‘Achievability’ in the long take

One of the big issues facing participants in the Understanding Cinema project is the question of achievability. Faced with some of the most astounding feats in cinema – the opening of Touch of Evil, the dizzying thrills of Cuaron, the fluid cinema of Bela Tarr, the Altman-inspired bravado of Paul Thomas Anderson – how can our own efforts possibly register, without cranes, dollies, steadicams, armies of extras and expensive production design?

The long take has become, in many instances, a trope in cinema that seems to go hand in hand with the notion of ‘showing off’. Altman’s opening to The Player is virtuosic and playfully self-reflexive, but it also embodies a real sense of one-upmanship, of trying to outdo the already considerable efforts of previous filmmakers. As such it implicitly and explicitly refers to a very expensive competition in which we – humble no-budget filmmakers – cannot possibly compete.

Or can we? The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Matteo Garone seems to suggest otherwise.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Dostoevskian poet of Turkish cinema, has made achievability one of the hallmarks of his cinema. His films pioneered the use of comparatively low-cost HD in European art-house cinema, used deeply economic approaches to cast and crew (Ceylan performs most of the roles within a crew himself, and frequently casts his wife, his parents, his friends and himself as actors) and a style of direction which prizes erudition and economy.

And yet his films are still cinematic marvels, displaying a cinematic intelligence which, for the cinephile, is arguably as thrilling as Cuaron or Welles.

Ceylan’s most considerable strength is arguably his dynamic command of the frame: the way he uses space, focus, blocking, and sound to create a highly complex sense of cinematic space. Take, for example the opening of Ceylan’s Three Monkeys. The third shot of the film is a marvel of erudite blocking, composition, and use of space and light in its mise-en-scene.

The shot starts in complete darkness, before becoming increasingly illuminated by a car approaching from the background of the frame along the Z axis. The car’s headlights illuminate first the road, and then a still form in the road, and a figure running frantically towards the foreground before getting out of sight. The car stops, and someone gets out, and a conversation is held about what to do, before the car starts and continues along its way. A figure arises in the foreground of the shot, and the shot pulls focus, revealing itself to be a point of view shot, of the hidden spectator we saw running away at the start. The camera now pans and jibs down, as the the man in the foreground gets into his car, reframing him as he sits in despair in the driving seat. At this point, the sound changes, to the confined, claustrophobic space of the car. The man is trapped alone in the car with his guilt, and the film pauses, wondering with him about the implications of what we have just seen, before he drives away, the camera now panning again to follow his car as it disappears into the darkness.

If we ignore the jib shot (which could arguably also have been achieved either with considered tripod placement, or indeed, through the use of a handheld camera, had the film adopted a different style), this displays an approach to long takes which is far more achievable for Understanding Cinema participants than the bravado of Welles, Scorsese or Altman. There is no expensive grip equipment used (cranes, dollies, or steadicams), no expensive effects, no armies of extras and no elaborate production design. All we have is two cars, three actors, and a body in the road – and yet the way that Ceylan controls light, focus, sound and the blocking of his actors creates an intensely dynamic shot which develops in a quietly thrilling manner. What is prized in Ceylan’s cinema is frequently intelligence and planning, rather than budget or a sense of display.

Similairly, Matteo Garrone’s Reality contains several stunning long takes which breathlessly capture the feeling of life in an Neapolitain fish market, and the intense, and increasingly unhinged subjectivity of its protagonist, without resort to display or. Like Ceylan, Garrone’s virtuosity seems effortless, at times almost invisible, and is derived primarily from intelligence and planning, rather than any costly show of resources.  Garrone’s long takes are achieved handheld, and thus – once again – without any expensive grip equipment, and use purely natural light.

Of particular interest is Reality’s three minute shot where Luciano begins to suspect that producers from a reality TV show he is desperate to participate in, are spying on him during his day-to-day work selling fish in a Neapolitan marketplace. Never losing Luciano for a second, the camera continually reframes to give us both Luciano’s perspective, and his reactions. The continual reframings are masterful and always artfully motivated by the movements of the protagonists in the frame. The notion of ‘editing in camera’ comes to mind, for here a complex net of reverse angles are achieved within a single shot. Significantly, Garrone keeps the focus on Lucian at all times, even when he has his back to the camera, staring at a smartly dressed (and out of focus) man in the the adjacent shoe shop. Despite being very mobile in the rhythms of his life and work, the camera nonetheless keeps an intense focus on Luciano, rooting the audience firmly in his subjectivity, and claustrophobic sense of increasing mania.

Of particular interest is Garrone’s use of space. Luciano goes from his own fish stall, to peering down an alley, to staring into a nearby shoe shop and questioning its owner. New spaces are opened up and explored, creating a deeply authentic (and, as depicted in the long take, interconnected) sense of place, and environment, where there is a sense that the camera could go anywhere. Here Bazin’s notion of the long take as conjuring a ‘life-like’ cinema is rendered flesh. The ‘moment’ feels deeply real, and all the more unsettling for it.

Indeed, it is also of note that here is a style of cinema which makes great use of the long take, without becoming ‘Slow Cinema’. Arguably one of the key aspects of Ceylan’s cinema which allows him such control of the frame is its slow pacing, whereas Reality is significant in adopting long takes whilst maintaining a frenetic pace of life.

In conclusion, both Reality, with his balletic hand-held camera and multiple frames, and Three Monkeys, with its deeply considered approach to blocking and cinematic space, display much more realistic approaches to the long take than the bravado of Welles and Scorsese. Though ambitious, neither are acheived through expensive means, and prize intelligence and consideration over any notion of display. Thus they make a good starting point for a discussion of ‘achievability’ for Understanding Cinema participants looking to create long takes on a minimum of resources.

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