There is a plague sweeping its way across the face of film writing, an anxious, foot-tapping idea that squirms and writhes its way into the sentences and paragraphs of some of our best minds; The length of a movie has become an international critical obsession.
“You’re out of touch, I’m out of time.”— Hall & Oates
There is a plague sweeping its way across the face of film writing, an anxious, foot-tapping idea that squirms and writhes its way into the sentences and paragraphs of some of our best minds; The length of a movie has become an international critical obsession. Late to the game as always, I started noticing this problem at this year’s New York Film Festival when, in conversation with friends and colleagues, the same words, “too long,” were repeated over and over again, used as a pejorative to criticize a film and filmmaker. At that festival, it became a sort of pet peeve, annoying but tolerable. Since then, like a sore tooth that you keep worrying until it erupts into a full-blown ache, I am unable to escape it; I see it everywhere.
Now, I promised myself I would not go into a diatribe about how time as we experience it is an illusion, so I’ll leave that concept alone, but I don’t understand how the constant mention of a film’s length adds anything at all to the critical conversation; It is the equivalent of a literary critic finding relative value in War And Peace based on its page count. If we don’t judge the quality and value of literature by how many pages there are in a book, why do we (and I include myself here, because I know I’ve been guilty of this) constantly talk about a movie’s length as if it carries some sort of insight into its quality? I have a few ideas.
There are the cinematic marathons, those coveted experiences of extreme length that test our physical endurance, wearing their runtimes like a badge of honor. Rivette’s Out+1, Tarr’s Satantango, Fassbinder’s made-for-TV-but-let’s-watch-it-all-at-once Berlin Alexanderplatz; Cinephiles boast of enduring these movies, their ecstatic claims of pleasure seemingly intertwined with a teenager’s self-congratulatory satisfaction of making it all the way through. Which is not to say that there is not a great deal to talk about in the films themselves, but it’s rare that you hear or read it; Instead, the primary discussion of the movies is about the physical length. As such, a mention of a film’s runtime becomes the bourgeoisie equivalent of its value. It’s like boasting that you’ve read a book to someone who hasn’t read it; No one is going to ask you what you think about it for fear of being out of fashion or, shame of shames, having to admit they haven’t read it yet. So, you get a pass; You don’t need to analyze the work itself. You get a gold star just for consuming it in its entirety. Good for you. You can almost see the equation; The closer a film’s runtime moves toward Satantango or Out+1, the more interesting it is. The longer the film, the more “intellectual” it is, the more “challenging,” the less “commercial.” Epic, ambitious. Worthy.
Rivette’s Out+1: Twelve-Plus Hours Of Fun With Jean-Pierre Léaud!!
As such, I think what people are saying when they say a movie is “too long” is that the film and director hold a pretension to the intellectual/challenging mantle that is bestowed on the über-long art house monsters mentioned above, but for whatever reasons, the film fails to achieve its goal. In this way, the words “too long” operate as code for “failure.” Herein lies the biggest problem; Length, in and of itself, is not a problem if a film fulfills its narrative potential. If each frame of a three-plus hour film is bristling with ideas, energy, character, aesthetic daring, then who cares how long it is? You don’t experience time when watching a movie like that; You sit in the dark in a near-trance, deeply engaged. You only experience time when, in whatever way, a film fails. As such, the issue of length becomes doubly irrelevant; What we should be asking is “How did this film fail?” because, and I think we can all admit it, the length of a movie is absolutely irrelevant as an indication of anything at all.
Now, what really confuses me is the mention of a runtime for a film of modest length. Case in point? The recent spate of reviews that discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming There Will Be Blood and its two hour and forty minute runtime. Think the problem is not really that much of an issue? Let’s look at a controlled sample, taking only the current pre-release reviews linked by David Hudson at GreenCine. The teeth once again go on edge:
“But There Will Be Blood represents the moment at which Anderson’s material and his sense of scale are in perfect harmony: it needs to be this vast, this long (it clocks in at around 160 minutes).” — Ryan Gilbey, The Guardian
“More pointedly, the title… is the film’s first trigger pulled to wring its audience anxious and uneasy for a terse, dire, cunning two hours and forty minutes.”– Ryland Walker Knight, The House Next Door
…and for shits and giggles, what sayeth the industry staple, Variety?
“There’s no getting around the fact that this Paramount Vantage/Miramax co-venture reps yet another 2½–hour-plus indie-flavored, male-centric American art film, a species that has recently proven difficult to market to more than rarefied audiences. Distribs will have to roll the dice and use hoped-for kudos for the film and its superb star Daniel Day-Lewis to create the impression of a must-see.”– Todd McCarthy, Variety
Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Two Hour and Forty Minute There Will Be Blood
‘Impression’ of a must-see? Difficult to market? I’ll give Todd McCarthy a pass; At least he has the courage of his paper’s commercial convictions. But honestly, what does each of these individual mentions actually mean? I don’t know to which narrative failure or success they are referring, which moments in the runtime work or don’t work. But boy oh boy, I certainly know how long the movie is now. It’s 160 minutes long, which is two hours and forty minutes. Now what? Obviously, the reviews go on to weigh the relative merits of the film’s story, filmmaking and characters, but I can’t get over the fact that everything I read has to make mention of the runtime. Why not tell me that the print was placed on a reel and run through a projector, because that tells me as much about the movie as a mention of how long it is.
Is it possible that, in the age of “user controlled content” and Attention Deficit Disorder, asking adults to sit still and engage deeply with a movie is simply too much to ask? Have our narrative clocks been reset by YouTube, TV and Hollywood junk? Is the critic actually doing the viewer a favor by raising the red flag that, god forbid, one might need to sit in a theater and engage with a movie? Why is two-hours the gold standard for movie-going, other than the fact that exhibitors love it because they can squeeze more screenings into a single day? Have we been physically conditioned by the financial concerns of the theater owner? What is the value of using the runtime as some sort of critical barometer of anything at all? Enough talk of runtimes. Tell me what there is to love in a film, what works and what doesn’t. Criticism needs to step away from this obsession and grow up a little. The film’s story should matter, not how much time out of your busy schedule is swallowed in the telling. Time’s up.