It’s a fatal moment for any film lover: that instant when you look away from the screen and check your watch, holding it up to the light to judge how much time is left before you can escape. A wince of pain as you realise there are still 40 minutes to go.
Last week I watched two very long films – the strikingly perceptive and beautifully etched Palme d’Or-winning character study, Winter Sleep, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia); and the exciting Matthew McConaughey-starring space adventure Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception). Both films are well worth a trip to the cinema to see them on the immersive big screen. But each film had me checking the clock and cursing its director’s self-indulgence. Where was the respect for the limits of the human bladder? What arrogance to assume an audience would want to sit for three uninterrupted hours of fireside chat in a semi-deserted Anatolian hotel (Winter Sleep); or two hours and 49 minutes of multiple apocalyptic crises as one man (McConaughey in Interstellar) tries to ensure the future of humanity, whilst also proving that love, like gravity, is one of the fundamental laws of the universe.
Give me a break. Or a toilet break, at least. It’s hard to care about the future of the species, or the nature of love (even if you’re watching Anne Hathaway emoting with her enormous brown eyes behind her astronaut’s helmet) when you’re about to burst, and in danger of suffering your own long-flight-style thrombosis from lack of leg movement.
The truth is that for a genuine cinephile, a three-hour film is child’s play. Look up Wikipedia’s list of longest films and it’s clear that even a five-hour film is fairly commonplace in the rarefied art film domain – though few approach the astonishing 240 hours (ten days) of the Danish experimental film Modern Times Forever – unsurprisingly only ever screened once. At this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, there were eight films exceeding three hours, including Frederick Wiseman’s leisurely observational documentary about a university, At Berkeley (four hours long); Lav Diaz’s Dostoevsky-inspired Norte, the End of History (four hours, 10 minutes); and Jacques Rivette’s 12-hour Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1970), which was mercifully screened in four sessions over two days.
Festival audiences are self-selected and primed for such endurance tests. So too are the superhero and fantasy enthusiasts who’ll eat up three-hour-plus blockbuster fare like The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan again) and The Hobbit films (by serial long film offender Peter Jackson). I believe there are people (certainly not my close personal friends) who’ll gladly attend marathon screenings of the entire Lord of the Rings series. But for your average film-goer, out for a night at the movies, preferably involving a drink before or dinner afterwards, three hours is a big ask. Back in the old days, a four-hour epic like Gone With the Wind (released in 1938, and incidentally still one of the most financially successful films of all time) was made in two parts, with the intention of being screened with a break for intermission. That seems quaint now, a relic of a more civilised age. The economic realities of running a cinema and packing in as many ticketed sessions as possible means that the idea of intermission is simply untenable for all but the most romantic of repertory cinemas.
As emerging film critic Ian Barr has observed in his defence of long films, we’ll gladly binge on entire series of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, but ‘the sense of immersion and alertness that cinema requires’ is a world away from television. Films viewed in the cinema lack a ‘pause’ button for a tea-and-wee break or a quick update of social media. There’s something very special, akin to the meditative rituals of High Church, about submitting yourself to a long film which takes its sweet time to establish a complex world and unfold a character in miniature detail.
This is the case of the beautiful and wise Winter Sleep, a film where we slowly unravel, through lengthy real-time conversations, the relationships between a charming, self-important country intellectual (Haluk Bilinger), his much younger, frustrated wife (Melisa Sozen), and his divorced and critical sister (Demet Akbag). For all the beauty of this film – and it’s framed and shot exquisitely, showcasing the barren beauty of the Turkish countryside, complete with houses built into mountainsides, and wild horses running free – there’s a moment when the average viewer will wonder if a good editor should have cut at least 20 minutes of chatty fat. None of the impact would have been lost, and such economy may just have prevented that spell-breaking moment where we check the clock and sigh.
Interstellar is in national release from this Thursday. Winter Sleep is released 13 November.