Monday, February 23, 2015

"Birdman" Is Proof That Ultra-Long Takes Are a Nefarious Plot Devised By Satan - disinformation

So, the Oscars happened. The biggest buzz generated by the show seems to have less to do with the actual movies and more to do with griping about Neil Patrick Harris's performance as host and the fact that Joan Rivers was left out of an homage reel. Let's face it, the whole thing is kind of ridiculous. If someone told me about an annual event where people wear outfits worth thousands of dollars to sit through hours of boring speeches and maybe be awarded little statues of naked men with no faces, I would think it was some kind of twisted initiation process for a frat house or a cult—not the most prestigious award ceremony for the entire motion picture industry.
So who won? Birdman did, and in a big way. It won so many Oscars, they might as well have let the producers walk away with the coke sniffing conceptual art Oscar made by the "Banksy of LA." I for one am a bit disappointed that Boyhood didn't get its due (as is a writer at Slate who wrote a viral article arguing in favor of the movie). But there is plenty to be happy about, especially for the people of Mexico, who went loco for the fact that four of the film's crew members are Mexican. Doesn't quite make up for that judge who single handedly sabotaged Obama's immigration reform, but hey, it's a start.
Birdman definitely has its redeeming qualities: it was reasonably well written, well acted, and well directed. We never get to find out (spoiler alert!) whether or not the movie's main character really has super powers or is just extremely drunk the whole time, but in a way, that's part of the movie's charm. Vox put out a piece defending the movie's Best Pic pick. But there's one aspect of the film that was not reasonably good, but unreasonable and bad: the entire movie appears to be done in one painfully long take.
For those of you who haven't seen the movie, allow me to give you an idea of what watching a movie that plays as one massive take is like. It's like going to a neighborhood coffee shop that sells a delicious exotic roast and later finding out that every single store in the neighborhood will be replaced by new outlets of that same coffee shop. It's like having to go through all of elementary school without being given a single recess. It's like having a nice-ish dream that then turns into sleep paralysis in which you can't wake up or move, even though you might be having a good time. It's like being under siege by an invading army made up of millions of Energizer bunnies that keep going and going and going. It's like if someone told that you the only music you could ever listen to for the rest of your life was Beethoven's 9th symphony or the White Album or John Coltrane or Johan Johansson or some combination thereof, but nothing else. It's like that part of Super Mario 64 where you have to walk up the stairs to get to the Bowser level. But the stairs keep going and you never get there and instead of getting the 70 stars that you need, you just keep trying to make it up those goddamn stairs until you get so mad you throw your controller at the screen. It's like being under house arrest in a really lavish mansion with a sauna and a self-refilling refrigerator, but you still can't leave. It's like Chinese water torture. It's like trying to convey a concept, a thought, or a feeling using a single expressive device, whether cinematic or literary, but using that device over and over and over until people have no desire to react to it in any meaningful way. And, instead, their only reaction becomes "MAKE IT STOP!"
Yeah, that's pretty much what it's like. I have to admit, I get why it's impressive to the cinephile types. While at first glance, it might seem like they may have done it because they were too cheap to hire an editor, pulling off a mega-take like that would actually (I assume) require a lot more editing work than conventional editing. And to play devil's advocate, perhaps the long take was to try to be evocative of the theater, where there is no cutting back and forth between actors.
But too much of anything can become boring or irritating, or even excruciating. After about 10 minutes or so of Birdman's massive take, I found myself wondering, "What purpose does this serve?" Conventional edits, mundane though they may be, serve a purpose. Even plays (except maybe some one-acts) aren't really done in one "long take": they have curtains.
So maybe I've convinced you that long takes aren't all that they're cracked up to be. Or maybe not. But am I going too far in claiming that they're a nefarious plot forged by none other than the hand of the Dark Lord? Okay, you got me. I don't really believe that – I don't even believe in Satan in the first place. What can I say? I am at times given to being knowingly hyperbolic, especially if it makes for an interesting title.
But while ultra-long takes weren't actually created by Satan, they might as well have been. And to explain why, I will make use of an ironclad rhetorical device: a reference to The Simpsons. In one of the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes (I forget which one, but here's a link), Homer gets sent to hell and is placed in a room with a massive stack of donuts. A chubby blue demon grins at him menacingly and tells him, "So, you like donuts eh? Well, have all the donuts in the world!" He follows it with the obligatory maniacal laughter. A machine is wheeled in that force feeds Homer the entire stack.
Point taken. Too much of any one thing can turn it into a living hell. But the analogy (had enough of those yet?) can be taken further: medium-long to long takes are actually good things for movies. I still remember the five minute take from Children of Men, which came at a particularly tense moment in the film, and effectively conveyed the action, the feeling of being in the moment, the feeling that there's no escape. Incidentally, that movie's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, would go on to do the cinematography for Birdman as well. Needless to say, he won the Oscar this year.
But blow that five minute take up to nearly two hours, and all useful effect is lost. It starts to take away from the rest of the movie. If there are movie theaters in hell, they would probably feature cinematography by Lubezki.
Appropriately enough, that scene from The Simpsons ends with Homer happily gobbling up the entire roomful of donuts – and asking for more. It wasn't that different from the reaction The Academy had to Birdman. They ate it up.

Drew Reed writes about cities, Latin American issues, politics, and other fun stuff (in that order). Follow him on Twitter: @the_drewreed
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