Friday, September 19, 2008

A Brief History of Time

Standard business models usually have something to recommend them otherwise they would never have become standard. When models of doing business intersect with art it becomes trickier but still the two can work together. The movies have always been a combination of the two, business and art. In the days when the studio moguls reigned supreme business often took the upper hand, forcing the artist to find more creative ways to get their art to show through, and more often than not, they succeeded. Some of the greatest works of film art were made at a time when the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and Sam Goldwyns were wielding unrivalled power and final say over the films they financed.

The studios still have power over the in-house product but much more often than used to be the case, they spend their time working out distribution deals with independent producers to circulate product that didn't originate with the studio. And so their business models have changed. Everything is pumped into the opening weekend and successive DVD and foreign distribution deals. Why? Many, many reasons. Too many to go into here. But one factor that plays a part, the part that currently concerns this piece, is time. Running time, that is.

There was a time when showings per day was all important. Get 'em in and get 'em out. But then the studio lost control over the final product and the films got longer. Multiplexes became necessary because to get the same amount of showings per day for a given film, what with its extended running time, previews and twenty minutes of commercials, it had to be shown on more screens. And all of this started circulating in my head because Fox, of Tractor Facts, made a comment in a recent post about the two hour and fifteen minute running time of Speed Racer. Whatever the merits of that film may be, my immediate question was, "Why? Why two hours and fifteen minutes?"

Allow me to bitch for just a moment. Citizen Kane managed to weave one of the most cinematically adventurous tales in film history, covering the life of its protagonist from childhood to death, in 119 minutes, just one shy of two hours. Frankenstein gave the Gothic tale of Mary Shelley new life in 71 minutes. Its superb sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, did even more and added just four more minutes to the running time. Decades later Hammer Studios reinvented Gothic horror with The Curse of Frankenstein and did it all in 82 minutes. Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City introduced the world to Italian Neo-Realism in 93 and 100 minutes respectively. And it took Jean-Luc Godard just 90 minutes to blast the French New Wave onto the International Scene with Breathless.

But Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? Well, naturally, that story couldn't be told in less than ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY EIGHT MINUTES! And the two Jack Sparrow tales that preceded it? 143 minutes for the first and 150 minutes for the second. Holy cow!

And now we've hit upon the problem. I am not bothered by long running times if the story demands it. Certain stories are sweeping enough in scope and peopled enough in characters that more time is required to tell the story: The Godfather films, The Right Stuff, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind, etc. I'm not saying those films are good because of that or that they're good at all, I don't even like all of them, just that I understand why the story takes a bit longer to get across. But for me personally, I have always believed that the most effective method of successfully delivering a good Action/Adventure story is brevity. It's the soul of wit and as it turns out, the soul of a well turned thriller.

And that's what perplexes me about the long running times of modern day action/adventure movies. My wife and I saw the Pirates of the Caribbean, the first one, with our son who was in his early teens when it came out. He was the target audience. He was seeing it for the second time, we for the first. He loved it and wanted us to watch it with him. Not being Ogres, we agreed. It wasn't long after the hour and a half mark that both my wife and I felt, "This movie needs to end now!" Not because we hated it, although unlike some cinephiles who did like the Pirate movies I was not and am not a fan, but because as an adventure movie that's the point when one starts running out of good will. Give me a complicated character like Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2, played by Marcello Mastroianni, and I'll gladly watch him and discover his inner workings for 138 minutes. But Jack Sparrow has nothing to offer me after the requisite 90 minutes of adventure time. *(see "P.S" below)

Our son noticed the squirming and that's when the remarkable occurred. He said, "Yeah, it is really long."

That's when I thought, "Boy the people who make these movies are remarkably stupid. Their own target audiences realize the films are too long. If they would just check their ego at the door and let the editor do his job not only would the result be a better, tighter film but they'd make so much more money from all the extra showings per day they'd get. Wow. I mean, WOW! They're dumb."

Okay, that's a little harsh but you get the point. At least I hope so. I'll reiterate just in case. Long running times: no problem. But you've got to know when a long running time FITS YOUR STORY. And that's what many action/adventure directors just DON'T GET ANYMORE. I love action/adventure. But with few exceptions I don't want my action/adventures to be epic. It's action! There's just so much I want to see before the lack of character depth makes me start looking at my watch. I want them to be visceral and emotional and thrilling and long running times don't mesh with that experience. Action/Adventure, along with Sci-Fi and Horror, can be some of the most emotionally engaging movies out there (yes that's right, emotionally engaging) but they create those emotions using visceral and primal means and after a certain point that can become draining.

One of the best adventure/fantasy films out there is King Kong from 1933. I adore the original, really, absolutely adore it. I've seen it enough times that I lost count of how many times years ago. If it's on TCM I'll watch it. Doesn't matter what else is on or how recently I've seen it. I'm happy to spend 100 minutes with that movie any day. And 100 minutes is just about right for the story of a maverick filmmaker going to a hidden island to capture a forty foot tall ape. I mean really, who could take that simple, engaging fun-filled setup and let it linger for 187 minutes until all the life was drained out of it? Who? And why? Why would someone do such a thing? I mean, I feel like I'm in Barton Fink - "it's a wrestling picture!" - and I'm saying to the director, "Okay, let's go to the island, get the gorilla, have some fun with him in the big city before we shed a tear for the big lug when he falls to his death. Roll credits. Time: Hour and forty minutes. Let's do it."

But 187? Sorry, I know the remake has many fans, and there was much I liked in it, but if the remake were Dan Quayle and the original was John Kennedy and I was Lloyd Bentsen (I'm not by the way, he's dead) I'd be telling it right now, "You're no Jack Kennedy." And to quote Frank Wilson from a 96 minute drama about rugby I happen to like very much, "They'll still be saying that in a hundred years!"



P.S. - Just so we're all clear, I'm not saying an action-adventure movie can't have complex characters, but that the emotional reactions elicited by those characters come from the action, not dialogue or dramatic conflict. That being the case, the impact is more immediate, and thus, requires less running time.