Running Time By Andrew Rausch. Film criticism has reached critical mass. Movies are entitled “masterpieces” before they even hit the box office while the filmmakers responsible are touted as the next Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick...
Film criticism has reached critical mass. Movies are entitled “masterpieces” before they even hit the box office while the filmmakers responsible are touted as the next Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick. The result of this across-the-board bandwagonism is that these new films and their creators become the momentary obsession of the film literati, by which all subsequent films will be judged. Unfortunately, the labels applied to most of these so-called “saviors of American cinema” are the result of studio campaigning. As a result, rarities that may truly deserve the labels of “revolutionary” or “visionary” are not given such designation. Because of the luxuries afforded by the larger studios, critics are generally much too busy attending the latest bubblegum flick by Roland Emmerich or Joel Schumacher to bother with these smaller gems.
Critics are not solely to blame for this apparent lack of originality and flood of banal cookie-cutter films. Rather than embracing the budgetary constraints of independent filmmaking, all too often indie filmmakers try too hard to get the most bang from their buck and simply ape larger studio productions. They employ gloss where guts should prevail. In an indie movie, all bets should be off-time for experimenting with narrative, form, and construction at hand. A look at recent indie faves like Happy, Texas and Boys Don’t Cry reveals an uncanny resemblance to scaled-down Hollywood productions simply peppered with “taboo” ideas. It’s almost enough to make a cinephile lose hope.
As if to spite the indie-cum-Hollywood system, there are the occasional films that contain an experimental spirit. Unfortunately, as these films aren’t money making movie machines, they tend to remain virtually unknown.
One such film is Josh Becker’s Running Timeone of the finest examples of American cinema-as-art produced in the past decade. It’s the U.S. equivalent of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. At a mere 70-minutes long and shot in black and white, Running Time is not a commercial film in any way, shape, or form. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope, Becker attempts to give the viewer the illusion of one long take, with no visible cuts. Where the usual hour and a half film averages roughly six hundred shots and sometimes as many as a thousand cuts, Running Time has only thirty cuts, none of which are visible. Becker’s camerawork and Kaye Davis’s editing are highly inventive and astonishingly effective.
It is a common misconception that the editing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was completely seamless. Sure, the first few cuts are clumsily “hidden” by ending a reel of film with the camera pointing at a jacket or other dark surface and beginning the next reel at the same point. However, as the film progresses, the experiment appears to fall by the wayside. Reels run their course with no attempt at concealing the cut to a different shot. The one-take fallacy was likely begotten by a lack of attention from the conditioned acceptance of montage or by viewers simply tuning themselves out, which is not unimaginable as Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most tiresome pieces. The film is stagy in both its sets and its overly theatric performances.
Much of the impact of Rope was due to it being one of the first attempts at making a film in real-time with seamless editing. Until 1997, there had only been films such as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon or John Badham’s Nick of Time that played with time during their narratives, but their editing style was conventional. As most cinephiles have yet to discover the treasures Running Time has to offer, they continue to view Hitchcock’s effort as the end-all statement on real-time shooting. However, viewing the far more effective Running Time reveals that there is room for growth and the expansion of boundaries in American cinema.
The real-time technique is perfectly employed in Running Time with its story about a heist where timing is everything. During the robbery, the tension and suspense build to a frantic level that puts the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. As precious minutes tick by, the criminals engage in an argument. While they bark at one another, the camera nervously moves back and forth between the frenzied robbers, the hostages, and the safecracker, creating a sense of urgency, and contributing to the claustrophobic feeling of the scene.
While Quentin Tarantino has been lauded for his employment of the occasional long take, Running Time is wholly comprised of beautifully choreographed long takes. The viewer moves not merely through time but space, unlike the stationary conversation of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Effectively staging lengthy scenes without a cut-even with the most talented of thespians before the camera-is an incredibly difficult task. In Running Time, the largely unknown cast is lead by genre veteran (and Cashiers du Cinemart favorite) Bruce Campbell, Jeremy Roberts, and Anita Barone.
After being overshadowed for many years by former collaborators Sam Raimi and Joel and Ethan Coen, Josh Becker displays practical camerawork that is more visually stimulating than anything Raimi has attempted in years. In a scene where a hostage calls the pick-up men to ask for ice cream in an attempt to buy the robbers more time, the camera’s POV is from behind a can of Slim Fast sitting across the room, revealing that he’s trying to signal the pick-up men that something’s wrong. In another scene, the camera does two slow full turns around Campbell, effectively conveying his feelings of queasiness. In the film’s most brilliant shot, the camera focuses hard and tight on Campbell, sitting on a curb, before slowly pulling back to reveal the junkie getaway driver who doomed the heist, only fifty feet away. In a stunning demonstration of the terrific depth-of-field, we see the junkie making a deal with a drug dealer in the foreground, with Campbell in the background.
Unlike any other film released in 1997, Running Time artistically altered a playing field without giving way to the temptation of excess à la James Cameron’s Titanic. Rather than being dubbed “king of the world,” Becker and his film remain shrouded in relative obscurity.
Sadly, films are judged either by the amount of money that went into their production or by how much they raked in at the box-office. In an era where Chucky, Leprechaun, and The Children of the Corn spawn countless sequels-all of which easily find theatrical and/or video distribution-conceptual films with artistic merit like Becker’s Running Time can float around for years before finding ambitious video distributors. Recently released on DVD by Anchor Bay, Running Time is available for purchase and slowly finding its way into hip video stores. Tellingly, Leprechaun in the Hood will be hitting the shelves of rental center across the country this spring.
Andrew Rausch:What was your initial inspiration for Running Time?
Josh Becker: Well...Rope! I had always admired the technique, but I never thought Hitchcock pulled it off. The material just wasn’t right. So I sat down and tried to analyze why did I like this technique so much and what was wrong with Rope. My conclusion was that if it’s all done on a soundstage, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that’s making not cutting cool is that you’re on location. I also concluded that if you were gonna use the real-time concept, it had to be part of the story, which it’s not in Rope. There’s no time element in Rope. There’s a body in the trunk and they have a party. Well, it’s not like there’s a timer and at that time the trunk’s gonna pop open, so where’s the fun in that? You need that time element if you’re gonna work in real-time. Otherwise, why bother? Since a heist film is always based on a time element, it seemed like a natural fit. Then I just tried to compound it as many ways as I could. You’ve got an hour and ten minutes. Time is the issue, and time continues to re-establish itself as the issue.
AR: I think with Running Time you’ve accomplished something that Brian DePalma hasn’t been able to do in twenty-five years of attempts, which is to do Hitchcock better than Hitchcock.
JB: To be fair, Rope is probably the weakest thing Hitchcock ever tried. It’s really a miserable picture. I mean, he never had any respect for it. He lost interest before he ever shot it. It was a way for him to fart around with new equipment. He had a new dolly made to go through doorways-which is where our doorway dolly comes from! It was his first color film, too.
AR: What are some of the difficulties of writing a screenplay that moves in real-time as opposed to something more conventional?
JB: I found writing the script much more difficult than shooting the film. In our cut-happy world, we are so used to seeing a character say, “Okay, let’s go to the store.” Then they step out of frame and they’re at the store. You don’t see their trip to the store, unless there’s a scene in the car. So if I need to get people from place to place, that means the stuff in between has to actually mean something. It was very difficult! You’re constantly fighting the temptation to illogically place these places too close together.
Other hurdles I faced were things as simple as the characters having to change a tire. If your tire blows out and you can’t cut, how do you do that? Another one was flashbacks. In real-time, how do you do flashbacks? So I did this in the tunnel scene with sound and the character had an audio flashback.
AR:There’s a scene where Stan Davis’s character breaks his glasses just before the heist, which kind of foreshadows that this heist is going to be problematic. I think that’s very interesting. What made you decide to write that into the script?
JB: I just thought it would be kind of funnya safecracker with broken glasses. Although you can’t really see it, there are times when he’s holding his glasses up in front of his face, trying to see the dial, which just seems ridiculous to me.
AR:Stan Davis’s performance was outstanding. Had he been in any films prior to Running Time?
JB: Not really. He was more of a stand-up comic. I think he’s very good. That’s the beautiful thing about making independent films in Los Angelesyou have this ridiculous selection of actors. Unless it’s someone like Mel Gibson, you can get them in your film for next to nothing if they like the script.
AR: I think the dialogue you use in the film is much more natural than what we see in most films today. You don’t use pop culture references or a lot of long-winded moviespeak dialogues.
JB: Call it what you like; I call it Tarantino dialogue and I think it’s nonsense! When you go into that self-reflective, non sequitur dialogue, your story stops. Let’s say, two hitmen are going to kills someone (this is Tarantino’s whole career), instead of talking about what they’re about to do, they’re talking about Madonna’s latest record. Non sequitur; it has nothing to do with what’s happening!
Anyway, I’ll tell you exactly when I could have used that in Running Time. The guys pull up in the van in front of the laundry and they’re a little bit early. I’d written a whole scene out with all of them and Buzz was saying, “I’m thinking about buying a new car.” And they go, “What kind of car?” And he says, “Well, I’ve been looking at Fords.” And Bruce [Campbell] goes, “No, no, no, you don’t want a Ford. You want a GM.” And another guy’s like, “GM? Forget that! You need a Chrysler.” Then the other guy’s saying, “No, you wanna go foreign on this,” and they just get into this whole thing about this until finally the car pulls up and they all start to pay attention again. To me, that’s a Quentin Tarantino scene. It’ll get a laugh, but it does nothing to advance your story. Instead, I had them discuss the safe. It continues the story as opposed to stopping for a laugh. Rather than just making up bullshit [about foot massages], I actually had to go to the library and look at some books about safes and safecracking.
AR: During the heist, the characters argue about a football game that happened 20 years ago. Where did this idea come from?
JB: I’m a total movie geek though I try to hide it as much as I can. I guess don’t want people to know how much I am inspired by other movies! The inspiration here is Straight Time It’s Harry Dean Stanton and Dustin Hoffman robbing a jewelry store. As far as the football thing, I don’t know where that came from. I’m a writer. What can I say?
To me, that was the tensest heist I could think of. Time is completely the issue. Then, suddenly you’re in this situation where you know Dustin Hoffman’s not going to stop. I’m not sure why I went the way I went, because you’re sort of stuck into a one-act play there. Once you go in, you’re stuck in the room with those people since there’s no cutting in the film. I’m a very old-fashioned writer. I don’t think using the structural concepts of writing make you old fashioned, but nevertheless, when I establish a theme in my writing, then I’m finding ways to express that theme. So the football story-the past problems with the same issues-is following a theme with their characters.
AR: It took several years for Running Time to find a distributor. What were some of the problems that distributors had with it?
JB: Well, it’s 70-minutes and it’s black-and-white. Nobody took it seriously from a theatrical level. And of course it never got a theatrical release. And then I met a guy at American Film Market who just completely surmounted that problem. The guy bought the rights to A Great Day in Harlem, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary about three years ago. It’s about a famous photograph by Art Kane and the whole thing was sixty minutes long. So the problem was, how could he release a sixty-minute movie? He bought the rights to a 1948 Academy Award-winning short on jazz music with Duke Ellington’s band playing in beautifully photographed black-and-white. It’s twenty minutes, so he cut it onto the front of it, released it and made millions of dollars on the release. So, it would have been really easy, had someone wanted to, to cut a short on the front of it. They could have cut my goddamn short Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter on the front of it! [Laughs.]
AR: The thing that I find phenomenal about Running Time is that you’ve found one thing in the medium of film that could still be advanced and expanded upon at a time when it seems like everything has been done to death.
JB: I think I’ve found another one in my new movie, If I Had a Hammer. It’s a musical in the sense that Cabaret is a musical. You’re in a club where people are performing, but the actors are actually singing their songs and playing their instruments. It’s not playback, and I don’t know if anyone’s ever done that before. The people we cast actually had to be able to sing and play their guitar, and when they get up to sing and play their guitar, that’s really what they’re going to do. In the whole history of sound cinema, no one has done this as far as I know.
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