We got a lot of listener feedback about our two podcasts on the best of 2010 in film. Many listeners offered their own suggestions in our eclectic categories like Best Performance in the Worst Movie. Listener Patrick Fisackerly submitted a nominee in a category of his own devising: Best Scene in the Worst Movie. His pick was the following scene from “Step Up 3D,” a duet to Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance.”
I didn’t get a chance to see “Step Up 3D” in its entirety yet, but this is a very charming scene. And the use of long take certainly amplifies its charms. It shows off the real New York locations and the skill of the dancers, not only physically (they have to perform an entire dance’s choreography perfectly, with no mistakes) but mentally as well (they have to remember all of the steps, as well as all of the ways in which they must interact with their environment).
Watching that scene from “Step Up 3D” reminded me that several dance films in 2010 used similarly impressive long takes, all deployed to similar effect. For example, there was the hauntingly beautiful “Passage For Two” dance atop the High Line in “NY Export: Opus Jazz.” (NOTE: Though this clip intercuts the scene with title cards, the scene in the finished film is one long take for almost all of a five minute dance routine).
Long takes accentuate the passage of time. No cuts means creates a documentary-like connection between a shot and time: for this period of the film, this happened and this much time elapsed. Here the lack of cuts makes us hyperaware of that gorgeous sunset sweeping through the background of the scene. That sky, slowly shifting from orange to purple, lends the dance a magical quality; for this shot to exist, everything had to go right. The dancers had to perform correctly while the notoriously difficult-to-direct Sun had to hit its mark exactly. The lack of cuts also brings us deeper into the atmosphere of the scene and the dancer’s slow, sensual movements. I don’t know what each individual movement of Jerome Robbins’ choreography is meant to suggest, but to me their cumulative impact evokes the fleeting and impossible love: the dancers sway together in perfect sync but their faces remain blank and emotionless, surrounded by the decay of the High Line. To cut during “Passage For Two” (a title that also refers to the passage of time) would be to break the scene’s spell. The long take makes the dance almost hypnotic.
My personal favorite musical long take of 2010, though, was the one in “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” It spans the entirety of the number “Love in the Fall.”
Here we see how long takes can also accentuate a film’s sense of realism. The scene is a crowded house party jam session and the camera appropriates the perspective of a guy in the room just trying to get the best view of the action, angling around the other spectators and whipping back and forth between the tap dancers and star Jason Palmer’s trumpet solos. Instead of presenting a pristine, omniscient representation of this event, the camera gives us the opportunity to feel like someone actually in the room with the performers, witnessing it as anyone else there would. The whole film values emotion over perfection (which would make it the ideal second half of a double bill with Darren Aronofsky “Black Swan”), and so does the long take: the camera sometimes misses the hoofers’ steps because it’s late panning into position, but it never misses their infectious enthusiasm for their art.
And maybe that is what all of these shots have in common: passion. There are much easier ways to film all of these dance numbers, and if done skillfully, the results wouldn’t be that much less satisfying. But the long takes are difficult. They require so much planning and demand pinpoint execution. In a world of half-assed movies, they say “I care.”