Does anyone talk about the long take in Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners? Whenever a list of the “best long takes” appears, the usual suspects are always on there: Russian Ark, Week End, The Player, Touch of Evil, etc. I’ve never seen any mention of the 3 minute and 12 second chaotic visual rollercoaster that is the opening of Absolute Beginners. I don’t mean to infer, exactly, that this shot is one of the best in film, not at all. But I do think that it might be one of the more “honest” long takes I’ve seen, one that is both totally aware and yet completely self-serious about its ostentatious and facile nature.
As London has recovered from the wreckage of World War II, socioeconomically and socio-politically, a tide has changed. As the narration from Colin (Eddie O’Connell) says that kids were, for the first time, teenagers.
A fight breaks out on the dance floor between the Mods and the Traps with what’s supposed to recall the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets. Instead, it looks randomly dropped in without much actual consideration for the sociological implications of the different styles and trends that were co-existing and clashing with one another during that time. Outside of the dance club, there’s a knife fight between a couple of young men, with a young woman caught in the crossfire, so to speak. They’re illuminated by garish colors, and their movements are balletic. But, the audience isn’t really given much of a vantage point in order to appreciate these movements. For a film that’s about style, especially the artifice of style, it feels as if Temple is withholding it from us throughout.
It happens time and again: at the runway with Crepe, in the studio with the little twerp pop star named Baby Boom (real subtle). There’s such an acute attention to detail in the costume design, the art direction, and the lighting and cinematography that Director Temple doesn’t seem to want his audience to see any of it, shooting at the most inopportune angles.
While it’s fairly certain that Colin is supposed to be an audience surrogate, it’s unclear if there is any intention of making him an actual character. His desires and motivations are murky; almost non-existent. They’re more of a placeholder to anachronistically explore this fictitious rendering of late ‘50s London.
As much as it is about the artificiality of style, Absolute Beginners also seems to comment on the artifice of teenagerdom, or of life itself. Teenagerdom was a result of jobs and trades requiring training and education, which cast UK society into a bit of uncertainty. Hence the title; the first generation where this phase of ambiguity – no longer a child, yet not quite an adult – existed. But though the social effects are “real,” they’re “real” only because of the construction of identity within society. Frankly, it’s only the song “All I Want is a Quiet Life” that seems satisfactorily able to ruminate on these ideas, with a large Wes Anderson-esque doll house used as a kind of generational survey and almost ethnographic study of this particular working class British family.
When trying to examine class differences, I’m not sure if it’s more offensive that the supposed grit of the lower income areas of London look just as fake as the urban playgrounds, or if it would be more offensive if they were shot on location. It’s hard to fairly or sensitively describe class structure as just as facile as anything else it’s trying to describe as such, and Absolute Beginners flounders at it.
There’s an explosion of emotion in the third act, but none of it feels palpable. It’s more of a sputter, especially given the weird distance the film has with its characters. Not even racial tension is enough to give any sense of authenticity through its heavy talk of artifice. Without being able to decide what exactly it wants to say or be, Absolute Beginners is left with that opening shot, swirling around the streets of London, with only one thing clear: everything is fake and it’s kind of a headache.
The late David Bowie’s contributions to Absolute Beginners goes beyond the title song: he plays a cool, tacitly articulated ad man, and even in this relatively small roll, there’s a singular eroticism that exudes from his every move that somehow textures this film. Though the film is heavily focused on an anachronistic artificiality, Bowie’s eroticism feels like the only thing that’s authentic. He nearly seduces O’Connell inasmuch as getting him to buy into Vendice Partners’ deal, and it’s the tension of O’Connel’s yes or no that amplifies Bowie’s effortless screen presence.
Absolute Beginners is available as a limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time.