The substance of cinema is therefore an endless long take, as is reality to our senses for as long as we are able to see and feel (a long take that ends with the end of our lives); and this long take is nothing but the reproduction of the language of reality. In other words it is the reproduction of the present.
— Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Observations On the Long Take”
Probably, my obsession with the filmic long take is not a secret. I have been fascinated with and compelled by long takes in film for some time. My book Damnation explores the world of hungarian director Béla Tarr, and I have written about Satantango with collaborator Jared Woodland here: Notes 1 / Notes 2 / On Slowness. A senior project during university even circled around time, clocks, and long takes in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love.
From “Slowness, Empathy, and the Perversities of Turning,” published in Fireflies, co-authored w/ Jared Woodland:
In Satantango’s first shot, nearly eight minutes long, we see a cow emerge from behind a building, nothing in front of the cow but thick mud with glimmering streaks of wetness that resemble the trails that snails make when they zigzag across dark pavement. One cow becomes many, and they slowly walk together. No one leads them or chases them but they appear to know their way. They take their time. They have, it seems, all the time in the world. One even pauses to mount another. We watch the cows, then continue to watch, continue to watch past the time of watching, past the time of a simple gaze or witnessing. We look at the herd for so long that when the camera finally moves away and pans past dilapidated buildings bearing strange marks and letters, these utter signs of disintegration and decay become for us a relief. The wind howls and it feels like silence, yet it is not silent. We can hear the cows’ hooves move through the mud, the mooing; the sounds are almost daunting, eerie. Without music (we keep waiting for it, hoping it will come to shake us out of the strange, unreal reality of this locale, while random sounds seem to anticipate some cohesive and introductory soundtrack), the scene is discomforting but mesmerising. Here, inside this muddy world, we learn to wait.1
No mark of an end in the mise-en-scène. The apocalypse is withheld; the air sustains a persistence that becomes movement that becomes stillness. Slowly and carefully, we persist. Watching through these overturnings, we learn that our first suspicion could be wrong, that perhaps semiotic calamity is the only end. Like Satantango’s narrative, the long take itself is a maddened circle, separating us from the camera but familiarising us with the mud, where there is something inevitable, immanent and vocal.
Though grimly basic, Tarr’s long take is also unspeakably excessive. It makes too much of the present and gives us too much time in the presence of things. Speech in Satantango is not just a colour of character but also an outcome of pace. Slowness speaks in demands, intimations and conferrals. The camera’s retarding attention tells us that we ought to look, and scenery becomes murmurous and monstrous in its too-muchness.
The image sets certain potentials in motion; the waiting becomes a transition to revelatory patience and confession as the long take introduces resonances and tensions, a strange push-and-pull between the priorities of a fast-moving life and the simple act of sitting. Our perception stirs. What matters is how we see the cows. We begin to know this world by starting from the mud, where it all starts, and going outward toward what seems like being.
Every moment is not significant. The truth is that time might be worthless, a quantitative and arbitrary measurement, the murky matter in which we are. But we don’t look away, because the cut is an anticipation we can suffer, the only kind of waiting that makes sense.
“The time after is neither that of reason recovered, nor that of the expected disaster… It is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting. It is the time in which we take an interest in the wait itself.” – Jacques Ranciere, Béla Tarr, The Time After
And the scene:
THE CALL: Please submit writings, essays, musings, reflections, fictional vignettes, responses, or other texts written about or through a filmic long take. #LONGTAKE
Submit texts to email@example.com.