On Halloween night, this year’s Uruguayan entry for the foreign film Oscar was screened at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater. Merely fortuitous, or more likely, a programming wag’s "in joke," La Casa Muda (The Silent House) is a tense horror film of the “girl trapped in a haunted house” sub-genre. Its defining marker is that it conforms to the even smaller genre of films photographed, like The Russian Ark, in a single, uncut shot (or so the distributor’s ad copy and critics’ gullibility would have you believe.) I knew none of this promotional copy beforehand, but it did become clear with the opening long tracking shot starting from a parked car, walking through a wooded field, around the front of a farmhouse and finally into the house’s dark recesses, as it follows a young girl, Laura, played by Florencia Colucci. Clearly, this was not going to be a chaos cinema movie of 3000 plus edits; I decided to try to discern the few cutting points. This was difficult as the camera cleverly panned into blackness or used swish pans several times to hide cut points. In an email, the film’s producer, Gustavo Rojas, confirmed to me that there are only a dozen shots in its 78 minutes running time. This is a film that owes much of its fear factor not only to the inky depths beyond Laura’s handheld lantern or its device of unfolding in real time, but (in the Bressonian sense that Matthias Stork talks about in his video essay) in the canny and dramatic use of ambient sound. A statement by director Gustavo Hernández cites the primacy of sound as a unifying factor:
Many years ago, when I was a child, I listened [to] a strange noise in my house attic, a soft noise but very clear, that paralyzed me completely. For many seconds that seemed hours, all of my senses were aware, trying to convince myself that [it] was only the wind pushing the window. I sharpened my ear and held my breath simply searching for the silence. It was a tiny experience that I perfectly remember; because in my memory it is the first time that I felt fear, different, raw, and basic.
Cinematographer Pedro Luque’s handheld camera stalks the Laura character relentlessly as she explores the house carrying only the fluorescent lantern or a flashlight. It moves effortlessly around and through every doorway, room and stick of furniture. Clearly, Luque is using a small DV camera (it’s the Canon EOS 5D, a camera with a maximum 12 minutes of record time.) The limited shot number makes it a close cousin to Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1965 boxing film, Walkover, though that bold film was filmed in 35 mm. A brief clip from La Casa Muda defines the claustrophobic space:
If you want to juxtapose the eruptive, disorientating shot scheme, rapid fire editing, and dislocated time of chaos cinema with its classical cinema antipode of long takes and real time narrative, La Casa Muda is an extreme exemplar. It certainly distills the French concept of mise-en-scene to its most demanding parameters, and reduces the Eisenstein/Pudovkin montage theory to a virtual footnote (Hernández is the editor as well as the director of La Casa Muda.) But this film may not be the most useful one in which to look at classical cinema style, if only because of its intensive reductiveness. Still, what I would like to do in the rest of this essay is present nothing more than an anthology of key scenes from classical cinema that are executed in an apparent or actual single shot. The distillation of such discipline will help highlight the idea of a classical aesthetic. Some of these are truly “classic” exemplars of directorial mise-en-scene, elements in an overall shot schema that the French call plan sequence; others are bold , but misfires. But they all stand head to head against the onslaught of the editorial spasms of chaos cinema.
For many film students, the most famous of all of these is the long tracking shot from the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Its three-minute length conforms to the timer set on the bomb placed in the car trunk just as the film fades in, a ticking, real time countdown. A Latino actor in the film, Victor Millian, told me many years ago that three takes were made of this scene, the last one being the one selected. This is apparent in a large screen projection where you can see the lightening pre-dawn sky of cinematographer Russ Metty. The version in this clip presents the scene as Wells intended it, without titles.
Another classic opening shot is from Max Ophuls La Ronde, a sanitized version of the infamous Arthur Schnitzler play Reigen, which tracked syphilis from prostitute to client (Schnitzler was also a physician.) Ophuls was a master of the long tracking shot done under controlled studio conditions. The Gallic sophistication of Anton Walbrook’s five-minute opening monologue literally sets the stage (at one point the camera tracks past a movie camera and sound boom.) Cinematographer Christian Matras executes a wonderful light change from sunlit day to night as the carousel spins behind him. In this clip, the shot begins after the titles at 2:15 and ends at 7:20.
Another famous opening shot is from Robert Altman’s The Player, a film that not only gives a nod to filmmaking itself but also whose storyline centers in the world of film production. The opening crane shot evokes Touch of Evil, but in classic Altman fashion introduces the large principal cast in a sequence of part-improvised and overlapping dialogue vignettes, the antithesis of Walbrook’s poetic soliloquy. As they are introduced, many of the film’s characters discuss a number of classic long camera shots, including the opening of Touch of Evil. A delivery boy mistakes Altman acolyte, director Alan Rudolph, for Martin Scorsese. Here, cinematographer Jean Lepine’s zoom lens exploits the dynamic frame without resorting to the often-irritating use of it that Altman is sometimes noted for.
One of the most bravura shots in an extremely bravura movie is the funeral flying shot from I Am Cuba, a Soviet film made in 1964. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov and photographed by Sergei Urusevsky, it evokes the entire tradition of Baroque Soviet era camera work where manpower and time constraints were not qualifiers in a state industry that served propaganda interests. The film is analyzed in considerable detail in the July 1995 issue of American Cinematographer. Camera operator Boris Brozhovsky had to have been part high wire artist in the ambitious funeral procession scene. There’s an irony that this most experimental and visually daring of films was made by one totalitarian state in and about another one at a time when American studios were at an especially low ebb of creativity.
Another filmmaker who found extreme stylistic freedom under the aegis of a totalitarian state is the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó. His films are noted for long and complex tracking shots with the camera moving back and forth along a single line while the intricate choreography splits the tracking rails in 360-degree pans. Most of his films are in black and white but a late example is the five-minute plus shot from Red Psalm, the story of a late 19th century peasant revolt and the conflicting allegiances of military officers. This shot is unusually complex even by Jancsó standards, as the zoom lens is here used in a more sophisticated way by cinematographer János Kende than in Altman's The Player. Its constantly changing frame suggests that, if it had been done done in the style of chaos cinema, the scene would have had dozens of cuts.
One of the most (in)famous long camera shots, one that remains throughout its length in a wide shot, is the final scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Alexander (Erland Josephson, an actor from many Bergman films) has set fire to his house; the camera documents its conflagration in a near seven-minute take. The shot as presented in the film, however, is a second effort. During the initial shooting, the single camera used, jammed, and the scene was ruined; the house was re-built in two weeks and this time cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s advice was taken, and a second camera was used as protection. This scene is often considered to be the longest shot in Tarkovsky’s work, a director known for extremely long shots. In fact, a tracking shot of dialogue with three characters early in the film is his longest, lasting about nine and a half minutes. Here is the final shot of the film.
There is also a long six-minute single shot telephone call in the cult film In Bruges, done by cinematographer Eigil Bryld. I was not able to find a video of it to embed.
Two of the most ambitious single shot scenes in recent memory are both from war films and they present very different styles. The bravura five-minute steadicam scene of the Dunkirk disaster from Atonement (cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, steadicam operator Peter Robertson, also the operator on In Bruges) has a haunting and dreamlike-like flow despite the chaos it depicts. Some have said it seems more like a set piece that slows down the action but its sense of real time immersion trumps, it seems to me, any kind of montage considerations.
On the other hand, the six-minute “Uprising” scene from Children of Men, shot in a handheld mode (Doggicam rig), has all the disruption of chaos cinema action but engages you almost as if you, too, are a combatant.
But its single shot aesthetic is actually a seamless blend of five shots over two locations and stitched by VFX supervisor Frazer Churchill. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki reminded director Alfonso Cuaron of the cinema-verité style of The Battle of Algiers they had chosen for this film. One can’t help but speculate what that seminal film may have looked like had director Gillo Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti had access to the seamless work of CGI technology.
No VFX or computer technology is used in the justly famous jury room opening of Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, Twelve Angry Men, adapted from the teleplay of 1954 written by Reginald Rose. Its real time jury room sequence seems a natural for the Broadway stage, but it did not actually have a New York Broadway run until fifty years later, in 2004.
A high angle shot across a fan holds as the twelve jurors enter the room to begin deliberations. In the course of its almost seven minute length, all the men are introduced in a series of flowing vignettes. Lumet announced his feature film debut with this bravura shot, executed by cinematographer Boris Kaufman, fresh from his Oscar nomination for Baby Doll and a win for his first American feature two years before, On the Waterfront. (I had a YouTube video clip of this famous introduction but it was disabled just before posting this essay.) The Criterion Collection has just issued a new edition of the film with many extras including an interview on the work of Boris Kaufman on this and several other films, including the neglected but fascinating The Fugitive Kind, another Lumet/Kaufman collaboration.
Several month ago, I DVRd Frank Capra’s 1938 You Can’t Take It With You, a somewhat eccentric romantic film starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, a film I had not seen. Midway, Stewart and Arthur are in a cab, on a date. They get out to walk through a nighttime park (clearly a stage set); the camera tracks them in master shot over to a bench. Following a traditional cutting pattern, there is then a medium two shot, followed by a closer two shot, then back to the medium two shot. But then, for the next four and a half minutes there is no cut—just Stewart and Arthur sitting on the bench, talking (it continues into the next section of the YouTube clip.) The park scene begins at 5:27.
The sequence ends with a charming dance scene of a group of kids interrupting Stewart’s soliloquy. What is remarkable about this scene is the conviction of director Frank Capra that the audience’s attention will be held by the obvious charm of its two actors with no camera movement or cuts to dissipate it.
A larger issue underlies this consideration of the “single shot” than mere length. It inheres in a scene like this one from You Can’t Take It With You, a style not so uncommon in films from the studios’ golden age. We all acknowledge, at least give lip service to, the rule that storytelling is the heart of dramatic film—but we don’t often actually have scenes where one character tells another his or her life story at length. Often denigrated as “exposition” or “backstory,” this device is all but absent in contemporary filmmaking. The ruling imperative is ‘”keep it moving.” Two people sitting on a bench talking in real time for four and a half minutes seems to violate every rule we accept in contemporary filmmaking. And yet? What can be more humanly and emotionally engaging than a scene like this, one so immediate and heartfelt?
Clearly, we can’t retreat back into the past; overt nostalgia in commercial cinema had its death knell a long time ago. How long could a director survive, you might ask, the scrutiny of the studio by shooting a scene like this without any coverage—or without staging it as an energetic “walk and talk?” How could a writer dare to even conceive of a seven or eight page sit down conversation?
I’ll leave this personal rumination with the question open-ended; it would be great to have your comments about the long, uncut take, also your own choice of favorite shot. (Yes, we all know the steadicam shot from the opening of Bonfire of the Vanities.) But here it is. (The header on the embed video below is not mine.)
In the next and last part of this essay I will consider, what seems to me at least, how we got to a point where traditional narrative techniques in cinema, even in action cinema, have become usurped by a new paradigm. It's merely my own speculative position, up from the trenches. I hope you will share with us your thoughts.