Branching from my recent post on the film cut and mental anxiety, I’d like to now put into context the opposite phenomenon, the link between long takes and mindfulness, a notion that often leads to theories on the therapeutic value of film as art and to notions of meditative/transcendental/contemplative cinema. I’d first like to point out that my previous post about the film cut is not meant to be a polemical stance, and that there are ways in which film cuts, though interruptive, may be used to generate mindfulness as opposed to scattered thinking. Unlike blockbuster filmmaking, which thrives on captivating the viewer and results in a circular path of wanting more, getting more, wanting more, etc.—a disease in the modern psychology of the information age, hyper-stimulation, and instant gratification, there are artistic filmmakers, such as Robert Bresson, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Terrence Malick, who use the film cut not as an interruptive tool but as a measure of transportation or spiritual revelation. The cut in these cases do not interrupt time, as their non-representational, highly poetic images seek to transcend time by causing a shift towards a place of non-time.
But when speaking simply about the mental apprehension of film cuts and long takes, it becomes important not to fixate on the exceptions, but to look at the surface value of the techniques in and of themselves. The long take, long celebrated by film critics beginning with Andre Bazin, who said that the long take renders a certain ambiguity in the image that is apparent in the observation of life itself, seeks to reveal presence. There is always the presence of the passing of time within a long take, as there is no interruption.
As mentioned in my previous post, the cinema is conscious, with a take necessarily serving as a singular thought, idea, or moment. The use of many cuts which interrupt the flow of time with highly representational, content driven images forces the viewer to experience the same scattered thinking as is displayed on the screen. Interruptions surmount and one’s momentary experiences become shorter and more frequent: it is information overload and a stress on one’s nervous system. On the other hand, the long take necessarily encourages the viewer to hold onto a moment for a longer period of time. Whether one minute or 10 minutes in length, the entirety of a long take can be seen as a singular thought, a singular idea, or a singular moment. Like a relaxed moment of mindful meditation, pure attention to a long take expands a moment, expands the mind, and encourages a sense of eternal presence: how life itself ought to be felt.
That a long take is a singular moment automatically encourages the viewer to remain mindful for the entire period. If a film cut is like a blinking eye, the long take encourages one to watch unblinkingly. Attention to the formal aspects of the film becomes tantamount to one’s immersion in a long take. As Kracauer said, film teaches us how to look at reality. Since the long take most resembles reality, and since we are encouraged to look unblinkingly at what is being displayed on the screen, we are too encouraged to look unblinkingly at reality. To look unblinkingly at reality is to look at reality with mindfulness. In other words, to be present in the moment.
The long take, like physical reality, is unblinking and uninterrupted. The film cut interrupts and separates thoughts. In other words, the film cut is akin to being in your own head—of thinking and of changing thoughts. Meanwhile, the long take is akin to the pure observation of physical reality. While you are aware of yourself being aware, the sensory experience of attending to the uninterrupted image prevents one from scattered thoughts or separate ideas. If one spends the entire long take in full active awareness of the formal properties of the image, the colours, the shapes, the movements (what makes up the mise-en-scene and cinematography) then one attends the screen as one ought to attend life: mindfully. For this reason, long take cinematography is often associated with meditative filmmaking. It has the potential to lower the metabolism, encourage mindfulness, and create harmony.