In an old article that Scientific American recently reprinted, Antonio Damasio looks at how Hitchcock’s “no cuts” feature Rope squeezes 105 minutes into 80:
Where do the missing 25 minutes go? Do we experience the film as shorter than 105 minutes? Not really. […]
First, most of the action takes place in the living room of a penthouse in summer, and the skyline of New York City is visible through a panoramic window. At the beginning of the film, the light suggests late afernoon; by the end night has set in. Our daily experience of fading daylight makes us perceive the real-time action as taking long enough to cover the several hours of the coming night, when in fact, those changes in light are artificially accelerated by Hitchcock.
His analysis of Rope’s timeline is a sidebar to a longer article about how the brain time-stamps information to make the past seem orderly and the present feel “present.”
But in terms of Hitchcock’s film, I think Damasio overstates his case.
All movies exist in unreal time, not because of cuts and gimmickry, but because the experience of watching a movie involves surrendering to that film’s reality. We go into dream mode, especially when watching something on a giant screen in a dark theater.
Psychologists could — and I suspect have — shown test subjects a hour-long continuous shot of humdrum video. When asked to report its duration, guesses would vary considerably.
That’s not cinematic mastery. That’s our brains being only so-so at gauging time, particularly when denied outside clues.
In movies, unless something seems wildly impossible — driving from LA to New York in an hour — audiences are extremely forgiving about time, particularly if overall story logic seems to be consistent. In many of my favorite movies, I couldn’t tell you how many hours or days or months have elapsed in story time.
When movies work, you don’t care.
The rest of Scientific American’s special A Matter of Time issue (on newstands) is fascinating, by the way, touching on quantum matters, ancient clocks and other geekery. My very first screenplay was about Boulder’s atomic clock, so I’m a sucker for these things.