To contrast with yesterday’s post about jump cuts is a larger list about long takes. I was recently reminded by Scott at FRC of something Steven Spielberg once said: “Cuts are for action and long takes are for emotion.” This, I think, is very true.
Thus I’ve decided to make a list of ten of my favourite long takes, tracking shots or still shots in movies. In random order:
Opening Shot, Caché (2005)
Expect to see a fair bit of Michael Haneke on this list. I’ve tried not to overflow it with his movies but he is one of my five favourite filmmakers of all time, and one of the reasons for this is his brilliant use of long (or ‘still’) shots. The opening shot of Caché is no exception.
The Slow Zoom, Wavelength (1967)
Yes, I realize that Michael Snow’s avant-garde masterpiece was actually a series of takes rather than one simple one, but each long take individually is a gift. A slow zoom onto a postcard and nothing else, this is a truly memorable experience. Some will be bored, some riveted, but either way you will be affected.
Walking, Gerry (2002)
Gus van Sant’s 2002 movie is 100 minutes and contains exactly 100 takes, many of them long. In what is perhaps the longest, we see Matt Damon and Casey Affleck trudging incredibly slowly across an unending desert terrain before one of them finally stops and collapses. The film has been criticised for being slow and boring, but I think it is a scenically beautiful movie that chooses to express its point in images, rather than words.
Confessions of Motherhood, Persona (1966)
Near the end of this Ingmar Bergman masterpiece, a scene is shown twice. Once, with the camera focused for a good four minutes on a person speaking, and after that the scene is repeated with the camera focusing this time on the person listening. This technique is surprising, but beautifully Bergmanesque.
Traffic Jam, Week End (1967)
Although broken up by a series of intertitles, the infamous traffic jam shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End is nonetheless one single shot. Godard shows us hundreds of cars, various animals, dead bodies and other assorted randomness in what has been dubbed “the world’s worst traffic jam.”
The Rotating Camera, Week End (1967)
I didn’t want to include two shots from the same movie, but I couldn’t resist. This shot had to be in there. We have a yard, and it doesn’t really matter what’s shown on screen but how we see it. Godard rotates his camera 720 degrees – that’s two full revolutions – before changing direction and completing another 360 degree turn. All in one take. Why could this not have been accomplished in one 360 degree turn? Who knows. That’s the whole point of Godard’s darkly comic satire.
Ping Pong, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
In this three-minute unmoving shot in Michael Haneke’s third film, we see a man hitting ping pong balls shot at him by a quick machine. He hits them almost mechanically, missing the odd one, with a look of unbreakable concentration on his face, but what makes the shot special is how long it lasts. Some would say too long, but I see the point Haneke is trying to make. It’s like staring at a painting and taking hours to spot the tiniest detail which then seems to be leaping out in front of you.
Antoine Runs, The 400 Blows (1959)
At the end of Francois Truffaut’s stunning film debut, the protagonist Antoine Doinel runs across long roads and sandy beaches while the camera follows. Finally, at a beach, Doinel turns around and looks right into the camera, bewildered. The shot freezes. “FIN” appears on screen. Fade to black. Welcome to the French New Wave.
The Letter, Winter Light (1963)
About twenty minutes into this quiet masterpiece, Gunnar Björnstrand, as a pastor, begins to read a letter to him from his girlfriend, played by Ingrid Thulin. Cut to Thulin, who in an eight minute shot, reads the letter aloud while looking directly into the camera. A marvellous feat of both acting and directing for Thulin and Bergman.
The Stabbing, The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Haneke’s most shocking film (and easily his most accessible) culminates in a scene that I will never, ever forget. Isabelle Huppert, in what I consider to be the best female acting performance of all time, suddenly and startlingly stabs herself in the shoulder, with an unforgettable grimace of defiance on her face. It isn’t a particularly long take, when you compare it with the others on this list, but with the amount of raw emotion in it, it seems to last a lot longer than it actually does.
That’s my list. I tried to do more obscure ones rather than the obvious ones, in case you’re wondering why some of your favourites might be missing. But if I have missed some important ones, or if you just have something to say about the subject in general, leave a comment below. Thanks.