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It’s been far too long a period of time since I contributed to this series of essays revolving around alternative structures for screenplays. No excuses. Let’s simply say that life got in the way (as it always seems to, gosh darn it; life, can’t live with it, can’t live without it).
At any rate, as of this point in time, the following essay should be the penultimate entry for the subject. The final one will be a miscellany compilation.
This time round (in case you haven’t noticed, this is the third time, well, now it’s the fourth, that I’ve mentioned time, a stylistic choice which is known in the industry as foreshadowing), the focus of the essay will be on screenplays that use time to structure their story in some way.
As a reminder, these essays have grown out of a feeling that over the past few years, I’ve been coming across a somewhat familiar familiarity and formulaic formality to more and more of the screenplays I read and that we may be losing a certain originality to the writing, resulting in a lack of screenplays that take chances, are truly original, have a personal vision, and are experimental, often with glorious success.
As a final note before I begin, I will repeat something I have said in each of the previous essays:
“Now, I know that many of you will find a way to take each example and demonstrate how it really fits into the traditional structure that is often taught, if not enforced, by many in today’s writing environment.
Well, here I’m going to be perfectly frank, or speak the truth and shame the devil as they say where I am from.
To quote Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, “I don’t care”.
I don’t. I don’t really care whether in the end you come to the conclusion that there are alternative structures to be used in creating films that go against prevailing wisdom in the literature, or whether you come to the conclusion that the traditional structure outlined above is really much more malleable that one might have thought at first and that there are numerous variations to the original.
Either way is fine. I’m not going to argue it.
My point is that I think it’s time (that word again) for writers to start thinking outside the box. And however you have to justify it to yourself in order to do it is fine….as long as, for god’s sakes, you do it.”
Also a caveat. You will probably recognize some of these films as being included in earlier essays. But sometimes the structure applies to more than one category, so I thought it was better to include them and give an additional way to look at the film, rather than ignore them altogether.
So with all that being finally said, following are a selection of films with structures somehow revolving around the use of time.
In this first set of films, the stories are not told in chronological order.
21 GRAMS: This searing drama written by Guillermo Arriaga is an excellent example of a story that is told out of chronological order and without a linear time line. It jumps from scene to scene and character to character until at the end everything comes together and the full story has been resolved. Here the story revolves around the hit and run death of a little boy, but has multiple points of view: a born again ex-con trying to stay on the straight and narrow; a terminally ill professor; and the grief stricken mother.
In Slaughterhous-Five, a dark comedy written by Stephen Geller from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a man jumps around in time from his experiences during WWII as a POW, his middle class marriage and family, and his being abducted by aliens to have sex with a beautiful woman in a geodesic dome on the planet Tralfamadore (no, I’m not making this up).
In writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s clever rom com (500) Days of Summer, a young man relates the story of his latest doomed romance out of chronological order to the point of listing the number of the day that the scene takes place on.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s first film Following would also fall into this category.
MEMENTO: In Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s puzzle film about a man who has short term memory loss, a story is told in two through lines: one in which the scenes are dramatized in chronological order and the other in which the scenes are told in reverse chronological order until the story meets in the middle.
BETRAYAL/ IRREVERSIBLE: These are two films whose plot is told in reverse chronological order. In Harold Pinter’s adaptation of his own play, the story of a love affair is told beginning with the sad end of the affair and then working backwards to the beginning where the two lovers meet and embark on the affair with a sense of hopefulness.
Gasper Noe’s controversial film Irreversible basically begins with two men murdering a rapist in a gay club and then shows the events that led up to the confrontation, but in reverse order.
This sort of playing in time dates back to at least 1934 with Kaufman and Hart’s play Merrily We Roll Along about a playwright who has basically sold out. In a series of scenes told in reverse chronological order, we see how that came about (this was adapted into a musical with the same name by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim).
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD: A film built on surrealism, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which the plot is revealed in a dreamlike state, while time and cause and effect are ambiguous at best. A man meets a woman at a chateau and insists they met the year before, while she claims they never met. The movie jumps in time and order until one is never quite sure what is true or what is not.
FILMS WHOSE STRUCTURE IS SOMEHOW DETERMINED BY THE AMOUNT OF TIME IT TAKES FOR THE STORY TO TAKE PLACE
Often, but not always, the following stories are not driven by an overall goal that the central character is trying to achieve. The characters are often not after anything specific, or may not be in control of the situation, and are at times considered to be reactive characters. If they have a goal, it’s often something vague, like survival or simply trying to get through a short period of time. But even that description doesn’t always apply.
So what more holds the story together here is the time that the story takes place in. It’s not the central character achieving his goal that ends the story, but it’s the time that structures the story having passed.
HIGH NOON/ROPE: In these two films, the story takes place in true time. In High Noon, adapted by Carl Foreman from a magazine story by John W. Cunningham, an ex-sheriff is leaving his town when he is informed that someone he put behind bars is arriving on the noon train to exact revenge. He has ninety minutes to prepare and see if the town will help him. The movie constantly cuts to a clock to show time passing and the story takes place within the true amount of time it takes the plot to unfold.
In Arthur Laurents’ adaptation of the play by Patrick Hamilton, two men murder someone and hide the body in the apartment where they are throwing a party. The director Alfred Hitchcock filmed the movie in a series of long takes in order for the story to take place in true time.
Other films that could fall into this category include Before Sunset, 12 Angry Men, United 93 and Phone Booth.
AMARCORD/CLEO FROM 5 TO 7: Two films in which the structure of the film is determined by the amount of time that is covered by the story and is often called episodic because there is no real build or strong central goal and often the scenes may feel all on the same level. What give the movie its structure is that the story will reach a resolution when a certain time period ends.
Amarcord is an impressionistic memory play written by Tonino Guerra and director Federico Fellini. It revolves around a young teen as World War II approaches and dramatizes what happens in his town over one year, each section divided by one of the four seasons.
In writer/director Agnès Varda’s character study, Cleo from 5 to 7, an actress has to pass the time, from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm, at the end of which she will hear from a doctor who will tell her whether she has cancer or not.
LA DOLCE VITA/THE GREAT BEAUTY: These two films are also episodic, but the difference is that they don’t cover a determined time period as the previous two do. They often tend to drift along as the central character encounters various people and scenes of life.
The two can almost be considered mirror images of each other. Tullio Pinelli, Ennino Flaiano and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is a character study of a man who drifts into a personal crisis as he becomes more and more spiritually and existentially unmoored until at the end he is totally lost. In Umberto Contarello and director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a writer is already lost at the beginning of the story, but ends up at the end on the road to rediscovering himself spiritually and existentially.
THE PIANIST/12 YEARS A SLAVE: These two films are also episodic, but their structure is determined by a clearly defined, but much longer period of time, that is also determined by historical events. There isn’t necessarily one goal that is driving the characters or the story except that of survival.
In writer/director Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, a Jewish man must find a way to survive World War II in Poland. It begins as Germany takes over Poland and ends when Russia takes over. In John Ridley’s 12 Years a Slave, a free Black is sold into slavery and must survive the odds until he is rescued and returned to his family twelve years later.
In Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Edward Albee’s controversial play, two couples meet after a faculty party and battle with each other until the sun comes up. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s The Anniversary Party is about a group of people who gather together for a party; the story lasts the length of the party.
There are many films like this ranging from The Boys in the Band to The Big Chill to Death at a Funeral to A Wedding to Gosford Park.
THE LONGEST DAY/IS PARIS BURNING?: These are films whose structure revolves around the time it takes for the event to take place, but they have several story lines, rather than a single group of people gathering in one location over a shorter period of time.
The Longest Day, written by Cornelius Ryan with input from several other writers, concerns the D-Day landing during World War II, while Is Paris Burning?, written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, also with help from some other writers, concerns the efforts to keep Paris an open city as the Germans retreat.
There are many films like this, such as The Battle of Britain, Lincoln, A Bridge Too Far and The Thin Red Line. Most of these types of films tend to revolve around an historical event.
MISCELLANEOUS MOVIES WITH STRUCTURE THAT ARE DETERMINED BY TIME IN SOME WAY
As the heading suggests, these are films whose structure is determined by time in some way, but don’t fall readily into the other categories.
GROUNDHOG DAY: In this movie, written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, a character is forced to repeat the same day over and over again until he gets something right. A very original and clever premise that, like Rashomon, is so much its own thing, that it has rarely been duplicated. However, Edge of Tomorrow follows the same basic concept.
BOYHOOD: Writer/director Richard Linklater’s film covers twelve years in the life of its hero. There is no one really overarching goal or any plot that is really driving the character. What makes the movie unusual is the way it was filmed: Linklater and the actors would gather once a year to continue the story such that you would see the central character, as well as the others, grow older in real time.
Something similar to this takes place in the 7 Up documentary series in which the filmmakers return to the same people every seven years to see how they have changed or even if they have changed.
SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR: Bernard Slade’s adaptation of his own play, a vehicle for the star Ellen Burstyn, is a series of scenes about two people who meet once a year to commit adultery. Each scene takes place on the same date, but a year apart.
Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and David Nicholls One Day use a similar structure.
The Australian television series A Moody Christmas does something similar to this in which each episode takes place during Christmas when the central character returns home to visit his family.
HUMAN CAPITAL/ELEPHANT: Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo and Paola Virzi’s stylish and fun murder mystery is told three times from three different characters’ viewpoint, as well as going back in time prior to the death, generally covering the same time period. The interesting aspect here is that certain scenes are repeated but shown from a different character’s viewpoint.
Gus Van Sant at times does something similar in Elephant, dramatizing a series of events revolving around a school shooting. The time jumps around and some scenes are repeated, but shown from a different viewpoint.
Writer/director Greg Marcks’ 11:14 chronicles events that lead up to a car crash, with various events replayed from different viewpoints.
BLIND CHANCE/RUN, LOLA, RUN: These are variations on what is often called a portmanteau film, but with a twist. The same character is shown in three different situations based on a slight change in timing.
In Tom Twyker’s Run, Lola, Run, a young woman rushes to help her boyfriend who has misplaced some drug money, but what happens to her is repeated three times, with a variation depending on how fast she leaves her apartment. In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s earlier Blind Chance, a young man races to catch a train. The movie shows what happens if he misses it, if he makes it and if he misses it, but in doing so gets in trouble with the police.
This is a structure that has rarely been used in movies. Sliding Doors is an English remake of Blind Chance.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES: This movie starring Humphrey Bogart has an extremely unusual structure, one of the most unusual I’ve ever seen in movies. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, but not just flashbacks, but flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s a little hard to explain, but it starts out at Point A; then flashbacks to Point B; then flashbacks to Point C; then flashbacks to Point D; whereupon it then flashes forward to Point C again; then to Point B; then to Point A, whereupon the story is completed.
I have no idea how this ever got approved in the studio system, but it almost has to be seen to be believed.
This is also a structure that is not often used, but it can be seen in such movies as The Locket (1946) and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Inception, at one point, uses this structure, though it’s not flashbacks within flashbacks, it’s dreams within dreams.
THE CLOCK: I have to add this even though this is not a narrative film. But it’s such a curiosity, I feel I have no choice. The Clock is actually an art installation. Created by artist Christian Marclay, it is a series of scenes taken from movies that create a literal clock because the events in each scene correspond to that exact period of time in the real world. It starts at twelve noon and ends 24 hours later
As a finale, I thought I would leave you with a list of some of my favorite time travel movies. Ironically, even those these films are about time traveling, most have structures that are not really determined by time, but are often linear and traditional in how their stories unfold.
LA JETÉE: Chris Marker’s 28 minute film is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made (and was later remade as Twelve Monkeys). In a post-apocalyptic world where everyone has been driven underground, a man is sent back and forth in time to try to solve the world’s issues, always leading him back to a distant memory of a woman he sees on the jetty of an airport.
TIME BANDITS: Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam’s fantasy about a little boy who tags along with a group of little people jumping through cracks in time located on a map, from ancient Greece to Robin Hood’s England to the sinking of the Titanic, chased by God who wants his map back and when asked why there is evil in the world says He thinks it has something to do with free will.
NEXT: Miscellaneous alternative structures