Thomas Sutcliffe: Lights, camera - but no action

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The Independent Online

And though a few people have paid money to see these films, and a few of them have emerged rhapsodising about the purity of the cinematic experience - I don't think you should hold out for the DVD release any time soon. The audience for such works is modest at the best of times - and largely motivated, I would suggest, by its own self-conscious cultural machismo. Some people like to run triathlons to see how much pain they can take. Others watch Warhol movies for much the same reason.

In comparison with either of Warhol's narcoleptic masterpieces, Gus Van Sant's Last Days is a teen action movie. People talk in it, and on rare occasions they even talk to each other. A man goes upstairs. He comes down again and makes himself some macaroni cheese. He's carried off on a stretcher. By Warholian standards, it's a positive whirl of activity and incident.

But for anyone wanting to work their way up to the marathon events of cinematic minimalism, it will do pretty well as a 10k training run. And its chief tool is the long, uninterrupted take - sequences that beat to a rhythm far slower than the racing pulse of conventional Hollywood editing and can occasionally leave you with the feeling that the film has lapsed into a coma in front of your eyes. Van Sant devotees are used to this kind of thing, of course. He did it in his last film, Elephant - about a Columbine-style high-school shooting - though in that the tracking shots are even more languorous and the time-sequence even more fuzzily indeterminate.

The long, unbroken take has been a benchmark of avant-garde artistic integrity for years now - popularised (if that's the right word) by Godard and other New Wavers and taken up by anyone who wants to assert their cinematic purity. That's a slightly prejudicial way of putting it, of course; but then, Godard at least always understood that this was a kind of rhetoric - and that it really only made sense in opposition to another way of addressing the audience. The long take proposes itself as an alternative to a "doctored" way of looking at things, in which our eyelines are tugged this way and that on the leash of camera angle and cutting.

But the paradoxical thing is that the long take is more artificial in many ways than the Hollywood convention. For one thing, human sight is full of cuts and changes of perspective. It even has its own equivalents of a crash zoom. Between them, the brain and the eyelids contrive to hide this from us (in effect, erasing the whip pans, so that we don't get seasick from looking around the room), but that's just good editing. For another thing, the long take can require an almost superhuman effort of preparation. Béla Tarr, a Hungarian film-director with a taste for unbroken takes (he once joked that the fact that Kodak's 35mm can holds just 11 minutes of film amounts to a form of censorship), admits that in his long sequences "everything is controlled, from the sky to the ground".

Which is where the art-house long take connects up with a more Hollywood version - the kind of bravura tracking shot that opens Welles's Touch of Evil or Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. These long takes glory in their own flamboyant logistics. They may pay lip-service to the notion of cinematic naturalism - muttering something tactful about how the best technique is always invisible. But that's rubbish. They're all about showmanship and ego... which doesn't mean they're bad art.

In Scorsese's case, the way everything in that first scene gives way to the camera and yet angles toward it let's us really feel how exhilarating it must be to be a young gun on the rise, everyone acting glad to see you. It's as different as you can conceive from Van Sant's long, quiet sequences - with their quiet (and essentially false) implication that nothing has been arranged for the camera at all. They're both pretentious, when it comes down to it; but if I've got a choice, I'll take pretensions to grandeur over pretensions to ascetic purity any day of the week. The former is usually worth seeing; the latter is often better if you just hear about it.

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