Perhaps the most consistent employer of the long take in cinema today is Woody Allen. Many of his films, including recent works like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, and Celebrity, are constructed almost entirely on master shots. When asked about a scene in one of his early films, Annie Hall, Allen explained: “I got away from shooting any kind of coverage years ago. It just seems more fun and quicker and less boring for me to do long scenes” (79).
While Allen favors the long take because of its practicality in the production process, other filmmakers take a more artistic approach, using it only at specific points as a way to emphasize a particular scene or moment. More importantly, it allows them to engage their audience in the observational process without the manipulation of editing. Orson Welles, for example, alternates between long takes in dialogue scenes and short takes for the “News on the March” sequences in Citizen Kane (BT, 260).
In Touch of Evil, film noir’s epitaph according to many critics, Welles again applies the long take to underscore specific moments. He opens the film with an extended tracking shot, arguably the most famous long take in cinema history, that carries the audience fluidly across the U.S./Mexico border. The shot serves to accentuate one of the primary themes of the film—that borders are just imaginary lines, and that evil and corruption know no boundaries. Furthermore, the long take allows Welles to link his characters inextricably to their surroundings, thus giving the audience a clear sense of setting.
One current filmmaker who also utilizes the long take in an authoritative manner, but with far less camera movement than Welles, is Gus Van Sant. In Good Will Hunting, Van Sant uses the long take to allow the audience a glimpse inside his characters’ psyches, exposing them at their weakest and most intimate moments.
There are two shots in Good Will Hunting that continue for an unusual length of time before cutting—in comparison to most movies produced today, and the editing style of the rest of the film—and both occur in the same dialogue sequence between Will and his psychiatrist, Sean. The nearly five minute scene can effectively be broken down into two rather lopsided beats; the first beat, only about twelve seconds in length, belongs (ostensibly) to Will and is comprised of three shots:
So what’s this? A Taster’s Choice moment between guys? This is really nice. You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? It’s something, like, maybe we need to devote some time to?
Shot one is an extreme long shot in which Will and Sean are photographed from behind, sitting at a park bench facing a small pond. Shot two is a medium close-up of Sean listening to Will’s questions, though not revealing any distinct reaction. Shot three is a medium close-up of Will. At first glance, there appears to be nothing unusual about this sequence. In accordance with the continuity editing style dictated by the Classical Hollywood Cinema, shot one serves as a master shot, establishing the characters within their surroundings; shots two and three then follow the customary shot/reverse shot model. What is atypical, however, is that the character without the dialogue is the one preferred in the shot order. That is, although Sean would seem to be the subordinate character within the beat, he is presented to the audience before Will. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the camera seems to favor Sean by rotating slowly around him, while Will is shown in a static shot.
This pattern of dominance is continued in the next beat. When Sean does finally speak, the camera remains on his face.
Sean: I thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting.
Sean: Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me, I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and I haven’t thought about you since. You know what occurred to me?
This exchange begins the long take, approximately three minutes in length, that comprises the majority of this scene. Will’s responses are heard off-screen, as the camera stays focused on Sean in a medium close-up. Furthermore, the camera continues its almost imperceptible rotation around him.
Throughout this scene Sean attempts to break through to Will, to engage him in a process of sharing his feelings and emotions. But in order to do that, Sean has to earn Will’s respect. Or, to put it another way, he must be able to show Will that he has something to learn:
So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo. You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at the beautiful ceiling.
As the scene progresses, it becomes clear that the camera is not rotating around Sean at all. In fact, it is slowly moving towards Will, engulfing them both in the frame so that by the end of Sean’s monologue the shot is a two-shot with Will in the foreground and Sean in the background. In other words, the long take serves to visually represent what is occurring between the two characters in the scene. Sean is opening his world to Will, and Will is slowly being taken in. Sean explains: “You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.” At this point, the film cuts to Will and the long take is broken. The camera then holds on Will for about forty seconds, presenting the second long take of the sequence. The effect of the cut is remarkable because it changes the overall impact of the scene. Sean is no longer simply trying to engage Will, rather, he is implicating him, and the cut accentuates this point. He is forcing Will to evaluate himself, to come to terms with his own insecurities. Fittingly, the scene ends with Sean’s line: “It’s your move, Chief.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about this scene is that both long takes are medium close-ups. As discussed in the introduction with regard to Woody Allen, long takes are traditionally used as master shots. In terms of practicality, a long take has to be of a wide enough shot scale to frame all of the characters in the scene. In more philosophical terms, the long take is a device by which to engage the audience in the observational process; the larger the shot scale, the more there is for the audience to absorb. Andre Bazin, perhaps the foremost proponent of the long take in film criticism, appreciates the realism that it affords. In his book, The Altering Eye, Robert Phillip Kolker summarizes Bazin’s stance:
He favors the use of the long take to permit an uninterrupted, undirected gaze at the figure and objects that are, first, before the camera and then before the spectator on screen. Within the shot he favors deep focus so that objects near and far are clear to the observer, thereby bringing ‘the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality.’ (146)
It is interesting to speculate how Bazin would have responded to Van Sant’s use of the long take in this scene. Although he presents an unmitigated gaze at the subject on screen, he subverts one of the basic tenants of the long take--the use of deep focus. Due to the shot’s small scale there is no need for deep focus because all of the audiences’ attention is directed at the character’s face as he speaks. Bazin preferred a complex mise-en-scene that allowed the viewer the right to explore the frame freely and fully. In this scene, the mise-en-scene is essentially irrelevant, as both characters are almost completely disconnected from the environment. However, it is fair to say that Bazin would have appreciated the fact that Van Sant respects his audiences’ intelligence. Whereas most filmmakers would have felt the need to cut to copious reaction shots of Will to direct the audiences’ understanding, Van Sant permits his audience to draw their own conclusions about how Will is reacting to Sean’s monologue. As a result, a sense of suspense is always present and the overall emotional effect of the scene is heightened.
In the end, Van Sant is more concerned with preserving a sense of psychological realism than he is with preserving the image in an analogous state to reality. This exchange between Sean and Will is about what both characters are feeling and experiencing internally. The long take, combined with the use of close-ups, draws the audience in, literally and emotionally, in a way that a more traditional continuity editing style would not have permitted.