Monday, March 28, 2011

Musing Pictures: Cronos

An early film by the fascinating explorer of paranormal cinema, Guillermo del Toro, "Cronos" is a classic story, reimagined in a contemporary setting. Much as I enjoy del Toro's work, and much as I enjoyed the film, I did not expect to be floored by any of it... but I was.

There is one scene, about halfway through the film, in which the lead character, Jesus Gris, grapples with his inner demon in a public restroom. The scene is tense, unnerving, and as it unfolded, I began to notice that there had not been a cut in quite a while.

I've looked very carefully at some of Hollywood's famous long takes. There are several in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1957), with this particularly famous long-take opening. Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) is an experiment of long takes. Of course, there's also the 92 minute long single-take film, "Russian Ark" (2002), which is a fascinating example of the technique, although there the take does not blend seamlessly in to the film... it IS the film.

I'm fascinated by the dramatic, tension-building possibilities of long-takes. They seem to be especially dramatic in small, tight spaces (as in "Rope", "Touch of Evil" (not the opening, but a later scene in a small apartment), and "Cronos").

Although cinematic cutting is used a lot these days to create tension in narrative, these long takes seem to suggest a very different meaning to the cut: a cut, it seems, actually relieves tension, rather than building it. By giving us a new angle, the cut propels us forward, whereas the long take forces us to observe at the camera's pace. It is relentless, deliberate, and in cases where it's used to good effect, the long take makes us hold our breath in anticipation.

Of course, it's not enough to simply put a camera down and let it roll. All of these great long takes rely heavily on the camera's movement within a scene to express the mood and flavor of the narrative. It's constantly moving between close-ups, wide shots, high angle, low angle, etc.

When I saw del Toro's long take in "Cronos", I almost missed it. It was only near the end of the shot that I began to wonder, "wait... when was the last cut?" I paused the film, rolled it back, and watched the scene again. In a way, that's the sign of a long-take that really works. Sure, we love the virtuosic openings of "Touch of Evil" and Altman's "The Player" (1992), but they stand out, they call attention to themselves. They're lots of fun, but they can only work at the beginning of a film, where they can't interrupt our immersion in the story because we haven't immersed yet. Mid-film long-takes need to be invisible in order to work in the context of Hollywood's "invisible apparatus" aesthetic.

Another shocker about this particular 'long-take' -- the entire thing runs under two minutes. By many standards, this isn't quite so long. Considering some scenes in some films have shots that run as short as 1/3 of a second, nearly two minutes is nothing to sneeze at. In addition, that this individual shot can convey on its own the tense development of an entire scene is remarkable in its own right.

In a way, the take in "Cronos" is a reminder that the contents of a shot can be precious. It's not just the cut that gives a shot its meaning, but performance, composition, movement, and all those details that come together within an individual shot can impress and move a viewer as well.


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