[Warning: the clip of the scene below gives away major plot details]
Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuaron’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization
by James Udden
Given his Janus-faced career, it was hard to know what to expect stylistically from Cuaron in Children of Men given the direct involvement of Universal. He answers almost right away in the third shot of the opening scene as to how far he is now willing to go. Expertly introduced in this single shot is a grim, dying world in which the Clive Owen character is but one small, languid part. It is a tour de force in terms of its set design, lighting, camera movement and most of all its daringly intricate orchestration of multiple animate and inanimate elements. Yet the most telling sign is the duration of the shot: this is a long take of over fifty seconds, which with almost devious subtlety leads to a most unexpected denouement, an explosion segueing to a title shot with uncanny effect. It is an impressive beginning to a film which overall deeply impressed select viewers, critics and scholars alike. Alfonso Cuaron has accomplished the seemingly impossible: he proffers a dystopian message concerning globalization, yet he does it under the auspices of one of globalization’s key cultural players — Hollywood. Yet he also accomplishes this in indelible aesthetic terms. After seemingly reverting back to more conventional form with The Prisoner of Azkaban, the long take makes a roaring return in Children of Men, with an average shot length of just over sixteen seconds per, an astonishing figure for a present-day Hollywood feature which sometimes can average less than two seconds per shot (Hollywood 122). Moreover, even if slightly shorter on average than its Spanish-language predecessor a half a decade earlier, these long takes are more complex and more accomplished in their design. As we shall see, they are too good to be true. Indeed, these long takes are contrived spectacles in their own right.
There is an overall pattern for long take in Children of Men: the more action and violence a particular scene possesses, the longer the shot duration generally becomes. This does run counter to current Hollywood norms. Many have recently noted how big-budgeted, Hollywood action films in particular tend to lead the way in faster cutting rates which are often employed for maximum impact (Bordwell, Hollywood,122, 58-159; King, New Hollywood, 246). Children of Men, of course, is not a traditional action picture, but a science fiction work with deep philosophical underpinnings. Yet during its non-action scenes often involving conversations between characters, Cuaron is more likely to use conventional editing schemes, most of all the ever reliable shot/reverse shot. Cuaron saves his most audacious long takes for the sequences where violence and action are at their highest pitch, with the longest reserved for the prolonged battle at the refugee camp at the end. Despite their reliance on long takes in lieu of “impact” editing, it is these moments in the film which seem to be most memorable.
What is most telling is how these long takes give the appearance of taking place in “real” time and “continuous” space. Cleverly disguised is how they are often multiple shots melded together digitally in post-production. The above mentioned opening scene, for example, was shot over two days, the first day covering the indoor portion in the café, while the second day involved the complicated section outdoors. However, in the finished product, the third shot begins indoors and then proceeds seamlessly outdoors, meaning somehow a single, “continuous” long take was shot over two days time. Using the café doorframe at the moment Clive Owen leaves the frame, the camera is deviously slow to catch up, and the special effects crew disguised the cut digitally in post (Fordham 34). In short, the opening scene is not three shots, but four shots disguised as three with the last being a long take under false pretenses.
This is not an isolated instance in Children of Men. The now famous scene in the automobile took two months to plan, eight days to shoot on three separate locations. The camera’s impossibly free movements in the car were in fact impossible — they were only realized by being filmed in six separate sections where often not all of the actors were present at certain stages. Once again, this was all amalgamated into a single artificial long take by digital means (Fordham 39). Claiming to replicate the feel of a documentary, this shot is also impossibly precise for any documentary shooting as events transpire. True, they did use mostly available light in a real setting, allowing every flare and reflection on the glass to remain, much like in a documentary. But no documentarian has ever had the luxury of a twin-axis doggicam rigged above a missing car roof which is then digitally filled in during post-production. The resulting camera movements would also be impossible for a documentary — in fact in a way that has never been done by fictional filmmakers either. Particularly noteworthy is the powerful effect of that moment when the camera returns to the front and Julianne Moore reappears at the right edge of the frame, now undeniably no longer among the living. Documentarians are rarely able to be that measured, and are hardly that lucky.
The longest take in the film is over seven minutes in duration, occurring during the climatic battle at the refugee camp when Theo Faron attempts to rescue the kidnapped baby. Being one of the most complex long takes ever attempted, it is in fact too complicated to be a true “long take.” Instead, this was shot at two exterior locations plus a studio; the first major section was filmed at Bushey Hall, while the second part was shot two weeks later at Upper Heyford. This particular transition was digitally disguised using the corner of a building, much like what they had done with the doorframe of the café in the pre-credit sequence (Fordham 42). Additional elements added to the seemingly real but impossible spectacle: for example, no documentarian has been so fortuitous as to follow someone just as Theo Faron passes a soldier dying in his half-severed body, yet reaching out for him with one last moaning grasp at life. The three sections combined comprise a highly calculated, and remarkably well-orchestrated game of lost and found where Theo loses the mother and child to the engulfing chaos, only to find them again in that same chaos, all within this same faux long take. Meanwhile, by scanning this dense, dreary mise-en-scene, Cuaron and Lubezki not only disguise cuts, they continue a deeper strategy seen also in Y tu mama tambien: to show a much larger world than merely the characters themselves, a world that becomes almost hyper-real due to the careful construction of the long take coupled with other stylistic devices. So spectacular are these long takes that they become spectacles themselves which became endlessly talked about by reviewers, scholars and film aficionados alike. And that appears to have been precisely the reason why they are employed in the film during those particular sequences which proved to be the most challenging.
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