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26 February 2016

Why are long films getting longer?

Too often these days, particularly in commercial cinema, the credo seems to be more is more.

By Oliver Farry

When I was young, I used to frequently complain about long masses every Sunday (needless to say, back then it was not in my power to vote with my feet on the matter). My father would dismiss my concerns by telling me that over in Russia Orthodox Christians sat in the pews uncomplainingly for three hours or more. Not that he was suggesting that was a preferable state of affairs, nor even that the Orthodox were better Christians than us – he was merely pointing out that we didn’t have it that bad at all.

The only pews I sit in these days are in cinemas but I am no less sensitive to time dragging than I was as a child. And a film need not necessarily be incredibly long to feel it. I am far more likely to find myself checking my watch during an average-length film that sags two-thirds of the way through than I am during one that runs to three hours or more. Part of that is to do with expectation, of course, but it is also because pacing is more critical in a film intended to be of palatable length. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris runs to 165 minutes while Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version is 99 minutes long (a third, Russian, version from 1968 falls in between, at 143 minutes) but it is Soderbergh’s that seems twice as long, mainly because its efforts at a solemnity of tone fall flat (casting George Clooney as the lead didn’t help) and also because, in the familiar surroundings of Hollywood sci-fi, Stanislaw Lem’s story is drained of all its mystical blood (Tarkovsky, a man whose brand of Christianity was very much fundamentalist, wouldn’t have flinched at sitting through a three-hour Orthodox service).

Solaris (1972)

Too often these days, particularly in commercial cinema, the credo seems to be more is more, and filmmakers, producers in particular, are far too lenient when it comes to editing. The vast majority of films have no business being any longer than 95 minutes – the perfect length for a regular feature – once you begin to stray beyond that, you run the danger of losing the film’s vigour and momentum, and consequently the audience’s attention.

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Even comedies and children’s movies aren’t immune – Judd Apatow’s films have become increasingly lengthy and flabby in recent years, and watching last year’s Trainwreck, there was a sense that he and his cast just couldn’t bear to part with a number of set-piece gags that dragged things out inexorably while adding nothing to either plot or story. Such self-indulgence is the inevitable result of a group of friends working together too often. Similarly, only its creators can explain why Anchorman 2 needed to be two hours long. I have yet to see Disney’s latest offering Zootopia, but I do find its running time – 108 minutes – a bit disconcerting, and I don’t have to worry about having kids whose attention might flag far too early (if I did I might, like my father, tell them that there are children in Japan who sit through anime films twice as long).

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One director who is immune to any notion of longueurs (even as he exposes his audiences to them) is Quentin Tarantino. As far back as Jackie Brown (1997) he was defending the length of his films as the required time to tell the story in. With that film, which remains Tarantino’s finest, it’s a perfectly fair argument to make. Jackie Brown is a film far more concerned with character than plot (despite its origin as an Elmore Leonard thriller) and the slow-burning relationship between Pam Grier’s Jackie and Robert Forster’s bondsman Max Cherry takes all the time it can to ignite. The generosity of Tarantino’s casting two older actors long ignored by Hollywood is matched by the amount of time he gives them onscreen. Most films of its kind would be intolerable at two-and-a-half hours, but with Jackie Brown it feels just right.

Since then, however, Tarantino’s films have often being overlong without so much justification. He felt he was unable to cut Kill Bill down to less than four hours so he released it in two parts, something Lars Von Trier a decade later would do with Nymphomaniac – both films are lopsided and sluggish, with most of the good parts in the first “volumes” and most discerning viewers would be able to suggest what ought to have been excised. More recently Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight have each been an hour too long for my liking, though Tarantino probably felt it incumbent upon him to make the latter three hours if he were to justify filming what is essentially a mediocre TV play in 70mm. All of Tarantino’s excess has occurred under the indulgent patronage of Harvey Weinstein, who has been a great deal less understanding with less influential filmmakers, earning him the sobriquet “Harvey Scissorhands”. Tarantino is untouchable though and will remain so as long as his films, however overlong they might be, are box office gold, and all, with the exception of Deathproof, have been.

There are other directors who might benefit from some constructive feedback regarding the length of their films. The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s last two films Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (157 minutes) and the Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep (196 minutes) would have been much better with 45 minutes to an hour shorn off their length but Ceylan can also say they both won prizes at Cannes so what’s the problem?

The most obvious drawback to longer films is their lack of commercial appeal – unless you’re Tarantino, Spielberg or James Cameron, it’s hard to persuade the average punter to devote three hours or more of their time to your movie and it is equally hard to convince cinemas to run longer films, especially as even a moderately-performing 90-minute film will take in more money than most movies twice its length. Miguel Gomes’ recent freewheeling adaptation of The Arabian Nights, set in austerity-racked Portugal, attempts to get around this by splitting its six-hour running time into three parts, each released in most territories a month apart. It certainly makes it easier for audiences to “consume” but there is also a risk of there being a big fall-off in interest after the first part. The decision to release three films also cost it its place in the main competition at Cannes, where it would have been a strong contender for the Palme d’Or. Gomes’ film, on account of its compendium nature, doesn’t feel as long as it is, even if you watch all of it in one go, though it does have its longer more challenging segments such as the final one, which is a dialogueless mini-documentary on chaffinch-fanciers in Lisbon’s working-class suburbs.

The Arabian Nights (2015)

Three hours is generally the upper limit these days for mainstream films – the last studio release to go well above that was Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet in 1996, which unsurprisingly was less of a hit with audiences than it was with critics. Anything longer is the domain of art cinema and the longest of all tend to be films made for art installations, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (Hitchcock’s film slowed down to last a full day) and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, also 24 hours long. Few people are expected to watch these films in full though and the mere fact of their length is a vector to their meaning. Half an hour contemplating them will tell you all you need to know and give you the gist.

In narrative cinema though there are directors who are willing to take their time, and demand patience of their audiences. Jacques Rivette, who died recently, was not one for brevity. Only with his final film, Around a Small Mountain (2009) did he bring a feature in at under two hours. Many of his films were much longer than that, such as La Belle Noiseuse and L’Amour fou (four hours each), Jeanne la Pucelle (five-and-a-half hours), Céline and Julie Go Boating (three hours) and his 1971 film Out 1, which at 12 hours 53 minutes long, is the second-longest narrative feature ever, behind Peter Watkins’ Resan, which clocks in at 14 hours 33 minutes. Watkins is another master of the longue durée, having made a six-hour film about the Paris Commune, a three-and-a-half hour biopic of Edvard Munch and another film, The Freethinker, that is over four hours in length. Most of Claude Lanzmann’s documentaries are over three hours long, including Shoah, which is ten. The Chinese documentarian Wang Bing makes punishingly long observational films for art galleries, such as Crude Oil (only fourteen hours long after Wang abandoned his initial 70-hour project) and also for theatrical distribution – West of the Tracks (2003 – almost ten hours) and the more recent ’Til Madness Do Us Part, which is a more modest 3 hours 47 minutes.

Out 1 (1971)

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016)

But perhaps the greatest movie marathoner is the Philippine director Lav Diaz, whose Norte: the End of History (2013), a mere 4 hours 10 minutes, is his biggest hit to date. Most his other films are longer intimate epics, such as Melancholia (7 hours 30 minutes), Death in the Land of Encantos (nine hours) and A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, which has just won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlinale and which is eight hours long. So are the films of Rivette, Watkins, Lanzmann, Wang, Diaz et al too long? Well, clearly they are for many people, as they rarely attract big audiences. In that sense, the film’s avowed length is, if you will, its non-selling point. For those that do submit to films of this length though (and you only watch such films willingly and knowingly), the films are a challenge, one to be met halfway. Boredom is something that is factored into the film – when time itself becomes part of the film’s fabric this is unavoidable. Ennui is an emotion like any other, even if it must be imparted sparingly, so as not to lose the viewer completely.

Time is also something that, in real life, is in plentiful, if not infinite supply. I’m not talking about productive time, or leisure time, but objective time, the hours that make up the days, weeks, months and years of our lives. The average person’s life can fit a lot of two-hour films into it so for some filmmakers (and cinemagoers) it makes sense to make use of time itself to weave narrative, to build character or simply just to portray life. Lanzmann’s documentaries benefit from lengthy exegesis and interviews, Diaz’s films throw in the detail of lives and backstory that is sublimated in shorter films. Wang Bing’s documentaries take in existence in all its mundane ordinariness, being at turns captivating and tiring. Rivette was interested in movement and action – such as in the long scenes of Michel Piccoli painting Emmanuelle Béart nude in La Belle Noiseuse or the long passages of Sandrine Bonnaire walking in Secret Défense.

Mainly because of digital technology and the new possibilities of online distribution, long films are on the rise – of the 57 feature films of longer than five hours duration listed on Wikipedia, almost a third have been made in the last 20 years. Not that budget isn’t a concern; if you want a certificate for general release, the British Board of Film Classification charges you for literally taking up their time, by the minute, and it’s not cheap. Given how popular quality TV shows have become too, this might indicate fresh opportunities for long films to be watched at home – after all, what is The Wire but a 60-hour film or Mad Men but a 100-hour one? But the rhythms of TV and film are different as are the processes of watching them. You can watch your favourite TV show alone, week by week or through binge-watching, and you can still have the community of belonging to an audience, your friends, your workmates, the societal ether.

Satantango (1994)

With long films, this only truly happens when you see them in the cinema. Again, there is something church-like about it. You can watch an eight-hour film at home in parts (indeed that is probably the only way you’d be able to, the pace and length demands too much concentration for one sitting) but you get more from a theatrical screening. There is something exhilarating about emerging from a marathon screening, your legs half-dead, your senses numb and seeing people who have been affected in the same way. At long screenings what happens in the cinema often becomes inextricable in your memory from what happened on screen. I remember devoting a fine Spring Sunday in Paris to watching Béla Tarr’s Satantango (seven hours long, adapted by László Krasznahorkai from his own novel, which doesn’t seem near so long) and during one of the entr’actes, with many of the audience taking refreshments in the café next door, an Italian gentleman loudly accused the bar staff of shortchanging him a tenner. He got no redress and he continued bewailing “thieving Parisians” all the way back into the cinema, where an elderly Left Bank intellectual told him he was a disgrace as we settled down to watch part three. When I think of the film now, that vignette seems every bit as part of it as the famous travelling shot where the villagers, under the influence of the sinister Irimiás, lay waste to a hospital. Even in a seven-hour film, there is more that can be fitted in.