Single-shot filmmaking isn't a radically new idea, but ask the average culture junkie, and you'd sure be lead to believe it is. Not so long ago, the first season of True Detective featured an unbroken six-minute tracking shot along a quiet street in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, leading the internet to explode with praise and near-immediate canonization as if the stylization was the first of its kind.
But linear entertainment isn't just getting the experimental treatment on TV, nor is this time-tweaking anything new. If anything, single-shot takes and entertainment that mimics reality (via temporality, three dimensions, or other senses) have been having a renaissance for nearly a decade since the advent of social media.
Be it the popular Twitch and YouTube accounts that feature uninterrupted and unedited play-through of video games in real time, Occulus Rift and the recent progress of virtual reality, the popularity of Snapchat, or the constant pushing of Merekat and Periscope, this media seems to suggest something about both the ephemerality and the endlessness of content. Binge watching and the pushback against mid-program advertising hint at a new kind of immersive experience in which non-disruption is paramount. If the medium is the message, then the feed is the culture.
The most recent example is Sebastian Schipper's full-length film Victoria, perhaps the most formally audacious attempt to turn entertainment into an all-enveloping experience. Shot in 22 different locations across two neighborhoods in Berlin between the hours of 4:30 and 6:48 AM, Victoria is a genre movie told in real time in a single steady, unbroken scene. It's taut, at times sweet, often stressful, and surprisingly intimate. It's also a total stunt. It's not the first film of its kind, but it may be the best.
The film chronicles the hour before and the hour following a bank heist, and once it begins in the foggy basement of a Berlin discothèque—the bass thumping as the light adjusts on the film's titular character—it doesn't cease until the film's mournful final moment. No jump cuts. No tricks. Just one long, long shot that's so effective it shouldn't work. According to Schipper, the Toronto Film Festival initially rejected the film because the jury didn't believe the film was actually a single take.
"The universe of filmmaking is like a nautical world, with all the men working at sea," Schipper told IndieWire in October. "You have the stories told in the bars and pubs, the ports, and I have a feeling that the one-take movie is like a mystical island. And some people say, 'I've been there!' But you never really know if that's entirely true."
The festival's skepticism may have been short-lived (Victoria was accepted the following year), but it's not without focus. One-take filmmaking isn't a new concept—the earliest example dates as far back as the late-1940s—but its cultural impermanence is what makes each film feel like a revelation. Prior films have either felt like formal experiments or elaborate ruses; they're either trying to get one by an audience, or actively disinterested in finding one at all. Victoria, on the other hand, is very much a film for right now, born in a time when authenticity is central to discussions about art, media, and technology have become relatively ubiquitous. The element of the unknown that Schipper talks about isn't just a sales pitch (though it is that, too). It's a pretty solid assessment of just what makes the single take both a routinely exciting stunt and commonplace con.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at the 2015 Academy Awards, when the two Best Picture front-runners—Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Richard Linklater's Boyhood—were both beloved and hyped for formal choices that were total opposites of one another. There is an intended intimacy to be found in Birdman, depicting the measured chaos of an actor's life backstage, and Iñárritu achieves it by mimicking an uninterrupted shot that follows the actors through each increasingly claustrophobic corridor. Boyhood, meanwhile, labors to remind you that the film was an act of just that, labor—12 years of filming combined to create a narrative that takes place over multiple decades. These two gimmicks are on opposite ends of the spectrum—one, infusing the camera with the jittery energy of exploration; the other, letting time play out in a different kind of real-time—but they're getting at something similar: that film is the medium with which to play with that very device of temporality.
It was film theorist Andre Bazin who first coined the term "cinematic tact," stating that the camera "should not cut up reality, but rather it should show reality in its temporal continuity." This correlation between reality and continuity was formed largely by Bazin's fascination with the then-developing technology associated with filmmaking. For him, these developments had the potential to depict what he called "total cinema," a form of art that emphasized reality in a way that distanced itself from the complications and biases inherent in photography. In this context, art was both crucially tied to and in need of distancing itself from technology. The closer the medium got to simply reproducing reality with little to no disruption, the closer the medium could get to achieving a powerful new form of truth by way of art.
The single-take is, in some ways, about more than just experimentation, but instead deals with achieving the same thing that Bazin was reaching for over 50 years ago. Today, that emphasis on reality is semantically remolded to be about authenticity—something real—a feeling many directors try to achieve through long-takes and single-shot cinematic experiences. Few films have managed it. In the medium's early years, 35mm film reels featured a recording length of approximately 11 minutes, making the single-shot a technical impossibility as far as feature films were concerned. It wasn't until Alfred Hitchcock crafted what Roger Ebert called "one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director" with 1948's Rope that the single-shot film was truly attempted. But in fact, the film featured several cuts, disguised in low-lit close-ups that bought time for the crew to quickly change the film reels before Hitchcock panned back out, keeping all the action in a single room. It wouldn't be until the transition to digital filmmaking that the single-shot would be deemed achievable.
In 2000, filmmaker Mike Figgis experimented with temporality in Timecode, in which the entire screen resembles the four quadrants of a security feed, providing a rather ominous premonition, intentional or not, of a culture under constant surveillance. Unlike the fluidity of movement in Victoria, the form of Timecode had a voracious interest in the act of being seen; the camera never breaks the fourth wall, but it pushes more than just lightly against the glass. The stylization was so in-your-face, though, that the film felt desperate to be in conversation with something beyond narrative, alienating the viewer.
Two years later, Alexander Sokurov's 2002 historical drama, Russian Arc, used the one-shot form to explore the ornate grounds of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, but the process was relegated to a 90 minute tracking sequence, moving the camera along the building's hallways. More than film, Russian Arc seemed to resemble something closer to immersive theater, with its sequential storylines evolving as the camera pans from room to room.
At its most intentional, the long take can serve as a conceit meant to compel one to look, so it's no surprise that filmmakers often use it as an endurance test. Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002) features a nearly ten-minute rape scene filmed in an unblinking single-take, while other scenes were digitally stitched together through subtle cuts in an effort to make the entire film look continuous as well.
Many films toy with the visual language of single-shot filmmaking, but very few have been able to effortlessly fuse the formal rigor with traditional narrative. The advent of digital has allowed each film to push the running time a little longer; at 140 minutes, Victoria clocks in as the longest yet. If technology in the days of cinema's infancy hinted at the ability to reproduce our sense of the world, today, Bazin's hope for the full potential of cinema seems to be nearing realization.
And in a way, it feels right on time. The indulgence of the single take seems in line with the radical new way that we absorb the narrative of daily life—largely together even when apart, in a steady stream of scenes and stimuli. We saw something similar happen in the early 1990s, and the rise of post-classical editing. The style was largely influenced by shorter commercial length and the style of music videos popularized by MTV, whose own original programming mimicked the speed and chaos of those same videos. Programs like Beavis & Butthead and The Real World (which employed dutch angles and aggressive cuts) managed to convey the aesthetics of music videos in a narrative format, ultimately influencing other entertainment such as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and the programming blocks on Adult Swim—both which internalized and winked at a similar emphasis on kineticism.
If the influence of that era's new media could trickle as substantially as it did, then there should be no surprise that the ubiquity of today's technology has crafted some new normal. At the turn of the new millennium, films like The Blair Witch Project, as well as the accumulation of cell phone footage from on 9/11, introduced a new kind of realism into the visual lexicon through hand held shooting—dubbed "shaky cam" and used by filmmakers like Paul Greengrass to denote a certain kind of urbane grit.
In the same way that the films to be born in the years since 9/11 have found a way to aestheticize a kind of recognizable reality through chaos and movement, Victoria and the single-shot prove that there is possibly something fundamental happening in regards to how digital and social media is influencing our idea of continuity. If Bazin's idea of cinema's holy grail was something uninterrupted, capturing both the continuous nature of the day to day, and the power of reflecting the world as we see it—a stream of scenes and senses—then culture's tradition of playing ping-pong with new media and technology, with one constantly influencing the other, seems firmly intact. Call it total cinema, or call it totally something else.
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