A Shot in the Dark

The more movies you see, the deeper into the aesthetic issues of cinematic eloquence you plunge, the more likely you are to come around to see the long shot – tracking or otherwise – as a kind of ur-cinema, a fundamental, uniquely filmic and matchlessly expressive and experiential movie manifestation no cataract of fast cuts, Avid foofaraw, montage theories and digital pyrotechnics can encroach upon. Casual filmgoers rarely understand when the serious filmhead waxes rhapsodic about a long traveling shot – the assumption is that our awe is derived from noting the degree of difficulty and the production skill employed, two matters which most movie viewers correctly assume are beside the point of their viewing experience. Of course, the assumption makes an ass and an umption out of everyone; note the calisthenics though we may, what we are truly transfixed by is the quintessentially cinematic experience of time, space, action, depth, drama and contemplation that occurs naturally like alcohol in a long shot’s fermentative process. Long shots can evoke and present an entire four-dimensional world, not just a commanded, puzzle-piece fraction of it. This is not a new sense of things, God knows, but given the way most Hollywood films are made today, it’s still an aesthetic idea that has yet to bust out into the popular consciousness.

Maybe we should initiate, you and I, a cinephiles’ Long Take Hall of Fame – we all have our favorites, beyond the celebrated examples (Murnau’s marsh walk in Sunrise, Welles’ bordertown swoon in Touch of Evil, Kalatosov’s street funeral in I Am Cuba, Godard’s traffic jam in Week End, Antonioni’s summary courtyard circle in The Passenger, Scorsese’s Copacabana hustle in GoodFellas, Sokurov’s Winter Palace tour in Russian Ark, etc.). Any consideration would land soon enough before the busts of Mizoguchi, Jancso, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and Tarr, but what about the long shots we’ve forgotten about, or never heard praised? How about the astonishing seven-minute climactic motel-room faceoff between a concussioned Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives (1948)? The Balint Kenyeres one-shot short Before Dawn (2005)? The diner scene in Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973)? The ultimate patient shot, climaxing with a peacock finally unfolding its tail for the camera, in Gu Changwei’s Peacock (2005)?

Let’s say this: no digital suturing allowed. I’ll be happy to quote-post comments, so show your passion.







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  • 8/12/2007 5:36 PM girish wrote:
    Michael, please pardon the gauche self-linking, but you just reminded me that I did a">http://www.girishshambu.com/blog/2006/07/long-take.html">a post on this last summer and lots of folks chimed in with their favorites.
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    1. 8/12/2007 7:26 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      Ah, the sweet wolf-song of serious mavens at play in the fields of analysis.  Yes, there're plenty of great examples here; there seems to be a book waiting to be written about this, isn't there?, a breakdown of why these shots bewitch us so...

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  • 8/12/2007 9:38 PM Jonathan Lapper wrote:
    Girish, the link was broken due to an html mess-up. Here it is again: http://www.girishshambu.com/blog/2006/07/long-take.html Hope that one worked.

    Anyway, after reading Michael's comments above and the numerous comments on girish's post of last year I feel that all my choices have already been taken. I saw a mention of "Short Cuts" on girish's post but I don't believe I saw any mention of "The Player" which humorously mocks the very concept of the long shot while doing it. The two characters in the long shot are in fact discussing the long shot and mention Welles shot in "Touch of Evil".

    I also mentioned the dynamite planting scene in "Touch of Evil" in my last comment on "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" so I've got little left. Well then, let's scrape bottom shall we. The low, low budget filmmakers of the fifties and sixties revelled in the long shot because they couldn't afford numerous camera set-ups. Among my favorite would be Eros' explanation of Solaranite in "Plan Nine from Outer Space." That's a long shot that could have been a helluva lot shorter.

    And Roger Corman had multiple long shots through most of his films, although most were along the lines of two or three minutes not seven or eight.

    And finally I like the omelet preparation scene at the end of "Big Night." Because we see such a simple, everyday event of life (making a breakfast) happen in its entirety it elevates the final moments of the film for me, giving it a sense of reality that approaches the ideas of "Pure Cinema" that Bazin discussed (as elaborated on by Girish in his piece).

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  • 8/12/2007 10:01 PM Michael Dempsey wrote:
    A question and two nominations:

    Would it be better to say "lengthy shot" instead of "long shot?"

    The lengthy craning-tracking-panning shot in "The Molly Maguires" (directed by Martin Ritt, photographed by James Wong Howe) along elaborate, rickety-looking coal mining structures that culminates with a slow movement toward the dark maw of a subterranean pit, from which an explosion at last erupts. This image is brilliant and thrilling for how it generates epic resonance as well as suspense.

    The shot in "Barry Lyndon" (directed by Stanley Kubrick, photographed by John Alcott) that begins by tracking along an ornate porch in a Marienbad-like 18th Century manor past Barry (Ryan O'Neal), who is sure that he has lost all his illusions about love at this point. As the film's narrator (Michael Hordern) heralds the arrival of Barry's future wife (Marisa Berenson), slowly escorting her wheelchair-bound husband and her young son, and then details her lineage as well as her wealth, the still-moving camera gradually closes in on the group across an ornate lawn, shifting from long to medium shot, and follows the sad woman, the sick old man, and the devoted boy; in the meantime, the narrator intones (note the resonance that he imparts to the phrase "the Countess of Lyndon"). The camera's seemingly inexorable movements and focal changes in this image and how everything interacts with the stark dryness of the narrator's voice and words generate the most concise and emotional visualization of Fate that I have ever encountered.
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  • 8/13/2007 11:46 AM Ernesto Diezmartinez wrote:
    Not a long shot but some lenghty shots in the begining of The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), when Gregory Peck is in the saloon talking to Karl Malden. A small film, a neglected filmmaker, and a famous moustache...
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  • 8/13/2007 6:03 PM girish wrote:
    Jonathan, thanks much for correcting my botched linking job.

    "a breakdown of why these shots bewitch us so..."

    A great question, and a toughie.
    A personal, idiosyncratic reason that will likely sound kooky to everyone but me: Much as I love the dazzlement of film artifice (conjured in a million ways), there's nothing I crave more than confirming that not only are films 'about reality', they are an intensification of that reality in that they feel more concentrated and affecting than the reality that surrounds me everyday. Long takes facilitate that intensification for me; quick cuts (or even 'seamless' cuts as in classical film grammar) seem to wrench me out of that screen-reality before it has had a chance to build and strengthen (i.e. intensify).

    As for my most recent favorite in the long take department, let me nominate the four-and-a-half minute shot in Preminger's Fallen Angel with the cops and witnesses manuevering around in Linda Darnell's cramped apartment, all done without shot/reverse shot cutting.
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  • 8/13/2007 8:19 PM tb wrote:
    The last shot of Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand" is both one of my favorite long shots and one of my favorite endings to a movie ever. And I also heartily endorse that "Molly Maguires" shot cited by Michael Dempsey.
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  • 8/13/2007 8:55 PM Chet Mellema wrote:
    Two Michael Hanake shots immediately come to mind. The first is the unforgettable scene in Funny Games when the four leads are in the living room area of the cabin when the husband is shot and the violence is taken up a notch. Hanake's refusal to turn away from the actors is literally suffocating. The second is the penultimate shot in Cache when we witness the young Majid being taken away in the car...the omnipresent guilt we've felt throughout the film to that point is finally realized.
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  • 8/13/2007 11:34 PM Bob Turnbull wrote:
    I'm a sucker for long tracking shots, in particular when they really pull you into the event and make you feel as if you were actually along for the ride. Daily">http://dailyfilmdose.blogspot.com/2007/05/long-take.html">Daily Film Dose had a fantastic post about this a few months ago which included a number of YouTube clips. It was my first experience with Bela Tarr and I finally watched "Werckmeister Harmonies" a few days ago. I'm still trying to sort it out, but it was quite amazing.

    One long take that was mentioned in the Daily Film Dose post was a lengthy fight scene in "The Protector" (a recent action movie starring Tony Jaa from "Ong-Bak"). It's not a particularly good film, but the 4 minute sequence following him up the spiral staircase is something to behold (the clip is included in the above mentioned post).

    Others not mentioned here or in the comments from girish's post:

    - Roy Andersson's "Songs From The Second Floor". Every scene is a static lengthy single take. The camera actually does move once in the film, but otherwise it's locked down.

    - "Nine Lives" by Rodrigo Garcia. Each of the 9 stories about different women (which do actually intersect) is a single take.

    - I seem to remember there was a scene in Samuel Fuller's "Forty Guns" which tracked characters from an upstairs room all the way outside and up the street and then followed them back. It must've been a good 3-4 minutes.

    - Andy Warhol's "Empire" B-)
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  • 8/14/2007 12:17 AM Davis wrote:
    don't you mean "long take" not "long shot"? i thought a long shot was the opposite of a close-up, so to speak.
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    1. 8/14/2007 9:58 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      The terminology has always been loose, like the definitions -- I hope nobody's confused. 
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  • 8/14/2007 12:28 AM David Lowery wrote:
    Always a worthy topic! I'm obsessed with long takes, particularly in the recent Pan Asian stylings of Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

    I wrote a short essay on this particular cinematic trope for the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon back in January. The piece, entitled 'A Child's History Of Long Takes, can be read here.
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  • 8/14/2007 7:14 AM Paul Duane wrote:
    I'll go for a favourite moment from a half-brilliant movie, Preston Sturges' 'The Sin of Harold Diddlebock'. In the opening scene, Diddlebock is summarily dismissed from the clerk's job he's occupied for twenty years, and before he leaves the office, he takes the luminous Frances Ramsden (the future Mrs Sturges) aside to tell her, very circuitously, that he loves her - but as he's loved and lost each of her many, many sisters in the same office over the previous two decades, this doesn't come as a great surprise to her. It's a gloriously written scene, and Sturges' decision to let it play as a lengthy 2-shot, cutting only to a slightly tighter 2-shot towards the end, speaks of a confidence in words, actors and acting, that I would love to see more of in Hollywood comedy.
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  • 8/14/2007 12:44 PM John wrote:
    The final shot of L. Martel's HOLY GIRL probably lasts no longer than 45 seconds, but its serene observation of its two adolescent girls reestablishing harmony makes for one of the gentlest endings I've ever seen.
    And the bravura closing shot in Kenneth Branagh's MUCH ADO..., the camera joining a bridal dance that finally encompassess several acres, makes his inactivity since HAMLET feel all the sadder.
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  • 8/14/2007 1:24 PM Robert Keser wrote:
    Anyone alive to the pure interplay of time, space and movement must treasure Kiarostami’s sublime long take (in FIVE) of ducks parading in orderly single file across the screen from left to right, until an offscreen disturbance changes everything, making the column pivot and march back in the reverse direction but with renewed urgency, bringing a curiously transcendent closure to the sequence.

    For traveling shots, there’s IN HARM’S WAY with Preminger’s thrillingly dynamic track alongside John Wayne and Burgess Meredith as they disembark at a pier, stride across the terrain, enter a quonset hut headquarters, and then emerge back into daylight again, all with nary a pause nor a camera adjustment nor so much as a single cut.
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  • 8/14/2007 2:08 PM Brandon Harris wrote:
    Although I'm hard pressed to name an all time favorite, the most effecting long take I've seen recently is the Saddam Hussein execution. In the realm of cinema, two 360 pans come to mind - a stunning post black revolutionary encampment shot in Godard's Rolling Stones experiemental doc "Sympathy For The Devil" and the central shot in Reygadas' "Battle In Heaven".
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  • 8/14/2007 3:02 PM Mark Asch wrote:
    The drinking game in Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town remake is beautifully, subtly lit, drifts gracefully, and is very attentive to the continually shifting relationships between the characters involved.

    It was shot, unsurprisingly, by Mark Li Ping-bing, which seems as good cause as any for me to mention my surprise that nobody has yet invoked Hou -- it'd be difficult to find a shot in Flowers of Shanghai, Millennium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere, or Three Times that doesn't fit the bill. (I'll take the pool scenes from A Time for Love.)

    Staying in that stylistic family tree, out of all Jia Zhangke's long takes, I'm partial to the opening shot of The World ("Does anybody have a band-aid?").

    How about the Short Long Take, which is a kind of brief single-take scene I've just invented as a category so that I can bring into this discussion the thirty or so-second scene in Rebels of the Neon God in which Lee Kang-Sheng rollerskates to, sweartogod, New Edition?

    Anyway. If I was a better critic, I'd try to dig up Robin Wood's extraordinarily deep close read of Ingrid Bergman's crescendoing expository monologue in Under Capricorn, which is very good about the aesthetic, narrative and (inevitably given the author) sociopolitical implications of the framing, blocking, etc., which might be an interesting place to go once we're awakened from our rapture...
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  • 8/14/2007 3:09 PM Peter Nellhaus wrote:
    There is an amazing long, travelling shot in the film "Who's Camus Anyhow". Also, I recently saw Johnny To's "Breaking News" which has an amazing seven minute shot that goes back and forth, up and around.
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  • 8/14/2007 5:35 PM John M wrote:
    Don't wanna get too picky, or quash the fun, but maybe it would help to clarify terminology here--what started as a thread about sequence (or traveling, or tracking) shots seems to have grown into a name-drop of any director who prefers master takes, long takes, or wide framing.

    I always took "long shot" to be more or less synonymous with "wide shot" (a confusion in itself, as lens-wise wide is the opposite of long), which is often (but not accurately) subbed in for "master shot." But master shots, more often than not, as the term implies, serve as just one comprehensive master of a handful of options for the director and editor--in classical terms, you can take the whole master, or break it up rhythmically or spacially with medium singles, close-ups, inserts, moves, etc. A matter of preference, based on dramatic beats and such.

    My hunch is that only a few directors--and most are mentioned here--shoot ONLY single-setup master takes with no coverage. (Meaning the entire scene is covered from one angle, with no options, not even wide ones.) Edward Yang immediately comes to mind, maybe because I watched Yi Yi last night. I doubt many directors in the Hollywood studio system have been allowed to shoot in this fashion--Wyler, Keaton, and Welles? Yang, though, among contemporary filmmakers, feels awfully close to a traditionally Bazinian ideal.

    Hou shoots wide frames (with a longer lens), as well, though he's branching into something a bit looser, less concerened with dramatic unity--he's taking Bazin to the extreme, trying to capture the rhythms of life in as unobtrusive (and effortless) a fashion as possible. He's going for something that feels (to me) almost purely organic. Would you call Hou a formalist? I guess you could--but he doesn't feel as deliberate as that term might indicate--he's not calling attention to the form, is he? With Hou (and Yang), we're not necessarily meant to question the frame (as we often are in Godard, or Kiarostami, or Antonioni), or our place in this world--the borders are not a prominent issue. And we're not asked to search within the frame, as we might be with Tati or Kiarostami or Tsai--our attention's usually quite focused (hence the long lenses). We're simply invited to see.

    I'm straying a bit, but some kind of Sarris-style taxonomy might be in order. (Of course, the more categories, the more fruitless-seeming the endeavor--especially since someone's probably already tried this.) Here's how I see it:

    FIXED-POINT CLASSICAL MASTER TAKES--a style that suggests options, covering an entire scene from one angle. Wide framing, often encompassing all players from a scene. Used specifically within classically structured films, and is the PREFERRED VISUAL APPROACH OF THE DIRECTOR; i.e., if they can keep it wide, they will. Wyler, Welles, Renoir, Sturges, Keaton, etc. Recent sometime purveyors: Yang, Pakula, Farrelly Brothers, Kubrick.

    Hm, out of space...should I continue? Anyone out there?
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    1. 8/15/2007 1:47 AM David wrote:
      Yes, continue!

      Beyond every Preminger, Ophuls, and Jancso scene, and my own favorite, the Gun Crazy heist, two under-sung examples:

      - A long tracking/traffic shot in Akerman's FROM THE OTHER SIDE as dusk falls, and the grungy rural highway becomes a mass of little lights against a rusty-red sky.

      - A much-hated scene in OUT 1 in which a family sits in the living room as one guy drones out about ethnographic studies, and the family (if I'm remembering this correctly) pretends to listen; meanwhile a pet (a dog, I believe) and a baby, completely unaware of the scene's pretense, notice the camera and crew. It's that sort of documentary revelation that strips away, Brecht-like (but without any gimmicks), whatever artifice is there. And is really entertaining.
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    2. 8/17/2007 10:53 PM pm wrote:
      I think a Sarris-style taxonomy would be useful, and you should certainly continue. There's a useful distinction to be made between filmmakers for whom the long take/ master shot is an option among others (though usually for these filmmakers the master is flexible & moves in and out of different shot scales) and those who shoot scenes almost exclusively in a long take
      masters (or medium long, sometimes medium--and a further distinction here: locked down, like Tsai, or moving, like Tarr).

      Seems to me the former group tends to be comprised of filmmakers who work with popular narrative filmmaking traditions, and many of them are the original masters of the device, like Preminger, Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Dreyer, Wyler, Welles, etc. The latter group would then be comprised of more contemporary filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Bel Tarr, Tsai Ming Liang, Michael Haneke, Hou, etc., who aren't so dedicated to narrative filmmaking and for whom the long take is a way of taking us beyond the narrative, into that "intensification of reality" thing Girish speaks of (which is only idiosyncratic in a Bazinian way), which is confirmed, for me, by the excessive in length of the shots relative to the narrative action contained in the shot (I think the template for this style is Tarkovsky). So, I think narrative function is a useful way of drawing a line.

      As Bordwell's pointed out, within popular filmmaking today, you do see long takes use--but only in very particular instances. With Wyler, Welles, Cukor, Preminger, et al., the long take is used to clarify staging and allow actors to play a scene continuously (and for other reasons unique to each filmmaker, I'm sure), but, in contemporary film, the long take is used to immerse the viewer in a milieu, often assuming a character's p.o.v., show off a set, or introduce them to a group of characters (that is, the function follows the technology--here, the steadicam. The template, though, is probably Touch of Evil). I think this is true of a lot of celebrated recent long shots--GoodFellas Copacabana scene or the opening of Serenity, say--but every new film almost always contains an instance of this (I can think of The Last King of Scotland's, and I bet even something as spastic as the Bourne Ultamatim has a 40 second or so version of this shot).

      My personal preference tends towards the Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Preminger tradition, as their long takes have more flexibility of function than the later examples. As to the implication of the current festival long takes--the reality immersion, rhythms of life, phenomenological, Bazian thing--I find myself quite unable to associate myself with that thesis: I like the plastics & expressiveness of the form, and, for all the philosophical weight we can assign to the festival long shots, their function is often rather fixed. To my eyes, the narrative context in which the earlier filmmakers worked makes the device more interesting on a case by case basis.
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  • 8/14/2007 10:57 PM david ng wrote:
    How about the virtuoso tracking shot that opens Michael Haneke's Code Unknown? A busy Parisian boulevard, a frazzled Juliette Binoche, racial tension about to explode. On the French DVD (released by MK2), Haneke does a complete scene analysis (in his native German with French subtitles only -- though the movie does have English subtitles.)
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  • 8/15/2007 1:32 AM Josh wrote:
    Excellent thread. Just wanted to mention the enthralling last shot of Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees, which will hopefully be available on R1 DVD some day. (Thanks, Miramax!) And that seemingly endless point-of-view shot of Pedro running to save his wounded partner in Alex Cox's underseen Highway Patrolman.
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    1. 8/16/2007 1:46 PM Paul Duane wrote:
      Mention of Highway Patrolman reminds me of another film that I think Cox was hommaging here, the superb Electra Glide in Blue, which ends with probably one of the longest and most abstract tracking shots in what you might call 'mainstream American cinema' if you felt like it....I won't describe it because it would spoil the remarkable ending of a remarkable movie.
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  • 8/15/2007 2:54 PM Adam Greene wrote:
    I'm sad to write that I can't think of any long/lengthy shots that aren't mentioned in your initial post. Werckmeister Harmonies, by Tarr, was the first movie I was going to mention. Jim Jarmusch is also a filmmaker that uses a plethora of long takes.
    They key to my enjoyment of long takes is their level of activity.
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  • 8/16/2007 3:06 PM mordecai zen wrote:
    The most intense of the long takes was the dolly in Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist, where the young girl is raped in the back of the truck. The audience doesn't see the violence, yet it is more uncomfortable than any more graphic scene in any other movie I can think of. And you have to throw in Kirk Douglas walking among the troops at the front lines in Paths of Glory. With all his shortcomings, you get more of a sense of space and place in Kubrick than any other filmmaker.
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  • 8/21/2007 1:21 PM Dave McDougall wrote:
    the (second?) shot in Philippe Garrel's Emergency Kisses - the camera moves around the room fluidly, showing various closeups and 2-shots as the actors move around during the course of their (extremely emotional and meta-filmic) conversation.

    Along with much of Tarr's recent work, the opening of Werckmeister Harmonies should be a charter member of any long take Hall of Fame.
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    1. 8/21/2007 6:14 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      And, I've been told by the man himself, shot (out of WH's six cinematographers) by American Rob Tregenza.
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  • 8/22/2007 11:26 AM j picco wrote:
    Has Timecode been mentioned? That's 4 feature-length takes shown simultaneously on 4 equal quadrants of the screen.
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    1. 8/22/2007 6:23 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Yup, except a unique question arises -- how interesting or successful or eloquent are any of the four shots by themselves, without the other three to buttress it?  You can't ask that question of any other movie, that's certain, though I'd still be happier with Time Code if Figgis had not monkeyed around with (read: retroactively modulated) the four soundtracks.
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  • 8/27/2007 2:16 PM Ben wrote:
    I know terms like long shot and long take are blurry but, personally, I insist on defining "shot" to describe the distance between the camera and subject whereas "take" is the duration between turning on and off of the camera. I am sticking to that. Therefore those filmmakers cited are masters of the long take.

    I will cite examples from two Hou films as they employ both long shots and long takes but the perversity is that they are static shots and, to me, that is harder to achieve the hypnotic effect of a moving camera but Hou does it like a master. There's a dinner table scene (as in many in Hou's ouvre) in Goodbye South Goodbye where the father is in ill health and all of a sudden we hear a falling noise as as the characters turn around to reveal the father is sitting in the background blocked by the character in the foreground. The length of the scene makes us forget the detail and then to surprise us later all in one long take without moving the camera an inch. Incredible minimalism I have to say. Another Hou scene is in City of Sadness where the couple is having their last meal together before the mute husband turning himself in to the KMT, their infant crawls out of the frame and all we hear is her gurgling noise and the mother gently touches the baby and then the couple continue to eat stoically. When the baby is offscreen I almost wanted to cock my head to screen left to catch the baby. Once again, it's amazing how much Hou can accomplish with such static shot in long duration. The tension, the defeating mood, the minute detail of daily life, and life's under current all capture in one single static shot. And this is just one jewel of a shot of many in an amazingly dense film.
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