The Long Take: What's the Big Deal Already?

Ah, the long tracking shot -- cinema's most pretentious device. Sure, they can be fun and flashy, but like a loud and insecure extrovert, they also tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves. Isn't the point to get lost in the story?

As a young cinephile, of course, I loved them. They're the fastball of cinema language, and when used well, they can be masterful: in The Shining, for instance, when Kubrick follows young Danny at knee-level as he rides his Big Wheel through the hotel (one of cinema's first Steadicam shots, by the way), it draws us in, creating an almost unbearable amount of suspense. Classic examples abound, like the opening shot of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (feel free to skip past the text at the beginning):

Of course, Evil is a classic, and it's tough to aspire to classic-hood. Another famous tracking shot, the long and hilarious opening of Robert Altman's The Player, works beautifully because it references Welles' shot directly without being pretentious -- instead falling somewhere between homage and parody. (Apologies for the French subtitles here; YouTube has been pretty scrupulous about axing popular-but-copyrighted content lately):

In a very real way, young director P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, this year's magnificent There Will Be Blood) inherited the mantle of Robert Altman -- Anderson's complex ensemble scenes, where the camera roves between different conversations and people talk over one another in a more or less natural way, recalls Altman's best work (Nashville, for instance), and when Altman was directing what was to be his final picture, A Priarie Home Companion, he was in such failing health that he elected P.T. Anderson to be something like his Vice-Director, with the understanding that if Altman died during the shoot, Anderson would finish it. Which is a long-winded way of saying, Anderson is a guy who loves long takes, and he does them well, and if Altman thinks the kid's alright, then I do, too. (Insert smiley here, however inappropriate in the text of a blog.) Blah blah blah -- check out the opening shot of Boogie Nights, which sets the mood perfectly, introduces most of the film's important characters, and gets your foot tapping to boot, and you'll see what I mean ... it's Altman, Scorsese and I Am Cuba all rolled into one. (More iconic tracking shots can be found by clicking the links above.)

I know, I know. I'm supposed to be writing about how annoying tracking shots can be, but I've just spent three paragraphs extolling them. The trouble is, if you're going to do one of these shots, you have to do it really well, or it can become a spectacular, attention-grabbing failure. Coppola said something while he was making Apocalypse Now, that if you strive for greatness, the danger is that you'll fall just slightly short of your goal and end up making something that's just pretentious. Pretentious wants to be great, but isn't. I would put the "famous" long tracking shot in this year's Oscar contender Atonement in that category: pretentious, distracting and kind of pointless -- it stops the story in its tracks while the director shows off. Here's a clip of it (with the sound replaced, thanks YouTube, sigh):

In sum, I think the tracking shot is a dangerous proposition, but one we're seeing more and more of, in part thanks to the increasingly lightweight nature of cameras -- but just because you can shoot for 60 minutes without cutting doesn't necessarily mean that doing so makes you a cinematic genius. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter -- and please keep in mind that this brief list above is by no means meant to be complete!

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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