The Debate: Are films getting too long?

Was there a great ninety-minute film in there somewhere? Steven Roberts and James Tyas talk Kubrick and Cameron in a bid to find out

LOTRSteven Roberts: The most obvious issue that makers of lengthy films need to attend to is the physical discomfort of their audience. An article recently published in The New Zealand Medical Journal added the term SIT (seated immobility thromboembolism) to our medical vocabulary, following an investigation into the occurrence of deep-vein thrombosis in test subjects who had sedentary job roles. Richard Beasely et al. concluded that this painful condition can be associated too with recreation, “including seating in cramped conditions such as the theatre.” I’m yet to find a published real-life story to substantiate this, but for Beasley, repeatedly sitting down and going three hours without a break is worthy of our further examination.

If watching this year’s longest and coincidently biggest films, it is most likely you’ll encounter the cramp and numbness which theatre-goers do not have to put up with. This is paired with an ungraceful exit which disturbs other audience members and forces you to miss what you paid for. The great Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1950s films had a then conventional runtime of 90 minutes, once said “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

Some serious editing needs to be done. Ben-Hur, Titanic and LoTR: The Return of The King jointly hold the all-time record for the most Oscar-wins, and are all over three hours long. For this reason I am tolerant of, have even become sentimental about, the stretching and struggling required to avoid a numb rear while watching a wonderful epic. But more recently, weaker films have tried to uphold a long runtime, and their word-of-mouth momentum has suffered. Social media analysis reveals that complaints about the runtime of Cloud Atlas only increased when the film was released for public consumption (and by 20%), despite a previous announcement. By the final thirty minutes, the most indulgent films have compounded viewing displeasure with physical discomfort. “The first Deep Vein Thrombosis-related lawsuit against a major film studio can surely be only a matter of months away” sneers Ali Catterall (MSN Entertainment, The Guardian) in reference to Peter Jackson’s baggy Oscar runner-up, The Hobbit.

When adapting a musical directly to film means the more stunning moments of Les Misérables (158 mins) must be searched for amidst a swamp of lengthy close ups, one cannot help but yearn for the half-way break or intermission enjoyed by spectators of the stage version (170 mins), which remains superior. Films nowadays go on for too long, or at least too long without an interval. An intermission would help the audience digest the experience and, if you quite rightly believe works of art should be engaging, encourage directors to find new ways of holding onto their audience over a prolonged period of time. This used to be common in film, where spectacles such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) benefited from a two-part structure on theatrical release.

The cinema’s interval may have disappeared with good reason. Thirty years ago, it was becoming hard to monitor film goers during the break due to the emergence of multiplex theatres, where patrons could easily sneak into whichever film they chose without a ticket. Cinemas were losing money. But times have changed. The National Association of Theatre Owners, representing 26,000 cinemas in the US, has recently commissioned a report to prove the losses incurred by having to screen long films only four times a day, where once it was six. The continued financing of longer films just doesn’t add up.

James Tyas: Judd Apatow’s recent feature This Is 40 opened itself up to the jibe of “this is 40 minutes too long” but people have misidentified the issue as being one of quantity, when, in actual fact, it is one of quality. My main gripe with This is 40 is that the characters are insufferable, constantly whinging about their non-existent ‘problems’.

Any time spent in their presence feels cruelly excessive. It also just isn’t funny as Apatow’s previous films such as Knocked Up. Whether it would be funny enough if it was cut down from 134 minutes to 90 minutes still seems unlikely. The idea of brevity in film-making as being a great virtue is something of a myth anyway. Indeed, of Sight and Sound’s top 20 greatest films of all time, few come in at around the 90 minute mark. There aren’t many people who would argue that The Godfather or Vertigo would benefit from a little extra editing.

It has almost become a cliché, when speaking about Tarantino’s films, to say that “there is a really great 90 minute film in there,” but whether this is truly the case is disputable. Tarantino’s best works Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown both clock in at 154 minutes, only slightly shorter than Django Unchained so claiming that he has become increasingly self-indulgent is wrong; he’s always been that way. The problem lies in the fact that it just isn’t as good; the characters and dialogue are less engaging. But when a film is truly great, concerns about run time disappear. Zero Dark Thirty (157 mins), for my money the best film of the year so far, felt brisk. Lincoln (150 mins), on the other hand, feels like it’s still playing.

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