The Long Take

Nathan Harris makes his CV debut with a fantastic piece on the art of the long take in cinema.

Amongst the outpour of praise for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity released last year, credence was given for the film’s epic 17-minute one-take opening sequence. To celebrate it’s triumph and recent BAFTA nominations, here are five other long, uninterrupted takes in all their glory.

1. Gun Crazy (1949)

Arguably one of the first great long takes, or at least the one that gets film geeks the most riled-up. The film sees Peggy Cummins and John Dall as a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple crime-spreeing their way across America. Ingeniously the scene takes place entirely in the backseat of a car as the couple rob a bank, detailing the run up to and getaway from the heist, but leaving the actual events of the robbery up to the imagination of the viewer. We instead see Cummins’ character anxiously trying to divert the prying attention of a passing police officer as she awaits the return of her husband. This was filmed long before the trunk shot/turnaway camera hijinks of Tarantino, and so the moment when the camera follows Cummins out of the car is uniquely innovative for the time and still just as satisfying to watch.

2. Tom-Yum Goong (2005)

Tom-Yum Goong or The Protector as it was titled in the UK was the second film to star Thai martial arts master Tony Jaa. The plot is mostly irrelevant as the film has one redeeming feature: the mother of all long take fight scenes. Nearly four minutes in length, Jaa ninja-turtles his way up a staircase going through a dozen different thugs. You’ve got to think about it, that’s a dozen different fight sequences to fuck up, or to trip over or to even so much as sneeze and ruin the entire take and then everything would have to go back to first positions, and that’s an awful lot of flat pack furniture to make up. Allen keys at the ready, everybody.

3. Funny Games (2007)

Michael Haneke’s second, American shot for shot remake of his Spanish original was largely panned by critics, who apparently didn’t like the films frequent attempts to break the fourth wall. The film stars Naomi Watts and Mr. Orange as the mother and father who, along with their son are subject, to a horrific home invasion and a night of cruel torture. Halfway through, the film takes an unexpected turn when the son gets capped, and in the aftermath there’s a long take showing Naomi Watts struggling to get to her feet. It’s just over nine minutes in length and it’s painful and traumatic to sit through, but that’s the point. It doesn’t miss anything out and forces you to watch the initial nine minutes of the parents that have just witnessed the death of their son, and in a morbidly beautiful way that’s genius. Don’t listen to the critics, it’s a blast.

4. Weekend (1967)

Another film noted for fucking around with its audience, Weekend director Jean Luc Goddard shoots a seven-minute long traffic jam as the central characters slowly edge their way along the line. It’s arduous and surreal in parts (the touch of Goddard) and the sound of car horns gets incredibly tedious, and the unbearable levels of frustration you reach are strangely offset when you see the gruesome and violent crash that’s caused it. It’s a strange mixture of relief that thescene is over but also guilt that you were annoyed by the people lying in bits all over the road. Interesting to say the least, if not slightly patronizing. (The scene starts at around 15.15)

5. Russian Ark (2002)

As hard as it is to believe, there is a clear winner for the longest take in cinema, as Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is an entire film shot in one unbroken 99-minute sequence. It’s an unmistakable marvel, but again don’t listen to the critics who hailed it as a masterpiece. It’s not. If anything not having any cuts at all just points out how important they are in pacing a film, not to mention that they constantly direct your attention. As such Russian Ark is exhausting and laborious. It’s like filming just the backs of actor’s heads only to point out how much they should be facing the front: no-one needed to be told that in the first place.

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