• James Kunovski

1917 & The One-Shot Film: Five Others Worth Checking Out

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening.” Roger Ebert, 2003

The inception of cinema, through the work of Louis Le Prince in 1888 and the Lumière Brothers in 1895 comprised of one-shot films. They lasted as long as there was film in the camera and usually came in under one minute. It was a sturdy advancement in a new technology. Filmmakers soon realised they could tell longer stories, perhaps even one that could shift time and cover multiple settings. They achieved this with sequences; by splicing their footage (insert editor holding up line of film) and assembling the scenes by order of the script. With time, it became more sensical to cut your film together if you wanted to tell a more rewarding story.

The development of film equipment gave experimental directors an idea. They could convey certain scenes with long-takes. It would be customary to give Hitchcock, (Rope, 1948, one of the more famous examples, discussed below) credit, but it is also seen in both the openings of Madame de…, (1953) and Touch of Evil, (1958). There are a number of contemporary versions too; right now, you’re probably picturing yourself walking through the Copacabana. Other filmmakers have exceeded the challenge of a long take and have made their films into one shot. This is still a new concept, with limited examples, most so submerged in their own arthouse scene they become impossible to find, let alone watch.


Regardless, they usually gain our praise and wonder for their narrative and technical ability. There is just something so satisfying about the fluidity of their scenes in which you can reflect, and realise you are watching the same shot as an hour ago. By choosing to tell their stories in their own unconventional way these filmmakers bend toward those films by Le Prince and Lumière some century and a bit ago.

With the cinematic release of Sam Mendes’ (American Beauty, Skyfall) 1917, about two British soldiers who must race across enemy territory to deliver news of an impending attack, audiences once again have the chance to experience these technical feats.


Accomplishments in their own right, here are five one-shot films that deserve your attention.


 

Rope | 1948 | directed by Alfred Hitchcock


Generally considered the first feature one-take film and one that neither Hitchcock nor critics unanimously admire, two men fixated with intellectual theories of superiority host a dinner party as a toast to their ‘perfect’ murder of a former classmate.

Is it really one-take?

No. There are ten takes. Ranging from four to ten minutes - the length of a film camera magazine.

What does the director have to say?

“…an experiment that didn't work out…"

What did the critics think?

“Rope is not merely a stunt that is justified by the extraordinary career that contains it, but one of the movies that makes that career extraordinary.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“perverse, provocative entertainment.” Writer not credited, TimeOut

“...the picture takes on a dull tone as it goes and finally ends in a fizzle...” Bosley Crowther, The New York Times


 

Russian Ark | 2002 | directed by Alexander Sokurov


Glacially paced and ethereal in its majesty, a ghost drifts through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg encountering historical figures along the way.


Is it really one-take?

Yes. 87 minutes. Fourth take was the charm.

What does the director have to say?

“Let’s imagine an ark on the ocean, with people and great works of art aboard — books, pictures, music, sculpture, more books, recordings, and more. The ark’s timbers cannot resist, and a crack has appeared. What will we save? The living? Or the mute, irreplaceable testimonies to the past?”

What did the critics think?

“…something of a waking dream.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post


“seems destined to go down in film history as a technical tour de force.” Deborah Young, Variety


“dazzling dance to the music of time.” J. Hoberman, The Village Voice



 

Birdman | 2014 | directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu


A faded Hollywood actor (something that might have been a bit too meta for lead Michael Keaton) struggles in his attempt to stage a Broadway play in which he writes, acts and directs.


Is it really one-take?

No. There are sixteen cuts. The longest take is 15 minutes long.


What does the director have to say?

“I think the way the film was shot was exactly like that [unpredictability] - the fact that the guy knows that in three days he’s going to be exposed to the premiere of his play and he will be judged live after being a superhero movie star, which is exactly contrary to reality and naturalism.”


What did the critics think?

“… everything you want movies to be: vital, challenging, intellectually alive, visually stunning, emotionally affecting.” Ian Freer, Empire

“lots of films claim to be different. Birdman is.” Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Birdman dares to be ambiguous, but unlike most essays in ambiguity, it is also a hell of a lot of fun.” Catherine Bray, Hitfix



 

Victoria | 2015 | directed by Sebastian Schipper


A pulsating trip through the darkened, yet hardly dull streets of Berlin, young Victoria joins a group of men for a night on the town that turns deadly.

Is it really one-take?

Yes. 134 minutes long. Third time was the charm.

What does the director have to say?

“Our reference was a bank robbery, so that was really the starting point. Daydreaming about a bank robbery, then thinking about how I could make a film about it that’s interesting.”

What did the critics think?

“… it’s Schipper’s single-shot conceit - and the fact that he and his team pulled it off with aplomb - that makes Victoria such a bracing triumph.” Nigel M Smith, The Guardian

“terrifying, seductive and adrenaline-fueled” Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

“obviously, no one should wish all films were shot like this. But the approach suits this story and these characters, and that’s all it had to do.” Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle



 

Utøya 22 July | 2018 | directed by Erik Poppe


An alternative to Paul Greengrass’ more thriller-imbedded and sensationalised 22 July, a teenage girl struggles to survive an attack on her political summer camp on Norway’s Utøya Island.

Is it really one-take?

Yes. 83 minutes. Fourth take was the charm.

What does the director have to say?

“I wanted to see if I could present time as an element, as a character in the film… I wanted to use it for this story because as soon as you add one cut, or add a piece of music, you can relax, you can tell yourself this is just a movie.”

What did the critics think?

“gruelling, pulsating, in-your-face film” Ed Frankl, The Film Stage


“the film has the power to make our bodies catch up with our hearts” David Ehrlich, Indiewire


“designed to be as immersive as it is exhausting, and largely succeeds” Guy Lodge, Variety


 

With the Academy recently acknowledging two films of this nature, and its entrance into the mainstream sphere, will more directors soon be vying for their own one-shot films?