because everyone forces her to go back. Instead of accepting her words, they need explanations, repetition, unending detail.

Gender and Time

There’s a clear connection between belief and progression here. If people trust you, they’re less likely to demand to see your qualifications, to make you repeat your story, to ask questions. You’re more likely to be able to do what you want, whether that means telling a story, not marrying someone you detest, or putting your attacker in jail.

But if people don’t take you at your word, time slows down. Most real-time stories about women are bleak dramas. Real-time stories about men are exciting action movies. 24 has Kiefer Sutherland. Nick of Time features Johnny Depp. Phone Booth stars Colin Farrell. The only counter-example I can think of is Run Lola Run, which seems more like the exception that proves the rule.

Real-Time Movies EditorialRun Lola Run, Prokino Filmverleih, 1998

Begin Again, Again, Again

Not to get too philosophical but these movies and books might suggest that time works differently for women. And because this article is partially about repetition, I should say that this is not a new idea. Back in the day, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that women are “doomed to repetition.” More recently, Rita Felski described how women inhabit “cyclical time” while men live in “linear time,” full of “rupture and revolt.” While routine and repetition don’t have to be soul-deadening, they can be if people are forced into them.

Back in the 1750s, Sarah Fielding tried to make readers feel the pain of enforced repetition for themselves. Society didn’t seem to listen, so centuries later, we have shows like Unbelievable making similar points with depressingly familiar strategies. Hopefully, this time, we’ll pay attention to the social stakes of repetition and stories told in “real-time.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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