Wow, it seems as if everyone’s eager to outdo one another by striving to stage the perfect long take; whether you’re making an action film (The Bourne Ultimatum), a comedy (Birdman), a gritty sci-fier (Children of Men), or even a period drama (Atonement), there always seems to be room for a two/three minute display of continuous, unbroken action. Indeed, this type of shot exhibits a happy marriage of the medium’s theatrical roots, while still sporting the artifice of cinema itself. It allows actors a chance to play out a scene without the intrusion of editing/switching camera set-ups, while the director can explore space through blocking of talent and camera movement. Nevertheless, the audience views the action from a deliberate/privileged perspective granted them by the director. Recent features such as Birdman and Victoria have taken the unbroken shot to its logical extreme, crafting one-shot feature films which test the inherent virtues and limits of the oner; Birdman sports the illusion of an unbroken shot, while Victoria is the real McCoy. Seeing as everyone’s got these on their brains, I decided to draw up a list of five terrific long takes guaranteed to dazzle audiences for ages to come. Some of the more notable long takes, such as the existential traffic jam in Godard’s Weekend or the Boarding House scene in Citizen Kane, have been excised in favor of more idiosyncratic choices. (That said, I simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to write about the opening of Welles’ Touch of Evil.)
Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958)
Orson Welles’ final Hollywood feature – which also serves as the final film in the classical noir cycle – opens with one of cinema’s most justly celebrated crane shots: a roaming 3½ minute perusal of a seedy border town as the camera zeroes in on a car, with a bomb planted in its trunk, as it zigzags through the streets while newlyweds Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) jaunt alongside. Welles detractors might write this off as just another mannered act of directorial muscle flexing, but the appreciative viewer might notice how Welles grants us a blueprint, orienting us with prominent environs and contrasting representations of class/race that will play into the next two hours of drama; at one intersection, the sleek 50s auto is halted by a horde of stubborn goats while marketers ferry their wooden carts across the street. Welles’ original vision utilized diegetic sound effects from car radios, animals, and pedestrians, while varying cues from Mancini’s powerhouse score emanate from clubs, strip joints, and restaurants helping to establish a sense of place – this nuance was re-worked by editor Walter Murch for the 1998 reissue. The result is a master class in directorial control and cinematographic choreography, as the anticipatory camera snakes it ways through town from a privileged, high-angle perspective, allowing the spectator to drink in the movie’s rich atmosphere while we wait for inevitable to occur. This grand opener would be subsequently referred to in a diverse array of films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween, Robert Altman’s The Player (wherein Fred Ward explicates Welles’ famous shot for a colleague), P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and several of Brian De Palma’s works.
The Passenger (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
[SPOILERS AHEAD]: If you’ve yet to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER, I recommend you view it prior to reading the following capsule OR watch the accompanying clip.
If Roger Ebert’s age-old adage “it’s not what a film is about, it’s how it is about it” raises any doubts, Antonioni’s The Passenger certainly justifies the argument. This is not quite Antonioni’s greatest work, but it might be the purest expression of the maestro’s “essence”; it’s sober and quiet – there’s hardly any non-diegetic music – but also introspective and stimulating. Bored of his work, journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) promptly trades identities with that of a recently deceased man who operated as a gunrunner for a civil war in Africa. Locke is a classic Antonioni protagonist: a deeply unsatisfied man attempting to runaway from himself, but has nothing to run toward and little sense of direction; he’s merely a wanderer, who accidently sets a causal chain of events in motion. The film’s penultimate shot is a nearly seven minute long take starting from inside Locke’s hotel room, in which he lies in repose on the bed, before creeping ever so slowly toward the window, passing through the iron bars, wandering through the dusty lot outside, and, finally, panning 180 degrees for the reverse angle of the camera’s starting point. (If you have headphones, plug them in for the sublime sound design.) This shot represents a major technical feat, as the camera literally passes through metal bars – which were likely pulled apart by technicians – and the execution anticipates Steadicam/Louma crane choreography. Some critics argue this shot represents Locke’s soul departing his body – something I wouldn’t totally disagree with, but seems contradictory to Antonioni’s typically detached approach – but what do we make of the camera glancing back into the room, as Locke’s wife and a Girl (Maria Schneider) he picked up enter and stand before him. Maybe it’s the sad poignancy of this lost man’s longing for something more (and, perhaps, inconceivable) and the danger soon to befall him that forces the anticipatory camera out of the room; amidst this camera-batic, something horrific happens but the camera continues creeping outside – only a reflection in the window pane provides obscured visual information. Even when the camera finally pivots to view the outcome, Locke’s face remains concealed. Antonioni never revealed what motivated his camera to exit the space, but this shot remains one of most poetic visual gestures of 1970s cinema.
Hard Boiled (dir. John Woo, 1992)
NOTE: This clip contains wall-to-wall bloody gunplay. Viewer discretion is advised.
John Woo’s final foray into the 80s/90s Hong Kong action cycle is a visceral hit of movie heroin, replete with some of the most gorgeously executed scenes of violence (and some of the chunkiest squibs) to ever grace the screen. Most know Woo for his hyperkinetic approach to action montage, but Hard Boiled’s climactic hospital shootout incorporates a dexterously choreographed 2¾ minute long take; the camera tracks Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-fat) and Officer Alan (Tony Leung) as they shoot their way through dozens of baddies. There’s an unwritten but firmly acknowledged guideline for narrative filmmakers stating that when a director stages a long take, the succeeding shot must justify the decision to break continuous action; some possibilities include, but are not limited to, a major revelation, discovering a vital piece of information (Aristotle deemed this an “Anagnorisis”), or a Chekhov’s Gun-style payoff. (Furthermore, the longer the take is, the bigger the payoff must be.) John Woo, however, goes the whole hog and pays off this protracted set-up with one of his signature fast cutting action montages; a pitch-perfect juxtaposition of bullets riddling bodies, lab chemicals combusting, and a mob henchmen clearing out the space with grenades.
Russian Ark (dir. Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
Alexander Sokurov’s one-take HDV wonder remains cinema’s definitive continuous shot feature film; a visually sumptuous tour of the glorious Russian State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg accompanied by a survey of Russian history with a cast of nearly 3,000 players. Russian Ark’s employment of the continuous shot transcends mere gimmickry; it uses the unbroken shot as a theatrical window for reexamining Russia’s troubled past from a present POV – here, the camera/narrator (Sokurov, himself) and a mysterious Marquis (Sergey Dreyden) admire the Hermitage’s collection while experiencing/explicating historical events and figures through a post-Soviet gaze. One might ponder the deliberate choice to abstain from cutting for punctuation, but Ark achieves a fluidity, grace, and technical assurance with its roaming camera that it scarcely seems as if it’s struggling to justify its aesthetic choice. It all climaxes with a visually rhapsodic (and, I think, deeply ironic) depiction of the final Great Royal Ball of 1913 before revolution broke out and led to the country’s darkest days. A jaunt down the ambassador’s staircase leads to a final image hinting at the Hermitage’s importance as a time capsule for Russian history, but also an indicator of the stormy days of the October Revolution and Stalinist rule that lie ahead. Whether one regards this as a gussied up stunt or a serious minded inquiry into Russia’s troubled history, the end product haunts the viewer much like ghosts of the past haunt the Hermitage.
The Work of Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies/The Turin Horse)
A stalwart of Hungarian cinema, Béla Tarr is one of the greatest living filmmakers and one of the foremost proponents of the long take. His 21st Century masterworks, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, are nearly two-and-a-half hours a piece, but each film’s narrative is told through the power of mise-en-scène and camera choreography as opposed to montage. Werckmeister Harmonies spins a post-WWII allegory wherein a traveling circus incites social unrest within a small Hungarian town in thirty-nine shots over the course of a 145 minute running time, whereas The Turin Horse, a miserablist tale of an apocalyptic wind storm threatening the lives and daily routine of a farmer, his daughter, and their long-suffering horse, covers 146 minutes in only thirty-one shots. Like Russian Ark, there’s little use in explicating one specific shot, as Tarr invokes the long take as an aesthetic rather than a punctuation mark; entire scenes are often visualized as sequence shots and cutting is relegated to a transitional effect. Tarr’s ascetic approach will likely turn off many – the narratives tend to be minimal and contemplative – but his tenacity to march to the beat of his own drum and the assured expertise he exudes certainly justifies labelling him as a true film artist.