“No good film is too long, and no bad film is short enough.”
- Roger Ebert
We start on a mid-range close-up of a barn. The camera moves quietly to the left, panning very slowly over the barn. The camera continues to move to the left at a uniform speed. We see past the barn now. We see a group of cows walking around in the mud. No people are shown. No voice-over informs us what we’re looking at. The camera just continues to saunter at a leisurely pace, always to the left, never editing, never using close-ups or crosscutting to indicate the significance of what we’re seeing. All we see is a continued, prolonged shot of a few industrial-looking barns, and cows that seem to roam free. As the shot continues, and people are still nowhere to be seen, we begin to get an eerie feeling. Why all the silence? A peaceful dread enters into our minds. A definitely apocalyptic feeling creeps very slowly over us. The shot continues. We begin to realize that this is a real-life town. A small town in rural Hungary actually lives with this much silence. We now know that there is life here, but it has come to a complete standstill. We are looking at a kind of purgatorial existence. The shot continues…
So begins the famously arty, rather obscure, and notoriously long (at 7 ½ hours) 1994 Hungarian film Sátántangó, often considered the masterpiece of obscure film director Béla Tarr. I know that when I bring up certain lesser-known, experimental European film directors, especially those often only well-known to third-year film students, I almost instantly get glazed expressions from my listeners, so I hope you’ll indulge my reference to him for the sake of this week’s lesson on CraveOnline’s Free Film School, as Tarr illustrates perfectly how a director can use little more than the length of a shot to convey mood, meaning, and in some cases (as listed above) even a theme of their film.
Film is unique from other arts in one vital way: It’s the only medium that requires actual artificial recording. As such, it’s the only art form that directly involves the actual passage of time into its very form. Sure, music is written to be a certain length, but with every live performance of a symphony, or every rendition of a Rolling Stones song, the interpretation is going to be slightly different. All plays require the live reactions of actors, hence effecting the overall time spent in the theater. And books, well, they patiently and eternally wait for you. Film, if you’ll indulge a bit of abstract theory, is the only artistic medium that utterly requires time. Hence, filmmakers, if they’re paying attention to such a detail, must incorporate considerations like timing and pacing into their film, else be damned.
As I mentioned in my lesson on Jean-Luc Godard, that famous French New-Waver once declared that every edit in a film was a lie. The human eye doesn’t edit. It’s constantly taking in information, and your brain is recording the images. Godard felt that the camera should strike a similar ethos. Certain filmmakers, Béla Tarr especially, felt that stretching the length of one’s shot into an extended time period allows for a meditative state that cannot be achieved any other way. Thanks to the evolution of editing, we of the modern age are used to films moving at a certain speed, so Tarr felt it was daring and artistically innovative to merely leave his camera recording a field, a group of cows, and, famously, a single 10-minute shot of a single actor walking from the middle distance all the way to the foreground.
It’s rare that we consider how much time a film really takes up. Aside from knowing that a film is 120 minutes, and we’ll have to run out to feed the parking meter halfway through, we don’t give any sort of active consideration to how time is used in film. We do notice a film’s pacing, however; I have heard several audience members, upon exiting a longer film, comment on whether or not they felt how quickly the film sped by, or how long it dragged on. But no one comments on how the film’s use of time compacted decades into 90 minutes, or how it miraculously stayed within a few days in 120 minutes. Tarr is one of the few directors who, by extending his shot length to extraordinary lengths, changes the very ideas of his films.
I’ve always admired filmmakers who manage to slow the pace of their film, and bother to tell the details and moods of a story, and not just its plot points. Yasujiro Ozu is another one of those obscure-yet-extraordinary masters who uses long takes to ensure that the audience knows how everyone is feeling, and how the characters are not really communicating. Watch his 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story sometime, and note how the camera rarely moves, and how he rarely edits. And yet, also note how we know all of the characters well, because we’ve seen how they interact. This is not a film so much about its plot points as it is about the moods of its characters. Or watch the kitchen entrance scene from Martin Scorsese’s 1991 classic GoodFellas, wherein the characters enter a nightclub through its kitchen, wind their way through the catacombs of the building, and enter into the main performance area, all in a single shot. Thanks to the constant movement of the camera, and its relentless need to stay away from editing, the shot takes on a hyperactive, moody quality that several edits would not convey. This all-in-one style of shot has been attempted by many filmmakers (there was a lot of brouhaha when Alfonso Cuarón tried several extended shots of this sort in his terse, dystopian sci-fi flick Children of Men, which became more intense thanks to their use), but most of the time, it’s a stylistic affectation; it’s rare that such a use of time works well.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If a film’s overall average shot length is shortened, and we’re constantly looking at a scene from several angles, it can lead to a clipped, energetic style that can work to great effect. Watch, for instance, any chase or fight scene from any action film from the last decade. You may not pay attention to such things, but you may notice how quickly they change camera angles within a scene. A 5-minute action scene can have as many as hundreds of shots, making sure we see every possible angle. A lot of directors use quick cutting and short shots as a way of establishing special continuity, and keeping the pace up.
I haven’t been able to find anything truly definitive on this, but some cursory internet research leads me to some interesting statistics. The average shot length of films made in the last few years is about 4 to 6 seconds. The average shot length of earlier films (like films made before 1960) was about 8 to 11 seconds. This may not say much about a film’s pacing (a sparsely edited film can still be briskly paced; look at some musicals of the 1930s), but it does point out a lot about how filmmakers pace their films, and how conscious filmmakers are of the way time works. Modern filmmakers, it may be gleaned from these statistics, seem to be preoccupied with coverage, different angles, and artificially speeding the pace of their films by editing more and having fewer sustained shots. Some have even inferred that audiences are having their attention spans shortened as a result.
Let’s look at one of my favorite films, David Lynch’s 1978 surrealist masterpiece Eraserhead, and compare it (perhaps unfairly) to a recent action film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Eraserhead is an absurdist mood piece about a quiet man, trapped in a grey, nightmarish cityscape, who must look after his illegitimate and horribly mutated child, as his visions become more terrifying and surreal. The shot length in Eraserhead is noticeably prolonged. There is a scene early in the film, where the protagonist, Henry, pushes a button for a creaky elevator. He waits until it arrives. He steps inside, and pushes another button to take him up. He stands completely still, and waits a full 10 seconds before the doors slide shut. Through that shot of completely still inaction, we get to know several vital things about Henry. He is used to waiting for petty things. He doesn’t seem outraged by his predicament anymore. He is sad, lonely, directionless, and, it seems, depressed. Lynch achieved this mood by simply allowing his camera to roll. By contrast, Michael Bay’s noisy actioner follows the exploits of a young man, and his involvement in the inscrutable war being fought by giant intelligent robots. The entire final third of the film is essentially a special effects bonanza, where our hero, along with a group of marines, run around downtown Chicago being pursued by heavily armed robot warriors. The camera never allows a single angle to remain for more than a few split moments before editing. At first, the scene feels fast-paced and heart-pounding. The quick editing, however, soon gives way to overkill, and the pace of the film begins to slow. In a weird way, more happened in the single, static 10-seconds shot in Eraserhead, than in a 30-minutes orgy of movement in Transformers.
As a general rule, I think I prefer longer shots over shorter ones. The longer the shot, the more the film begins to resemble real time, and the more involved we will become. Even in action scenes or fight scenes or car chases, extended shots can not only show the virtuosic work of stunt workers, but keep us involved in the action without having to reset our eyeballs every half second. If you watch a fight scene, and the camera is always cutting to close-ups and action shots, we run the risk of losing our sense of continuity, and, ironically, the pace begins to suffer. A longer shot in an action scene will show two people actually fighting, which is far more intense. Watch the 2003 Korean revenge film Oldboy, and look for the notorious one-shot take of our hero fighting his way down a corridor, past dozens of guards, using nothing but a hammer. Note the effect of the scene. More than an affectation, the single shot shows the truthful, actual inexhaustibility of the character.
Time is probably the greatest tool that a filmmaker and a film editor has in their toolbox. And yet, it’s not based on anything measurable or scientific. A filmmaker must want to know how “long” their film is, and how they can fit it into their running time. Some filmmakers (like Tarr) just allow their camera to wander freely, stretching films into a hugely long running time. Some filmmakers (like the vast bulk of those working commercially) want to make shorter movies, and will edit accordingly. Some filmmakers (like Bay) are so preoccupied with keeping the pacing brisk, that they edit far too much, and end up slowing their film.
What kind of films do you like? How long is your favorite film? How long is it really?
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Watch a series of 30-second TV commercials. How many edits did you spot? How does the length of the shot affect the overall mood of the commercial? Watch a musical from the 1930s (try Swing Time), and pay attention to how long the shots of the dancers are. Then watch the dance shots from the first Step Up film. How does the shot length in the dance scenes make the dancing more or less credible? If dance films aren’t your bag, find a kung-fu flick from the 1970s (try Drunken Master), and compare the fight scenes to something more recent, like Bunraku. How are the fight scenes edited? Which is better? Finally, and it may pain you to do this, but track down a film by Béla Tarr, and see if you can watch the whole thing. Does the shot length bore you, or put you in a contemplative mood?