Somewhere it is etched in the spongy blacktop of popular-art history that the ideal, or at least appropriate, length for feature films is between 75 and 140 minutes. Common wisdom has it that the margins for this middle ground are determined by the fortitude of the average human bladder or the ticket-price-to-shows-per-day ratio or both, but as with the three-and-a-half-minute pop song, the numbers remain arbitrary and industry controlled. (Which are more or less the same thing: The hardline Motion Picture Patents Company imperiously insisted up to 1912 that one reel—10 minutes—was the maximum length for American movies, until Adolph Zukor scored independently with the four-reel Sarah Bernhardt vehicle Queen Elizabeth.)
Still, that’s life, as the people say, and few factors betray Americans’ provincial jaundice more clearly than the confrontation with an exceptionally long film, like Shinji Aoyama’s maestoso, three-hour-and-40-minute Eureka. Bellyaching about the time spent watching is otherwise uncommon; we voluntarily sit through Wagner’s Ring or spend five couch hours in front of Sunday afternoon football with nary a kvetch. Designated more as a consumable product than an experience, movies had better leave time enough in the evening for a restaurant meal, or they shall go unseen.
Exceptions are made for Hollywood ambition, of course, so long as the resulting “epic” undulates like a romance novel, summons grand landscapes, and more or less stuffs in the melodrama of two or three Barbara Stanwyck movies. Gone With the Wind, Titanic, et al., are conventionally paced and packaged like soap, wrapped in a buy-two-get-one-free bargain bundle, with free shower cap and back brush. But genuine length—used as time undergone, as film watching in a perpetual state of re-self-definition, as personal investment, as movie-life in the grip of duration, exhaustion, and accretion—is a different adventure entirely. How should we take in a movie’s length? Should it go by as quickly as possible, or should the sense of it vary according to a film’s particular sensibility? What should a movie’s length mean?
When we’re talking long, we’re talking Eureka; Béla Tarr’s Satantango; Jia Zhangke’s Platform; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah; Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler; Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice, and Hotel Terminus; and every landmark in Jacques Rivette’s time-killing filmography, from L’Amour Fou to Celine and Julie Go Boating to Jeanne la Pucelle. Of course, the mythical, uncut giganticism of Warhol’s ****, Rivette’s Out One, and von Stroheim’s Greed inspires martyrish awe for die-hard lengthists. (At 25 hours and nearly 13 hours, respectively, the Warhol and Rivette heroically demolish the rules of the game, and the result is that both have been impossible to see.) In a more mainstream head, the unabridged versions of Bertolucci’s 1900, Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America are all infinitely more enriching than their edited versions, not merely because there is more there there but because the passage of time gathers its own storm clouds and lightning strikes.
Critics and cineasts fall to their knees for these films for a reason: They are not efficiently manufactured and digested artworks so much as life events, subject to accident, ambiguity, boredom, anticipation, empathy, resentment, dissipation, meditation, epiphany. Lifestuff accumulates with the hours, so we are forced to regard the movie as a real-time happening that may, indeed, have no finale. (Once a movie passes the 200-minute mark, it might as well not have an ending, which was in effect Warhol and Rivette’s point.) In any case, the culmination of a four-or-more-hour film cannot help but have cataclysmic impact. It’s an aesthetic of abandon, not concision. Extraordinary length requires complete surrender—established narrative parameters are rendered impotent and viewers’ expectations are superfluous.
These movies are not capable of being shorter: Their lifelike span—or rather our encounter with it—defines their impact and value. (To edit, say, Eureka down to half its length would not result in half a movie but a hundredth of one.) One of cinema’s great and secret subjects is the drift of time, despite the fact that ordinary film syntax has always worked to sublimate and abbreviate it for brisk entertainment purposes. Time is the long movie’s black box, a silent, naturally occurring entropic action that impresses upon us as ordeal memory, as overwhelming love and fear, as an unshakable day in the life. Films like Eureka don’t necessarily change your life, but they cannot help but become a part of it once they are experienced. What more could we want from a movie?