Review of The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
288 pp., illus. 42 b&w. Trade $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN 978-0-8166-9584-3; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9588-1.
In his latest book The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous the author Lutz Koepnick brings his extensive expertise in international media arts and theory to this text by building on the fundamental role of "the long take" from the birth of cinema—onward. Koepnick's specific intention in this volume is the examination of the extended cinematic shot, or the long take, in contemporary media as a move towards measured, contemplative and prolonged cinematic experiences. His specified scope of interest in the long take traverses a variety of media platforms and includes its prominence in international art cinema since the 1990s and as seen in contemporary media in both conventional theatrical screenings, on-site installations in galleries and outdoor settings as well as on mobile devices.
Koepnick invokes wonder within the realm of possibility as a reflexive trope constitutive of the extended long shot to reimage the moving image environs while contending that these same cinematic shots serve to slow down our perceptual mechanisms. Thus, then allowing the viewer to acknowledge all that speedier media forces us to rush through unnoticed. This renewed preoccupation with the long take, Koepnick contends, is not necessarily just a reaction to the visual bombardment of juxtaposed short takes proliferated by the MTV generation but certainly plays a part nonetheless. As most of the work covered in this book seeks to deflate and stretch time, the author additionally suggests that this ongoing pursuit seeks to "roll back social acceleration and advocate the pleasures of slower lives."
Of course, not all shots of extended duration are intended to soothe or comfort the audience to former slower times. Instead, depending on the variable set of specific criteria set forth by the individual filmmaker, to which Koepnick is amply attuned, the long shot could just as easily seek to confound the patience and attention of the audience to coax it out of its complacency. Or, the long take could serve to usurp the bondage of unrelenting chronological time by offering an antidote of possible freewheeling and unstructured time. In either case, Koepnick strongly fortifies his arguments for the extended long take with the work of international media makers such as Sophie Calle, Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Abbas Kiarostani, Michael Haneke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tacita Dean, Fracis Alÿs and Janet Cardiff.
The specificity of Koepnick's choices of the works of each of the artists that he discusses in this volume is thoughtful and significant. The first examples of the long take that Koepnick discusses at length is that of the French artist and writer Sophie Calle's work Voir la mer, (See the Sea) a multiple channel installation (14 five-minute videos) initially created in 2011 and installed at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montrél (MAC) in 2015. In this work, Calle invites 15 inhabitants of Istanbul, who originally came from central Turkey but, strangely, even though they now live in a city surrounded by water, had ever seen the ocean. Calle's project, then, in this work was to document the residents' reaction of seeing the ocean for the first time while being recorded by the gaze of Calle's camera. Standing in between the ocean and Calle's camera, each of the Turkish citizens initially faced the sea with their backs to the camera, and when they were ready, varying between 5 to 15 minutes, they turned to face the camera. Calle kept the camera rolling as the citizens turned around and, with fresh eyes, looked into the camera lens. The reaction of the residents varied from tears to stoicism. Despite the outward demonstration of their experiences, it was clear that everyone had gone through a life- changing experience. Here, the long take stands in as a witness to a life-alternating event for each of these nascent sea gazers and the viewers come along vicariously as witnesses as well.
Another excellent choice by Koeprinck is the work of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr entitled The Turin Horse (2011). This philosophically-themed drama opens with a screen of black for one and a half minutes--the only stimulus is a raspy voiceover retelling the tale of a cabman, who, having difficulty controlling his horse, whips the horse in the Italian city of Turin. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is a witness to this cruelty, he intercedes in the attack and throws his arms around the horse and sobs. His neighbors take him home, but it is thought to have been the cause of his mental breakdown. "Of the horse," the voiceover concedes, “we know nothing.” The next scene is a four and a half B&W long take of a horse and a cabman traversing through an increasingly terrible wind storm. As the horse and the cabman valiantly struggle through the beatings of the whirlwind, a droning soundtrack underscores the dreariness and impossibility of their plight. Tar’s films are replete with long takes overlaid with philosophical themes, the use of the long take in his work is darker and drearier than that of Calle.
Although the definition of what constitutes a long shot might differ from viewer to viewer, there is no disagreement when considering Koepnick's choice of Aleksander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark (2002). Filmed in one 96-minute Steadicam shot, the experimental drama traverses 300 years of Russian history, with a cast of 2,000 actors and three orchestras and shot within 33 rooms of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. Although Hitchcock attempted to construct an entire film in one long take in Rope (1948), due to technical limitations at the time, he could only simulate his intention by moving the camera to full-screen black and then cutting to the next reel with the same image. It was only with the development of digital technology that the entire length of a feature film became possible with the shooting of Russian Ark. And, in recognition of Sokurov's effort, Koepnick dedicates the book to media makers who invoke what he coined as “attentive looking.” Likewise, in recognition of Koeprinck's effort, the book offers the reader an attentive and richly layered intermix of the theory and praxis of the long shot. Thus, Koepnick’s The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous offers a wonderfully stimulating and thoughtful reading experience.