The Long Takes of Louie, the Most Cinematic Show on TV

Slate's Culture Blog
May 28 2014 4:10 PM

The Long Takes of Louie

Louie (Louis CK) and Amia (Eszter Balint) on Season 4 of Louie
This season of Louie has been packed with long takes, but they're more subtle than on True Detective.

© 2014 FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

When the first season of True Detective ended its fourth episode with a roughly six-minute action sequence shot in one long take, fans and critics were wowed. There were whole articles dedicated to breaking down the shot’s execution and putting it in the context of TV and movie long take history. When this season of Louie ended its third episode with a long take lasting about 7 1/2 minutes, on the other hand, the nature of the shot was barely mentioned.

This makes some sense. Louie, after all, wasn’t body-slamming drug dealers and weaving his way through exploding squibs and elaborate pyrotechnics. (Though that would have been awesome.) Instead, he was just doing what he spends most of the show doing: walking and talking his way through the challenges of everyday life, and making a few jokes.

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While that long, uninterrupted shot was the longest so far this season, and—given the FX show’s need for commercial breaks—the longest we’re likely to ever see on Louie, it’s far from the only one this season. There have been times watching the show when I almost could’ve sworn it was ghost-directed by Alfonso Cuarón: Over its three or so hours so far this season, there have been about two dozen shots longer than a minute, about a dozen longer than two minutes, and about five longer than three minutes. Those times may not sound like much, but on screen, one or two minutes without a cut can feel like an eternity. In fact, many of the most renowned long takes in screen history—the entrance into the Copacabana in Goodfellas, the opening shot of Boogie Nights, the opening shot of Touch of Evil—last only about three minutes. That closing scene from “So Did the Fat Lady,” at around 7 1/2 minutes, was only a few seconds shorter than the longest shot in Children of Men.

Long takes can serve many purposes—to make you feel part of the action, to draw attention to themselves—but in Louie they typically provide a sense of real-time, everyday suspense. If the quintessential Louie episode summary is “Louie has a challenging day,” these shots allow us to see how the most mundane situations can deteriorate moment to moment. The first extended shot of the season involves nothing more than Louie trying to dodge listening to a terrible joke. First Louie pleads with Tony, the building’s repairman, not to tell him the joke; then Tony botches the punchline; and finally Tony refuses to admit that he’s never understood the joke. (The episode’s logline: “Louie has a typical day.”) Later, a similarly agonizing long take ends with Louie saving the day by successfully completing a joke: After Jane asks, “Is everybody mad at me?” Louie cheers her up by improvising a list of his four favorite things (the fourth is being with her, and the third is riding elephants). He might not be gunning down Reggie LeDoux, but this is challenging stuff.

Thankfully, these shots can highlight the pleasures of everyday moments, too: In one shot, we stay with Amia and Jane as they unexpectedly join together in a violin duet, and the uninterrupted shot and shaky handheld camerawork help convey the improvisatory nature of the duet and the feeling of being in the moment with them. (The fact that the show doesn’t cut between Jane’s hands and face also sells the fact that a young girl—in this case actress Ursula Parker—could really play like that.)

A later callback to this scene pans from one character to the next as they sit around Louie’s apartment: As in Boogie Nights, bringing them together in one shot suggests that they’re linked, as if in a family.

Two other long takes play with shallow focus to switch between characters, rather than cutting between them using traditional shot/reverse shot. Episode 2, “Model,” establishes its premise all in one long tracking shot—Louie is turned down by an attractive waitress, runs into Jerry Seinfeld, and agrees to do a charity show where he will luck into sleeping with a model—but the most striking shot comes later. Across a large parking lot, a glamorous woman shouts at Louie from off in the distance at the benefit, where she is so out of focus that we can’t make her out, or whether she’s just making fun of him. It’s only when she goes to her convertible and drives up to Louie (still in the same shot) that she comes into focus and we realize that this seemingly unattainable woman really is interested in him.

C.K. uses a similar shallow-focus trick for one long shot at the beginning of Episode 6. Louie is annoyed that Bobby has used his shower and is now parading around his apartment in only a towel, so he diverts his focus to his phone. (People being distracted by smartphones—something that’s been on C.K.’s mind—is a big theme of this season.) But rather than cutting between Bobby and the phone, the camera simply racks focus back and forth between them, to show the direction of Louie’s attention. When Bobby finally loses his temper at being ignored by Louie, cursing him and giving him the finger, he does it while out of focus—Louie’s attention is still on his phone.

Using long takes in parallel ways across scenes can also underline the rhyme between them, as in two scenes from Episode 7. In that episode, a three- or four-minute long take shows Louie and his ex-wife Janet share a cigarette on the street as they realize that their life since their separation hasn’t really changed. (“Life after divorce has its ups and downs like a marriage has,” Janet says.) The next scene shows them years before, sharing a cigarette and plotting the end of their marriage. The scenes take place years apart, but the way they’re shot emphasizes Janet’s point—not much has changed.

Louie is too stylistically varied a show for any one technique like the long take to mean any one thing. The show employs a variety of stylistic tools—jump cuts, breaks in continuity, black and white, as well as more traditional techniques like close-ups—to a variety of different ends, and the meaning of each technique changes between episodes. Black and white, for example, can convey the somber mood of a funeral in one episode and separate off a dream sequence in another. True Detective may have gotten more notice for its ostentatious long take, but the variety with which Louie uses these shots is just one more way it makes its case for being the most cinematic show on TV.

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