Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Long Takes and the Best Director Category

Left to right: Michael Keaton and Edward Norton
There is something magical about the long take in cinema. The longer that a moment is held, the more engaging it becomes. The more that it swerves around the room, the more relaxed it feels. The long take is an approach that has long been reduced to a shot here or there in cinema. However, in 2013, director Alfonso Cuaron received universal acclaim for his work on Gravity, which didn't so much use long takes, but seemed to have them floating through space in awe-inspiring ways. This Friday marks the release of director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's Birdman, which ups the ante. For those that found five or even 15 minute long takes fascinating, wait until you see this gimmick. According to reports, Birdman is shot so that its two hour run time looks like one uninterrupted take. If that doesn't impress you, nothing will.

Birdman is an oddball hype machine unto itself. It is being promoted as Michael Keaton's comeback movie. The Antonio Sanchez score is predominantly jazz drum solos. Despite all of this, much like Gravity, it's biggest sell is its long takes. It is a simple gimmick that makes a film immediately anticipated. What is the art of camera movement mixed with performance. Unlike Gravity, which was shot predominantly on sound stages, this looks to be a lot more complex as it weaves in and out of buildings with costume changes and even a couple scenes of special effects. The trailers don't sell this angle because, well, they show different moments scattered throughout. They're connected, but likely with footage that is 30+ minutes between. 

The question is if this is going to catch on with filmmakers in general. Think about it. The shifting focus of the Best Director nomination has recently gone from more traditional point and shoot to more fanciful techniques that blend CGI with actual movement. Simply look at Life of Pi or Gravity, who have won for 2012 and 2013 respectively. It is a welcomed sign that the Academy is recognizing more ambitious techniques over compelling stories. In fact, in many cases, the directing impacts the narrative in exciting and fresh ways. 

This may prove problematic for older styles of direction, such as David Fincher with Gone Girl. His technique impacted the film, though it wasn't as boisterous as Inarritu's is being billed. The camera moved in an understated fashion to parlay the creepy undertones of a missing wife. Still, the choice to make a film that was unassuming doesn't mean that the idea will be appreciated. What I feel like the Academy is shifting towards is a flashier form of the medium. This may hurt the diversity, especially since it's only five nominees, but it means that more interesting films could make it that aren't necessarily the best films. It's been that way for the past few years with the Best Picture/Best Director being split between Argo/Life of Pi and 12 Years a Slave/Gravity respectively. 

Nonetheless, Birdman is going to be an exciting film, even if it doesn't work. Going in, there's only a question of how the film can be done. In some cases, the audience doesn't even know upon exiting how it was pulled off. From trailers alone, there's a sense that this is going to be one of those cases. As for Keaton, I will discuss his merits once the film is seen. Until then, I can admire how strange the film is and the fact that the soundtrack is unlike anything that Hollywood scores have been like in recent years is a welcomed sign. Let's hope this works.

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