Brevity, Part 2: Long Takes

Some of us have been discussing long takes in movies, and John mentioned that he’d like seeing a list of films that consist primarily of the beautiful things. So here is a start at such a list. (And here is another one, which like this list embeds many YouTube clips, such as the magnificent opening shot Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), the homage Robert Altman pays it in The Player (1992), and many others—including some overlap.)

But first: What’s the value in the long take?

For starters, they’re difficult. The longer the camera runs, the more time there is for something to go wrong—for an actor to flub a line, for someone behind the camera to cough, for the camera or a light to break. Many of the long takes on this list revel in a kind of virtuosity. Consider this famous long take from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) (please excuse the poor video quality, though):

In a similar vein, longer takes tend to reveal, whereas shorter takes tend to conceal. Reveal what?

Well, many things. Performances. And often various aspects of the film production itself. As the take develops, you can often “see” the crew on the other side of the camera, in terms of how the shot develops. Here’s one example, from Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole (1998):

This shot is 3 minutes 15 seconds long. We see in it the actor (Kuei-Mei Yang). But I think we can also “see” off-camera:
. the director (Tsai)
. people operating the elevator
. the camera crew who push their rig forward, then backward, on a dolly (cinematographer, camera operator, a lens puller, grips)
. the lighting crew (the main lights slowly come down, and a spotlight comes on)
. someone to work the sound (the finished sound is post-synced, but I imagine they’re playing the song on set so that Yang can dance and lipsync)
…plus all the typical on-set people: runners, a continuity person (script supervisor), catering, producers’ reps, insurance, nurse, etc.

I’d also argue that there’s something very human about watching actors perform in long takes. Kuei-Mei Yang’s performance here is rather charming in a way it couldn’t be were it slashed to ribbons. It’s important that she look amateurish!

By way of contrast, the recent Lord of the Rings films rarely feature long takes.  Consider this clip from The Two Towers (2002). In 138 seconds, there are 27 shots, averaging roughly 4.9 seconds. The longest shotis 14 seconds. I think Peter Jackson is wrong to cut away from Sean Astin during his monologue. Astin is a very skilled actor, and I Jackson’s decisions diminish what might otherwise have been a good speech (well, somewhat good).

I don’t want to argue that long takes are inherently superior to shorter takes. But they do possess some special qualities that are worth considering. Along these lines, one can argue that the long take possesses a kind of honest humanity (inasmuch as films are ever honest, or human). The famed film critic André Bazin argued that the long take (coupled with other continuity-strengthening elements like long and wide shots, and deep focus) respected viewers by allowing them more freedom as to where to look. Long takes can of course still manipulate viewers, directing their attention in various other ways: through movement, dialogue, close-ups, lighting, music. But long takes, unlike short ones, can also allow viewers to settle into the shot, looking where they wish. Viewers can even choose to tune out, if they so desire…which is perhaps one reason why they tend to be rare in commercial filmmaking.

Of course, some viewers find long takes boring, and I know better than to argue otherwise. I myself often find them to be extremely tense. Part of that tension comes from not knowing when the cut will come. Consider Tsai again; here’s one of the last shots from his Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003):

Personally, I feel a mounting tension as the woman (Shiang-chyi Chen) cleans the theater (heightened by the sound of her limp). And then the camera lingers for as long as possible, and we have no idea when the shot is going to end (especially when watching it for the first time in a theater). In some ways, it feels to me like waiting for death. (And in a way it is: the theater was closed and demolished after filming. Supposedly Tsai held the shot until he ran out of film, as a way of saying goodbye to the space.)

But long takes don’t need to be boring (or static)! Here’s the opening scene of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), which a film critic friend of mine recently called the opening scene of the decade:

Tarr was influenced by his fellow countryman Miklós Jancsó. Here’s a scene from that director’s brilliant Red Psalm (1972) (Még kér a nép, which apparently translates directly as “the people still ask”):

The entire 87-minute film is famously comprised of only 27 takes.

Any discussion of long takes—and films made exclusively from them—quickly arrives at Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948)—or “The Rope” as this YouTube clip calls it:

Rope really isn’t one long take: Hitchcock didn’t have the technology to do that at the time, so he disguised the cuts (rather charmingly, I think).

In 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov realized Hitchcock’s dream of making a complete feature-length film in a single take: Russian Ark (2002):

(You can watch the whole thing here, apparently, but it’s anamorphically compressed. Why go to the trouble of uploading the whole film incorrectly? But this isn’t a film to watch at YouTube, anyway.)

Before that, Andy Warhol made several long films that use one or very few takes. My personal favorite is Vinyl (1965), an unofficial adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (yes):

Making a feature-length adaptation of a novel in three shots creates several problems. Such as: where will the characters who appear later in the script stand? Warhol’s brilliant solution here is: on-camera, waiting for their lines. Also onscreen is Edie Sedgwick, who doesn’t play anyone in the film (other than herself), and who according to legend wasn’t even aware that a movie was being made. (All of the actors are of course on drugs, and reading their lines from cue cards.)

Stanley Kubrick was supposedly a fan of Warhol’s version, and (again, supposedly) crafted the opening shot of his own 1971 adaptation as an homage:

And Kubrick of course adored long takes. Here’s the ending of The Shining (1980):

Supposedly (again), this shot is a reference to Michael Snow’s classic 1967 experimental film, Wavelength. That film is 43 minutes long and done in a single take. It’s also a stationary shot: the camera isn’t advancing, but is rather slowly zooming toward the far wall of the studio, creating the impression that we’re crossing the room. (The final image, which I won’t reveal, is a very clever pun, as well as a a troubling meditation on death.) As we get “nearer” to the far wall, the drone on the soundtrack increases in pitch—another rhyming with the title.

You can watch the entire thing here, but it’s fairly poor quality. (Watch for the cameo by the great poet and filmmaker Hollis Frampton!)

Meanwhile, what goes around comes around. Michael Haneke paid tribute to Kubrick with the opening of his original Funny Games (1997) (this clip is dubbed but you can get the idea):

The opening The Shining:

Later in Funny Games, Haneke gets rather clever with long takes, mining them for great tension (again, sorry about this clip being dubbed, but it’s the only version I could find):

Of course, long takes can just as easily be used for humor, a strategy employed repeatedly by Toe Yuen throughout his sublime animated film My Life as McDull (2001):

And another humorous example, a tremendous scene from Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet’s Sicilia! (1999) (apologies for the lack of English subtitles):

This brilliant film (by two very underappreciated filmmakers) is an adaptation of Elio Vittorini’s 1941 novel Conversazioni in Sicilia that takes the title fairly literally, presenting…conversations in Sicily.

One of the champions of the long take was Michelangelo Antonioni, whose film The Passenger (1975) ends with one of the most famous long takes in film history:

This is rather action-packed for Antonioni. Orson Welles once criticized Antonioni’s long-winded style of filmmaking, complaining that Antonioni would show you a road, and someone walking down the road, and then you’d realize with horror that he was going to show you the man walking down the entire road. …The style caught on, though; Antonioni has had a clear influence on many filmmakers, such as Theodoros Angelopoulos. From Landscapes in the Mist (1988):

…And Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2005) (a wonderful film—alas, bad formatting in this clip):

Tsai has also admitted to a heavy Antonioni influence. Another Taiwanese director who seems similarly influenced is Hou Hsiao-hsien, who’s nowhere near well-known enough in the US. There isn’t much by him up at YouTube, but here’s a clip from his recent film Three Times (2005):

This is a good example of how the long take offers a certain kind of respect for the viewer, who gets to experience performances and events in their duration. Here’s another example, from Pedro Costa’s brilliant Colossal Youth (2006):

While some may regard this kind of thing as boring, I find great pleasure in watching actors doing simple things (like taking out a record player, putting a record on, and listening to it). (The Criterion Collection is releasing this and other films by Costa this March.)

Woody Allen is one of the few contemporary US directors who regularly employs long takes in his films (and not just for momentary dramatic effect, as Scorsese and others tend to). From Bullets Over Broadway (1994):

I really enjoy here how Allen refuses to give us the reverse shot when John Cusack and Jack Warden first enter the apartment. Many other directors would cut to Jennifer Tilly and Joe Viterelli as soon as they speak—but Allen builds a little suspense by making us wait. (Long takes can conceal information just as easily as they can reveal it, by staging action offscreen.)

Finally, here are two wonderful long takes by the master, Andrei Tarkovsky. First, a section from The Mirror (1975). The first three shots of this clip run 140 seconds (and I think the first shot is even longer than what we see here); what they reveal is rather incredible:

…And, as exit music, the final shot from Stalker (1979):

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I hope it’s demonstrative. Happy viewing!

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25 thoughts on “Brevity, Part 2: Long Takes

    • Bela Tarr actually came and presented it here at Facets in Chicago. And stayed for all of two minutes before breaking down and rushing off stage right. I’m not sure what the issue was.

      He’s awesome. SATANTANGO and MAN FROM LONDON are currently my favorites of his films.

      Have you seen Gus Van Sant’s GERRY (2002)? It steals heavily from Tarr. I really like it.

        • I was just thinking of Van Sant…Gerry is similar to Elephant in terms of the long takes, but Gerry relies less on the sense of synchronicity the viewer gets from experiencing the same scenes from multiple perspectives. Gerry is more straightforward, but has a strangeness all its own. There is a scene about halfway through where the character played by Casey Affleck finds himself stranded on a boulder about fifteen feet high. For several minutes, all we see is Matt Damon (his friend who he’s gotten lost with while hiking) spreading dirt at the base of the boulder so that Affleck can jump down without spraining his ankles. The two hardly speak, except to make random jokes, but the scene is weirdly transfixing. The camera watches them from fifty feet away, far enough for us to realize their predicament is both absurd and profound, but close enough that they retain their individuality.

          Here it is:

          http://bit.ly/6Mu5A6

          • Thanks for posting that, Edward. I adore that scene! And the whole film, really—one of my favorite more recent ones. While I can understand why the film wasn’t a hit in theaters, I look forward to the day when it’s a cult favorite. If nothing else, it’s a treasure trove for movie buffs who like to quote funny dialogue. “Barrying down the way…” “I conquered Thebes…” “I made you a dirt pillow…” “How’d you get up there? / Scramble.” “You Gerry’d the rendezvous…” And so on.

            One of the things I love about the film is how Van Sant steals so much so openly from Béla Tarr’s films (in particular SATANTANGO and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES), and yet makes those shots and elements totally his own. It’s great “collagist” filmmaking (I put that in quotes because Van Sant is recreating shots, not actually using the original footage).

            I used to say that Van Sant was the greatest contemporary US director because he’s the only one who’s responding to Béla Tarr. A polemical statement, to be sure—but Tarr is one of the most interesting filmmakers out there!

            Meanwhile, all three films of the “death trilogy” only get more interesting when viewed against one another. The video game that the kids are playing in ELEPHANT is based on GERRY. ELEPHANT, like GERRY, includes direct references to Tarr (and there are also various Kubrick references scattered throughout both films). And LAST DAYS, although impressive on its own, benefits a lot from following the other two films.

    • Of all the films I missed in 2009, HUNGER is the one I regret missing the most. And how I didn’t motivate myself to go see it when it was playing at the Music Box is something I will never know.

      I’m happy to see that Criterion’s already snapped it up. That disc is at the top of my to-be-watched list in 2010.

  1. I love Haneke’s longer takes. Especially when he ends his film with one, such as in both Cache and Time of the Wolf, both of which provide that kind of building tension as well as let the viewer consider and reconsider her attitude or expectations about what she’s seen so far. When the cut finally comes, it’s experienced with a mixture of relief, expectation, and a subtle disappointment or anomie–it’s something I love to try for with my short stories.

  2. the value of the long take? i’m so glad you ask me that
    i heard some of this great public radio podcast last night, To The Best of our Knowledge, about how we experience time. (http://www.wpr.org/BOOK/lastweek.cfm)

    as babies, we need “slowness.” if our parents constantly distract us – with tv or learning or structured play time – we won’t learn how to appreciate things. i think of it like learning to exist, but maybe i’m wrong. i think the long take’s like that, it gives you time without the camera directing you to wallow in the experience and learn to appreciate it. like un-structured play time.

    it’s like noise music, or writing without adjectives, it gives control over to the viewer

  3. I would direct everyone to Raul Ruiz’s POETICS OF CINEMA (not just now, but generally), in which he discusses the value of “ennui” in film. He compares the effects of the mercurial pace and “sympathetic” characters of most mainstream movies to the ancient notion of the “noonday demon,” who would tempt monks succumbing to the twin sins of sadness and boredom away from their cells when they should have been copying their manuscripts:

    “[The monk] is transported to faraway lands. He’d like to stay but it’s already time to go home. Back in his cell, he’s astonished to discover that traveling has only made things worse. He’s even more bored than before and now his boredom has ontological weight. We will call this dangerous new sentiment melancholy. Now every trip out of the cell, every apparition of his virtual friend, will make his melancholy more intense. […] Soon the cell itself, his brother monks, and even communion with God becomes an illusion. His world has been emptied by entertainment. […] Blaise Pascal, in the chapter of his Pensées devoted to entertainment, warns, ‘All the evil in men comes from one thing and one thing alone: their inability to remain at rest in a room.'”

    • Ruiz is, as usual, right. “His world has been emptied by entertainment”—how well-said!

      Elsewhere, Greg and some other folk have been discussing the sense of urgency that the internet fosters. Ruiz helps explain why succumbing to that that urgency doesn’t help alleviate our anxiety, but instead increases it.

      • Wonderful quote. Could monks of the Middle Ages keep still in today’s world though? We have so many ‘temptations’ – I mean I see people playing games and texting constantly. A friend of mine told me she was having a perfectly nice conversation with a friend as they stepped on to the subway and as soon as they were sitting, this person pulled out their Ipod – the conversation was over.

  4. Great post Adam!

    There are so many. I just saw MIRROR for the first time. What I would give to see it in the theater. That sequence with her washing the hair is so mysterious and sublime. It’s one of the great moments in cinema I think, along with the opening of PERSONA, just to name one.

    STALKER has so many too. The scenes of them by the pool of water.

    I really enjoyed the one from THE HOLE and saw the beginning of the next scene, a guy in the elevator, dead? Wow, I want to see that one.

    • I got to see The Mirror projected only once, but it is truly an experience!

      One of the little games I’ve been playing as of late has been to “race” Tarkovsky, Lynch, and Kubrick against one another, trying to see whose feature films I can see all-projected first.

      * = seen projected

      KUBRICK:
      *Eyes Wide Shut**
      *Full Metal Jacket
      *The Shining***
      *Barry Lyndon
      *A Clockwork Orange
      *2001
      *Dr. Strangelove
      Lolita
      Spartacus
      *Paths of Glory
      *The Killing
      *Killer’s Kiss
      (Fear and Desire)

      Lynch:
      *INLAND EMPIRE
      *Muholland Dr.
      *The Straight Story
      *Lost Highway
      *Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
      Wild at Heart
      *Blue Velvet
      Dune
      The Elephant Man
      *Eraserhead

      Tarkovsky:
      The Sacrifice
      Nostalghia
      *Stalker
      *The Mirror
      *Solyaris
      *Andrey Rublyov
      *Ivan’s Childhood

      **I saw Eyes Wide Shut upon its initial release, so I haven’t seen it projected in its Academy-ratio format. Briefly: Kubrick shot most of his films “open-matte” (full-frame 35mm), but then released them to theater matted as wide-screen prints, cutting off the tops and bottoms of the image. This is common industry practice when shooting/releasing non-anamorphic films, but Kubrick liked to compose his shots for the full 35mm frame, and supposedly preferred viewing his films that way. Eyes Wide Shut was matted and (I’m pretty sure) optically enlarged (slightly) to create a wide-screen image (creating a very curious looking print indeed). When Kubrick passed away, his personal assistant Leon Vitali (and others) decided to release Kubrick’s films full-frame on DVD (a decision I applaud). …Of course, the theatrical release of EWS also bore all that studio-added CGI puppet nonsense—but I consider that less egregious than cropping the image. Although I did think the cropped print was fairly pretty, partly due to its spectacularly enlarged grain.

      ***I’ve seen this one projected both full-frame and cropped, and I encourage comparing the two different versions, as there’s been a lot of debate about this particular film’s aspect ratio. For more on Kubrick and the intended aspect-ratios of his films, see this very informative FAQ (in particular, numbers 1, 11, and 11a).

      OK, I think this comment is now officially geeky enough…

      • I think Nostalgia will be hard to come by. Maybe not in Italy. Solaris was shown in Buffalo, but I know they used a DVD projector – damn it.

        When I was five my father dragged me into the middle of THE SHINING to get me over my fear of it – scene where the boy tries to open a door, but can’t. Maybe this was the seminal event in my life – how could a person do that to me? I didn’t want to go. But I did with my own eyes see The Shining projected with all of Kubrick’s weird rules, certain things had to be painted black in the theater, etc. This was in Milwaukee, WI.

        • I find THE SHINING absolutely terrifying in theaters, not matter how many times I’ve seen it. (I recently saw it projected for the second time, after having seen it on video maybe fifteen times, as well as having taught it, and it scared the life out of me.) For one thing, the sound is extremely unsettling. Hearing that music and dialogue and the rest ten times louder, and all around, while sitting in the dark, is horrific.

          Plus, some of that film’s sequences never stop being scary. Danny riding that bike through the hallways of the Overlook is simply terrifying on a primal level, as so many have argued.

          Since moving to Chicago, I’ve missed both a Kubrick retrospective and a Lynch retrospective (both at the Siskel), so I’m obviously not trying very hard to complete these lists. But finishing this game by attending a retrospective feels too much like cheating.

          I suspect that Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE will be the one that proves impossible to see (projected; you can get video bootlegs of it easily enough).

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  6. Nice post– these are some of my favorite films here. I’ve been wanting to see The Hole for a while– I think Netflix lost its copy at some point and it was taken out of my queue…

    Anyone have a good copy of Nostalghia? I had trouble finding one and wound up ordering a bootleg from Korea. Tarkovsky forever.

  7. Pingback: FILM The long take « cutting on the action

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