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"With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization -- that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls.”
~ Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
Tarkington’s comment about automobiles and more broadly about technology, immortalized in Orson Welles film of the same title, rings ever true today. In a world where speed all too often takes precedence over reflection we may have lost sight of the beauty lying dormant in the human soul. There is perhaps no better canvas for this existential battle than cinema.
While most of us are content to sit back and enjoy this cinematic feast with little attention given to the recipe, those of us who create film are embroiled in a long battle between the mainstream majority who favor short takes versus the ardent minority of supporters of the long take. There can be no doubt both techniques serve a dramatic purpose, but up until relatively recently the long take had fallen out of vogue. All of that changed thanks in no small part to the efforts of a small group of filmmakers heralding from Mexico. Perhaps the most notable is Alfonso Cuaron. In his 2006 film, Children of Men, Cuaron pushes the envelope of long takes to the max and it was here I set out to analyze the artistic merit of what I have come to regard as The Mexican Long Take.
And the final ghetto warfare scene which lasts a staggeringly brave 6-minutes and 18-seconds. For context, the average shot length (ASL) of movies made between 2003 and 2006 was between 2.5-seconds and 6.5-seconds. Children of Men’s ASL was 16.4 seconds. Looking at the numbers alone, if you knew nothing about the plot you could be mistaken for thinking Children of Men would be a smoldering “slow cinema” contemplative drama like Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), which has an utterly insane ASL of 3-minutes and 49-seconds. The fact that Children of Men is not a sedating Hungarian drama but an action-packed dystopian SciFi horror is a testament to the amount of highly detailed choreography and technical camera work that Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki pour into their productions.
Focusing on these two scenes alone, I figured I would have ample material for analysis. However, I soon realized these scenes, as magnificent as they are, distract from the sheer number of other long takes in the film. To give you a glimpse into the madness, there are no less than 16 shots that last more than 45-seconds!
You would be right to surmise that Cuaron is no stranger to the long take. In fact, it has become his trademark, I imagine much to the chagrin of his producers because Cuaron’s long takes are often complex and subsequently pretty expensive to shoot. In the ghetto warfare scene towards the end of Children of Men, the crew took 12 out of the dedicated 14-days just to set up the shot. That left a nerve-wracking two-days to get the take. Add to this equation, they were only able to shoot two takes per day due to the amount of time it took to set up the explosives, props and extras, leaving a worrisomely narrow window of 4 chances to get it right. After the 14-days elapsed the British Army units Cuaron borrowed for the shoot had to return to their various military duties. On the morning of the final day of shooting with still no satisfactory footage acquired, camera operator George Richmond tripped and fell towards the end of the take which literally meant they had one final chance remaining to get a perfect take lasting over 6-minutes. The God of movies must have been smiling on Cuaron and Lubezki (and Richmond) that day because not only did they achieve the impossible they also got an accidental splattering of blood across the lens which, despite Cuaron’s fears at the time that it would ruin the take (he shouted “Cut!”, but apparently an explosion muffled this announcement as none of the crew heard him) upon viewing the replay Lubezki pointed out how the blood-splatter worked perfectly for artistic effect. It is no wonder that when long takes like these are finally achieved, some of the crew break down in tears at the release of tension as did the crane operator in Y Tu Mama Tambien after one of Cuaron's particularly long and technically tricky trademark shots.
Interior and exterior shots of the fiat rig used in Children of Men
In fact “master of the long take” is Lubezki’s nom de plume. Lubezki has some big notches on his cinematic belt. Not just from collaborations with Cuaron, such as Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Roma, but also for his work on Birdman and The Revenant with director Alejandro González Iñárritu – notably, another Mexican filmmaker with a penchant for long takes. Indeed, this triumvirate have done much to make Mexican cinema synonymous with long takes. Perhaps there is something unique about Mexico, as after all, the most famous long take in cinematic history is the opening scene from Orson Welles Touch of Evil (3-minutes and 20-seconds) which was set in the Mexican border town of Los Robles, although it was actually shot on location in Venice, California.
So, why the fanatical obsession with the long take? Lubezki provides a great answer:
“Just as blinking can confirm that you’re awake and not dreaming, cutting can pull you out of the dream too.” - LINK
Many things in life are defined by their opposites and the significance of the long take, as Lubezki points out, is no exception. A long take can be defined as the polar opposite technique to using multiple cuts. Cuaron said as much regarding the car chase scene in Children of Men, that they could have shot the scene with multiple short, fast takes from optimal angles to make the chase have more of a comic-book action feel to it, or as Lubezki scathingly describes it -‘the Burbank way’. But Cuaron opted for the long take at the extraordinary expense of building a complicated camera crane, consisting of an Arriflex 235 mounted on a Doggicam Sparrowhead and two power-slides set at an axis, all mounted on top of a heavily modified car along with the cameraman, cinematographer, director, and focus-puller, not to mention a stunt-driver steering this otherworldly vehicle and the five actors inside. This elaborate technical feat was staged exclusively to film the experience of being immersed in the characters reality. We literally feel like we are in the car, another passenger, experiencing events in real-time like the characters themselves.
Cuaron’s and Lubezki’s view of the long take is essentially no different than Andre Bazin’s. That is to say, the long take conveys realism through the use of real-time, eliciting emotions from the audience akin to those of the characters. The long-take works even more effectively to create this immersive experience when it is accompanied by an open frame. An open frame implies the world of the story is based on reality and the frame is just a window on this world. The open frame mimics documentary-style live action. It is no coincidence that for action scenes Lubezki and Cuaron opted for a hand-held camera in the longest take from Children of Men, the ghetto warfare scene, which won the camera operator, George Richmond, the prestigious Society of Camera Operators ‘Historical Shot’ award. With a hand-held camera POV, we can experience the motion of running and the reactions to explosions and gunfire in an extremely raw fashion. I think the correct word is “visceral”.
George Richmond obtaining his ‘Historic Shot’ award
During this take, Richmond’s camera follows Clive Owen’s character Theo through the street warfare in the future ghetto of Bexley Hill. Theo comes in and out of frame as we follow some of the more immediate action, as Richmond literally ducks reflexively at the retort of gunfire and jerks away from explosions. The result is like following a photojournalist through a war zone. In fact, we half expect Theo to break the Fourth Wall and look directly at the camera, which is precisely what Maribel Verdu’s character does in her erotic dance in Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. We are immersed in chaos. But it is the very elaborate, finely-tuned and highly ordered chaos of Alfonso Cuaron’s directing. The real-time narrative of the long take, the use of an open frame, the hand-held camera rig and the happy unplanned accidents of blood-splattering on the lens all conspires to perpetuate the very believable illusion of reality, of being there experiencing what the characters experience.
Maribel Verdu breaking the Fourth Wall in a long take from Y Tu Mama Tambien
There is, of course, a counterargument to Cuaron’s use of long-takes for subjective realism. Cutting can be used quite effectively to portray the character’s POV. John Huston deftly argues in favor of cutting in this segment from Walter Murch’s book, In the Blink of an Eye:
“Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between.”
But in Cuaron’s Children of Men, we are not looking at lamps. Long takes serve a very specific narrative purpose, where one is too stupefied to dare to blink. A long take implies there is something important going on that is worthy of our prolonged attention. Whether it is the Mayan housekeeper doing laundry on a Mexico City rooftop in Cuaron’s Roma, or Theo buying a coffee in a futuristic London café that is shortly thereafter bombed in a terrorist attack in Children of Men. Quietly or loudly, something important is happening. There is a meaning that is unraveling before us that a short take or scenes with multiple cuts lack.
To dissect John Huston’s analogy a little further, to blink is an act of convenience. We know how this will play out visually, so we can blink and essentially omit that whole section where we pan from A to B. A blink or a cut saves us time, but it also steals time. Long takes are mercilessly opposed to this. Whether it is tedious or suspenseful, a long take is real, at least temporally, and that is its aesthetic utility. The irony is that Cuaron’s long takes are often not actually as long as they seem and involve invisible cuts using buildings and door frames for hidden wipes to sustain the illusion of continuity. This merits a deeper analysis of our assumptions about long takes and their association with realism. Cuaron and other filmmakers have played on this association to create an illusion of reality where the truth is actually an intensely choreographed and sometimes invisibly edited fabrication of a temporal-spatial continuum.
Cuaron’s passion for long takes was sparked by French New Wave cinema which was defined by experimenting with editing techniques such as the famously long tracking shot of a traffic jam from Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End. This is interesting because French New Wave was born from a reaction against the traditional narrative that had become the norm in cinema leading into the 1950s. Short-cuts edited together like a montage had become the narrative standard. The long take successfully defied that expectation, showing that alternate modes of narration were not only achievable but also highly effective.
ASLs of films in seconds from 1903 to 2006. Note the peak during the 1950s influenced by French New Wave
Yet the idea of the long take being ultimately believable or immersive because of its real-time duration overlooks the fact that we are still being guided where to look. The temporal continuum is real, but the spatial continuum is wholly subjective or perhaps more specifically, directed. As film theorist Noel Burch points out, spatial continuity may or may not be accompanied by temporal continuity (and vice versa). The camera can gently guide us through an environment as in Roma, with hypnotic panning movements back and forth, up and down, or it can send our adrenaline pumping as in Children of Men. When Cuaron was asked why he uses long takes so often, he said: “They have to do with settling the characters in their environment, and giving the same weight to both.” Thus, in Children of Men Cuaron focuses on gritty realism using mainly eye level shots and frequent use of hand-held camera to create the war documentary feel. The camera is deliberately “realistic” in Children of Men, which is not always the case in Cuaron’s long takes, but in this film it is a very deliberate strategy. In the car chase scene, the camera movements consist of motivated pans. A motivated pan is where the characters and the action determine the direction and focus of the camera, from the oral ping pong frolics between Theo and Julian, to the ambush, to the motorcycle pursuit, to the gunshot, to Theo’s reaction as he holds Julian, back to the motorcycle, to Miriam’s frantic reaction, to the crack in the windshield, to Luke intently focused on his reverse driving, and back to the crack in the windshield which then shatters. And so on. The camera pans are all motivated by the action which is precisely what we would be doing if we were in the car. Cuaron and Lubezki set out to achieve a temporal-spatial harmony of movement between the objects being filmed and the camera that totally immerses the audience into the diegetic world. Subsequently, we often feel as if we are inside Cuaron’s films, not a mere spectator but a silent participant, which is undoubtedly why Cuaron has won five Oscars and been nominated for another six.
One final point to make about the duration of shots in Children of Men is the pattern, that is, the more violent the content the longer the shots tend to be. This stylistic pattern adds to the suspense. As a shot rolls on and the seconds pass by we wonder, will this be a long take, and if so, when will the action erupt. In scenes where there is little action and mostly conversation, Cuaron reverts back to a conventional editing technique with the standard shot-reverse shot method. This pattern is in stark contrast to most Hollywood movies (it is worth remembering that Children of Men is a Hollywood movie, distributed by Universal Studios and produced with a budget of $76 million), where shot duration is typically shorter with violent content.
In a world of IMAX, HoloLens, and Virtual Reality headsets, verisimilitude is an increasingly popular aesthetic. But verisimilitude implies the appearance of reality, not reality itself. Whether our reality looks like a series of fast blinks or a mystified, unblinking gaze will be heavily influenced by visionaries like Cuaron, Lubezki and Iñárritu. As for where to throw one’s allegiance in this epic battle for the illusion of reality, my bias is clear: Viva la revolucion!
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