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Show Business: Why Do Movies Seem So Long?

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

In the new Hollywood, briskness has given way to bloat

Arthur Mayer was a university professor, a Hollywood publicist, an importer of trail-blazing foreign films, the operator of a 42nd Street horror-movie house and, toward the end of his 94 years, a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee. Day after sweltering summer day he would sit in a cramped Manhattan screening room patiently enduring the tortuous eccentricities of directors from Rumania to Rodeo Drive. But when asked whether one of these angst marathons should appear in the festival, he would often as not growl: “Yes—if the producer agrees to cut it by 30 minutes.”

You need not have seen every movie since The Great Train Robbery to agree with Mayer that today’s films are longer than ever. You can simply look at the running times. Of the 50 nominees in the past decade for the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar for Best Picture, 28 have run more than two hours, and five have been at least three hours long. This year looks to continue the trend: The Right Stuff (3 hr. 11 min.) is sure to be nominated for Best Picture, and Scarf ace (2 hr. 50 min., nearly twice as long as the 1932 gangster classic on which it is closely based) has an outside shot.

Nor is the long march of celluloid confined to Hollywood. In last week’s balloting by the National Society of Film Critics, two of the top three vote getters were Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (3 hr. 10 min.) and R.W. Fassbinder’s mammoth Berlin Alexanderplatz (15 hr. 21 min.). In the time it would take to watch just those two films, you could have seen all ten pictures nominated for the 1937 Oscar and still have had time left over to catch a Pete Smith Specialty and a couple of Mickey Mouse cartoons.

There is some evidence in the numbers; there is more in the numbing sensation that too many recent movies impose on both mind and body. Back in the 1930s, when a double feature could sprint through the sprockets in 2½ hours, Columbia Pictures Mogul Harry Cohn announced that “I have a foolproof device for judging whether a picture is good or bad. If my fanny squirms, it’s bad. If my fanny doesn’t squirm, it’s good.” To which Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz cracked, “Imagine—the whole world wired to Harry Conn’s ass!” Oddly enough, Cohn deserves the last laugh; more than a few current films could benefit from his circuitry. On the whole, today’s movies are longer but not richer. Their story lines are no more complicated, their characters no more complex, their visual style no more elegant, their dialogue no more reverberant. They have renounced briskness for bloat.

This has less to do with running time than with economy of narrative. When the eye, mind and heart are engaged by artful storytellers, questions of duration become irrelevant. One enduring Hollywood epic, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, ran for more than 2½ hours in 1915, when the most popular movies were Charlie Chaplin’s two-reel comedies. Another Civil War melodrama, the 1939 Gone With the Wind, clocked in at 222 minutes. Yet both films tell their tales faster than Star Wars and with twice the sweep.

It was no simple task to compress the 1,037 pages of Margaret Mitchell’s novel into an evening’s screen entertainment. Ben Hecht, the veteran writer who was hired at the last minute to whip the GWTW screenplay into shape, once noted that Mitchell’s plot seemed “as long as a whore’s dream—and as pointless.” In two weeks of nonstop cobbling, Hecht helped Producer David O. Selznick refine the cinematic shorthand that introduced dozens of characters and events while allowing for period detail and a handful of indelible performances. Seen today, the movie looks like a sweet dream and gallops like the wind.

Throughout World War II, U.S. pictures marched to a double-time tempo. But as the war ended and Hollywood began ruminating on what the nation had gained and lost, the first symptoms of movie elephantiasis could be detected. In 1946 the five pictures nominated for the top Oscar (The Best Years of Our Lives, Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge and The Yearling) had an average running time of 144 min., almost half an hour longer than the previous year’s nominees. Since then, the girth of movies has continued to expand.

Why? There are several explanations, not all of them dire. The Hollywood studio system, in which moguls like Cohn imposed an assembly-line efficiency, was breaking up. Directors, not producers, were now the chief architects of American movies and were jettisoning the old storytelling tradition in favor of their own “privileged moments” (slow-motion sunsets, long walks down mean streets, dreamy shots of a protagonist’s inertia).

Method actors demonstrated that any line of dialogue could be interrupted in mid-mumble for a pensive scratch. A new generation of directors, weaned on European cinema, found profundity in malaise and tossed the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of film narrative into the air, letting them land in the lap of the befuddled moviegoer. It had to happen: movies were no longer campfire tales; they were art. And art, as Seneca might have warned us, can sometimes seem longer than life.

No one need mourn the shutdown of the Hollywood assembly line or chastise a good director for moving at his own unique pace. Ingmar Bergman makes one kind of movie, Steven Spielberg another, and both offer more than enough astonishments to justify their films’ running times. Surely it is easier and more rewarding to sit through The Right Stuff than through a double feature of, say, Staying Alive and Mr. Mom, two short summer movies that seemed to last into February.

But all film makers should consider the virtues of economy — or suffer the wrath of Arthur Mayer’s spirit and a million restless fannies. — By Richard Corliss

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