Whenever Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas shows up on television I feel compelled to watch at least the first half-hour, just to see once more as the young Mafia soldier takes his girlfriend to the Copacabana. They glide past the lineup at the front door and go in by the service entrance, down a long hall, through the kitchen and finally into the night club, where a waiter sets up a special table for them, down front.
That scene, a small classic that many of us have loved since it appeared in 1990, makes two points: It demonstrates that the young hood can wander casually through the most famous club in New York, and it also demonstrates the mastery of Martin Scorsese. The whole sequence, beginning with the young couple crossing the street toward the club and ending as they sit back to watch the entertainment, takes place on one strip of film, a bit more than three minutes long. When he made that scene, Scorsese knew people would speak of it for years. It enhanced his legend as a director.
There's a theory that long takes embody pure cinema, and a contrary opinion that they expose a director's exhibitionism. André Bazin, a great French critic, considered the long take essential. Before D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein developed editing, movies consisted entirely of long takes. Bazin thought they still created the most evocative moments. Editing could pace and focus a story, but only long takes could produce a sense of contemplation and openness to the world.
The most-discussed single shot in the work of Orson Welles is not in Citizen Kane but the opening of a far less impressive film, Touch of Evil (1958). Made from a moving crane, that sequence runs nearly three and a half minutes. At the start we see a man in a Mexican border town plant a time bomb in the trunk of a car. Another man and a woman get in the car and drive it through the crowded main street. The car crosses the Mexican-American border and finally, off-screen, blows up. The sequence is dazzling, a miracle of craft. The fact that we can now watch it at will, a dozen times if we choose, provides another reason to be grateful for the age of video and DVD.
In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock made Rope, which seems to be just one shot running 80 minutes; actually, there are 10 shots, arranged so they appear to be one. (At the other extreme, Hitchcock's The Birds has 1,360 edits.) Rope concerns two university students who strangle a third student, stuff his body into a cedar chest, then use the chest as the buffet at a party. With the greatest difficulty, Hitchcock brought off a tour de force that most people find nearly impossible to watch. Living inside that one camera induces claustrophobia, and instead of thinking about the story we watch anxiously for an actor to blunder.
Hitchcock later agreed with the public's opinion that Rope was a mistake. It violated his own belief that movies are made by joining together little pieces of film. He couldn't imagine what possessed him. Probably it was an exuberant desire to exhibit his genius.
An actor walking across a studio lot in the opening scene of The Player, Robert Altman's 1992 movie about movies, mentions both Touch of Evil and Rope while praising the long shots made in the old days. But the actor himself (Fred Ward) is part of a take that runs more than eight minutes and encompasses everything from a tour group of Japanese to writers making pitches in front of a studio boss ("It's Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman").
This sequence proved Altman could both satirize and trump the earlier directors. It was another legend-builder. Everybody seemed to admire it, but when Altman later used a similar opening for Dr. T and the Women, an unfunny comedy, people thought the technique was calling attention to itself, which is what we say when virtuosity doesn't please us.
Mike Figgis, who directed Leaving Las Vegas, seems to have decided that in Time Code (which appeared last year) he would trump Altman by combining a long take and a movie about movies with a split-screen experiment. He tells his story on four squares, showing four different scenes at the same time.
In each square the scene runs continuously for the 93 minutes of the film, the ultimate in long takes. Characters move occasionally from one square to another, and sometimes two cameras converge on one event, showing it from two angles. Had Time Code worked, it would have been a landmark in cinematic ingenuity. Figgis would now be heading for a place in the pantheon alongside Hitchcock.
Alas, as the London Observer critic remarked, Time Code makes a viewer feel like a security guard watching cameras in the condo lobby. Even though sound emerges clearly from only one square at a time (our cue to watch that one), we nevertheless find ourselves trying to keep them all in view. Viewers who stay to the end find it exhausting. I gave up after 40 minutes or so, nostalgic for the 1960s and Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, which had simultaneous long takes but only two screens.
In Time Code we hear a director outline to an executive a multi-screen movie that sounds precisely like the one we're watching. The executive calls that pitch "the most pretentious crap I've ever heard," but goes ahead with it anyway. Hoping, probably, to become legendary.
But nobody likes to be caught showing off, and directors who talk about long takes always claim to be using them purely in the service of storytelling. Welles insisted that directors shouldn't show off technique; when audiences notice directorial tricks, it's a sign of failure.
From Welles, who obviously took the greatest pleasure in displaying his ingenuity, this was nonsense. He was just paying tribute to a widespread but perverse belief that there's something wrong with taking pleasure in virtuosity. That's one of our culture's more priggish notions. The truth is that in music, literature or films, technique on the highest level acquires a beauty all its own. The long take has become the perfect example.