…from my recent piece about camera movement and its various motivations. Miklos Jancsó was cited by David Ehrenstein as something of an exception to all “rules” normally followed, and this is sort-of true, I think. Watching THE ROUND-UP (the only classic Jancsó I’ve seen recently with this issue in mind) I felt that the shots were nearly all straightforwardly motivated by the need to follow action — though what they do with that need is very creative and unusual. Jancsó would progress to sequence shots lasting well over ten minutes, but at this point in his career he only had access to film magazines capable of holding five minutes at a time, so he was technically constrained in this way.
[John Orr of Edinburgh University rather confusingly introduced the film with a statement about the filmmaker "editing within the shot without cutting", which strikes me as basically inaccurate in literal terms ("cutting" and "editing" are synonyms) and unnecessarily convoluted if taken as some kind of metaphor. Let's be clear, a sequence shot is a single shot which cover an entire scene. THE ROUND-UP does have cuts within most of its scenes, but far fewer than the average film.]
[I asked Jancsó about what the long take meant to him, and he talked about giving the audience time to think. He spoke with disdain of the modern fast-cutting style which forces ideas upon the audience, as in commercials. But I'm not sure I totally buy this argument, at least, not as a total explanation.]
Jancsó very occasionally moves the camera up to get an overview, which is more of an authorial statement, and also has to do with exploring space, but 90% of the tracking here is following characters — but in an extremely elaborate way. I’m told David Bordwell talks about certain overt stylistic moves in terms of their excess in relation to story function and/or normative industry practices, and that seems on the money as a description of Jancsó. Moving actors serve as a pretext for camera movement, but cannot account for the elaboration and excess of it. The real motivation for these sinuous, incisive tracking shots may be purely formal. Jancsó will follow one character until he discovers another, then follow that one, but first behind him and then in front, with foreground objects wiping frame and new compositions created with other elements whenever the character pauses. It looks very much like Janscó is deliberately devising ways to make the shot ever more stimulating and complex, not to express thematic concerns but to explore the possibilities of sheer cinematic beauty. I haven’t looked at it lately but THE RED AND THE WHITE is obviously even more “excessive”.
There is still an element of economy to this — filming in long takes allowed Janscó to make big costume films very quickly (26 days for THE ROUND-UP) — but we should separate narrative economy clearly from the financial kind. Indeed, in terms of narrative, THE ROUND-UP feels like it could be told in half the time, but Jancsó’s visual and atmospheric elaborations extend the movie into a baroque dimension where time often seems suspended.
One can rhapsodise about how Jancsó’s choreographed moves create a closed world in which his characters are trapped, so that the stylistic curlicues become a thematic element, but in a sense, when faced with a stylist as extreme as this, it may be wise to allow that sometimes the primary motivation for moving the camera may simply be the desire to move the camera – an interest in the shapes that can be created in four dimensions. Everything else is a pretext — you need to have the pretext, but we shouldn’t mistake it for the real point.