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February 2, 2024

I LOVE IT | Ode to Long Movies

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Not every film can be enjoyed in a single evening. As you get into cinephilia, downloading Letterboxd and looking at their Top 250 (or perhaps those of Sight and Sound or AFI), you may come across those select few movies with runtimes that look like mistakes: Jesus Christ, how many hours even is 317 minutes? Some people end up shutting those movies out, excluding them from any potential watchlist for the obscene commitment they ask of audiences. Others, like me, set them aside as projects on a bucket list… I knew I couldn’t avoid Jacques Rivette my whole life. Earlier this month, I made that bucket list a whole lot shorter, watching a dozen or so of these ultralong “project” movies over break. I’ve emerged with a truly warped sense of film, a few new favorites and an eremitic lack of social interaction.

To start, what quantifies an ultra-long film? For me, it had to be at least four hours, beyond anything that might be released wide in theaters: If it’s shorter than The Godfather 2, or Lawrence of Arabia, it might be long, but it isn’t ultra-long. It also can’t be a TV Show, even if people insist that Twin Peaks: The Return or Dekalog are capital-C Cinema. Besides that, anything is game: Documentaries, anthologies, features or even films that got sliced up into multiple parts by their directors or after the fact. All that the ultra-long movie need demand is time. 

The most obvious impetus for a movie’s length being extraordinary would be source material that simply cannot be condensed into a normal running time. In this category exists Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, a relic of the Soviet Union’s efforts to keep up with Hollywood blockbusters. Based on a novel that is literally only known for being long, War and Peace has a lot of ground to cover, even after excising the chapters upon chapters of dry philosophical musing. It amounts to something substantial and totemic, but never surpasses its runtime or escapes the clutches of occasional boredom. Abel Gance’s Napoleon is a similar exercise, with a director’s attempt to build a franchise out of France’s most famous general going awry on the first installment. Though Gance intended a series of Napoleon films, each of a more ordinary length, all that was ultimately made was the early life and career spanning Napoleon, originally nearly ten hours, but with an available restoration hovering closer to five. Napoleon, beyond a depth that makes the whole film feel more like biography than biopic, fills much of its runtime with incredible formal invention. When scene after scene consistently contains something never seen before (even almost a century later) it makes boredom relatively difficult, though again, inescapable. 

There’s also something that can be said for the overlong documentary, unable to compress its hundreds of hours of footage into a feature length. The runtime justification of a film like Shoah becomes self-evident by the weight and totality of its subject matter: The Holocaust. In this case, watching for nine and a half hours remains a matter of endurance; but rather than boredom, it is the psychological toll of human atrocity that one must endure. Shoah finds its value in its difficulty and tragedy. In less aberrant instances, filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman continue to stretch runtimes out as subject matters become more and more complex: A film like High School (an early Wiseman project) can contain itself to 75 minutes, but that becomes far more difficult when attempting to cover an entire town, as in Belfast, Maine. These documentaries are long not because any one of their individual threads necessitates multiple hours of focus, but simply because they attempt to capture their message through consolidating their disparate threads. 

The most fascinating type of long film, however, is not the adaptation of the tome or the documentary overwhelming in subject or scope, but the one that deliberately exploits an understanding that endurance is baked into the experience. Wang Bing exploits this on the documentary side, detailing with excruciating precision the day-to-day and moment-to-moment lives of the residents of a declining industrial center in Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. There is a certain understanding in the compact between filmmaker and viewer that not every moment is inherently attention-grabbing, yet by allowing a viewer to lose themselves in their own thoughts over the course of nearly ten hours, the film has a nearly hypnotic quality. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve last seen Sátántangó but seared in my memory are two extended sequences: A man going out in the cold to get alcohol (for its excruciating documentation of a near universal experience) and the film’s titular tango (for the intoxicating way it manages to lose itself in the dance). For these films, it isn’t that they are boring simply because they are long, but that they recognize the ability of a film to use inevitable boredom as a tactic to communicate a deeper melancholy or better representation of an experience. 

There is, admittedly, a pretty significant barrier to entry for even the most accessible long movie. When it comes to those long, deliberately boring films, there’s a reason they aren’t more widely lauded. But for those who find their curiosity piqued by the idea of a film that requests endurance in exchange for the possibility of transcendence, long films have so much to offer. Baked into every long film there’s a sense of fullness and importance that can turn into a sense of accomplishment when finished (like getting to the last page of a novel). They can’t be taken lightly, and you might find yourself deliberately or unconsciously reconfiguring your behavior and mechanisms of consumption. It’s an experience you have to want to have, but if you find yourself interested, I’d highly recommend going out and watching a Happy Hour, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, or Fanny and Alexander. Give it a try: You might discover a new favorite!

Max Fattal is a Junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]

I LOVE IT is a weekly collective column showcasing the diverse and niche passions of various Arts Contributors. If interested in writing an entry, please contact [email protected]