Long Takes

October 19, 2010

Of the many categories for one-upmanship in filmmaking, a special place has long been reserved for any director who can pull off a ridiculously long take. The lengthy walk-and-talk shots in films like Preston Sturges's Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) are largely practical and cost effective, one may surmise, in that they make short work of long sections of script. Jean-Luc Godard helped push the long take up to the level of a bona fide political intervention—recall the supermarket shot near the end of Tout va bien, his 1972 collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin—and more recently Steve McQueen showed his mettle in staging an epic ten-minute encounter in a single long shot, a passing moment in his larger effort to neuter real political history via a cocktail of stylized filth and suffering rendered chic (Hunger [2008]).

It is often difficult to make hard and fast claims about the moving image. But I believe one can say with reasonable accuracy that last decade or two have been characterized by a gradual waning of the importance of montage. The digital is staccato by definition, but somehow it has also learned to be fluid. Somehow being a machine means existing in unbroken transit. This is most readily evident in music videos, which have undergone a renaissance with the spread of broadband internet, even as many pronounced their death in the wake of MTV turning to reality and lifestyle shows, and away from music videos proper. In fact today it is already something of a directorial cliché that to stage a music video one must line up a carefully choreographed three-and-a-half minute set of actions, which are then executed and captured on tape in one fell swoop. One take, no cuts. The virtues of the aesthetic revert back to social coordination, to the intricate choreographing of one's friends, to rehearsal time, to the craft of theater over and above the craft of the moving image.

But there is something else at play here. For this is also the moment in history when the dollied camera becomes the “smart” camera. Just like a fly-through of a 3D model, today's long takes hover and flow like a digital eye. It matters little whether or not one is shooting on digital or shooting on film; this is purely a question of style. A number of examples stand out here, but my favorite is Edouard Salier's video for “Splitting The Atom” by the band Massive Attack. As critic Steven Shaviro put it in a recent tweet, Salier's long-take clip evokes “gorgeous slow motion impending doom, mineral life, digital duration.”

Of course counter examples abound as well, from the military transformer porn on display in the video for Boris's song “Ibitsu” (which I could watch all day long), to the real transformer himself, Michael Bay, and his special brand of frenetic editing, recently recast by some authors, somewhat counterintuitively, as evidence of his newfound auteur status. Gasp. Good thing there's a brand new rainbow-colored Godard film floating around BitTorrent, rumored to be his last.

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