P:O.V. No.4 - On camera movement and filmic space

Metaphysics of the "long take": some post-Bazinian reflections

Mark Le Fanu


André Bazin died in 1958; he was only 40 years old. I don't know how his reputation subsists these days in the academic world of film studies. He was one of the most intellectual writers on film who ever put pen to paper, but he wrote before film studies became part of the university syllabus, and a large part of the pleasure of his writing derives from its generous urbanity: the sense that, besides its philosophical rigour, it belongs to a general educated discourse which takes on - in addition to the cinema - music, painting, theatre and literature.

So his work is always a pleasure to read: it is embedded in the concrete. It is tentative, provisional, undogmatic - open in the best sense to argument. And though he is a great master of theory, he is not always (in the tiresome, battening, modern way) "theoretical". And this applies whether he was writing reviews (he was surely one of the most appreciative reviewers ever) as well as to his longer, deeper, more meditated pieces of prose.

Is what he had to say about film right, however? Of course this is a complicated matter. His theory of reality (his "ontology") has come under attack, specifically from a modern wing of thinking - Marxist, psychoanalytical, semiological - which stresses the constructedness of the world, as opposed to some irreducible pre-ideological Being. I don't want here to go into the rights and wrongs of this intricate, at times theological argument. There are matters of principle, on both sides, that seem to go beyond logic - into the realm of belief, where we must be content, for the moment, to leave them. For the purposes of this essay I should say am more interested in his ordinary views on film history: in particular, his account of the significance of shot length in the development of film syntax from the silent to the sound era. His views on the matter are implicit almost everywhere in his writings, but put forward explicitly in two essays: "An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism", first published in 1948, and "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" (1955), both of which may conveniently be found in the two-volume translation of Bazin's miscellaneous writings What Is Cinema? (University of California Press, 1967).

The essays are different: they were written for different occasions. But the general argument is the same in both, and I think it can be reasonably easily paraphrased. In both cases, Bazin is interested in an observable increase in shot duration that he finds to be a defining mark of modern film syntax, whether the context is (as in one case) Italian Neo-Realism, or (as in the other) the probing mobile camerawork of contemporary American cinema, exemplified at the time Bazin was writing in the films of Orson Welles and William Wyler.

And he traces the development like this: the long take is a return to the origins of film-making (perhaps, too, to some primal authenticity). At first, there was no such thing as editing. The camera (immobile, of course, unless - as in the specific genre of "phantom rides" - the railway line functioned as a dolly) was set up on its tripod, while the dramatic scenes unfolded one after the other in a succession of single takes. Such visual complexity as there was, was provided by the camera's powerful depth of field, allowing different actions to take place in different sections or different planes of the frame simultaneously: - a variety that was to be at once abolished and reconstituted by the introduction of editing, which parcelled out the details into separate short cuts, simplifying the logic of the action at the same time as it clarified it, and brought it closer to the emotions of the audience.

Editing, notoriously, was Bazin's stumbling block: his "bête noire", if we allow ourselves a gallicism. He couldn't see its virtuosity except in terms of a diminishing rhetoric. Yet it was this rhetoric which was to constitute the glory of silent film in its heyday, from 1920 to the coming of sound. Editing brought in speed, rhythm, suspense; as equally, through the attention it gave to lighting and camera style, it encouraged a visual sophistication that in some sense has never been surpassed. Bazin was clear about this, and didn't underestimate it or sneer at it. What he found missing however - what he felt had been lost - was the sense of passionate contemplation (contemplation here being only another word for reality: an unmediated openness to the world) that had been a governing aspect - a spiritual aspect almost - of the finest examples of early primitive cinema.

Would the history of the art form really have been better off without the innovations of Griffith or Eisenstein? It is difficult to judge whether, in his heart, Bazin believed this - though perhaps he believed it a bit. (In general, one of the great things about his writing is that he is serious; that he doesn't attitudinise.) His historical allegiance at any event was to certain film-makers of the silent era - Stroheim and the early Renoir most obviously - who held out against the blandishments of montage; who continued to respect, as it were, the integrity of the long, carefully framed shot, and the teeming life "out there in the world" that was implied beyond it. The coming of sound is plainly a watershed: the central fact in any theory of cinema. Famously, it diminished the sovereignty of editing and for a time at least re-introduced - as part of the general vocabulary of film - the longer take: particularly in conversation scenes where in the early days (up until about 1930) it was an acceptable and convenient way of supporting sound continuity. Yet it wasn't long before methods were found of adopting the technology of sound cutting to the old speed of visual editing - opening the way for the rapid-fire musicals and screwball comedies that were such a feature of the decade: the era, as it were, of Capra and Hawks. This is the Classical American Cinema, so much talked about - except that the editing protocols involved were soon to become pretty much universal, observable as much in the French, English and German cinema of the epoch as in the product of ultra-professional Hollywood.

This, then, is where Bazin found himself: in the middle, or rather, at the end of a tradition: a great, complex, powerful tradition certainly, but on the other hand, certain new things were happening. In America towards the end of the 1930s, depth of field had been re-introduced into visual composition through the experiments of cameramen like Gregg Toland working with directors like Welles and Wyler; and with the new emphasis on spatial realism that this brought in its wake, there was a concurrent tendency to hold or stretch out the shot longer than before, either with a stationary camera, or utilising the new mobility brought about by technical developments in the crane and dolly. Over in Europe, meanwhile, there was the simultaneous revolution associated with neo-realism, and that too (though for very different reasons) played down the wilful, constructed, speedy mise-en-scène associated with montage, in favour of long shots and a documentary (or pseudo-documentary) plainness.

Some of the irritation against Bazin in subsequent commentary can be put down as the reaction to his tremendous self-confidence. His theory of film had a strongly teleological element, as if to say that all developments in film language had been building towards a culmination that only now, in the present time (i.e. the time Bazin was writing) found its Platonic or Hegelian perfection. Personally I rather like this optimism: it is part of the boldness and largeness of design that in general distinguish his writing. Yet even if you discount such ideological covering, there is a certain basic level on which his evolutionary argument surely holds water. Thus in American cinema, the fluency of camera which marked so strongly, in certain sequences, a film like Citizen Kane, did indeed become the general vernacular of the 1950s and 1960s, observable in the work of any number of directors from Preminger and Sirk, to Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Simultaneously, European art cinema, from Bazin's time onwards, entered into one of its greatest and austerest historical moments by virtue - in part at least - of the dreamy langour made possible by the long shot. Impossible, for example, to think of either Dreyer or Antonioni outside the rhythm and concentration afforded by its legitimacy. Dreyer (who had started out, after all, in the epoch of the silents and knew what he was talking about) actually had an aphorism for it: "Editing," he said "is the language of silent cinema; camera movement is the language of sound" And in films like Ordet (1954) and Gertrud (1964) he took this desideratum as far as it would go, and further. Still, just to mention Dreyer and directors of similar calibre (Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini) is immediately to be forced to put the matter in another light. 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 thrills" 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 the serious cinema-going experience. In that sense Bazin was wrong. Or was he? Can the matter be taken any further?

Virtuosity versus intensity

to the top of the page
A distinction in Bazin's thinking about the long take that might not be as explicit as it should be, lies between the long take that finds its essence in the properties of the moving camera, and another kind of long take that is stationary, or quasi-stationary. They are actually two separate things - in the service of two different metaphysics. Consider first of all the mobile camera shot. No less than with sound, there is a mystery surrounding how long it took for such shots to become part of the vernacular. Of course there were examples in primitive cinema (I have already mentioned the "phantom rides" of the late 1890s), but it seems not to be until the mid-1920s, thirty years after cinema's invention, that its possibilities are truly, definitively seized upon. Murnau's name is forever associated with the freeing up of the camera from the stationariness of the tripod (at just the same time, co-incidentally, that another genius, Eisenstein, was refining the rival virtuosity of montage). Yet once the technique had been pioneered there was, so to speak, no holding back. In the work of figures like Ophuls and Sternberg, as subsequently in Welles and Renoir, the moving camera becomes the very index of style itself in the cinema. As I attempted to indicate above, the innovations of Murnau and Ophuls - integrated now into the "natural" language of film-making - were handed down to subsequent generations of cineastes on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. Preminger, Sirk and Fuller were the names I mentioned, but I might equally have cited Minnelli, Kazan, Kubrick - or Bertolucci. Anywhere one looks, that is, in search of style or calligraphy, one finds the moving camera doubling for the film-maker's paintbrush or etching knife. And it is hard to imagine (genuinely hard, I think) that there was ever a time when such fluency was not available, so deeply do we associate movement - not just the movement of the image, but the movement of the apparatus - with the dreaming, semi-conscious, semi-sexual pleasures of the art form.

These things, I believe, have not diminished; they are as present as ever in cinema's contemporary incarnations. The invention of the steadicam in the 1970s (which provided hand-held camerawork with the previously monopolised fluency of the crane) only, in this context, gave further possibilities to an already-existing syntax. In general it could be said that there are two connected ways in which the sinewy, mobile long takes of the type I am describing are still, despite MTV, alive and kicking: a minor and a major modality, so to speak. The minor modality refers to what I would wish to call the everyday, invisible syntax of mainstream narrative film-making, where there is an observable tendency (embedded in the almost universal use of widescreen for thrillers and police films) not to cut before one has to, but rather to use the mobile, repositioning properties of the camera to follow the action to its conclusion. This aspect of style is perhaps not so much part of cinema's length as of its smoothness, and its presence is somewhat anonymous, in contrast to the feature I am coming to. At the other end of the scale therefore - and very much made to be noticed - is the one-off set piece, often opening or closing the film, that signals the director's virtuosity; the challenge here being to show what he or she can do (where he can go, through what objects he can pass) without a single cut within the space of, say, five and a half minutes. Altman at the beginning of The Player parodies this self-conscious prowess (while at the same time he makes sure he outdoes it): a pure virtuosity of movement which goes back in film history, as so many things seem to do, to Orson Welles, and the famous opening scene of Touch of Evil (though Hitchcock, with Rope, could be a previous avatar). Who are Welles's present day imitators? Brian de Palma of course (Mission: Impossible is a succession of such set pieces); or one thinks of Tim Burton (vertiginous opening sequence of Ed Wood). Others too: Kenneth Branagh; Alan Rudolph; Julien Temple (whose film maudit, Absolute Beginners, is specifically referred to by Altman). There are many, in short, and there will be more.

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. In fact of course this moment is mythical; or rather, if anything, it is a congeries of moments, not the issue of a single, recorded breakthrough. Different national cinemas went in for the deep focus long take in different ways. In France we see it in the beautiful naturalistic camerawork of directors operating around the First World War such as Perret, Feuillade or Antoine. Pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, meanwhile (we are in the process of discovering), was equally extraordinary for its gravity and slowness. And there is the splendid example of Scandinavia. No one who has been lucky enough to see the films of Victor Sjöström or Georg af Klerker projected on mint prints at the right speed (backed up, in optimal circumstances, by skilful piano playing) can fail to be impressed that it is the daring length of the take, combined with the silence itself, which in some way makes the intensity: a unique intensity in cinema history, that was broken (Bazin is right) by the fragmentation of the image introduced by editing and, in its wake, the proliferation of garrulous intertitles.

That early cinema, however, though it was dealt a blow by montage, never really vanished either. We know the legacy which Sjöström left to Bergman; and the continuity of seriousness - the hidden underground stream I have labelled "intensity" in short-hand - was to be reproduced in other film cultures, finding its culmination, in fact, in the mid-century art cinema that has already been alluded to above. Dreyer and Antonioni were the directors I singled out, but you could add to their number (from that heroic epoch of world cinema) artists of completely different origins. One thinks of the steady humanist gaze that Satyajit Ray directs onto village family and village rhythms in Pather Panchali (for example: the great extended sequence which follows the grandmother as she hobbles her way out of the compound). Or equally (and for me supremely) the experiments in real time - experiments in watching - undertaken throughout his career by Mizoguchi. Elegance and virtuosity in such film-makers are no longer the sole governing criteria: the camera is not so much the star, but rather a kind of self-effacing servant, biding its time, waiting for the miraculous thing to happen. What is that thing? And shall we witness it? It is the unplanned moment (always in some sense documentary, even in a fiction film) - the unique, beautiful crystalisation of experience that comes into being in certain rare moments of epiphany. Here, it could be argued (rather than in swirling baroque camera movements) is the essence of cinema; so that the sympathetic onlooker would not be excessively earnest to worry about its possible extinction.

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 non-mainstream (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? Tarkovsky was probably the greatest modern master of the long-take cinema I have been examining, but since he is no longer with us (he died in 1986) the subsidiary question is, who are his heirs? A confident, fully-informed and documented answer to this question would necessarily exempt the writer from exactly the strictures and constraints on viewing-power that have just been outlined above; and I cannot (alas) claim any such privilege. But like all critics I try to keep my eyes open. So in the remaining space of this essay I offer a few points de repère: tentatively, and with genuine diffidence, uncertain whether the examples put forward represent in the last analysis part of some larger totality, or the isolated fragments of a rout.

Thus, among the ruins left by the collapse of state-supported cinema in the old communist empire of Eastern and Central Europe, certain modern films that have struggled to the West and managed to find distribution do indeed carry reminiscences of Tarkovsky. I am thinking for example of the amazing avant-garde dynamism of Alexandr Sokurov's Days of Eclipse (1988), along with the works of more mainstream (but still highly personal) directors such as Vitali Kanevsky (Don't Move, Die, Resuscitate (1990)) or Victor Kossakovsky (The Belovs (1993)). These are not the work of disciples in any cultish or quasi-religious sense of the word, but the genuine intensity of their long takes - the director's willingness, each in his own way, to pause and to look deeply - is something of substance that all three men share with the director of Andrei Roublev.

Tarkovsky's explicit influence on his younger contemporaries is not at all the subject of this essay. Still, it is impossible not to discern vital affinities in the formation of certain film-makers coming from countries beginning, in important ways, to make their mark on the world stage: Taiwan, for example, and Iran. Thus from the former country let me mention the work of two artists: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Time to Love and the Time to Die (1985)) and Tsai Ming-Liang (The River (1996)); from the latter, the complete oeuvre up till now of Abbas Kiarostami, some six or seven films (Through the Olive Trees perhaps the work of his most seen in the West) - along with films of directors whom he has influenced: Mohsen Makmalbof (Salaam Cinema (1995) and Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon (1995)).

France, too, to come nearer home, demands to be mentioned: in artistic terms it is plainly the film-making country in the world that is most symbolically counterpoised to Hollywood's hegemony, in the sense that it offers an alternative mainstream based not simply on entertainment criteria, but on adult values of subtlety and seriousness. For one reason or another these traditions appear still to have an extraordinary vitality. (Or so at least it seems to an observer.) Within its total complex of aesthetic richness, there are assuredly too many trends to make absolute rules; yet in the works of contemporary masters like Maurice Pialat and Raymond Depardon, it seems to me that the Bazinian tradition of the long take, with its finely realistic and psychologically nuanced mise-en-scène, is still observably vibrant and living.


to the top of the page
All cinema in some way is mixed. Orson Welles, who was one of the greatest masters of the long take, was also one of the greatest masters of editing, as a late film like F for Fake clearly demonstrates. (Even in Citizen Kane, of course, there are virtuoso displays of editing skill.) Similarly with Mizoguchi: there can be few sequences in cinema that demonstrate a deeper understanding of the editor's art than the opening scene of Sansho the Bailiff, with its stunning succession of lap dissolves making memory come alive in front of our eyes. 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 con-templative 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.