In a recent post on Birdman, I quoted director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s justification of the film’s central stylistic gambit – the use of long take cinematography to make it seem as if the majority of the film was shot using one continuous take – as an attempt to bring it in line with the way we normally perceive the world. Perception outside filmic representation, Iñárritu claimed, is not marked by the breaks and gaps created through editing, since once “we open our eyes,” he argued, “we are in it continuously all day.” We cannot escape the continuity of time and space that film can so easily break into fragments and stitch back together through editing. Years of watching film and repeated exposure to common figures of editing has taught us to unconsciously ignore the cuts, so that what we see bears the semblance of a unified whole, but in doing so we are accepting a way of looking at the world that is different from our everyday perception.
My post suggested both how the film deviates from the goal of creating a perceptual realism and some of the industrial reasons Iñárritu may have pursued long take cinematography beyond any claims to its stylistic effects. For the most part, however, I side-stepped the question of whether or not the director’s claims hold true, either for how we perceive the world in our everyday lives or for the ways in which cinema conforms to or deviates from that way of seeing.
David Bordwell has suggested that many common stylistic conventions in film “serve to stylize, highlight, or purify ordinary visual experiences or social interactions.” While the instant change in the camera’s position achieved by a cut is “something we can’t do in real life,” it may nonetheless approximate the way we tend to look at the world. A cut to a close up of an object, for example, “mimics, while also streamlining, our approach to objects from a distance,” our tendency to focus in on what interests us. We may not experience the world as a series of shots, but the choice of shots and how they are edited together isn’t completely opposed to normal perception, otherwise film would be very difficult to understand until we learned what typical editing conventions were trying to show us.
To say that editing attempts to replicate real life ways of looking does not, of course, refute that what we normally see is continuous. Yet while we may not be able to instantaneously jump from one time and place to another the way that film can through editing, that does not necessarily mean our vision is unbroken. Just as we have trained ourselves to ignore certain cuts in filmmaking so that movies seem to offer us a world as continuous as our own, we have trained ourselves to ignore certain interruptions in our vision that similarly break up that world. We rub our eyes. We look away. We blink.
Sometimes films make use of those gaps to dramatic effect. Think of the now clichéd gag in horror movies when the heroine, seemingly alone in her bathroom, looks at herself in her vanity mirror, bends down to wash her face, and then rises to find someone else suddenly reflected in that mirror standing behind her.
In the third series of the BBC’s long-running science fiction program Doctor Who an entire episode is dedicated to the gaps in our perception that tend to go unnoticed.
In “Blink,” a young photographer named Sally Sparrow breaks into an old, abandoned house to take pictures. As she snaps photos of a ruined living-room she notices some writing just barely visible behind peeling wallpaper. She pulls off the paper to gradually reveal a warning: “Beware the Weeping Angels. Oh, and duck! No, really duck! Sally Sparrow, duck now!” She obeys just in time to avoid a rock thrown at her through a nearby window, outside of which there is nothing save for a statue of an angel, seemingly weeping. The timely message, however, is signed by the show’s lead character, the Doctor, “with Love from 1969.”
Understandably unnerved, Sally goes to see her best friend Katherine Nightingale, and the next day they return to the house to try and figure out the apparent temporal impossibility, but are interrupted by a knock on the door. Kathy remains behind in the living-room as Sally goes to answer the door, finding a young man, a stranger who nonetheless asks for her directly, having been instructed to come to the house “on this date at this exact time.” The camera shifts back and forth between Kathy and Sally, but each time there is a cut back to Kathy the statue Sally saw the previous night has moved, first uncovering its eyes, and then getting progressively closer to the completely unaware Kathy. The Angel’s movements occur only in the interval between the cuts or in moments when the camera’s view of the statue is obscured, leaving us with a series of shots of the statue seemingly frozen in the middle of an action which we never see it performing.
These shots suggest the Angel has moved, but it is a movement the camera seems incapable of capturing. While Kathy and Sally are shown moving freely through space within each shot, the Angels seem only to move between shots.
The Angel reaches Kathy just as the man informs Sally that the letter he’s delivering is from his grandmother, Katherine Nightingale. Sally thinks some sort of prank is being played on her, but when she goes to look for Kathy, her friend has disappeared. The Angel, visible through the broken windows, has returned to its original position.
Throughout the episode, the Angels appear and disappear and move from one place to another, but the camera is never able to capture that movement. They always remain frozen when the camera is on them, and we only see the end result of their movement after the camera has cut away from, and then back to the statues.
Through a message the Doctor leaves for Sally as a DVD Easter egg, we learn that the statues are not statues at all, but alien beings who survive on the “temporal energy” stolen from hapless victims they hurl back to the past. The creatures are particularly dangerous, the Doctor reveals, due to a curious feature of their biology: they are “quantum locked.” Whenever they are being looked at by any other living creature they freeze into stone and therefore cannot be killed and are able to pass for harmless inanimate objects. When unseen, however, they are “fast, faster than you can believe.” Even a blink could give them enough time unseen to make you their next meal. “Blink and you’re dead.”
In the final confrontation with the creatures Sally and Larry (Kathy’s brother, enlisted to help investigate after Kathy’s disappearance) have to stare at the Angels continually without blinking in order to hold off their advance, a task anyone who’s engaged in a staring competition knows is impossible. No matter how hard they try, at some point the continuity of their perception must break. As Robert Rushing argues, because the “turning point of the episode could occur at any moment and will last only a tenth of second,” the viewer is similarly forced to stare at the Angels for as long as possible, since the “blink becomes the thing the viewer must not miss.”
Like Rushing, when I watched the episode for the first time “I realized that my eyes were burning” from not blinking, but to close my eyes even for a split second meant potentially missing something that would change the course of the narrative. For the rest of the episode I became acutely aware of every time I blinked and of the potential gaps that unconscious action created.
By restricting the Angels’ movements to the moments between shots the episode links the cut with the blink as another perceptual blind spot we’re not commonly conscious of. By locating key aspects of the narrative in the absences of vision a cut or a blink creates, what we normally think of as continuous, whether our everyday perception, or the film image, is shown to be full of gaps.
An episode in the fourth series of the show, “Forest of the Dead” similarly calls attention to something else that can interrupt our perception by linking it with a common editing figure we usually ignore.
Having been investigating a mysteriously abandoned, planet-sized library in the future, the Doctor’s travelling companion Donna suddenly finds herself recuperating in a distinctly present-day hospital. She is initially confused by her change in location, but her caregivers reassure her and Donna dismisses her life with the Doctor as if it was a half-remembered dream.
The depiction of Donna’s stay at the hospital is dominated by a common editing device used to smooth over the transitions between scenes and to pique our interest for what will happen next in the story – dialogue hooks. A line of dialogue in scene A links to an action that starts scene B. The cut between the two scenes often elides unimportant stretches of time, so that we move steadily from one important bit of action to another. “Let’s meet tomorrow for coffee,” a character might say at the end of the scene, and we then cut straight to that character, seated, waiting in a café, without seeing the intervening action. Normally we barely notice these hooks, but they help knit a film together, and draw us steadily through the narrative.
In “Forest of the Dead,” however, Donna seems to be experiencing the world as if dialogue hooks were really instantaneously shifting her from one important time and place to the next. Her doctor suggests they take a walk and the episode cuts to the pair strolling on the hospital grounds. But Donna can’t remember how they got there, as if the actions the episode skipped over the cut didn’t happen at all. Donna is again reassured by her doctor who recounts the missing events, but when he suggests going to sit by the river, and we cut to the two standing on the bank, Donna again can’t account for the time between the suggestion and their arrival there. “You said ‘river’ and suddenly we’re feeding ducks,” she says. Normally hooks serve to smooth over the transition between scenes, but Donna’s questioning, along with a jarring change on the soundtrack as the score is suddenly replaced by ambient noise, draws attention to the device.
As the episode proceeds, scenes continue to be linked by hooks as if Donna is being steadily bounced along from one important moment to the next to distract her from what’s actually happening around her. The elisions between moments linked by hooks get longer. She marries, has children, and settles into a new life with her family, seemingly no longer aware of the gaps the hooks are covering over. But we continue to notice them and the stretches of time they erase. Like the cuts in “Blink,” the hooks become an important part of the unfolding action, again by suggesting that something is happening in the interval between cuts. When our perception breaks, things go wrong.
Like “Blink,” the episode draws our attention to editing and the gaps it creates, but in doing so it also approximates our own tendency to unconsciously shift from one important action to another. We often let our minds wander when doing mundane tasks or completing familiar routines, to the point that we can forget we’ve done them. Our perception might have been engaged enough to get us through the task, but not enough to let us remember we did it.
I constantly forget if I’ve locked my front door because the action has become so habitual it’s almost a reflex. Whether or not we pay attention, therefore, also affects the continuity of how we perceive the world, but a continuous shot isn’t subject to lapses in attention in the way we can be. Cameras are always focused on something.
Some commentators have praised Iñárritu’s daring in shooting Birdman with predominantly long takes, breaking with the way films are typically shot and edited together. But whether or not we are impressed by his use of that incredibly difficult, and incredibly risky technique, it seems to me that the film has a lot less to tell us about everyday perception than the far more conventionally shot Doctor Who.
David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (University of California Press, 2005).
Blink: The Material Real in Cache, Mulholland Dr. and Doctor Who” PostScript 30, no. 1 (2010)., “