Long takes: the extended shots of Gravity, Rope and Russian Ark
With the box office weighed down by films loaded with blink-quick cuts, the unbroken opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s space odyssey Gravity has been blowing the 3D glasses off viewers' faces. The Mexican director has described the 17-minute sequence as "a continuous moment": "It's the idea of trying to create a moment of truthfulness in which the camera happens to be there just to witness, and respecting that moment in real time."
While Gravity's extended opening has justly received a fair share of buzz, its use of the long take pales in comparison to Russian Ark, which is finishing up a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 8:15pm. Director Alexander Sakurov's 2002 opus is composed of one unbroken 96-minute shot. Serving as the perspective of a bewildered, disembodied narrator, the Steadicam traverses 33 rooms of the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, which first appears to be hosting a grand ball. The camera glides between a couple thousand actors in various period costumes and focuses in on works of art and scenes playing out that nod to historic events—in effect spanning 300 years of Russia's past in one building.
Alfred Hitchcock attempted to pull off a similar unblinking-eye effect with Rope, his underrated 1948 film based on a play inspired by Chicago's Leopold and Loeb murder case, which is showing at the Siskel on November 1 at 6pm and November 2 at 5:30pm. But unlike Sakurov, whose cinematic stunt benefited from digital technology, Hitch was working with film that had to be changed out about every ten minutes. Many of the film's ten segments, sewn together to create a sense of seamlessness, usually end with a blackout cut on objects or, say, an actor's back.
The long take can have a range of effects. Cuarón employed the technique in approximating the feeling of a zero-gravity space walk; Hitch merely wanted to find an interesting way of putting a play on film.