The Long and the Short of It: A Brief History of Running Times
This week, British audiences (at least the lucky ones) will have a choice between seeing Olivier Assayas’ fascinating thriller Carlos in the original 334 minute cut prepared for French TV (shown out of competition in Cannes) or the director’s theatrical version, which still weighs in at a substantial 165 minutes.
You can read our review of the full-length version for some more specific info on that, but it got me thinking about the whole question of running time. Is more always better? Surely not – you only need to sit through the deleted scenes on a few DVDs to see that most were cut for very good reason. They may be interesting to see, but often the film flows best in its theatrical version.
That said, many of my own favourites are exceptionally long: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Children of Paradise, Once Upon a Time in America, Rio Bravo, The Right Stuff, The Leopard, Heaven’s Gate… There is no doubt about it, with length a movie can assume greater stature, more depth, more feeling… Even so, my most common complaint about most run of the mill, not-so-great films remains: about 10 minutes too long.
How long is too long?
It’s a problem filmmakers have been wrestling with since almost the beginning… Of course in the very earliest days of silent film, camera weren’t equipped to run more than a few minutes of film, and it wasn’t until the 1910s that anyone figured a movie audience would sit still for anything approaching what we consider “feature-length”.
Italian filmmakers pioneered the first historical epics, and DW Griffith famously broke that barrier in the United States with The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916), both of which ran over three hours.
Still, these were the exceptions, not the rule. The biggest star in the world, Charlie Chaplin, made his fortune with “two-reelers” (one reel=about ten minutes of film). His first film to run more than an hour was The Kid, in 1921, which clocked in at 68 minutes. With greater length, Chaplin found that he could develop proper characters and a story, not just a situation and a series of gags. He never returned to the two-reeler format. Nor did Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who made the transition at much the same time. By 1925, when Hollywood itself was firmly on the map, the vast majority of movies ran between 75 and 105 minutes – the length that remained pretty standard for movies over the next 50 years and beyond.
It’s worth noting, though, even if we accept Alfred Hitchcock’s eminently sensible observation that no movie should last longer than an audience can sit comfortably without a toilet break, the relatively short running time associated with classic Hollywood black and white films disguises the fact that most of these were released in cinemas with a supporting feature, the “B movies” we have all heard about, and which were included in the price of admission. So even if your main feature came in shy of 90 minutes, patrons in the so-called “Golden Age” still had at least another hour’s worth of entertainment coming their way – and very likely some newsreels, cartoons, trailers and short films too.
Of course there have always been exceptions. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) took nearly six hours to relate the first 30 years of Bonaparte’s life (Gance had envisaged five more films to complete the story). William Wyler’s multi-Oscar winning Ben Hur (1959) ran 212 minutes, just a few minutes shorter than box office champ Gone With the Wind (1939). Back in 1924, Erich von Stroheim tried to persuade studio boss Irving Thalberg to release his magnum opus, Greed, at nine hours, then reluctantly cut it to four and a half. Mr Thalberg sliced even that version in half, to 140 minutes.
There are very good business reasons for keeping a film at or around the two-hour mark. Most cinemas don’t charge higher ticket prices for longer films – but anything over three hours will cut down on the number of screenings they can fit into a day. And of course longer films costs more to make in the first place, and more to transport. At the end of the day, audiences may not appreciate all the extra effort: most of us feel time-pressed, we may not have five hours to dedicate to a movie – not all in one sitting.
As for the longest movie I ever saw, a couple come to mind:
Bela Tarr is well established on the art house scene with films like The Man from London and Werkmeister Harmonies. His 1994 masterpiece Satantango has not been seen as widely, largely because it lasts seven hours and twelve minutes. It consists of only about 150 different shots, some of which last up to ten minutes without a cut. What you find in this case is that the film viewing experience becomes a kind of sťance, more of an immersion than a spectacle – the movie becomes a kind of breathing.
But Satantango is a mere snip compared to Jacques Rivette’s Out-1. Filmed in 1971 for French TV, but never broadcast, the film has only been seen in cinemas four or five times. It lasts over 12 hours – 743 minutes – and, again, it consists of very long takes, including several group acting exercises which are pretty interminable. On the other hand, there are extraordinary moments that will make any cinephile’s heart beat faster. So even if it’s not a movie I am in a hurry to watch again, I certainly don’t regret the time I spent with it. Twelve hours is long for a film, but when all is said and done, it’s only half of one day. That’s not a bad trade for memories that may last a lifetime.
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