I love a good long take, don’t you? In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson envelops us in the music, style, and moves of the 1970’s roller disco scene with his great, 3-minute steadicam opener. Scorsese famously tracks Henry Hill as he sweeps girlfriend Karen off her feet through the halls of the Copacabana in the iconic long take from Goodfellas. In Oldboy, Park Chan-wook wows with a highly choreographed fight scene that lasts 4 minutes long uninterrupted. The great Robert Altman begins The Player with an 8 minute long tracking shot that weaves around a Hollywood studio where constant gossip and pitches can be heard around every corner. And Hitchcock, the virtuoso of cinema himself, made an entire movie out of long takes with Rope, tightly edited together to give off the impression the full feature is one continuous shot. So why bring up long takes now when they’ve been used so well in the past? Well, maybe because Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s remarkable space epic, is home to the most mind-bogglingly effective long take I’ve ever seen. Hyperbole? No way.
But before turning our sights to Cuaron’s critical and box office darling, I’ve got to tip my hat to other 2013 filmmakers for such strong uses of the long take this year.
In March, indie director Derek Cianfrance opened his highly ambitious The Place Beyond The Pines with a stunning 3-minute tracking shot. As the camera follows Ryan Gosling’s brooding Luke Glanton as he walks from his trailer to a motorcycle stunt cage at a carnival, the setting quickly becomes a fever dream as the camera hypnotically winds through the busy crowd and as lights hazily flicker out of focus in the background. Despite Luke’s intimidating demeanor, the carnival is clearly a safe haven for him, a place of income and stability. As the camera continues to follow Luke, the youthful, familial sounds of carnival games, rides, and children laughing can be heard, an excellent foreshadowing of the events to come (no spoilers here). Ominously, the revving of motorcycle engines grows louder and louder as the long take lingers on. Slowly, this fever dream image turns into an audio nightmare, a juxtaposition that begs to ask: Is Luke safe? Is something bad about to happen to this lonely, quite stuntman? In just 3-minutes Cianfrance already has you questioning the fate of his main character, and for a movie all about intertwining destinies this could not be more perfect. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Place Beyond The Pines but there’s no denying the power of the opener as a microcosm for many of the film’s giant themes.
This summer, James Wan’s The Conjuring was an unexpected box office blockbuster and, to me at least, the scariest movie to hit theaters in a long, long time. More than just cheap jump scares, Wan effectively creates an atmosphere of terror through the use of long takes, which agonizingly draw out many of the film’s horror moments to the point of severe dread and discomfort. When something freaky suddenly appears and the score shrieks, sure it’s scary, but after such drawn out takes of escalating fear in which the camera never cuts, the jump scares are not only earned but they’re also a much-needed release of tension. In the film’s standout sequence, Wan follows Lilly Taylor’s mother as she plays a game of hide-and-clap (essentially hide and go seek but the seeker wears a blindfold); after cutting around the house, Wan settles into a long take as the mother heads to, of course, the dark, spooky basement. As the floor creaks louder and random objects begin banging and falling, the camera never cuts to show us what’s taking place and instead focuses in on the mother, her quivering lip and horrified expression growing more anxious and dire as the seconds pass. Even when the mom turns and screams, the camera ferociously moves with her; it’s a nifty trick, one that turns The Conjuring into something we haven’t seen in quite some time – a horror movie where you’re constantly on a nerve-wracking edge.
To my delight, The Conjuring wasn’t the only summer film to make such effective use of the long take. Richard Linklater’s astonishing Before Midnight – still the best movie I’ve seen this year – opens with a 13-minute single shot that has the arduous task of catching us up to speed with Jesse and Celine after not seeing them for 9 years. The entirety of Linklater’s “Before Trilogy…” thrives off of long takes, which the director uses to bring his central couple’s conversations to life with a naturalness that’s so lifelike you’d swear it was improvised a la cinema verite. The opening of Midnight finds Jesse and Celine driving around the Greek countryside and the camera locks in on them in the front seat while their beautiful twin girls sleep in the back. As the scene progresses, we’re not only reminded of why we love these characters – Jesse’s lovable, smart-guy wiseass-ness is still intact, as is Celine’s graceful confidence and matter-of-the-fact honesty – but we also see the first glimpses of how time wears down an aging couple. It’s clear Jesse and Celine are very much still in love, but can love last over time? Can trust? Can honesty? Just like the camera that’s firmly positioned on them, Jesse and Celine are stuck. Like Pines, Midnight’s opening long take gets you questioning the movie’s larger themes and hints at conflicts that will play out in dramatic fashion over the course of the runtime. In other words, it’s perfection.
The same adjective applies to James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, a wonderful coming-of-age drama released in late August that’s also one of the best films this year. Like Linklater, Ponsoldt uses numerous long takes throughout the movie to give the conversations between Sutter (Miles Teller) and Amy (Shailene Woodley) an unshakeable authenticity. In one of the film’s most delightful moments, Ponsoldt uses a long take to capture the budding couple’s first kiss; starting at the beach where a party is taking place, the camera faces the couple and proceeds them as they make their way from the beach into the woods, the sight of people and noises of the party slowing fading away as the yellow hues of the sun and shades of green leaves create yet another fever dream of a moment. By never cutting, Ponsoldt is able to capture the fleeting nature of reality (represented by the beach) as Sutter and Amy walk into the only place they could share a first kiss: a natural, dream like forest made all the more sweet by the film’s charming, upbeat score. Out of any movie so far, this perfect moment is my favorite scene of the year and it’s all thanks to the long take.
So, all of this brings me to Gravity. My god, what a movie! James Hausman already sang the film’s praises with his 10/10 review and we already gushed over the movie’s brilliance in our Critical Reaction Podcast, so what’s left to say? Well, let’s talk about that jaw-dropping, mind-boggling opening that’s a 17-minute long take, one continuous camera movement that introduces us to our setting and characters and never cuts, even when flying debris sends the space ship into a nightmarish spin and leaves our astronauts tumbling and drifting into the abyss. What Cuaron achieves during this 17-minute take is groundbreaking because he’s literally able to transcend the idea of “filmmaking”. All the previous examples use long takes effectively but we still recognize them as acts of filmmaking; after all, these are movies and even though long-takes can make them feel more natural, they’re still unmistakably movies. And yet in Gravity this is not the case. As the camera moves with the same slow-motion weightlessness as the astronauts, Gravity doesn’t feel like a movie at all, it feels like an actual reality, as if we were really seeing footage of George Clooney and the incredible Sandra Bullock in character working on the Hubble telescope. It’s the most unique feeling I’ve ever felt at the movies; for the first time in my life the feeling of sitting in a chair in the theater washed away, I forgot that I was watching a film because it felt like I was in space. That’s what Cuaron does expertly right in the movie: he tricks you into not only believing you’re seeing space but that you’re actually feeling it too, hovering around in the numbing silence. The camerawork, combined with the astonishing use of CGI, sound, score, and 3D, creates a continuous flow that makes it seem like Cuaron flew to space and filmed this 90 minute adventure for real. Of course it’s all pretend, but when you’re watching Gravity (especially in IMAX) and the camera never stops moving in one long, trance-inducing motion, hypnotically drifting up and down and side to side, all sense of grounding and placement fly out the door. And once Cuaron gets you feeling like you’re in space, you’re stuck there with Bullock and Clooney, which turns the picture into an intense, heart-pounding roller coaster once disaster strikes.
It’s hard to put into words the exact feeling I’m talking about but if you’ve seen Gravity than I’m sure you know the sensory breakthrough I’m referring too. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? In the history of long takes, Cuaron’s Gravity opener is the king and that’s something to praise in itself. And guess what? The long takes should keep on coming thanks to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, where the long-take reliant director is sure to use the directorial trick to graphic and horrific extremes.
Did you see Gravity? What did you think of the opening long take? What is your favorite long take of all time? Sound off below.
Article by Zack Sharf