Friday, March 9, 2012

The Long Take Part III: The Static Shot Without Movement

The static shot without movement is, I believe, currently seen as one of the most painfully boring film techniques for today's viewer.  It is a punishment for many, but for some, it is a deep reward in the right context.  For millenia, created, non-perfomance art was static art.  Motion pictures do not render static art obsolete or destroy its power even within the confines of a motion picture.  Art is not an endlessly progressing line.    The static shot can put one in a reflective mode which some subject matter is very worthy of or it can create irony when the subject matter is unworthy.  When used with faces it creates a high level of intimacy.  When used with speaking subjects, it forces us to focus on words and reach into a more abstract mode.  A static shot can also "trust" the viewer to follow an image the way they would be carried through with heavy editing or even a tracking shot.  The fullest form of the static shot without movement is the freeze frame.  It freezes not only the picture and sound, but also the feelings that go with it.  It can also be used to "cut-off" the consequences of an action.

For millenia, mankind has been creating art: paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc.  These arts are static arts.  They do not move or change and the way we experience them is by looking at them.  I can look at a painting and see the whole thing in a moment.  After that, the only thing for me to do with it is to look at it some more.  Many people can't appreciate paintings for this reason.  Are history's great works of art rendered obsolete by motion picture technology?  No.  The history of art is not a straight line of evolution with each era being superior to the last.  Objective improvements can be made in relation to specific goals (i.e. realism), but this does not necessarily prove that one style is inherently superior to another, or that the "stepping stones" have no value in and of themselves.  The films of the Lumiere brothers do not remove the value of the paintings of Raphael.  A work of art can be looked at in a historical context, but also alone.  It has inherent value, separate from its historical context.  The realization of some problem being solved does not fully diminish the value of the stepping stones, which were primarily great works of art and secondarily stepping stones.  Being as static art has value, why would it cease to have value when placed between the beginning and end of a film reel?  The thing that sets motion pictures apart from what came before them is motion.  It would be silly to not utilize this characteristic.  Nevertheless, stillness is still valid as a means of artistic expression and can have a place in motion pictures.  New techniques complement old ones, not eliminate them.  A great artist uses all the means in front of him, using mostly familiar elements to create something new. 

Which of these paintings is the best?  The other two can be thrown away.

The static shot without movement, which for the purposes here does not necessarily mean a freeze frame, promotes a reflective mode.  As already stated, once you've instantly or nearly instantly seen the entirety of a painting, all that is left to do is look at it some more.  The same is true of a static shot.  The immediate visual processing of the image is done and so something deeper takes place as long as the viewer is in the right state and does not give in to boredom.  The problem then becomes what is worth reflecting on.  Many old paintings had lofty subject matter and beautiful form partly just so that they could be something worth looking at for seconds on end.  Most of today's cinematographic images do not have such gravitas because they don't need it.  They are here and gone within about three seconds.  The overall story is what grips us and not the power of individual images.  One of the biggest exceptions to this rule is the work of Sergei Eisenstein.  He does poetic montage, working both with strong archetypal and associational imagery and quick cuts to tie it all together.  In the Catholic Church, there is the tradition of the Eucharistic holy hour.  Catholics will often stare at the Eucharist for minutes on end.  On the other hand, this idea of meaningful reflection can be turned on its head by letting the camera linger on something stupid.  This creates an ironic statement.  It can be powerful if done on purpose, but it is only a mistake if done accidentally. 

The static long take can be used to powerful effect with faces.  It is very intimate, like lovers staring into each other's eyes.  A prolonged stare can have a huge impact, amplifying its effect: anger, love, happiness, etc.  Each moment compounds on the previous one rather than equaling it.  The human face is so full of expressive nuance.  It introduces us to its owner and goes on to tell us about him. The eyes are the window to the soul.  This effect can not be utilized by a quick shot of a face.  It must linger.

The long take can also be used with speaking subjects or voice-over narration.  On top of the effects already stated for the long take of a face, the monotony of the image leads us to focus on the words.  This can put us into an abstract, intellectual mode.  There are many abstract concepts that the material world does not express empirically, and thus we need language and a voice using that language to express these things.  These concepts are usually explored with the written word, but the spoken word can explore them in much the same way.  High concepts mixed with the expressiveness of the face can create maximum potency.

The static shot without movement need not be something simple that an audience member can fully visual comprehend at once.  It can be used to relay multiple details that might have otherwise shown up over a period of time through montage editing.  This allows the viewer to decide what he wants to look at rather than letting the editor make all the choices.  Even within a single frame, the order of visual choices can be led.  Sergei Eisenstein, in his book The Film Sense, looks at the idea of the path of the eye in painting thus:
...there is usually something in a painting which attracts the attention before all other elements.  From this point the attention moves along the path desired by the artist. 
In the case of film, though, this is different than painting because the viewer does not know how long he will have to soak up all the details.  The shot could end at any moment so the editor may want to estimate the time of eye movement.

The freeze frame is the fullest example of a static shot without movement and the most ostentatious.  It can't not draw attention to itself.  It takes a moment in time, not just an image, but everything associated with it, and pauses and elongates it.  It adds impact to a specific moment or it can allows us to savor a moment longer.  At the end of the movie Rocky, after seeing him go through his journey, we are allowed to savor his climax of joy for a few seconds.

Freezing on a "climax" can also be a means of avoiding showing what happens next.  Often this would be used to avoid showing the consequences of an action and only showing its "glorious" beginning.  The ending of Thelma and Louise gives a dishonest and sentimental view of suicide.  Suicide is not a glorious act of female emancipation.  It is a tragic act that people do when they are deeply depressed.  I want to see Thelma and Louise's guts splatter at the bottom of the cliff.  The actual, honest consequences of their action would provide a counterpoint to the sentimentality that preceded and rationalized it.  Whether or not it's meant to, or if the director just wanted a strong ending, this ending gave a very inappropriate message about both suicide and feminism.

The long take without movement is a powerful thoughtful and useful technique which should never go away completely.  It is one of the video artists great tools.

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