A Short History of the Long Take

Split Enz – “Message to My Girl” (1984)

Jean Luc-Godard once said that “a tracking shot is a moral issue.” Here, it’s a marketing decision, as the camera follows singer Neil Finn on an uninterrupted saunter through a theater’s backstage as he delivers a pleasant, Hall-and-Oates-esque white-soul number, other band members crossing his path in passing cameos. The focus of attention reflects the veteran Austalian group’s shifting balance of power as they gradually morphed from a zanily-costumed and –coiffed music-hall troupe, co-founded by Tim Finn, into a far less outlandish pop-rock outfit that traded on his younger brother’s more commercial grasp of songcraft, not to mention his voice and Michael Keaton-esque looks.

Trashcan Sinatras – “Obscurity Knocks” (1991)

Music Video: Unavailable

Goldberg and Pythagoras aside, a few viewers have noted the resemblance among “This Too Shall Pass” and Der Laufe Der Dinge, a well-known 1987 film by Swiss visual artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss – and an earlier effort by this underrated (and still-extant) Scottish jangle-pop outfit. Other versions of the song can be found on YouTube, but the original video appears to be in limbo, perhaps because of intellectual property issues. If memory of MTV’s late-night “alternative” block serves, however, the clip closely replicated the quotidian physics – tipping buckets, weighted ramps – and limited editing of its art-world model, as well as its deliberate pacing, creating an effect entirely distinct from OK Go’s antic build.

U2 – “Numb” (1993)

Just as the song, centered on The Edge’s monotonous vocal, is a respite from Bono’s earnest howlings, its visual correlate contrasts strikingly with the Po-Mo for Dummies sensory overload of U2’s Atchung Baby/Zooropa phase: The guitarist sits front and center as an stationary camera records various minor violations – pokes, prods, water torture – to his impassive face and body. These humiliations are more obviously stage-managed than in Xiu Xiu’s realization of a related conceit (see below). Even so, the clip partakes, knowingly or not, of the same performance art traditions: Could the moment when scissors enter the frame to snip off the singer’s wifebeater be a nod to Yoko Ono’s Fluxus-era Cut Piece?

Primus – “Mr.Krinkle” (1993)

Primus’ foray into long-take video shares its one-camera, no-motion set-up with “Numb” and several others, but its contents are considerably less subdued. Trapeze artists swing in the far background, a pig-masked and fat-suited Les Claypool saws his cello in the foreground, and a parade of firewalkers, contortionists, and other sideshow types from San Francisco’s School of Circus Arts hove in and out of the middle distance. Beyond the invitation to check out some crazy-ass shit, there’s no discernible rhyme or reason to the procession, and the result demonstrates that performance chops and formal unity aren’t always connected to a subtle aesthetic, or even a coherent one. But we knew that from Primus’s music.


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