Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

16 gimmicky real-time entertainments (that actually work)

Illustration for article titled 16 gimmicky real-time entertainments (that actually work)

1. 24
It’s such a perfect idea for a TV series that it’s a wonder somebody didn’t think of 24 before its 2001 launch. Those willing to suspend disbelief far beyond normal expectations got a cracking good spy thriller, while everybody else could tune in to see how silly things got. With each real-time hour adding up to a single day in the life of CTU agent Jack Bauer, things did tend to get a little silly—and there was so much catching up and beeping clock—but the show held it together (and kept the conceit!) through eight seasons. The upcoming 24: Live Another Day, which debuts tonight, condenses Jack’s day down to 12 hours, which is actually a great idea. No time for cougar attacks, then.


2. Nick Of Time (1995)
Johnny Depp was in the midst of a pretty hot run of movies—Ed Wood, Dead Man, Donnie Brasco—when he made this enjoyable Hitchcockian trifle, which is notable almost solely for taking place in real time. At the movie’s outset, Depp’s daughter is kidnapped by a typically evil Christopher Walken, who tells Depp that if he doesn’t murder the governor of California in 90 minutes, his daughter will be killed. A vast conspiracy develops over a short time, with only a friendly shoeshine man to help Depp in his race against the clock. In a way, it was the blueprint for every 24 episode, silly plot twists and all.

3. Friends, “The One Where No One Is Ready”
The one episode where Friends told a story in real-time, the stakes were about as low as you can get, even for a sitcom where nothing truly bad ever happened. In the opening scene, Ross declares the crew only has 26 minutes before they have to leave to go to his museum benefit, and no one is dressed: Will they make it on time? The whole episode takes place in the ladies’ living room and is chock-full of 20th-century plot devices—answering-machine shenanigans, lack of caller ID—yet it still ends up being pretty charming. This was during the golden period when Friends was riding pretty high. Ross and Rachel had finally gotten together, fulfilling their “will they/won’t they,” but weren’t yet the tedious, beaten-to-death storyline they eventually became. This outing also offers one of the show’s best sight gags: Joey wearing all of Chandler’s clothes (but no underwear). Lastly, it provides viewers this tidbit of Friends-universe minutia: Chandler poops in Monica and Rachel’s bathroom even though his is right across the hall.

4. Before Sunset (2004)
The second film in Richard Linklater’s Before series, Before Sunset, is the only one that unfolds in real time (at least so far). But the director weaves in setting, music, and philosophy so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget the entire film is basically an 80-minute conversation between two lovers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) with the built-in tension involved when one character has to catch a plane. It may have been nine years since Jesse and Celine have seen each other, but it’s clear from the moment they lock eyes in that bookstore, they’ve got some unfinished business. The ensuing story is pretty small scale, plot-wise, but it’s a riveting, suspenseful, and sexy one—even though the only physical contact the two leads share is a brief French cheek-kiss at the beginning and a hug toward the end. That they pulled this off so masterfully is a credit to all three artists involved, who also collaborated on penning the script.


5. Timecode (2000)
Mike Figgis’ experimental film doesn’t just tell a story in real-time, it tells four of them simultaneously. For the film’s entire 97 minutes, the screen is quartered, with each of the four stories shot with a different handheld camera in one continuous take. The stories—elaborately choreographed, and unedited, though Figgis apparently shot the film(s) 15 times to get the right take—sometimes cross paths (and quadrants), though Figgis uses volume to direct the viewer’s attention. The plot centers on jealous lovers and the entertainment industry, but the narrative threads are kept relatively bare for the sake of being able to follow four of them simultaneously. Shot in late 1999 on DV tape, the film is both a formal experiment and a performative challenge, and the result is surprisingly enjoyable and uncomplicated.

6. 30 Minute Meals
While Rachael Ray might be fairly annoying, with her “yummo” exclamations and cutesy abbreviations, the show that made her famous—30 Minute Meals—was anything but. The nightly cooking adventure followed Ray as she put together an occasionally delicious-looking meal in 30 minutes, commercial time and all. It was a welcome twist from other cooking shows, in that the apps and entrees she put together looked semi-doable for most home cooks. Plus, nothing took an inordinate amount of time or required any sort of ridiculous prep. Granted, Ray is a chef, so her chopping’s probably faster than the average person, and she’s better at multi-tasking, but even if the actual meal prep took real cooks 45 or so minutes, that’s still better than the hours in prep time some fancy-pants items require.


7. Watching Ellie
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ first return to television after Seinfeld was in this two-season NBC curiosity, more successful as a gimmick than as a show. In its first season, every episode of Watching Ellie followed the titular cabaret singer through a 22-minute slice of her life, complete with a clock in the corner that counted down from 22:00 until episode’s end. The series, created by Louis-Dreyfus’ husband, Brad Hall, was never particularly funny, nor did it have a real reason for being, outside of getting to see Elaine from Seinfeld in a show of her own. But in its real-time gimmick, it foreshadowed how Louis-Dreyfus would end up both the most ambitious and most successful of her former castmates in her post-Seinfeld career (as well as giving a young Steve Carell a place to, well, not shine, exactly, but star). The audience rejected the first season (perhaps because it was being forced to realize it had to sit through eight minutes of ads in a 30-minute timeslot), and when NBC renewed it—mostly to be in business with its star—it was retooled, horribly, with the real-time gimmick ditched and a laugh track tacked on. It didn’t last.

8. Rope (1948)
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s play, which was in turn inspired by the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case in Chicago, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope attempted to bring the feeling of a captive stage audience to screen. Cameras can only hold up to 11 minutes of film in a magazine, so Hitchcock devised a way to make a movie that appeared as close to one unbroken long take as possible. Of the 10 segments in the film, only four transitions come through unmasked cuts—the rest are somewhat hidden by panning behind characters or objects for a brief fade to black. (Hitchcock’s usual cameo is confined to the director’s outline on a neon sign within the city skyline background for the apartment set.) The film depicts sinister friends Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan as they kill a former prep school classmate, stash the body in a chest in their living room, and then hold a dinner party around the evidence in a macabre display of moral superiority. Hitchcock’s technique keeps the audience in the room with all the guests as the tension ratchets up over the course of the evening as the boys’ former schoolteacher Rupert (James Stewart) slowly unravels the sinister plot. Without cutting around to different shots, Rope eschews the distancing effect of traditional film editing, with key sound and lighting changes to accelerate the passage of time over the course of an evening.


9. The Clock (2010)
In 2010, artist Christian Marclay debuted a work that obsessively tracked time for 24 hours. The Clock merges clips from thousands of films to portray every minute of the day, juxtaposing wild and quotidian images as it progresses ever onward. Even after the museum housing it closed for the night, the projection ran on (some installations of the piece have remained open for over 24 hours so that people could watch it in its entirety). The Clock isn’t a movie, per se, although it does create a collage of both known and unknown films, since Marclay was very specific about how it is viewed: it must be shown in a particularly sized room with a particular number of seats. Even the type of seating was specified by Marclay, creating an experience rather than just one giant supercut.

10. M*A*S*H, “Life Time”
By the time M*A*S*H ended its 11-season run in February 1983, most critics agreed that it was high time for the highly influential series to say “Goodbye, Farewell And Amen,” but among the unforgettable TV moments left behind by the Korean War dramedy was a real-time episode during the show’s eight season which used an onscreen clock to tick down how long the surgeons of the 4077th had to mend a soldier’s lacerated aorta before he became permanently paralyzed or worse. Given M*A*S*H’s general fearlessness when it came to delivering less than happy endings, the real-time element served to provide viewers with a knuckle-gnawing installment filled with numerous disconcerting moments (most notably when the soldier starts to regain consciousness mid-procedure), leaving them just as uncertain as the characters as to how things would ultimately play out.


11. Doctor Who, “42”
Showrunner Russell T. Davies has alternately claimed that the title of this third-season episode of Doctor Who is either a reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or an homage to 24. While “42” doesn’t answer big questions about the nature of life, it does crib from 24’s real-time format. The time-traveling Doctor (played at this point by the exuberant David Tennant) and his companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) follow a distress signal to a 42nd-century spaceship that’s falling into a sun. Cut off almost immediately from their own ship—the TARDIS—the Doctor and Martha have the real-time 42 minutes of this episode to save the day. There are better adventures that separate the Doctor from his time machine (“The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit”two-parter, “Waters Of Mars,”and “The God Complex”to name a few), but this one is unique for the way it puts the audience in the Doctor’s mindset as he solves a crisis in real-time. Without hitting too hard on the gimmick, “42” transforms the Doctor from a Lord Of Time to a man without a moment to lose.

12. Cléo From 5 To 7
Richard Linklater’s Before series may have popularized the premise of two people talking and walking around a city in real time, but the prototype is Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 To 7. In Varda’s stylish French New Wave drama, Corinne Marchand’s superficial pop star, Cléo, wanders around Paris awaiting the results of her medical tests. The title exaggerates the main experiment. Cléo opens the film with an ominous 5:00 tarot reading and closes with her test results at 6:30. Those 90 minutes elapse in real time, immersing the audience in Cléo’s perspective. She travels from episode to episode, and that traveling time brings the world, and the ticking clock, to life. When Cléo’s in a taxi and Varda’s shooting from the backseat through the windshield and playing a news broadcast about the Algerian War, the gravity is inescapable. The closer Cléo gets to her diagnosis, the more omens she encounters, and the greater the tension. And at the end of Cléo’s odyssey, the catharsis is all the stronger for having gone through the wringer with her.


13. High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper won his second Oscar for starring in the Western High Noon as the aging Marshal Will Kane, whose impending retirement is disrupted by the news that the vengeful badman he once put away is due to arrive on the noon train and reconnect with his old gang. While he waits for the inevitable shootout, Will tries to drum up help from the local townspeople, but they are too gutless to do the right thing, preferring to stand by while he’s gunned down than risk their own lives by helping to even out the odds. The civic-responsibility theme that the writer Carl Foreman inserted into the script helped make the film impressive to reviewers and Academy voters, but what makes it enduringly compelling is Fred Zinnemann’s direction; as the clock (literally) ticks down, the passage of time begins to feel like the tightening of a noose.

14. The Set-Up (1949)
Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, a classic of boxing-ring noir, stars Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson, a washed-up boxer whose manager doesn’t bother to consult with him before making a deal with a gangster for Stoker to lose his upcoming bout with a much younger, fitter opponent. (The possibility that his client might somehow win the fight hasn’t even occurred to him.) The backstage scenes leading up to the climactic bout give Stoker a chance to marinate in his sweat, sense of failure, and impending doom, slowly building a thick, smoky atmosphere of suspense that erupts in one of the most brutal and grueling boxing matches seen in a movie up to that time. When, at the end, the gangster has Stoker’s hand broken so that he’ll be forced to find a different occupation, it’s practically a happy ending.

15. Phone Booth
B-movie gimmick meister Larry Cohen wrote the thriller Phone Booth, in which a sleazy publicist (Colin Farrell) answers a ringing pay phone in the Times Square area and spends the rest of the movie glued to the receiver: The voice on the other end belongs to a sniper who threatens to kill him if he hangs up or explains to anyone what’s really going on. Over the course of about an hour, during which time the sniper kills a pimp and compels the publicist to confess his own squalid misdeeds to the police and TV news crews now surrounding him, Farrell does a virtual one-man show, humoring the sicko on the phone while struggling to somehow convey to the police captain (Forest Whitaker) in charge that all is not as it seems. As a bonus, the unseen caller is played by Kiefer Sutherland, allowing for the possibility that this is all some small component of one of Jack Bauer’s master plans.

16. South Park, “The New Terrance And Phillip Movie Trailer”
In the late ’90s, Russell Crowe invited Matt Stone and Trey Parker to listen to his new album, and the duo was less than thrilled with what they heard. According to the DVD commentary, Stone and Parker created “The New Terrance And Phillip Movie Trailer” episode of South Park specifically to jab at Crowe and his music—which they describe as a mixture of “Bon Jovi and Hepatitis B.” The episode begins with the boys gathered at Stan’s house, armed with snacks, waiting for the trailer, which might air at any time during The Russell Crowe Show, a travelogue from hell where Crowe sails the world in his suicidal boat, Tugger, singing bad adult contemporary ballads while beating innocent bystanders. Stone and Parker turned the tables on the audience, forcing them to watch Crowe’s happy-go-lucky, ridiculously violent and racist vanity show in real time. In a twist of clever gimmickry, the episode cut to commercial every time Crowe’s show went to commercial, adding to the boys’ frustration of waiting out the seemingly endless inanity and silliness of The Russell Crowe Show.


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