It’s difficult to argue the critical success with which Birdman, the jet-black comedy from director Alejando Gonzalez Inñáritu, has been met. Four Oscars, two Golden Globes, and numerous other awards and nominations, Birdman is inarguably one of the best films of 2014. However, even the best films of any given year are not without their flaws, and Birdman is no exception.
Largely acclaimed for its cinematic brilliance is the Inñáritu’s decision to present the film as a simulated single take––with all of the cuts hidden behind clever cinematography. In this way, a series of long takes are stitched together, cleverly presenting a film that takes place over several months as one that takes place in real time.
Focusing around Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, these long takes cleverly imitate the immediacy of a theatrical production––everything is happening right in front of us, without any cinematic parlor tricks getting in the way. However, Inñáritu is hardly the first to attempt to create a film simulating a single, long take. Alfred Hitchcock attempted the same thing in one of his least seen and most intriguing films, 1948’s Rope.
Filmed in ten minute chunks––only ten-minutes worth of film could fit into the cameras of the day––Rope told the story of two young gentlemen who took lessons on Nietzsche’s Übermensch a little too much to heart, killing one of their schoolmates and hosting a dinner party with his body hidden in the middle of the room. Based on Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name, Hitchcock attempted to create the cinematic equivalent of a play. However, in later interviews with film critic and acclaimed director Francois Truffaut, he later characterized this cinematic experiment as nothing more than a stunt.
After all, what’s truly to be gained from leaving behind one of the most important tools in a filmmaker’s toolbox––editing? Although Birdman’s simulated long take does give rise to some truly spectacular performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, the lack of any visible editing creates a number of problems.
First, although Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is often gorgeous, the fact that it revolves so tightly around the characters, rarely moving further away than a medium shot, both makes it rather easy for the film’s several cuts to be hidden and forces the audience to focus entirely on the actors. Although this works very well in imitating the kind of experience audiences of live theater have, easing back from the characters might have given them a little bit of room to breathe. Instead, we are suffocated by our closeness.
Secondly, is the degree to which editing dictates the emotional response audiences have to a film. Editor Walter Munch has claimed that blinks signify when a new emotion or complete thought enters into a character’s mind. What this means is that editors will often attempt to cut when an actor blinks in order to allow audiences the chance to process all of the complex thoughts and emotions the characters are experiencing. Long takes force audiences to take-in a great deal of emotional information without having much opportunity to process it, and filming an entire movie in a long take just makes the task of processing everything that happens that much more difficult.
This is not to say that the long take is not an effective, admirable tool for filmmakers to use. Quite the opposite in fact. However, as with every other directorial decision, the choice to let the camera linger for a minute or two (or 199, for Inñáritu) should be a calculated one––one designed to emphasize an important moment, or provide a stylistic stand-out moment. Scenes like the hallway fight scene in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, the six-minute take from Episode 4 of True Detective, or any of these other truly stunning sequences can become defining moments in a film or television series. When used properly, the long take is a storytelling tool like none other.
What do you think? Do you feel like Birdman‘s cinematic experiment was effective? What are your thoughts on the long take as a cinematic tool? Sound off in the comments below!
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