It’s not a coincidence, far from it. Then again, it isn’t exactly orchestrated. I’m discussing the surge in features exploring the possibilities of the single take, or, as many call it, the “extended shot”.
They came in a wave that filled our eyes at Rio — a wave that came from different latitudes, and in different tones. Films took a chance on sustained time (or not). More than the static frame, the strength of the single take seems to be more present than ever in contemporary filmmakers’ intentions.
Does the so-called “ethic of the single take” still make sense nowadays? Of course it does, whether it’s accomplished through skilful set direction or the use of the most high-tech steadycam. A single take is, in any case, a cinematographic statement. In a world tour through Rio’s cinemas, we saw extended shots of every shape and effect.
The ones that stuck with us in those mild days in Cidade Maravilhosa were PVC-1, from Colombia’s Spiros Stathoulopoulos; The Mugger (El Assaltante) from the Argentine director Pablo Fendrik; Silent Light (Stellet Licht) from Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas and The Waltz (Valzer) from Italy’s Salvatore Maira. Two of these movies, PVC-1 and The Waltz, are literally composed of just one shot.
Luckily, every one of them managed to avoid the trap of acrobatic technique. These films had deliberate sensory intentions, where the strength of continuity was a feature of visual and emotional tension.
In Maira’s The Waltz, the operatic compromise makes one recall the achievement of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg), though without his craft and artistry. But it’s in Fendrik’s The Mugger that the obstinate stretching of the shot to its absolute limit works better. The story of a middle-aged mugger who specializes in robbing the private schools of downtown Buenos Aires captivates our emotions by the millimeter and stays close — really close — on the face of actor Arturo Goetz, to the point we have trouble even breathing under the film’s enticing spell.
There is something new in these expanded shots, full of movement, full of tension. In the winner of the FIPRESCI award, Reygadas’ Silent Light, the single, drawn-out take becomes a kind of mystical charge, as close to the cinematographic timings as to the most religious, naturalistic truth. More than ever, Reygadas’ meanderings have achieved the force of their precision: Each shot lasts the time it must last, and is achieved without any pretension.
Are we about to witness some sort of new trend in long takes? Nobody knows. In the wrong film with the wrong filmmaker, the extended take will always be proof of vanity, ready to be dismissed. The already famous take that appears in the second half of Joe Wright’s Atonement, which also screened at Rio, may well be an example of a mere aesthetic stunt, even though the beautiful film (based on Ian McEwan’s novel) survives it.
The truth is, the power of a sincerely intended single take can definitively change the effect a film has upon us. This is why not everyone can limit himself to simply copying Brian de Palma’s signature style: Take another look on Snake Eyes in light of this new resurgence of long takes, and you’ll understand.