Short takes on long takes

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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Why does writing on slow films oftentimes turns into an apology?, wonders Dana Linssen.

Some words should best be avoided when talking about cinema. Slow. Dense. Long held. It’s not that they do not exactly express what is going on in contemporary cinema. And what is still mind-blowing about it.
The longer the take, the more it allows us to see what is hidden in the grains.
But to be honest: who would go and catch a film that is described in those terms? Well, you and I perhaps. Since we just spend aeons of time closely watching the sky turn into night.
But how can images that stand so firmly opposed to the industrious rush of our culture enrapture us?
Why does writing about those so called slow images oftentimes turn into an apology?
Or is that just the case with cinema?
Funny how we never wonder why a painting or a statue ‘passes’ so slowly. Maybe that is just because we expect them to stay frozen and maintain their frame. Wouldn’t we just be speechless if all of a sudden they walked of their socles?
Still it is an odd situation that in describing the films we love most, by some of the most eminent directors in film history — that are still groundbreaking: Jean Renoir, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, Orson Welles in touch of evil — and all their modern counterparts and co-conspirators, we need to use disclaimers, as if to say: "Sorry, that this film is taking (its) time. Sorry that you have to invest a bit yourself. Sorry that this film ‘is’."

To define what film is, it’s often said that film is a time based art. But if film is based in time, does that mean that time has a space? Moreover: is not one of the main capacities of film to transcend time (and space) — no matter it’s duration (and location) within the film?
The better a film succeeds in doing so, the better we usually consider it to be.
One way of doing so is to create the illusion that time is passing quickly. Cut! Cut! Cut! Time that enfolds itself in long takes is commonly associated with dull and dreary. Fast is good, fast rules! This may seem strange as we are constantly complaining how speedy time is passing.
Maybe people like films to be over quickly, to have more time left to live. Maybe they like their lives to pass rapidly, so that they would not have wasted any time.
Maybe we should say that film is a ’time waste art’.
Maybe we should say that film is a ’time pass art’.

When Mark Peranson made waiting for sancho, the ‘making of’ of Albert Serra’s el cant dels ocells (birdsong), with 105 minutes it became a little longer than the 98 minutes of the original film. "That’s because", Peranson said, "it takes a long time to make a film."

That’s why ‘real time’ is never real time.

el cant dels ocells follows the journey of the magi after the three kings have been lost for centuries in the lunar landscape of Tenerife. They’re tired as time. And time is thick and sticky as treacle. It seems as if these wise man are doomed to search for their messiah time and time again.
And would the messiah still be the messiah if they found him?

Did you know that a webcam is watching the ‘gate of mercy’ on the Temple Mount in Israel?
Just in case he arrives in time.
Imagine what is disclosed there.

In the short 12 explosionen, screened at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, fireworks are let of by invisible hands in the desolate outskirts of a nocturnal city. Kaboom! The blast blows the camera into another angle. Still no human presence. Only these big bangs to end all time. I’m still waiting for the last one, although the film is over for a while now. Or did the world end when the screen went black?

Grace to the long take, cinema allows us to witness the afterbeat.

Until last year the shorts program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam was called ‘Short: as long as it takes’. This year they’re just shorts. But they still take as long as they take. Possibly even a bit more. As shorts tend to last a little longer every year. Long takes also take as long as they take. And even they are getting longer.

Alexander Sukurov could film his single 90 minutes steady cam shot russian ark grace to state of the art digital technology. The images were recorded directly on a hard disk. One hundred minutes was the maximum in 2001. Steve McQueen reverted to the almost forgotten Techniscope 2perf technique for his 22 minutes one take dialogue between Bobby Sands and Father Moran in hunger (2008). This way he could shoot on 35mm and stretch time a little beyond its material bounds.

It’s either the images speaking for themselves or the film maker cutting them up and him speaking for them.
It’s about how much we trust the truth of the image.
Maybe that simply takes time to experience.

For what is the difference between going to see Lav Diaz’ melancholia for seven hours on the uncomfortable chairs of Zaal de Unie, or watch Nanouk Leopold’s en Daan Emmen’s close-up, that lasts about the same time, on the urban screen at the Hofpoort building? Maybe it’s a little tougher and a little colder at the banks of the river Meuse, but you can always take a blanket and your own little folding chair.

Even if nothing happens, something still happens. Time passes. A man winks. His eye gets out of focus. It happens before our eyes. It is real.

Dana Linssen

Dana Linssen is the editor in chief of de Filmkrant.

12 explosionen, el cant dels ocells, close-up, melancholia and waiting for sancho are screened at the 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam. They take as long as they take and then a little longer.

Powers of ten III
Going in
fantastic voyage was, in 1966, the first feature film that went under the skin. Raquel Welch and a bunch of other scientists sailed through the bloodstream of a diplomat in a miniature boat. Next year there will be a remake of the film directed by Ronald Emmerich. Meanwhile, going through the skin to show what goes on underneath, has become a staple of film and TV. David O. Russell pioneered it in three kings in 1999, when we went inside, not with a boat but with a bullet. In TV series set in hospitals, such as House, going under the skin has become commonplace. No secrets. And no main characters. The Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk once wrote the diary of a white blood cell. The Italian Primo Levi gave centre stage to a carbon atom. There are only two films that I know of that have single-cell organisms as a lead. In 1972, Woody Allen played a sperm cell in everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask and in osmosis jones (2001) the hero is a white blood cell that battles a virus. Short films return more gems. On YouTube, there is a film in which menstrual blood droplets play the main parts. But on the net they are also a minority. People want to see films about people. How anthropomorphic can bacteria be?

Bianca Stigter