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.)
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.
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!