The slow long-take?

If you have been following this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I regularly return to the issue of the long-take and its importance for Slow Cinema. I have often argued that the long-take is not in and by itself a guarantee for a slow film. Other factors need to be in place, too. Towards the end of my research, I have come across the latest doctoral thesis on Slow Cinema, in which the long-take was described as the “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema. I have an issue with that. Previous researchers, like Matthew Flanagan, or even Harry Tuttle (Contemplative Cinema) have at least linked the long-take with the content of respective film frames. Even though the long-take is and remains the main focus in Slow Cinema studies, which is not bringing the research forward at all, I would like to point to a film which I have recently seen.

Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015) has been shot in a single-take. The film is in fact a very long two-hour and twenty minute take. For those who have not yet seen it (and you should!), the film is everything but slow. It does take its time to build up tension. Yet in the end it’s nevertheless a heist movie. It’s fast. It’s about speed, about anxiety, about adrenaline. Victoria is anything but slow. So if the long-take is the sine qua non of Slow Cinema, where would we position films such as Victoria? If the long-take slows down the narrative, how exactly can we continue to speak of it as THE Slow Cinema characteristic if it can easily be used for a complete opposite effect?

I think, my main issue with this “sine qua non” is that it’s taken out of context. Again, the long-take has rarely been mentioned in the context of a film’s respective content. Analyses are often mere descriptions because researchers have difficulties to approach slow films in the usual scholarly fashion of applying previously successful frameworks to those films. I had a very similar problem and it took me a while (thank God, I had three years for this!) to get a hang of it.

The long-take is not the main characteristic of Slow Cinema. It seems to be at first sight, but I would like to suggest a different approach: the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of character psychology. Whether this happens in a slow, or in a fast film is of little interest. It is true that very often it is slow films which deal with character psychology. My own work on Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma is a good example for this, because Diaz uses slow time in order to give the viewer a sense of depletion of resources, trauma’s latency period, and other debilitating factors of post-trauma. In the films of Béla Tarr, too, you can see a depiction of character psychology. It has often been said that characters in slow films show no emotion, that it is difficult to read them. Ira Jaffe has been a supporter of this argument. But as I have argued in an earlier post, we merely expect characters to go through all possible emotions in 90 minutes. If this isn’t the case, the character lacks emotional engagement.

This is simply wrong, and shows that we are still reading slow films through the lens of approved of, age-old frameworks. What becomes important, and I hope that my doctoral thesis makes a first step into this direction, is that Slow Cinema studies has to be connected to other fields of academic research. If one sees Slow Cinema entirely in the context of Film Studies, one is bound to reach the conclusion that the long-take is the sine qua non of it. It looks like it, and I was also one of those supporters. If someone asked me what Slow Cinema was, I always mentioned the long-take first, and I still do, because it’s easy and people know what I’m talking about.

But no, it is not typical of Slow Cinema as such. It is necessary for character psychology. In a way, it’s similar, because, again, Slow Cinema often focuses on character psychology. Yet one needs to be more precise and put the significance and role of the long-take into a correct context. Otherwise, you will always come across films like Victoria which prove you wrong.

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6 thoughts on “The slow long-take?

    • For some reason I think that I’m aware of that film but haven’t seen it. It must be on my watch-list. Thanks for the reminder, Hossein!

  1. Dear Nadin,

    I agree with you that a long take isn’t inherently slow. I argue for it further in my MA thesis that I just finished (find it here: http://irs.ub.rug.nl/dbi/55b9dc1a9a94a). There I try to delineate a couple of characteristics of the long take that can make it slow. Very shortly, I argue that three issues matter: the style of representation (static long take), the content (dead time) and the narrative form (episodic or de-dramatised). None of them in themselves are inherently slow, I’d say – what matters is the dialectics of the different types. This relates to the intended effects to which a filmmaker employs these techniques.

    I find your approach of relating the long take to character psychology very interesting and challenging, so I’m looking forward to reading your doctoral’s thesis. I think I agree with you on this point. In my thesis, I claim that the viewer’s engagement in slow cinema is not just with characters, but more broader with the film’s style or its ‘body’ (as Sobchack would have it). So, that explains why, even when characters in slow cinema tend not to show not so many big, easily apprehended emotions, there is still a distinct affective and emotional experience of the viewer.

    All the best,

    Jakob

    • Thank you so much for your response to my post, Jakob. I will take a look at your MA thesis as soon as I can. It sounds as though we’re on a similar wave when it comes to the emotional experience of the viewer, so I’m really keen on reading your work. If you email me (theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com), then I can email you the copy of my thesis which is currently under scrutiny of the examiners. It’s therefore not the final version, but if you’re nevertheless interested, please get in touch!

      Best wishes
      Nadin

  2. Dear Nadin,

    I feel awkward responding to this post after quite some time, but I think you’re raising some important issues that are worth exploring further. First, thanks for citing my work here. But I think you’re drawing a straw man of my argument in the thesis and taking the phrase “sine qua non” slightly out of context.

    By using this phrase, I do not mean that the long take is the one and only descriptor of Slow Cinema. What I am saying is, the application of the long take is indispensable, or essential, if we are to characterise a particular artwork as something that belongs to Slow Cinema. In other words, the long take is a necessary feature of slowness, but not a sufficient one. Clearly the ‘content’ of the shot, or the ways in which the events are staged, the frequency in which characters speak, interact or move, or whether it involves spectacular action (and probably some other parameters that I’m not thinking about) will determine our perception of its pacing. There is no doubt about that, and I don’t think any of this really poses a problem to seeing the long take as an essential ingredient, so to speak. Moreover, there are additional conditions that I think are important in designating any film as Slow Cinema, and some of these are explored in my thesis. I’m pretty sure I begin the thesis by saying that it is the combination of dead time and long take that seem to define Slow Cinema at its best – though again, I’m not quite sure if this is entirely sufficient, because I think there are institutional circumstances that are worth investigating too.

    Films like Victoria are interesting examples, but they do not contradict this argument. Seeing long take as a necessary feature of Slow Cinema does not entail that all uses of long takes will constitute slowness (I think we are in agreement here, and I can’t imagine anyone taking a different position). There are hundreds of other examples, some of which I mention in my thesis (for example, Children of Men and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, although if memory serves right I am referring to these in the context of Bazinian realism, and how the long take in itself does not guarantee that effect). Therefore, what you’re proposing here, by bringing in Victoria as a counter example, is mistaken in logic. Something can fulfil a necessary condition, and yet at the same time be used in another context without threatening that condition. Just because Victoria uses long takes does not mean that we cannot see long takes as a necessary condition of slowness or Slow Cinema.

    Now, regarding your suggestion that “the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of a character psychology…” Let me give you some examples that might challenge this proposition. Requiem for a Dream uses rapid editing in many of its scenes, with the aim of conveying the drug-induced subjectivity of its characters. The famous Moscow car chase sequence from one of the Bourne films likewise aims to replicate the adrenaline-filled experience of the film’s characters through rapid editing strategies on its the viewers. The shower-murder sequence in Psycho: also uses rapid editing, no long takes, and yet whenever I watch it I feel terrified, perhaps much like how Marion Crane could be feeling at that particular moment in the film. Are these sequences less cinematic? Is their exploration of character psychology less of value? I don’t think so.

    Just to be clear, I agree that the long take can explore character psychology, and it can do this cinematically, but I don’t think it is an essential feature of “an exploration of character psychology” because there are other methods that can achieve a similar function. Whether which methods are more intense, contemplative or realistic, is simply another matter.

    Admittedly, I have yet to read your thesis and the rest of this blog, so my response here is only in reference to this individual blog post. There’s more in this post that I could respond to (there are points you raise that I agree on, though I would articulate them more carefully), but I think I’ll leave it here for the time being. I agree with you that we need to be more precise in elucidating the role of these features, and perhaps the characterisation of long take as “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema needed a bit more unpacking, but I don’t think it what you’re saying here is challenging that point just yet.

    All best
    Emre

    • Hi Emre, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this post. I’m glad you did. This is precisely what I’m working for. It is about starting a conversation, which rarely happens these days because scholars tend to work in isolation. I think all PhD students know that 🙂 I see what you mean, and thanks for showing me that I’m not very clear either. It’s very clear in my head what I wanted to say, what I actually meant, but if you take my sentence out of context, then yes, I didn’t make myself clear. I still have issues with actually describing what I mean. I know that I’m thinking of post-trauma, but I’m very much guided by experience and feeling. My head comes last in that order, so it’s not always easy to make myself clear because I’m working on something that cannot be proven, that cannot be grasped just like this. Anyway, I’m very grateful for your taking the debate a little further. I think there’s a lot in there which we could both develop further. Thanks, Emre. Take care!

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