Popular conversations around prestige films often orbit around their well-rounded achievements, in which excellence in performance and excellence in filmmaking go hand-in-hand. If the annual Academy Awards serves as any kind of metric, recent nominated works demonstrate that top-tier nominations (for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay) are typically accompanied by nominations in various performance categories. Among other nominated works, the stylish aesthetic of American Hustle, the purposeful excesses of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the understated dramatic momentums of Philomena and Nebraska all succeed in large part because of strong performances that compliment each film’s achievements in writing and directing.
Two films from last year feature memorable scenes combining filmic technique and performance in a single, extended takes that are bereft of ostentatious special effects and consist only of a lone actor: 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street. For those familiar with the films, these shots will be obvious. In 12 Years, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Northern freeman who is abducted and sold into slavery. Unable to disguise his advanced education, he engages in a confrontation with a white overseer (Paul Dano), who retaliates by attempting to lynch Solomon. With the tips of his toes barely touching the ground, Solomon is forced to maintain a precarious (and exhausting) balance to keep from being strangled. What follows is an excruciating long take: held in a medium long shot, the camera remains unmoving as Solomon dangles by the neck, struggling to hold still and concentrate on his breathing; across the background, other slaves continue unceremoniously with their tasks, all nervously aware of Solomon’s situation but wise enough not to be seen intervening. The approximately 90-second shot is finally broken when a fellow slave enters the frame to offer him a swift sip of water. It is implied that Solomon is left hanging there for hours before his sympathetic master returns home to rescue him.
What to make of a shot like this? Lengthy takes like this are part of director Steve McQueen’s repertoire (see the 17-minute single-take conversation in his prison drama Hunger), and each compels even those untrained in identifying the duration of “shots” or the rhythms of “editing” to take notice. We the viewers are left with nothing but time to regard the shot and monitor our own reactions as we wait and wait (and wait) for the narrative to move along. We shift in our seats uncomfortably, horrified by what we are seeing and discomforted by the camera’s implication that we, too, are silent observers who linger to see how a situation will unfold rather than respond. Paradoxically, the shot is to be admired for its audacity and patience, and we know this. It dares us to continue waiting and causes us to grow increasingly antsy because the one action that must take place if the narrative is to continue – cutting Solomon down – is the only action everybody on the screen is keen to avoid. Something about this shot is reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s experimental drama Irreversible, in which we see a woman beaten and raped for 9 minutes, shot in real time (though aided by minor special effects imperceptible to most viewers). There, too, the audience is made to endure violence in its full realism and endure it for long enough to recognize the temporal strategy being utilized by the filmmaker. We therefore contemplate the anxieties erupting within our own spectatorship.
Taken at their worst, shots like these revel in the attention they elicit from audiences – in his review, the controversial critic Armond White disparaged 12 Years for making viewers complicit in the horrors on-screen, dismissing the film with the derogatory moniker “torture porn.” But would it be crass to admit wanting Solomon’s attempted lynching to have been prolonged even further? That is, by extending the shot for minutes more, would the film have succeed all the more in its imperative to make us witnesses to the raw horrors of slavery? Shots like this provoke an important political-moral question regarding the kinds of earnest and respectful spectatorship demanded by this subject matter: what is accomplished by committing these images to the screen in such an untrimmed fashion in the first place? Does the shot make us impatient with the lackluster response to an act of violence, or with the filmmaker’s obvious intent to test the limits of our gaze by delaying Solomon’s eventual rescue? If we confess to finding the shot’s length indulgent and excessive, is that, too, designed to expose how our reactions to atrocity depend on the style of its presentation?
Of numerous other long takes seen in this film – including, notably, a visual tour through an auction house, in which slaves are inspected by prospective buyers – the lynch scene is counterposed by the film’s most brutal sequence, in which Solomon is commanded to whip a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o); the sequence is captured in a single take lasting almost five minutes and is remarkable for its integration of a moving camera, impassioned performances, stuntwork, nudity, and presumably a combination of makeup and computer effects. Yet the precision of its choreography poses a distraction to those of us conditioned to spot an exceptionally elaborate shot when we see one. We cannot help but wonder about the rehearsals and preparations involved in achieving a shot so well-choreographed: how many takes were permitted, and how many were the actors able to stomach? Was the director satisfied with every beat, every facial tick of an actor, every bit of blocking, or did he settle for imperfections to avoid having to reset the shot? (Another 2013 film, Spike Lee’s overlooked Oldboy, invites a similar response with its devoted recreation of an extended, single-take fight sequence from the South Korean original, in which the choreographic excellence, not story or character, becomes the most absorbing aspect of the scene.) When a shot is as technically compelling as this flogging sequence is, perhaps our attention falls disproportionately on its methodological dimensions, distracting (however slightly) from the position of empathy and moral outrage the scene seeks to impose on us. Should this be the case, the film has inadvertently shifted its focus away from its social consciousness and toward the mechanisms of its own production: it momentarily becomes a well-crafted film, not the moral-historical document is aspires to be.
For this comparative reason, the uncomplicated image of a single victim hanging by a noose seems to speak volumes more about the banalities of evil that sustained the institution of slavery and of our own moral stakes in accessing a violent history through commercial medium of cinema. Of course, this brings to bear the most elementary of principles in a film studies curriculum: the seemingly simple, yet highly contested notion that the duration of a shot claims a direct relationship to the film’s realist sensibilities (a theory associated perhaps most famously with Andre Bazin). Needless to say, if we are debating the merits of this theory solely on the grounds of shot duration, no film in 2013 compares to the visual elegance of Gravity, whose floating camera alternately captures the majesty of Planet Earth and the vast desolation of space. Here, Alfonso Cuarón – as he did with Children of Men – has given audiences a new paradigm for what can be accomplished by a single, roving camera; the fact that much of the visuals are computer-generated needn’t diminish the overall visual grandeur of the film. But amid the long, seemingly impossible takes, the same problem as above emerges in our experience of the film. The shots are so breathtaking in scale, they distract from the gravity of the situation and our emotional investment in the main character’s survival. In other words, the film becomes fascinating as a demonstration of technology, supplanting our full engagement with the story itself – so much so that we feel a tinge of disappointment for every insert shot (of the Sandra Bullock character’s wristwatch, for instance) that adds to the film’s total “shot count,” however necessary its inclusion is for the sake of narrative coherence. Ask yourself: of your many peers who embraced Gravity for its dazzling visuals, how many of them gushed in equal measure about its themes of redemption and perseverance?
Among the prestige films of last year, the sequence most analogous to the technical and moral dimensions of Solomon hanging from that tree appears, in fact, in The Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the titular Wolf, is at a country club when an unexpectedly potent dose of Quaaludes kicks in, rendering him incoherent and unable to remain on his feet. What follows is a lengthy single take of Jordan crawling pathetically from the club’s entrance to his Lamborghini, which is parked only a few feet away; this culminates in a 100-second depiction of Jordan sputtering and blubbering incoherently as he inches his way to the vehicle, opening the door with an outstretched leg, and hoisting himself inside. The sequence is hysterical and a remarkable display of physical comedy, which we do not associate typically with Leonardo DiCaprio. What’s more, consider the context in which this shot appears in the film: amid the fast, noisy, and unrestrained aesthetic of hedonism that director Martin Scorsese adopts throughout the film (for better or worse), this shot is low-key and observant, as if the film is pausing to catch its breath. The madcap narrative resumes shortly after in a prolonged slapstick sequence, as Jordan makes his way home to wrestle his business partner (Jonah Hill) away from a phone bugged by the FBI; the long crawl to the car is therefore but a fleeting moment buried within this three-hour film – but it’s a significant one. It signals the beginning stages of Jordan’s downfall and is a poignant bit of comeuppance for his outrageous drug abuse and megalomania prior to this point in the story. Just as his antics have caught up with him by rendering him infantile and immobile, the camera is stripped of all its gimmicks and comes grinding to a halt. Here, too, the shot many have benefited from being longer. Minutes longer. So long, in fact, that it wears out its audience and ceases to be funny, thereby converting Jordan from a momentary laughing stock into a grotesque metaphor that rightly summons our revulsion, not our amusement.
In an odd way, Jordan’s predicament visually mirrors Solomon’s. Both shots are commensurate in length and camera placement. Both consist of a lone performer being incapacitated and confronted with the full ugliness of his situation. At this point in the film, Solomon’s eponymous 12 years have only begun, and Jordan will go on to face humiliation and prison time, but at their respective narrative midpoints, both films invite us to contemplate the horrific presentation of a body that has lost its own control and is pushed to its breaking point. But whereas Solomon elicits our pity through a prism of abhorrent historical injustice, Jordan elicits our pity through our delight in seeing what he has been reduced to; in the first instance, our voyeurism is a complex mixture of fascination and discomfort and in the second, is consists of unabashed schadenfreude. The points of contrast between the scenes are plain – one is committed to showcasing the institutional politics of death that comprised the daily realities of slavery, while the other aims to satirize the sense of impunity Wall Street tycoons bestow upon themselves. Needless to say, each shot orients us toward a subjective position of empathy, judgment, and condemnation that is immersed in the complex politics of race and class in American society. Wrapped up in the simple concept of a shot’s duration here is a deeply intriguing question of how a shot’s length can determine the parameters of our emotional response – and possibly exacerbating our emotional reactions to what we see, depending on the narrative context and directorial intent.
Our desire to be impressed by the craftsmanship of a long take is not merely an aesthetic concern. Juxtaposing these sequences from 12 Years and Wolf proves useful when considering the political differences apparent in how a long take is utilized, what kinds of intellectual and emotive “pleasures” audiences gain from such images, and under what circumstances an audience will tire of an over-extended shot at the character’s expense.
Mike Dillon received his Ph.D. in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His research examines how media genres engage with questions of human mobility in the global era. He has published essays in Studies in South Asian Film & Media, Spectator, and Studies in the Humanities.