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The Sopranos

The Sopranos

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.

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Michaël Parent

I couldn’t agree more. Nowadays, television shows are edited with 3 seconds takes maximum and the editing is sometimes exhuberant! Lately, a Quebecor tv show directed by Podz called 19-2, a cop show has been made with long shots and many uncut scenes. The tension and the visuals are more than worth the look. It lets the viewer forget that he is watching television and be involved in the story.

Robert Mulvihill

Favorite long take in a (relatively) recent film: Harvey Keitel’s “Christmas story” in Smoke. The shot zooms in so slowly and Keitel’s performance is so amazing I didn’t even realize that the shot’s unbroken for five minutes until rewatching the scene. And it’s set up so perfectly, too: a couple of relatively long takes with some nice reaction shots of William Hurt before Keitel really gets going and the camera stays with him.

Simon Gribben

I tend to agree with you about cinema from 1912 to 1962 but why is that so and doesn’t that leave your films on the doorstep? Lubitch (sp?) was a master of the long take as was George Stevens (the great grope in “The More The Merrier” between Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur). An example of an edit blowing a scene is in John Barrymore’s “Svengali” when he’s really emotionally in the scene in a wideshot but a closeup interrupts the emotional flow (a diva gesture or blown take?) and he’s 100 degrees cooler in the close up. Then they go back to the wide shot where he’s whaling away. Actus interruptess!

Frank Capra solved the same dilemma in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart is crying at the bar in a medium shot. Stewart only did the scene once really well, so to save the whole take, Capra cut the scene to a close up of Jimmy by optically blowing up the negative, using the one good take he had.

When you have 2 great actors playing a well written scene, a 2 shot reveals the give and take of each character without hiding the subtle non speaking reactions.

Blake Lucas

Not feeling the need for HBO (too much classical cinema to catch up on or see again), I never watched THE SOPRANOS much except on vacation–I did get a kick out of seeing Peter Bogdanovich in at least one episode I saw, but the show didn’t mean anything to me, honestly.

Still, I read this piece with interest, for its broader view and celebration of long takes (the cinema is to me, profoundly, an art that deals with time and space–and a little more patience than most audiences now seem used to serves engagement with these things best) and acknowledgement of the abuses of the art of editing that have taken over at the expense of classical mise en scene. Editing is in truth one of the most important aspects of filmmaking for any director but it may actually be best appreciated in the work of long take directors, where the judicious cut within a sustained scene can have telling effect.

It was the last paragraph of this piece that resonated especially for me. I’ve been going to movies devotedly virtually my whole life, and that’s quite a few years, and my range of interests in world cinema has been wide. But the further we’ve come from classical cinema–the years that Mr. Bogdanovich champions–the harder it has been to sustain that passion. I am one–and I know many others like me–who has started going to movies less and less in theatres, unless it’s a special revivial or restoration or discovery; more and more, I prefer to stay home and see movies from the classical years, often ones I know well and have seen many times but they never cease to give me something. I hardly go to new movies at all now.

Coincidentally, the last new movie I saw in a theatre was Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. People seem beside themselves over this–“Woody has returned to form” and “it was so charming” and such things. Well, if this was so charming, what is THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER? I
enjoyed it mildly and then quickly forgot it. I’ve liked other Allen films more, some enough to return to–he is genuinely witty and does have an intelligent understanding of film direction–though there’s nothing there that puts him anywhere near the company of the great figures of cinema–the ones constantly referenced in this blog.

I don’t say this with any great happiness–but not with any great sadness either: I’m certain that the first century of cinema was the best and always will be. CGI is basically taking it over and though the human element is still there, it’s not thriving as it once did. Technological advances are fine but it’s important to remember that they don’t change the language of cinema, which was formed very early on–they can only displace it with something lesser and that’s what’s happening now.

Why no regret for the present state of things? Because that first century of cinema was so great, perhaps greater than has ever been fully acknowledged. So many major artists and enduring works of art, and even some of the more minor ones have major virtues. If it all stopped right now, there would still be so much to endlessly enjoy as well as study and learn from. And at no time in history could one go back and so vividly see the world as one can in the way twentieth century cinema was practiced, especially through the classical era but also in a fair share of beautiful modernist works that followed, some of those too, among the great movies.

Jesse L

I’d like to advocate for Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies. A wonderful film in which there is a scene shot as you describe, Peter. I mean the scene where the black daughter meets for the first time the white mother who gave her up for adoption. Leigh has them meet in a cafe and sits them both on the same side of the booth so that he can shoot them in one continuous (and agonizing) take. We start to feel as uncomfortable as they do as the camera holds on them for so long without cutting. Oddly, in Hitchcock’s Rope one feels the need for editing to ramp up the tension in that film. Without the tension created by the well-placed edit, that film doesn’t work quite as well as it could have.

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Interesting piece which again begs the simple question I’ve been dying to ask for years. What does Mr. Peter Bogdanovich think of the work of Mr. Woody Allen? Every time the theme of classical vs. modern cinema comes up here, Woody never seems to get a mention. Which is odd, as Woody would seem to tick all the boxes for what Mr. Bogdanovich advocates strongly. Nothing against Sling Blade, In the Company of Men, or The Sopranos, but as we all know Woody’s been doing all of ‘that stuff’ from his own scripts, every year for over 40 of them. The constant referencing of Renoir, Hitchcock, Welles, Ford etc. is always perfectly fine. But one is left to wonder why one of America’s most important and loved flim artists is never mentioned here.

Steve Lanigan

Another erudite essay Mr Bogdanovitch. I will always advocate the charms of older films to anyone who will listen (Lang being one of my favourites), but as for your last comment regarding the correct mixture of past and present creating excellent modern cinema, I personally think Paul Thomas Anderson gives me much to be thankful for.

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