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4 On camera movement and filmic space
Metaphysics of the "long take": some postBazinian reflections
Mark Le Fanu Historicalphilosophical Virtuosity versus intensity Conclusion
Historicalphilosophical André Bazin died in 1958; he was only 40 years old. I don't know how his reputation subsists these days in the academic world of film studies. He was one of the most intellectual writers on film who ever put pen to paper, but he wrote before film studies became part of the university syllabus, and a large part of the pleasure of his writing derives from its generous urbanity: the sense that, besides its philosophical rigour, it belongs to a general educated discourse which takes on in addition to the cinema music, painting, theatre and literature. So his work is always a pleasure to read: it is embedded in the concrete. It is tentative, provisional, undogmatic open in the best sense to argument. And though he is a great master of theory, he is not always (in the tiresome, battening, modern way) "theoretical". And this applies whether he was writing reviews (he was surely one of the most appreciative reviewers ever) as well as to his longer, deeper, more meditated pieces of prose. Is what he had to say about film right, however? Of course this is a complicated matter. His theory of reality (his "ontology") has come under attack, specifically from a modern wing of thinking Marxist, psychoanalytical, semiological which stresses the constructedness of the world, as opposed to some irreducible preideological Being. I don't want here to go into the rights and wrongs of this intricate, at times theological argument. There are matters of principle, on both sides, that seem to go beyond logic into the realm of belief, where we must be content, for the moment, to
which parcelled out the details into separate short cuts. and brought it closer to the emotions of the audience. He couldn't see its virtuosity except in terms of a diminishing rhetoric.leave them. to some primal authenticity). 1967). exemplified at the time Bazin was writing in the films of Orson Welles and William Wyler. was provided by the camera's powerful depth of field. whether the context is (as in one case) Italian NeoRealism. from . too. Such visual complexity as there was. Yet it was this rhetoric which was to constitute the glory of silent film in its heyday. simplifying the logic of the action at the same time as it clarified it. his account of the significance of shot length in the development of film syntax from the silent to the sound era. And he traces the development like this: the long take is a return to the origins of filmmaking (perhaps. was Bazin's stumbling block: his "bête noire". In both cases. if we allow ourselves a gallicism. notoriously. Editing. His views on the matter are implicit almost everywhere in his writings. The camera (immobile. At first. and "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" (1955). allowing different actions to take place in different sections or different planes of the frame simultaneously: a variety that was to be at once abolished and reconstituted by the introduction of editing. The essays are different: they were written for different occasions. Bazin is interested in an observable increase in shot duration that he finds to be a defining mark of modern film syntax. of course. But the general argument is the same in both. unless as in the specific genre of "phantom rides" the railway line functioned as a dolly) was set up on its tripod. For the purposes of this essay I should say am more interested in his ordinary views on film history: in particular. there was no such thing as editing. first published in 1948. while the dramatic scenes unfolded one after the other in a succession of single takes. both of which may conveniently be found in the two volume translation of Bazin's miscellaneous writings What Is Cinema? (University of California Press. or (as in the other) the probing mobile camerawork of contemporary American cinema. but put forward explicitly in two essays: "An Aesthetic of Reality: NeoRealism". and I think it can be reasonably easily paraphrased.
through the attention it gave to lighting and camera style. Bazin was clear about this.) His historical allegiance at any event was to certain filmmakers of the silent era Stroheim and the early Renoir most obviously who held out against the blandishments of montage; who continued to respect.1920 to the coming of sound. suspense; as equally. it diminished the sovereignty of editing and for a time at least reintroduced as part of the general vocabulary of film the longer take: particularly in conversation scenes where in the early days (up until about 1930) it was an acceptable and convenient way of supporting sound continuity. Yet it wasn't long before methods were found of adopting the technology of sound cutting to the old speed of visual editing opening the way for the rapidfire musicals and screwball comedies that were such a feature of the decade: the era. so much talked about except that the editing protocols involved were soon to become pretty much universal. in his heart. This is the Classical American Cinema. certain new things were happening. Would the history of the art form really have been better off without the innovations of Griffith or Eisenstein? It is difficult to judge whether. then. is where Bazin found himself: in the middle. carefully framed shot. English and German cinema of the epoch as in the product of ultraprofessional Hollywood. the integrity of the long. one of the great things about his writing is that he is serious; that he doesn't attitudinise. it encouraged a visual sophistication that in some sense has never been surpassed. or rather. The coming of sound is plainly a watershed: the central fact in any theory of cinema. Editing brought in speed. and the teeming life "out there in the world" that was implied beyond it. This. powerful tradition certainly. observable as much in the French. as it were. Bazin believed this though perhaps he believed it a bit. at the end of a tradition: a great. and didn't underestimate it or sneer at it. rhythm. (In general. Famously. of Capra and Hawks. as it were. What he found missing however what he felt had been lost was the sense of passionate contemplation (contemplation here being only another word for reality: an unmediated openness to the world) that had been a governing aspect a spiritual aspect almost of the finest examples of early primitive cinema. In America towards . complex. but on the other hand.
just to mention Dreyer and directors of similar calibre . from Bazin's time onwards. Still. constructed. there was the simultaneous revolution associated with neorealism. in certain sequences. to think of either Dreyer or Antonioni outside the rhythm and concentration afforded by its legitimacy. Simultaneously. there was a concurrent tendency to hold or stretch out the shot longer than before." he said "is the language of silent cinema; camera movement is the language of sound" And in films like Ordet (1954) and Gertrud (1964) he took this desideratum as far as it would go. for example. Dreyer (who had started out. Yet even if you discount such ideological covering. depth of field had been re introduced into visual composition through the experiments of cameramen like Gregg Toland working with directors like Welles and Wyler; and with the new emphasis on spatial realism that this brought in its wake. either with a stationary camera. Some of the irritation against Bazin in subsequent commentary can be put down as the reaction to his tremendous selfconfidence. as if to say that all developments in film language had been building towards a culmination that only now. to Fuller and Nicholas Ray. and further. European art cinema. Personally I rather like this optimism: it is part of the boldness and largeness of design that in general distinguish his writing. meanwhile. Over in Europe.e. His theory of film had a strongly teleological element. in the epoch of the silents and knew what he was talking about) actually had an aphorism for it: "Editing. in the present time (i. there is a certain basic level on which his evolutionary argument surely holds water. did indeed become the general vernacular of the 1950s and 1960s. speedy miseenscène associated with montage. after all. or utilising the new mobility brought about by technical developments in the crane and dolly. in favour of long shots and a documentary (or pseudodocumentary) plainness. a film like Citizen Kane. observable in the work of any number of directors from Preminger and Sirk. the time Bazin was writing) found its Platonic or Hegelian perfection. and that too (though for very different reasons) played down the wilful.the end of the 1930s. Impossible. the fluency of camera which marked so strongly. Thus in American cinema. entered into one of its greatest and austerest historical moments by virtue in part at least of the dreamy langour made possible by the long shot.
Kubrick or Bertolucci. the moving camera becomes the very index of style itself in the cinema. Preminger. Antonioni.(Bergman. to linger. Anywhere one looks. In that sense Bazin was wrong. there is a mystery surrounding how long it took for such shots to become part of the vernacular. Or was he? Can the matter be taken any further? Virtuosity versus intensity to the top of the page A distinction in Bazin's thinking about the long take that might not be as explicit as it should be. have the patience to look that is. lies between the long take that finds its essence in the properties of the moving camera. Kazan. In the work of figures like Ophuls and Sternberg. to risk boredom in the search of epiphany that not so long ago was part and parcel of the serious cinemagoing experience. Of course there were examples in primitive cinema (I have already mentioned the "phantom rides" of the late 1890s). no holding back. Murnau's name is forever associated with the freeing up of the camera from the stationariness of the tripod (at just the same time. or quasistationary. that is. that its possibilities are truly. so to speak. was refining the rival virtuosity of montage). As I attempted to indicate above. Yet once the technique had been pioneered there was. and another kind of long take that is stationary. we no longer. Those bravura passages of meditation that mark the high point of a certain kind of art cinema: are they not exactly the thing that no longer exist in film today? In the epoch of MTV and of the "quick thrills" associated with the "event movie". Consider first of all the mobile camera shot. Sirk and Fuller were the names I mentioned. to explore. Fellini) is immediately to be forced to put the matter in another light. Eisenstein. it could be claimed. They are actually two separate things in the service of two different metaphysics. that another genius. thirty years after cinema's invention. No less than with sound. the innovations of Murnau and Ophuls integrated now into the "natural" language of filmmaking were handed down to subsequent generations of cineastes on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. but I might equally have cited Minnelli. as subsequently in Welles and Renoir. definitively seized upon. in search of style or calligraphy. but it seems not to be until the mid1920s. coincidentally. one finds the moving camera doubling for the filmmaker's .
so to speak. as so many things seem to do. but rather to use the mobile. Altman at the beginning of The Player parodies this selfconscious prowess (while at the same time he makes sure he outdoes it): a pure virtuosity of movement which goes back in film history. and its presence is somewhat anonymous. In general it could be said that there are two connected ways in which the sinewy. and the famous opening scene of Touch of Evil (though Hitchcock. often opening or closing the film. five and a half minutes. could be a previous avatar). semiconscious. Others too: Kenneth Branagh; Alan Rudolph; Julien Temple (whose film maudit. so deeply do we associate movement not just the movement of the image. where there is an observable tendency (embedded in the almost universal use of widescreen for thrillers and police films) not to cut before one has to. I believe. There . Who are Welles's present day imitators? Brian de Palma of course (Mission: Impossible is a succession of such set pieces); or one thinks of Tim Burton (vertiginous opening sequence of Ed Wood).paintbrush or etching knife. At the other end of the scale therefore and very much made to be noticed is the oneoff set piece. The invention of the steadicam in the 1970s (which provided handheld camerawork with the previously monopolised fluency of the crane) only. despite MTV. gave further possibilities to an alreadyexisting syntax. semisexual pleasures of the art form. is specifically referred to by Altman). These things. alive and kicking: a minor and a major modality. mobile long takes of the type I am describing are still. that signals the director's virtuosity; the challenge here being to show what he or she can do (where he can go. through what objects he can pass) without a single cut within the space of. Absolute Beginners. invisible syntax of mainstream narrative film making. This aspect of style is perhaps not so much part of cinema's length as of its smoothness. with Rope. in contrast to the feature I am coming to. say. to Orson Welles. repositioning properties of the camera to follow the action to its conclusion. but the movement of the apparatus with the dreaming. The minor modality refers to what I would wish to call the everyday. have not diminished; they are as present as ever in cinema's contemporary incarnations. in this context. And it is hard to imagine (genuinely hard. I think) that there was ever a time when such fluency was not available.
Pre revolutionary Russian cinema. which in some way makes the intensity: a unique intensity in cinema history. And of course that goes back once again into the origins of silent cinema: to the wonderful moment when it discovered it could achieve its effects quietly. Virtuosity itself. not the issue of a single. in short. but the integrity and patient intensity of his gaze. recorded breakthrough. For there is. without recourse to the histrionics of traditional stage acting. needs to be treated with caution; one can be impressed with the sort of sequences I am referring to without maintaining that they sum up the totality of film art. Here it is not the skill or the technical dexterity of the artist that is at issue. in fact. in the midcentury art cinema that has already been alluded to above. Dreyer and Antonioni were the directors I singled out. In France we see it in the beautiful naturalistic camerawork of directors operating around the First World War such as Perret. One thinks of the steady humanist gaze that Satyajit . That early cinema. In fact of course this moment is mythical; or rather. in optimal circumstances.are many. if anything. finding its culmination. was equally extraordinary for its gravity and slowness. though an aspect of art. No one who has been lucky enough to see the films of Victor Sjöström or Georg af Klerker projected on mint prints at the right speed (backed up. combined with the silence itself. never really vanished either. but you could add to their number (from that heroic epoch of world cinema) artists of completely different origins. by skilful piano playing) can fail to be impressed that it is the daring length of the take. And there is the splendid example of Scandinavia. in its wake. and there has always been. though it was dealt a blow by montage. it is a congeries of moments. We know the legacy which Sjöström left to Bergman; and the continuity of seriousness the hidden underground stream I have labelled "intensity" in shorthand was to be reproduced in other film cultures. meanwhile (we are in the process of discovering). and there will be more. Different national cinemas went in for the deep focus long take in different ways. the proliferation of garrulous intertitles. another kind of long take which is based on the contrary on simplicity. however. Feuillade or Antoine. that was broken (Bazin is right) by the fragmentation of the image introduced by editing and.
even in a fiction film) the unique. We don't see most of us as many nonmainstream (alternatively put: foreign. and the supposed arrogance of its "elitist" pretentions. Such a cinema no modern critic can ignore the fact is in danger of being culturally marginalised. Whether this is because they are not being made. Or equally (and for me supremely) the experiments in real time experiments in watching undertaken throughout his career by Mizoguchi. beautiful crystalisation of experience that comes into being in certain rare moments of epiphany. fully informed and documented answer to this question . waiting for the miraculous thing to happen. as relevant as they were in the days of Dreyer and Mizoguchi. it could be argued (rather than in swirling baroque camera movements) is the essence of cinema; so that the sympathetic onlooker would not be excessively earnest to worry about its possible extinction. What is that thing? And shall we witness it? It is the unplanned moment (always in some sense documentary. Who are the heirs of Mizoguchi. and where in world cinema do we locate them? Tarkovsky was probably the greatest modern master of the longtake cinema I have been examining. but since he is no longer with us (he died in 1986) the subsidiary question is. Here. to ask whether such a style exists any longer is to venture into one of the most contentious areas of contemporary cinema aesthetics. though the renewed cultural and economic power of Hollywood combined with the staggering effectiveness of its distribution outlets is plainly one important factor among many. or whether it is because the films that are being made in this tradition are simply not as vital as living. who are his heirs? A confident. biding its time. but rather a kind of selfeffacing servant. or were allowed to do.Ray directs onto village family and village rhythms in Pather Panchali (for example: the great extended sequence which follows the grandmother as she hobbles her way out of the compound). At the heart of the matter lies the discernible disdain that has attached itself in some quarters to art cinema itself. twenty years ago. subtitled) films as we did. is of course the very matter at issue: the culmination of our enquiry which returns us to our Bazinian starting point. Elegance and virtuosity in such filmmakers are no longer the sole governing criteria: the camera is not so much the star. Indeed. The reasons for this are sociologically complex and not finally within the scope of this essay.
to pause and to look deeply is something of substance that all three men share with the director of Andrei Roublev. France. some six or seven films (Through the Olive Trees perhaps the work of his most seen in the West) along with films of directors whom he has influenced: Mohsen Makmalbof (Salaam Cinema (1995) and Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon (1995)). I am thinking for example of the amazing avantgarde dynamism of Alexandr Sokurov's Days of Eclipse (1988). in important ways. certain modern films that have struggled to the West and managed to find distribution do indeed carry reminiscences of Tarkovsky. Still. These are not the work of disciples in any cultish or quasi religious sense of the word. Thus from the former country let me mention the work of two artists: Hou HsiaoHsien (The Time to Love and the Time to Die (1985)) and Tsai MingLiang (The River (1996)); from the latter. Thus. uncertain whether the examples put forward represent in the last analysis part of some larger totality. But like all critics I try to keep my eyes open. each in his own way. the complete oeuvre up till now of Abbas Kiarostami. it is impossible not to discern vital affinities in the formation of certain filmmakers coming from countries beginning. too. demands to be mentioned: in artistic terms it is plainly the filmmaking country in the world that is most symbolically counterpoised to Hollywood's hegemony. Resuscitate (1990)) or Victor Kossakovsky (The Belovs (1993)). and Iran. in the sense . or the isolated fragments of a rout. and with genuine diffidence. among the ruins left by the collapse of state supported cinema in the old communist empire of Eastern and Central Europe. but the genuine intensity of their long takes the director's willingness. to come nearer home. along with the works of more mainstream (but still highly personal) directors such as Vitali Kanevsky (Don't Move.would necessarily exempt the writer from exactly the strictures and constraints on viewingpower that have just been outlined above; and I cannot (alas) claim any such privilege. Tarkovsky's explicit influence on his younger contemporaries is not at all the subject of this essay. Die. So in the remaining space of this essay I offer a few points de repère: tentatively. for example. to make their mark on the world stage: Taiwan.
is still observably vibrant and living.that it offers an alternative mainstream based not simply on entertainment criteria. from the shores of the avantgarde. (Or so at least it seems to an observer. in the case of Abbas Kiarostami mentioned above. there are assuredly too many trends to make absolute rules; yet in the works of contemporary masters like Maurice Pialat and Raymond Depardon. with its stunning succession of lap dissolves making memory come alive in front of our eyes. with its finely realistic and psychologically nuanced miseenscène. but on adult values of subtlety and seriousness. of course. who was one of the greatest masters of the long take.) Similarly with Mizoguchi: there can be few sequences in cinema that demonstrate a deeper understanding of the editor's art than the opening scene of Sansho the Bailiff. Miklos Jancsó are some of the names that spring to mind (to which list one might add. About the great masters of the long take who have not been mentioned in this essay Angelopoulos. I think it is important in the definition of the long take to go for the spirit of the thing. Editing and sequence shot are the two basic poles of filmmaking. not the letter. Thus. it seems to me that the Bazinian tradition of the long take. Jacques Rivette. there are virtuoso displays of editing skill. Greenaway. So in general. as a late film like F for Fake clearly demonstrates. For one reason or another these traditions appear still to have an extraordinary vitality. it is not so much the actual length of the take that is crucial (as though it were measured by a stopwatch) but the fact that his cinematic style which does of course utilise long takes is geared towards contemplative engagement. and virtuosity in one implies a complementary virtuosity in the other; or at the very least. I hope I have managed to make clear my feeling that the long take is only interesting if it is understood dialectically. Victor Erice. Conclusion to the top of the page All cinema in some way is mixed.) Within its total complex of aesthetic richness. video artists like Bill Viola and Douglas Gordon) the suspicion may sometimes be harboured that their mastery of concentration and the sweep of their camera . (Even in Citizen Kane. a recognition of the other's existence. was also one of the greatest masters of editing. Orson Welles.
One thing is certain: it is as clear as can be that in the next 50 years totally new rhythms will be discovered arising out of the possibilities of the new digital technologies: new ways of imbricating. and of what it may powerfully aspire to.are in the end no substitute for the wit and legerdemain of the editor's art: that their camera style is abstract and ponderous. and where we are going. is genuinely complicated. Still I hope and I trust that the simplicity of the classic long take will survive in some artists' hearts as the emblem both of what cinema has been. So where we are. For reasons I have given in this essay. It will always remain true however that what for one critic represents the pure essence of the art form is. mere arid formalism. I do not go along with that judgement. . metamorphosing and doctoring images for our delectation. for another critic.