Try for a moment to think back to your 11th grade English class. With a little more effort, think of what you actually learned in that class. Doubtless, you read “The Great Gatsby” and learned that Nick Carraway is something called an “unreliable narrator.” We get the facts of Jay Gatsby’s life solely through Carraway’s narration; he sounds like an aged man recounting times past, and we can’t help but wonder if he’s embellishing or covering things up. Even in my upper-division English classes, the novel is the prototypical text on narration.
Narration is a fascinating issue in literature and film. F. Scott Fitzgerald speaking through Carraway is like Martin Scorsese speaking through Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” In such cases, the author really wants his readers to see the story from only this perspective. In novels, the words are supposed to be “written” by the fictional narrator, but in film every aesthetic choice ought to be subservient to the story’s perspective.
In “Goodfellas,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill narrates his life as a gangster, and we see his perspective reflected in the way the movie is shot, edited and soundtracked. Scorsese is pretty blatant about it too: Early on, as Hill lists his fellow gangsters, the camera glides through a restaurant and each face greets it when his name is called. They’re not greeting the audience — they’re greeting Hill. But, doesn’t it feel like they’re greeting us? We feel like insiders, excited to have access to this lavish gangster joint. Maybe Hill felt like that in the moment too.
It is in this context that Scorsese deploys his famous Copacabana long take, or “Oner.” Hill and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enter the famous club through the basement, across the rowdy kitchen and up to the packed main room. The whole thing is a single uncut shot, and it’s the stuff film buffs drool over.
I don’t mean that as a bad thing. But, the whole point of this longwinded background on perspective is because I want to talk about how the “Oner” has lost its significance as a tool to establish a movie’s point of view. Now it’s seen as little more than a way for a director to puff his chest. In the best movies, however, every narrative and aesthetic decision can be traced back to perspective.
“Apocalypse Now,” for example, is told through the perspective of Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard. You don’t need to watch much of the film to gather that Willard’s narration is married to the visual style of the whole movie. The film opens with a psychedelic montage of Willard getting drunk in his room with images of Vietnam explosions cutting into the action and superimposed on his face, all set to The Doors. Willard is not just telling us his story — we’re in his head.
Movies that explicitly use a single point of view don’t always need narration to show it. In “Meek’s Cutoff,” director Kelly Reichardt presents the story in a tight, square-aspect ratio because we are meant to see things from the restricted perspective of the female characters — their view is limited because they’re wearing bonnets. Stroke of genius.
Take a recent example: I recall seeing a tweet that lamented the success of “1917” because it meant every film student would try to shoot projects in a single take. I liked “1917,” but, at least in my opinion, its technical wonder overshadowed its gruesome story. The film became more about “How did the filmmakers do that?” than “How did the soldiers get through that?” If a movie is meant to make the audience empathize with the characters, putting technical achievement at the forefront detracts from this original purpose.
The single take — and, really, any other aesthetic decision — should be made for a reason that supports the perspective of the film and adds to its themes. Viewed from this angle, “1917” had good intentions — to make us feel like we’re in this neverending wasteland with these men. It’s our reaction to it that wrongly emphasizes the marvel of its cinematography over any of its dialogue or characters. I say this because I did it, and the only reason any of my friends want to see “1917” is to see camera tricks, not story.
If any film students are reading this, take it with a grain of salt. I’m not a film student, but I like to think I speak from a place of equal passion as you — I drool over single takes myself, but I want to think about them the right way now.
Thinking about aesthetics does not detract from how you can express a story in film; I believe it makes a film more engaging because every part of it is geared to one goal, one vision for how the story ought to be told. If every stylistic and narrative choice in your movie is directly tied to the perspective, feelings, characters and themes of your story, I believe you’ve made a better movie than if it had one scene without any edits.
Isa Uggetti is a junior writing about film. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” runs every other Monday.