Online Editor, Harry Caton, weighs up the pros and cons of films that push the boundaries of typical running times.
Any long movie is a hard sell. If you’re seeing it in a cinema, it’s highly likely that all feeling will have drained from your underside long before the credits roll. Perhaps you also fidget, get tired, or need a toilet-break. The announcement that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will have runtime of three-and-a-half hours hails a revival of the debate surrounding the ends and means of that particularly cinematic sensation of numbness. There’s a case to be made for the film that goes beyond a rough average of two-and-a-half hours, but it’s one that needs to take into account both the artistic and personal weight that length brings.
This article will look at all angles of the long movie – what might push productions towards a longer film, how that length might be used to its best effect, and the conditions such a runtime needs in the first place. Movies needn’t necessarily be pleasurable, but they should have a reason for whatever choice they make. Runtime is much a part of this.
Length itself doesn’t equal worth. This much should be obvious, but amidst a general furore around Director’s Cuts and TV’s ‘10-hour movies’, it’s a point that perhaps needs restating. The concept is something of a ‘value for money’-inflected hang-up. Francis Ford Coppola’s 2001 Redux edition of Apocalypse Now, adding around 49 minutes of unreleased footage to the 1979 movie, is hardly a better film. The desire to add in most all of what was originally left on the cutting room floor certainly highlights some gorgeous and expensive production design – but often produces sheer narrative cul-de-sacs. Quentin Tarantino’s teasings as to a 4-hour cut of Django Unchained, or a 5-hour Kill Bill movie that collates Volumes 1 and 2, come from a similar place. Would these films be improved by the addition of more? Perhaps. Is it a certainty? Certainly not. Length can lead to something ungainly, a desire for more ‘content’ upsetting the whole. Coppola himself seems to acknowledge this; his most recent (and Final) 2019 cut is around 20 minutes trimmer.
What can be taken from these dalliances – whether the thirst for content or directorial indulgence – is that a long runtime is not something to be taken lightly.
It’s hardly uncommon for a movie to devolve into something that needlessly overruns in its original form. Look only to The Revenant, a movie that dedicates much of its runtime to expiating the same basic conceits – DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is trammelled by a bear, thrown over a cliff, half-drowned, and stabbed. It sets into exhaustion by the identical second half. The grand length would seem to match the grandeur of the scenery, and yet there’s no vastness of thematic scope to make up for it. Likewise, the baffling 90s romantic drama Meet Joe Black – starring Brad Pitt as a naïve, charming (?) personification of death – goes on for 174 minutes. So much feels indulgent, the film playing over endless conversations, charmless chemistry, and, in a popular trope of overlong indulgence, a third act comprised of false endings. The two movies come together in saying not much with quite a lot. In each case, their length is an artistic indulgence designed to signify importance, with little more to say.
Scorsese’s own movies have gradually crept up in length. Where the early-career Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull kept around the 2-hour mark, his mid-career period regularly topped that, weighing in at The Last Temptation of Christ’s 164 minutes, and Casino’s 178. The Irishman seems part of a trend. It’s telling that, in his later career, the comparatively small-scale thrillers Shutter Island and The Departed handily top the 2-hour mark, and are still modest in comparison with Gangs of New York’s 168 minutes, or The Aviator’s 170. This exercise isn’t so much to diminish the qualities of these individual movies, but to indicate how length seems an afterthought, an incidental fact of an over-budgeted, indulgent production. Many could have had their wings clipped, and yet still flown. Length here seems less a factor of story than a tendency of production, a snowball of the ‘auteur’ director’s ambition.
These are undeniably harsh judgements to make. They’re connected, however, in how they show misuse of the form. What can be taken from these dalliances – whether the thirst for content or directorial indulgence – is that a long runtime is not something to be taken lightly. More than this, it represents a form of its own. When a film breaches that two-and-a-half hour mark, it becomes something else. Much like how a 500 page-plus novel is a tacitly different prospect to what’s under that number, the long film is an aesthetic choice. What does it mean to augment the medium with length? The act of watching a film is already the act of sitting in relative isolation and concentration for a while; what happens when that while is extended even further?
Like most all filmmaking, length should be a part of the movie’s fabric. These shouldn’t just be ordinary films that happen to be extra-long.
Like most all filmmaking, length should be a part of the movie’s fabric. These shouldn’t just be ordinary films that happen to be extra-long. The 202 minute Malcolm X (1992) uses its length to reflect its protagonist’s very tangible shifts in conscience, culture, and time. The movie hops through its periods with ease, director Spike Lee’s peppy style gently obscuring the segmentation into three semi-distinct acts. The necessity of a biopic that covers all bases is to give those bases time to develop. Each incarnation of Malcolm – gangster, prisoner, preacher – seems a distinct character. The biopic is a good match for the form. Mr. Turner (2014) likewise uses its 152 minutes as a canvas upon which to explore the eponymous Georgian painter. The size of it is reflects the artist’s own works, its mumbling, small, and mortal characters often giving way to the grandeur of the visuals and length of the piece.
On an entirely different tack, take Scorsese’s Silence (2016). While this article has just lambasted the director for overindulging his runtimes, the 161 minute Silence somehow manages to do the exact opposite. It’s a sparse tale that, unlike The Revenant, knows its own sparsity. While the latter naturally assumes that its protagonist’s endless prostration before the viewer confers meaning, Silence is wise enough to make questioning that assumption its core. In the vastness of its characters’ journey, there’s only debatable meaning to be found in ordinary suffering. The viewing experience reflects this. The movie is long, and fairly static, as each prostrating viewer that scrabbles for a point. So much of the film involves the viewer waiting; yet like any good Beckett play, the characters know it too. In each of these examples, there’s a consistency in approach. That length means something, and has a point beyond existing for itself.
At the same time, it’s worth considering the circumstances of these viewings. The early cinematic tradition of the intermission has faded. Paired with the 20th century necessity for changing out a film’s reels, the audience could take a break in the middle of the action. In accordance with technological advances, and perhaps a more time-sensitive culture, the 21st century saw them phased out. The long film is a more contestable topic now than it used to be. While the experience of art for art’s sake is all well and good, even the most tortuously long films are only conceivable in contexts of relevant comfort. One might wonder whether Silence is worth it. Does it really earn its runtime, such as to justify the pain of its viewing? At the very least, it makes a point with it.
You’d assume that the medium can survive the viewer taking a break. However, long films in uncomfortable settings represent a genuine disjuncture of art and viewer.
We’ll have to wait and see if The Irishman can work with such a length. On another level, however, the decision makes sense. The Irishman can afford this because it’s a Netflix production – it’s a movie for couch potatoes. Per the news that a full cinema-release run has fallen through, much of the general public will consume it as any other thing on the platform. Strangely, the production now seems, if only on a distribution level, to be intended for TV. This entails something that was always made for whatever viewing conditions the viewer so deigns, a play/pause button, and the ability to stop and pick up the whole thing another day. It’s arguably a more clumsy viewing experience, and a capitulation to the modernity-induced hurries of everyday life. But it’s also the starkest possible example of how the long movie is a different beast.
A director may have enough clout to sell a producer something of The Irishman’s length – see The Hateful Eight (2015), with its roadshow intermission – but such a runtime has grown uncommon. The home theatre, however, now provides a more welcome environment. Intermissions in the action are hardly new for the exhausted audience. Their existence acknowledges the fact that it’s always been hard to sit through these gargantuan runtimes. You’d assume that the medium can survive the viewer taking a break. However, long films in uncomfortable settings represent a genuine disjuncture of art and viewer. Adaptations within the form are both needed and inevitable for its survival. We might be more mindful of platforms like Netflix in the future.
There are countless more examples that could be run through. The issues raised here – that it is not an end in and of itself, that it must be treated as a fundamental part of the aesthetic, and that the conditions of long runtimes must themselves be considered – are only partially linked. However, they are all inherent to the discussion of the form. We may pay closer attention to the realities of watching a long movie, and how the medium might best represent itself: perhaps through reintroducing intermissions, or simply on the TV. Even the best movies mentioned in the past paragraphs may suffer for the cinema simply numbing the experience. In turn, it’s also worth remembering that long movies are a delicate thing. Great commitment is made by the viewer towards an unclear end. That The Irishman will have the length it does makes sense in its release context; however, length doesn’t confer artistic gravity on its own. One would hope that it knows itself enough to make that time worth it. Within Scorsese’s oeuvre of ever-proliferating runtime, it’s hard to be sure.
And so it goes for the form. A future in which long films come from mere purpose, and neither directorial nor commercial bloviating, seems a good one. You’d hope that a piece this long would live up to that.