An Argument Against Long Takes (Bushwick vs. 1917)

For decades, the long-take (or “sequence shot” as it’s sometimes called) was a feat too difficult or problematic to attempt with any regularity. If you’re shooting on film, time and camera size was a limitation and if you shot digitally there was still the issue of focus and lighting.  Like many people in my generation I was introduced to it in movies like Boogie Nights and Oldboy. It was never a thing recognized but more something that was felt. You understood after some time that you were in the shot and began thinking back on its starting point and watching more intently as it unfolded.

OldBoy Hallway Fight

In film, there is a rich history of long-takes including Touch of Evil, Soy Cuba, Rope, Goodfellas and the films I mentioned earlier. Only in the past decade, with the christening of “prestige TV” have we seen long takes pop up more and more. Cary Joji Fukinawa did a remarkable 6-minute take in True Detective Season 1. Seasons 1-3 of Daredevil each had a 3 minute (or more) long-take fight scene. It’s around this time that  cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) is attempting a digitally altered full length film long-take with Birdman. Mr. Robot director Sam Esmail delivered a one hour take that only used edit points as backups but no cuts were actually used in the episode.

That (brief) history brings us up to about 2015 where it has become commonplace to see a one-take in film or television. Game of Thrones, San Andreas, Tomorrowland and even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have employed the technique to great or at least decent effect. CGI has done away with a lot of the difficulty involved, though timing is still an issue. It has, in a sense, become as commonplace as the once revered aerial or helicopter shot. So, why do it? What’s its purpose?

giphy (1)
Children of Men

I recently saw the big budget WWI epic 1917 and in the same week watched the smaller (though not insignificantly) scaled Bushwick. The heavily favored Oscar nominee 1917 didn’t fare as well as some predicted (due mostly to Parasite’s dominance), but one statue it did take home was Best Cinematography. Feted very early on for its uses of a “continuous shot”, 1917 brought in viewers both for its beauty but also the curiosity. Most people I talked to had nothing to say for the lighting or the story or the music. It was always “Have you heard about the one-take movie?”

Alternately, no one was talking to me about Bushwick. I was only made aware of it by the score’s composer which piqued my interest just enough. Though not technically a single continuous take, it attempts them for long stretches of time. Even at its worst execution, these long shots require near perfect timing and constant communication from all the cast and crew. With that in mind, Bushwick is its worst execution but it’s not the fault of the movie but the way the movie was shot.

Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista in Bushwick

Both movies send their two protagonists across war torn (or warring) landscapes. 1917’s is WWI’s historical German front while Bushwick drops us into a fictitious forward operating base for new southern rebels invading New York. The real difference in these scenarios is not location but said execution. Both leads are relative unknowns (except for maybe Bautista who carries heavy Marvel and WWE recognition) but 1917 recognizes they need more than to follow two people around for two hours. It peppers in grandiose moments of violence and quiet. It brings in actors of larger caliber to anchor portions of the film and drive the small plot forward. The continuous take, though exhausting and oddly distracting, enables your empathy centers. You are tired and scared with the main characters.

Bushwick, on the other hand, relies solely on it’s two main protagonists to have conversations that amount to ad-libbing for pushing the story along. Every person they encounter is either combative, confusing, annoying or loud. The moments of quiet or respite are long stretches of dialogue between two actors who seem like they are grabbing at the nearest words to avoid not ruining the long-take. They are being driven to make decisions about the movie for the same of the gimmick within it whereas 1917 employs the technique to fatigue and endear the viewer.

Roger Deakins, Director of Photography for 1917

I didn’t love 1917. I did recognize it became a pantheon war movie immediately because of how it was shot but not necessarily it’s content. Based on the story alone, it would have seemed like a better-than-average Saving Private Ryan knock-off if not for the technical nature of its creation.  Where it did employ the one-take to great effect, you can also see that, like Bushwick, it had to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. There’s nothing innately wrong that. Boundaries can create new art in ways that freedom can’t and vice versa. But what movie would we have gotten if that boundary was not there, if they hadn’t admittedly changed the script to fit the shooting style?

I enjoy the one-take shot. It brings me into the scene and adds a weapon to any good filmmaker’s arsenal. I can’t stress how difficult it is and great it looks when pulled off properly.  What I don’t like is seeing a movie and thinking about the people behind the camera at the expense of what’s happening in front of it. 1917 had me watching for the cuts between scenes. I was constantly wondering how a shot was done and paying less attention to what was in the shot. Amanda Dobbins from The Ringer recently referred to it as “athletic filmmaking”.  Bushwick traded gunfire and crowds for subtlety and improvised exposition for true character development. All to serve a mechanism that wasn’t needed to tell the story and was never a true continuous shot at all.

Bushwick  5/10

1917  8/10

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