While watching a number of films at the Viennale this year, I had time to consider the evolution of the long take in cinema. In fact, I had the time for such thoughts because long takes allow one’s mind to wander. In some films, one could leave the cinema to go to the toilet and/or have a cup of coffee, then return to the film without having missed anything or hardly anything.
Although this may sound facetious, I mean it to be a positive response to the long, long take, in which the spectator has the time to reflect on what he is seeing, almost like the contemplation of a painting. By this I refer, not to the spectacular one-take tracking shot, which reached its apotheosis in Alexandr Sokurov’s 96 minute The Russian Ark, but the long take with a fixed shot in which the camera hardly ever moves.
When Andre Bazin wrote What is Cinema? in the 1950s, he made the distinction between those directors who used montage for effect and those who preferred to use depth of field (or deep focus) like Orson Welles, William Wyler and Jean Renoir. “Thanks to the depth of field, whole scenes are covered in one take, the camera remaining motionless”, wrote Bazin. “Dramatic effects for which we had formerly relied on montage were created out of the movements of the actors within a fixed framework.” Bazin believed it allowed for greater realism, and encouraged a more active mental attitude on the part of the viewer, who could now explore more fully the interpretive and moral ambiguity inherent in the film image.
What, I wondered during another extremely long take, would Bazin have thought of Bela Tarr, Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Straub-Huillet or Pedro Costa. Both the latter directors were represented at the Viennale in the stimulating programme put together by Hans Hurch, the director of the festival.
The death of Danielle Huillet just prior to the festival added poignancy to the three films shown there: Sicilia, From The Clouds To The Resistance and the couple’s last film, Quei Loro Incontri, all consisting of a series of dialogues, with a camera fixed on the ‘actors’, mostly in medium-shot, against a rural background. In an equivalent of Brecht’s distantiation, little distracts from the words spoken.
Pedro Costa’s hugely impressive Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha) consists of epic long takes through which the protagonist, the mighty Ventura moves slowly from one room to another in the slums of Lisbon. It is a film that one doesn’t watch but looks at, with time to notice small moments at the fringes of the frame. Actually, time becomes an important stylistic element.
However, some audiences and film illiterate critics often use the word “slow” in a pejorative sense when it carries no such sense. One could equally criticise a film for being too “fast”, as I have been guilty of doing. That these films have a slow tempo is indisputable, but so do the adagios of the classical and romantic symphonies. Perhaps the long take is equivalent to the slow movements of the symphonic or sonata form.
Among the newer first and second features by much younger directors, our prizewinner, Honour of the Knights (Honor de Cavalleria) by the 31-year-old Catalan Albert Serra. Serra takes the long take almost to an extreme as he shows Don Quixote and Sancho Panza doing nothing, or rather, he shows them ‘thinking’, which is one of the main points of the film. Their adventures are imagined. As someone once remarked about Waiting For Godot, “nothing happens twice.” Serra presumes a knowledge of the Cervantes classic among the spectators and expects them to fill in the gaps.
Sokurov’s Elegy of Life uses the long take to penetrate behind the faces of Rostopovich and Vishnevskaya, respectively the masks of comedy and tragedy, especially the latter. The soprano is seen at a dinner party attended by the cream of European aristocracy. At first, she wears a genuine smile, then it disappears and the face reveals a terrible boredom only to be replaced by a fixed grin.
In the Chilean film, Rabia (Anger), directed by Oscar Cardenas Navarro, the long take is used to concentrate on the mousy face of a young woman seeking a job. It is applicable to the plot that tells of her waiting for interviews as she applies for job after job. But the shots of her face almost become the raison d’etre of the film, in which we get the point in the first twenty minutes.
The long take is now used in so-called “art movies” almost as much as shot-reverse-shot is in conventional films, well or badly depending on the quality of the director and its connection to the subject. It certainly provided food (and time) for thought.