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Nov. 30 2009 - 11:10 am | 6,067 views | 2 recommendations | 88 comments

The 10 best long tracking shots ever filmed

Mikhail Kalatozov, I Am Cuba, 1964.

This is one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made. Don’t mind the propaganda (Russian-born Kalatozov also made the stunning The Cranes Are Flying, an equally propagandist movie about the virtues of Communism), it’s the filmmaking that matters. The intricacy of this shot is just breathtaking.

John Woo, Hard Boiled, 1992.

A warning: this one’s buh-luddy. Before John Woo came to Hollywood, people had a word for his camera work: balletic. I’m surprised that no one called it ‘bulletic.’ Maybe I just made that up (though probably not). Woo had knocked socks off with The Killer three years prior (and for video geeks, had been knocking them off for almost a decade before that), and I don’t think his violent, explosive choreography has gotten any better since Hard Boiled. It’s an incarnadine classic.

Orson Welles, Touch of Evil, 1958.

This is the one that everybody talks about, and for good reason. Even though others had done it before him, Welles pretty much set the standard for choreography and storytelling with this elaborate shot. This should come as no surprise, really, since Welles had been setting standards for things since he was, like, 10.

Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas, 1990.

In a recent post I took this shot apart, detailing the difficulty of taking a shot from the street to inside a nightclub (just in terms of timing alone), and the many radically different lighting scenarios that Scorsese and his fantabulous DP, Michael Ballhaus, mastered over the course of this shot. It’s a great one.

Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend, 1967.

This long, brutal shot from Godard’s seminal masterpiece is at once one of the simplest, and one of the most shocking. By the shot’s end, Godard’s existentialism, and notorious sense of humor, are both on full display.

Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003.

Tarantino had done longish tracking shots before, in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, where he followed Bruce Willis from his car to his pad, past an apartment building (where someone’s radio mentions Jack Rabbit Slim’s), and through an empty lot, but this one’s the best of the bunch. There’s more choreography involved, more beats that have to be hit, and the whole thing is orchestrated to audio: first the song, then the phone. Plus, there’s that cool “I can see through walls” effect. Start training kung-fu and before you know it: super human powers. Groovy. It’s pretty virtuoso stuff and just a part of the long, amazing ‘House of Blue Leaves’ sequence from Kill Bill Vol. 1. To me, it’s almost this sequence alone makes KB QT’s third best film.

Johnny To, Breaking News, 2004.

Johnny To is to Hong Kong now-a-days what John Woo was to Hong Kong twenty years ago. He’s making exciting, vibrant, and extremely violent flicks in which thousands of bullets (and an almost equal amount of bodies) pile up on the city’s sidewalks. And, with his Triad Election films, he took Hong Kong cinema to new heights, coming close (ish) to the sort of scope that Coppola delivered with his Godfather saga. Next up, To is remaking the French noir Le Cercle Rouge, with two-thirds of a good cast (Liam Neeson, Chow Yun-Fat) and one-third ridiculousness (Orlando Bloom).

Robert Altman, The Player, 1992.

Altman was a pretty playful director, and with this, the opening shot of his biting Hollywood satire, the playfulness was the reason for the shot. In terms of camera movement, it’s not that complicated; the Steadycam operator moves in a series of circles, basically. But the choreography and timing are pretty great. Altman shifts focus between three major threads and pauses briefly to catch a few stragglers. But the best thing about this shot is the conversation that Fred Ward and Buck Henry are having. Henry’s pitching a movie (of course), but also talking about great tracking shots. It’s the perfect opener for this movie.

Chan-wook Park, Old Boy, 2003.

This too is getting the remake treatment, unnecessarily I might add, by none other than Mr. Big, Stevie Spielberg, who’s “everything turns out all right in the end” sensibility is 180 degrees from the darkness of this movie. But don’t let that get in the way! There are some cuts on either end of this scene, but the middle is one long graceful (the camera, at least) lateral tracking shot lasting a few minutes. By keeping it simple, Park set a new standard for fight scenes.

Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men, 2006.

A warning: this one’s bloody too. Cuarón actually filled this movie with some amazing, and deceptively simple, sequences. It could be argued that this shot may not really fit into the “tracking shot” category, because the camera is in the car and the car is the thing in motion, for the most part. But the complexity of this shot is just amazing (and the complexity of the rig they built to shoot it is insane). The camera was on a track running down the middle of the vehicle; sometimes it’s in the front seat, sometimes the back. It films in 360 degrees, and sometimes when an actor wasn’t on camera, they had to lean out of the way. Now, that’s acting! It’s a hellishly gripping sequence (as are many other sequences in the film), with some of the trickiest choreography yet (and visual effects; the motorcycle was added in post). It also has the best ending of probably any of these shots. The master himself, Mr. Welles, always said, “Have a reason for the cut,” and Cuarón gives us a great and, again, simple one. It’s flawless.

Addendum: Thanks to some incredible feedback, I’ve expanded the ‘10 best long tracking shots ever filmed’ to include these 4 others that have to be seen. Thank you, everyone.

Bela Tarr, Werckmeister Harmonies

Theo Angeopolous, Ulysses’ Gaze

Andre Tarkovsky, The Mirror

P.T. Anderson, Boogie Nights
(For copyright reasons, it seems that the audio has been disabled)

Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger (a brilliant end to the film!)


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  1. collapse expand

    I don’t want to debate you on the beauty, intricacy or duration of the shots you posted here. I was just wondering why the longest single take on record (as far as I know) is missing!

    The movie Russian Ark (“Russkiy kovcheg (2002)”) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318034/) features (and I’ll just paste the tagline):

    “2000 Actors. 300 years of Russian History. 33 Rooms at the Hermitage Museum. 3 Live Orchestras. 1 Single Continuous Shot.”

    And from the trivia:

    “Shot in a single take. The first three attempts were cut short by technical difficulties, but the fourth was successful. Because the Hermitage museum had to be shut down, the production had only one day to shoot the film.”

    “Over 4,500 people participated in the making of the film, both in front of and behind the scenes. This included extras, seamstresses, grips, orchestras and the Hermitage staff.”

    Truly a sight to behold, believe me ..

    • collapse expand

      I considered Russian Ark, honestly I did, but I decided that it qualified as a “tracking shot.” Since the entire film is a single shot (and it is pretty extraordinary), much like Rope (though Hitchcock had to “cut” at the end of each 10 minute reel, by pushing into his actors and going to black for a second), it was more of a gimmick, in my opinion, than a shot. Semantics? Maybe. But thanks for the addition here.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Children of Men grips you from frame 1 (when the bomb almost kills Clive Owen’s character) until the credits roll. Other unforgettable sequences (although not sure if they are tracking shots) are Theo and Kee’s escape from the farm, when the car won’t start and they have to push (makes you hold your breath) and near the end when the crying baby causes all the soldiers and rebels to stop shooting each other.

  3. collapse expand

    I forgot to mention: Russian Ark is available in 10 parts on YouTube.

    Part 1/10:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJZuXaFki3Q

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    Nit-pick time: I agree with your verdict on this shot, but “Goodfellas” was released in 1990, not 1996

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    Mr. Marvkey,

    All of “I Am Cuba” is a series of incredible tracking shots (shot with IR film!), the one you showed was just the best of many great ones. I do not know why everyone thinks this movies is “communist propaganda” however, it is all set in Bautista’s Cuba, i.e. pre-revolutionary Cuba. All the movie shows is how horrible life was under the Bautista regime and how the people fought back. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. There only passing (and easily missed) references to communists (one of Lenin’s books shows up for a brief cameo) but none to communism per se. The long and short of it was “Boy things were really bad then”.

  6. collapse expand

    Mike, can you or someone on here please tell me how in THE FUCK Kalatozov went from inside the crowd, up the building, into the adjacent building, and out the fucking window back up the same street without cutting? And don’t say levitation. Using levitation when operating a camera is cheating and thus cannot qualify as a tracking shot, in my opinion.

  7. collapse expand

    Mike: Nice piece, but man oh man, how about the last shot of Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” as Alida Valli leaves Orson Welles’ funeral and walks right past Joseph Cotten, breaking his heart? One of the great endings (and great tracking shots) in all of movies.

  8. collapse expand

    It is an absolute shame that you did not include any of Tarkovsky’s work on here. The Sacrifice has several shots (particularly the opening one) that are far better than the jokey and uninspired one in The Player. The heavy dose of Hong Kong action movies on here leads me to believe that this list is more subjective than comprehensive. I suppose that is the danger with any list like this though. However, I think it’s fair to say that Tarkovsky is the best practitioner of the long tracking shot and his absence gives a misleading history of the form.

  9. collapse expand

    I would also add the final shot of Theodoros Angelopoulos’ Ulysses Gaze. Actually, the whole film is primarily composed of beautiful, super-long tracking shots.

  10. collapse expand

    Among living directors I tend to associate the long shot with Kenneth Branagh – particularly in his Shakespeare films, where he demands that most of his actors give their longest speeches in single takes. One shot in “Hamlet” crosses from one sound stage to another, seamlessly; his “Henry V” contains a harrowing but nearly dialogue-free march across the battlefield of Agincourt (the music does a lot of heavy lifting); and at the end of “Much Ado About Nothing” he celebrates the fact that the movie’s over by throwing a one-take dance party across the entire villa and then, at the end of the shot, having the camera zoom back out into the clouds. All good stuff.

    Thoroughly enjoyed the opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds,” with the continuous loop around the table at which Colonel Landa and the farmer are negotiating. Best part of the movie, perhaps.

    • collapse expand

      Yeah, I have to admit that I so loathe Mr. B that I didn’t put him on this list. That shot in Much Ado often gets a shout-out, deservedly. It’s good, and fun, and joyous, and all that. And I agree about the Landa/Farmer scene, with seemed to almost exist in a different movie. I loved when Landa pulled out his absurd pipe. There was nothing else in the movie like it!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  11. collapse expand

    An excellent list, no quibbles with your choices (although I could probably be persuaded by RUSSIAN ARK fans that it should be on the list because the only thing remarkable about the film is the execution of it).

    But I must protest anyone praising the let’s-stop-shooting-for-2-minutes-before-going-right-back-killing-each-other Baby Exit scene from CHILDREN OF MEN which followed the bravura shot going into the building.

    It is simply jaw-droppingly stupid and brought a mostly intelligent film to a crashing halt. No one tries to take the baby and not only do Theo and Kee walk off unhindered but they go right back to shooting like it never happened. All so Cuarón can end with 2nd most sophomoric visual metaphor of that year, the boat named “Tomorrow” appearing in the fog (the top prize went to Scorsese for the rat on the balcony at the end of THE DEPARTED which even an NYU student film would have avoided).

    • collapse expand

      Yeah, I’ve got to agree with you on that one, Roy (good name, by the way). That ‘Tomorrow’ ship seemed to me like a big Spielbergian ending.

      I was actually in a screening of The Departed with DiCaprio and when that rat shot came up, DiCaprio actually exclaimed and walked out! I felt the same way.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I must defer to your intelligence. You must surely have cognitive faculties so superior that you can place yourself into a science-fictional dystopian warzone and predict exactly what would transpire (and what would not).

      Personally, i think you missed the point of the scene entirely; in which case, i feel sorry for you.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I must agree with andygeiger here. I know that if I were standing in that room I wouldn’t be going for the baby. I would be standing in awe, dumbstruck, just as was shown. I can really argue that the ending with the boat wasn’t horribly subtle but I think it’s quite arguable whether it was sophomoric. And regardless of how sophomoric it may have been, it was still one of the top 5 films of that year, easy.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  12. collapse expand

    Mostly all good selections, but nary a mention of ANY of Bela Tarr’s tracking shots? The first scene of Satantango, the hospital riot scene or the whale-in-the-truck scene of Werkmeister Harmonies? The first scene of The Man from London? Or the scene in Boogie Nights where Wm Macy shoots his pornstar wife at the new years’ eve party?

    No top ten list of this nature is complete without at least one of these.

    the

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for those. I was pleased to get your Boogie Nights suggestion. I’d thought of putting in the BN shot that often gets the shout-out, but that William Macy shot is truly excellent. It’s a lot like the shot in Reservoir Dogs, in a way, with the whole from-inside-to-outside thing, following the guy who goes out to his car to get something dangerous… good call.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  13. collapse expand

    And I second the Tarkovsky Comment, especially the first scene of Sacrifice.

  14. collapse expand

    Ummm…. where’s Boogie Nights?

    You blew it on that one!

  15. collapse expand

    I’m not exactly sure how you characterize a tracking shot but a tracking shot is literally a shot where the camera is pushed along a track. Many of the shots listed above are crane shots (A Touch of Evil, The Player,) and one that I noticed is a stedicam shot (Goodfellas). And those are the ones I know off hand. I hate to be a stickler or a douche, but I think you are really talking about long running shots.

  16. collapse expand

    How about the Dunkirk beach scene in Atonement? There were so many soldier stories to tell in those 5 1/2 minutes.

  17. collapse expand

    This is a strong list. I was surprised not to see Brian De Palma’s “Snake Eyes” though. The first 12 minutes of the film appears to be one continuous take in which Nicolas Cage walks through a Vegas casino — from the back rooms to the sports book to the boxing ring — during a big boxing match. The fight itself happens during this sequence too, including one of the boxers being shot! The rest of the movie is only ok though.
    … but then doing the research for this comment both wikipedia and imdb trivia claim that there are actually 8 cuts in the sequence. [deflated].

    Touch of Evil gets my vote for amount of story wedged into one shot, though I Am Cuba wins the sheer audacity prize.

    • collapse expand

      I admit that I missed Snake Eyes; I sort of stopped watching De Palma at some point, but having just watched the first 15 minutes of the movie, I have to say thanks, it’s a truly amazing sequence, with De Palma at his most Hitchockian, and it seemed to me like De Palma hid his cuts in whip pans or in things moving very close to the camera. But the effect was much the same, at least to me. I kept wondering how he was going to cut, and when he did, with that great “shooting” sequence, I wasn’t disappointed. Had it really been a single take, it would stand as the longest (with the whole Russian Ark exception). Thanks for the shout out.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  18. collapse expand

    I love the long shots in Children of Men as well, but all of the long shots in that film have cuts, very well hidden, but cuts nonetheless. The nine minute car scene you discuss has five cuts, so I’m not sure if that disqualifies it from this list. Here’s a great article about the making of Children of Men that describes the process in detail: http://www.awn.com/articles/production/ichildren-meni-invisible-vfx-future-decay/page/3%2C1

    I personally find the final scene of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice the most stunning long take I’ve ever seen. It’s a seven minute tracking shot in which a house burns down, and the crazy thing is, during the first take of that shot, the camera jammed, and the shot was ruined. They had to take three days to rebuild the house and refilm the scene.

    That Goodfellas long shot is still the one I go to again and again as the perfect example of how to do this and how to do this right, in the service of the story, and not just to “show off,” as I felt the one in Atonement was meant. Great essay.

  19. collapse expand

    Nice listing. One “old” title came to my mind : Sam Fuller’s FORTY GUNS, with an interrupted and very long tracking shot all along the famous “western street” at Twentieth Century Fox. I haven’t timed it, but it certainly was at least half a mile long and went from one end of the street to the other. On ROPE, Hitch used more than short, quick fadeouts every 10 minute, as you suggest. There are, if I remember well, at least 4 highly visible CUTS and thereby 4 different “shots”. I never knew why that film is reputed to have been made in one single shot, because those cuts are quite obvious, each one bringing a change of camera angle.

    • collapse expand

      Yeah it has been a while since I’ve seen Rope, thanks for pointing that out. And thanks for the Forty Guns shout-out. I like Fuller. He was insane. I remember a moment from Shock Corridor where the guy ends up going through the wrong door in this asylum. He turns around and there’s a group of very naughty looking women – all torn clothes and hungry eyes. They’re sorta closing in on him and we hear him think, “Nymphos!!”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  20. collapse expand

    As someone has pointed out, often what’s referred to as a “tracking shot” might better be called a crane shot (though i do think that the term arises from “tracking” a character or action, rather than the tracks the camera moves on…), so maybe some wouldn’t call this a tracking shot – but i absolutely love the opening tracking shot in “Day for Night” – especially after someone says “Coupe!” … and the camera that is our “eyes” pulls back to show us the film set … and then they do it again, letting us in on the magic.

    Like the incredible crane shot that opens up from the platform to the town and the vista of Monument Valley in Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, that is one of my favourite moments of pure bravura cinema.

  21. collapse expand

    brilliant list! I don’t know yet if someone else has mentioned this but please put this clip on your list!: the penultimate shot in Antonioni’s/Jack Nicholson’s The Passenger–in which the camera makes a slow, 11-minute tracking shot from inside a room, THROUGH A BARRED WINDOW/WALL in the room (!!), into the courtyard outside the building, turns around & reverses to shoot back thru the barred window & into the action inside the room again. awesome, physics-defying shot! ;-)

    • collapse expand

      Yeah, I think we can call that one a definite omission! I saw that when they released the new print and was BLOWN AWAY by that shot. It was very long and, as I remember, kept shifting to take in this or that detail… great stuff. And, I think, a great example of a good REASON for a tracking shot. The slow, almost aimless quality created so much tension because, as I remember, we didn’t know what had happened to Nicholson’s character yet.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  22. collapse expand

    Nice list, pretty much all my favorites are included. Have you seen the tracking shot from The Protector (Tom yum goong), it’s pretty amazing with all the stunts and choreography involved and taking place essentially in one big staircase.

  23. collapse expand

    Am in total agreement with wildfabby re THE PASSENGER. By the way, when posting about 40 GUNS, I meant an UNinterrupted tracking shot. Slap me, I’m french (and nearsighted).

  24. collapse expand

    From wikipedia on I Am Cuba:

    “In another scene, the camera follows a coffin along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four stories until it is filming the coffin from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a window where the cigar workers are watching the coffin. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float over the street between the buildings. These shots were accomplished by assembling a line of technicians, and passing the camera down the line, from hand to hand.”

  25. collapse expand

    Completely agree with fairportfan and Kenfusion. The crane at the station master’s office, Monument Valley ride and of course, Frank’s car to car trek on Morton’s train and even the mini tracking shot when Cheyenne strides towards Harmonica in the saloon in the middle of Monument Valley were pure cinema. The Dunkirk beach scene was unforgettable and elevated the film from good to great from that point on. All of the elements of film making are evident in these scenes including music, great cinematography and above all the the assurance each director had in his vision.

    For Leone, it established at least in my opinion, his unquestionable greatness.

  26. collapse expand

    Hi Mike,
    I had written a similar article a couple years ago on my site:
    http://www.dailyfilmdose.com/2007/05/long-take.html

    Good to keep this conversation going…

    Alan

  27. collapse expand

    I remembered another one: the first 6 minutes of JCVD (which actually featured a great dramatic perf by Van-Damme–really!), it’s all one extended (one-shot) fight scene (unfortunately, I think the credits are run over it, as I recall), ending with one stagehand screwing up the shot–cool scene!

  28. collapse expand

    What about that great shot in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE of the woman looking out of a second story window reacting to a sound she heard as the camera goes up the wall of the house, along the roof to the opposite side of the house to see someone breaking in? The shot is I believe 2 minutes long and has some great Claudio Simonetti music to go along with it.

  29. collapse expand

    Wonderful stuff-really inspiring. Thanks for paying attention to what we do.

  30. collapse expand

    Nice list, I can’t but appreciate this list. Some movies last for long decades due to its unique making, people can’t forget the touchy moments. This list is one that collaborate all in one frame.

  31. collapse expand

    Many here I need to watch. Good list.

    I especially enjoyed Children of Men’s multiple long tracking shots; the one mentioned here and the one at the end (the street fight, save the baby).

    All of this brought to mind a music video I remember (but couldn’t find): Old Man Down the Road by John Fogerty

    It looks like a continuous shot following an extension cord from a house to the swamp.

  32. collapse expand

    While I do know that it’s not considered ‘cinema cinema’, I still like this ‘four seasons tracking shot’, which flows nicely and is cleverly executed (with produce and flowers matching the passing seasons).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlP89pMc3UM

  33. collapse expand

    Great post, and a great pick of tracking shots. One other comes to mind – the very last shot of Julie Taymor’s “Titus.” It’s an extremely simple shot, and extremely powerful. Seen it? Netflix it sometime.

  34. collapse expand

    Another worthy mention – a dazzling tracking shot from the 1998 HBO film “The Rat Pack,” that takes us into the hotel rooms of frisky Frank, scandalous Sammy – and Dean Martin drinking milk on his bed, watching TV. Great stuff.

  35. collapse expand

    Oops, I’m late to the conversation. For some reason only a few comments were visible to me until AFTER I posted. Scratch the need to dialogue “Children of Men”. I see it’s been mentioned at length. (I absolutely agree and wish he deleted the boat closing shot BUT that did not at all hijack my little kid awe with the factors in those 2xsequences that (for me) did work.

  36. collapse expand

    Park Chan Wook’s “Old Boy”…I love the emotions as much as the work of that shot, the danger with this topic is; we could all go on forever and ever…

  37. collapse expand

    Happy Twenty-Ten, Mike –

    this isn’t intended as a “you missed one …” but having the recent pleasure of a Twilight Zone marathon, “The Eye of The Beholder” has some very nifty camera work including some decently-long tracking shots.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8t5qwyWl0xw

    I look forward to your work here in 2010.

  38. collapse expand

    Great list. Enjoyed it.

    Here’s an interesting interview with the man who made most of these shots possible, Garret Brown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oylI0ZdEE54

    I’d like to nominate Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory,” 1976. Its long Steadicam scene may not be the most exciting in history, but it was the first — and it was a jaw-dropping miracle in its day. Clip and commentary here:

    http://www.steadishots.org/shots_detail.cfm?shotID=3

  39. collapse expand

    Hi, I am late to this, just stumbled across it in one of those Internet ways (London riots brought The Bonfire of the Vanities to mind…then the long tracking shot that opens that film…which led me to I Am Cuba…)
    One that is really underrated is the opening sequence of Julien Temple’s 1986 film “Absolute Beginners”. There are a couple of “cheats” in it (frame filled with black to allow a cut) but the sheer energy and numbers involved, let me forgive Temple this. I couldn’t find it quickly on YouTube though :-(
    Someone mentioned Julie Taymor – see also Across the Universe, a few great ones there but in particular the “I Want You” sequence.
    And a little one that’s never spoken about as it’s not spectacular and is more about the funny dialogue than the camera movement – near the start of Bigelow’s Point Break, where Keanu Reeves has been assigned and he and John McGinley are walking along corridors in the FBI building. About 90 seconds.
    POssibly Madeline Stowe takes a long walk through the fort in The Last of the Mohicans but I don’t remember if it is cut.

  40. collapse expand

    Not to be too obvious (and yes there are cuts but they were due to having to combine locations, rather than technical issues), but Bigelow again, the opening of Strange Days – the POV shots of the robbery-gone-wrong. I always remember sitting right at the front of the cinema for that and nearly getting whiplash! It’s, I suppose, more about the POV novelty than the “tracking”, but the long apparent-single-take does keep you glued to the screen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ymc9PA3TWRY

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    About Me

    According to my mother, I've quit more jobs than most people have ever had. In addition to "Closely Watched," I contribute film centric writing to Nylon and Nylon Guys magazines and "Inside Movies" over at Moviefone.com. Before the internet existed, I lived in Cali, dabbled in film, and rode tacos trucks. My films have been seen at Cannes, Seattle, Telluride, LA and other festivals, and are available on DVD, iTunes and select airplanes. My fiction has appeared in Zoetrope All-Story Magazine, Mississippi Review, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals. Follow me on Twitter! It's fun!

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