I have been thinking over the last few days about an interesting post by Andrew Seal over at Bibliographia Literaria about the links between the ‘prestige’ of long take cinema and a similar growth in prestige for authors who use long sentences.
I think it’s fair to say that there’s a hint of vitriol about Andrew’s comments on auteur theory and I for one cannot really blame him. I think that auteur theory (which analyses films in terms of the explicit wishes and creative histories of the directors) is philosophically extremely wonky partly because of the death of the author but also because film, far more than writing, is a supremely collaborative activity. It is also a philosophical school that seems to have been entirely defined by pragmatic forces.
For example, film criticism is a discipline that grew out of film magazines like Les Cahiers du Cinema. Commercial film magazines benefit from the existence of a star system whereby pictures of certain directors and actors can be put on the cover of said magazines in order to sell more copies. As a form of discourse developed in these kinds of magazines, it only makes sense for auteur theory to have grown to mirror these sets of concerns by being about stars rather than abstract theories (though anyone who is familiar with the ‘Maoist years’ of Cahiers will know that this is not a hard and fast rule). Similarly, it is worth noting that many of the people who championed auteur theory as critics in the 1950s (people such as Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard and Rohmer) would become, in the 60s, directors who benefited hugely from the independence and awe associated with a conception of the role of the director that emphasises creative accountability and vision rather than mere administrative skill.
So I share Andrew’s scepticism regarding the philosophical foundations of auteur theory.
However, I also think that he is being unfair to the long take…
Andrew says :
What is notable about the long take is the amount of effort required to create it—the coördination, the precision, the multilayered and panoramic vision necessary to plan, prepare and execute it. People screw up on movie sets all the time, even on 3 or 4-second shots, so keeping a whole cast and crew from screwing up for a few minutes or longer is actually quite an achievement. We are meant to be impressed by the sheer fact that the long take happened, but even more so by the fact that someone decided to try to make it happen. Interestingly, although a successful long take requires the coöperation and skill of dozens of people, the credit for its execution floats all the way upstream to that moment of decision—to the director’s “vision” or ambition.
Note the quotation marks around ‘vision’. Feel the burn.
He is quite correct that in some cases, long takes are expressions of virtuosity; a director’s capacity for stage-managing an extremely long take in which people pop into shot, people pop out of shot and different people deliver different lines all without screwing up and with the camera moving perfectly to capture all the action. My two favourite uses of this kind of long take are, the hugely well known night club scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) :
And Michel Gondry’s exquisitely clever one-take video for “Lucas with the Lid Off” (he’s the heir to the Pottery Barn fortune dontchaknow) :
Gondry is an excellent example of the type of thing Andrew is talking about. His work, both in the video and in works such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006) is tricksy and self-consciously clever and spectacular. In many ways, Gondry’s films are merely a pretext for displays of technical virtuosity. However, consider the Scorsese long take.
Yes it displays great skill at the physical blocking of a scene and the camera movement is flawless but why is that particular shot used there? the scene serves two purposes. Firstly, it exists to show the aura of adventure and danger that surrounded the young Henry Hill. A girl who was used to queuing in the hope of getting into a nightclub is suddenly ushered in through the back door. Hill is thereby portrayed as a man who has access to the secret passageways of this world. The length of the take only helps build the sense of growing adventure and discovery. Secondly, the scene is an opportunity for Scorsese to layer the period detail on with a trowel. Doubtless when designing the shot, he and his art director went out and researched exactly the right types of uniforms, exactly the right kinds of staff, the way the kitchens moved, the whole feel of a type of nightclub that is now largely defunct.
The point I am making is that, long takes are cinematic techniques. Yes using them requires a certain degree of technical expertise but what makes a truly great director is an ability to integrate such technical prowess into a wider work. That wider work might be all about social realism (as in the case of Goodfellas) or it might be about putting across a sense of fear and trepidation about a possible on-coming doom and inviting the audience to think about that issue as in Tarkovsky’s use of the long take in Stalker (1979) :
To suggest that the long take is merely a display of technical virtuosity is to completely overlook the role that such techniques can play in a film. It is comparable to saying that Shakespeare’s verses are just an attempt at showing off. Long sentences, short sentences, prose, flat verse, long takes, rapid-fire editing, all of these can be used to shape the text of a work in different ways. They are part of the nuts and bolts of art. Obviously if you examine a work looking for examples of virtuosity (great technical panache in the use of language or particularly well conceived and executed long takes) then it follows that you will praise examples of technical virtuosity but different artistic techniques are in no way linked to particular critical frame works.