When did films get so long?

With lengthy films dominating both awards season and the recent Sight & Sound greatest films poll, and The Hobbit being stretched over three epic films, are we getting a taste for ever longer trips to the cinema?

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Unexpectedly long journeys: Jeanne Dielman (1975) and The Hobbit (2012)

Unexpectedly long journeys: Jeanne Dielman (1975) and The Hobbit (2012)

Anyone who, during this film awards season, found themselves scrambling to catch up with some of the big hitters nominated by the Academy as the year’s best films needed to have plenty of time on their hands.

A night out at the pictures for Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic Lincoln required 150 minutes, not including the usual cinema foreplay of trailers and advertisements. Kathryn Bigelow drew out the hunt for Osama Bin Laden for 157 minutes in Zero Dark Thirty; the singing kept up for 158 minutes during Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables; while, with his bloodthirsty revenge drama Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino held you in your seat for a cool 165 minutes.

Of course, the Academy has always been a sucker for duration, with big winners like Gone with the Wind (1939), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978), Gandhi (1982), Dances with Wolves (1990), Schindler’s List (1993), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) all pushing over the three-hour mark. Such length confers a sense of gravitas, reminiscent of a weighty Victorian novel or a three-bird roast.

But where such running times were normally the preserve of the puffed-out historical epic, where the distended durations seemed necessary in order to get to grips with the complex movement of history and events, there’s a general sense now that the big films are just getting bigger.

In times gone by, the monied upper classes thought nothing of spending a four-hour evening at the opera or at a play, but film arrived as the great, democratic entertainment, bitesized enough for people who have to work for a living to balance with their nine-to-five, while leaving time for dinner. Ever a capitalist art form, the shape and length of films conformed to fit into our pockets of leisure time.

During the 1990s, Kevin Costner – with a touch of the leisured aristocrat – bemoaned the fact that the length of movies was dictated by theatrical bookings, with cinema chains greedily aiming to squeeze in as many screenings of a given film as possible in order to maximise profits. Thus meaty 191-minuters like his cowboy epic Wyatt Earp (1994), directed by Lawrence Kasdan, were a tricky commercial proposition. “I’m sick of movies that are just two hours long,” he told Empire magazine, “they’re just designed to get you in and get you out.”

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Costner would surely find the current climate more forgiving. While it remains received wisdom that – if you want to get anyone in Hollywood to read it – an original screenplay should come in at around 100 pages, with one page approximating one minute of screen time, such scripts must balloon outwards at some stage during production if the current crop of Oscar favourites is anything to go by.

Hollywood has always had its inflated prestige pictures, but most of the output from the dream factory during the Golden Age – its thrillers, comedies, westerns and musicals – were models of economy, rarely breaching the two-hour mark. Yet some of today’s directors who are most steeped in this film history (thereby presumably admirers of narrative thriftiness), like Martin Scorsese and Tarantino, rarely exercise the same restraint. Scorsese hasn’t reined himself in under 120 minutes since 1985’s After Hours.

No one begrudged Peter Jackson taking 11 hours over the course of his The Lord of the Rings films to do justice to the many hundreds of pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels, but the unexpectedly long journey (a trio of three-hour epics) spun out of Tolkien’s slender prequel, The Hobbit, suggests that the trend for duration may be stretching.

Jackson’s massive endeavour recalls a much earlier film fantasy centred around a fabled ring, Fritz Lang’s silent classic Die Nibelungen (1924), which imagines a fabulous mythological world of knights, castles and dragons across a nearly five-hour running time.

Die Nibelungen (1924)

Die Nibelungen (1924)

These ring epics, 80 years apart, almost suggest that movie running times are coming full circle. And when you consider that the same director’s four-and-a-half hour underworld masterpiece Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) provided a blueprint for every crime and suspense film made since, you begin to wonder whether even that tautest genre, the thriller, may yet return to Langian proportions.

One of the more notable trends in the recent Sight & Sound poll of critics to determine the greatest films ever made is the high place accorded to a clutch of super-long films, some of which are in a class of their own in the duration stakes.

In the top 100, there’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), Jean-Luc Godard’s four-hour film-essay on cinema history; Ingmar Bergman’s five-hour family drama Fanny and Alexander (1982); Claude Lanzmann’s 10-hour documentary about the holocaust, Shoah (1985); Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó (1994); and Chantal Akerman’s three-and-a-half-hour (and lengthily titled) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

Is there something truly special about these films? Or did critics, as fickle as the Academy, vote for such titles as peacock displays of endurance and dedication, lured by the films’ self-evident weightiness? If so, I’m guilty of attention-seeking myself, voting for just such a behemoth: Jacques Rivette’s legendary 13-hour Out 1 (1971), which I was lucky enough to be able to catch in its entirety when the BFI screened it as part of its 2005 Rivette retrospective (one of the few public screenings the film has ever received).

Out 1 (1971)

Out 1 (1971)

Out 1 begins as a documentary-like study of two theatre groups rehearsing new productions. Long scenes of actors indulging in experimental workouts certainly provide an endurance test, with the film edging close to madness as normal behaviour falls away in favour of frenzied, ritualistic improvisation.

But slowly, magically, a story begins to emerge: the threat of some malign, mysterious conspiracy at large in Paris creeps in at edges, the characters drawn irresistibly to the shape and possibility of a narrative and a game. Again, silent serials, with their episodic cliffhangers, such as Louis Feuillade’s six-hour Les Vampires (1916), were a key influence.

The half-day running time may be silly, but the duration creates a sense of elation, the distinction between film as entertainment and lived-in experience collapsing in front of your eyes. At once utopian and apocalyptic, it’s a film that – in critic David Thomson’s words – “declares the readiness of cinema to replace rather than represent life.”

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Screening at BFI Southbank as part of the Essential Experiments strand, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (voted number 36 in the Sight & Sound poll) is part of the same 1970s avant-garde tradition. Making the very material of everyday life – with its repetition, banality and routine – her subject, Akerman documents the daily existence of a Belgian housewife as she goes about her endless household tasks – washing dishes, peeling potatoes, providing for her teenage son. We’re a long way from Middle Earth, but Akerman carves out a different function for duration to that imagined by Hollywood’s epics: to critique the patterns and constrictions of the lives we live.

In a TV interview during the same Wyatt Earp promotional tour, again evangelising about long-form storytelling, Kevin Costner was heard to wonder what exactly filmgoers needed to rush home to. Madame Dielman’s answer to that question would probably be more pragmatic than Costner dared think, but as films offer ever extended and more immersive escapism, evening-consuming trips to the cinema seem here to stay. Long they may last.

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