Thursday, February 12, 2009

Long Takes and Long Sentences

[This follows up on my previous post, on Blindness by José Saramago, where I considered the rather generic way we read long sentences as being primarily effects, designed to be noticed, rather than tools or strategies which can advance a wide variety of aesthetic or ideological agendas. In seeing the long sentence primarily as an effect, or even as a sort of spectacle, we tend to flatten out the differences between the writers who employ this prose technique. Here, I want to consider the long sentence's relation to the long take in film. Since this has been, for the most part, a lit-blog, here is some background and examples: Here, at Daily Film Dose, is a well-curated list of famous long (tracking) shots, along with YouTube clips; here, at Reverse Shot, is an insightful post on the politics of the tracking shot central to Atonement; and here, at Cinemetrics, is a big but obviously incomplete database of films, which I've set to sort by average shot length (in seconds)—unfortunately, I don't think the table can sort descending, so you'll have to scroll a lot to the bottom.]

What is notable about the long take is the amount of effort required to create it—the coördination, the precision, the multilayered and panoramic vision necessary to plan, prepare and execute it. People screw up on movie sets all the time, even on 3 or 4-second shots, so keeping a whole cast and crew from screwing up for a few minutes or longer is actually quite an achievement. We are meant to be impressed by the sheer fact that the long take happened, but even more so by the fact that someone decided to try to make it happen. Interestingly, although a successful long take requires the coöperation and skill of dozens of people, the credit for its execution floats all the way upstream to that moment of decision—to the director's "vision" or ambition. The long take is the underwriter of auteur theory, a role it plays more so today than ever.1

The tendency has been for some time now to glorify the long take as a sort of auteurist gesture par excellence, the watermark of mastery. The sheer act of including a long take in a film is almost automatically read—by film geeks, anyway—as a vigorous claim to artistic ambition at least, if not also to artistic skill. The long take is an unmistakable announcement of its own audacity, perhaps because the directors famous for their long takes—Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Antonioni—is such an elite group.

I think the way we read the long sentence has been shaped by cinephile enthusiasm for the long take, and, speaking more generally, the way we read experimental or difficult novelists has been fueled by the residual energies of auteur theory.

Of course, "auteur" as a term was selected to name the theory that the director could imprint a highly personal vision because (it seemed at the time), the author of a novel was so unproblematically able to do just that. So it may seem strange that I am here reversing that chain of influence and arguing that now our literary ideas are being affected by the remaining illusions we have that the director has god-like creative powers. Yet if one considers that auteur theory really just got under way in America as the figure of the (literary) author began to suffer from an enormous crisis of confidence and was most actively questioned, resisted and even taken for "dead," then it is perhaps not surprising that later efforts to restore greatness to an author (if not to the author in general) would siphon off some of the vitality of auteur theory.

I suppose it is also rather strange to argue that the enthusiasm behind writers like Sebald or Bernhard or Bolaño comes from a desire to restore the author to greatness, yet I cannot understand that support in any other context. The swell of enthusiasm behind Bolaño over the past two years has really been at its core a push toward stardom, and I don't think it's inaccurate to argue that the lit-blogosphere (or at least that coterie of blogs which focuses on or promotes experimental fiction) acts pretty damn well as a star-making system.

I therefore find it almost natural that the newest literary "stars" tend to use a technique which fits in so well with auteur theory and its glorification of the long take, that their writing is dominated by something so easily analogous to the dominant technique of high art in another medium. The long sentence makes an author an auteur again.

1 This blog, Unspoken Cinema, presents an interesting example of the dominance of directors who use the long take as a principal element in their film-making; the site is devoted to "contemplative cinema," which as you can see basically means the biggest names in contemporary arthouse film. [back to top]


Edmond Caldwell said...

Some very provocative connections being made here. I would just add that I think of auteur theory as an extension of a certain modernist idea of the author (encyclopedic scope combined with the hypostatization of Style, typified by Joyce most of all) into the realm of cinema. My first thought, actually, while reading your post was that Colin MacCabe's first book was about Joyce and his most recent book was on Godard. But there's no reason why cultural energy which had passed into one form (in this case cinema) couldn't "loop back" and re-energize the prior form (literature) at a later date, and when for some it might seem to need the boost. And certainly it goes both ways -- think of the influence that early silent film had on the rise of surrealism, etc.

It's great to have a "lit" blog talking about other forms and media, by the way. I think art thrives on cross-fertilization, and blogs could be ideal tools for participating in and furthering that but often instead settle for reproducing narrow "disciplinary" domains of specialization...

Anonymous said...

There is something to what you say, Andrew, about the reading public's desire for auteur-like heroes, and to what you say, Edmond, about auteur theory being an outgrowth of modernist ideas of the author. I'd extend these combined ideas a tiny bit and say that Sebald's emergence in the English-language world in the late 90s (which, it should be noted, obviously had nothing to do with blogs) did in fact feel premised on the notion that here, finally, was a writer with a subject, a form, and a style that took the modernist tradition seriously and moved it forward. At the time, as now, most "serious" writers occupied one of two cul-de-sacs: the dirty realist/New Yorker fiction one, or the 70s-vintage pomo one. Writers like DFW and DeLillo were writing books that basically split the difference, but this didn't (and still doesn't) feel like a remaking of literature on par with what the modernists were doing.

I'm not sure most Bernhard/Sebald/Bolano enthusiasts read the long sentence phenomenon, though, in relation to long shots in cinema, in part because, as you indicate, Andrew, the technical processes involved in creating the long shot remove it so remarkably far from the long sentence's focus on the moment of articulation. Also, the long sentence, as Edmond points out in his comment to the previous post, has unignorable roots in late Victorian and modernist literature. I'd say that the writers we're discussing are more deeply involved in a dialogue with the Victorians and the moderns than with Tarkovsky or Antonioni.*


*In his approach to narrative structure and point of view, though, Bolano employs techniques clearly derived from film. Also, the resemblance of Sebald's books to documentary films is obvious.

Anonymous said...

Guy Davenport

Andrew Seal said...

Definitely--I'm not trying to say that these writers are trying to borrow from (this specific) cinematic technique or are trying to construct a dialogue with these filmmakers (although I do wonder what such a dialogue might look like).

What I mean to argue is that the readerly/critical sensibility that values the long sentence is analogous to the cinephile sensibility that values the long take. I unfortunately didn't do a very good job of making clear what the dynamics or shape of that analogy are, but I hope to do that in another (later) post.

And Edmond, thank you for re-focusing me on modernism's influence here--I will certainly need to think that through quite a lot before moving forward.