The Long Take
Some of my favorite filmmakers both past and present—Renoir, Hou—use long takes, so I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on this valuable stylistic device.
The long take—a shot of extended duration—is still unusual enough in today’s movies that it stands out, but it wasn’t always this way. The first decade of silent movies used them almost exclusively, and it wasn’t until D.W. Griffith that filmmakers began to cut frequently.
The first great champion of the long take was André Bazin. To him, film was the “art of reality.” He once wrote: “All the arts depend on the presence of man; only photography lets us delight in his absence.” What he meant was that by not interposing oneself between the camera and the subject, the filmmaker had the potential to truly capture reality. As V.F. Perkins put it: “[A] sonnet or a sonata created a world which might reflect the subjective vision of its maker; film recorded the world which existed objectively.”
For Bazin, silent movies contained two streams. The first—best exemplified by the Russian school, most prominently Eisenstein—employed the power of cutting, resulting in images that didn’t speak for themselves through the reality they captured and showed, but instead were made to speak what the filmmaker wanted them to say. The second stream consisted primarily of Stroheim, Murnau, Flaherty and Dreyer: “here the image counts in the first place not for what it adds to reality, but for what it reveals of reality.”
Bazin believed that the long take was ideally suited to capture the rhythms and complexities of reality, while preserving its unity in space and time. Chopping up an action or event with cuts was to disrupt this unity and undermine cinema’s ability to be faithful to reality. Thus, it was important to him that Flaherty showed the length of time that Nanook waited to capture the seal. Using cuts to compress this event would not give an authentic sense of the activity of the seal hunt.
For Bazin, the great link between the silent masters devoted to film as a reality-revealing medium and the true potential of sound cinema was Jean Renoir. By using long takes and moving camera to capture the flux of action and life while cutting functionally rather than expressively, Renoir unjudgmentally recorded the world while providing the spectator with an active role in making sense of it. The viewer’s eye had to pick and choose what was important in the frame instead of being guided by the filmmaker.
But the long take is a flexible and powerful device. Serving the needs of faithfully capturing reality is not its only use. Brian Henderson, in his much-cited essay “Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” makes a fascinating case for Godard using the long take for non- (one might even say anti-) realist purposes in Weekend. (He quotes Godard from La Chinoise: “Art is not a reflection of reality; it’s the reality of that reflection.”) In Weekend, Godard does this by not providing compositions-in-depth (which traditionally go hand in hand with the long take). In this film, the shallow flat space rolls out in long take like a two-dimensional ribbon, and Godard consciously refuses to individuate the characters and develop them into flesh-and-blood human beings. Godard’s deployment of style here is of a piece with his purpose: bourgeois critique.
The use of long takes I’m most familiar with is in the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou’s use of this device lends itself perfectly to recording the rhythms of daily life (is there a Hou film that does not have a leisurely eating or drinking scene filmed in long take?). Remarkably, for a filmmaker so keenly interested in historical and political change, his films are paradoxically small-scale and intimate. David Bordwell remarks on Hou in his book Figures Traced In Light:
The camera’s angle does not ennoble the traveler, as it does in [Angelopoulos]….No parades or demonstrations, mass meetings or defiant facedowns with authority; no spectacular executions; no onscreen confrontations with Power. Instead, we get casual-seeming minutiae….In this world, people mostly smoke, walk, watch, wait, ponder, shoot pool, drink, and eat.
Hou sees the camera as a sort of sympathetic witness (he quotes Confucius: “Watch but don’t intervene; observe but don’t judge.”) and one thing that is very important for him is a certain distance from what he is filming. He has spoken in interviews of frequently telling his cinematographers to move farther back, of not getting close to the action. It even shows up in the kinds of lenses he uses—the longer the lens, the narrower the angle (and thus, playing space) they can survey. Bordwell points out that Hou’s long lenses—100 mm and up—actually force the camera to fall back. Which meshes perfectly with Hou’s aesthetic proclivity in maintaining a distance.
One thing I especially appreciate about Hou’s shots is that even though the takes are long, he never feels the need to build in a dramatic or emotional arc into a shot. (Many filmmakers will shape a long take as a mini-dramatic narrative, with the unfolding of little surprises.) Somehow, this conscious muting of drama serves a wonderful, higher purpose: a greater sharpening of attention for the significance of the ordinarily undramatic, or the “drama of the undramatic,” that too often gets drowned out in a film. Small details, gestures, motions and shifts register with greater effect than they normally would simply because Hou has set up a de-dramatized context for them. Somehow, there’s a great lesson here not just for the value of experiencing such moments in a Hou film, but also—in fact, more so!—when we walk out of the theater and find ourselves ever-present in the midst of such moments in “real life.”
If you feel like it—your examples of filmmakers who use long takes? How, and to what purpose? Also, examples of movies or scenes, if you like.