In February, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s latest film, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, had its world premiere. While reviews have been mixed, the focus on this film has been less about its quality and more about its length. The historical drama, centred around the Philippine Revolution of 1896-98 and the disappearance of and search for Andrés Bonifacio, clocks in at a fairly staggering 8 hours and 5 minutes.
Such a runtime is not unique in Lav Diaz’s filmography. Death in the Land of Encantos is an even more arduous 9 hours, while Norte, the End of History was a relatively brief 4 hours and 10 minutes. Other filmmakers like Bela Tarr, who’s 7 hour drama Satatango premiered in Berlin in 1994, have also favoured a slower, more languid style of filmmaking. The question is, should filmmakers be making films of such epic scale, given how many of the cinema going audience will be put off by the 485 minute run time? If not, what is an appropriate length for a film?
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, and it has always been common practice for feature films to range between the 80 to 120 minute mark largely due to the theory that audiences’ attention spans and physical comfort would be tested by anything of any significantly greater length. However, this seems to be a criticism reserved, unfairly, for cinema alone. It is not uncommon for stage plays to go on for 3 hours or more, which for some reason seems more acceptable.
It is true that the majority of plays have intervals, but then, so do some films. Certainly A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, the film which has kickstarted this discussion, was divided in two by a lunch break when it played in Berlin. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey were created with a natural break in mind, a break still adhered to by cinemas when the film is periodically rereleased to the big screen. This then, is evidently not a watertight argument.
Furthermore, people also do not seem to have a problem with extraordinarily lengthy novels like War and Peace or the works of modern writers like Norman Mailer, despite the fact that these texts are substantially longer than the average length of popular books. Poetry is the same: Milton’s Paradise Lost is to most poems what a one year long film would be to most films. Painters, sculptors and other design artists are even freer, there is no idea of how large or small, abstract or objective, easy or difficult to digest such works should be. It therefore seems that cinema is alone amongst all the art forms as bearing a public stigma regarding its boundaries.
The likely reason for this is that films have, since the inception of the U.S. studio system in the early 20th century, been regarded as entertainment for the masses, for everyone, rather than just for the intellectuals who visited art galleries and read epic literature. This idea can be seen in the way that cinema is approached in present day education. It seems to me that it is the least well represented of the arts, with literature, art and music all being covered by a young age. In comparison, the vast majority of students are not given the option to study film until they have reached university. The concept of ‘screen time’ and parents getting their children to read rather than watch anything on a screen ties into this philosophy that somehow film is less worthy a pastime than books. The result of this attitude is that films are now seen as having to be accessible to a wide audience, suiting the needs and requirements of the general public, who do not necessarily want to sit through a film that takes up a significant portion of their day.
My contention is that just as with literature, for example, there is cinema created for the mass market and which has a primary function of being disengaging and entertaining and making the filmmakers money, and then there is cinema made in order to explore deeper concepts and ideas. Just as you have Fifty Shades of Grey and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being both existing within the realms of ‘literature’, so too do the likes of Iron Man and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet inhabit the same medium. Clearly then, not all films should have to meet the lowest common demands of cinema going audiences. After all, if you don’t want to see a film because you think it is too long then the solution is fairly simple: don’t go and see it.