Disquiet in Documentary
Long takes were not always the exception. In the early days of the cinema, when all films consisted of a single shot, they were the norm. Louis Lumière's first films ran for up to a full minute uncut—the length of a roll of film at the time. Some of Georges Demeny's shots (filmed in the 60mm gauge as early as 1895) ran to 40 seconds. That is very long by today's standards, even in fiction films, although a few directors (Jancsó, Jarmusch) have created distinctive styles around very long takes. In television documentary the average length of a shot is closer to five seconds, excepting interviews and "talking-head" presentations. These shots tend to be cut automatically at the point where it is assumed audience attention drops, or where there is any suggestion of a pause in narrative flow.
The great enemy of documentary (and oddly, rather a taboo topic of discussion among film-makers themselves) is the "dead spot" in which nothing seems to be happening. Film producers are terrified of such moments, for they are terrified of audience impatience. I suspect that the taboo status of this topic goes back to an inherent contradiction in documentary principles. In the early days of cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, the prevailing ideology had it that dead spots weren't supposed to exist. Ordinary life was deemed to be interesting and worthy of everyone's attention. But documentary film-makers still contrived to avoid dramaturgical dead spots, cutting around them or focusing on exciting events and famous people. Documentary, whatever its ideology, still took its shape from fiction or journalism. It had to defend its interest in the ordinary by making sure that the ordinary played well. There was a tacit understanding that you didn't talk publicly about this. Who cared to admit that documentary actually concealed the lacunae characteristic of ordinary life and chose only the best bits, just like the fiction film-makers?
What constitutes a "long take" is obviously an artificial and somewhat arbitrary concept, formed in relation to an average notion of shot length and affected by content and position as well as by duration. Long takes are perhaps better defined by their structural qualities than by their length. Does the shot, for example, form an entire sequence in the film, or is it merely part of a more extended, edited sequence? In this analysis, the term "long take" refers more
to a method of film construction than to actual length. Brian Henderson has pointed out that although Murnau uses a long-take style, his shots are actually quite short. In his films the viewer's attention tends to be focused more upon developments within shots than upon linkages between them.
It is also evident that shots of long duration are not necessarily more revealing than if they had been shorter—for example, shots of repetitive activities or shots containing limited information which is rapidly grasped by the viewer. It is no use comparing generically different materials. Duration is perhaps the least important criterion in comparing a static, practically empty frame and a frame crowded with activity. And yet . . . and yet, as I shall argue later, absolute duration does finally matter. It is not wholly subjective and has its own measure of influence upon our reading of shots.