I've always been intrigued by films that either play itself out in real time, like John Badham's Nick of Time starring Johnny Depp, or films that contain moments of one continuous take, such as the spiraling opening of Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes, or fight action sequences in Tom Yum Goong, and of course, plenty of art house fare that employs the still camera. I can imagine the kind of logistical nightmare the production team has to go through in ensuring a meticulous delivery, otherwise it'll be back from the top all over again.
Which was why one of the first films I've decided to have a look at during this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, was an indie slasher film Cut, which is done in one continuous take for the entire film from start to end. Little can be said of the storyline, but the premise and delivery technique was flawless, that you can't help but to constantly deal with the nagging thought of how things were done, and especially how the stunt team and camera crew got to get out of each other's way constantly.
Then thanks to this month's SFS Talkies, I learn of an earlier film, done some 10 years ago by Mike Figgis of Leaving Las Vegas fame, that made Cut look like child's play, and everything else that I had experienced thus far look like a walk in the park. Why? Four simultaneous cameras all shot in synchronization, done in 1 continuous take each, following a myriad of characters in and around a film casting location for the most parts, with characters interacting with one another, and the cameras following different characters when they criss-cross.
It's a brilliant technical nightmare. Half the time I was keeping my eyes peeled if a camera crew was found to be in the gunsights of another, but this was not the case. You can imagine the kind of meticulous planning during pre-production to have everything and everyone in sync, and challenging even that preparatory work with a few narrative events like earthquakes to literally shake things up. And having to film everything 15 times in 2 weeks in order to either take the best one (no splicing, no editing here) just boggles the mind, and surely it's an exercise in the technical sense rather than one focused on telling a story in straightforward sense.
The story isn't much to behold, granted it was all improvisational based on how the actors decide to get around to the pre-determined markers to get to the end. You're likely to end up hating it for going nowhere, or find it refreshingly off-the-cuff and enjoying every moment of irrelevance, and an exercise to try and piece together a semblance of something I suppose it is this freedom that attracted a cast list that happens to be remarkably strong, with an ensemble to include Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan, Leslie Mann, Alessandro Nivola, Julian Sands, Sellan Skarsgard and Jeanne Tripplehorn, besides a whole host of others. Characters range from the intense to the comical (Sands' masseuse, Nivola's keyboardist and Hayek's mediocre actress wannabe), which is a good thing to keep the interest and spirits up as the narrative just sprawls all over the place, and what more having 4 scenes simultaneously up on screen.
Which provides the viewer with quite the experience in a snapshot of existentialism, and life in general. We see things from our POV in real time at any one time, but we're well aware that during the same time frame, life around us revolves, whether we're participating actively or otherwise. The film provides a curious look at scenes before and after something pivotal, and like our attention span, we can choose to focus on those that interest us and ignore the rest. We have to, we have no choice, given limited cognitive abilities. But here, we're presented with a choice to see everything almost in focus, and at times two or more sections will amalgamate from different angles, especially with some milestone scenes.
I was a little apprehensive before the film about how I was able to follow the narrative given that I can't possible filter 4 different audio tracks as much as I like to, but again here's where the director makes decisions to assist us. Certain scenes were played out in an extended format, such as a quiet drive, which allows us to take our attention off a particular quadrant for a while. Or some where characters just laze around in quiet contemplation. Or have to suffer a frustrating wait, such as those involving Tripplehorn. For areas that Figgis wants our attention on, the audio will drift in, and sometimes it's balanced on different speakers, so watch this with a proper sound system set up!
For sure this is a film that demands more than one viewing, which allows those amongst us intrigued enough to just focus on one particular quadrant for the entire film, before moving onto another, if one is hardcore enough to do that. And with Everything But The Girl's Single in the soundtrack, I'm sold.