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The Long Take

Cinema is a game of acquisition, adaptation, and perfection. As with the evolution of any organism – biological or art form – the most successful traits pass from the forbearer to its progeny to become further refined and passed on yet again until they become the rote rule rather than the artful exception. Often times these appendages become essential to the body of film as a medium – jump cuts and edits that neglect the car-ride-enter-building-enter-office rhythm of older films, for instance.

Recently, though, technology and pop-oriented directors have begun a system of odd excess and incestuous cross-breeding that threaten to make any interesting developments turn into soulless vestigial bombast before the trick has a chance to find a real purpose. Perhaps the most obvious and well-publicized example in recent years is the act of “speed ramping.” The movie 300 featured this technique to great effect. Soldiers in that film, when clashing with the opposing armies, would move in realtime, but slow to an elegant, fluid slow motion for killing strokes and particularly flamboyant maneuvers. While the trick was enticing and fun and novel at the time, the effect has worn off after half a decade of use in every other film seeking to highlight spectacle and violence.

One might make an argument that this technique is useful for giving the audience an in depth and more easily appreciable look at the action, thereby enhancing the visceral impact of the action scenes. However, the validity of this argument is abated somewhat by the fact that most movies that utilize this effect rely on freneticism and chaos as their primary means of creating tension. This is being generous, as in films such as Transformers there seems to be no attempt to create a sense of space or cohesion in the action, and as such their use of speed ramping becomes an exercise in “me too” showmanship. They evince no desire for visual fluidity or choreography, save for those moments when a neat idea slips into their mind and they wish to highlight it.

In this way, the tenor of the film does not fit the expressed purpose of the technique implemented. 300 could get away with the idea that speed ramping was used to create a greater sense of power, poise, and talent in the warriors it featured because that was the expressed point of the scenes, and the action set pieces were clearly defined. Most films, however, break this consistency of purpose and use cinematic techniques as dressing bereft of intent beyond spectacle.

So it has been heartening for me to come to realize that even as techniques like speed ramping become fodder for people attempting to spackle over the holes in their narrative or stylistic choices, one technique has been used with increasing frequency in the name of creating a genuine emotional or thematic impact. From big budget post apocalyptic thrillers to art house action films to haunting character studies, the long take is proving itself to be the modern filmmaker’s answer to vapid, empty spectacle. A simple, elegant, yet perilous and effective tool, the long take has been responsible for creating some of the most memorable and affecting scenes in recent film.

The power of the long take, and its growing prevalence in film, is deeply tied into both the spatial, artistic, and emotional connections that the technique can foster in the audience. Most recently, the technique was used in the film Shame to great effect, making use of each of these aspects to deepen the emotional and artistic experience of the film.

In one scene, Brandon is on a first date of sorts with Marianne, a woman from his office. The two of them sit at a table in a trendy restaurant and make small talk between visits from the world’s most incompetent and awkward waiter. The camera sits fixed at a distance, taking in the fullness of the scene, watching as Brandon and Marianne try to make small talk, doing their best to fill in the gaps between conversation and the time spent talking to their waiter. The scene is uncut, happening in real time, and we are forced to experience every unpleasant, awkward, incoherent beat alongside the characters. Just as life offers no reprieves or edits in the dullness or oddness of our daily encounters, so does this scene force us to watch as two people slowly grow to understand how they are meant to speak with one another. Following the effortlessness of the scenes regarding Brandon’s seduction of women he does not care about, those he meets in crowded bars or restaurants, this scene is a shocking, slow, almost painfully earnest look at human experience.

In this scene, the lack of edits draw out the excruciating inconsequential nature of the bulk of the conversation. Whereas Brandon’s seductions are edited, clipped free of fat to more quickly move the audience towards the moment of consummation, this scene of standard courtship is firmly imbued with the slowness and effort of getting to know someone.

Could this scene have achieved this same level of purpose and effect if shot in a more traditional manner of cross-cut dialogue (in which a camera cuts back and forth between close-ups of the two leads as they talk)? Most likely not. A lot of the power from the scene comes from the full range of the scene being constantly in frame. The two leads, the other patrons, the waiter standing over them and moving among them. The full spatial interaction between the leads and the extras, and the way in which their posture and attitude changes throughout the scene is integral to the reason and the meaning of the scene. Close cuts and responsive, selective editing would have robbed this scene of all of that spatial importance.

Spatial information is also the reason and source of power behind a more technically impressive tracking shot in the action art house film Hanna. In a single, fluid shot, Eric Bana steps off of a bus and walks through a terminus, along a street, and down into a subway station before being accosted by a group of agents sent to take him in or take him down. The entire fight, and the walk that proceeded it, were done in one take, and the effect is intense and subtle. Throughout the scene we catch glimpses of people on the edges of Bana’s personal space, all of whom may be people out to harm him.

Then, in the confines of the subway, he is set upon by those who actually were out to get him. The importance of the use of the long take in this scene is two-fold. First, the scene allows us to understand the way Bana must live his life as a runaway agent under constant pursuit. His eyes dart from side to side, and he sees everyone around him as a threat, but not as the entirety of his visual perception. In most movies the audience would see the movement of the eyes of the protagonist, and then see a cut to the subject of the look. In this way we are isolated from the rest of the world, and shown only what the director thinks is important, rather than allowing us to see the world and realize that nothing and everything is important all at once.

Alternately, the change of the scene from a tone of paranoia to a vicious outburst of violence while maintaining the same take allows for a greater appreciation of the character we are watching. In most films the transition between rest and action is made through a series of cuts and edits. The movement is diluted by the cancellation of continuity by breaking the flow of the scene. It is easy to image – subconsciously – an actor between takes priming himself to move from ‘acting’ to ‘taking action,’ but the long take robs us of this.

Children of Men plumbed similar ground in its brave, innovative long takes. Similar to Hanna, these scenes utilized the long take to create a depth of experience and emotional connection, using the lack of cuts and the continuous nature of the scene to offer the audience no escape from the reality of the situation presented. The cuts and shifts of perspective that allow a sense of disconnection from the film form dissolve, and before long the continuous gaze of the camera has robbed the audience of the ability to think about the movie outside of the situation at hand. It creates a sense of spontaneity and present-ness that creates a greater environment for surprise and shock – which is precisely what Children of Men exploits.

In a scene where our hero, Theo, moves through an urban war zone, we follow at close proximity. His hesitation, fear, and his scrambled attempts to move in and out of cover from gunfire comprise the bulk of his time. Whereas other films would cut this cowardly excess to make him appear more heroic, we can see him for what he is; a scared, hardly capable man seeking to do something right in the face of overwhelming odds. In this way we can see more of ourselves in the character, and can more readily relate to his stilted, clumsy attempts at heroism. Likewise, the time spent stalled on the battlefield allows more time to take in the sumptuous details of the scene – the completeness of the cinematic reality. This same effect was achieved in a similarly toned scene in Atonement, which allowed us to view the full horror and confusion of the retreat at Dunkirk.

The full potential of the long take is even more fully explored and exploited in Russian Ark, by Alexsandr Sokurov. In this film (shot entirely in one take) the camera acts as a point of view perspective for the narrator of the piece, a man who was in a car accident and is now moving through Russian history while walking through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Each room seems to bring him to a new era, and a strange, enigmatic Frenchman appears and disappears and reappears as he moves. Again, the removal of the artifice of the edit or the dissolve draws an audience deeper into the experience of the narrator. Beyond that, the lack of cuts also makes the movement of time in the film, back and forth through the history of the Russian culture, a more mystical and unexplained phenomenon. In an average film’s inclusion of cuts and edits would make it easy for the audience to rationalize and normalize the sudden shifts in temporal context. The lack of cuts in Russian Ark makes such a rationalization impossible, and thus the mystique of the film form itself feeds into the mystique of the narrative.

The film ends in grand fashion, with a sweeping ball complete with a waltz and scores of costumed noblemen and women. The camera – and thus the narrator and audience – moves through the throng of people, taking in the scene with unrestrained awe. Everything in the scene is of such completeness that the camera needs no tricks of editing to conceal the seams. Thus the function of the long take also becomes a means of underlining the technical acumen of the film production, which again augments the awe of the scene by means of awe at the form.

Through each of these examples we can clearly see the necessity and purpose behind the long take as a means of greater and purposeful filmmaking. Shame shows us the way in which the long take is used to create a connection to the characters and their relationships, giving us a greater understanding of their lives and motivations. It also acts as a distinct juxtaposition against earlier character interactions. Hanna uses the long take to demystify and more realistically ground the life and actions of a typical action hero. Children of Men uses the comfort and familiarity of the long take as a means of removing expectation and enabling shock and empathy. Russian Ark, meanwhile, uses the technique as a means of creating a space, in addition to amplifying the mystery of the films narrative.

As time goes on and more directors embrace digital photography – an easier, more versatile format – the prevalence of long takes will most likely continue to grow. Word has it that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Children of Men, is planning on opening his next film, Gravity, with a massive long take. One can only hope that the technique will be used with the same attempt at depth and purpose, and that the long take will not fall into the trap of empty spectacle along with speed ramping and other such overused tricks.

Until that point, I eagerly await the next film that takes us on an uninterrupted gaze into the lives and actions and experiences of its characters in such a meaningful, impressive fashion.