Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Long Take, Continuity Editing and Realism

I have recently been reading Andre Bazin's What is Cinema? Volume 1.  He is a supporter of realism in film and a believer that the long take, which allows a true spatio-temporal continuity, is the best means of promoting realism in any type of film.  On the other side of this coin is continuity editing, which can show the same information, but in more pieces.  Continuity editing derives its realism largely from being an accepted, taken for granted convention, thus being an "invisible" style.  Both styles accomplish realism in their own way, but the debate is unsettled as to which is better.

Long takes are more objectively realistic in the sense that if I was held at gunpoint, shown two versions of the same scene, one a long take and the other an edited version, and asked for the stakes of my life which was real, I would guess the long take as long as it was not a trick question.  The main reason that a long take is more objectively realistic is that there are no edits.  An edit means the action could have been shot over any amount of time.  Even if you factor in the possibility of multiple angles, many set-ups are still absolutely impossible in one take.  Also, the events of a long take really did happen in front of the screen in their entirety even if their motivations and back story are ultimately the creation of an actor.  This becomes more important, the more unbelievable a scene is.  The more unbelievable something is, the more it needs to be shot in one take to prove its authenticity.  All of this can in some degree turn into a question of whether the editing or the mise-en-scene gets to lie, but eliminating editing does remove a layer of falsehood.

Continuity editing contributes to a more subjective realism.  In the hypothetical case mentioned earlier, I would not call it more realistic, but this might not even matter.  The audience is not in a courtroom looking at a technical photo of evidence.  They are at a movie theater looking at a work of art, thus usually bringing to it less critical ideals of realism.  Is not whatever best allows for suspension of disbelief rightly called realism?  Continuity editing is conventionalism.  Conventionalism is a style that has been used to the point of being taken for granted, thus being "invisible" and leading the audience to focus more directly on content over form.  While a long take may be more objectively realistic, it may draw attention to form and thus potentially lessen the realism for the viewer.  Continuity editing also usually draws attention to elements that are the most pertinent and the average audience member is most naturally curious about, thus working with the audience's own psychology to create an illusion that feels "natural."  A perfect example of this would be crosscutting in a conversation.

Long take and continuity editing are two different approaches to realism in filmmaking, one more objective and one more subjective.  It is difficult to say which approach is truly superior, but all things being equal, I lean towards the objective realism of the long take, for the realism and for other aesthetic reasons. Computer effects are headed towards a point of making this debate irrelevent, though.