Whether it’s 80 minutes or 13 hours, don’t judge a film by its length

In some cases 80 minutes can feel too long, whereas four hours can be just right. There is no way to judge except on a case-by-case basis.

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You will often hear grumbling about the length of films nowadays. A friend of mine announced recently that he was setting a rule for himself: two-and-a-quarter hours would from now on be the limit on anything he chose to see at the cinema. (With the exception of Bond films, that is. Everyone has their weaknesses. Even teetotallers have been known to sneak the odd Martini.)

That means he’ll be skipping some of the new releases that will be in contention for awards in the coming months. Not for him 156 minutes in the snow in the company of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant, from Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Birdman. And he may as well think of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight as The Hateful Three – as in three hours. (A 70mm print version of Tarantino’s picture will run at 182 minutes, while there will be a more widely available digital cut that is six minutes shorter.)

At 130 minutes, The Big Short, starring Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, doesn’t live up to its title, though it does just about meet my pal’s criteria. If he’s going to be strict, though, that will mean no Star Wars: The Force Awakens either: at 136 minutes, it’s a full 60 seconds over the cut-off point. The Cinemagoer Strikes Back! Somehow I think Disney will recover from the loss of this one potential audience member.

What matters is surely not how long a movie is but how long it feels. “What do you think of The Hateful Eight’s running time?” asked the movie website Cinema Blend a few weeks back. “Is it excessive or is it refreshing to see a director taking his or her time with a story?” There followed a poll on this vexing matter, which would have had a good deal more validity were it published once readers had had a chance to, you know, actually see the film and make an informed comment. But that’s a separate gripe from me – one about the excessive length of the internet, and the need to fill it with blather, rather than one concerned with the running times of modern movies.

The truth is that in some cases 80 minutes can feel too long, whereas four hours can be just right for the material in hand. There is no way to judge except on a case-by-case basis. Personal preferences like the one stated by my friend are fine: each of us makes decisions on our cinema-going habits based on different criteria.

For instance, I would be reluctant to return to any cinema that puts the house lights up fully before the end credits have finished rolling. (The film’s not over until it’s over, you dolts!) And I make a point of avoiding any venues that offer the supposedly luxurious in-seat dining service, where the viewer is furnished with nibbles by a staff member in a tuxedo. Are we in a restaurant? No we are not. Please remove the tuxedo and get back to your real job: tearing my ticket and sneering at my choice of film.

Length, though, does not determine the films I see when I’m off-duty. Except, that is, in one unusual case recently. I had pondered whether or not to devote the whole of last weekend to a rare screening of Jacques Rivette’s legendary 1971 film Out 1, which runs for almost 13 hours, and was being shown across two days at the Prince Charles Cinema. The last time it was screened in London, I had been unable to attend due to pre-arranged plans. Back then, I gnashed my teeth and stamped my feet but now I wonder if I wasn’t secretly relieved: the clash in my calendar had got me off the hook. I say this as a fan of Rivette – his 1975 fantasy Celine and Julie Go Boating is one of my favourite films, though at a shade over three hours it is practically a short.

But I decided this time that I didn’t have it in me. I simply didn’t want to surrender a whole weekend to the film. Maybe it’s about age. I’m 44 now: traditionally this is the decade when one starts to accept that life isn’t infinite. That we only have so many movies left in us. Not that I’m averse to long films. I’ve always loved the hiding-out element of cinema, where one is cognisant of the rest of the world going about its business while the movie is unspooling in the dark before one’s eyes. Last Friday, I spent the whole afternoon snuggled up at the BFI Southbank watching the re-release of David Lean’s 200-minute Doctor Zhivago – not a film I care for but one which demands to be seen, if at all, in those conditions, on a big screen and with overtures and intermission.

Despite having had some memorable extended viewing experiences – countless all-night film shows at the Scala cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as a hunker-down viewing of Lars von Trier’s gripping, ghoulish TV series The Kingdom at the ICA – I realised that my heart wasn’t in this particular Rivette experience now. I hope to see Out 1 in other circumstances at some point. But it’s good to realise your limitations. My friend is sticking by his 135-minute rule. And I’m not budging from my 13-hour one.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.