24 February 2021

Real Time & POV

I tried to watch 1917, the new Sam Mendes picture, and gave up about halfway through.  It’s about trench warfare in WWI, and if you haven’t heard, its chief claim to fame is that it unrolls in real time – in fact, it gives every appearance of being a single, long tracking shot.  This is, of course, an effect, and an extraordinary one, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Lee Smith, and director Sam Mendes.  Mendes says the shortest uninterrupted shot they used was 39 seconds, and the longest 8½ minutes.  I normally love this kind of technical sleight of hand, but this time around it left me cold.


The famous example of real-time is Hitchcock’s Rope.  The dead guy goes into the chest, and the two killers host a cocktail party.  Out beyond the windows, night settles on the city.  Inside, the noose tightens.  Hitch shot the picture in extended takes, from five to ten minutes apiece, ten minutes being the max a camera magazine could hold. 


The question is why.  Hitchcock later said it was a stunt.  But he was always one for showing off.  How not?  The opening titles of The Lady Vanishes, the snow-covered train tracks, the village, the cars, all clearly a model.  The square full of umbrellas in Foreign Correspondent, the windmill turning backwards, the plane crash at sea.  (Huge pipes, from an overhead tank, smashing through the rear projection and a windscreen made of spun sugar: in other words, real water.)  The astonishing crane shot in Indiscreet, when the camera swoops down from high above all the way down to the key in Bergman’s hand.


Hitchcock is no stranger to heightened effect.  The point being, how does it further the story?  I give you the Covent Garden sequence in Frenzy.  Anna Massey puts her trust in her boyfriend’s bestie.  We know Barry Foster is the Necktie Murderer.  They walk through the market.  He takes her up to his flat.  The camera pauses in the stairwell as they go inside, and then backs away, down the stairs again, out of the apartment, across the street and through the market, a tracking shot in real time.  We know   what’s happening upstairs, while everybody goes about their business.  A girl is being strangled. 


This is how real-time can be used to enormously sinister effect.  I was a big fan of 24, but let’s admit there were some pretty contrived narrative turns.  I also liked Birdman a lot, and it took me a little to catch on, but how did the convention of a single continuous shot contribute? 


What narrative purpose does it serve, or is it simply a trick?  I’m not convinced by Rope, any more than I am by 1917, to be honest.  How does this pull you in any further?  I think the technical tricks actually distance you.


There’s a self-consciousness in any narration.  We talk about the advantages or disadvantages of First Person vs. Third, for example.  Jay McInerney used Second, Plural, in Bright Lights, Big City, but he used it for distance.  It didn’t bring you closer.  It pushed you away.  A very different example is Robert O’Connor’s Buffalo Soldiers.  He uses Second Person to draw you in, to make you complicit with an unsympathetic and even criminal narrator.


The question I’m asking, here, is how you create intimacy.  An uncomfortable intimacy, perhaps.  Which conventions work and which don’t? 


I thought Bright Lights was terrifically entertaining, but Second Person a novelty.  The way it’s used in Buffalo Soldiers is more intimate, and scary.  These tricks are useful.  I’ll take any arrow in the quiver, but overuse weakens the conventions.  Maybe there’s a picture that’s strengthened by constant forward motion, but 1917 isn’t it.

Not by this pretense. 


There’s a difference between invitation and lurking.  We all probably have predatory instincts, lions waiting at the water hole.  Who, though, is the prey?



  1. I think the endless single-shot is a trick, and the only time I've seen it used where I felt it worked was in "Russian Ark", directed by Alexander Sukorov. Mainly because the POV throughout was a narrator (perhaps ghost) wandering through the Winter Palace and seeing all kinds of things happening in the various rooms, past and present. That worked for me. Otherwise? Eh.

  2. Eve: Yes, indeedy. The word I think I was looking for is "contrivance." I thought 'Russian Ark' was terrific, and the POV didn't seem like a gimmick - probably because they used it to create a narrative, as opposed to a PBS travelogue, but the narrative was structural, not a fiction. Mendes is trying to use it to create urgency, and it comes across as unnatural.

  3. Your comparison with 1st and 3rd person caused me to rethink continuous tracking shots. I've not seen 1917, but I've viewed clips of the continuous shots. I've not seen either of the 2nd person films you mention.

    Touch of Evil's opening was a classic as was the recent James Bond Spectre, both set in Mexico. Orson Welles repeated his opening trick in Citizen Kane. I almost never rewatch movies, but I have gone back to watch those scenes.

    One of my favorites was a running escape in the television series, True Detective. That built tension, but I can't say any of them built intimacy. For me, what I like is the swooping effect, almost as if I'm a bird following the action. It draws me in, it adds a level of interest, but it's not intimate.

    But, if we look at another Hitchcock film, Rear Window, we live in Jimmy Stewart's room for almost two hours. To me, that's intimate.

  4. Leigh - The thing you point out about REAR WINDOW is also true of ROPE, that they happen in a confined space, so the intimacy/claustrophobia factor is heightened. REAR WINDOW also makes the voyeuristic aspect of movies quite literal. The opening of TOUCH OF EVIL doesn't really call attention to itself until the bomb goes off, and you realize the car's been in the frame for the whole shot. I know it's a stunt, but I love it.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>