Birdman and the Legacy of the Long Take

“That’s ambitious!”

 

Of all the reasons why 2014 Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gained attention, be it the inventive jazz drumming score, the self deprecating performances of Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, or Keaton’s increasingly unhinged inner monologue with “Birdman” himself, one of the most interesting was that the film was shot to look like it was one long take. True, shifts in time and location prevent this from actually being possible but the film itself is comprised of several smaller, actual long takes. It’s always been fascinating to us when a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu has the courage and confidence in their performers to allow them to operate on this level and succeed. Here are a few of our favorites:

Lots of Asian action films use the long take for scenes where their single hero takes on a large group of foes, and the one we love the most has to be from  Park Chan-wook’s 2003 action epic Oldboy. Choi Min-sik’s Oh Dae-su finds himself up against about 20 armed toughs using only a hammer, his mitts and his wits.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) brings vehicular mayhem into the mix for another bravura action sequence shot in one take. What starts with playful banter between Julianne Moore and Clive Owen’s characters ends in tragedy when she is shot by a motorcycle riding gunman. Owen then takes out the gunman in the coolest way possible though, and Wheelman Chiwetel Ejiofor  never loses his cool, even when he has to “deal with” two nosy cops.

It can’t be a coincidence that Martin Scorsese is namedropped in Birdman (hilariously mispronounced as “Score-sees” by Zach Galifinakis), he’s been a master of the long take for as long as he’s been in the Director’s Chair. An early favorite is from 1976’s Taxi Driver. Here Robert DeNiro’s immortal Travis Bickle uses a pay phone to try to salvage his relationship with Cybil Shephard’s Betsy after a disastrous first date. The camera begins to pan towards the exit, wandering as Travis’ mind tends to do, realizing that the conversation is over before Travis is willing to admit the same to himself.

Scorsese returns to the form in 1990’s Goodfellas with an impressive tracking shot following Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his then girlfriend Karen’s (Lorraine Brocco) trip to New York’s Copacabana through a secret back entrance, the perks of a young, up-in-coming “businessman”.

Believe it or not, one of the most impressive long takes in recent memory wasn’t in a film but on TV. Episode 4 of HBO’s True Detective (2014) finds Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle working deep undercover with a meth cooking Biker gang, attempting to aid them in robbing their rivals. Cary Fukunaga’s unbelievable 6 minute long tracking shot of the drug heist gone wrong and the chaos of the aftermath left my jaw on the floor.

 

– Kevin Hawkey

 

 

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