Readers Write In #332: On long takes, and The Vast of Night on Amazon Prime

Posted on January 27, 2021

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(by Aravind R)

It was a cold wintry night in Surat when I first fell in love with it. A senior was initiating a bunch of us – all from Kerala, accustomed to the usual Mohanlal and Mammooty fare and the occasional Padmarajan or Lohitadas – into all things awesome in music and movies, from Metallica to Pink Floyd to System of Down, from Kurosawa to Spielberg to Kubrick. Sure, a lot of hitherto unheard/unseen things in movies caught my imagination – magic realism in Amelie, Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, gargantuan twists in Fight Club, Usual Suspects, Seven, and psychological horror in the Shining, Psycho. 

But I digress! On that particular night, the senior had chosen to ‘enlighten’ us with Goodfellas. Apart from the impeccable plot, actors, story and all that, one particular scene made me sit up and take note – I would later learn that this scene was the famous ‘The Copa Shot’. In it, Scorsese and McConky used a steadycam to take us through a special door in a nightclub that lets the characters (and us, the viewers) go through the kitchen and land directly near the centre of the stage. The whole scene, a single take, lasts around 3 minutes. That night, I sat wide-eyed as I learnt about the magic of the long take. It lets us, the anonymous viewer, take charge – it is like a ticket to an adventure ride in an amusement park! 

There have been a lot of long takes in movies ever since. Some done masterfully in a single shot and some false ones taken to show as if it is a long shot. Back home, we had Angamaly Diaries where the climax scene was a long take and a single shot at that. I remember watching it in a very small run down single screen in Bangalore where all of us in that theatre got so charged up after the movie that we gave a standing ovation when the credits rolled. For the record, I don’t remember a standing ovation outside a film festival, but then, that is the power of the long take. This scene literally placed us in the middle of the action, and at one point, all of us in that small theatre were in our own adventure – floating around on the screen and experiencing it all. 

It was ‘The Vast of Night’ that cast its spell on me recently. The sci-fi movie is set in a small town having a basketball game night and is about two high schoolers hearing some weird sounds that pop up on the radio and telephone. They start to investigate and weird things start happening – it is standard sci fi, but the treatment is different from anything else in the genre. At the outset, it is like a montage of long takes involving two superbly cast actors walking long distances, talking to people and going about their daily jobs. At its core, it is a mind chilling mystery and opens us to the many possibilities of an outside world interfering with our own boring world. 

Contact with aliens is a recurring subject explored by many filmmakers, but what if a film offers minimal action and jump scares but still scares you by showing the possibilities? Debut director Andrew Patterson succeeds in recreating 1950s small town America not only through the props and production but also through the dialogue and action. Horror is manifested through the eerie sound that keeps running through the length of the movie once it is discovered, the long phone calls where folks recount their experience with the said sound and in the many things left unsaid or unshown. Towards the end of the movie, my heartbeat was racing and it took some control to rein in the impulse to fast forward and find out what happens next. 

A major part of the movie happens outside a basketball stadium and inside a radio station and a switchboard operator’s room. There are 3 awe inspiring long takes in the movie. The first one introduces us to the characters and follows the protagonist as he goes about the stadium and its periphery, interacting with anyone and everyone to set up the ambiance of the small town where everybody knows everybody else. The second one is a very long take of the protagonist operating a telephone switchboard, where every nuance and detail is brought to the viewer’s eyes. This is the scene where the mysterious sound pops up as well and sets the tone for the movie. It is a great example of how a movie can build up tension with just a strange sound. Apparently, this scene required such a nuanced performance that it was used to audition the lead actress. 

The third long take is what elevates this movie and blows our mind. Imagine you have a camera and you have to give a visual idea of the sleepy night town’s geography or expanse to the viewer, coupled with whatever effect an unknown, eerie, strange,‘alien’ noise could have on you. Enter the long tracking shot. It starts with the claustrophobic switchboard room where we have just been in the previous shot of the girl in the switchboard room. The camera then pans out of the room and enters the street and starts gathering speed and in the background, the eerie noise builds up its decibels. The camera now starts its journey – to the town gym where the basketball match is on, and then to the radio station. This scene pulls you into an atmosphere of

mystery, thrill and dread. I paused the movie and rewinded to play the scene on loop – it did remind me of the old audio cassette age where many a times, cassettes had been damaged due to constant pausing and rewinding! 

The Vast of Night is much more than a montage of such amazing long takes. It is an ode to the 50s America with their radio stations and telephone switchboards. It is a slow burn that manages to put the fear of the unknown in you without any jump scares. More than anything, it is pure psychological sci-fi at its best, and stands at par with big budget movies like Arrival. 

You can watch the long shot here, it is not a spoiler : 

And this is how they achieved the long shot :