The Allure of Difficulty: Long Takes and Directorial Skill in Birdman

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Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman has been praised for both its story and how that story is told. Media coverage of the film almost inevitably stresses Iñárritu’s use of long takes to create the impression of a film that is nearly devoid of editing. For the director, this insistence on emptying the film of all but a few overt cuts was an attempt to both bring the audience closer to the perspective of the main character Riggan as he attempts to open a new play he has written and is directing and starring in while struggling with his status as an artist, and to more closely mimic how we all perceive the world. The continuous takes, the director claims, mirror the continuity of our perspective since when “we open our eyes and we are in it continuously all day. We can’t escape. That’s why we love fiction, because in fiction you can fragment time and space, but our lives, not so.”

The aesthetic effects actually accomplished by long takes (shots of an unusual duration, typically more than one minute) are a hotly contested matter. The idea that the technique offers a means of objectively reproducing reality since it maintains the spatial and temporal continuity of the event being shot, which would otherwise be cut up and reassembled through editing, is often the central point of contention. While Iñárritu similarly stressed the idea of continuity, for the director the virtue of the long take is to offer a more humanized vision of the world, rather than the objective one typically associated with the technique’s respect for spatial and temporal wholeness. Since what we see is never subjected to editing, the long take comes closer to how we view the world than a film which employs standard cutting practices.

There are, of course, a number of differences between the long take and ordinary vision – cinema reduces three dimensional reality to two dimensional images, the camera can focus on multiple planes at the same time in a way our eyes cannot, film is composed of a regularly interrupted series of images – that put any easy association between the technique and the reality of perception in question. More importantly, however, how Iñárritu actually employs the long take is often at odds with his stated goal of bringing the camera in line with ordinary vision.

Iñárritu’s camera is almost constantly mobile in the film, often following just behind the characters as they make their way through space, fluidly breaking off from one to pursue another. While this does give the sense of a continuous space the camera can travel though, at times the mobility of the camera effectively divides the space in ways similar to cutting, as it shifts between camera set ups typical of common editing patterns, focusing on important parts of the scene, or on different characters as they speak. That a long take could be disastrously effected by any unforeseen eventualities also creates a much stronger sense of the difference between indoor and outdoor space, since the transition from the one to the other signals the shift from a set in which (for the most part) everything can be controlled and engineered, to a space subject to the whims of weather, wildlife, and unruly New Yorkers.

Whether or not space is rendered in a more continuous and therefore more realistic manner by the film’s long takes, however, the impossibly free mobility with which Iñárritu’s camera traverses that space gives the film a perceptual power that goes beyond anything we are capable of. There are a number of moments in which the camera does something that is patently impossible in a single uninterrupted take, passing through solid objects or swooping into the air. In these moments the impression is less of ordinary vision than the extraordinary skill of the filmmakers in pulling off the illusion of a continuous take. The shots become a spectacle themselves, a flaunting of cinematographic skill, that overshadows their narrative functions. This audacious drawing of attention to the mastery involved in making the film, however, suggests what else the long take offers beyond the attempt to produce perceptual realism.

The sheer difficulty of shooting a film in long takes often becomes a point of interest in the press surrounding it, a way of differentiating that film from other releases shot using more conventional techniques, and of marking out its director as a skilled and daring filmmaker. The use of the long take as a point of aesthetic differentiation is not new. As James Uden argues, the “long take has had a recurring cachet both within Hollywood and without,” used by directors like Orson Welles in cooperation with his studio bosses at RKO to demonstrate both filmmaker’s and studio’s willingness to innovate, and by Gus Van Sant to declare his independence from a system that would not typically allow directors to make technical features the focus of their films.

Uden offers Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) as a more contemporary example of the use of long takes to assert stylistic individuality inside a commercially motivated production system. The rhetoric surrounding the film similarly stressed the aesthetic effects of the technique, with the director and his team lionizing the long take for its ability to afford their dystopian, post-apocalyptic narrative about a human race no longer able to have children, with an objective style that mimicked documentary or news footage. Yet this attempt to frame the decision to use long takes as an aesthetic choice designed to suit the narrative of the film is matched by pride “simply for having pulled off these long takes,” regardless of their avowed purpose. For Uden, in providing Cuarón a point of “aesthetic distinction,” the long takes helped to suggest that the filmmaker’s career will be characterized by stylistic independence even during productions dependent on big studio financing.

Before the release of Birdman Iñárritu’s career had hit something of a speed bump. He gained instant recognition for his first film, Amores Perros, in 2000, and seemed poised to attain auteur status when his next film, Babel, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although Biutiful, his only film since that 2006 success, was similarly honoured by the Academy with a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the bleak drama about terminal illness was, as Steven Zeitchik argues, a “lightly seen effort whose unremitting seriousness had some asking whether the director was losing his touch.”

For Zeitchick, Iñárritu’s turn to comedy with Birdman after the “unremitting seriousness” of his previous films marked an attempt to break out of the cycle of trying to “repeat past success” by offering something daringly new. The use of long take cinematography carries a similar connotation of risk, giving the production the additional allure of technical daring to go along with the courage of switching conceptual focus. The press on the film framed the production as a risky venture, focusing on the dangers involved in both the use of the long take and producing a comedy, challenges Iñárritu also highlights in discussing the film:

“To make a comedy, first, is always a big challenge, especially for somebody who has never done comedy… And the way I decided to do it, which is this one-take thing, it’s a very difficult task in a way that challenges you technically and conceptually, because you have to make a lot of decisions and sacrifices by that, and be very aware.”

The risk Richard Linklater took on in making Boyhood offers a similar case of the allure of daring and difficulty in filmmaking practice. In both cases the techniques used carried with them the potential to destroy the directors’ respective films in the event of some unseen contingency, and in both cases the press surrounding the films stressed the innovation of those techniques alongside the content they serve to deliver as a mark of distinction for film and filmmaker alike.

Apart from any suggestion that they bring film closer to human perception, therefore, the long takes in Birdman also serve to separate the film and its director from their competition.


References:

Victoria Ahearn, “‘Birdman’ direction Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu drawn to fearful territory,” The Canadian Press (21 Oct 2014).

James Uden, “Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuaron’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization,” Style 43, no. 1 (2009).

Steven Zeitchik, “From doubts, ‘Birdman’: After early promise, Alejandro G. Inarritu found himself in the midst of his own existential crisis. He decided to convert all his doubts into artistry,” Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2014.

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