About ten years ago, I was talking with critic Matt Zoller Seitz, and he said that one of the things he thought which made the HBO series THE SOPRANOS (all six seasons available on DVD) such an exceptional show was the makers’ willingness to let certain scenes play in continuous action, without a cut, allowing audiences simply to observe the actors minus any manipulation via editing or noticeable camera pyrotechnics. (Full disclosure: I had a recurring role on the show starting with the second season, playing Dr. Melfi’s—-Lorraine Bracco’s—shrink, Dr. Eliot Kupferberg. I also directed an episode for season five.) Matt’s underlying point was that this way of working hardly exists any longer in features, and its unfortunate lack has a lot to do with the off-putting nature of so much current mainstream product, most of it cut like music videos or commercials, no shot allowed to last more than a few seconds at most.
In this regard, such independent successes as Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade (1996) and Neil LeBute’s In The Company of Men (1997) noticeably went the other way, letting a great many of their scenes play in long takes, thereby increasing intensity, believability and involvement. Of course, the writing in most pictures is not as good as it was in those two (and is in The Sopranos), and a lot of fancy directorial footwork is an attempt to jazz up weak material. Any good actor prefers to play a scene through uninterrupted, because of the far stronger degree of concentration necessary and therefore more profound involvement with the character.
Making his first talkies in the early 1930s in France, Jean Renoir realized this and pioneered the use of long-running takes, camera stationary or moving, all in order to give the actors their continuity of motion and emotion. Throughout sound’s golden age (1929-1962), nearly all the legendary directors—-Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, etc.—-alternated cross-cutting and montage with long uninterrupted takes. Orson Welles said that precisely the ability to do these well is “what separates the men from the boys.”
Along the same lines, another similar sense of continuity is also at least partially responsible for the extraordinary success of The Sopranos, since it is essentially a very unpredictable and suspenseful hour—-uninterrupted—-in a medium founded on commercial breaks every seven minutes or less. In fact, The Sopranos is a remarkably deft blend of the best virtues of series-television—-the ability to really get to know a group of characters—-with the classic techniques of narrative American cinema (including inexorability), all filtered through a sensibility (creator David Chase’s) that is definitively at the dark end of the ‘90s into the darker 21st century.
There is perhaps an additional influence—-since each season is dealt with artistically as a thirteen-hour feature—-from the epic scope yet familial ordinariness of Robert Graves’ account of Augustus’ 1st century Rome in the historical-novel-defining I, Claudius and Claudius the God, superbly adapted into fourteen video hours in the mid-70s by England’s Masterpiece Theater (also available on DVD). No coincidence, maybe, that Tony Soprano’s poisonous mother has the same name as Augustus’ notoriously poisoning wife Livia.
Speaking of Robert Graves, he once wrote, on the importance of understanding history: “We must retrace our steps or perish.” In movies, since we’re only dealing with a hundred years, it isn’t that difficult to look back and see what has gone wrong. Which is one of the reasons why I mainly keep advocating the older films—-ones that were better constructed, that were made for a wider audience known as the whole family yet directed toward adults, that generally cultivated an economy of means and gesture, that were guided with a truly personal yet unselfconscious and non-distracting point of view, that featured an amazing array of utterly unique star-actors whose increasingly resonant personas added immeasurably to the roles they played. It is because of all these things that people who either grew up with, or have been regularly exposed to, good films from the golden age (roughly, 1912-1962), find most of the current fare so anemic and unsatisfying. As only the second century of the movies continues, I still fervently believe we have most to learn from the pioneers and the masters who built such an enormously rich heritage for us to draw upon, both as craft and art. Wise mixture of past with present creates a really modern screen, whether it’s in theaters or on TV.