We constantly encounter a core sense of duality in films. Events, places, characters, entire storylines are both literal – in that they represent a representation of reality, of something that we are told is happening in a ‘real’ space and time- and metaphorical, in that they are simultaneously expressive, poetic, and play a role in formal drama.
In the long take, which frequently explores different spaces, we need to think about both the literal (logical/realistc) nature of the spaces we are exploring, and their emotional and poetical value: how they feel to those of us in the audience?
How many times have we seen characters have emotional epihanies in the rain? Or how often have cramped underground trains, swarming with commuters been used to create a sense of claustrophobia and alienation?
Jasmina, Becky and Lauren made an excellent long take today which featured a change of space from the communal, fairly public space of an office (complete with desk and computer), to an enclosed, claustrophobic, metallic grey lift space. On one level this change of scene was literal: the character was literally moving from one real space in a building to another. However, both these spaces possessed a poetic value or meaning, and the movement between them thus created a narrative – of seclusion and isolation.
Significantly, Jasmina, Becky and Lauren had their elevator go down, and not just down, but stop in between floors, leaving their character suspended, stuck, in limbo. As Mr Cairns pointed out, the scene would have had a different mean had the character gone UP in the elevator instead of down.
We should consider how apparently mundane or simple choices – like whether a character is going upstairs or downwards, or are they leaving a communal space, or entering one – effect the emotional narrative of our film. When the man gets into the car at the start of Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, he isn’t just getting into a car. He is getting into a space which gives us an overpowering sense of his guilt, how trapped and alone he feels as a result of what he has done.
Much has been said in filmic discourse even about screen direction; whether characters are walking left or right in films. It has been speculated that, as we read left to right in Western cultures, we associate a movement of left to right with a feeling of naturalness and organicness, whereas a movement from right to left conversely feels unnatural, forced, and uncomfortable.
Perhaps it is fanciful, but if we compare Anton’s flight (running left to right) in the various long takes at the end of 400 Blows, with the long take in Shame, where Brandon goes out for a midnight run to escape his overbearing sister (running right to left), the former certainly seems much more cathartic and natural; a more successful (if still problematic) bid at freedom, whereas Brandon seems to be running from something he cannot escape. The poetics of space contributes to this; Anton is running from country to the sea, a wide open expanse, whereas Brandon is trapped in the city, surrounded by traffic.
When we are planning our long takes we should therefore bear in mind how both the screen direction (left, right, up or down), and the spaces we use and move between are simultaneously literal and emotional/poetic.
Bazin (one of the most significant exponents of the long take in cinematic discourse) was, in many ways, opposed to the idea that aspects of real life could be boiled down to poetic signifiers in this manner. He liked moments in films where reality bled into the frame, and corrupted the formalism, or ‘functionality’ of the narrative. He loved the moment in Bicycle Thieves where Bruno stops to have a pee mid-chase sequence. Bazin felt that, here, reality was more important than the narrative; Bruno had to have a pee, so he stopped to have a pee – both the chase and the narrative could wait!
Tarkovsky perhaps puts it better, however, and reconciles the extremes of Bazin’s commitment to reality, (and the ‘dialect’ of specific places and specific lives), with a strong commitment to poetic form. In Sculpting with Time, Tarkovsky writes that we should find the poetic signifiers, the aspects of mise-en-scene, from WITHIN our storyworlds. He urges us to be SPECIFIC, and not look for tropes of people standing in the rain, or trapped on underground trains. He urges us to make films from life, and not recycled from other films. As Terence Davies’ might say, ‘the poetry of the ordinary’. So when choosing locations for our long takes, we should (like Jasmina, Becky and Lauren) simultaneously choose real places and locations that arise from our chosen storyworld, whilst remaining aware at all times of the poetic and emotional meanings that those spaces possess.