In the cinema, the long take is an instrument of multifaceted – sometimes paradoxical – power. In a film like Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio de Sica, 1948) or Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014), the take produces a certain sort of realism. It feels as though we have been granted a special – privileged, perhaps – opportunity to observe the tribulations of genuine, working-class people living in worlds plagued by coldness and isolation. In others, such as Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog, 1972), Birdman (Alejandro Iñárritu, 2014) or Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967), the effect of the long take is discernibly different. Instead of generating, and thereby subsuming itself into, a cinematic style of realism, the long take here draws attention to itself; pointing towards the artifice of performance and artistic creation. And there are plenty of more examples that exemplify the flexible workings of the take. In modernist films such as the ones made by Luchino Visconti, Belá Tarr or even Michael Snow, the long take works as a source of medium specificity,1 of showing spectators that the cinema is its own distinct apparatus. In musical and theatrical films, by contrast, the long take arguably has a conflicting function: to reveal the cinema’s kinship with other forms of art. The long take in a film depicting one of Arthur Miller’s or Eugene O’Neill’s plays, in all probability, attempts to recreate the dramatic landscapes in which they were originally featured, revealing the material similarities the cinema shares with theatre, for instance.
The Long Take: Critical Approaches (hereafter The Long Take), a book edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, is up to the task of cataloguing and explicating the nature of the long take. It is a collection of 14 essays, with two introductory chapters that discuss the inception of the long take discourse in film studies, the technological advancements that have made it possible, as well as the historical theoretical underpinnings of the take. As the title indicates, the essays themselves take the form of case studies. This means that descriptions and expositions of particular films come first, followed by insights into how and why the long take can be used to achieve cinematic effects, uncover the cinema’s essence, and convey truths about the real world.
The case study structure is relatively well-suited to the material. There are few theoretical shortcomings that are entailed by the editors choosing this way of structuring the book. Although the case study can sometimes imprison theory and ideas within specific films or contexts, this is largely – and intelligently – avoided by the book’s authors. Their insights about the long take inevitably stem from particular films, scenes, images; but each author sufficiently deals with the technique’s implications for the cinema in general. Thus, for the most part, the case study form thoroughly surveys the various purposes and dimensions of the long take itself, perhaps in a way that a book of expository writing could not. A book unified around the theory of the long take might have lamentably been much shorter than this 263-page text. More importantly, the case studies enliven that which the authors are exploring. The book is not bogged down in arcane, esoteric theory, but mostly brought to life through the use of well-detailed examples of films: Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936) Mizoguchi’s Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna (Five Women Around Utamaro, 1946), and Minnelli’s Bells Are Ringing (1960), to name just a few.
In the introduction, a few cursory points are set out. It was a considered move for the editors to do this, for more than a few eyebrows might have been raised without their warnings. Gibbs and Pye write in the first few pages that the book will not feature essays about documentary cinema and silent film (p. 5). Indeed, the quality of the writing is not disadvantaged by this decision, however, the limitation of the book’s scope – it can be tenably said – reduces its durability as a film study. That is to say the book would be more authoritative, more comprehensive, had it included essays on these important cinematic styles. Though it must be conceded that an essay on silent cinema, given its fundamentally different nature from sound film, would have proven trying; for it may have been theoretically challenging and difficult to integrate into the book’s overall structure. Moreover, the editors give another disclaimer: that the book will not discuss the works of formative and influential filmmakers of the long take, including Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Agnès Varda, and Michelangelo Antonioni (p. 6). There is a case to be made that so much has been written on these filmmakers use of the long take, that it would be pure indulgence to further add to this canon of writing. Though, my preferred view is that to leave out the works of Welles and his contemporaries was a mistake. A book on and about the long take, indeed, the first book in the English language on the subject (p. 5), should encompass essays about those who shaped it and were its best exponents. Anything less constitutes a rather undesirable omission.
Fortunately, one is not so preoccupied with these conscious exclusions whilst reading the text. The essays are so multi-varied and cover so much ground that the previously-discussed shortcomings can be rather comfortably overlooked. Of course, the book has its fair share of essays on classical Hollywood cinema, but it also includes works of “slow cinema”, films exhibited in museums, and even an essay on the televisual long take. This engagement with different kinds of cinema opens up and explores the complexity of long take practice, together forming an essayistic tapestry on the nature, function and effect of the long take in the cinema. For instance, Catherine Fowler’s essay, “The Artist’s Long Take as Passage in Sharon Lockhart’s Installation Lunch Break (2008)”, sheds light on the contextual scenarios in which the long take might be presented – namely in a museum or art gallery. She writes:
We find that one of the key assumptions that has haunted critical engagement with cinematic long takes no longer persists: the time of the long take and the viewer’s time may not coincide … artists’ long takes build upon the notion of a spatial passage as a walkway, corridor, or room (p. 201).
The one essay on the use of the long take in television, moreover, is a welcome inclusion. For much too long the study of television has been neglected2 by screen scholars, languishing even, in favour of cinematic analysis. The essay is an indication of the burgeoning status of television studies, and its placement as the final essay seems significant: signalling, perhaps, the growing seriousness with which television should be approached, as well as the possibility of various mediums engaging, and meaningfully employing, the long take. Of course, the essay’s value stems beyond mere symbolism. It tackles the stylistic properties of the long take excellently, showing how the take itself, combined with planning and rehearsal and staging – or a lack thereof – can evince particular modes of creative expression. With True Detective (2014-2015, 2019), the television show’s immaculately timed, constructed and suspenseful long take of anti-hero detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) trying to escape a biker’s gang compound – which critic Chris Ryan remarked as “the night TV changed”3 – represents a recognisable conformity with the detective/crime genre, while simultaneously presenting itself as a pre-arranged, conceptualised work of dramatic television. The long take in Looking (2014) has a contrary effect: to revel in the awkward, spontaneous bursts of passion and the spasms of heartbreak that occurs between beaus. The long take, here, hides itself in plain sight, by establishing, and maintaining, an aesthetic of realism, of the messy encounters that punctuate otherwise ordinary lives.
It would stand as no surprise that much of this book – even the chapters dealing with installation art, experimental film and television – is inspired by the foundational works of French film theorist André Bazin. Although he frequently wrote about the plan-séquence, a concept with much in common with the long take, Bazin never explicitly wrote on the long take itself (Gibbs and Pye write in the introduction that Bazin’s French terminological arsenal had “no direct equivalent” to the long take (p. 3) – which garnered critical popularity some time after Bazin’s death). Nevertheless, his books and essays and articles are inextricably bound up with contemporary discussions of long take practice. Specifically, it is his fascination and preoccupation with cinema as realism4 that has informed and inflected much discourse about the long take, for the durational experience it confers is quite akin to real life, as well as typically freeing the image from the tyranny of artificial meanings seen through montage, allowing the spectator to home in on the various visual details on the screen. In the opening chapter, Gibbs and Pye almost immediately defer to Bazin’s writings to frame the structure of the text, positioning him as a kind of founding father of long take analysis. “As several chapters in this book testify, however, while long take practices and accompanying scholarship have become enormously varied, Bazin has remained a remarkably pervasive presence,” they write (p. 4). The many thorough references to Bazin’s work throughout the text do not gather a repetitive character. They feel necessary: to critically situate the essays and to draw upon weighty and time-tested film theory. The authors never invoke Bazin’s great name indulgently; it is always for the purpose of advancing their theses and illuminating a film or its form.
In a book of essays written by different authors on a relatively small subject matter, there is a risk that if the editors are not steadfastly vigilant, then much overlap in content and ideas will follow. The Long Take does not fall victim to this. The essays inevitably have points of similarity, which occur naturally as a result of covering the same topic. However, credit must be given to Gibbs and Pye for their compilation skills, and the obvious effort they invested in conferring with the writers and seeing that process out. They have done good work here, splicing together the disparate frames, whether of exceedingly long duration or not, to make a coherent whole – like any meticulous film or book editor. Even though the book is structured by way of the film’s year of release, the editors have not let this blindly and arbitrarily dictate the course and flow of it. There remains a meaningful design within the book’s structure, revealing the changing and sometimes historically-contingent use of the long take. The book begins with the works of Frenchman Jean Renoir, before moving to Otto Preminger’s cinema of melodrama, then to Kenji Mizoguchi, Roberto Rossellini’s television films, Benning’s experimental 13 Lakes (2004), and concluding, as I remarked above, with an essay on True Detective and Looking. The feelings of growth, transmutation, and evolution is palpable on the pages.
We should not, however, expect The Long Take to resolve all of the academic controversies that surround the long take. First and foremost, the book does not provide a concrete definition of what this take is. For Gibbs and Pye, the long take “is a concept – and a phenomenon – that is inherently relative: longer than the for shot length, longer than we are used to” (p. 6). For this reason they fail to provide a quantitative assessment of what might constitute a long take. Some readers may, reasonably, want a more concrete conceptualisation, but the authors have rightly exercised some academic dispassion; for it would seem long takes are contingent upon the prevailing cinematic climate within which they are deployed. Nevertheless, Steve Neale’s second introduction informs Gibbs and Pye’s characterisation by enumerating the varying average shot lengths (ASLs) that have reigned throughout history, and identify some filmmakers who, at particular historical moments, exemplified the long take in their films. Neale writes that in the mid-1930s Hollywood had “ASLs of approximately 9 seconds … and ASLs in continental Europe were maintained at around 12 to 13 seconds” (p. 32). George Cukor and John Stahl are mentioned as two exceptions to this rule. Of course, the discrete case studies are particular manifestations of the long take. Consequently, there is no real uncertainty that stems from Gibbs and Pye’s remarks. We can instead inductively glean from the book what is and is not a long take, without reference to a rigid, perhaps misleading, definition.
Nor do the authors universally praise the use of the long take. In the opening introduction, they assert that “we make no claim for the value or even interest of extended duration in itself, but only for its specific uses in specific contexts” (p. 5). This is a necessary caveat. Some films and other artworks – probably too many – regrettably resort to the long take in the belief that it immediately and inevitably confers artistic or philosophical merit upon the work. Of course, this is not the case. Such displays of it ring of self-indulgence and pretension; a mishandling of the craft of filmmaking and creation. Rather, Gibbs and Pye suggest their preoccupation with the long take is conditional upon it being usefully showing us something about the world – whether about the world of a film, its characters, the parameters of the cinema; politics, culture, society; or human experience itself. Presumably, the entries that follow all appeal to Gibbs and Pye. And so they should.
A frequency in a book like this is an inconsistency of quality in the essays. It is not uncommon that some entries will prove well-researched, insightful, and genuinely captivating to read; whereas others are distinctly of a lower calibre: quickly compiled, scant on detail, that proceed at a plodding pace. The essays in The Long Take are all accomplished pieces of scholarship. None are utterly unconvincing in their framing and understanding of the long take, albeit there is some variability in terms of their quality. The essays that most directly and sustainedly engage with particular long takes in the films they discuss tend to be the more successful entries. Joe McElhaney’s essay on Minnelli’s Bells Are Ringing and Pye’s on Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange provide just two examples. Other essays, perhaps, discuss the long take in a wider context of cinematic creation, sometimes merely showing how the long take itself contributes to a sentiment or style. But these essays can sideline the importance of the long take, instead of foregrounding it. In a book on, about, and of the long take, it seems crucial that this technique be the foremost subject of each essay, as it is in McElhaney and Pye’s.
Over many years, the long take has maintained an important place for itself within the cinematic arsenal. That specific academic inquiry into the practice only really began to blossom in the 1970s is a rather great surprise (p. 1). What is even more of a surprise, though, is that The Long Take is the first English-language book on this subject. At the very least, therefore, The Long Take can be viewed as a corrective, as a book that has filled a gaping hole in film studies. But this, in and of itself, is a reductive account. As film continues to change and develop, especially in the digital era, books accompanying these changes grow in importance. As the digital era in particular has changed the productional capacities of the long take, this text should serve as a site and reference point for the evolution of the long take, its many functions, and the myriad of styles it can generate. Amidst this time of turbulent upheaval, there is little doubt that the long take will remain in the cinematic and visual lexicon.
John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.) The Long Take: Critical Approaches (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).
- Noël Carroll, “The Specificity of Media in the Arts”, The Journal of Aesthetic Education 19.4 (1985): p. 9 ↩
- See Karen Lury, “Introduction: situating television studies”, Screen 57.2 (2016): pp.119-123 ↩
- Chris Ryan, “The Raid”, Grantland, 23 December 2014, http://grantland.com/features/true-detective-tracking-shot-fukanaga-what-we-saw/ ↩
- See André Bazin, What is Cinema? Volume 1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005) ↩