cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

Béla Tarr’s Long Takes (an education in film)




18 August 2008


If you are anything like me you will come across an extreme example or two of the cinematographic long take and end up doing an impromptu film course by default – a bit like coming across random pages of the text of a film school course blowing down the street.

I came to Béla Tarr by accident through a quote in Spurious of part of an interview with Tarr.

I have never watched any of his films. There are some extracts in Youtube.  The first one I came across was the opening sequence from Werckmeister Harmonies. Then the tango from Satantango: there is a short cut to a boy looking through a window which breaks this up.

Knowing nothing about Tarr’s work at this stage, I was put in mind of Tarkovsky : the later bar scene in Stalker goes on and on and on, though it is a pretty static shot, if I remember correctly: perhaps one zoom in.

The opening sequence from Satantango lasts for 7.54 minutes in the Youtube version. The first 60 seconds is static. Then the camera tracks slightly to the left (or pans a degree or two from the track position…..keep you eyes on the foreground puddles) to better frame building ends, perhaps, or to better group the cows as they begin to move leftwards across in the middle distance in front of  the buildings. This is documentary filming, though one knows it is the beginning of a fiction. One is becoming aware of the camera. This awareness would be broken if some serious action was introduced such as a cowman entering the shot calling out to his cows. But nothing happens except the camera tracking the cow’s movements. One becomes aware of thinking that the track has been laid out in advance, despite the cows seemingly acting on their own. If the camera stays fixed to the track there is a limited amount it can do.

One of the things I became aware of is that the cows were acting independently. In other words, whatever the director’s plan for this scene, he could not direct the cows. The plan had been for a long, slow take, whatever the action, without any rapid camera movement. When a few cows come into the foreground, one rather close (though it is not possible to judge from this how close it is to the camera – whether the track is much further back) one suspects the camera may be moved away from it. There seems to be an attempt to get the front cow out of the picture, but since the modus is ultra slow camera movement, it doesn’t happen. The curious cow and a few others further back wander off out of the frame to the left, the front one left half in the frame for a while.  What this amounts to is an awareness that the filming is ex tempore. No one knows what the cows are going to do. The director knows he cannot jerk the camera away from anything that doesn’t accord with his image. So what you see is mind of the cinematographer (or maybe the director himself might have been in the chair) as small adjustments are made to the scene.

Afterwards I read that it was believed amongst film theorists that this slow movement of the camera is seen an non-intrusive, not playing a part in creating what is filmed, unlike montage. I don’t think this is true. Though I don’t dislike the effect. I thought the length and slowness of the procedure in this Tarr take made it clear it was not just like something I might watch in real life (a single point- of view) but was obviously mediated through the camera. Though the idea – so the theorists say – is depth of focus is designed to let the viewers eye roam the scene much as it might in real life.

The arrangement of such a shot gives it limited possibilities. The camera is on a length of track set down in a specific orientation.  Within this there can only be tracking, panning and zoom. Tarr doesn’t use any zooming here. But the static 60 seconds turns into slow, narrow-angle left pan – or track and pan – which made me wonder if the beginning static shot had been started with the camera at an angle greater or less than 90 degrees to the buildings in the background.

I could almost see the crew pushing the camera on the trolley along the tracking as the scene unfolded. To me this is as intrusive as the narrator in a novel who interrupts his own story to make comments about characters in it: here in film is a kind of generic statement about film, rather than about this film, “This is being filmed”.

The effect of montage film can be unreal but mostly because of the rapidly changing point of view, changes of focal length, and so on, which don’t give you time to ponder about cameras and crews. In what is I learn called the normative style of film making (the one we see in almost every Hollywood film we watch) – short takes tightly edited to force the story through by compression – there is no time to mull over how the effect has been created through sheer momentum of a series of short shots. In other words, with fast cut action you must keep up with the action, whereas with a very long take, it’s inevitable the brain will drift off the viewing into private thoughts about how it was achieved as well as the content.

As the cows begin to move left, the camera  tracks very slowly parallel to the action.  The parallelness of the track becomes apparent as it passes puddles in the foreground and once it runs close to the wall of a  building (which is immediately in focus), till at last it arrives at a road/track at 90 degrees to the track, where the cows are seen walking away from view and out of sight.

Watching the sequence again, it seemed that the slight pan after 60 seconds was a correction to make sure when the final long track took place it was parallel to the long row of building in the foreground. So at the start the camera had been set on the track at an angle of about 100 degrees to make the view square to the background long building along which the cows ambled. At the end of this row is a building set on its own at a slight angle to it. It is to this that camera seems to use the slight pan to adjust to, before the long tracking right to the end of the sequence.

The way my brain works ( leaving aside the intended meaning of the scene with its eery soundtrack – I haven’t seen the film) I imagined the director had seen the cows move like this on many  occasions.  This is fiction but in documentary style. He can’t control the cows.  Interesting to see how many out takes there are of this scene.  I felt as if the cows were not pushed into moving by someone outside the frame. They did this every morning.

The tango dance from Satantango some say they find mesmeric.  It is not a continuous take – there is an intercut of a boy looking through a window. But it goes on and on, and on and on. The swirling dancers keep swirling as best as they can in between tripping and falling over. A distinct story line evolves  with the man, balancing what looks like a banana on his forehead, keeps on crossing the dancing traffic. The short loop of music adds to the effect. Its like an over-long music video in this respect.  But there is a lot going on in the action. Watch it a few times. It is a self-contained story.

There came a time, about 30 seconds into the dance, when I began to suspect it will go one much longer than I would like and could bear. It did. Having watched the whole scene again, there seemed to have been some point to the length.  Being able to re-watch one scene is not possible in a theatre viewing. It makes it possible to focus on things one might not have the first time around.  So there is already a question here in asking if the director expects the viewer to pick out all the detail or to drift in a mode which is saying, this is a dance sequence, I’ve seen plenty of these and pretty much know what goes on in them. But then, because of the sheer length what else can you do but start to pick out detail?

For me, the focus was on the woman in the light coloured pullover and her bespectacled partner.  Although this was said to be impromptu, and Tarr himself says the actors were tiddly, when you think of the whole thing afterwards you recognise a lot was going on in there. It was self-contained story.

There are many questions to be asked about such a film technique and viewer participation. Does the mind drop into a less attentive mode as it becomes apparent that the sequence is very much like a loop with its seemingly repetitive action?  Does the mind, once it loses attention and because of the sheer length of the scene, begin to recognise that a lot more is going on than first thought and become re-attentive?  And then regret not paying attention to begin with?

Most directors would structure a scene like the tango with several points-of-view and with cut-aways to people at tables watching the dancing and then back, close-ups of dancers head and shoulders, or to other secondary elements, such as someone leaving the room to smoking a cigarette outside, perhaps with the sound of music coming through the open door, or a cut-away to dancers through a window.  You can watch a dozen films with a dance-hall scene in it and find these elements. The audience is asked to fill in what is not shown. The construction of this scene assigns the audience one POV  while asking it to imagine the others.

Tarr seems to be saying, ” Look, this is what happened in its entirety. I am showing you everything that happened in that room in the ten minutes it happened. Nothing has been left out. I have shown it to you from one point-of-view only, but it was all there.” The assumption is that he knows perfectly well irritation and possibly lack of attention will set in.  This can happen when we watch real-life action such as the complicated movements across a station forecourt with people criss-crossing across the space. How many people idly waiting for a train would start to pick out specific faces, acts or categories of action from within the seeming samey mass of it?

Tarr knows that we are used to films with lots of short shots stitched together with jump cuts. Some commenters say they can’t watch the film (which lasts over 7 hours) without beginning to squirm quite early on.

At the beginning of the cow sequence in Satantango, the camera points unrelieved (a full 60 seconds) at the cow shed and the cows coming out. The viewers start to ask what can be learnt from this commonplace scene. They know what happens with cows.  But the moment this thought enters the head, when something only slightly different happens (a cow gets curious about the camera and crew) it is noticed.

It seems almost inevitable in any long film sequence like this that the mind wanders off the events being filmed to notions of film per se: that there is a camera in front of us, there, and in front of it is a scene being acted out.  Though it can be said this is realism because everything in a given time was included, unlike a similar sequence consisting of many edits, it becomes unreal because of its length and slowness.

Tarr specialises in shots of people walking off into the distance. There are a few YouTube examples. They walk and walk (along a road, say) and the camera follows or lets the walkers go. There is nothing much in the distance or to the left or right.  My question is whether, filmically, it is enough to say I have seen every second of the walk? Are we talking narrative or the Aesthetics of Shot ?

Film theorists like Tarkovsky and Andre Bazan argue for the long take by criticising montage. By doing so they are arguing for realist cinema.  Another thing I learnt after watching the Tarr sequences, is that realists saw Eisenstein’s montage techniques as novelistic: the cut being the full stop, etc.  One of the most useful texts here is the essay The Long Take That Kills: Tarkovsky’s rejection of montage by Benjamin Halligan. Might as well link here to pages in filmref.com. (1) Shots – The Aesthetics of Shot (2) Camera movement [ “The film critic Andre Bazin was one of the great champions of camera movement within long takes, believing that such shots had then potential to record the reality of the world in front of the camera more accurately than sequences constructed through editing.”](3) Realism – Theories of Realism (The whole realism section really). Haligan, referring to a scene in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, says:

“The speed of the tracking is of the utmost importance here; its slowness strips the camera movement of a narrative function., since the camera movement does not advance the narrative progression of the film [….]. So what does this slowness do to the aesthetic? Having removed it from the context of the film’s narrative, it reworks it as a meditative, perhaps hallucinatory, swell of mobile imagery.”

There is something called the Average Shot Length ( mentioned at the bottom of wiki: Long Take together with a table of  the highest ASLs of films starting with the one-take movie Russian Ark. Numbers two and three are Werckmeister Harmonies and  Satantango with ASLs of 223.7 secs and 145.7 secs. respectively.  It should be obvious to the the statisticians amongst you this is not greatly meaningful because a film with one very long shot and a mass of very short ones could end up with the same ASL as a film with a lot of slightly longer shots. It certainly tells you that one film may contain more long shots than another. It allows students of film to write about how things have changed over the years shot-wise.

Other views?

Darren Hughe in Long Pauses, Boring Art Films, October 4, 2005:

In the mad dash to build and resolve, build and resolve narrative tension, most movies use standard continuity editing to do the work for us. In the perfect genre film (Psycho, for example), we’re at the director’s mercy. We willingly surrender our freedom for two hours and go wherever the film leads. Boring Art Films, by contrast, are often elliptical. Instead of splicing together a perfectly coherent line of narrative development, they leave gaps. I like the words “parataxis” and “hypotaxis.” The former juxtaposes, the latter draws connections. “I left. She cried.” versus “When I left, she cried.” Boring Art Films typically use parataxis to force the viewer into a participatory role. We get to be creative when we watch. We get to fill the gaps.

Girish in a July 2006 post titled The Long Take, does Bazin but points out there is a view that the long-take can be put to non-realist purposes, citing Godard’s Weekend.

Fast cuts, Slow views by Richard Herskowitz (mentions a book by Kundera called Slowness) :

…..Antonioni, Ozu, Bresson, Kubrick, Rohmer, Malick… These slow-teurs have suffered some abuse for telling uneventful stories. Remember how some critics dubbed Antonioni’s leisurely films about alienated characters and their environments “Antoniennui?” How Gene Hackman in Night Moves passed on an invitation to watch an Eric Rohmer film by comparing it to “watching paint dry?” In response, I’ll quote Robert Bresson: “Condemned are the films the slowness and the silence of which are mistaken by the slowness and the silence of the audience in the cinema.” The action of contemplative cinema is latent in the mind of the viewer who becomes, in our featured guest Paul Schrader’s words, “an active participant in the creative process.” Schrader’s influential book Transcendental Style in Film, on Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, noted that the paring down of action and performance and spectacle liberates the viewer to soar imaginatively and spiritually.

There’s quotes from Bazin on deep-focus and realism in Screenville.

A blog calling itself Contemplative Cinema  has a set  of posts on Bela Tarr, including one with an awful lot of links to all sorts of things Tarr.

And finally a selection of sites dealing with Bela Tarr’s films :

The Melancholy of Resistance: The films of Bela Tarr by Peter Hames in KinoEye (New Perspectives on European Film)

MovieMartyr.com (subtiteld ‘suffering for your cinema’) does a review of Satantango.

Satantango: And then there was darkness by Donato Totaro in Offscreen.

Lateral Sculpture: Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó is a very long, interesting and well-written post by Ryland Walker Knight in  a  blog called The House Next Door, which introduces Tarkoky’s book, Sculpting in Time, and links to a dedicated Torkoky site, Nostalghia, which links to articles and essays  including The Long Take That Kills: Tarkovsky’s rejection of montage.

Prof. of film Studies David Bordwell’s post Tango Marathon.

A Place in the Pantheon: Films by Bela Tarr ( Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader)

A one-page review of Satantango in NYT.

Darren Hughe’s Long Pauses blog covers Satantango and Damnation in separate posts.

Short effective review of Satantango in Movie Habit by John Adams.

Waggish has two posts on Satantango.

Satantango by Rumsey Taylor in Slant Magazine.

Opening shots: Satantango ( out1 blog) – handy link to the opening sequence in Youtube.

Another version of the Nostalghia links on Tarkovsky.

Strictly Film School (filmref.com) on Almanac of Fall, Damnation, Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies

Hope Deep Within – Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies by Gabe Klinger in Senses of Cinema.




August 19, 2008 - Posted by | Bela Tarr, film [its techniques] | , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. […] Good account of one blogger’s introduction to Bela Tarr at Fear of Death is Intransitive. […]

    Pingback by How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies « Spectacular Attractions | November 9, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] comment stream is slightly longer than Moby Dick. Guess he would hate Bela Tarr’s Satantango. Béla Tarr’s Long Takes (an education in film) FILM Satantango (Sátántangó) by Béla Tarr {2} Photography wiki: Roger Fenton N.B. mentions […]

    Pingback by PHOTOGRAPHY ESSAY ERROL MORRIS On Roger Fenton’s 2 Crimea War photographs titled ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ taken 0n 23 April 1855 « cutting on the action | March 7, 2012 | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Helen West Heller and commented:
    part 1 of article on Bela Tarr’s Satantango

    Comment by helen west heller | March 16, 2012 | Reply


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