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Brevity, Part 3: Long Takes Continued (well, they’re long)

While writing my previous post, I grew aware that I wasn’t mentioning any women filmmakers. So I’d like to add something addressing that (because of course one can find numerous examples). And along the way, I’ll also try to say more in general about the power—and limitations—of the long take.

But first, a little more explanation about how I chose the first set of clips. In that first list, I tried to stick to directors who regularly employ long takes in their films—in other words, directors whose films display a long Median Shot Length.

For instance, the final shot in Tarkovsky’s Stalker is fairly typical for that film, in terms of length. Here’s another long take:

I don’t think that the final scene is even the longest one in the film (I haven’t checked, but I believe that the take where the three men enter the Zone by rail is longer).

In making that first list, I chose to pass over films that include a single standout long take for dramatic effect, but overall are more typically shot and cut (in terms of the lengths of each take). These long takes are usually “bravura” moments that call attention to themselves: again, see the openings of Welles’s Touch of Evil and Altman’s The Player, as well as the final shot in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the opening of Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes, and scenes scattered here and there in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Not to mention many more examples in more recent films by various US directors who pay frequent homage to those directors. I have nothing against any of these films or these kinds of takes; I just didn’t feel like discussing them here (and I think that the other list I linked to does a good job of focusing on these kinds of long takes—which, indeed, are often tracking shots).

But allow me two quick points about such takes: Brian DePalma has made his career on them. And although Hitchcock’s Rope is frequently cited as his chief influence here, it’s worth remembering that the man loves Antonioni as well. His remake of Blowup (1966), Blow-Out (1981), is too little seen.

Secondly, any list of “bravura” long takes would be incomplete without the opening shot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995):

(If there’s any justice in this world, both Avatar and The Hurt Locker will be nominated for Best Picture, and Bigelow’s film will trounce Cameron’s.)

…That all said, it was inexcusable for me to exclude from my first list Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (and despite my having recently rewatched it). Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece is comprised heavily of long takes, which streadily and methodically generate an unbearable tension over the film’s 201 minutes:

If you haven’t seen this film, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of the greatest works of the 1970s, and it’s finally readily available. The DVD also includes Akerman’s fantastic first film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968):

Akerman frequently employs long takes, for example in her brilliant Je Tu Il Elle (1975), also now available on DVD. (1975 was a very good year for Akerman, and for cinema).

Akerman’s use of the long take exemplifies (among other things) its “documentary” usage. While I find Akerman’s long takes dramatic and spectacular, and technically challenging in their own ways, they seem intended more as a means of getting us to watch actors perform everyday actions in real time, over a long duration, thereby creating tension. Which is a different kind of tension, say, then watching Nicolas Cage stagger manically through a boxing arena.

(Not to mention their purpose in critiquing the menial household tasks that women usually have to endure.)

Another film that works in a similar mode is Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970). This film features a wide variety of takes, some relatively long, others shorter. Loden seems to have been influenced at least in part by Antonioni (there are some shots toward the beginning that indicate this), but the long takes are also present to accomodate the acting, which features a lot of improvisation:

I think of Wanda as being a Marxist-feminist response to Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Whereas Penn’s classic hints at Clyde’s abusiveness toward Bonnie (through his neglect, and his impotency), Loden goes much, much further. Her Wanda Goronski (who’s an alcoholic) falls in with “Mr. Dennis,” who’s a petty thief, and a thug, and nowhere near as cute or as dashing as Warren Beatty. The increasingly co-dependent couple proceeds to drive around Scranton and Carbondale, Pennsylvania, failing to rob banks. It’s a lot like real life, and not at all glamorous. (If you like Herzog’s Stroszek (1977)—and who doesn’t?—then I really encourage you to check out Wanda, which in places eerily foreshadows it.)

Another film that uses long takes here and there to accomodate its performances—its wildly improvisational performances—is Elaine May’s Mikey and Nickey (1974):

According to legend, May repeatedly ran single-shot scenes until the camera ran out of film. She shot so much footage, so much of it improvised, that it took her a year to edit the film, which was eventually taken away from her. The result is heavily edited, but it still contains many long takes, and you can really feel the duration of the performances and the scenes even when the footage cuts.

Another filmmaker who makes frequent use of this documentary long take style is Samira Makhmalbaf, for example in her first feature, Sib (The Apple, 1998). You can watch the opening here (apparently the entire film is up at YouTube).

Long takes are a hallmark of contemporary Iranian cinema (see Greg’s post on Abbas Kiarostami). Anyone interested in this stylistic phenomenon should check out Marva Nabili’s The Sealed Soil (1978). It’s difficult to find information in English about this film, but you can pick up used VHS copies fairly easily. And it’s tremendous: an extremely methodical observation of a family’s life that has no fear of letting scenes play out in long, static takes (often in long shot). Some will no doubt find it too challenging, but there’s nothing else like it. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen where the day is allowed to progress naturally; you can actually see the daylight changing in some of the shots.

In a somewhat similar, but also in a more poetic/lyrical vein, Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975) features some very long takes, both static and tracking (something was in the air in the mid-70s—and Delphine Seyrig was in both this and Jeanne Dielman!):

This duration-based, voyeuristic style can quickly become confrontational (as it does frequently in Akerman’s work). Yvonne Rainer has made spectacularly bold use of long takes in this regard, for instance in her classic Film About a Woman Who… (1974). You can watch the whole thing at Ubuweb. (See, for instance, the undressing scene that starts at about 57 minutes in.)

Rainer hails from a performance background, and her films display a love of watching actors perform. (See the dance sequence that starts around minute 73.)

This recalls one place where mainstream films often let the cameras keep running, and often in long-shot: dance movies. For example, Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997) is a fairly conventionally edited film (in terms of its average shot length), but consider this scene, which plays out in relatively longer takes:

There are cuts, but for the most part we’re allowed to watch the dancing develop and unfold. (Note also how Potter “hides” many of her cuts by passing behind poles—stealing a trick from Hitchcock!)

By way of contrast, look at this later scene, which is much more heavily edited. Personally, I think that the cuts diminish the dancing: the effect is more the impression that they’re dancing, rather than allowing us to watch them really dance:

Moving on, we can see many different uses of the long take (lyrical, documentary, confrontational) synthesized in the conceptual work of VALIE EXPORT. In her work Conjoined Dislocations (1973), EXPORT strapped one camera to her chest, and another to her back, then turned them both on and walked around. She meanwhile used a third camera to film herself doing this; the resulting three channels are presented simultaneously:

The camera equipment she was using limited the lengths of the shots she could make, but this is clearly a duration-based cinema. (Later, video cameras allowed artists to take this kind of thing further.)

Finally, I want to discuss one alternative to the long take, partly to further define them, but also to point out one of their limitations. André Bazin liked long takes because they supposedly strengthen a film’s spatial and temporal continuity. But cutting can create a fantastical continuity that actual long takes would problematize.

It was Lev Kuleshov who noted that he could film some actors looking upward on one side of town, then film an upward-looking shot of a lamppost on the other side of town, then edit them together to create a cinematic space that didn’t really exist. No filmmaker has explored the construction of this montage-based cinematic space more thoroughly than Maya Deren. Like Rainer, she was a dancer, but the camera she used in the 1940s limited the length of the takes she could make. Deren ingeniously responded by using extremely strong match cuts to set her films in spaces that exist only in her cinema. See, for instance, her Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), and the stepping/knife/kiss scene that runs minutes 3:22 through 4:10 (in this clip):

…or the walk she makes in At Land (1944), where her male companion keeps transforming (minutes 4:58–6:15). (Look for John Cage’s cameo at 5:50!)

…as well as many, many other examples in nearly all of her films.

Again, this list is hardly intended to be complete, but I hope it’s now more representational. Happy viewing!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

9 thoughts on “Brevity, Part 3: Long Takes Continued (well, they’re long)

  1. Ahhh! Adam I love Barbara Loden’s Wanda, I love her use of the long takes, especially in the beginning, when she’s a white ghost in the distance walking slowly across the coal mines. The pace of that film is unbelievable.

    It’s funny when the film came out everyone compared it to Bonnie & Clyde, but Loden hadn’t seen it when she was working on the “script”/idea for the film – it was actually based on a newspaper story she had read, of a woman who was jailed after a robbery, and when she heard her ruling, she thanked the judge. Loden was dismissive of the beauty and glamour of Bonnie & Clyde, and always said Wanda was an anti-Bonnie & Clyde.

    The pace and poetry of that film is so devastating. Jeanne Dielman is a wonderful counterpoint. The lives of these trapped women, the claustrophobia of their interior spaces, whether it be ponytailed Wanda in a crowd at the bar, looking dazed, or Jeanne Dielman peeling potatoes. The slow muted unraveling.

    1. I wasn’t aware that Loden hadn’t seen B&C. There really are a lot of (accidental) parallels. For example, the scene where Mr. Dennis makes Wanda change her hair, and put on the dress, then throws her other clothing out the window of the car. It makes me think of the scene in the diner in B&C where Clyde tells Bonnie to change her hair. (The two of them are also eating hamburgers there, which makes me think of the scene where Mr. Dennis makes Wanda go out to get him a hamburger—an amazing scene!)

      We all dream that we’ll end up in Bonnie and Clyde (save maybe the final scene…or maybe even that), but in reality life is much more like Wanda (whose own final scene is one of the best in all of cinema).

      Also, I’m from Scranton, so Wanda has a special place in my heart for having been filmed there. I recognize a lot of the locations, especially at the end of the film. (It’s a pretty place!)

  2. yeah as far as i know she hadn’t seen it from what i’ve read of the film (which granted, isn’t much). mr. dennis is really based on her svengali-relationship with elia kazan, who wrote about her in his novel the arrangement and directed her in the marilyn monroe role in after the fall (and said he cast her because her and marilyn were both “orphans”) and of course in splendor. and mr dennis is in many ways wanda’s director, for the bank heist, grooming her to be more feminine, etc.

    i’m sure she saw it, but not when she was making the film. and she reacted quite strongly to the parallel.

    god i love that film. that hamburger scene, the casual cruelty of it – yes.

  3. Great list Adam. Faithless by Liv Ullmann I believe has some long takes, I believe strongly that it does and it is a marvel. She just directed Blanchett in Streetcar Named Desire in Brooklyn as well.

  4. re: Maya Deren

    rarely do you see a movie that captures the logic and sensation of a dream as well as Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land.  They are fluid, unfunny, yet bizarre.  The Japanese instrumentation that accompanies Meshes is as important as the actual footage in that it’s original instead of evocative; it doesn’t try to make you recall what it feels like to be unsettled – it unsettles you.

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