The Value of The Long Take

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.


  1. I have one defense for long, slow, takes — the ones which are used to pan across a large scene with lots of detail.

    Maybe it’s just my eyes/brain, but many movies today seem to get blurry when the camera pans a detailed scene a little too fast — the image loses sharpness and becomes very hard to follow.

    I don’t know why this is allowed; technically it shouldn’t be impossible to avoid. Maybe directors are too used to watching footage on small video screens and think “It’ll look just as great when it’s blown up to 100 times that size”.


  2. Hi AR :-)

    That’s very true and most likely a frame-rate issue (the camera moves too quickly to not blur the images it takes of the scenery as it moves). That’s an interesting thing to latch onto as a pet hate.

    I take it you still haven’t seen Transformers? that’s just one gigantic blur from beginning to end.


  3. Having seen the back end of Transformers, I would consider blurring a mercy.

    Other than that, I strongly agree with the blog post, but sadly on this occasion have little to add to it.


  4. When I heard about Michael Bay’s first TRANSFORMERS movie, I pissed off fans by reminding them that “action figures” are in fact DOLLS… that deep down, grown men who watch movies based on “action figures” desperately want to PLAY WITH DOLLS — in a manly, patriotic, pro-military fashion, of course! — and need the permission for PLAYING WITH DOLLS that only big-budget Hollywood spectacles about PLAYING WITH DOLLS can bring them…


  5. Hi,

    Thanks for responding to my post!
    However (and this is definitely my fault for not making things clear regarding what I was critiquing), my focus was meant to rest on comparing the appreciation of long takes by cinephiles to the appreciation of the long sentence by lit-nerds, rather than comparing the production of the long take by a director to the production of a long sentence by a writer. What I wanted to stress was that auteur theory was, as you say, developed by fans (highly intelligent, vastly film-literate fans, but fans nonetheless) to promote an empowered notion of the director. Even now, when we’ve backed away a bit from auteurism, the long take still enables the cinephile to hang on to this notion to some degree. Béla Tarr and Apichatpong Weerasekathul are held in something like reverence by cinephiles largely because of the power of their long takes.

    I’m not saying the long take isn’t a versatile, complex technique. I’m saying that the way it is appreciated by cinephiles often reduces, however, to a celebration of virtuosity, rather than a detailed analysis of its purpose and effects (like what you did with Goodfellas here).


  6. Hi Andrew,

    thanks for dropping by :-)

    Thanks for the clarification. I think I was probably responding more to the tone than the content of what you said, but I’m not sure why glorification of the long take or the long sentence is problematic.

    There are long takes (such as that in McQueen’s Hunger) that seem to have required little skill and only have marginal effect. Similarly, I’m sure that there are long sentences that just run on with little to show for it. Isn’t this just a problem of fetishising style? namely praising the long take and the long sentence regardless of its effect?

    If so then I think there’s more to be said about this phenomenon. For example, I’m always disappointed by the tendency of modern literary critics to shy away from dealing with the technical aspects of writing. In fact, I think that as a culture we’re getting a progressively more tinny ear for the use of language. If there is a lot of praise for long sentences floating around, I’d be interested to know more as I’m not seeing much praise for any kind of sentences at all.


  7. AR — If you think that playing with Transformers is silly, I was given an Xbox for christmas and I have this game called Saints Row 2. It gives you an insane degree of control over how your character looks.

    Given the opportunity I created a morbidly obese black drag queen and then discovered myself moaning about how none of his outfits really suited him and how his underwear clashed with his stiletto heels. Playing with dolls is clearly alive and well in this part of Chelsea :-)


  8. Jonathan,

    Actually, what you’re asking for was what pushed me to write about long sentences/long takes in the first place. I think there *is* a “fetishization of style,” as you say, and that when we read something written in a style we’ve come to associate with ambition and imagination and innovation (like long sentence-heavy narration), we tend to attribute those characteristics to someone without thinking too much of the different uses a long sentence can have.

    Another example would be self-referentiality in literature–although self-reference can be used for many ends, our primary association to it as a style or technique is with the witty, subversive games of the postmodern authors of the 60s. So we start finding matches with other witty, subversive, self-referential writeras, and suddenly we get people “discovering” how “postmodern” Laurence Sterne was back in the 18th century, or “finding” a vein of “postmodernism” in Chaucer back in the 14th and essays are produced showing how Chaucer is basically doing the same things with self-referentiality as Donald Barthelme did in the 60s. This is generally accepted because it’s a whole lot easier simply to label an author “postmodern” and let that word bring in a truckload of assumptions and associations than it is to figure out what the self-reference is actually doing in the text.

    For what it’s worth, I was hoping to continue working on this idea, mostly with regard to literature, but maybe some further posts on film.


  9. You know, there’s an interesting correlation between the amount of technology+money spent on an item/event, and how “seriously” it is supposed to be taken by society…

    Many activities in society are, when you come right down to it, big-budget variations on playing with dolls:

    – People watching fashion shows (“Project your ideal self into this outfit!”),

    – Movies based on action figures (“Play vicariously with the favorite doll of your childhood and feel comfortable doing it!”),

    – Games with avatars that can be altered and re-dressed endlessly (I played Anarchy Online as several characters simultaneously — talk about split personality! ;-)),

    -… and of course the ubiquitous “Total Makeover” Reality TV shows (“Imagine yourself in this ideal house/pimped-out ride/face-lifted body!”)

    In the 21st century, it seems, everyone gets a doll.


  10. Andrew —

    I’m definitely with you on postmodernism. I think that postmodernism is particularly well adapted to that kind of intellectual environment as it structurally severs itself from both historical and personal context. So you can read postmodernism into anything and any one. However, I think this is part of a wider problem in academia as a whole whereby certain theories can be wheeled out in order to give the impression of erudition. I would count both Marxism and Psychoanalysis in this character of theories.

    You may well be quite correct that this phenomena takes place at the level of sentence length and I’m happy to yield to your greater knowledge of literature. I shall look forward to your future posts on the matter :-)


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