1917, and the artistic merits of the “one-shot” film
Ho ho, 1917 was shot in a single take! Or, what looks like a single take. I spotted the cut, so I’m a cinematic genius. Roger Deakins!
Films composed as a single, continuous take (or seemingly continuous, in most cases) make use of one of the flashiest techniques in movies. It’s a technique that, once registered, compels a viewer to scan for any cheated edits. For the obsessive internet film bro, one-shot filmmaking is one of the most treasured, even fetishized, parts of cinema. It has long been fuel for the movie nerd’s argument for a film’s inherent value. Birdman or Son of Saul, plot aside, are bulletproof because they have accomplished the impossible. And it’s been achieved once again.
Enter Sam Mendes’ 1917, hitting theaters later this year. It embraces this tricky gimmick – and those prizing its technical achievement are already vowing to see the film simply for the thrill of watching its long take… happen. The WWI film, choreographed to look like a single 117-minute shot, comes courtesy of Roger Deakins, the legendary cinematographer of such film-bro bait as Fargo, No Country For Old Men and Sicario. Deakins has attracted a cult following all his own. “I feel like Roger Deakins should be listed on that poster,” one movie subredditor wrote. “He’s the reason I’ll be going.” 1917 will be Deakins’ third collaboration with Mendes, with whom he recently worked on Skyfall.
But it’s not Deakins’ mastery of color or framing that have these film fans frothing. Although Deakins has said that filming 1917 in these long takes wasn’t “just for the sake of being cool” (though he admits that it’s very cool), the choice has been the focal point of the film’s pre-release discourse. A Reddit user named “toejam-football” cited the style choice as the sole reason they’ll be seeing 1917 in theaters, thank you very much. The risk, the logistics, the technical skill – these are the most attractive cinematic qualities to those likely to spend time picking through the film in order to find the exact moments a cut is visible. Snooze.
Why did the flashy one-shot become such an obsession for film bros, those occasionally toxic, dude-centric internet film “experts”? Perhaps its use as a signifier of “important” film and TV has something to do with it. Birdman and its pretentious parenthetical (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) won DP Emmanuel Lubezki an Oscar. That reminded some classic film fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s faux one-shot Rope and its thrumming tension, but Birdman left plenty cold. All style, no substance, they said. Awards often reward the most of something (acting or cinematography) rather than the best. Already, 1917 has been nominated for three Golden Globes. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of conspicuous showmanship, but the intention behind it becomes lost when technical wizardry becomes the sole focal point.
TV directors are equally guilty of technical peacocking, too. True Detective, Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones, and The Haunting of Hill House have all recently aired episodes which either attempt the full one-shot illusion or include conspicuously unbroken scenes. Consensus amongst film bros on Twitter is less “Wow, this really adds to the tone/tension,” and more “Let’s find out how they pulled it off, and then find out where all the cuts actually are.” Rather than functional aesthetic devices, the takes render the scenes as visual puzzles to solve. The easter egg hunt for these cuts also robs a potent technique of anything more than bland “awesomeness” – something critics have addressed. “It’s a mistake to praise the shot simply for existing,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz, because the obviousness of the long take can run counter to the scene’s immersive intent.
Famous long takes have helped films like Goodfellas, Boogie Nights and Touch of Evil open with a bang. But the authoritative voice of the latter film, directed by Orson Welles, offers a critique of long takes that anticipates their future pedestal placement. Welles didn’t like compliments about Touch of Evil’s famous first shot, he said, “because it’s one of those shots that shows the director making ‘a great shot’.” Rather, Welles thought “that great shots should conceal themselves a little bit”.
Prioritising technical glitz over plot and characterisation isn’t uncommon or even necessarily wrongheaded. However, the gaudy visibility of one-take cinematography is what makes these shots so easy to get behind. It’s quick ammo with which online cinephiles can arm themselves for arbitrary arguments. The need for facile flexing is linked to long takes being one of the most visible and misappropriated film tricks in the book.
Gatekeepers can cling to any aspect of filmmaking to suit their purpose, but the more accessible that aspect initially is, the easier it is to embrace as a film’s sole source of value. That’s when online messageboards and Film Twitter discourse is at its ugliest. There’s going to be more to 1917 than its format, and it deserves to be seen without being sold on that premise alone – it’s not Woody Harrelson’s semi-experimental, broadcast live in theaters one-shot Lost in London. Embracing all aspects of the filmmaking process, instead of needing to dissect technical minutiae or conflating logistical difficulty with cinematic worth, is an important and necessary step to enjoying all that movies have to offer. It’s one take we can all get behind.
10 most trying-to-impress one-shots:
10. Four Rooms, “The Man from Hollywood” segment
9. Oldboy’s hallway fight
8. The Office, “Nepotism”
7. Snake Eyes, opening scene
6. Daredevil, prison fight
3. Russian Ark
2. Lost in London
1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)