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It’s an argument as old as cinema itself—montage vs. mise-en-scène, edited progression vs. real-time wandering, narrative bricklaying vs. roving experience, D. W. Griffith vs. Louis Feuillade. Ideally, we should have both, and almost always do, but the eye-roasting ordeal of director Mikhail Kalatozov and DP Sergei Urusevsky’s Letter Never Sent (1959) is one of those galvanizing eruptions of cinema-ness that makes the debate fresh again. As in, Feuillade was right, Griffith was wrong, and if cinema is good for something other than slaying the hours of an otherwise empty Saturday night, then it is this: unleashing the time spent in our dreams into a shareable world, stalking the corridors of a collective fugue state, strafing the landscapes of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Of course, one does not want to be exclusionary, and of course, Griffith’s methodology—syntax engineered to control and manipulate the viewer’s attention—has proven to be the more powerful and financially viable avenue. But the medium’s zealots and freaks know better; they know that a Kalatozov/Urusevsky traveling shot is among the medium’s truest transcendent offerings. Any single shot from Letter’s middle third—the epochal forest fire sequence—proves the point:
With their unique arsenal of mobile camera, infrared stock, infinite range, and deep compositions, the filmmakers tell this strange, despairing little Soviet tale about a geological team lost in Siberia with a visual palette that veers from the Robert Flaherty–esque to the Dantean to the ur-Gothic, almost all of it in signature tracking shots that, virtually by definition, limn time and space as an experience in ways that classic narrative editing, particularly as it has evolved since Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, actually negates.
Time and space, in Kalatozov and in the filmographies of his acolytes, are expanses in which we are free to roam. When a film is Hollywood-cut for maximum audience control, a dynamic that has found its perfected practice in Spielbergian blockbusterdom, we are not free but rather Huxley-like drones, willingly fabulated and lured into acquiescent semisleep and commanded to look first here, then there.
Which may be why, perhaps even subconsciously, the soaring rides Kalatozov and Urusevsky take us on in Letter Never Sent, The Cranes Are Flying (1957), and I Am Cuba (1964) are so electrifying, so enlivening. We sense a form of liberation, even if the story at hand is a tale of oppression, war, or tragedy. In Cranes, which is for Kalatozov a distinctively intimate, confined work, the film moves like a hunting dog whenever its characters hit the streets or the battlefield; the traveling sequences, such as when star Tatiana Samiljova goes searching through the bombed city, through crowds and fires and rows of tanks, are not overlong but are extraordinarily dense with life-stuff and awe, mini-movies unfurling like history we cannot stop.
We certainly experience this rush in I Am Cuba, as perhaps in no other film, during the Promethean two-and-a-half-minute funeral march sequence, in which seemingly the entirety of the city of Havana is participating, and in which the camera climbs buildings, passes over rooftops and through windows, and finally flies out over the crowd in midair, without a single cut. It’s tragic and exultant as dramatic agitprop, but it’s also a manifestation of the angelic, in a Rilkean sense, both beautiful and terrifying, abstract and tangible.
The inheritance of Kalatozov’s topos is one of modern cinema’s great secret histories, as it has been largely left in the hands of Eastern-European and Asian filmmakers distinguished by their temperamental immunity from orthodox cinematic storytelling. Miklós Jancsó came first, prowling the Hungarian puszta in The Round-Up (1966), The Red and the White (1967), Red Psalm (1972), Electra, My Love (1974), and other films, which thanks to the camera orchestrations, off-screen space, long-take realism, and seemingly mandated weather all appeared to have the scale and square footage of small countries. (In his early years, Jancsó took cues from Michelangelo Antonioni, whose aesthetic was more temperate but who attained some kind of long-stroll-shot zenith vibe with the penultimate seven-minute shot of 1975’s The Passenger, all the more remarkable for being centered on the protagonist’s death but at the same time avoiding it fastidiously.)
It was Andrei Tarkovsky who sold this aesthetic to willing cinephiles, primarily with his last three features, Stalker (1979), Nostalghia (1983), and The Sacrifice (1986), all of which could be characterized as a series of ordeals by time and impossibility, with stretches of carefully composed motion and monumentalism that came closer than any films ever had to embodying an ineffable sense of metaphysical struggle. At about the same time, the late Theo Angelopoulos began his journey to the outer limits of four-dimensional long-take wanderlust, but used the strategy not for spiritualism but for history and politics, which Alexander Sokurov began doing in his own crepuscular fashion, from Save and Protect (1990) to the ne plus ultra edit-free excursionism Russian Ark (2002) and beyond. Bela Tarr likewise toiled in a gritty early phase for years before, with 1988’s Damnation, discovering plan sequence as an expressive idea and then taking it, sequence by sequence, as far as it can go and still remain “narrative.”
Nowadays, thanks to the evolution of technology, it appears easy for any film-school grad/TV-commercial vet to, pace David Fincher and Brian DePalma, swoop their camera over impossibly long distances and disconnected spaces, through phone cables, across rooftops, and down throats. Kalatozov’s achievements look positively neolithic by comparison. That is, if you’re blind. The essential glory of the Kalatozov-to-Tarr model—still used by Hou Hsaio-hsien, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and a handful of others—is that the nexus of camera-people-landscape really happened, in exactly the amount of time it appears to have happened, and it all happens again as we watch. It’s witness to the sublime. A digitally enabled traveling shot is not a traveling shot at all—it’s just as much the result of sutures as a cut-up action scene, both set pieces cobbled together at a console long after the camera finished its work. One could say that these shots are, in essence, dishonest, but it’s difficult to argue that they’re a meaningful experience. Rather, they represent a trick, a video-game gambit. What Kalatozov did isn’t remarkable just for its labor and artisanship but for the very real, long moments it captured, forever ours now and completely unfakeable.