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Video Essay. Relay: A Take in Miklós Jancsó’s "The Red and the White"

There's a lot happening in every long take in Jancsó’s historical, political drama of the 1919 struggle between Communists and Cossacks
The nineteenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Miklós Jancsó's The Red and the White  (1967) from January 21 - February 20, 2017 in the United States.
The long take—long in duration, rather than in the distance between the camera and the action—is contemporary art cinema’s greatest fetish. We commonly associate it with a static camera and empty, dead time—each moment grinding away as life evaporates—or with the steady, deliberately un-aesthetic, often lateral movements of camera and figures.
However, in an earlier era, the era of Miklós Jancsó in 1960s Hungary and Theo Angelopoulos in 1970s Greece, the long take was a more supple tool, exploited for many uses, moods and effects.
There is a lot happening in any, typical long take of Jancsó’s historical, political drama of the 1919 struggle between Hungarian Communists and Russian Cossacks, The Red and the White (1967). The film is constructed in block-sequences—ten minutes or so within a fortress, by a river, or in the woods—and each of these elaborately, intensely choreographed blocks (sometimes involving dozens or hundreds of players) is usually broken down into a series of long takes. As viewers, we do not fixate on the time these shots eat up, because our attention is always being shunted elsewhere, as we discover a new configuration of characters, a new situation, a new portion of the space. 
Our audiovisual essay Relay opts to preserve a single take (from Sequence 5, 35 minutes into the film) in its 4-and-a-half-minute integrity, and to add a DVD-style audio commentary. Because so much rushes by in the ceaseless movement of the camera, the players, and the treacherous events which sweep them up, we have also taken the opportunity to freeze some moments in screenshots so as to compare different phases of the take, and to provide systematic reference points from other sequence-blocks, which are numbered.
Jancsó is a figure whose immense achievement has been obscured by relentlessly changing tastes and fashions in film culture. His nihilistic view of politics as an absurd game in which de-invidualized characters ceaselessly swap sides, and swing from the position of abused to abuser (and frequently back again), is no easier or more comforting to swallow now than it was in the 1960s. But no one can doubt the extraordinary strides that Jancsó and his collaborators (including cinematographer Tamás Somló) took in forging a dynamic and complex aesthetic form from the device of the long take.

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