Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuaron's Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization

By Udden, James | Style, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuaron's Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization


Udden, James, Style


The question about the relationship between film style and globalization implies that somehow globalization changes everything, including film style. Underlying this is the often unarticulated fear of increasing stylistic homogenization; that somehow everything is blending into a sort of stylistic "global pudding." Yet some questions arise. First, what exactly does globalization mean in cinema? Second, and more importantly, when exactly did the era of globalization begin? From its inception, from the very moment Lumiere cameramen brought their novelty around the globe, film has had a global reach of sorts. Moreover, Hollywood as a global cinematic presence is virtually as old as the classical cinema and its concomitant rules of continuity. Hollywood throughout its history has also easily found room for foreign talent as diverse as Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Luc Besson, John Woo, Fernando Meirelles, to name a few. Certainly we can agree that these trends have accelerated in recent decades. We can also acknowledge that the most definitive break in Hollywood has been the slow decline of the old studio system and the eventual rise of multi-national, multi-media conglomerates under which the old studios now serve. Admittedly, while Hollywood remains the economic center of gravity for cinematic globalization, this no longer means American supremacy so much as transnational corporate dominance, which Vivendi and Sony have long verified. Yet for all the real economic changes these entail, do they also mean a fundamental, qualitative change in film style? Certain cases suggest no.

One of the best cases in recent memory would have to be Alfonso Cuaron and his 2006 film, Children of Men. Not only is this a relatively big-budgeted Hollywood production shot in the UK, it is also directed by a Mexican-born-and-raised director who has worked in Hollywood for most of his career. Not only is its disturbingly dark, dystopian message an extreme risk for such a prominent Hollywood entity--Universal--to distribute, its style also features traits far from the norm for a Hollywood film in any day and age. The most prominent aesthetic feature in this film would have to be several attention-grabbing long takes--shots with durations well beyond the industry standard. (1) But what do these long takes imply? Ultimately, they imply that as much as certain things change, other things do not. Cuaron is not simply defying contemporary Hollywood with this audacious long take style; rather he is joining an older tradition where the long take occasionally has emerged as a marker of aesthetic and authorial distinction even within the Hollywood system. Moreover, this is but another example of the Hollywood director who is in a position to push the aesthetic envelope, revealing that the system does allow a modicum of stylistic heterogeneity, but only within manageable limits. Once they go too far, the system eventually reins them in--or simply shuts them out.

The purpose here, then, is to determine the ends these long takes serve. The answer is that they serve multiple ends at once. Cuaron and others involved with the making of Children of Men defend their use of numerous long takes largely on Bazinian grounds even without naming Bazin in their discourse. Yet these long takes do not serve a phenomenological reality per se, nor do they serve mere narrative and thematic concerns of serious import; they also serve the seemingly symbiotic needs of both Cuaron and his supporters. Not only do long takes not violate the rules of continuity, they can also be highlighted in the critical discourse, resulting in product differentiation of a prestige production helmed by a newly recognized Hollywood auteur. As a result, these long takes become not merely the stylistic fabric of abject spectacles about the end of the human race; they become spectacles in their own right which not only flaunt Cuaron's ability as a director, but the daring of those who pay him. …

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