FILM

Why the Continuous Tracking Shot in "1917" Is More Than Just a Gimmick

1917's "single long take" aesthetic makes for one of the most tense war movies ever made.

Universal Pictures

There are very few movie scenes that have any right being shot in one continuous take, let alone entire movies.

Typically, movies aim to absorb their viewers in the content of their story and action. Long takes are distracting because, by contrast, they draw attention to the camerawork and editing––or lack thereof. Many directors, especially those who fancy themselves "auteurs," like long takes because of their visual and technical difficulty. But great long takes don't exist solely for prestige amongst film buffs. No, the best long takes work in service of the larger story and themes at play in the movie.

For instance, the tricycle scene in The Shining serves to disorient the audience as they try to piece together the impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel. The hallway scene in Oldboy mirrors the arduous gauntlet of Oh Dae-su's path to revenge. And Birdman, an entire movie meant to look like one long take (it's actually multiple shorter long takes, expertly cut together), is reflective of its leading man's transition from film to live theater.

Much like Birdman, director Sam Mendes' World War I epic, 1917, isn't actually a movie made in a single take, but rather multiple long takes with clever editing. But, perhaps even more than Birdman, 1917 doesn't just look like a single take. It feels like one. And while the concept of a feature-length war movie that looks like a single long take might sound like a gimmick, 1917 proves the narrative value of its visual direction beyond a shadow of a doubt.

1917 has a relatively straightforward premise: During WWI, two young British soldiers stationed in France––Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman, Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones) and William Schofield (George MacKay)––are tasked with the mission of hand-delivering a letter to the 2nd Battalion in order to call off a planned attack on the Germans.

What proceeds is one of the tensest war movies I've ever seen, and that's owed in large part to the single take aesthetic. Normally, a well-composed series of shots encompass all the information we need to know at any particular moment in a movie, directing our eyes to the things we need to be paying attention to.

1917 Universal Pictures

But as the boys leave the relative safety of their trenches and venture out into No Man's Land, the camera slowly tracks them across a wide expanse of space with no particular direction in which we should be looking. This results in a constant feeling of tension, as we know the danger is ever-present, but we never know where it might be coming from. In a sense, the camerawork puts the viewer into the headspace of the soldiers, always scanning the landscape for threats.

In a similar vein, the single long take treats all aspects of the movie in a similar manner, gliding along with a slow track, sometimes moving in close, sometimes circling the area, but never speeding up past the gait of Blake and Schofield. This means that both light-hearted conversations and intense moments of action move at roughly the same pace. Doing so strips away some of the audience's most basic movie instincts.

For example, during the first stretch of the movie, which sees Blake and Schofield crossing through No Man's Land and an abandoned German trench, the boys don't encounter a single enemy combatant. Eventually, after they make it out of the German trench, Blake recounts a funny story as they walk through the woods.

Compared to the danger of the German trench, the woods feel much safer, but the contrast puts anyone well-versed in plot structure on their toes: If the trench seemed dangerous but nobody was there, then perhaps the woods will hold the real danger, ready to emerge during a moment of downtime when we finally feel safe. But nope. The boys make it through their conversation in the woods without a hitch and proceed to the next leg of their journey.

1917 Universal Pictures

Eventually, when battle scenes do occur, the long take style enhances the experience, as well. With the camera sticking to a single person, we get the chance to navigate battlescapes right alongside him. His danger is our danger. His enemies are our enemies. In other words, the long shot doesn't just function to show us battles, but make us invest in them.

1917 isn't a movie content with just depicting a war story. It requires our participation. By watching and following Blake and Schofield's journey, we enter the headspace of soldiers on a perilous mission right alongside them. So while 1917 is most certainly an impressive, ambitious act of technical filmmaking, it also offers an incredible narrative for which the technical elements serve a greater purpose. After experiencing 1917, it's hard not to wonder whether traditional film editing has been the real gimmick all along.

CULTURE

A Defense of Face Tattoos (and a Few Cautionary Tales)

Face tattoos are far from just SoundCloud trends.

Face tattoos have a pretty bad rap.

We love to make fun of them, laughing at the knowledge that there are people out there who are going to be stuck with a garish numerical figure on their foreheads or a phrase like "Always Tired" under their eyes for the rest of their lives.

Rooster Magazine

On the other hand, tattoos in general have always received harsh criticism. Though every millennial seems to have at least a few fine-line arm tattoos nowadays, all over the world and in many faiths, tattoos are sacrilegious, evidence of Satan's corrupting influence or its many iterations. Thus, tattoos have always been mechanisms of subversion and counterculture, whether as markers of membership in certain groups, or monikers of individuality, or signifiers of devotion to a certain kind of art or person. They've been ways of reclaiming or altering one's physical appearance, ways of taking ownership of a body that, all too often, capitalism and the media try to devour or force to align with some standard.

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FILM & TV

SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | 'Birdman' is a classic American tragedy

Citizen Kane and Birdman have a lot in common.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Hollywood will put you on Broadway before it spits you out.

When you think of a great American tragedy in film Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) should come to mind. Welles' classic is beloved by critics and film theorists as a visionary directorial debut; and if you've ever considered art school, its use of deep focus and original screenplay are lauded by a balding professor in a film history class near you. Citizen Kane is a character study on man who never got to be a kid, a story that both condemns and glorifies the American dream. In short, the story goes that Charles Foster Kane is a newspaper tycoon who never learns how to love, and never develops relationships outside of his material and or egotistical desires. His rise is great and his fall is even greater.

Citizen Kane is an American tragedy that dissects fame and fortune under a microscopic lens, and the more I watch it, the more I'm reminded of another great film, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman (2014), a similar character study of a man so desperate for love and admiration, he forces himself into psychosis.

On The Surface

Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman is about a washed-up actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton)—known for starring as the superhero Birdman—attempting to revive his career through a Broadway play he's written. (Ironically, Michael Keaton starred as Batman in the prime of his career, falling back from Hollywood to do indie-budget films.) His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) suffers with depression due to her father's absence as a child, and reminds Riggan that even when he is around, he's rarely emotionally present. Birdman is filmed in one entire take. There are digital transitions used in the film, but spectators are led to believe the narrative develops in the course of one take as a method of navigating Riggan's psychotic episode.

Deeper Meanings

Birdman suggests that a character created for business always exists in a land of business. Several characters come to mind: Tobey Maguire as the lovable Spiderman, Robert Downey Jr. making his sober, box office comeback as the metal Iron Man, and Christian Bale as Batman. These actors are offered the opportunity to become a suited money machine, a global figure beloved by comic book aficionados; what's interesting about this opportunity is the stigma silently attached to it. Blockbusters are commonly lucrative, but rarely fruitful in substance, marketed to mass audiences, as the character, or should I say, padded suit, becomes bigger than the actor. Tobey Maguire will forever be known as Spiderman and Robert Downey Jr. as the guy from Iron Man who sometimes tries to be serious. Birdman critiques the artistic merit of the superhero getup.

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson Birdman

This isn't to say that you can't find good performances in action blockbusters (Logan comes to mind), or that movie franchises lack merit of any kind, but in Riggan's case, there's no escaping his action hero persona; his image consumes his true nature, and as it dies, Riggan sinks deeper into insanity, unable to distinguish himself from Birdman. Like Riggan, Charles larger-than-life character consumes his image, and ultimately, his life. Charles is a byproduct of the American dream, attempting to replace his nonexistent childhood with mansions and public approval; and Riggan is a forgotten actor, attempting to disembody his character for authentic art and public approval.

Classroom Takeaways

The American dream is an invention and we're all corporate zombies. No, don't worry. It's not that bleak. Yes, both Citizen Kane and Birdman are weary of the American dream (and public personas), but they are more so cautionary tales of using fame, prestige, wives, money, and power as replacements for deeper deficiencies in our lives. The tragedy of life is that a second act isn't guaranteed.

'Citizen Kane'Orson Welles

POP⚡ DUST Score: ⚡⚡⚡⚡⚡


Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.


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