In an August 12 post on his “Zero for Conduct” film blog (see also his August 18 follow-up), Michael Atkinson waxes lyrical on the virtues of the “long shot” …

“The more movies you see, the deeper into the aesthetic issues of cinematic eloquence you plunge, the more likely you are to come around to see the long shot—tracking or otherwise—as a kind of ur-cinema, a fundamental, uniquely filmic and matchlessly expressive and experiential movie manifestation no cataract of fast cuts, Avid foofaraw [my link], montage theories and digital pyrotechnics can encroach upon.”

He then proceeds to tick off a handful of long-take faves—from Murnau’s Sunrise (pictured above), Welles’s Touch of Evil, Kalatosov’s I Am Cuba, Godard’s Weekend, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Sokurov’s Russian Ark—and proposes establishing a “Long Shot Hall of Fame” to honor the whole aesthetically malingering crew. “Any consideration,” he goes on, “would land soon enough before the busts of Mizoguchi, Jancso, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos”—who from my point of view deserves a wing of his own—but then “what about the long shots we’ve forgotten about, or never heard praised?”

Got one of those for ya, Mike, from the incumbent master of the multiple-minute stare. The shot in question, from James Benning‘s 1977 experimental masterpiece 11 × 14, involves a single, continuous take from the front window of a CTA train (actually the Evanston Express, which operated more or less nonstop back then) running to the Merchandise Mart from somewhere around Wellington Avenue. Obviously the problem, assuming you’ve already caught on to Benning’s methodology—that no shot can come to an end before the completion of some “naturally” cohesive action—is that you know exactly what’s in store: approximately 15 minutes of the same damn footage, through the window, down the tracks … with an anonymous guy silhouetted against the glass, smack-dab blocking about a quarter of the view.

A perfect example of what I thought of then as Benning’s Calvinist urge to punish the audience before ushering it to grace. Yet usher to grace he does—since what’s mainly revealed, even within these harshly demanding parameters, is that the camera necessarily “sees” things differently than we do. Example: for the full duration of the shot the focus never changes (always set at infinity), yet typically, in an identical “real life” situation, our eyes would be refocusing constantly, depending on subliminal intent: it’s nothing we’ve any control over, just the way our biological system functions. Or another example: without some deliberate intervention, the camera simply stares fixedly ahead; yet our own eyes are forever darting around, changing informational venues: we’re not forced to look at any particular thing—in fact, holding the same uninterrupted gaze for minutes on end may not even be possible. Also, from a sensory-deprivation angle (or maybe it’s a case of Stockholm syndrome!), there’s a kind of emergency mise-en-scene you start inventing in your head: look, here comes a Ravenswood train down the opposite track … closing in, closing in, then suddenly a “whoosh” as it glides right past, almost like a phantom. But how much of this is self-invented and how much something we’ve been primed to discover? Whatever the answer it’s still a terrific rush … and to think that if we’d actually been sitting in an el car watching (or more likely not watching) these logistics playing out, we’d probably be bored to tears. But Benning was always aware of what he had in mind; it’s the rest of us who had to catch up.