Weekend (1967) contains one of the best and most
conceptual long tracking shots in film history
This week I was lecturing in my film studies class about the use of long tracking shots in the work of many French New Wave filmmakers. A tracking shot is essentially any take where a camera moves alongside as if trailing or pursuing its subject, and the longer the shot is, the more it demands a kind of attention from the audience. Jean-Luc Godard's famous and unrelenting eight minute long tracking shot in Weekend (1967) of a surreal and horrifying traffic jam in the French countryside demonstrates perfectly how the means of filmic representation can impart a specific point of view and attitude of what is being shown. The slow-moving and methodical tracking of the trail of cars to the final accident unfolds with a kind of flatness and inevitability. The notion of not being able to look away at an accident takes on a new charge as the entire scene is brought to a kind of crawl. In Brian Henderson's classic essay on Godard's technique, "Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style," he argues that Godard's use of his signature lateral tracking shot (with no forward camera movement at all and an exactly straight base line parallel to the scene) is "an admittedly synthetic single layered construct, which the viewer must examine critically, accept or reject. The viewer is not drawn into the image, nor does he make choices within in; he stands outside the image and judges it as a whole." In other words, the director is able to establish a kind of critical distance within an accident scene that would usually be presented as emotionally wrenching in other films. As Godard has famously stated, adding to the reading of the scene, "Tracking shots are a question of morality."
Together with the Godard sequence, I have collected three other famous long tracking shots for your viewing pleasure (or displeasure as Godard would have it) and embedded them in chronological order. Each of course is engaged with a different reason for utilizing the long tracking shot and to very different ends. The first is taken from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958); the second from Mikhail Kalatozov's I am Cuba (1964); and the last is the opening shot from Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) where the scene is accompanied by Anderson's own discussion of how he conceptualized the camera work (notice how he mentions French filmmaker Francois Truffaut among others in his discussion). I would love to have included the well known Martin Scorsese sequence from Goodfellas (1990), but every last clip is disabled from embedding in YouTube, so you can go to see it directly here. Enjoy and compare!