Rope, Birdman, and the Economy of the Single-Shot Film

Shechtman-Fig-11-600x325Anna Shechtman at nonsite:

As a number of scholars have argued, the final film product—a semblance of Brandon and Phillip’s crime in real-time—offers the viewer a sensation of “presence” conventionally impeded by montage in cinema.17 That such a sense of presence could emerge from within cinema at all would have shocked Georg Lukács, who, comparing the then-nascent cinematic medium to theater in 1913, wrote that “the stage is absolute presence, [but] the absence of ‘presence’ is the essential characteristic of the ‘cinema.’”18 He continued, “In a word: the basic law of connection for stage and drama is inexorable necessity; for the ‘cinema,’ its possibility is restricted by nothing … ‘Everything is possible’: that is the worldview of the ‘cinema.’”19 In Rope, however, Hitchcock imposes artificial limits on the cinema’s “endless possibilities.” He imposes the limits of theater. Rope’s camera never probes the perspective of the film’s protagonists (one never gets into Brandon or Phillip’s eyes); rather, Rope’s single, mobile camera assumes one unidentified point-of-view. It becomes an anonymous witness to Phillip and Brandon’s crime and the perverted dinner party that follows. In this sense, the film functions as a subjective long-take, but seemingly without a subject. Like theater-viewers, one sees only what this limited camera-witness sees, peering into the kitchen and overhearing a conversation in the next room. There is no reverse-shot that would attribute this 80-minute visual “quote” to a character because, as in theater, the viewer is it.20

This mode of filmmaking—and the phenomenology of presence that it ostensibly compels for actors and viewers alike—anticipates Bazin’s remarks about the ontology of live television, which he wrote in 1954. For Bazin, the live-ness of live television (then the dominant mode of broadcast) offered the medium “a particular way of dealing with action: more freely than theater, but less varied than cinema.

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