Venice 2018: Hours & Hours of Cinema - Why So Many Long Films?
by Alex Billington
September 7, 2018
This year at the 75th Venice Film Festival has been exhausting. It's a challenge to keep up with all the 8:30AM morning screenings and 10:30PM evening screenings every day, but it's not only that. There have been so many long films that it seems especially grueling. The length of films is a never-ending discussion, something that audiences have debated for decades. We all know the basic rules: no film can (or should) run for more than 3 hours, and no film should be shorter than 80 minutes (with the sweet spot usually being ~90 minutes, an hour and a half). It's a different discussion in Hollywood than it is at film festivals, because at festivals many filmmakers tend to express themselves by not holding back, giving us as much footage as possible. Do we really need to watch so many 3 hour films? Are they really worth it? (Of course they are!) Don't worry, there's no definitive answer to this, but the thought has been on my mind over the past week.
My friend Pamela joked the other day before a screening in Venice: "The more success they have, the longer their films." She was referring to the way that it seems the more success a filmmaker has, the longer their films become. Hinting that success maybe makes them feel more confident about putting in more footage and cutting out less, letting them run longer because they can and they don't feel like they must restrain themselves to please audiences. Most filmmakers seem to enjoy filmmaking so much, that they always joke about how they have 5 hour versions of their films at the start of the editing process. Many months later, they've cut out enough to present a film at a more manageable length. Which is all part of the bigger discussion about the artistic process anyway. What matters to the story? What isn't necessary? How can you tweak and refine a film during the editing process? Does it become better or worse if it's longer (or shorter)?
At Venice this year, there have been a few three hour films: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor) and Carlos Reygadas' Our Time (Nuestro Tiempo). And there have been a bunch of two-and-a-half hour films, including: Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria (152 minutes), Mike Leigh's Peterloo (154 minutes), László Nemes' Sunset (142 minutes), Paul Greengrass' 22 July (143 minutes), S. Craig Zahler's Dragged Across Concrete (158 minutes), and Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale (136 minutes). Some of them work, some of them don't. Reygadas' film about love and relationships seems excessive and unnecessarily long, the extra footage doesn't add much. On the other hand, Jennifer Kent's film is pretty much perfect at 2 hours & 16 minutes, and all of her footage adds so much more to the story. It's easy to complain about 3 hour running times, but it's much more worthwhile to analyze every individual film on its own to determine whether it's actually effective or not. It doesn't need to be 90 minutes to be a great film, because great films can also be 3 hours (see: There Will Be Blood, LOTR: Return of the King).
If anything, what I've learned is that it's not our place to tell the filmmaker that something is too long. We have to keep an open mind and to go in and be patient and give them a chance to impress us. For example, with S. Craig Zahler and his film Dragged Across Concrete, he's forcing the audience to be patient to finally get to the payoff punch line 158 minutes later. It's his thing to make super slow burn films that move very slowly and deliberately at a snail's pace, which makes for cinema that is more demanding and engrossing. Some will hate this slow pace - they just can't stand that kind of plodding. Others will love it - they relish the art of letting the characters breath and the scenes play as long as they need to (or even longer because why not). The filmmakers are aware of the fact that today's attention spans are limited (and subjective) and not everyone will appreciate longer films, but as long as they stay true to their story everything should be fine.
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has been very vocal on Twitter about his work in the editing room getting his next film Glass (watch the trailer) ready for release. As of writing this, his last update states that he has finished his 12th pass, spending 1,500 hours in the editing room. This is a rare glimpse inside the intense process of filmmaking, and how these filmmakers spend an immense amount of time trying to figure out what should be in a film or not. A long film doesn't mean it will be bad, and a short film doesn't mean it will be good. Two examples of this: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is 152 minutes (2 hours, 32 minutes), and Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here is 89 minutes (1 hour, 29 minutes), and they're both masterpieces. They're both perfect films as is, and they don't need more or less in them to be any better (or worse). In all honesty, the length of a film doesn't really matter much, it's all about what the filmmakers choose to put in, and as long as viewers remain patient and attentive, it's possible to enjoy anything. Right?
Part of the reason this is something every critic thinks about at film festivals is because our time is precious. We have only so many hours in the day to eat, sleep, write, and see films. And if we're spending too much of that time sitting in a cinema watching pointless footage, it feels like a waste. But it's not a waste. I happily sat through all 143 minutes of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Monrovia, Indiana. And even though I didn't find it all that meaningful, and it's not my favorite Wiseman film, I appreciate his decision to include that much footage. And I don't think my time was wasted. I chose to be there, I chose to go the festival, I chose to see this film and sit through it, I made that commitment. And I love film festivals, and the art of cinema, including all the time it takes to experience each and every film. I want to give each filmmaker a chance to tell their stories, and I have to go in to watch with an open mind every time. That's the only way.