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Can a Good Film Be Too Long?

Man, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux last weekend, and my butt is still a little bit numb. Clocking in at well over three hours, I couldn’t help but find my attention wandering, despite the fact that I was deeply interested in the story unfolding in front of me. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which I am very much looking forward to, hasn’t opened over here yet, but there are already rumours circulating at a cut of the movie over six hours long. As much as I want to see the film, and as much of the director’s vision as I might want to take in, I can’t help but feel that 360+ minutes might just be too long for a single sitting.

You could nearly grow a tree during the length of Malick's proposed six-hour cut...

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly proposing a hard and fast rule that should be applied to determine whether a movie is too long or two short. I’m a firm believer in the principle that a movie should be as long as it needs to be in order to do what it wants to. A movie is just as likely to suffer from condensing too much into too little space as it is from spreading too little across too much time. I can think of plenty of long movies (like The Godfather, Part II or The Dark Knight or even Lord of the Rings) that justify their extended runtimes, and I can think of plenty of short films that are just as endearing because they are so succinct. As a side note to this, the average length of movies seems to be increasing.

However, I think there is a reasonable length of film where, no matter how compelling or interesting your film might be, it starts to grate. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a powerful accomplishment, and I quite like the additions made to the alternate cut, but it’s literally very difficult to sit down and feel comfortable for anything more than a little bit over three hours, no matter how engaging and interesting it might be – and I’m not even talking about something as superficial as attention span, which is, interestingly enough, supposedly not tied so much to the length of the film as the length of a given shot.

An intermission wouldn't be the end of the world...

I’m talking simple biology. Not necessarily anything as basic as basic biological function (but, ironically, those long films are the ones you both need and really don’t need the large drinks for), but things as simple as stress and strain, aches and pains. I don’t have a back problem or anything, but most cinema seats aren’t so comfortable I’d spend too long in them, and I don’t really like being in too large a crowd for too long. As much as I love cinema, spending so long in a darkened room sounds a bit much.

You might suggest that the obvious thing to do would be to do what they do with excessively long plays and operas, and give us all a nice intermission in the middle. I remember that the theatrical cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies had nice intermissions when I watched them in my local cinema, although I don’t believe that this was necessarily the way they were intended. I don’t know though, perhaps it was. I quite liked it, not necessarily as an excuse to stock up on supplies, but a chance to stretch my legs. I’m fairly sure that, over a decade later, I could take the theatrical cut in one sitting, but I like the idea that the break was there.

The queues for the rest room at intermission can be pretty epic...

Even watching the movies at home, as a rule, if the film requires a disc flip or change, I’ll use that as an opportunity to “refresh” myself – top up a drink, bathroom break, even stretch my leg. The relatively finite amount of space on a DVD disc actually made it fairly handy, and films like the extended Lord of the Rings all came with the necessary gap. I liked those especially because the discs had been structured in such a way as to minimise disruption. The break seems almost natural in all three films, which is handy – as it allows you to stop and start without worrying about missing anything.

Blu ray, with the greater amount of space, makes it significantly tougher to count on an automatic or scheduled break in programming. In that case, if you want an intermission, you have to create one yourself. If you haven’t seen the film before, it can be quite hard to pace. Do you go smack bang for the middle of the runtime, do you wait for a scene transition before or afterwards, an act break? It’s fairly tough.

Don't Lynch me for suggesting it...

That said, there’s also a fairly strong argument to be made against the idea of stopping and starting a film that the director doesn’t want you to stop and start. David Lynch, for example, has gone so far as to exclude chapter breaks in the approved releases of his films. The idea being that you shouldn’t need to jump in or out while watching his film. I can respect that stance on artistic grounds – it’s a film, not a piece of serial entertainment – but living with a large family where a dozen things are happening all at once has taught me that the idea doesn’t necessarily work in practice.

It’s a logical extension of the idea (held by many film fans) that television airings of films can often kill the pace of a given movie with those damn advertisements every half-hour. I’ve certainly felt that sort of frustration – the vast majority of films aren’t built around ad breaks in the same way that, for example, most television is. It’s one of the reasons I love the movie channels on digital. No ad breaks to interrupt the movie in question. However, more recent iterations of digital do come with a pause and rewind button, which is admittedly handy for the real-world scenario where life tends to intrude on your viewing experience.

Even movie stars have to use the restroom...

So, the truth is, I don’t know. I figure it’s a personal thing, but I think that about three hours is as far as I can go without an intermission of some kind, at least stretch my legs. It’s nothing about the quality of the film, or my attention span – I just think there’s only so long one can sit in the dark at a time.

9 Responses

  1. Some movies need to end early even when they are less than three hours. A.I. and source code are the perfect example.

  2. Hell, I think the 2+ hour version of Apocalypse Now is too long. The whole ending is a terrible, rambling, silly mess.

    • The original version? Sacralige!

      Nah, I kid. Don’t tell anyone, but I think All The President’s Men is a good hour too long.

  3. I’m perfectly fine with a long film, “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” are among my favorites, so long as it holds interest for the duration.

    Goodbye: I felt the same of the new “Transformers.” At a clean hour-forty-five “Dark of the Moon” might have been more bearable.

    Still, Mallick is the man. I’m willing to give him a chance at four hours. Six… that takes a lot of faith.

    • Yep, if it can hold interest. But there must be some sort of physical block on your attention span? Even basic biology? If you added an hour to either of those, without damaging the pacing and keeping the interest, could you still watch it? And could you watch it in one sitting?

      Yep, six hours is just… when you type it like that it seems looooong…

  4. Tree of Life didn’t make me want to kill myself at the halfway mark (more like at the last quarter, which had at least fifteen openings to end the damn thing, but it just went on and on…), so I’m inclined to say, yes, good movies can go on for too fucking long. Unless they find a better way to spend the extra time then twiddling their thumbs and staring at the wall.

    • Lord of the Rings syndrome there? What was Billy Connelly’s wisecrack? “Eleven oscars? That’s one for every ending!”

  5. A good film should engross you and make you unaware of the passage of time; my answer here would thus be “no”. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a film to be overly long and still deserve to be hailed as “good”, but the best films can go on for as long as they like because they’ve got you in their thrall.

    That said, I’m a big fan of brevity, so a shorter and more concise picture tends to be my preference.

    • I lean towards brevity myself, of only because it gives me more space to digest a film, rather than heading home to bed or to write a review or whatever…

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