Narrative in the long take

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.]

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3 Responses to Narrative in the long take

  1. Mike Salerno says:

    I just want to say first that I absolutely love that long shot scene from Atonement. And the music. Such a great part of the movie. Anyway.

    Since the long shot can get away with zooming out and doing close-ups at any given time, as a conveyor of narrative, or source of narration as Sara suggests below, this particular camera technique gives the spectator a bit of omniscience, at least at this particular point in the story. To address the Atonement clip, we learn a lot about Robbie individually from the closeups the camera provides and from the camera zooming out we learn a lot about the destruction and endlessness of war, as you stated above. In addition, this camera technique goes a long way in conveying setting and mood (to use those wonderful literary terms we all know and love and that I have to teach my students). The long shot has accomplished in mere minutes what a writer might have to take pages and pages to articulate in a literary work.

    The three clips you posted reminded me of something we’ve mentioned in class briefly and I think is extremely relevant now that we’re discussing sources of narration. What role does the music in each scene play in conveying the film’s narrative? In the first two clips, the accompanying soundtrack made sense – the first clip showed a couple walking along the streets of a border town, perhaps with music coming through the windows of a nightclub, and the second clip took place inside a nightclub. If music were missing from these scenes it would seem odd.

    However, in the scene from Atonement, Dario Marianelli provides beautiful music to underscore the long shot of the beach at Dunkirk. The song, entitled “Elegy for Dunkirk,” incorporates original instrumental music with a church hymn. How would this scene come across if the spectator only heard the noise on the beach and the distant hymn in the background, the volume only increasing when Robbie and his companions come near the group of men? How does the music add to (or perhaps take away) from the narrative?

    Sorry to usurp your post, I had nowhere else to put these questions :)

    • Marie Mosot says:

      One usurps positions of authority, and I am in no such position :D Dialogue always, and the more the merrier!

      I agree that the long take is like a descriptive passage that can convey setting and mood. I also agree that the long take gives the audience a degree of omniscience, but specifically one that allows the audience a certain authorial control. Meaning, instead of editing the pieces of a scene to focus on, the camera can scan uninterrupted through sets and allow audiences the freedom to chose any plane of action to pay attention to (similar to deep focus). Close-ups aren’t particular to long takes; the Touch of Evil scene begins with a close-up but largely plays out in long to medium shots (meaning distance from the action, not length). Because the camera has to move through various contiguous mini-set(ting)s in a long take, the action has to be anchored by a character or two: the two sets of couples in Touch of Evil, Karen and Henry in GoodFellas, the three soldiers in Atonement. It’s like a moving, extended point-of-view shot. Perhaps the long take’s narrative value is then similar to the point of view shots that Branigan breaks down.

      Music definitely adds to the mood of a scene. I don’t think music could ever take away from the narrative; I suppose it could be loud and distracting, but then it may have been meant that way. Halloween’s coming up, and horror movies in particular rely heavily on the score (or really, soundtrack). What would the shower scene in Psycho be without those piercing strings? (I’m guessing the instrument.) Music might even be more crucial in the long take because without any pieces of editing, we need other cues to understand the scene. Marianelli’s score tells us to swell with emotion as the music swells, and to me, the choir of men singing – a hymn, as it were, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” – feels like a triumph of the spirit in the face of destruction. “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals plays over the scene from GoodFellas, which is fitting for both the time period and the scene as it is Henry and Karen’s first date (this is how Scorsese typically uses pop music). The Touch of Evil scene has a mix of Latin and rock n’roll music, fitting also for the time period and the location of the town on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The aural conflict between the two distinctly different styles of music also presages the conflict between certain American and Mexican authorities over the bombing (I don’t want to give too much of the film away if you haven’t seen it; I definitely recommend it, if only to watch an exceptional example of film noir). Remember also that when rock n’roll first came out, it was considered dangerous music. To make an analogy, I suppose music can function like the adverbs of a text, cueing audiences to the intensities of each scene.

  2. Boogie Nights has a great opening long take, too! If I’m not mistaken, there are several long takes in that film, actually. And again, I think they’re probably in homage to previous great examples (like GoodFellas and Touch of Evil). Just like Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson is an encyclopedia of film history knowledge. And, much like Touch of Evil, it’s meant to introduce you to the characters and setting quickly and efficiently, but it doesn’t have the suspense that the former film does. It’s done a bit more in the spirit of fun, as it opens on a party, although in retrospect/on subsequent viewings you realize how creepy and kind of a bummer the whole thing was all along.

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