Run Lola Run is proof that the influence of MTV on feature filmmaking hasn't been all bad. The jagged stylistic excess that dominates short-form music videos can be exhausting and irritating when drawn out to feature length: Michael Bay (The Rock, Armageddon) may be the worst offender, though far from the only one. But with the right story and a greater sensitivity to varying rhythms, all those flashy tricks can be powerful filmmaking tools.
It's useful to remember how these fractured techniques developed. There's an obvious progression: The TV commercials in the '50s and early '60s, driven by their rigid time limits and their need to viscerally grab potentially errant viewers, moved increasingly toward a new visual code, marked by incredible economy of expression; this was adapted by Richard Lester, who needed a way to replicate the dynamics of dance movement in musical films (A Hard Day's Night, Help!) that starred nondancers. Lester's success in turn helped legitimize these methods, which spread into regular TV programming (Laugh-In) and other features (Performance). Eventually we got MTV, whence emerged Miami Vice, To Live and Die in L.A., and a million similarly hyped-up shows and movies. Sure, this is an oversimplification, but it's an extreme condensation of a bookworthy topic.
German writer/director Tom Tykwer may as well have contrived the story of Run Lola Run to be a showcase for how post-MTV cinema can be aesthetically valid. The opening images are striking: a pendulum and clock against a black background; a series of sped-up, Koyaanisqatsi-like shots of a crowd. From the crowd, a security guard emerges, addresses the camera and literally "kicks off" the film: That is, he kicks a soccer ball impossibly high; as the camera whips up into the air with the ball, the milling crowd below turns into a series of dots that, in the manner of Busby Berkeley (the true great-grandfather of MTV), coalesce into the movie's title.
Against a throbbing techno soundtrack, Lola (Franka Potente) a twentyish German with a punkish hairstyle gets a desperate phone call from her dim-bulb boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). In a rapid-fire black-and-white flashback, Manni explains how, as a mule in a drug deal, he has just managed to lose a bag of money. He is supposed to meet his bosses in 20 minutes, and if he can't come up with the missing 100,000 marks, his life will be forfeit.
His only hope is to rob the market across the street, but the resourceful, intelligent Lola insists that he wait: Somehow, she'll come up with the money by the deadline, no matter how impossible it seems. She'll come up with a way, simply because she has to.
The next 20 minutes are a pounding race, presented in (more or less) real time, as Lola runs through the streets to save him. Of course, this intro plus 20 minutes does not quite reach feature length: So strong is Lola's will that, each time she fails, she somehow leaps back in time and starts over, for a total of three transits of the same 20 minutes.
In essence, Tykwer has put together a three-act version of a one-act idea: Run Lola Run is Groundhog Day with a nearly nonstop music track. In fact, the film is almost an audiovisual elaboration of a concept album; at times, the needs of the music which Tykwer co-wrote seem almost (but not quite) to control the action.
It's a strikingly ingenious construct: Even its most gimmicky tricks bear at least some connection to the notions of time, fate and determinism, which drive the story. Tykwer is smart enough to realize that the pace needs to be broken up. The 20-minute swatches are divided by brief, quiet dialogue scenes that enable us to catch our breath before we're propelled into the next sequence. And Tykwer is also smart enough to realize that, even given this overall rhythm, this sort of musically visceral filmmaking can only be sustained for so long. Wisely, Run Lola Run lasts something under 80 minutes; any longer, and it would have been as exhausting and boring as a half-hour Donna Summer track.
Opens July 9 at the Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli.