Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Taking the Long View

It's a short film, Innocence. Five minutes tops. I'm in about ten scenes, each of which lasts no more than a minute. So you'd think you could shoot it in a few hours. Well, no . . .

Casablanca - love, war and intrigue; the whole human condition 
Do you remember the films of the forties and fifties? Have you heard of Theo Angelopoulos? If you have, you'll know where this piece is going. I'm a fan of the long take - long in both distance and time. I want the film camera to step back, to show the whole scene, not just the close-up of someone's face, and to linger on that view, not snap away after a few seconds. It's about focus and depth, not superficiality. If your attention is continually being jerked from one detail to another - his face, her face, his face, the wall behind them, and so on, your mind can never settle. It can't be drawn in. You don't become part of the film. You're an observer, not a participant. An observer with the attention span of a goldfish. An observer who cannot be trusted to follow the story without continually being lured back into the story with this detail or that.

Angelopoulos was the master of the long shot. The camera lingers, minute after minute. You cannot help but see everything - the characters, their situation, the world they live in, the stones in the wall behind them, the seagulls flying past. You are not watching Greece; you are in Greece; you are Greek. Angelopoulos best known film, The Travelling Players (Ο Θίασος, 1975) contains perhaps the most breathtaking shot I have ever seen*. In a take that seems to last forever, you are in a small town, looking down a road, the camera pans slowly, slowly, to the left, to look up a side street, then pans slowly back, and the road you first saw is festooned with Nazi flags and banners as a cortège of German soldiers drives through. There is a moment of shock at the realisation that a decade has passed - have we gone forwards or backwards in time? - and as we absorb the information, we remember that the past is always present in the memories of the living.

Angelopoulos is an extreme example, but the classic Hollywood films got it about right. Takes that last two or three minutes rather than two or three seconds give the viewer a more profound experience, and give the film greater authority than the kaleidoscope of images that most directors rely on today. They're also much easier to film and provide greater continuity. When you have only one perspective, you can finish the scene in a day; you don't need several days to take the same scene from different angles. You also create a much more realistic scene. I'm bored with films set in diners where the beer in a mug or the burger on the plate gets bigger and smaller and bigger again as we cut to and fro between characters, or with street scenes where car after car passes behind one character's head and then disappears before the other character can speak. Give me a director who bucks the trend of short takes and who credits the audience with the intelligence and stamina to deal with, to want, longer, real, meaningful takes.

Except... Except when the short take itself is meaningful. In Innocence it's a means of deliberately unsettling the audience. We watch this man (me) furtively because he is behaving furtively. Who is he? What is he doing? There is an answer to those questions, although I won't give it here. So I welcome the short take in this particular instance, and hope that their next film will buck the trend and they will take a much longer view...

* Trust not my memory, which may be false in detail, but see the film for yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment