Science Fiction Book Club
November 29, 2001
All Turkeys Go To Heaven
I don't exactly know when Thanksgiving became "Turkey Day"-- it was sometime in the sarcastic, post-modern, stylishly cynical 1990s-- but for me, at least, last week was Thanksgiving. I was, and am, thankful for everything and everyone that make my life possible and pleasant.
Thanks for reading my HotSheet, by the way. If I can slightly affect even one person with my ramblings, I'll be happy. Feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com and return the favor.
I'm sure you've heard about 24, the new series starring Kiefer Sutherland. FOX has been promoting the hell out of it. They're even been showing it twice a week so you won't miss a single episode. TV Guide called it "the year's best new show." What's so great about it? Well, most of the hype centers around the fact that it's a serial, and-- as Kiefer tells us at the beginning of every episode-- "events occur in real time."
According to IMDB, the real-time gimmick was first used in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), which also simulated a single take-- i.e., no cutting to different camera angles-- for an entire 80-minute movie. Later real-time flicks include The Set-Up (1949), a movie about a fixed boxing match, and Running Time (1997), which one-ups Rope by showing a heist in real-time, in a single shot, on location, and with Bruce Campbell! There's also a rumor that High Noon (1952) plays in real time, and the clocks on screen are synchronized to show this.
24 plays like the love child of two recent real-time flicks, Nick of Time (1995) and Timecode (2000). Nick of Time was also a thriller involving a kidnapping and an assassination attempt. Timecode also used split screens to show things happening at the same time in different locations, or the same scene from different angles.
It's all vaguely interesting, but what's the point?
The problem with real-time is that nothing else on screen is real. In film and television, all realism is arbitrary, or at best haphazard. Background music isn't real. Close-ups aren't real. Hell, monoscopic vision isn't real. And do you really think the CIA exclusively uses Apple computers? It's all a matter of being real enough.
Consider this: most of Die Hard (1988) happens in real time. From the time John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives at the Christmas party through the end of the movie, there are no significant passages of compressed or skipped time. This wasn't a gimmick or a stunt-- it wasn't even advertised. It was just the best way to tell the story. And that should always take priority over any technical sleight-of-hand.
So far, 24 hasn't abused the real-time thing. The split screens can be clunky, but they're used in moderation, thus sparing us from the maddening inanity of Timecode and the acid-trip overkill of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). And the ticking clock before and after each commercial break is a nice orientation device.
Speaking of which, there's a good reason the third and final act of a movie is often referred to as "the ticking clock," but there's also a good reason that the first two-thirds of a movie aren't crammed with tension. It's called pacing, people!
It'll be a real challenge for 24 to sustain its energy through the entire season; after three episodes, I'm already getting tired of the non-stop action. The protagonist, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), is always on the go and in a hurry. When does he use the bathroom? And how can I find out more about the secret CIA highway that lets him get anywhere in Los Angeles in less than ten minutes?
The X-Files, now in its ninth season, has new opening titles but none of the creepy edge that made it a hit in the first place. With Mulder (David Duchovny) gone, the only comic relief comes from guest geeks The Lone Gunmen-- crawling home after their spinoff series crashed and burned-- but they're as limp as the rest of the cast. (Yes, even Cary Elwes.) All we're left with is a muddy mess.
The dark images and deliberate pace that once engendered tension and empathy now just seem tedious. Everything takes too damn long to happen, and when it does happen, it's not very interesting.
Note to Chris Carter: We know already! We know there are aliens, we know they're here, we know at least one character introduced in the teaser will die before the end of the first act! Just get on with it, for crying out loud!
I give up.
Last, but not least, I concur:
There are still people out there who will refuse to believe that a show called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," created and written by a guy named Joss Whedon, could possibly deal with anything remotely sophisticated, let alone some of the darkest, most deeply recessed sexual fears and longings of the soul. But the past two episodes of the show have been more sexually frank (without being particularly explicit), and more downright exhilarating, than anything I've seen on television in recent years -- perhaps ever.
-- Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com