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Close Readings: On Ryan Coogler and the Long Take

Written by Josh Schulze.

Photo from the article For my money, Ryan Coogler is the best director working in Hollywood right now. The ‘Hollywood’ component to that statement is vital; for me, his approach to filmmaking typifies all that is thrilling and efficient about classical storytelling, and yet the personality and perspective he brings to his films truly sets them apart from his contemporaries. His first film, Fruitvale Station (2013), at times bears too much weight on its earnest, indie, Sundance shoulders, suffocated by the far-reaching importance of its subject matter. And yet, it contained flourishes of cinematic wit that have stayed with me for years since first seeing it.

He followed the film with 2015’s Creed, both a spiritual sequel and cultural reboot of the Rocky series. The infectious, youthful energy of the filmmaking was doubly fuelled by a sense of cultural and political urgency. The vitality of bringing a new perspective to a tired franchise, and reinvigorating old tropes for a new generation, proved subversive of the Hollywood model in its sheer refusal to be bad as the seventh film in a franchise. Watching Creed, one wonders how it manages to slide so neatly into the cogs and chains of a series that has its roots in the 1970s, meeting all its cues and ticking every box, while punctuating each beat in a way that somehow makes it alive and new. It might even be something as simple as derailing the typically stoic pathos of a rookie’s first fight with his sudden urge to take a shit. Or, it might be that the fights themselves are arguably the most gracefully shot and thoughtfully orchestrated in recent memory. For me, watching Creed for the first time felt close to what seeing Mean Streets or Jaws must have been when they were first released - to share in the filmmaker’s own excitement and energy, and to feel them announcing their voice to the world.

As for Black Panther (2018), his third film at the age of only 30, there is little to say about its cultural significance that has not already been said. My biggest compliment was in remarking that it doesn’t quite feel like watching Marvel, despite its necessary continuation of the larger cinematic universe’s grand narrative, but more that it felt like a Ryan Coogler film - in the same way that Creed hit its marks as a Rocky movie and yet expressed something singular and personal at the same time. The vision of Wakanda is in many ways the film’s greatest achievement, further exhibiting Coogler’s control of space and environment - the afrofuturist paradise feels as palpable and real on the screen as the Philadelphia of Creed, and the Oakland of Fruitvale Station. It is on Coogler’s filmmaking ability to connect his protagonists to the specific spaces around them that this article will chiefly focus. The way he aligns the audience with their experience and mastery of key environments is both efficient and dazzling; it is problem-solving and artistically-inspired all at once. In order to elucidate this, I will focus largely on one kind of typically long camera movement that he uses in all of his films: the follow shot.

Long takes that involve significant planning and careful orchestration have historically been met with a certain sense of ambivalence in the context of film aesthetics. It is often unclear whether the choice actually serves the action and benefits a particular moment, or is rather an excuse to demonstrate filmmaking prowess. In short: is it good directing, or simply a cinematic dick-measuring contest? Usually, it depends on the specific context, and often some sort of middle ground can be reached where the filmmaking services the story, and is impressive primarily in the way it does so. Indeed, my personal criterion is that if the shot is dazzling out of context, it is likely in there to impress me as a technical achievement rather than a dramatic one. Only in the context of the film should I really be dazzled, and dazzled by its very appropriateness. To use a classic example: the many long takes in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) do not strike me so much when viewed in isolation; the way they convey the action and the progression of emotions in a particular scene is of greater interest, and thus worthy of greater praise. Another filmmaker whose approach to these shots I particularly admire is Spielberg, whose chief concern seems to be precisely not to be noticed at all. To summarise his philosophy would be to say that the best long takes are the ones that don’t seem to exist.

And with that thought in mind, let’s return to Coogler, who himself has been described rather crassly as the next Spielberg. In each of his films, there is a key moment where the protagonist experiences and moves through an environment that is crucial in shaping the overall story. Coogler usually shoots these scenes from behind the character, and follows them from a careful distance while they navigate the space for themselves. This kind of technique has been put to use in various American films in recent years, notably as an effective overture of sorts in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). One of the strange qualities of shooting scenes in this way is the extent to which the camera is mediated: it moves only when and where the character does, and is completely submissive to its subject in that regard.

In Fruitvale Station, the shot is used when Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) picks up his daughter, Tatiana, from playschool. It begins with him walking into the empty frame of the entrance door and opening it. We follow him inside (he remains centre frame) to a classroom, where he leisurely surveys the drawings and stickers on the walls, and absorbs the unblemished innocence exuded by the environment. As he moves into the next room, he looks up and sees a decoration hanging from the room, and gives it a playful flick. The time allotted to this gesture allows Oscar a playful moment of his own. It is one of many contemplative gestures in the film that reflect on Oscar’s fate that the audience anticipate from the start.

It is important to consider the effect of the opening footage on the rest of the film. It is framed by the knowledge that Oscar will not survive the day, and thus colours every interaction with the minutiae of his environment as his last. This can be seen as partly why Coogler opts to shoot the classroom scene in an unbroken long take. It lends the moment a reflexive sense of finality, where the audience is reminded that he will never experience this room again. In that regard, having Jordan stop to focus on a particular decoration and to labour over his passage through the classroom is the film’s way of placing Oscar back into his childhood for a brief amount of time. This journey into the past through visual association marks the first segment of this shot.

The second brings Tatiana into the scene when Oscar pulls himself up the rails and steps to the playground, where the camera has to tilt at a low angle to follow him. As he walks outside, a beautiful sunbeam bears down on him before the basketball court becomes visible in the distance and he calls for his daughter. She screams "daddy!" back, and runs towards him, marked by a rare instance of stillness for the camera, which pauses to hold him while he spins in a hug with her. He holds her slightly upside down and walks over to the registration table. The camera moves with him and shifts around to frame them in a two-shot when Oscar sits down to tick her registration.

Subtly, the teacher is in the background but visually between them, looking rather suspiciously and contemptuously at Oscar (another representation of the environment and system failing to support him or help him support himself; he tries in earnest to navigate it but is constantly thwarted). The shot comes to a close with him asking if she’s faster then her daddy, before diverting her attention with a "what’s that?" and pointing in the distance. Her attention elsewhere, he leaps up and races her to the car. This marks the shot’s end, which cuts to slow motion footage of their race, catching his facial expressions in all their freedom and playfulness, truly unmediated by any exterior entities or structures. This is the last time he will ever pick up his daughter from school. So why not grant this moment the integrity of having it play out in full? Its cinematic quality comes from being somehow unmediated by the tools of cinema: Oscar is not confined by the frame as he is in his dying moments with his face to the floor, nor is his experience of the classroom interrupted by a cut. Coogler keeps a safe distance from the action, devoid of flashy camera techniques, ensuring that in our observation of Oscar’s movements we are too involved to notice the manner in which they are being captured.

The use of such a technique is part of what garnered the film’s accusations of mythologizing Oscar, and conveying its ideas too didactically. The problem with those criticisms is that if somehow the audience were unaware of the real-life Oscar’s story, they would spend the majority of the film confused by having to witness ostensibly meaningless interactions throughout a single day before his life came tragically to an end. As Hitchcock would put it, you’ve given the audience 90 minutes of everyday life and one instance of complete shock. By telling them the outcome at the beginning, we are encouraged to consider every moment as being both emblematic of Oscar’s life - specifically in terms of the small, microcosmic ways in which the system and his environment consistently failed him - as well as quietly unremarkable as most final days are envisaged to be. In a promotional interview, Jordan described how the film aims to slowly win the affection of the audience so that, in spite of knowing the outcome, they begin to wish that something different will happen to Oscar. In the same interview, Coogler described the main problem of handling the material as a matter of "accurate versus cinematic" which, in Hitchcockian terms, justifies the means of his approach: if it were entirely accurate and documentarian, what would be the point in making the film, when several reports and written accounts already exist?

Despite my interpretative claims that Coogler intends to go unrecognised in his use of the long take in Fruitvale Station, its prompting of the audience to reflect on the film, and Oscar’s life (and death), complicate his striving for invisibility. It is equally possible that his technical accomplishments desire some attention in their context as part of a debut film, where recognition is, of course, essential to success and longevity. In his following two films his uses of this particular shot are more directly comparable, and arguably more effective.

Creed is in many ways about the passing of torches between generations, and accepting the wisdom of the past while finding the courage to carve your own way in the world. Its themes, particularly in the ways they interlink with franchises and seriality across multiple movies, are not unlike those of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) - but that is a different article for a different day. Coogler bears those ideas in mind when he introduces us to the titular character in Creed. After a prologue that neatly encapsulates his troubled childhood, we find Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) in a dirty room where he punches the wall repeatedly to help him slip into the right mentality for the boxing match he is about to fight. When he turns towards us, his frown is full of zeal, eager to intimidate, desperate to impress. As he walks past the camera, it adjusts to begin following him from behind, where the distance is maintained all the way up the stairs until he enters the arena and eventually the ring.

The complete experience of waiting in the wings before making his entrance is allotted all the time it needs to breathe and develop in the film, and gives us enough of his perspective to know that this moment is important for him. When he begins the fight, the camera has moved around the ring to masquerade as an audience member so that we, for a moment, observe without apparent bias. And yet, of course, we root for Creed in the scene. In many respects, achieving this identification was simply a matter of starting with him in a deeply private moment, and following his journey into the ring.

There is a long take later on in the film that has rightfully garnered the most attention for its undeniable filmmaking prowess and attention to detail. Creed’s first real fight under the tutelage of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, obviously) is shown in a single unbroken shot of around 4 minutes 31 seconds. This impressive feat could easily escape the viewer, however - every minor camera movement and change of position is in fact motivated by the fighters, and thus does not draw explicit attention to itself. It bears witness to their skill as performers, and does little other than capture the flow of punches and observe the progression of the fight overall. It is deeply classical in its commitment to the spectacle of the actors and the action of the scene, not unlike the ways many musicals would capture Fred Astaire’s entire dances in unbroken shots that aimed to simply exhibit his talents without getting in the way.

But it is another long take shortly before this fight that I believe better encompasses the themes of the film, and typifies Coogler’s repeated use of the follow shot across his filmography. On his first day of training with Rocky, Creed is made to jog to the Front Street Gym while the veteran drives himself in a van. The shot begins by tracking Creed running from right to left, briefly whip-panning to catch a motorbike whizzing past. The camera comes back to frame Creed and Rocky together, as the latter gets out of the van to take him into the gym.

This is where the shot takes on a quality more alike those previously discussed - it follows Creed’s entrance into the gym from entering the door, to climbing the stairs, and experiencing the space for the first time. Only this time, he is not alone, but with his new teacher, and the former hero of the franchise. For a shot usually so personal and effective for commanding specific points of view, this moment strikes me as thematically significant in the way that it underscores the conversation taking place between the two characters.

Creed, with the earlier blur of the motorbike still on his mind, asks Rocky what the deal is with their perpetual presence in the area. He learns that "it’s a Philly thing…these kids are popping wheelies and making noises, going up and down the street" - which will later culminate in the most uplifting moment in the entire film, when Creed’s training is both eclipsed and invigorated by the influx of motorbikes that envelope him, spurring him on, further fuelling the fire of his legend-status as Apollo Creed’s son. The earlier motorbike took no notice of Creed training because he wasn’t yet Creed (he still goes by the name Johnson at this point). Only after he adopts his father’s name do the kids doing wheelies start to take notice, and rally around him to show their support, and what he means to the community. The film gradually allows Adonis to embrace his heritage, and to make his own legacy under the same banner.

Thus, upon his first entrance into the training gym where he will become the great fighter he always desired to be, it is fitting for his experience of this space to occur alongside his teacher, who throughout the film is constantly passing the torch in one way or another. It also emphasises Creed’s newfound companionship, in the way that it cites the earlier shot before the Mexico match, where he fought alone and without a mentor. "What do you think?" Rocky asks him as they reach the top of the stairs and enter the gym proper. He briefly exits the frame at this point to allow Creed to take it all in, though his voice can still be heard off screen. After a few beats, the perspective of the shot shifts to suddenly bring Rocky into the foreground, as he takes Creed to meet his crew and introduce them one by one. Without the audience really knowing it, the shot reveals itself to have been as much about Rocky guiding Creed through the space, and reliving such a formative experience vicariously through him, as it is about Creed coming into his own as a fighter. Neither one of their experiences are sacrificed or their perspectives compromised; Coogler instead finds a way to make a personal shot work for two characters rather than one. It is a moment, and a space, that in cinematic terms truly belongs to both of them.

So far, one might trace a looser theme of destiny running through Coogler’s use of this particular shot. Indeed, the frequent use of stairs demands that at some point the camera stoops to frame the character from a lower angle and to emphasise their striding towards something - whether its their first fight, or their first entrance into a gym, or to pick up their daughter for the last time. In Black Panther, a film explicitly about destiny, legacy, and passing the torch, Coogler once again uses the same shot in a significant moment of destiny fulfilment and the experience of a new space for its protagonist, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).

It is the day of T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, and the Wakandan tribes have come together as one to see him crowned. The scene begins from within the claustrophobia of T’Challa’s ship, which is hovering over the water near the site of the ceremony. Framed from behind, we follow him down the ramp through darkness, until his feet meet the water and the tip of the beach comes into view. The next camera move is crucial. It gently tilts upwards to reveal the mass gathering, dispersed among the cliffs to watch the proceedings. The scale of the scene is established from behind T’Challa, meaning that narratively the space exists because he has to enter it, and not otherwise. Thus, the personal importance of the moment is amplified by the progressive nature of the long take.

Following T’Challa from nervous isolation to the daunting congregation takes us from the private to the public, and from the personal to the political, in one movement. Many directors, I suspect, would have shot the scene by beginning with an establishing image of the crowds gathered round, in order to contextualise the occasion in a more conventional manner. Instead, Coogler has us experience the event exactly as T’Challa does, with time unfolding freely and untempered, and the spatial world expanding before our eyes. In a film where the protagonist is the most recognisable and public figure in his country, and a symbol of so many things, Coogler’s shooting of this scene confirms his priorities: to remind us at every point that T’Challa is human, and has much to learn.

Just as our introduction to Creed before his fight in Mexico, and his entrance to the gym with Rocky by his side, aligning our experience of narratively significant space with the character reiterates Black Panther’s overarching themes. The film constantly comes back to T’Challa adjusting to life on the throne, and to the responsibility of following his father’s footsteps. These experiences and spaces are as new to him as they are to the audience, and this involves us in his arc more directly. For instance, while not quite the same type of shot as that used before the coronation, when T’Challa visits the ancestral plane as part of the royal ritual, Coogler introduces us to this visually dazzling, ethereal space by circling the camera around T’Challa’s body to bring all of the environment slowly into view. The fields are neon-lit and dreamlike, and so the sweeping, kinetic camera ably codes the space as belonging to a higher realm.

However, it is T’Challa’s body that remains the central focus of the shot, which once more aligns us with his experience of the space first and foremost. While Creed and Fruitvale Station are films with naturalistic settings, in Black Panther Coogler expands on the follow shot’s capability to build palpable worlds that exceed our imaginations. The most effective fictional world-building is that which is grounded in the personal, and given meaning through its significance to the characters. It is not just a coronation ceremony that we see, it is T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, and it is not just any ancestral plane we are taken to, but the plane that belongs specifically to T’Challa’s ancestors.

It is worth noting that Black Panther also contains a more traditionally impressive long take, which yet again is built around a fight scene. In the Korean nightclub, where T’Challa, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) are staking out Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), violence soon breaks out, and Coogler stages an elaborate battle that shifts from upstairs on the balcony, to the ground, and back upstairs again on the other side in a single unbroken shot. Coogler himself broke down the scene in some detail remarking on his choice to dress the trio in red, black, and green so as to represent the colours of the Pan-African flag. This choice works in conjunction with filming the fight in one take because it emphasises their unity. Despite engaging in different individual conflicts, and on different levels within the building, they are associated by the camera both spatially and ideologically. Thus, even when it becomes technically more elaborate, the ways in which it services the story and the underlying themes of the film are prioritised.

Based on the examples discussed, Coogler has proven himself as a filmmaker whose primary concern when deciding how to shoot a scene appears to be what is most appropriate for the action of the story. For example, the boxing match in Creed that unfolds over a single 4-minute shot is rendered all the more effective in its conjunction with the comparatively montage-heavy final fight. Equally, that Adonis visits two other gyms before the aforementioned long take with Rocky, and that they are both shown to us first through an establishing shot of the exterior, and then taken straight inside, emphasises the significance and singularity of Rocky’s gym later on when we watch both of them all the way up the stairs. In Black Panther, his use of the follow shot was not especially long or indulgent (T’Challa’s entrance to the ceremony lasts approximately 20 seconds) and yet the moment achieves such gravity in the story both in its contribution to building the fictional world of Wakanda on-screen, and aligning us with T’Challa’s personal journey from his father’s son to graceful king. In many respects, Coogler is living proof that a long take doesn’t have to intrude on our engagement with the story. In the right hands, it is expressive and effective, so long as it is the characters and the drama of the scene that are privileged over the camera. Ideally, we should be too involved to notice that the film hasn’t cut in however many seconds or minutes. Coogler’s comparisons to Spielberg should be taken as high praise, so long as he continues to practice the philosophy that the best long takes are the ones you never knew existed.

This article was published on September 15, 2018.

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