On Lengthy Films

25 07 2009

There is an interesting passage regarding running time in Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia and History: or, The Wind in the Trees. It reads, “it is likely that Feuillade’s serials had an impact on Rivette’s ideas about duration. As Dominic Paini noted, Rivette and the other Cahiers critics would have seen Feuillade’s serials not at their local cinemas in weekly installments, as they were originally programmed, but rather many years later at the Cinematheque, and all at one go, over a six- or eight-hour period. ‘Rivette based his experiments with urban temporality on a Feuillade who in fact never existed, a museum Feuidalle,’ Paini wrote.” One of Rivette’s pointed sources of inspiration, then, was an unwitting inspirer. Rivette learned from a product that never intended to teach what it ultimately taught. Moreover, he was captivated, not only by the film, but by its unusual – and preposterously lengthy – screening. Running time, in this anecdote, emerges as a unique quality, and in fact, one of the most important. That is, it emerges as a reason to enjoy a film. It is not merely a technical fact or a hurdle to overcome. It is an element of our experience, a detail that can contribute to our immersion and connection. To put it simply, length can be a good.

What does it mean to sit and watch a film for more than three hours? What happens inside of us when the typical narrative rhythm is torn apart by a pace or structure we are unprepared for? We are accustomed to a certain progression of events, a certain speed by which the plot-landmarks are reached one-by-one. We can sense when the exposition begins and ends, when the characters are developed, when the conflict rises, when the climax nears, and how long the denouement is supposed to last. We prepare ourselves for this progression, this speed. We sit and watch, and in our minds we keep track of the expected architecture of the coming film. Once the three hour mark is passed by, our preconceptions start to whither. And if the film, in addition to never ending, is unconventionally designed – maybe it is episodic, maybe it wanders, maybe there is no rising action, maybe there is no real plot – then our preconceptions are completely disposed of.

Why do these preconceptions matter? Essentially, we feel safe inside of them, we feel safe within the expected architecture. We know the surface already, we know where the rooms are, where the pillars rest, and where the bathroom awaits. We feel confident in our ability to maneuver the lay-out. When a film does not work alongside the dictums of the expected architecture, we are helpless. Our inability to predict what is to come (not in terms of plot, so much as in terms of rhythm – not what happens, so much as when it happens) makes us nervous. It is also liberating. Safety is comforting, just as it can also be boring. The adventurous viewer knows the pleasure of the unknown and a long film promises a move away from the common lay-out, a move that implies either a new lay-out we have never encountered before or no discernible lay-out at all. Either way, the fact that we no longer tread familiar ground means that we are invariably more alert, less complacent, imbued with a greater willingness to explore, since there is, of course, much to explore: this is unfamiliar ground, an unknown lay-out, and the only way to get our bearings is to survey the area closely.

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8 responses

25 07 2009
The Wanderer

The longer the length of a movie, the harder it is for me not to sleep.

But then that is a good, isn’t it?

Time to watch the entire Wagner Ring cycle on DVD…

27 07 2009
beaucine

I find lengthy films intriguing. I do think they provide a unique journey, for the reasons I tried to explain in my post above.

25 07 2009
dreiser

Rivette should have been a painter not a filmmaker.

27 07 2009
beaucine

Ah, but that would not be an experiment in length and, more importantly, that would mean I would not find as much fascination and immersion in the experience of length, since there would be no length, only a still image. Of course, had Rivette become a painter, that would have saved you a lot of lost time, but then again, if we all just follow the whims of dreiser’s taste, then we would all be deprived lots of enjoyment.

24 10 2012
ADRIAN MENDIZABAL (@lessegers)

Two words from Philippine cinema: LAV DIAZ. He is the master of the long form.

24 10 2012
beaucine

I still haven’t seen anything by him! Obviously, I’ve heard of him plenty. Where to start?

18 10 2014
sanker from india

I really love the six hour long Marco Tulio Giordano film “The Best of Youth” and Sergio Lenoe’s 4 hour “Once Upon a time in america”. Both films cover multiple decades in the lives of their characters and the time helps give the feeling of vast and nuanced lives filled with varied experiences.

18 10 2014
sanker from india

Leone not Lenoe. Sorry.

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