The long take is one of those classic filmmaking tropes that, in the wrong hands, can feel like a gimmick — but in the right hands, feels like a symphony made into film. Many projects, film and TV alike, have integrated the technique into their storytelling, but it’s the rare few that attempt to use the illusion exclusively over the course of a complete narrative. The list at this point is basically as follows: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” — and “Triangle,” the third episode of “The X-Files” Season 6, which aired on Fox in 1998.
Here is the plot of “Triangle,” distilled: Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), prone to doing stupid things in his investigation of “the truth,” gets into a boat accident that lands him on a passenger ship which apparently vanished in the Bermuda Triangle in 1939.
There, he encounters 1939-era British sailors, Nazis and a few analogs to his contemporary acquaintances (including Gillian Anderson in a really smashing period frock) while Scully, in the present day, tries to track him down. Mulder is eventually fished out of Jamaican waters, a quick homage to “The Wizard of Oz” occurs and Mulder tells Scully he loves her. Even in the context of “The X-Files,” this is a weird episode, and to kick things up a notch showrunner Chris Carter, in one of his semi-regular writing/directing ventures, decided to implement the long take technique.
Each of the episode’s four main acts is thus shot to look like one uninterrupted take — there are of course cheats built into the cinematography, largely thanks to abrupt camera swivels through the corridors of the Queen Anne and the J. Edgar Hoover Building. But it was then and is still now exciting television to watch, if only for the knowledge that everyone involved is trying something new, and making it work.
“Birdman” has the same sense to it, and it can’t be denied that, compared to “Triangle,” it’s a superior achievement. The film, which follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he becomes increasingly unhinged while trying to open the Broadway debut of a Raymond Carver adaptation, takes place over a few days, but is filmed to feel like one unending shot lasting two hours.
What’s fascinating is that while a long take approach to a narrative would necessarily imply that the events occurring are in real time — and thus as close to reality as you could ever hope — both “Birdman” and “Triangle” use the format to instead create a heightened reality — often, in fact, a scenario of pure fantasy.
Riggan drifts through the theater’s backstage corridors into madness so smoothly that you can’t help but share his perspective, making the film’s ambiguous ending all the more powerful. Meanwhile, Mulder goes from actively questioning the unreality of the scenario to embracing it to the point of creating an “X-Files” milestone: The fantastical components of the storyline also allow Carter to film what is technically the first on-screen kiss between Duchovny and Anderson (though not technically the first for-real Mulder/Scully screen kiss, which would occur in the seventh season episode “Millennium”).
“Birdman” is, of course, a unique and beautiful work; the way Iñárritu uses long takes is far more intimate, driven largely by character moments that are given a chance to linger. Carter, with “Triangle,” is driven by the relentless pace it was felt ’90s television audiences demanded — the execution, seen with modern eyes, can’t escape feeling like a gimmick.
But “Triangle” remains exemplary as an example of the cutting-edge experimentation happening in television during the time; it’s unlikely that Iñárritu will ever cite it as an influence, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It might seem like TV became an auteur playing field in just the last few years. But only if you just started paying attention.