Back in the late 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps still addled from the war, came up with one of the all-time stupid movie ideas: shooting an entire feature that appears to be a single continuous take. At that time, of course, actually doing so was impossible—film cameras were decidedly analog, and could only shoot for about 10 minutes before the magazine had to be reloaded. Nor was digital compositing available to Hitch, which meant that he had no choice but to hide his cuts by clumsily zooming into an actor’s suit jacket for no apparent reason. Rope remains somewhat watchable today, but that’s entirely a testament to its cast (Jimmy Stewart in particular), its screenplay, and our enduring fascination with Leopold and Loeb; as a technical exercise, it was a resounding failure, adding nothing but cheap curiosity to the viewing experience. And that was that… until half a century later, when the advent of digital cinema suddenly reawakened the ludicrous dream of dispensing with editing altogether.
As you may have gathered, this is a pet peeve of mine. I have nothing against lengthy shots per se—there are certainly times when a steady, unblinking gaze is the most effective choice, even if I believe to my core that the essential power of cinema lies in how shot A cuts with shot B. No, what riles me are pointless stunts that serve only to make viewers aware of how hard the director and crew are working behind the camera. Movies may be magic, but individual shots shouldn’t come across as miniature magic tricks—at least not in a film with pretensions to seriousness. (If you’re Brian De Palma making Snake Eyes, do what you like.) To my mind, the most grievous offender in this regard over the past few years is Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men, a dystopian nightmare in which the palpable sense of unease and terror is constantly undermined by hotshot looka-me cinematography. There are at least four shots that bug me, but I’ve chosen to address what seems to be the most celebrated: a “bravura” automobile ambush. Take a look.
Watching this sequence again, it occurs to me that it’s a somewhat unusual example of the phenomenon I’m decrying, in that the average viewer most likely wouldn’t even recognize its technical virtuosity, save for big moments like the motorcycle bouncing off the fender, which was actually added in post-production. If I were showing the scene to my mom or dad—both wonderful people, but not exactly sophisticated when it comes to the ol’ mise-en-scène—I’d have to stop the DVD at certain points and ask them, “Okay, so if the camera is there, then where exactly is Clive Owen at this exact moment? Remember, it’s a speeding car.” I might even have to show them a photo of the insanely complicated rig invented strictly for this shot.
But that only makes me wonder all the more why Cuarón and his DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, bothered to go to so much trouble. For most people, the shot’s stunning aspects will go unnoticed. And for the rest of us—at least for me, at any rate—they’re a distraction. Instead of worrying about the safety of the miraculously pregnant teenager in the back seat, or whether Julianne Moore has been killed or just badly wounded, I’m wondering how the hell the actors are getting out of the way every few seconds, and trying to guess how many times they had to rehearse this whole thing to get the choreography just right. I’m now watching a magic trick, not a movie.
Granted, it’s an impressive trick. The actors deserve enormous credit for maintaining character throughout despite having to repeatedly duck into a reclining position on cue, and the abrupt shift from casual chatter to mounting hysteria is exquisitely timed—as a setpiece, it’s exemplary. But I fail to see how shooting the whole thing in a single take, rather than in an equally expert conventional shot-sequence, makes it any more tense, riveting, or even claustrophobic. The main difference, as far as I can determine, is that we gradually become conscious of how many things could have gone wrong, and how hard the crew must be busting its ass to pull this off. It’s as if we’re expected to be emotionally overwhelmed by the degree of difficulty, rather than by what’s actually happening onscreen. Which is really just the tech equivalent of giving the award to the actor who gains or loses 50 pounds, or switches genders.
When I’ve argued this subject with friends over the years—and I should note that they all love this scene, and voted it the best of 2006 in an annual movie-nerd poll I conduct—they invariably argue that the absence of discernible cuts creates more of a “documentary” feel, heightening the sense that what we’re seeing is actually happening rather than being carefully manufactured. Obviously, I disagree, since the camera constantly moving into a position where one of the characters ought to be doesn’t scream “untampered” to my eye. More than that, though, I think these folks suffer from a basic misunderstanding about just how cinema—and the human visual system, for that matter—works. They perceive every cut as a little lie, and have the notion that not cutting somehow more closely represents the way we actually see the world. But our visual field does not operate like a Steadicam. If a cut represents a shift in time or location, e.g. flying prehistoric bone to monolithic future space station, that’s one thing. (Yes, I know 2001 is no longer the future.) But if it merely represents a shift in angle, as most cuts within a given scene do, we tend to perceive it as continuity, so long as it isn’t deliberately jarring in some way. Traditional montage works precisely because it’s what we’re accustomed to in real life.
Look to your extreme left, then immediately look to your extreme right. (Really do this.) Did you register everything in between? I don’t. To me, that’s much closer to a cut from one shot to another than it is to a whip-pan. If you happen to blink along the way, as we all do about every six seconds on average, then it’s literally a visual disjunction—a cut. One of the more fascinating visual phenomena is the saccade, in which your eyes jump from one focal point to another without you necessarily being consciously aware of it. In one experiment, researchers had subjects read an electronic text through an apparatus that could track the tiny, rapid movements of their eyeballs, then proceeded to change all the words, but only during saccades. The subjects had no idea whatsoever that it was happening, even though someone looking over their shoulders would see the page completely transform several times per second. The illusion works because when you shift focus, you’re effectively blind for that instant, though your brain disguises the fact from you, just as it fills in your two blind spots.
Between blinks and saccades, we exist in a world where unconsciously interrupted vision is the norm. Hence there’s no real justification for these ever-more-strenuous attempts to create an ostensibly unbroken chunk of “real time,” unless your primary goal is to wow the viewer with the sheer awesomeness of your technique. Which, let me stress again, can be a perfectly laudable goal in some contexts—nobody’s running out to see 2012, for example, with any desire except to see how convincingly this year’s cutting-edge F/X can destroy world landmarks. But if you’re actually trying to move people, or make some kind of sincere sociopolitical statement, or depict, say, mankind’s potential extinction, you might want to refrain from just showing off.