Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Last week, Uproxx published an article called “Attack of the Two Hour and 20 Minute Movies!,” in which writer Vince Mancini bemoaned a rash of supposedly overlong films at a time when many indies run 80-something minutes, and streaming services allow viewers to binge more extended content in the comfort of their own homes. This Friday, Lee Chang-dong’s 148-minute “Burning” and the even longer “Suspiria” will open in limited release, continuing what Mancini believes to be a nefarious trend.
This week’s question: Are movies too long these days?
Conventional notions regarding running times or attention spans don’t apply to the works of Filipino master Lav Diaz, who continues to tell expansive stories that make zero promises of mass appeal. He has liberated his artistic expression from commercial concerns, and in the process alienated many who find his lengthy, black-and-white, subdued films difficult to approach.
His 2016 entrancing effort “The Woman Who Left,” which earned him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is, at nearly four hours long, one of his shortest. It is a haunting social drama with undertones of a revenge thriller that is absolutely rewarding and compulsively watchable. No frame is unaccounted for as the story introduces new characters and conflicts at every step of the prolonged way to support its quiet roar against injustice and its compassion for the marginalized.
Released after several decades being incarcerated from a crime she didn’t commit, Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) has no illusions of rebuilding the life that was ripped from her, but is determined to remind those responsible of their crime. In nearly four hours, Diaz’s most accessible production enraptures its audience like a high-octane thriller, but commanding the intriguing lives of morally flawed individuals instead of explosive set pieces.
Watching “The Woman Who Left” from start to finish in one sitting is a big ask for most, but it’s perhaps the most effective way to become aware of the Diaz’s masterful plotting, character construction, and seamless narrative consistency.
What bothers me the most about the linked piece’s knee-jerk backlash against longer movies is that it comes with the presumption that all art should adhere to the same rules, and that the ideal length for one movie must automatically draw conclusions about what’s right for other movies. There are many movies that feel just right at three hours or more, and there are 80-minute movies that feel like they’re padding themselves out. People have always loved to joke about “Titanic” running 195 minutes when we know the boat sinks, but James Cameron’s emulation of classical Hollywood epics reminds us of the value of a well-conceived, long movie. It carves out impeccable senses of space and setting, carefully builds up its melodrama, and overwhelms us with a startling emotional power when the inevitable tragedy occurs. Each breathtaking image of the ship, from leaving the port to the sinking, further immerses us in its world and builds our knowledge of its geography.
Simply put, the “right” running time is dependent on each film’s objectives—the scope it wants to cover, the amount of detail it goes into, and how much of its world it chooses to explore—and there’s no one size fits all. Indeed, it’s when we start placing strictures on how long movies should be (like immediately viewing any movie that runs over 140 minutes with suspicion), that we also harm the artistry involved.
There are three main reasons for the sprawl afflicting recent movies. First, with tentpole-type movies, event-itis: the desire to offer huge helpings of movie to justify the night out (the cinematic equivalent of diners’ multi-course belly-busters). Second, with art-house movies, vanity: auteurism gone mad, the will and the power of name directors to make their signature very, very large (corollary: many of these nominal auteurs are also their own screenwriters whose direction protects and preserves their scripts in lieu of abstracting and transforming them). Third: so-called quality television has deluded viewers and critics into believing that more story is better story—because it offers masses of stuff for viewers to watch free and for writers to parse.
A shorter movie can get by on plain anecdotal pleasure; it takes bigger and better ideas to make good long movies than to make good shorter ones. In “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino’s colossal imagination for infinitesimal detail expands to heroic length scenes that lesser filmmakers would turn into mere clips. With “Jeanne Dielman,” Chantal Akerman creates a new form of cinematic time by fusing documentary, melodrama, and performance art. With “Li’l Quinquin”—made for TV but conceived as a feature—Bruno Dumont taps into his long-dormant cinematic unconscious and, from the newly intimate connection with the practical specifics of his home turf, unleashes a gusher of invention and fantasy. Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” connects to and is powered by the city’s hidden grid of intellectual, professional, and cultural energy. In short, all bad long movies are alike; all good long ones are good in their own way, which is why so many filmmakers of the Oscarizable sort insist on trying to make them.
Society has grown more impatient over the years and part of that blame is having a phone. Attention spans are shorter because we want to quickly reach for our phone and scroll through social media, send a text, or check emails. I am sure everyone has binged television shows or watched something at home with their phone in their hand. How many times have you watched a movie in theaters and thought “this is a good movie but it is too long” or “if only this was 20 mins shorter?” Fortunately, there are films both recent and classic that demand your attention. I am talking about films so great that once you start you make time for them and not the other way around. I am talking about films so great and powerful that no matter whether you watch them at home or in the theater the length won’t what matter. Let me tell about my experience with one such film that shook me to the core. I will never forget the time I watched Edward Yang’s masterpiece “A Brighter Summer Day” for the first time. A period piece unlike any other. Four hours felt like two, and by the end, I was close to tears. Yang captures adolescence extremely well. Blending youth with the harsher realities of an adult world. Yes, this film is just shy of 4 hours all in subtitles, but I didn’t care. Not only was this the longest film I have ever watched in my life, but it was the first time I didn’t take a break watching a three hour or longer film in my home. If a twenty-something-year-old like me can be moved by a four hour subtitled film in his home, then I think it is possible for shorter films in a theater to have the same effect.
Honestly, I understand the issue. Between all my family commitments and my need as a freelancer for quantity assignments, which is best achieved with shorter films to review, I rarely have time for the longer form content. That goes for series as well as lengthy films. But yes, if something is good, it’s good, whatever the length, and deserves to play out as is necessary and seen as intended.
Some of the most important documentaries of all time, such as “Shoah” and “West of the Tracks” are over nine hours. Most of Frederick Wiseman’s essential films are, while not that extensive still longer than the usually accepted doc length of 90 minutes. Here’s where the other debate lies, though: is it okay to watch lengthy films in more than one sitting? Does that mean certain longer stories should now be presented as Netflix series, a la “Wild Wild Country?” (Ironically, we’ve been through binge culture thanks to Netflix, but binging a non-episodic lengthy film isn’t as favorable.)
For a Wiseman, the latest of which is a relatively short (for him) 143 minutes, you really need to view it all at once to get the proper effect. As someone who admittedly watches a lot of non-assigned films in segments over a few days as I work out, I can’t say breaking things up is never okay, but for the most part the chosen size and shape and format of the storytelling should be respected.
At the moment, film is like baseball. In the digital age, baseball has tried every conceivable way to shorten a three-hour game to a 2 hour and 45-minute game. However, lost in baseball’s obsession with time, is a misunderstanding of a market. There isn’t 30% of the population who would go to a baseball game if only it were 15 minutes shorter. Baseball doesn’t realize that the ratings success of individual games are tied to a myriad of factors, not solely time. Instead, the game is being compelled to water itself down to make those who will never be fans into fans.
If we are to believe the same of film, if we are to bend editing too far to some audiences’ present lack of attention span, then film runs the risk of watering itself down for those who’d never run to its cineplexes anyways. Most audiences, who aren’t willing to sit through a 2 hour and 20-minute film not named Marvel or starring Lady Gaga won’t do so whether it’s five minutes shorter or has great word of mouth. That’s not to say that audiences are inherently incapable of sitting through drawn out cinema, but it is to say—much like with baseball—that the success of individual films are tied to a myriad of reasons not solely that of runtime.
In his piece, Mancini cites “First Man’s” B+ Cinemascore as compared to “Goosebumps 2” as a sign of tepid audience approval for a lengthy film. Last year, “Blade Runner 2049” was released to an A- Cinemascore. It couldn’t have asked for better word of mouth, yet even with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford starring in it, it barely scraped to even. Was its 2 hour and 43-minute runtime the culprit, or much like “First Man” or “Bad Times at The El Royale” was it several other factors, such as a flag controversy, questionable marketing, or in the case of “Blade Runner 2049,” the reliance on a niche brand to bring big budget box-office success? Who knows. But I don’t think “Blade Runner 2049’s” gross would have drastically changed had it been 30 minutes less, especially if Gosling, Ford, and the “vaunted” Cinemascore couldn’t save it.
Could we imagine having one less Roger Deakins shot; one less moment of natural light mixed with the neon violet hues of a Joi hologram; one less note of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s already minimalist brooding unnatural Vangelis inspired score, or one less moment of Gosling’s emotionally compact performance masquerading as tasteful apathy? Much like “Blade Runner 2049,” cinema is currently grappling with the postmodernist world, grappling with the nuance of humanity, death, family, existence, and often that includes the political, the ecocritical, and feministic, as well. It’s not self-indulgent pride, but self-exploration that if we wish to, we can embark on as well. “Fit audience find, though few,” as John Milton once stated. Because when we see K self-sacrifice and commit a bunt (back to the baseball metaphor), we experience the unease of humanity, the gap between the existential and the imaginary. In his struggle, we understand that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And in that vain, moviegoers should always commit to longer films like “Blade Runner 2049” or “First Man” because they question every aspect of our complex, yet simplistic nature and instincts. They are journeys into our inner psyches, and if we are as multilayered as we purport ourselves to be, then the longer the film the better.
Is there a pernicious scourge of 2 hour and 20-minute films causing the mid-budget prestige market to collapse? Maybe, maybe not. But I do know, that you shouldn’t stop it in the editing room nor “hold the tide with a broom.”
With respect to the fact that there are obviously some truly great long movies, when I really think about it there is no real reason for the extravagant runtime. If it’s 2 and a half hours, certainly 30 minutes could have been edited. If it’s even longer, there’s plenty of room to trim. “Suspiria” and “Burning” are two examples of films that don’t deserve their runtime for different reasons. “Suspiria” is an intoxicating film that sucks you in from the moment it starts. Still, the entire story could have been told within a 120-minute timeframe that doesn’t hold the audience hostage just because it can. On the other hand, “Burning” isn’t a good film and its story could have been summed up in even less time–90 minutes, to be exact–due to its often meandering and vacant narrative. I feel like too often filmmakers want to push the length because a long runtime carries an air of prestige carried down from the good ole days when Oscar-winning films like “West Side Story” and “Gone With the Wind” far exceeded the two-hour mark and included intermissions. Audiences can no longer seek solace with intermission and long films, even the great ones, just wreak of unnecessary indulgence.
Even as someone who thought “Bad Times at the El Royale” was overlong in a particularly unearned, self-indulgent way, I’ve never had much time for the complaint that movies are too long these days (it’s always these days, which have now lasted for at least two decades if not three or four). There will always be movies that feel too long–and some of those movies will inevitably be as technically short as 105 or 88 minutes. And speaking of “these days,” Plenty of people complaining about spending an extra 15 minutes at a movie will gladly binge some mediocre Netflix show for five hours at a time. I’m not sure if there’s any convincing those hypothetical people, or anyone else who wants movies to be 88 minutes with credits, that they “need” to make time for something that, lord forbid, crests the two-hour mark. No one “needs” to watch any particular movie, and I’ve seen enough summer blockbusters that were laughably overlong to understand why higher running times cause skepticism at the outset.
But I will say that long (or long-ish; what kind of part-timer thinks of 140-minute movies as all that voluminous?) movies can cast a different sort of spell than, say, the 10-hour-movie model of television, which sometimes seems designed to keep you on the hook for more, rather than transporting you somewhere else entirely and then letting you go. I’m thinking of a movie like Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” which many supposedly reasonable people would say is to long. It goes on for about two hours and forty-five minutes, and there isn’t really a plot to speak of. It’s about a group of outcast and/or itinerant teenagers traveling around the middle of America, hawking outdated magazine subscriptions door to door. I’m positive someone could make an 88-minute movie about this subject, probably out of Arnold’s presumably endless footage. But it wouldn’t be this particular movie, which is so encompassing and immersive that I felt like I was watching an IMAX feature despite seeing it in a 27-seat screening room. Watching the movie puts you on the bus with these unruly kids, and its epic running time makes the process both exhilarating and exhausting. But if that sounds like torture, “Johnny English Strikes Again” is opening this weekend. It’s 88 minutes. Have fun.
The concept that the length of a film in any way pre-determines its value is downright silly. Many Kubrick films are proof of this, “Barry Lyndon” and “Eyes Wide Shut” being two of my favorites. If either of those films were shorter, they would be at a significant loss for what scenes/themes/character development might be shirked from them. You should seek them out because they have the potential to change you, the way you think, and the way this world works (see: Gilles Deleuze’s two cinema books). As do shorter films! There should be no sharp discrepancy in length and its reflection on quality. It’s as simple as scheduling your day to make sure you have enough time to watch whatever length film you’re engaging. The theory of it is probably less interesting from a pop perspective. But if you want to talk about, tweet at me. I love some good theory-tweeting.
With the right pacing and structure, a 120 to 150-minute movie will immerse the viewer into the experience. For a recent example, see Gareth Evans’ Netflix film “Apostle” (130 minutes). While the visuals may not be for everybody, the conflict escalates from scene to scene, thanks to the performances, direction and unique setting. On the flip side, a critically acclaimed film like Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “The Endless” (111 minutes, Amazon Prime) feels disjointed at times due to unnecessary comedic relief, in my opinion. Moorhead and Benson may have a knack for comedy, but “The Endless” would’ve been tighter without clever jokes that probably got a few laughs during festival screenings.
Rather that complaining that two-hour plus movies are flawed by default, audiences should try to think more about the structure and the director’s perceived vision. How does this seemingly mundane sequence work or not work as a whole? Of course, many viewers simply want to be entertained rather than challenged, and so they disconnect when plot points don’t seem to make sense. Your friend that never has time for anything (while checking social media all day) likely doesn’t want to sit through an extended Tarkovsky sequence and then discuss concepts of time and memory.
Directors make the films they want to make based on their resources and imagination. Some are short, some are long. When audiences pay to see a two-hour movie, maybe it’s worth committing to the experience and thinking about the whys or hows before melting down about the runtime.
I’m one of those who says if the world that’s created is interesting, a movie can be as long as needed to justify showing it off. That’s not to say packing in so much world-building and characters that it’s a messy television show on-screen, but creating a tight-knit group whose world is easily identifiable. Case in point, “Titanic.” The movie is over three hours with the actual crash happening in the final hour, and yet leading up to that you’re invested in the characters. Everyone is confined on one location so you get the dichotomies of class. The characters are colorful, but never overpower Jack and Rose. If anything, I could easily have enjoyed a movie focused on JUST the side characters referenced, and that’s the beauty of a length that is perfectly suited to the material: you become upset at the characters who aren’t focused on. Another lengthy movie I think does it right, “The Sound of Music.” Another nearly three-hour tale – with Nazis really taking hold in the final 30 minutes – what makes the movie work is the romance between Maria and Captain Von Trapp. The singing also helps.
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