The Long Take and "True Detective"

"A long take or oner is an uninterrupted shot in a film which lasts much longer than the conventional editing pace either of the film itself or of films in general, usually lasting several minutes. It can be used for dramatic and narrative effect if done properly, and in moving shots is often accomplished through the use of a dolly or Steadicam. Long takes of a sequence filmed in one shot without any editing are rare in films" -Wikipedia

That pretty much explains everything. The long take has long been one of the toughest shots to create in cinema. Firstly it takes lots of precision, a well calculated storyboard and a first class cameraman -amongst other things. Watching Episode 4 of HBO's brilliantly frustrating "True Detective" a few weeks ago got me back to thinking about this legendary cinematic shot. Episode 4 ends With Cohl and a gang disguised as police, trying rob a stash house, shooting one of the residents, and stirring up the neighborhood's inhabitants in the process, resulting in an outbreak of gunfire and chaos. With the actual police on their way, Cohle holds a guy at gunpoint and tries to escape the house and make his way through the projects. This is all done in one continuous 6 minute shot. Brilliantly devised by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his ace cameraman Adam Arkapaw.

It really is just an amazing display of just how far we've come over the years, in that possibly the best shot of the entire year might come -not from cinema- but from Television. I'll ponder more on "True Detective" once the series ends but for the time being I wanted to delve more into the best single takes I've ever seen. One that comes to mind right away is the opening of Robert Altman's "The Player". The film's opening shot -which took more than 15 takes to nail- lasts for 7 Minutes and 47 seconds. Of course, any female will tell you this, it's not about the quantity but the quality and the quality on this one shot is incredible. A self-referential introduction to the world of make believe, the opening single take sequence to Altman's masterpiece is a formula bending ode to the classic single shot of "Touch Of Evil" (look below). Altman's wonderful analog parlor patter follows the scenery as the storyline unfolds between storylines. Clever quickly turns classic as the film is established something more visual flourish than acerbic satire.


Of course Altman or "True Detective" wouldn't have have been able to perform such brilliant feats without their groundbreaking predecessor Orson Welles' "Touch Of Evil", one of my very favorite films of all time and one of the best directed movies I have ever seen. The film opens with a three-minute, twenty second tracking shot. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and a woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through the town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel Vargas (Charles Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car passes the border then explodes on site.

I can't name all of them but I'm only mentioning the ones that have really stood the test of time. Take the complexity of any long take and combine it with a moving vehicle and you get the mesmerizing 4 minute long take from Alfonso Cuaron's incredible "Children Of Men". A specially designed car was used that allowed crew to slip in and out of the vehicle , remove the windshield and replace it, and still get around the entire car as if it were really happening. There have been very few camera tricks as impressive as this one in the last 2 decades of cinema.

If "Touch Of Evil" is the grandfather of long takes then Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" is the next generation. Giving us the perspective of being alongside Ray Liotta as he brings Lorraine Bracco to the Copacabana club both propels the plot and the character into the gangster lifestyle. Shot eight times, Scorsese was forced to film this way since the club wouldn't allow them to enter the short way. The result is movie history.

"The Lego Movie"

 Was it Raphael that once said that "art is first and foremost visual"? Whatever the case is, many artists focus upon that which they find visually attractive, intriguing and interesting. As such, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that beautiful women... the female body... sexually attractive women (or in the case of homosexual artists such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Caravaggio, etc... beautiful men... sexually attractive males bodies) are among the most painted subjects in the whole of art. Sexuality... Eros... the "erotic"... is one of the central themes of all art. If there is a difference in Modern art it is that artists have no longer needed to mask... or "perfume" the erotic/sexual content... to justify it by presenting it in the guise of a Biblical narrative (such as Adam and Eve or Bathsheba) or a Greco-Roman narrative such as Venus and Adonis, Danae, or Diana and Acteon.

All this and I'm about to talk to you about "The Lego Movie", which seems like a highly unlikely candidate to compare with Raphael's quote but it isn't. What directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) have given us is in fact a visual feast, of course there's nothing erotic or sumptuous about the images presented but it is a great example of what a modern movie can bring with an imaginative vision and real artists at the helm. Lord and Miller have made a movie so loaded with visual pleasure that it will take 2, 3, 4 viewings to fully grasp every hidden upon hidden visual quirk. In fact the plot of the film gets set aside for the sheer visual pleasure of the movie. You can watch "The Lego Movie" on mute and still enjoy it tremendously, which is not to say the dialogue doesn't work, it does. The jokes have an edge and are bitingly written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman who both share a screenplay credit.

The plot on the other hand is secondary, you're not buying a ticket to "The Lego Movie" to get engrossed, you're going to the theatre to watch visual imagination unfurl in front of your very eyes. In fact if the damn thing weren't so visually arresting I wouldn't have even given a thought about writing this review. All this to say that yes, the glowing reviews this colorfully subversive film has been getting are all warranted. The artistic process here is very apparent and the work ethic clearly shown. What Lord and Miller's brick-blocked world of a film does is accurately and effectively recreate the creative space that is possible in animated movies, but really just movies in general. It's a landmark in animation that might just change the game and that's really saying something.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

It was really too early for anyone to write such a piece on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he had so many more years of brilliant acting left in him but alas the man had his demons and they got the best of him in the end. Let that not detract the fact that he was one of the greatest actors we are likely to ever see on screen in our lifetime. A man so engrossed with the characters he played and wholly dedicated to his art that at times he could carry an intensity that scared the living daylight out of you.

As Truman Capote in Capote Hoffman brought forth all the quirks and nuances of the great writer he portrayed. It was to be his only Best Actor win but what a performance, filled with depth and a sense of time/place that is very hard to match in any movie today. He elevated Benneth Miller's movie into an amalgam of fiction, non-fiction, tragedy and repentance. In The Master he fictionalized a Ron L Hubbard type of man and made him humane, caring and understandable. That scene where Hoffman interviews, questions, debates, Pheonix's character is as brilliant as any scene in any movie I've seen in the past few decades. Hoffman could do that.

Those are just examples of his brilliance. The way he took his job so seriously and with such heart, that doesn't come too often in Hollywood. He was a unique talent, an actor for the ages. I always looked forward to his next endeavor and to think it won't happen is a sad thought .