2015 Film Essays

The Dueling Cavalier: Contrasting Effectiveness of the Long Take in ‘The Tribe’ and ‘Birdman’

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Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is notable for a number of reasons, most obvious among them being its subtitle-free, Ukrainian sign language dialogue. Without the use of words intelligible to viewers unfamiliar with the language (i.e. most of them), Slaboshpitsky presents the dark world of crime and violence within a boarding school for the deaf-mute. Although The Tribe lacks the narrative precision comprehensible language can afford, the director compensates (perhaps too much, but more on that in a bit) with a grueling atmosphere of intensity throughout the film’s 132-minute running time.

A swath of factors contribute to the intensity, but my focus here will be the long takes. By my (admittedly informal and imprecise) count, there’s not a single take in the film which lasts less than two minutes. Over the course of these lengthy shots, we see someone getting run over by a truck, a rape, an illegal abortion, and several brutal murders involving the use of a shelf as a weapon. That all of the scenes involve children only amplifies their inherently disturbing content even further.

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To top it all off, and to get to the point of my article, each of the scenes I just described is shown without the relief of a cut. As disturbing as one imagines they’d be regardless of the editing due to their subject matter and explicitness, Slaboshpitsky extorts the sequences to maximum effect by highlighting for the viewer that they’re happening in real time. No less of a cinematic authority than Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Every cut is a lie,” and the editing throughout The Tribe does all it can to prove that the film is showcasing truth.

The feeling of truth achieved through the lack of cuts functions in tandem with the lack of subtitles to create the naturalism which gives the film much of its impact. Both decisions are moves away from cinema and towards the world beyond film, sacrificing elements of cinematic vocabulary in favor of getting closer to the representation of an extra-cinematic experience. Real life doesn’t have subtitles or cuts, and the lack of either in The Tribe helps the viewer to enter and remain in the film’s universe, stripped of constant reminders of what he or she truly is (i.e. a viewer).

In fact, Slaboshpitsky pulls this off so well in the individual scenes that their cumulative effect approaches excess. As powerful as each take is, when viewed sequentially they create a desensitization in the viewer which ultimately undermines the suspension of disbelief. There’s only so much cinematic barbarism one can take before it becomes numbing, and the effectiveness of Slaboshpitsky’s technique wanes scene by scene. By the time we reach what should be a shattering final frame, we’ve already been so dragged through the film’s muck that it’s hard to summon much of a reaction to the violent brutality with which The Tribe concludes.

Regardless, Slaboshpitsky still uses the long take to a much greater effect than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman.  As has by now been much discussed (and rewarded by Oscar voters), the film consists entirely of a simulated unbroken tracking shot. But whereas Slaboshpitsky uses his long takes for devastating emotional effect (and beyond), it’s difficult to discern what the ostensible single take in Birdman achieves beyond mere gimmickry.

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Although Birdman lasts only two hours, the film takes place over a period of time much longer than that, as is made abundantly clear through the time-lapse shots of the sky showing days passing by. As a result, the suspension of disbelief which Slaboshpitsky wrings from the long take disappears, and we’re hit over the head with the acknowledgement that we’re watching a film. The lack of correspondence between the running time and the period of time shown onscreen reveals a “lie” as blatant as what Godard says cuts encapsulate, and the long take in Birdman becomes little more than a neat cinematic slight of hand. The technique shows some impressive work on Iñárritu’s part, but it doesn’t add much (if anything) to the narrative, characters, or themes.

The same can’t be said of The Tribe, to Slaboshpitsky’s credit. Even if he goes too far, using the power of the long take ad nauseam, he deserves credit for at least tapping into that capapability. As anyone who’s seen The Tribe (or any Alfonso Cuarón film, or Touch of Evil, or too many others to name here) can attest, long takes are a remarkable cinematic tool, and the reasons for their remarkableness deserve to be showcased to the fullest.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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