Hitching A Ride: Vehicular Travel In One-Take Films

The Sad Smell of Flesh (Cristóbal Arteaga, 2013).
Jack O’Dwyer theorizes the expressive and functional roles of car journeys in one-take films, reading these examples of audiovisual automobility in relation to risk, contingency, dead time, and emotion.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Mediating Urban Automobility.]

A one-take film is a film which presents—or has the appearance of presenting—the entirety of its content in a single unbroken shot. Despite the increasing popularity, and widespread theoretical implications, of the one-take film, it has never been subject to extended scholarly examination.1Of course, long takes have been a frequent topic of discussion in cinema studies. Two recent contributions to the scholarship are: John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, eds., The Long Take: Critical Approaches (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Lutz Koepnick, The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). I begin this process by unravelling a central iconographic feature of the form: the automobile journey. This essay represents an attempt to read and engage with these films on their own terms; to read vehicular scenes as symptomatic of the unique treatments of risk, contingency, dead time, and emotion that continuous films offer. I begin by outlining certain qualities of vehicular journeys that are germane to their function in one-take films, particularly their ability to embody ambiguous or paradoxical (e)motions. Next, I outline the pertinence of positive risk and spectatorial engagement of the artifact in this mode of filmmaking, as well as the manner in which this is avoided or feigned through use of the vehicle. Finally, I cover the dead time and dramatic limpidity that often occurs as a result of this vehicular-based risk aversion. My thoughts are, in some ways, a prolegomenon to the topic: speculative and inconclusive.

There are noteworthy scenes throughout cinema history that use long takes to depict vehicular travel. These include the notoriously slow highway scene near the beginning of Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), the static and observational vignettes of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), and the dazzling choreography of the ambush scene in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006). The scenes I discuss are of essential difference, however; unlike the examples from traditionally edited films, they are not standalone, self-contained sequences. Instead, they function as transitions or bridges connecting more purposeful scenes in the film’s unbroken narrative. They are not anchored by resetting cuts before the car journey begins, but more free-floating in presentation. While the mise-en-scène resembles these famous precursors, their embeddedness within the overall film—the link between the part and the whole—is quite different. My interest, then, is in vehicular scenes that are interspersed with yet durationally attached to the film’s non-vehicular action. While there are similarities amongst the narrative one-take films that I discuss in this essay—all are dramas with a serious tone—the one-take form can serve varying genres that have an itinerant ethos. Films I choose not to discuss, such as the more action-oriented PVC-1 (Spiros Stathoulopoulos, 2007) and Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015), or comedic Somebody Marry Me (John Asher, 2013) and Lost in London (Woody Harrelson, 2017), also contain comparable vehicle scenes. There is often a degree of baseline similarity between one-take films resulting from their shared technique. Vehicular scenes are an indicator of this uniformity rising to the surface, revealing the common tissue that binds together otherwise disparate genres, narratives, and national cinemas.

I proceed from the general assumption that, even before considering car scenes specifically, the one-take film and the car journey are, in certain ways, conceptually similar. Both are bounded events that unfold over a particular span of space and time. Indeed, Lynne Pearce, in her essay “‘Driving-as-Event’,” proposes that “each and every car journey may be thought of as a unique and non-reproducible event in the lives of the drivers and passengers concerned on account of the variable psychological and situational factors involved”2 Lynne Pearce, “‘Driving-as-Event’: Re-thinking the Car Journey,” Mobilities 12, no. 4 (2017): 585.; while Eric Laurier et al. write that “analysable, recognisable and quite mundane features of the journey provide an organisational structure.”3 Eric Laurier et al., “Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel,” Mobilities 3, no. 1 (2008): 18. Like a one-take, the guiding itinerary of a car journey may be rigorous or loose, but must ultimately contend with the complex, singular, and non-repeatable circumstances of both participants and the outer world. Owing to these similarities, observations and concepts from automobility studies can be applied neatly to the one-take film (specifically those which undertake a centrifugal narrative journey). I draw concepts freely from sociological works insofar as they explain some aspect of vehicles in one-take films. For the purposes of this essay, I do not make strong distinctions between celluloid-based and digital-based films. While this division is central to many aspects of the one-take film, this essay is more concerned with the frictional materiality of things and objects embedded within the film space, “in concrete purchase of the world.”4Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 5.

Hybridity and the Cinematic Thing

Lesley Stern, in a Kracauer-inspired essay, writes about objects and things that “seem cinematically destined,” discussing props or devices that take on a heightened expressive or functional role in certain genres or modes of film.5Lesley Stern, “Paths That Wind through the Thicket of Things,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 334. In the domain of one-take films, vehicles are one of these privileged items, one whose very motion and materiality seems to snag upon the form as a whole, inflecting it with friction; other privileged objects include cigarettes, mobile phones, and natural phenomena. In continuous films, objects are afforded a unique opportunity to develop in time, without cuts or rearrangements, emphasizing their ephemerality as well as their fixedness. Stern writes of the ambiguity of the cinematic thing: “the more you try to grasp the cinematic thing, to describe and classify it, the more its formula escapes you, the more certainty dissolves into immateriality.”6Stern, “Paths That Wind,” 331. Following in the wake of Lefebvre and de Certeau, unravelling the intricacies of car travel (both in the real world and in cinema) is a way of reading everyday life, a way to “re-familiarise us with the centrality of the unremarkable and indispensable.”7Laurier et al., “Driving and ‘Passengering’,” 4. The multifaceted role played by automobiles in one-take films is not always immediately clear because of the degree to which driving has become a mundane aspect of existence in the contemporary world: “a shadow activity,”8Jörg Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 90. or “almost the background to the background.”9Nigel Thrift, “Driving in the City,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 46. The inconspicuous stability of vehicular journeys in everyday life creates the condition for these journeys to stabilize, in inconspicuous fashion, the production process of a one-take film.

It is a truism of recent writing on automobility to stress the ambiguity and interdependence of all factors involved in car travel: the multivalent fusions and interconnections beyond immediate sight. Nigel Thrift points to the “extraordinarily complex everyday ecology of driving,” characterized by “consistently high levels of ambiguity”10Thrift, “Driving in the City,” 48.; while Jörg Beckmann summarizes that “the car simultaneously enables and disables, individualizes and reintegrates, liberates its users from one auto-centred spatio-temporality and coerces them into another.”11Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” 83. Numerous conceptual frameworks have been proposed in an attempt to characterize the identity of the moving vehicle: Tim Dant, for example, runs through affordances, assemblages, and actor-network theory in turn, assessing the explanatory strengths of each. If there is any consensus, it is that the combination of driver and car is some form of hybrid, an intertwining of the identities of the driver and car.12Tim Dant, “The Driver-car,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 61-79. Yet adding a continuous camera to this quagmire, with cinema’s attendant paradoxes and indeterminacies—of absence and presence, subject and object, onscreen and offscreen, etc.—only compounds this idea of “automobility as a never-ending spiral, fuelled by its own contradictions.”13Beckmann, 83. Not only a knotty hybrid of human and machinic components, audiovisual automobility is also a strange amalgamation of mobility and immobility. Those travelling in vehicles are safe from the surrounding phenomena outside of the car, whilst also travelling at high speed (in certain contexts, like freeways at least). While car scenes in one-take films shuttle characters through diegetic space faster than any other points in the film, the characters onscreen and working conditions offscreen are never more stabilized and centred. In paradoxical fashion, the most risk averse moments in one-take films occur at the highest speed. The concealed dynamism of the car journey is mirrored by the one-take film; both, like a swan, are accustomed to glide along the surface, repressing the moving parts beneath.

There are one-take films in which the car and the camera fuse in holistic fashion, such that a car-camera hybrid becomes the guiding consciousness of the work (as opposed to my focus on films in which car scenes are a more temporary method). Bruce Baillie’s underseen 1995 film Commute, an hour-long rainy-day journey with the filmmaker through the rural roads and highways of Washington state, is a calm and quotidian example; while Claude Lelouch’s 1976 film C’était un rendez-vous is a tour-de-force of rapid aggression on the streets of Paris. Paul Krumholz’s essay on Lelouch’s film is an essential piece of sustained writing on the fusion of film and vehicle. I see vehicular travel in one-take films as a certain type of friction between form and content, taking inspiration from Krumholz’s assertion that Lelouch’s film “begins as an immersive experience and grows into a textual practice, mobilising, at the site of cognition, a glut of emergent ideas.”14Paul Krumholz, “Orienting Design, Discourse and Perception in C’était un rendez-vous,” Forum 10 (2010): 12.

Commute (Bruce Baillie, 1995)
Risk

Risk and uncertainty are always an alluring part of filmmaking, no matter how traditional. The contributors to Mette Hjort’s 2012 edited collection Film and Risk outline the manifold ways in which “risk determines cinematic style.”15Mette Hjort, Film and Risk (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 9. One-take filmmaking develops this to an extreme; other films may face the risk of imperfect execution, but not the collapse of the whole film with a single error. Risk is therefore part of the evaluative toolkit that viewers bring to the one-take film. There is a parallel intrigue at play with respect to the potential failure of the take and the accompanying risk factor that blooms as the denouement approaches. In other words, the artifactual status of these films is more pronounced. Ed Tan, in his cognitive study of emotion in film, refers to “artifact emotions,” which work in tandem with “fiction emotions,” sometimes eclipsing them. Tan suggests that viewers “may admire narrative technique, the ingenuity, and wiliness of the filmmaker” or “may find themselves wondering how the event was staged or indeed if it was staged.”16Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (London: Routledge, 1995), 64–65. This parallel intrigue develops in the viewer’s mind as more time elapses and different events occur—curiosity about staging, choreography, authenticity, and the methods of the production process. This intrigue waxes and wanes over the course of the take, depending on the techniques employed. Each dramaturgical decision is made not just in view to the creation of an exciting narrative, but also with the added goal of lessening, or occasionally increasing, the level of risk.

There is incentive to inflate these artifact emotions—to embrace risk and allow chance to intervene as creative agent. Hjort identifies “forms of risk taking that correlate with status, authority, and control” as well as “strong links between a highly valued phenomenon like creativity and risk taking.”17Hjort, Film and Risk, 22. Thus, technically complex scenes taking place near the end—such as the magnificent climactic ballroom sequence in Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)—rightly stand out as transcendent moments in the form; whilst scenes that prevent this virtuosic encounter from occurring are risk averse and put a ceiling on their own expressive potential. The latter strategy is the norm, and vehicular travel, I claim, is a prime indicator of this, reflected in the ubiquity of vehicular travel in one-take films. Cars allow for a sense of mastery over one’s environment; John Urry writes that “the environment beyond that windscreen is an alien other, kept at bay through the diverse privatizing technologies incorporated within the car.”18John Urry, “Inhabiting the Car,” The Sociological Review 54, no. 1 (2006): 23. This also applies to the one-take filmmaking process, bestowing greater levels of control over sound, lighting, and movement. Therefore, the presence of vehicles in one-take films invariably refers beyond the level of content, conveying insights into not only how these films are planned and achieved, but also the attitude and confidence level of the filmmakers. That automobiles frequently occur near the end of the take becomes indicative of a conservative approach—a crutch to prevent nerves or exhaustion from spoiling the film at the precipice. Vehicles are therefore a stifling protector, a symptom of mediocrity.

I should note that it is difficult to speak in absolutes on this topic, for while I describe vehicular scenes primarily in regard to their stifling impact on a film’s verisimilitude, they do nevertheless provide the basic cartographic function of expanding the spatial scope of the diegesis, which is limited by default in these films. With enough speed and movement, a one-take film can even overcome some of its spatial limitations; Krumholz writes that C’était un rendez-vous’s aggression evokes “a filmic logic of montage without ever breaking the shot.”  The greater the distance covered, the greater the sense that the film is occurring in the real world as opposed to the sanitized cloister of the studio. A greater degree of respect for the production’s offscreen, multi-location coordination is engendered in the mind of the spectator, curious about the mobile staging—even if the true accident is kept at bay.

Risk Aversion

Despite the general risk averseness of vehicular scenes, the mise-en-scène nevertheless contains chance elements—an illusionary aesthetic of contingency. Noël Burch, in his account of cinematic chance in the 1970s, mentions film techniques or styles that “banish the genuinely contingent and replace it with a semblance of sheer chance.”19 Noël Burch and Helen Lane, Theory of Film Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 113. Given the aforementioned criterion of risk, it is in the interest of one-take filmmakers to give the impression that their films unfold in the real world of uncertainty. Windows in the vehicle, as a sort of quasi-cinematic screen double, provide a form of framed, contained, and neutralised contingency. The most sustained example of its usage in this capacity occurs in Joyful Mystery (Don Palathara), a 2021 Malayalam-language one-take film that takes place entirely within a vehicle. A static camera, fixed to the dashboard, faces backwards, framing the two protagonists in the front seat, whose dialogue moves the narrative along. The vehicle’s back window—a clipped rectangle that stretches across the middle of the frame from one protagonist to the other—offers a constant portal onto the outside world, supplemented by two smaller slivers of window on either side of the characters. These sections of the frame combine in such a way that the traffic and general environs are always in view. The divisions of the film space, usually determined by montage, are transformed into a permanent internal frame—telescoped contingency, a frame for flux. Contingency is thus kept at bay, comparable to any number of other vehicular-based forms of control over the environment, from Hale’s Tours to a safari trip. Burch describes how this neutralised contingency is absorbed into the film; when “sheer chance erupts on screen, a process of integration begins… as soon as a fragment from the uncontrolled world enters the scene, bidden or unbidden, it remains a foreign body for only a few seconds, losing all its strangeness.”20Burch, Theory of Film Practice, 119. Therefore, the appearance of cars connotes a desire to safeguard the film from true unpredictability.

While the risk of making a mistake and being forced to restart hovers over these films as a potentiality, in reality the existence of the film itself means that such an accident did not and will not occur. Beckmann describes how the whole enterprise of mobility is similarly predicated upon the denial of any accident that mars proceedings.21Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” 94. He addresses the same paradoxical coexistence of mobility and immobility as other scholars by making a distinction between real (Euclidean) space and network space: mobility in real space allows for stability and immutability within the wider network of people and actions that contribute to the properly maintained system of automobility. Any deviation within this network stability—from a crash or other unforeseen stoppage—becomes an abject hazard that must be swiftly removed from view. When one-take films glide along in vehicle space, the filmmakers have faith that the network will provide this stable consistency, thus assimilating the film-in-process into the smooth proceedings. This is a form of risk management. Like the accident in Beckmann’s essay, a failed one-take shooting effort is not allowed to see the light of day. If seen at all, it is relegated to a secondary location such as the “making-of” featurette. While one-take films ostensibly flirt with disaster, they avoid or escape from the truly destructive mistake.

Joyful Mystery (Don Palathara, 2021)
Dead Time, Affect, Dramatic Limpidity

Pearce notes a historical evolution in the subjective experience of driving from “being centred on the experience of driving/passengering in and of itself to the thought-processes occasioned by it.”22Pearce, “‘Driving-as-Event’,” 587. As I have already mentioned, the dependability of automobility in one-take films is conditioned by this context of car journeys being prosaic and comfortable. With the proverbial ship steadied, vehicular scenes often act as a conduit for ‘dead time’ or overt emotional displays. Since the camera must be manually moved from location to location, these transitional points are often when the story’s downtime occurs. Films that unfold in continuous fashion have the unique ability to embed periods of dead time or excess whilst remaining completely uncut and continually on the move. Such moments give over to ‘quiescence,’ which David Bissell paints as a potentiality of contemporary travel—the “more sedate regularities and habitualities that are perhaps more characteristic of today’s mobile experience.”23David Bissell, “Travelling Vulnerabilities: Mobile Timespaces of Quiescence,” Cultural Geographies 16, no. 4 (2009): 429. The Spanish one-take film The Sad Smell of Flesh (Cristóbal Arteaga, 2013)—a destitute drama set in the wake of the Great Recession—is punctured throughout with static and uneventful travel scenes. The first occurs near the film’s beginning, when the protagonist boards a bus before proceeding to wordlessly look around or out the window with a glazed expression, framed in a medium close-up, for a full six minutes. Later in the film, he enters a taxi, and a near identical scene in terms of framing and mise-en-scène stretches over nine minutes in length, followed shortly thereafter by another three minutes of the same. These scenes are darkly lit, quiet, and inexpressive, closely resembling ‘dead time’ in the sense associated with arthouse cinema and slow cinema, where excessive amounts of time are afforded to minimal narrative action. There is, however, a question as to whether such periods in one-take films are aesthetically designed as such or merely a consequence of requiring such an unhurried and gradual transition, left without a cut’s ability to, qua Vertov, instantly put “together any given points in the universe.”24Dziga Vertov, “Kinoks: A Revolution,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 18.

Arising from this (dubiously intentional) dead time is the treatment of emotion and affect in these films, also facilitated by vehicles. As Bissell notes, “quiescence is immanent to a series of very disparate experiences that can serve to both intensify and diminish affective capacities whilst on the move.”25Bissell, “Travelling Vulnerabilities,” 443. With little else of direct narrative consequence occurring in these scenes, the films fall back upon the overt expression of emotion. In other words, with the source of artifact emotions being stymied, fiction emotions become the exhaustive focus, whether narratively called for or not. There are certainly occasions when such scenes are justified. The Norwegian one-take film Blind Spot (Tuva Novotny, 2018) features a six-minute-long car scene just prior to its conclusion. With a fixed camera and shadowed lighting, the central character—a mother whose daughter has attempted suicide—alternates between crying and holding back tears as she is driven back to the family home, achieving emotional catharsis. However, these scenes generally result in misemphasized emotion, dramatic limpidity, and the stalling of momentum. The Australian one-take drama Watch the Sunset (Tristan Barr and Michael Gosden, 2017), which tells the classic story of an ex-convict attempting to turn his life around, succumbs to the common dramatic issues of the form. A scene late in the film focusing on a child in the backseat of a car demonstrates how music is commonly used to shape and guide the material in the absence of editing’s visual particularizing. The dialogue and diegetic sound become drowned out by the ambient post-rock soundtrack, which attempts to convey the inner world of the shocked and stunned little girl. However, this scene as well as others that drown vehicular travel in contemplative music do so in vain. As Noël Carroll writes of “modifying music” in film, “nonvocal music is expressive of emotive qualities but ones that are inexplicit, ambiguous, and broad”—unsuitable for tightening up a loose visual structure.26Noël Carroll, Mystifying Movies: Fads & Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 220.

Blind Spot (Tuva Novotny, 2018)

On a simpler level than the dynamics I have thus far mentioned, there is in these films the external goal of achieving or reaching feature length; the overall runtime of a continuous take stands as a basic certificate of achievement, regardless of the quality contained within. Thus, vehicular scenes contribute to this additive ‘making up’ of time—to limping towards the finish line of the sole and final cut. Perhaps above all else, the scenes I have covered are a visual symptom of the misshapenness and limpidity that comes in the attempt to space a film’s narrative and affective beats without the ability to reset, to regain control, between each point of emphasis. The tenets of Classical Hollywood editing still persist as a reference or guidepost for narrative films done in one take, often only manifesting through imperfect gestures. As Samuel Johnson once wrote of the necessary compromises that come with undertaking a large and unwieldy work: “nor can it be expected, that the stones which form the stone of a temple, should be squared and polished like the diamond of a ring.”27Samuel Johnson, “Preface to the Dictionary” in Bertrand H. Bronson, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1952), 233.

Conclusion

This essay has probed into the expressive and functional role of vehicular travel in one-take films. A trope so prosaic as to be completely overlooked, vehicular travel, in its ambivalence, relates directly to key areas in one-take filmmaking. This interplay between the single take and automobility also enriches our comprehension and perception of urban landscapes. Not just passive transit within a particular geographical context, these films demonstrate that the urban experience arises through a delicate balance of temporal ambivalence and practical considerations, with duration as a force of fragility and disruption. In accurately portraying how vehicular travel is embedded within the surrounding times and spaces of everyday life, one-take films hold exciting possibilities for the future study of automobility and cinema.

Notes

Notes
1 Of course, long takes have been a frequent topic of discussion in cinema studies. Two recent contributions to the scholarship are: John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, eds., The Long Take: Critical Approaches (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Lutz Koepnick, The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
2 Lynne Pearce, “‘Driving-as-Event’: Re-thinking the Car Journey,” Mobilities 12, no. 4 (2017): 585.
3 Eric Laurier et al., “Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel,” Mobilities 3, no. 1 (2008): 18.
4 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 5.
5 Lesley Stern, “Paths That Wind through the Thicket of Things,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 334.
6 Stern, “Paths That Wind,” 331.
7 Laurier et al., “Driving and ‘Passengering’,” 4.
8 Jörg Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 90.
9 Nigel Thrift, “Driving in the City,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 46.
10 Thrift, “Driving in the City,” 48.
11 Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” 83.
12 Tim Dant, “The Driver-car,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4/5 (2004): 61-79.
13 Beckmann, 83.
14 Paul Krumholz, “Orienting Design, Discourse and Perception in C’était un rendez-vous,” Forum 10 (2010): 12.
15 Mette Hjort, Film and Risk (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 9.
16 Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (London: Routledge, 1995), 64–65.
17 Hjort, Film and Risk, 22.
18 John Urry, “Inhabiting the Car,” The Sociological Review 54, no. 1 (2006): 23.
19 Noël Burch and Helen Lane, Theory of Film Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 113.
20 Burch, Theory of Film Practice, 119.
21 Beckmann, “Mobility and Safety,” 94.
22 Pearce, “‘Driving-as-Event’,” 587.
23 David Bissell, “Travelling Vulnerabilities: Mobile Timespaces of Quiescence,” Cultural Geographies 16, no. 4 (2009): 429.
24 Dziga Vertov, “Kinoks: A Revolution,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 18.
25 Bissell, “Travelling Vulnerabilities,” 443.
26 Noël Carroll, Mystifying Movies: Fads & Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 220.
27 Samuel Johnson, “Preface to the Dictionary” in Bertrand H. Bronson, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1952), 233.
O'Dwyer, Jack. "Hitching A Ride: Vehicular Travel In One-Take Films." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2023).
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