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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Long takes (Mark Le Fanu)

"[..] 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 thrilss' associated with the 'event movie', we no longer, it could be claimed, have the patience to look - that is, to linger, to explore, to risk boredom in the search of epiphany - that not so long ago was part and parcel of teh serious cinema-going experience. [..]

Virtuosity itself, though an aspect of art, 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. For there is, and there has always been, another kind of long take which is based on the contrary on simplicity. Here it is not the skill or the technical dexterity of the artist that is at issue, but the integrity and patient intensity of his gaze. 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, without recourse to the histrionics of traditional stage acting. [..]

Indeed, to ask whether such a style exists any longer is to venture into one of the most contentious areas of contemporary cinema aesthetics. At the heart of the matter lies the discernible disdain that has attached itself in some quarters to art cinema itself, 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. The reasons for this are sociologically complex and not finally within the scope of this essay, 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. We don't see - most of us - as many nonmainstream (alternatively put: foreign, sub-titled) films as we did, or were allowed to do, twenty years ago. Whether this is because they are not being made, or whether it is because the films that are being made in this tradition are simply not as vital - as living, as relevant - as they were in the days of Dreyer and Mizoguchi, is of course the very matter at issue: the culmination of our enquiry which returns us to our Bazinian starting point. Who are the heirs of Mizoguchi, and where in world cinema do we locate them? [..]

So in general, I think it is important in the definition of the long take to go for the spirit of the thing, not the letter.
Thus, in the case of Abbas Kiarostami mentioned above, it is not so much the actual length of the take that is crucial (as though it were measured by a stop-watch) but the fact that his cinematic style - which does of course utilise long takes - is geared towards contemplative engagement. I hope I have managed to make clear my feeling that the long take is only interesting if it is understood dialectically. Editing and sequence shot are the two basic poles of film-making, and virtuosity in one implies a complementary virtuosity in the other; or at the very least, a recognition of the other's existence. About the great masters of the long take who have not been mentioned in this essay - Angelopoulos, Greenaway, Victor Erice, Jacques Rivette, Miklos Jancsó are some of the names that spring to mind (to which list one might add, from the shores of the avant-garde, 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 are in the end no substitute for the wit and legerdemain of the editor's art: that their camera style is abstract and ponderous. For reasons I have given in this essay, I do not go along with that judgement. It will always remain true however that what for one critic represents the pure essence of the art form is, for another critic, mere arid formalism. So where we are, and where we are going, is genuinely complicated. 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, metamorphosing and doctoring images for our delectation. 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, and of what it may powerfully aspire to."

(Mark Le Fanu; POV; #4; Dec 1997) 
Then he lists a few example of contemporary (in 1997) filmmakers who favour time rather than virtuosity :
  • Days of Eclipse (1988/Sokurov/Soviet Union)
  • Freeze Die Come To Life (1989/Vitali Kanevsky/Soviet Union)
  • Belovy (1993/Victor Kossakovsky/Russia)
  • The time to love and the time to die (1985/HHH/Taiwan)
  • The River (1996/Tsai Ming-liang/Taiwan)
  • Through the Olive Trees (1994/Kiarostami/Iran)
  • Salaam Cinema (1995/Moshen Makmalbaf/Iran)
  • The White Balloon (1995/Jafar Panahi/Iran)
However these are not CCC (except The River), but his point is to note the use of "long takes" in recent films, and in this case, the "paced long takes" versus the "jittery long takes". And we know that there are many types of filmmaking aesthetics comprised within the umbrella technique of "paced long takes". A slow long take only becomes "contemplative" when the entire structure of the film is developped in the spirit of CCC, which means without resorting to dialogue-driven story, to plot-driven mise en scène, to classical staging, to musical illustration, to overt forefront drama.
Le Fanu only mentions Russia (or Ex-Soviet Union), Taiwan and Iran... Even in 1997, there were other parts of the world interested in a patient pacing outside of the commercial formula. We could add : Tarr Béla, Sharuna Bartas, Wong Kar Wai, Alain Cavalier, Claire Denis, Eli Suleiman, Kore-eda, Jim Jarmusch, Chantal Akerman, Manuel de Oliveira, Omirbayev, Aki Kaurismaki, James Benning, Parajanov, Joe Stelling, Govindan Aravindan, Wim Wenders... who were no minor contributors.


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