The Long Take and the Long Now

(An edited version of this essay appeared in Issue 10 of Kilimanjaro Magazine: About Now.)

O Estado do Mundo

I'm watching Tombée de nuit sur Shanghaï, Chantal Akerman's closing contribution to the 2007 collective film The State of the World. Most of her film consists of long static shots of a pulsating Shanghai skyline. Occasionally a boat or a human figure passes through the frame, but the image is dominated by enormous LED billboards that are the skin of most buildings. Here's a Mona Lisa, there's a beverage ad.

It's a simple film exercise — some have said embarrassingly so — but it evokes some serious conflicts in my mind. I think of one of the Lumière brothers, on a lonely journey in our time, across the globe. He is trying to show me what he sees: a world of idolatry, saturated with moving images, that beams them into the night sky, as if to fight off some ancient fear. His tool, though, is just his good old static, long take.

He doesn't know that I'm not used to seeing the world like that anymore. Ten seconds in, I expect a cut, an arrival of a different perspective, a relief. Nothing happens, just the same LED billboards on a loop. I then settle in until the next pre-programmed mark, but still nothing happens. Here I might get angry because I get the point and need no more of it, but I decide that the joke is on me, so I watch. Maybe I try to project my feelings onto it, or to get into one of the buildings in my mind, but the image keeps pushing me back, it resists. The only thing I am aware of, and painfully so, is that there is time, and it goes on, and there are these buildings and billboards, and they really exist in Shanghai. This is how the present feels. There is an absurd pressure that makes me giggle, because I have no clue when this is going to end. It could be at any moment. Three or four times I think "Now!", but it doesn't happen, and I give up on that notion too. At some point later, it cuts to black.

Here's what it's telling me: this is how things are, they're going to be like this for a while, and then they're going to change a bit. It's a strangely comforting thought.

§

UncleThe long take is the primordial element of cinema. Not only were all early films static long takes but, as every documentary filmmaker knows, each decent take is long, until you chop it down in the editing room. The fiction director can shoot coverage, move around, repeat, edit for continuity. The documentary maker has little choice but to be where she is, when she is. This is the basic annoying problem of life, and documentary filmmaking.

But say I accept this fully, say I embrace this constraint? I am making a risk, an investment, but what do I get in return? If I point my camera at my uncle — sitting there in his army uniform after a dozen shots of rakija, trying to make something clear to me while the arc of ash barely holds onto his cigarette — and observe, I am betting that in the next few minutes there will be a transformation: not of sound, not of image, but of time and space. That my uncle's face, the cigarette, the orange-lit room with the clock ticking, will express themselves in meaningful ways.

Well, maybe I get nothing, and very often this is the case. But if I work hard, I mean really hard, if I can see things well, maybe I can get this image that transforms something, a strange and intense little thing, and maybe it tells me something I never knew before about that face, or any face, or cigarette.

Pasolini would say that "subjectivity is the maximum conceivable limit of any audiovisual technique". So a single long take, being the most subjective of all techniques, will always better represent reality than a series of perspectives edited together. Michael Haneke once connected this issue with television: a quick short image does not show an object that occupies real space and exists in time, but only the commodity or symbol it represents. The long take reasserts the reality of the image, and in some ways reasserts physical reality altogether.

What does this mean to me, why do I care? I don't know, except that when I make that bet, when I film like that, I am in the present tense. I can feel time washing over my film, the film fighting through it, and I can see traces of this battle. The present tense is all about friction, about resistance. It's about having a grasp of possible worlds, multiple timelines, having them tangle up, crash and resurrect every 1/24th of a second. It's about resisting fascinations, letting things pass. It's about my whole body feeling, between those splits of a second, that this face and this cigarette mattered a century ago, and will matter a century from now.

§

"To me, the future is a big tractor-trailer slamming on its brakes in front of me just as I pull into its slip stream. I am about to crash into it."

Back in 1996 Danny Hillis, perhaps paradoxically the man who pioneered the concept of parallel computing, wrote this in Wired Magazine. He said that, when he was a kid, the future seemed a far way off, this land of dreams or nightmares that would come in 1984, or 2001, or whatever the key date was for you.

Clock of the Long NowBut then something funny happened: he got older, but this future somehow didn't get pushed back. I was born much later than he was, but I remember when one of my favorite TV shows called "Beyond 2000" disappeared off the screen, only to return some years later – as "Beyond Tomorrow". It's 2010 and time seems cut up like distance in Zeno's Paradox, ever closer to the Crash, the Singularity, the Apocalypse, whatever, but not quite there yet. We're either pissed off that it hasn't arrived, or anxious about it coming any day now. In either case, we're not thinking much ahead.

Hillis proposed to build a 10,000 year clock – about how long we've had a stable climate and technological progress on Earth. It would tick once a year, the century hand would move every 100 years, and the cuckoo would come out every 1,000 years. He gathered a group of like-minded friends around the project. Brian Eno named it The Clock of the Long Now. Stewart Brand, the man behind the Whole Earth Catalogue, proposed to create an institution around the clock project. This is now The Long Now Foundation.

The question a lot of people asked in 1996 was, why build a real physical clock? We could just have a programme on everyone's computers that does the same. Hillis knew it then, and by now everyone gets it too: physicality is important if you want things to last. His design was for a purely mechanical clock that would not require human assistance - or existence for that matter. It's the only thing to fall back on at the scale of 10,000 years.

The fist prototype was built in 1999 and is now in the Science Museum in London. Looking at the design principles behind it, and the issues the Long Now team had to wrestle with, it's a blueprint for any object that wants to last that long. The first clock will soon be housed underground near Van Horn, Texas. Another will be built inside Mt. Washington in Eastern Nevada. To see them, you need to prepare yourself for a pilgrimage – the Nevada site is one of the places furthest away from civilisation in the USA. The biggest threat to the clock's longevity, Stewart Brand explained, is us.

So why build what is essentially a monument so far away from the public eye? In fact, why build such a thing at all?

Mostly, really, because it makes a great story, a myth. Like the long take in cinema, the Clock of the Long Now is a primordial thing: it reasserts the physical reality, the geological scale, in our minds. One day a friend of a friend will have visited it and you'll hear the story of a long hike up the mountain, through the crack, into a quiet place where a strange mechanical beast moves slowly, in big circles, regardless of you, and will move long after your grandchildren are gone. Picture that.

§

Now, in this short now, a thousand things are trying to tell me that this here, in our time, is the endgame.

I'm not sure I want to think like that. It's just like the daily news, the most immediate feelings – commodities, symbolic fears that rid me of responsibility. But if I look really long and hard, if I work with a 10,000 year clock in my mind, maybe I can at least sometimes be in the present tense, in the Long Now.

And maybe then things will express themselves in meaningful ways. Like the billboard, the face, the cigarette.

London, March 2010