I originally wrote this essay for a module on World Cinema. The question was: “Discuss and analyse in detail one or two contemporary examples of a film or films ‘committed’ to long take aesthetics and how and why you think those aesthetics are central to the films.” I've rewritten it a bit to make it slightly more readable. If you're interested in Contemporary Contemplative Cinema or "slow cinema" I highly recommend Unspoken Cinema, you can find links for some of the essays I reference there. Also, apologies for the low resolution of some of the stills!
It's easy to define a long take within a film, when it establishes editing conventions and then momentarily breaks them. To define an overall long take aesthetic, it's not enough to just compare it with other films – whether takes feel long or short is a result of more than their run time. These films establish their own definition and use of long takes, for example leaving a shot running after the characters have left the frame, or showing a whole scene from one angle without cuts.
The latter is the case in Lav Diaz's Century of Birthing (2011), the most extreme example being an uninterrupted 17 minute take of one character speaking spontaneous poetry to another. Century of Birthing consists of three storylines: Homer, a filmmaker trying to finish his latest project; Woman of the Wind, the actual film he is trying to finish; and a Christian cult, the House of Tiburcio, and the experiences of an amateur photographer who stumbles onto it. The film can be read in several contexts - Bazinian, as a film-essay on Bazinian realism, and as part of the ‘Contemporary Contemplative Cinema’ canon.
Bazin sees the development of cinema as stemming from a desire to create "an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image".1 While other plastic arts are limited in their attempts at realism by the evidence of an artist’s interference (e.g. a painting's brush strokes), photography removes this human touch and so the aesthetic experience is more in line with personal perception – objectif, both “objective” and literally “object-glass” or “lens”. By extension the aesthetic qualities of photography are in its power to lay bare reality; so too with cinema, which is (and according to some should be) striving towards a total realism. One of the techniques Bazin praises in creating realism is the long take as it’s closer to our perception of reality; editing, particularly Eisensteinian montage, interrupts this. The long takes in Century of Birthing feel Bazinian: the camera is almost entirely still, often taking a wide perspective that allows the viewer to choose what to focus on, and whole sequences play out from one angle. Natural lighting is used, even at night. Sometimes Homer’s conversations in public are obscured by strangers sitting in front of him, and often, through technological limitations or choice, background sounds and conversations threaten to overwhelm the main dialogue. Diaz himself describes his praxis along Bazinian terms, calling it ““insubordination”... You just don’t follow the action of the characters only. You just let life flow. You can still see life there flowing around the characters. It is insubordinating the canvas from the movement of the subjects”.2 Roger Graef, referring to vérité documentaries, describes them as “best in the rushes... next best at something like six or eight hours.... [otherwise] all of the subplots, all the nuances... [that] feed the sense of reality, all have to be cut".3 Both the duration of the takes and the duration of the film ostensibly prevent manipulation through editing, and allow Century of Birthing to come closer to the experience, the realism, of watching rushes.
However, Bazin’s understanding of the effects of the long take has been disputed. Godard’s long take of the traffic in Weekend (1967), like the long takes in La Chinoise (1967), track laterally and lack depth, the camera observing the time and space relation but creating “its own internal relations, its own logic”4. Far from creating a sense of realism this use of long takes is “in the midst of a highly abstract film essay”5 that addresses cinema itself; La Chinoise disputes Bazin’s ontology, saying "Art is not the reflection of a reality; it is the reality of that reflection”6. In describing Godard’s use of editing Brian Henderson makes a distinction between montage and collage - the latter bringing out internal relations of fragments, rather than imposing meaning on them. Henderson argues that collage is the formal principle behind this period of Godard’s films: his long takes are not Bazinian and his editing is not Eisensteinian, and in fact the screen is transformed from three planes to two, a process of Brechtian demystification that creates a new “non-bourgeois camera style”7. Pasolini, although sharing Bazin’s position on the ontology of cinema, argues the long take can only replicate the bourgeois cinematic narrator’s subjective view and that to prevent this view from being dominant it needs to be placed in “a dialogic relationship with that of the characters”8 through editing. Durgnat argues that “long takes can fragment space as incisively as bold cuts”,9 quoting Angelopoulos as saying “Realism? Me? I’ve not a damn thing to do with it. The religious attitude to reality has never concerned me.”10 Alternatively, Morgan’s re-reading of Bazin outlines a realism that is based on a film’s acknowledgement of its medium’s ontological link (as in Fried’s application of the concept of acknowledgement to aesthetics), rather than direct realism (the film is showing on an antecedent reality) or perceptual realism (the film approximates a perception of reality). Within this new realism framework, long takes don’t necessarily have to employ deep compositions, wide depth of field, or other devices that make them closer to our perception of reality. It is within this ambiguous, perhaps over-inclusive, notion of realism that Century of Birthing operates, informed by the debate about the effects of the long take.
Diaz’s own unfinished Woman on the Wind (2011) becomes Homer’s unfinished film, solidifying the character as an analogue for Diaz himself. When Homer says “This is all just a discourse”, it applies to Century of Birthing, a film which combines autobiographical material with fiction and juxtaposes the film within a film with actual documentary subjects (the farmers Homer meets). “You can still see life there flowing around the characters”, but the viewer’s attention is drawn to these characters: with the use of shallow focus, even when the framing is wide, often with the characters walking into a predetermined focal plane; with camera movements, such as the tilt up to capture the woman taking a photograph of a drying line; and through editing, with certain sequences spread across multiple angles (when the cult are learning the song, for example). Handheld is also used, not only in Homer’s camera but to show a character’s point of view and later to follow them. Another shot takes the point of view of a moving car. Diaz is not so much interested in creating direct or perceptual realism but in engaging with Bazin’s ideas and exploring the responsibilities of the realist artist/filmmaker; part of this exploration is through the use of varying styles of long takes. Homer expresses a Bazinian ontological belief in cinema, exclaiming “Fuck myself! There’s only cinema” and later proclaiming “cinema is being”, reminiscent of the Jeanluc Cinéma Godard credit in Bande à Part (1964).
The first image of Century of Birthing is a frozen frame of the cult, an illustration of Bazin’s ‘mummy complex’ (our desire to ward off death through art). As soon as the characters are released, however, the inevitability of mortality is reinforced through their song (“We all must go/ to the House of the Father”). The difficulty of cinema attempting to have the “last word in the argument with death”11 is that life observed by a camera is life altered; this is seen in the actions of the photographer, who uses his camera irresponsibly and ends up destroying his subjects. Wealthy enough to afford photography as a hobby, his presence in the countryside is voyeuristic, poverty tourism. The photographer believes he is liberating a woman from a regressive, Old Testament philosophy that values women only for their virginity but instead he falls captive to the myth of redemptive rape. Although created through traumatic means (rape, the forcible transition from old paradigms to new), the madwoman gives birth at the end of the film to a new cinema, the need for which is explored through all three threads: Homer, listing frame rates, camera movements, geographical centres of production (Hollywood, Hong Kong), says cinema is now beyond all these; Sister Angela says that God must be change, and if he isn’t, he must be the devil; when Father Tiburcio’s belief system shatters he cries “The theater is about to end. The theater is already meaningless. The theater is dead!” before committing suicide.
The new cinema is specifically digital, or at least created through the freedom, accessibility and honesty that digital offers. At the same time, existing filmmakers are still thinking within the celluloid paradigm; while Godard has embraced new technologies (video, digital, 3D) and even 16mm devotee James Benning switched to digital starting with Ruhr (2009), the latter advises against new filmmakers experiencing analogue filmmaking, believing he’s “making digital works now with the whole set of ideas I’m bringing from the past”.12 With no film magazine size limit and far fewer financial restrictions than on film (stock, editing, processing, prints), even a concept like the ‘long take’ could be one of these past ideas. (The cult women too are caught between old and new - they can’t help but discuss the most effective laundry detergent brands while washing their clothes in the river.) In this context the title makes sense - the history of cinema is a history of rebirth, and, after leaving his three previous films unfinished (Heremias Book 2, Woman on the Wind, Agonistes), Diaz argues the need for a new rebirth. However, like Benning, Homer/Diaz doubts his ability to deliver: “am I saying this because I don’t really know anything about this medium?” His doubts are perhaps well founded - Homer’s meeting with the madwoman at the end of the film recalls the meeting of Andrei Rublev (1966) and Boriska the Bellmaker, and the empty landscapes that follow are reminiscent of the disappearances of in Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962). For Diaz, “You cannot escape Tarkovksy. It’s in the subconscious.”13 However Diaz’s self-awareness and self-criticism prevents any potentially pretentious claim that Century of Birthing is an example of a new paradigm, and in the concluding emptiness he has removed himself - there is only cinema.
Some adherents of ‘Slow Cinema’, or ‘Contemporary Contemplative Cinema’ (CCC) would argue this rebirth has already happened. Definitions and labels are contentious, being a movement or style that spans countries, cultures and ideologies, but in the use of the long take CCC has been characterised in opposition to Hollywood. The term ‘Slow Cinema’ itself suggests a flow/fast dichotomy in its echoes of the slow food movement; the ‘fast’ is the rapid pace and cutting of contemporary Hollywood films, analogous to fast food. This attitude is shared by some CCC directors, including Carlos Reygadas who describes his films as “cold cinema”,14 contrary to “hot cinema, American film, which relies on audience identification, and fabricated emotional moments”.15 Bordwell identifies the current period of Hollywood filmmaking as one of “intensified continuity”, where the rapid cutting needed to maintain a TV audience’s interest requires eyelines and axes of action to be even less ambiguous than in classical Hollywood; at the same time, conversely, MTV editing is the favourite scapegoat for a ““post-classical” breakdown of spatial continuity” in Hollywood.16 If CCC is merely a formalist reaction to modern Hollywood, it is not clear to which Hollywood style it is reacting.
In addition, the earliest CCC films predate the Hollywood blockbuster, let alone MTV - Deligny's Le Moindre Geste (1971), Kiarostami's The Breaktime (1973), and Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1974) for example - and aren’t easily dismissed as a form of “passive aggression against Hollywood”.17 A more useful definition of CCC would be in the effect the films have on an audience - contemplation - and while this may result in an opposite effect for audiences familiar with Hollywood films, to assume that this means the director’s main intention was to oppose Hollywood is condescending and Western-centric. Furthermore Bordwell’s opinion that the “major distinguishing mark of off-Hollywood directors is greater average shot length”18 overlooks the different functions of long takes in favour of the easily measured average shot length (ASL). Long takes have a Hollywood tradition as well, being a way of a director to assert their independence and status as an auteur, such as Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and more recently Cuarón’s Children of Men (2005).
Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki justify their use of long takes along Bazinian lines of “objective”19 camera work in “real time”20 to create a “documentary look”;21 however each long take sequence is its own spectacle, carefully choreographed and digitally manipulated, impossible for a documentary camera to capture so perfectly. (Therefore it would be hard to argue Children of Men as CCC as the long takes, likewise the film itself, are still structured around tension and action rather than silence and contemplation.) Cuarón speaks in iconoclastic, auteurist terms, saying there were “a lot of forces against us, saying that it will never work, and some people wishing that it’s not gonna work.”22 Cynically, this could be extended further: the use of long takes forms a significant part of the marketing of films like Russian Ark (2002); ditto The Silent House (2010), which was remade in America with an identical conceit (the tagline: “real fear in real time”); the shot lengths of Gus Van Sant fluctuate with his movements between independent and Hollywood films, perhaps to reassert his legitimacy as an independent auteur. Rather than the camera hiding the presence of the artist, as per Bazin, there’s the potential that the “formal dimension [is] being offered to the viewer as an attraction in its own right”23 and the use of long takes, in CCC and other films, have become a technique for “product differentiation”24 in a crowded marketplace.
This is difficult to assess other than on an individual film basis; however, if Diaz uses long takes for this purpose it’s unsuccessful, not least because of the large number of CCC films. Although he’s had some success at film festivals, the programming difficulties of films of longer duration as well as his own sense of artistic responsibility work against him; Homer explains why he doesn’t want to show what he feels is an unfinished film, saying “I am not making my film for film festivals, I am making my film for cinema”. Diaz did indeed refuse the requests from the Venice and Berlin International Film Festivals to screen Woman of the Wind. Norte, the End of History (2013) - an epic filmed in colour with a moving camera at a four hour run-time - is an obvious deviation in style from his previous films, and as such has been described as “user friendly”25 in comparison and included in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category of Cannes 2013. It was also produced in a different economic model than his other films - the camera was rented, constricting the shooting schedule. According to Diaz there was “so much money wasted”, whereas purchasing the camera could have helped to create “a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.”26 Norte loosely adapts Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and features a levitating character, another homage to Tarkovsky, a potential sublimation of Diaz’s filmmaking into a more lucrative, international and less ideological style and working methods. However Hamin in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) returns to the Philippines after living in Russia and draws a comparison between the countries’ respective struggles. Diaz says his films are about personal and cultural issues specific to him and the Philippines, but that these are also universal issues: the struggle against fundamentalism, myth and truth, justice and the rule of law. Rather than being constricted by CCC, Diaz is not above questioning his own style, and through the cult story in Century of Birthing critiques any kind of fundamentalist or dogmatic approach: “My framework is not always the long take... I will adjust it to the story I need to do and to the characters that I see.”27 Norte is not a betrayal of Diaz’s style but an experiment.
Bazin, rather than the prescriptive concept of perceptual realism with which he is associated, recognised that “movement toward the real can take a thousand diﬀerent routes... The movement is valuable only insofar as it brings increased meaning (itself an abstraction) to what is created.”28 Diaz’s films are more complex than a simple opposition to Hollywood - in Bazinian terms they are steps towards the origin of cinema, so, according to Diaz “‘Where is cinema going?’ actually means ‘Where does cinema come from?’”29 New technologies enable these steps; Diaz explains his willingness to experiment with new tools and approaches to film-making, saying “Digital is developing and developing: if we embrace it, maybe we will be able to understand cinema.”30 Rather than being dogmatic about his long take aesthetic, Diaz recognises that there are many ways of “truth”, that there are other valid praxes, just as, according to Bazin, “Each period looks for its own [realism], the technique and the aesthetics that will capture, retain, and render best what one wants from reality.”31 However the Italian neorealist films that Bazin praised, along with many CCC films as well as a large amount of the critical reception to CCC, are still confined by narrative logic; through long takes and overall film duration the possibility is raised (but not fulfilled) in Century of Birthing of a return to a pre-Griffith, pre-montage cinema, towards embodying the myth of total cinema through the potential of digital cinema.
1: Bazin, A., ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ in What is Cinema? Volume 1, Gray, H. (selected and translated), University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, p. 21
2: Carpio, J. P. V., ‘Q & A: Lav Diaz’, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/q-a-lav-diaz
3: Roger Graef quoted in MacDougall, D., ‘When Less is Less: The Long Take in Documentary’, Film Quarterly, Vol 46, No 2 (Winter 1992-1993), p. 41
4: Brian Henderson quoted in Ibid, p. 42
5: Henderson, B., ‘Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style’, Film Quartly, Vol 24, No 2 (Winter, 1970-1971), p. 5
6: La Chinoise quoted in Ibid, p. 4
7: Ibid, p.2
8: Orr, C., ‘The Politics of Film Form: Observations on Pasolini’s Theory and Practice’, Film Criticism Quartlery, Vol 15, No 2, (Winter 1991), p. 45
9: Durgnat, R., ‘The Long Take in Voyage to Cytheria: Brecht and Marx vs. Bazin and God’, Film Comment, Vol 26, No 6 (November/December 1990), p. 43
10: Theo Angelopoulos quoted in Ibid, p. 44
11: Bazin, A., ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Gray, H. (trans.), Film Quarterly, Vol 13, No 4 (Summer 1960), p. 6
12: Bradshaw, N., ‘The Sight & Sound interview: James Benning’, bfi.org.uk (October 2013), http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/sight-sound-interview-james-benning
13: Carpio, op. cit.
14: Shaw, D., ‘(Trans)National Images and Cinematic Spaces: the cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)’, Iberoamericana, Vol 11, No 44 (2011), p. 127
16: Bordwell, D., ‘Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film’, Film Quarterly, Vol 55, No 3 (Spring 2002) p. 18
17: James, N., ‘Passive Aggressive’, Sight & Sound, Vol 20, No 4 (April 2010), p. 5
Bordwell, op. cit, p. 21
19: Emmanuel Lubezki quoted in Udden, J., ‘Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuarón’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization’, Style, Vol 43, No 1 (Spring 2009) p. 34
20: Alfonso Cuarón quoted in Ibid
21: Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki quoted in Ibid
Ibid, p. 40
23: Geoff King quoted in Ibid, p. 39
Ibid, p. 38
25: Corless, Kieron, Norte, the End of History summary, What's On at the BFI
26: Guarneri, M., ‘Militant elegy. A conversation with Lav Diaz’, La Furia Umana, No 17 (2013), http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php/29-archive/lfu-17/16-michael-guarneri-militant-elegy-a-conversation-with-lav-diaz
27: Carpio, op. cit.
28: André Bazin quoted in Morgan, D., ‘Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics’, Critical Inquiry, Vol 32, No 3 (Spring 2006), p. 443
29: Guarnieri, op. cit.
31: André Bazin quoted in Morgan, op. cit., p. 459
Bazin, A., ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Gray, H. (trans.), Film Quarterly, Vol 13, No 4 (Summer 1960), pp. 4-9
Bazin, A., ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ in What is Cinema? Volume 1, Gray, H. (selected and translated), University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, pp. 17-22
Bordwell, D., ‘Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film’, Film Quarterly, Vol 55, No 3 (Spring 2002), pp. 16-28
Durgnat, R., ‘The Long Take in Voyage to Cytheria: Brecht and Marx vs. Bazin and God’, Film Comment, Vol 26, No 6 (November/December 1990), pp. 43-46
Henderson, B., ‘Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style’, Film Quarterly, Vol 24, No 2 (Winter, 1970-1971), pp. 2-14
James, N., ‘Passive Aggressive’, Sight & Sound, Vol 20, No 4 (April 2010), p. 5
MacDougall, D., ‘When Less is Less: The Long Take in Documentary’, Film Quarterly, Vol 46, No 2 (Winter 1992-1993), pp. 36-46
Morgan, D., ‘Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics’, Critical Inquiry, Vol 32, No 3 (Spring 2006), pp. 443-481
Orr, C., ‘The Politics of Film Form: Observations on Pasolini’s Theory and Practice’, Film Cr iticism Quarterly, Vol 15, No 2, (Winter 1991), pp. 38-46
Shaw, D., ‘(Trans)National Images and Cinematic Spaces: the cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)’, Iberoamericana, Vol 11, No 44 (2011), pp. 117-131
Udden, James, ‘Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuarón’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization’, Style, Vol 43, No 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 26-44
Websites and E-Journals
Bradshaw, N., ‘The Sight & Sound interview: James Benning’, bfi.org.uk (October 2013), available from: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/sight-sound-interview-james-benning
Carpio, J. P. V., ‘Q & A: Lav Diaz’, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/q-a-lav-diaz
Corless, Kieron, Norte, the End of History summary, What's On at the BFI
Guarneri, M., ‘Militant elegy. A conversation with Lav Diaz’, La Furia Umana, No 17 (2013), http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php/29-archive/lfu-17/16-michael-guarneri-militant-elegy-a-conversation-with-lav-diaz