Some Thoughts on Really Long Movies

July 5, 2012 — 44 Comments

Last night, I finally re-watched Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the long-in-post-production film, shot in 2005, released in late 2011. I ‘d seen the film here in Toronto when it was released for exactly one week in the Fall. I fell in love with what I saw, ultimately naming the film my #2 of 2011, a ranking I’m still extremely comfortable with. Interestingly, before I saw the film I was aware of its tortured history, in which the Lonergan was unable to get it down to the contractually obligated 150 minutes maximum running time. This had led to years of edits and re-edits and fighting back and forth and litigation that is still ongoing. What I remember at the time was a beautiful film that had some idiosyncratic cuts, but also some areas where it truly felt like chunks of story were missing. I’d remarked at the time that it felt like a longer movie cut down to size, but my main takeaway was that I could’ve spent far longer in the world Lonergan had created. The movie was 150 minutes, but I’d just as easily have sat through a 4-hour cut of the film or longer.

The version of Margaret I saw last night is a nearly 3-hour cut available on the upcoming DVD. It’s not clear that this is a true “director’s cut” because it’s only officially referred to as and “extended cut.” It’s quite possible that while Lonergan put this cut together and approves of it, there is a still longer version out there that he’d be even happier with. Or not. Who knows. Directors can be fickle. Importantly, at roughly thirty minutes longer, the extended version of Margaret doesn’t feel any longer. In fact, in some ways it feels quicker, smoother and better paced than it did back in the Fall. Subplots that were previously dropped in confusing fashion are now transitioned out of in a more delicate way. The story has a flow, a more natural progression. It’s not just a case of the longer version being better because it adds more detail, but because it actually ends up feeling like a tighter film, and without feeling any longer. I said that I would gladly watch four hours of Margaret and the same remains true. It’s a breezy three hours.

All this got me thinking about long films.

I’ve written before about how great shorter features can be, but the same is true of longer ones. Margaret is now three hours long and all the better and more engaging for it, but there are other great examples. The Dark Knight is nearly two-and-a-half hours, and while it certainly doesn’t feel short, the film is edited and paced with so much forward momentum that it constantly engages. That film probably doesn’t need to be longer, but it doesn’t need to be shorter either. Nolan and his editor have become masters at this editing style, in which one scene flows right into the next and every one feels crucial. Nolan’s last three films, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, all do this brilliantly. The films are never slow, but better still, they grab the audience and don’t let go. You can’t stop watching because the films move from scene to scene with such efficiency and calculation that any break in momentum would feel like a train derailing. This allows Nolan to make films that are pretty long but don’t feel unnecessarily so.

Paul Thomas Anderson figured out this style of editing as well when he made Magnolia. That film is over three hours long, and, much like The Dark Knight and Inception, it has an unstoppable flow. It’s even more impressive for the fact that it isn’t at all an action film. It’s pretty much people talking and/or dealing with their problems, but there are so many characters and each scene and subplot flows into the next as the musical score propulsively leads things ever forward. Whenever the film stops to veer in a completely different direction it maintains momentum by sheer shock. What you see on the screen is so unique and so impressive that you just can’t look away. It’s a long film, but it works brilliantly.

Of course there are other ways long films can be great. Margaret doesn’t quite have that propulsive quality of a Nolan or PT Anderson film, but it offsets this by introducing a character, Lisa Cohen, and a world—in this case a realistic representation of New York City—and then expanding out from that one character to encompass numerous, equally intriguing side-characters. The longer we spend in Lisa’s universe, the more people we meet, the more of New York we see, the more events breed consequence. That’s why even at three hours the film doesn’t feel long. It works almost like a television series. It benefits from length because its story is not singular and its focus quite broad.

Two other films that pull off a similar feat, but from a different perspective, are Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac; 200+ minutes and 160+ minutes, respectively. In both films, instead of the worlds expanding through the introductions of new characters and subplots, it’s the dissemination of new facts that grabs the audience. I think the conspiracy theories peddled by JFK are a load of crap, but every time I watch the film I get totally caught up in them anyway. So many “facts” flying at the audience, and all you can do is collect as many facts as possible, try to keep up, and maybe put together the puzzle along with the characters. The same is true of the theories presented in Zodiac. Not only is the film suspenseful in places, but there is so much information to parse that the audience effectively becomes the main character, Graysmith, trying desperately to figure out who the killer is.

Of course, then there are the epics. We’re talking films like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia and Lord of the Rings, or even The Godfather and Gone With the Wind and The Right Stuff. These are films where the story itself is so huge in scope, and often in a presentation of history, that length is essentially necessary. It’s not just about getting lost in a world, or getting more and more characters, though those are true as well. It’s the epic stories themselves that demand an epic canvas. Lawrence of Arabia could probably have been a pretty good 2-hour action movie of sorts, but the story is grander than that. It needs the space to breathe and the amazing vistas to overwhelm. The nearly four hours it takes for the story to play out are used to convey the grandeur and scale of the story, which is also important to the themes of wrestling the desert.

Films come in all shapes and sizes, and while I do love a shorter film, often for practical reasons, I also love the long ones. Films like Lawrence of ArabiaJFK and Magnolia do it for me. A film like Margaret shows that even when the scale of the film isn’t huge, the canvas it paints still can be. These films are all long, but they’re also immersive and engaging; enthralling in part because of what their length allows.

What are your favourite long movies? Let me know in the comments.

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44 responses to Some Thoughts on Really Long Movies

  1. 

    This is a great post. Really. I have to say, looking at a lot of the films you mentioned, many of them have resonated with me, maybe because of the length. Either way, I very much enjoyed reading this.

    • 

      There’s that old maxim that a good film is always exactly as long as it needs to be. That’s probably not entirely true, but I do think a great long film is great in part because of what its length allows.

      Oh, and thanks, Andrew.

  2. 

    Ten Commandments is my favorite long movie of all time. Bar none. That 3 hours and 35 minutes feel like 2 hours every year I watch it.

    Hopefully, in 15 days, another long movie will stand beside the Dark Knight as another favorite long movie.

  3. 

    The first time I watched Seven Samurai I didn’t look at the runtime. Some two hundred minutes later I was shocked at how much time had passed because I didn’t feel it at all. That’s the only film I watched that I had no idea how long it really was.

    • 

      That’s interesting. I had a bit of the opposite experience with Seven Samurai. I found that though I loved it in every moment the movie did still feel its length. The length is certainly justified, though.

  4. 

    I want to say it was either Ebert or Siskel who said that no great movie is ever too long and no terrible movie ever ends fast enough. I don’t have issues with longer films, and some of my favorite movie experiences have been films of more than 3-hours in length. A truly great film should take us out of our seats and cause us to forget about the time. Three hours watching Les Enfants du Paradis seem shorter than watching 85 minutes of Chris Kattan. That’s how it should be.

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