Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Less Is More

So today I'm reading about movies, as I tend to do a lot these days, and I stumble across this:
[Orson] Welles would have loved [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford], were it not for it being over his two hour maximum comfort zone[.]
It seems Mr. Welles and I have something in common (other than mastering deep focus cinematography and the low-angle shot).  As I (too) frequently tell The Missus, there is a spectrum to movie running times:

  • Less than 90 minutes: something terrible happened to cut the movie short (e.g., the creators didn't realize the idea wouldn't pan out until way too late in the process).  They feel like TV episodes run too long.  Classic example: The Ex (89 minutes).  When I see a less-than-90 running time, I expect holes and dissatisfaction.
  • 90 to 120 minutes: the sweet spot, especially in the 100-110 zone.  These movies are long enough to develop storylines and characters but still short enough to watch repeatedly.  Classic example: The Graduate (105 minutes).  When I see a 90-to-120 running time, I get excited about watching a director who understands less is more.
  • 120 to 150 minutes: you're pushing it.  Every minute past 120 better be important.  The creators are on the verge of author appeal.  But, if done right, those extra minutes don't feel extra.  Classic example: The Empire Strikes Back (124 minutes).  When I see a 120-to-150 running time, I check the director.  If it's Quentin Tarantino, OK.  Anybody else, I am pre-planning a bathroom break.
  • 150 minutes to infinity: 9 times out of 10, the director has gone too far.  The movie ceased being about communicating with the audience and started being about the director "expressing himself or herself"---only the audience doesn't know it.  By the time the movie ends, almost any kind of tacked on ending will seem amazing because the audience has put so much effort and time into watching it.  But when you sit back later and talk it out, the truth comes out.  (See, e.g., Stephen King's It.)  Classic example: Avatar.  When I see a 150-plus running time, I put it back on the shelf until I have an entire afternoon free.
Listen, directors, if it's too long for Orson Welles, it's too long for me.  Do like the Coen Brothers (average running time of 107.2 minutes, ranging from 94 (Raising Arizona) to 122 (No Country for Old Men---their only 2-hour-plus-er)), and not like James Cameron (average running time of 140.1 minutes, ranging from 94 (Piranha II---the only one less than a hundred and one of only two less than two hours) to 194 (Titanic)).  A friend of mine likes The Godfather.  I like The Godfather, too, but I refuse to watch it again.  I don't have that much free time.

Who really wants to sit still for 2 hours and 55 minutes?


Ryan K Lindsay said...

Hell yeah, you absolutely speak the truth here. I generally agree with all of this, and the examples.

I think there are some fine examples in the 150+ rage, There Will be Blood is definitely one, but mostly it is pretty hard to slog through.

Great post, man, great post.

Jeremy Masten said...

You're absolutely right: there are some great long movies. Apocalypse Now! comes to mind. 2001 seems to drag there at the end, but it's great, too. Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are also great movies. For me, it comes down to the director using that extra time to artistic advantage and not adding in fluff that he really likes but doesn't go anywhere.

My mama always said: Respect the bladder, and everything will be OK.