If cinematography and editing techniques influence our understanding of a film, what does the long take in particular accomplish? How does it function?
For argument’s sake, Branigan defines narrative roughly as “what happens in the story” and narration as the “mechanism or process” through which a narrative is understood and in fact created (65). The narration begets a narrative: the unique and controlled presentation of events through time and space create causal relations that explain narrative elements such as character, plot, and setting. This suggests that camera movement and editing techniques are essential to a film’s story. Through at least three controlled examples, Branigan suggests the narrative implications of point of view shots, camera movement, and cross-cutting, but what would he make of the long take? How can we apply Branigan’s understanding of narration to this rare technical phenomenon that seems superficially superfluous? [We briefly spoke about the average shot length during last class, so this isn’t entirely irrelevant… I hope.]
I bring it up because of Branigan’s 25th footnote on page 75. The footnote lists some films that create suspense “using a bomb as a narrative device” (243), and of those listed, the only one I’ve seen is Touch of Evil. What’s interesting is that scene in particular is usually noted as an exceptional example of a long take, a continuous shot uninterrupted by any piece of editing. Long takes are technical feats that cost a lot of money and manpower to produce (editing short shot-reverse shots would be easier), so why do they exist? What do they contribute? Is it just visual magic or is it significant to the narrative? Branigan’s argument suggests that the long take, like other camera techniques, is significant and not just a visual trick.
Here’s the scene that Branigan refers to from Touch of Evil. You don’t really need to know much because it’s the opening scene of the film.
It’s obvious how suspense is created through Branigan’s model: we as the spectator-audience see a bomb placed in the trunk of a car whose occupants seem to be unaware of it (S > C). However, such disparity of knowledge is not enough to sustain the suspense – the action must play out. But, instead of regressing to edited shots, the film proceeds in real time, deferring resolution to the ticking time bomb (I see what you did there, Orson Welles) and creating even more suspense and tension by refusing to cut away through any sort of editing from the action – we wait through real time and space in suspense. In this case, the unusual length of the long shot helps to build tension.
But what about the breadth of the long take, its ability to explore a setting without cutting or editing it into pieces? In the long take from Touch of Evil, we get a long look at the border town in which some of the film takes place, but our knowledge of the town’s roadways and buildings is not essential to the narrative. Similarly, GoodFellas features a long take through the interior of the Copacabana, but it’s not important that we memorize its layout. What’s important is that, at this point in the film, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) has been established as a gangster with many connections, and how he interacts with the club’s corridors and its occupants says a lot about his character and the power that he exercises.
[On a sidenote, the GoodFellas long take technically mirrors the one from Touch of Evil: they both begin with a close-up of hands in the middle of an exchange, followed by a labyrinthine journey via a couple passing through a busy setting that defines the man’s place in the world, and ending in a diversion. This can’t be a coincidence; Scorsese is a noted film buff.]
The long take’s ability to unify a single setting is explored more explicitly in Atonement. The film takes place during World War II, and the scene portrays the beach preceding the evacuation from Dunkirk, France; Robbie (James McAvoy) wants to return home to Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) in England.
We follow three men through a landscape that visually renders multiple stories – a woman and her daughter sitting on the sand; a chorus singing; a beached boat; soldiers doing various activities – under one setting. It’s not important that we fully explore each story or character because what this shot renders is the long journey home (literal and metaphorical). After hiking through war torn France, Robbie has reached Dunkirk only to find that home is still far away, that his hope for the end gives way to more despair, and the length and breadth of the long take visually renders this. We see on one beach all the casualties of war: the wounded soldiers, the displaced families, the destruction of life (the horses) and civilization (the cars), etc. Though the scene is visually arresting, the images themselves noteworthy, the use of the long shot drives home the effects and the feeling of endlessness of war.
In what other ways can the long take contribute to narrative? Perhaps there are other ways of reading the above scenes. How about other technical techniques like the equally rare dolly zoom or the more common shot reverse shot? How do they shape narrative? [That’s probably too broad a question for the comments section: each camera and editing technique should be taken individually. Still, it’s worth thinking about because the criticism we’ve read up to this point has been based largely in literature; Branigan starts from the other end with film, which I think we as members of a visual culture are more prone to take for granted.]