Long Takes

This weekend, “The Raid 2” opens, in all its chop-socky glory, in limited release and will expand in the weeks to come. Continuing on from the original “The Raid,” though by all accounts (ours included) creating fight scenes even more fluid and flabbergasting than its predecessor (which was pretty much all one fight scene), it employs many takes of above-average length to give an extra edge of realism and dynamism to the old ultra-violence. This approach characterized Gareth Evans' shooting style last time out too and still feels like a refreshing counterpoint to the hyper-kinetic Michael Bay school of editing, which often feels like it’s hiding as much as it’s showing. 

But if the use of long takes in action sequences is still a relatively novel phenomenon, the cinematic history of the extended take in general is much longer and we thought we’d take this opportunity to choose our favorites. This turned out to be a timely endeavor, because as you may know, recently a debate has kicked off in the (God forgive me) blogosphere about whether or not critics and film commentators should talk and write more about the form and craftsmanship aspects of filmmaking than they (we) currently do. 

The Raid 2

Sparked off by a well-written, interesting and articulate post by Matt Zoller Seitz over on RogerEbert.com with which we disagree so violently we may have dislocated something, the debate actually has some bearing on this feature: it is, after all, about a group of films that are sharing column space based on formal rather than thematic or narrative similarity. And yet, for us, that’s exactly the paradox that hovers round the fringe of this list: contrary to the kind of analysis after which Seitz seems to hanker (echoing Andrew Sarris, among others), our own impulses are always toward the description of the effect of a particular technique on one’s understanding of the story or mood, rather than on the technique itself. So where Seitz states “Films... are made by filmmakers. Write about the filmmaking” we’d have to counter with “yes, but films are made for viewers. Write for the viewer.” How much do any of us, as viewers, want to know how the sausage is made, and how much do we just want to know, in the most literate and insightful way possible, that it’s going to taste delicious?

Yes, we digress, but this was all on our minds when we assembled our list of long takes, because as much as we dislike the fetishization of form over content, in that debate, the long take may well be ground zero, as it’s one instance of formal experimentation that is often so ostentatious that even the casual viewer, or the most determinedly story-oriented critic, can and does pick up on it. Those cases may make for impressive moments, but ultimately, they can also break a film’s spell and so, while we’ve of necessity included a few, mostly we’re heavily weighing our picks toward extended takes that have a definite narrative purpose outside of “look at me! I haven’t used a cut in minutes!” Why? Because even here, in a feature about a formal convention, we’d rather talk about story than style. We’re incorrigible. 

20. "Panic Room" (Fincher, 2002) DP: Darius Khondji, Conrad Hall
So let's start by totally breaking the augment-the-storytelling rule with this almost insultingly show-offy, CG establishing shot floats impossibly through banisters, coffee pot handles, into and out of keyholes and then through the ceiling. The technical virtuosity here is inarguable, and warranted it a spot on this list alone, but we’d argue it’s also an example of putting form before content to a detrimental degree. The house feels porous, the geography malleable, when it should be confining and contained, and the claustrophobia of the premise is undercut by the sense, established early, that there is someone else already in the house—the inquisitive, omnipotent camera. 

19. "Werckmeister Harmonies" (2000) Director: Bela Tarr DP: Patrick de Ranter

There are some directors for whom long takes are not so much a tool in their arsenal as a way of life, and not-for-everyone Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr can definitely be counted among those. Indeed the 145-min Harmonies' is a series of just 39 languid shots (the average film has 5000-ish cuts), but this particular scene does stand out for its complex staging and for its creepy absence of dialogue as the invading thugs lay waste to a hospital with almost lobotomized violence. And then the weird reverie culminates in an oddly beautiful tableau as they come across an old man, naked as a martyr, and shame, one of the themes of the film, overcomes them. 

18. "Atonement" (2007) Director: Joe Wright DP: Seamus McGarvey

Another instance of a long take that is rather self-conscious in its placement in the middle of film that otherwise doesn't employ this same style, this epic shot from "Atonement" may be atypical, but the complexity of its choreography alone, as well as its ambition (to capture the chaos and hope and tragedy of Dunkirk) can't be faulted. But there's also something artificial about it, almost theatrical (though the stage is vast) that gives it a heightened, hyperreal feeling—every moment is so packed with incident and detail that, like a couple of other instances on this list, it's a shot that could almost stand alone outside of the film which it ostensibly serves.

17. "Hard Boiled" (1992) Director: John Woo DP: Wang Wing-Hang

With "The Raid" movies and the films of Tony Jaa, among others, gaining recognition for their graceful, often long-take approach to action, we should remember that there was a time when the word "balletic" was reserved as a descriptor for action scenes from the original ballet master, John Woo. "Hard Boiled," his last Hong Kong film before decamping to Hollywood (to diminishing returns, we'd say), is one of his best not only gifting us that iconic image of Chow Yun-Fat with a baby in one arm and a shotgun in the other, but also this bravura 2m40s shootout (which includes a 20 sec elevator conversation during which the crew reset the entire set).

16. "The Earrings of Madame de..." (1953) Director: Max Ophüls  DP: Christian Matras

An avowed influence on Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, and pretty much any other filmmaker who's ever moved their camera, Ophüls' more famous, and longer, long take is the opening to "La Ronde," but this one just feels more special to us. Here, combining movement with mise-en-scene and framing, the shot serves the story absolutely by introducing a character and a milieu so succinctly. But then, this whole list could be dedicated to Ophuls, whose style even caused James Mason to write a poem: 

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.