To capture the attention of an audience is a very tricky thing. The trick is to move quickly enough whilst developing a sustainable narrative arc, one which hooks its audience and satisfies its need for a good story. Move too quickly and you’ve left them feeling bewildered. Move too slowly and you’ve completely lost their interest. There is a perfect, unspoken balance between fast and slow in cinema which, when achieved brings about nothing but cinematic perfection.
Of course, each film has its own pace. There is no such thing as the definitive, ultimate running time for a movie; each story has its own intrinsic pace and it is up to the filmmaker to get it right. If a long story is created to draw in its audience, then even a three and a half hour viewing can feel like a matter of minutes. A good film suspends its audience’s ability to perceive time.
Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy.Whilst for some, there is nothing more loathsome than a screening of any one of these films, for many, a triple viewing feels like nothing at all. Because the story works for the audience, the running time means relatively little.
You can come out of the cinema and feel as if you have emerged from another life. And, really, this is what a good film should do to us. As if stepping from the gates of Narnia, a good film takes years away from our life without our ever having to live them. At the end, we are placed back into our present situation, all the better for having experienced the life of the film. A good film can alter the way in which we perceive things happening around us.
Like a pacemaker, they seem to manipulate our brain’s ability to respond to stimuli and therefore place us in a dream like trance state. Of course, there is absolutely zero scientific evidence in my writing. I write merely of the feeling which so many of us experience after watching a good film.
Some of the best films ever to have been made are also some of the longest. Whilst some groan at the thought of sitting in the dark for more than ninety minutes, for others, it seems an inevitable way to experience cinema at its best.
1. At Berkeley
Most recently, audiences have been made privy to the inner workings of one of the world’s top educational institutions. Whilst descriptions of the film as a four hour documentary about a university may seem a little ludicrous, the content is nothing less than eye opening. Pacing from building to building, classroom to classroom, At Berkeley makes the grandeur of the international institution feel relatively small. Taking its time to move between students and faculty staff, the film feels more like an accumulated experience rather than a cinematic work. Whilst it may be difficult to place individual events from the film, after viewing, it feels much more like you have lived an extended period of time, reduced to the flashes of images which exist in our memory. Although there is no ‘moment’ which defines the film, the individual portraits serve a deeper purpose; they remind us of the real passing of time, the world at large and the relative insignificance of our personal troubles.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Inevitably, not all long films are piously serious. Scorsese famously (or infamously) returned to more adult fare earlier this year with his raucous retelling of the memoir of Jordan Belfort. Whilst many complained that the film was overlong and that its overblown antics could easily have been shaved of an hour, the sheer length and meaningless of the cinematic content serves a far greater purpose of representing Belfort’s life. Whilst audiences may find the content hard to swallow, the most extreme events depicted on screen were directly lifted from reality. Although many have said the content was often superfluous, it was an accurate portrayal of the life lived in the film. What we should be gawping at, really, is the fact that Belfort went on like this for so long. We only had to endure three hours; imagine what a lifetime must have felt like.
Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to the long film. Magnolia, one of his best loved films, comes in at 188 minutes. A relative lightweight against the likes of other long films. The movie takes place over the course of one night, interweaving the lives of a number of seemingly unrelated characters. Of course, it’s a P. T. Anderson film and it soon becomes ridden with coincidence, unexpected meetings and the presence of greater forces at play. Whilt the content of the film may start off as relatively innocuous, it soon moves on to much more philosophical fare, including a singing sequence that has been referenced time and again in classrooms, films and discussions around the world. Whilst At Berkeley makes its viewer feel like the world may be much smaller, Magnolia expands the place in which its characters live and the problems which they face that, at points, it feels like an allegory for the whole of existence.
4. The Godfather
Telling the story of an American-Sicilian ‘dynasty’ may seem like familiar fare but that’s just because of Francis Ford Coppola’s vast achievement in his cinematic retelling of The Godfather trilogy. Whilst the three films come in at a hefty 10 hours, part one runs for only 200 minutes. In that time, Coppola makes, breaks and reforms the most famous mafia Don of all time, unwittingly spawning a slew of references and reinterpretations throughout cinematic and televisual history. The length of the trilogy is entirely secondary; in his telling of the fates of the Corleone family, Coppola, in a way, tells us of the entire existence of humanity and all of the troubles they have faced.
Long films can give us so much and affect so much the way we see the world around us. Of course, the length of a film is entirely secondary and what we should ask at the end of a film is not that our limbs ache but rather, did we notice them doing so throughout the film?