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January 09, 2007

A Child's History Of Long Takes

Yesterday saw the onset of the Contemplative Cinema Blog-A-Thon, a month-long study of the pains and pleasures of boring art films. Below you can find the text of my own initial entry; then, perhaps as a palette cleanser, be sure to click over to the ever-evolving index of other articles, essays, criticisms and celebrations of all that is blessedly minimalist in film.

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A certain question has grown increasingly prevalent in the back of my head; I can trace it to the day I smashed with a hammer the Steadicam I'd purchased with the proceeds from my first after-school job. I merely wanted to salvage the electronic components from within its counterweight arm (no handyman I, the attempt was in vain), but the symbolic value of this destructive act, borne of the sudden uselessness of the device itself in my filmmaking efforts, has become a signpost pointing towards this query that burns even when posed in jest: why do I love boring audiences?

I'll avoid that question temporarily to note that what we've decided to call contemplative cinema has, to an extent, been defined by that which it isn't limited to: the long, unbroken shots that make up the films of directors like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, Alexander Sokurov, Apichatpong Weerasethaku, Bela Tarr and (co-opting Tarr) Gus Van Sant. A director needn't necessarily roll an entire magazine out per set-up to create a cogitative experience for his or her audience, nor is sustenance necessarily conducive to intellectual stimulation or transcendent hypnosis or whatever it is that many elapsed seconds of screentime provokes. On the one hand, consider the mile-a-minute mesmerizations of Godfrey Reggio; on the other, thrill to those unbroken sequences in Welles' Touch Of Evil, the entirety of Hitchcock's Rope, Alfonso Cuaron's recent Children Of Men and at least half a dozen different DePalma films.

In the latter instances, the deficit of edits serves exactly the same narrative purpose as a standard cut in any other film: it connects points A to C, servicing the story with the affects of form (urgency, verisimilitude, etc). A long take in a work by any one those directors I initially cited can service the plot as well, but will generally be less democratic in its function. It is much more about itself; it is precisely the sort of "little play" David Mamet warned against in his screed against the Steadicam in On Directing Film. This take, in its single-minded minimalism, will reflect the narrative, but not necessarily further it. In fact, it will likely function as much as a microcosm of the entire film as a progression of it. The juxtaposition of two such shots, then, will reflect on the same thing differently, graduall excavating the thematic core of the film through the repetitive ebb and flow of minimalistic content.

One of my favorite examples is the almost excruciatingly prolonged final shot of Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, in which a club-footed woman cleans a movie theater after the final show of the night. It's a static take, one which lasts long enough to overcome first frustration and then anticipation, by which point the audience, gently beaten into submission by the lack of incident, may suddenly find themselves attuned to a certain reflective sensitivity. The shot functions as a sort of cinematic mantra, a visual Ohm, which through sustained repetition introduces the viewer to a meditative state in which the intentions of the shot, and of the film as a whole, can be discerned (one of Tsai's chief influences, the French master Jacques Tati, utilized similar tactics for contemplatively comic purposes).

So we have, in black and white terms, the narrative long take and the contemplative long take, and between them there are of course plenty of gray areas. I don't mean to suggest that one form is better than the other, and I certainly love it when little bubbles of introspection surface in the streams of narrative thrust - but let's ignore those instances for a moment. I want to distinguish the differences between the two forms because I noticed in them a sort of developmental link. In my early aspirations towards both cinephilia and filmmaking, I was never more inspired than when caught up in the fluid swoop of Scorsese's unbroken steadicam shots (or Paul Thomas Anderson's even more skillful homages to them). It is that same taste, evolved, that these days leaves me as captivated by the opening shot of Tarr's Satantago as I had been by that in The Player, as in love with the lack of movement as I had been by the extension of it. To get even more anecdotal, we can return to that smashed steadicam; the reason I wanted it was because I Now I'm frequently content to let the camera remain still, to observe quietly and at some distance. It's an almost perversely natural evolution of style, but I think it contains as a constant a certain pursuit of truth. A truth hinted at but ultimately betrayed by narrative, and approximated and expanded upon by contemplation.

This truth is entirely separated from reality (although it may, through elaborately staged misc-en-scene, bear reality's trappings), especially in the case of the narrative long take, which is a careful facsimile of reality but contains not an ounce of veracity. Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, this form serves exactly the same purpose as a traditional cut; and a cut, as we all know, is tantamount to the cleverest of lies. We accept it as real subconsciously, of course, because we want to know how points A and C connect; we want to be carried along. The contemplative long take hardly contains any more truth than its narrative counterpart; the important difference is that it does not require suspension of disbelief. Quite the opposite, in fact - because it isn't propulsive in nature, it allows itself to be consciously imposed upon. The audience partakes, processes and projects, and from this intercourse a rather subjective progeny is born, one which has been subtly guided en utero by the filmmaker and is now free to develop into an opinion whose roots are in the common ground of human experience.

At this point, I've expended an ungainly amount of words on what my have already been obvious, and I should note that I'm not attempting to break new ground or present empirical evidence with analysis above (which may be subject to immediate reflection, revision and repudiation). What I've tried to describe, in such fumbling and semi-coagulated terms, is what I imagine audiences go through when watching a long take such as the one I described from Goodbye Dragon Inn, and I've come up with this assumption based upon my own trepidatious tiptoeing around the edges of my own intentions as a director. I don't like to talk about my work too much, but to answer the question with which I began (avoiding in the process the stopgag response that boring art films aren't actually boring at all), I don't thrill to the idea of making an audience sit through something tedious, nor do I ever consciously set out to impart upon an audience an intellectual representation of some trope I hold true. I make formal choices in my films partially because I've learned that certain techniques will have certain favorable effects, but mostly because they feel correct in regard to what I want to express.

And let me say too that ain't easy being boring! It's not a matter of simply plopping the camera down on a tripod and letting it roll; it's a tremendous strain! Incident is a warm, comforting safety net. My most recent film contains a single static shot that is held for nearly four minutes, during which nothing overt occurs and no dialogue is uttered. It was all I could to resist moving the camera just a little bit, to overtly impose my own opinion onto what I knew in my heart the audience should be left to their own devices with. I even had a makeshift dolly there on set, in case I broke down and fall back on a subtle push-in, or pull-out, or anything that would satisfy the more impatient side of my stylistic ego. But such an imposition is not mine to make; as the director, I have the luxury of knowing what is, on a certain technical level, the whole truth of a given scene (or a given film). But I'm in no position to foist that upon the audiences. Even if they want it. Alas, their disbelief is not mine to suspend.

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Of ancillary interest, and left over from last year: behind the scenes of that very long take.

Posted by David Lowery at January 9, 2007 04:28 AM

Comments

Not to be pedantic, but you can't really discuss Stedicam with Kubrick. He put it through its paces.

Also, don't forget Russian Ark's 90 minute unbroken shot.

Also, the opening shot of Halloween.

Posted by: mutinyco at January 9, 2007 03:00 PM

You mean without Kubrick? Because I didn't mention him. His work and Halloween (good call!) would fit perfectly in that grey area I avoided going into at length. (I'm not a good enough writer to deal with examples that aren't rigorously concrete!)

I totally forgot about Russian Ark, though - I'll go make a correction.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 9, 2007 03:09 PM

I didn't mean 'without' I meant 'Shepherd'...

Posted by: mutinyco at January 9, 2007 03:55 PM

Touché!

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 9, 2007 04:05 PM

Sorry for being off topic (or maybe I'm not, actually..)

But The Outlaw Son just got featured at The Daily Reel. Sort of cool. I mean: Congratulations!

Posted by: Karsten at January 9, 2007 07:01 PM

Your insider approach is quite insightful! Thanks for your much anticipated contribution, David. I like the technical considerations, which bring questions that didn't hit me yet. The long take, as you point out, has a cost... no every filmmaker can afford to risk a shot like that. The industry prefers a scene cut into bitesized pieces that can be remade easily if something is wrong, either at the shooting stage or at the photolab stage. So there is not only an aesthetic vision, but also a financial risk to waste filmstock. And we should think a little more about that when watching a film. It makes long takes all the more precious, and admirable.

"It's a static take, one which lasts long enough to overcome first frustration and then anticipation, by which point the audience, gently beaten into submission by the lack of incident, may suddenly find themselves attuned to a certain reflective sensitivity. The shot functions as a sort of cinematic mantra, a visual Ohm, which through sustained repetition introduces the viewer to a meditative state in which the intentions of the shot, and of the film as a whole, can be discerned"

Your analysis of that finale in Goodbye, Dragon Inn is excellent! Meditation and non-verbal communication is another defining aspect of what we call "Contemplative Cinema".

I'll have to think about all this and come back with more ideas.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at January 9, 2007 07:27 PM

Quality. Have you seen the documentary DIRECTED BY Andrei Tarkovsky that follows the production of The Sacrifice? The moment he learns the camera jammed during the final scene is heart-breaking. At least we can thank his producers for believing in his project, his entire vision, and affording the money to re-shoot the scene. The movie wouldn't be quite as worth it without that indelible image of the house collapsing in on itself. Then there's the fact that his final image is a crane (?) from the boy at the foot of a tree up into the branches -- the mirror opposite of the first image in Ivan's Childhood that goes from the treetops down to find Ivan, the young boy, at the base. The symmetry of his career is flabergasting & eerie.

Posted by: Ryland at January 10, 2007 12:46 AM

Harry - in regards to those risks, I've taken them and fallen flat plenty of times. Too many times, actually, especially when a long take just work and there's no way for me to fix it in the editing room. And doing multiple takes on film stock, on the sort of budget I generally work with, can be disastrous. This reminds me, incidentally, of something Tarr said, about how Kodak censored him by not making larger rolls of film!

It's interesting that you note that one should take these technical limitations into consideration during the film. My initial response is that this is a bad idea, and that a great film won't call attention to technique - but then again, there have been many great films where, over the course of a long shot, I've had plenty of time to think about both how the shot was made and what it is meant to imply. It's a tug-of-war of disbelief! This is something worthy of further consideration.

I'm glad this post has some decent food for thought. I'm hoping to have at least one more addition to the blog-a-thon before the month is out.

Ryland - I haven't seen that documentary, but just mentioning that moment sends chills down my spine! Good lord. I can't even imagine.

Karsten - I think the mention at The Daily Reel actually is on topic, since the introduction reads "To say that this low-fi short takes its time unraveling would be an understatement." I love it. I'll be e-mailing you soon about the eventual DVD release of the film, by the way...

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 10, 2007 04:15 AM

Great, can't wait! I'm prepping a package to send you... you know... containing... the Scandinavian Cut. Heh. I visited my local cinematheque last night for a Bergman evening, btw, and seeing "Persona" for the second time (first time in a theater). I found that also to be on topic somehow while reading your post, and the other ones over at HT's site. Superb blogathon this one!

Posted by: Karsten at January 10, 2007 05:00 AM

David, so what do you prefer? Long takes or cuts? What you say about the lying cuts is interesting, is that why you cut to black? to avoid the juxtaposition of shots (Darren Hughes would say "parataxis")

Karsten, thank you for the good words. You're welcome to join in! Persona is my one most favorite film!!! It is speechy and the complex montage make its narration formaly demonstrative (even if it doesn't resolve itself). This said, the atmosphere is definitely paced and contemplative, emphasized by the mutism of one of the protagonist. Why not. I'm sure you could say a lot of things about contemplation with this film.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at January 11, 2007 02:58 PM

It depends on the film, Harry, and what it's trying to do. I'm excited by filmmakers who utilize long takes (and utilize them well) but at the same time there's often nothing so thrilling as that perfect cut, the cut that subtly and quickly elevates the content it connects. The more overt instances of this sort of cut occur at the articulative point between two scenes (the prime and at this point almost overused example is in 2001), but it certainly can exist within a scene as well (be it a jump cut or a simple reverse shot). As an editor on other people's pictures, I've really grown to love and respect the power that an edit can hold over a scene, a performance, an entire film - and so perhaps, as a somewhat masochistic director, I try to deprive myself of that by cutting as little as possible!

Cutting to black definitely denies the audience the expository quality of direct juxtaposition, and in that sense, through parataxis (a great word!) I suppose it somewhat avoids the "falsehood" of an edit. It's too overt for any deceit to take place. But at the same time, it has a different sort of illusory quality because it is so suggestive - it requires the audience to fill in the blank spaces, and I think that can often be more effective than if I were to fill those holes myself.

On the other hand, sometimes I just run out of footage or discover I've made a mistake in my direction, at which point - voila! - a cut to black can make the problem disappear! There's one such cut in The Outlaw Son that constitutes a really big mistake on my part...but I'll never say which one it is, and hopefully no one will notice (either because it works, or because by that point they've fallen asleep).

By the way, I've enjoyed looking over the Roundtables at the Unspoken Cinema site, and I'm looking forward to chiming in very soon.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 11, 2007 05:30 PM

I would take "a cut is a lie" too literally. Fiction is a lie, cinema is, sometimes a lie is what we want. Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet have an interesting talk about the cut in Costa's documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui?. ;)

In the case of the black cuts in The Outlaw Son, they feel quite abrut. I would like something softer, maybe a real quick fade to black would make the transition binary (two shots), instead of giving it's own shot to a black screen which makes your edit ternary (shot-black-shot). And the black takes a significance/presence of its own, instead of being that neutral element in between.

See you at hte roundtables.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at January 15, 2007 08:33 AM

You're right about the lying. We can get as deep as we like into the semiotics of cinematic truth, but in the end it all comes back to that classic DePalma quote!

There's only one fade in The Outlaw Son, and it serves a very specific purpose. The cuts to black, then, are not elements of a transition - they are not, as you point out, netural. They do serve the pace of the film, but not as segues or connective tissue. On a functive level, they're as significant as all the other shots.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 15, 2007 05:21 PM

Do you know the "Average Shot Length" for The Outlaw Son? I'd like to add it the list.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at January 17, 2007 04:20 PM

I don't know it, but I can easily find out. I'll e-mail you the results...

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 17, 2007 05:54 PM