The Long Take: What's the Big Deal Already?

Ransom Riggs

Ah, the long tracking shot -- cinema's most pretentious device. Sure, they can be fun and flashy, but like a loud and insecure extrovert, they also tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves. Isn't the point to get lost in the story?

As a young cinephile, of course, I loved them. They're the fastball of cinema language, and when used well, they can be masterful: in The Shining, for instance, when Kubrick follows young Danny at knee-level as he rides his Big Wheel through the hotel (one of cinema's first Steadicam shots, by the way), it draws us in, creating an almost unbearable amount of suspense. Classic examples abound, like the opening shot of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (feel free to skip past the text at the beginning):

Of course, Evil is a classic, and it's tough to aspire to classic-hood. Another famous tracking shot, the long and hilarious opening of Robert Altman's The Player, works beautifully because it references Welles' shot directly without being pretentious -- instead falling somewhere between homage and parody. (Apologies for the French subtitles here; YouTube has been pretty scrupulous about axing popular-but-copyrighted content lately):

In a very real way, young director P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, this year's magnificent There Will Be Blood) inherited the mantle of Robert Altman -- Anderson's complex ensemble scenes, where the camera roves between different conversations and people talk over one another in a more or less natural way, recalls Altman's best work (Nashville, for instance), and when Altman was directing what was to be his final picture, A Priarie Home Companion, he was in such failing health that he elected P.T. Anderson to be something like his Vice-Director, with the understanding that if Altman died during the shoot, Anderson would finish it. Which is a long-winded way of saying, Anderson is a guy who loves long takes, and he does them well, and if Altman thinks the kid's alright, then I do, too. (Insert smiley here, however inappropriate in the text of a blog.) Blah blah blah -- check out the opening shot of Boogie Nights, which sets the mood perfectly, introduces most of the film's important characters, and gets your foot tapping to boot, and you'll see what I mean ... it's Altman, Scorsese and I Am Cuba all rolled into one. (More iconic tracking shots can be found by clicking the links above.)

I know, I know. I'm supposed to be writing about how annoying tracking shots can be, but I've just spent three paragraphs extolling them. The trouble is, if you're going to do one of these shots, you have to do it really well, or it can become a spectacular, attention-grabbing failure. Coppola said something while he was making Apocalypse Now, that if you strive for greatness, the danger is that you'll fall just slightly short of your goal and end up making something that's just pretentious. Pretentious wants to be great, but isn't. I would put the "famous" long tracking shot in this year's Oscar contender Atonement in that category: pretentious, distracting and kind of pointless -- it stops the story in its tracks while the director shows off. Here's a clip of it (with the sound replaced, thanks YouTube, sigh):

In sum, I think the tracking shot is a dangerous proposition, but one we're seeing more and more of, in part thanks to the increasingly lightweight nature of cameras -- but just because you can shoot for 60 minutes without cutting doesn't necessarily mean that doing so makes you a cinematic genius. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter -- and please keep in mind that this brief list above is by no means meant to be complete!