Length Matters: A Response to Total Film’s “Fifty Movies That are Longer Than They Should Be”

Back in August, the website Total Film posted a list of “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be.”

It’s not a new idea to segment complicated arguments into bite-sized chunks before feeding them to your audience. As Mark O’Connell pointed out, it’s been around since the Ten Commandments, and Don DeLillo decried the current trend in pop culture during an interview with The Paris Review back in 1993:

 “Lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” – Don De Lillo

Despite their popularity, there’s something off-putting about this Total Film list that seems rampant in this sort of internet writing. A lower word count can sometimes lead to concise and thoughtful insights, but more often than not it leads to oversimplification and reductive thinking.  And sometimes things get downright nasty (watch the movie Heckler on Netflix streaming for proof of this).

I’ve found this to be true in my own writing. While in the case of my magnum opus “Top Ten Vampire Movies” things remained relatively positive, my lesser masterwork of “Ten Worst Sequels to Great Movies” got snarky in a hurry (part of the reason I no longer write these sorts of lists). They may be fun to write, but I no longer want to reduce a complex cinematic experience into a three-sentence blurb.

This is not to say all internet movie lists are bad. Movie-Moron.com often publishes lists with a positive tone that are a great gateway for folks to discover new movies.

But what makes Total Film’s list stand out to me is that it dabbles in proper film criticism. Not only does it highlight perceived flaws in fifty films, it also offers suggestions on how to “fix” them … and most of the suggestions are terrible. I’ve selected thirteen that seem to highlight a worrisome trend in the blogosphere where modern film critics don’t seem to understand even the basic tenants of dramatic storytelling.

This is not to belittle their hard work or question their intelligence. Drama, especially drama that’s filmed and edited, is a very complex thing. I’ve worked in the film industry for over ten years and I’m still surprised by the craft on a regular basis. But a respect for this complexity – and the blood and sweat from all the artisans involved – is what’s missing from a list like “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be”.

So, risking hypocrisy, here is my response, a list of “Thirteen Movies That Total Film Thinks They Can Fix.”

NOTE: The film title, length, explanation of the problem, and proposed solution are presented in blue text and are pasted directly from the Total Film website.

1. The Chronicles of Riddick

Length: 119 mins

Why That’s Too Long:Pitch Black succeeded so well because it was lean, mean and focused. The Chronicles of Riddick did the complete opposite, pumping so much space opera, melodrama and superfluous characters into the mix that it drastically missed the point of why fans had loved Riddick in the first place.

How We’d Fix It: Remove all the additional characters and sub-plots who brought nothing to the table (Judi Dench, as much as we love you, we’re looking at you). So, in other words, a movie that looks pretty darn similar to forthcoming threequel Riddick….

Response: Ignoring the fact that the film runs under two hours (the “normal” length of most feature films), their proposed “fix” would cut out the heart of what Twohy was trying to achieve. Love it or hate it, the idea was to turn Riddick into a sort-of Conan in space. The “space opera” elements are the entire point of the film; it’s campy to the core. It even features a scene where a vicious, blood-drinking antihero kills a man with a tea cup.  Obviously this is not to everyone’s tastes, but this critic’s issue is that he wanted an inherently different film, something that running time won’t fix. Then again, I’ve expressed my love for the Riddick franchise before, so maybe I’m just biased.

2. Empire

Length: 485 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Andy Warhol’s silent black-and-white film is eight hours and five minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building. And, well, that’s it.

How We’d Fix It: Admittedly, he was probably going for more of an art experiment than coherent narrative, but surely *SARCASM ALERT* four hours would’ve served as perfunctorily as eight?

Response:  I’ve never seen all of Warhol’s Empire. You can find clips on Youtube to get a taste, but simply getting a taste is counterpoint to the entire purpose of the film.  Warhol slowed down the frame rate to make the film last eight hours and make the passage from darkness to daylight imperceptible. In his own words the point was to “see time go by.”  While Total Film is obviously trying to be funny, their final snarky comment betrays a complete misunderstanding of what the film is and bears the trademark flippancy of a playground bully taunt.

3. Independence Day (1996)

Length: 145 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Global warfare or not, this is still a sci-fi flick about alien invasion. Most manage to tell that story in around 90 minutes.

How We’d Fix It: Edit out some of the character backstories. We don’t need to get to know Randy Quaid and we certainly don’t need to give two hoots about dog Boomer.

Response: There’s one thing that Total Film neglects to mention about Independence Day: despite its long running time, the film passes by in an instant. I’ve re-watched this movie many times and I’m always surprised to see how well it flows. It’s not high art and it’s probably one of the movies responsible for the downward slide of modern blockbusters, but it’s wildly successful because of how well it holds your attention. One of the reasons is that you love all the silly interwoven stories, including Randy Quaid’s molested pilot revenge storyline. Removing his backstory takes all the punch out of the climactic battle and the gloriously insane anal rape metaphor that made 12-year-olds around the world snicker into their 32-ounce Pepsi cups. The fact that there are tons of characters, all with ridiculous storylines, is the entire point of the film. To simply trim some of that out to make the movie “better” according to some screenwriting guru’s made-up guidelines would be to miss the purpose of the movie.

4. As Good As It Gets (1997)

Length: 139 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s an oddball romantic ‘dramedy’. Not a war-torn love story.

How We’d Fix It: Tighten up the plotting and keep things snappy. Everyone gives great performances but the film ambles along at too a leisurely a pace to ever be smart and snappy.

Response: I don’t have a lot to say besides the fact I never knew As Good As It Gets was so long, partly because I find it so smart and snappy.  And as far as I know, most folks feel the same way, considering its huge financial success and critical love.

5. Cast Away (2000)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We love Tom Hanks, but this is an awfully long film for any one man to shoulder completely by himself.

How We’d Fix It: End the film as he gets off the island. That’s the real story after all – we don’t need to see the aftermath.

Response: The aftermath is arguably the entire point of the movie, without it we don’t see the drastic character change which is the only thing that raises the movie to a higher level of meaning. A big clue here is the title. There’s a reason they broke the term “castaway” into its two parts, they are highlighting not only the inciting incident but also all the things Hank’s character must cast away (his hope of rescue, Wilson, his love for Helen Hunt’s character) in order to survive. His evolution is only truly evident once he arrives back at home.

6. Zodiac (2007)

Length: 157 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Based on real events it may be, but this is still a very simple murder mystery at heart.

How We’d Fix It: Focus on the mystery and cut down the personal lives of the people involved. It IS sad that Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife leaves him over his obsession but really, we just want to know who did it. And quickly.

Response: Zodiac was never really about the “simple murder mystery.” It’s about capturing the tone of a certain place and time in California’s history, the main character’s slow descent into true obsession, and a meditation on our human need to eradicate mystery. Also, the duration is a key component to Gyllenhaal’s obsessive behavior, since the Zodiac Killer remained a mystery for so long. The claim of “we just want to know who did it. And quickly” is utterly false, especially considering it’s based on true events that can be easily Googled.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Ok, so Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman is as far removed from ‘comic-book’ as you can get, but c’mon – kids are still going to see this film too.

How We’d Fix It: It takes almost an hour before we even see Batman on screen and that’s far too long in our book. Maybe the film should just start from there?

Response: I also think The Dark Knight Rises is too long, but I think that’s the symptom of an undercooked script and not something that can be rectified by hacking off the film’s intro. Such a simplistic explanation for the film’s flaws betrays a huge misunderstanding of how screenwriting and editing work. A properly set-up first act, even if it runs a bit long, can be the key to empathizing with characters later in the story as well as properly understanding the dramatic gravity of later plot points. Imagine how the rest of the film would be even more confusing without that long set-up, or how packed with exposition it would be in order to get the audience up to speed.

8. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

Length: 178 mins

Why That’s Too Long: This is just the introduction of a story covering three films – we don’t need to get to know every single character in the Shire THAT well.

How We’d Fix It: Cut down most of the Shire scenes. If this is a trilogy about a lot of walking, it’s almost an hour before Frodo even takes his first step.

Response: It’s essential for the audience to fall in love with the Shire in the same way the Hobbits love the Shire. That love carried the audience through seven more hours of storytelling (with two one-year-long breaks in between).  If the entire trilogy was just three hours long, you wouldn’t simply hack thirty minutes out of the opening to make it shorter. The overall flow of a movie is far more important than simply counting the minutes of its run time.

9. The Master (2012)

Length: 144 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We were all expecting a film exploring the question “Why Scientology be crazy”? and we figured there’d be a simple answer like: “Because all Scientologists be crazy”.

How We’d Fix It: The film really only hits its stride when Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd, so all of the scenes at the start establishing his fragile state of mind can be cut down. It’s already immediately obvious that he’s not quite stable.

Response: If you “expecting a film exploring the question ‘Why Scientology be crazy’” then you were expecting a terrible, preachy, uninteresting film. The Master is exquisite and meandering and impossible to really judge by standard three act Hollywood structure. Part of what makes the meeting of Lancaster and Freddie so potent is that the film sets up Freddie’s violent insanity so well that you’re terrified when the two will explode. To cut out that lead-in would likely sap all the dramatic tension out of that meeting.

10. Skyfall (2012)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: In the recent tradition of making Bond a more relatable, grittier secret agent with problems and concerns, we really just want to see him back at his best badass self.

How We’d Fix It: A little too much time spent at Bond’s Scottish home for the Home Alone-style ending. Given the spectacle of some of the earlier stunts, this ending already seems a little anticlimactic anyway.

Response: While this proposed “fix” breaks Total Film’s trend of wanting to edit out the entire first act, it creates the same problem in reverse. The Home Alone-style of the final act did seem a little odd to many folks, but the idea of creating a smaller,  personal ending is not only a fresh idea for a Bond flick, it’s also the entire thematic point of the film. Ironically, one could actually make a strong argument for editing out Bond’s existential crisis in the film’s first act, which he gets over rather quickly with the help of a dangerous tequila and a beautiful girl … though such is the case with things like this, you could also argue that it needed to be longer as well.

11. Man Of Steel (2013)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Supes may be gritty and sad in this film, but he’s still a comic-book character who needs to deliver fun and excitement and little else.

How We’d Fix It: Cut the final showdown with Zod right down. Not only would it shave about 20 minutes off the total running time, it would save the lives of thousands of Metropolis residents in the process.

Response: The climax of Man of Steel was gorgeously photographed and the closest the film came to being cohesive.  A re-structuring of events, clarification of character drive, and a clear sense of the villain and hero’s ultimate goal would go a long way to make this a better film, even if they made it longer. Simply trimming the final battle doesn’t solve the other problems. And the reference to saving the lives of fictional characters is a knee-jerk reference to a trendy critique rather than a real thought.

12. Australia (2008)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We realise that Australia is a huge country that deserves an epic movie to do it all justice, but really a lot of it is just open country with nothing much to see…

How We’d Fix It: There’s really a lot of set-up in this film establishing the relationship between the “whites” and the Aborigines, let alone Lady Sarah’s relationship with Drover. Surely this can be chopped down and we’d all still get the subtext?

Response: Australia suffers from its length, but only in that it’s too short. The relationships between Lady Sarah and Drover, as well as the tension between the Aborigines and white ranchers, is not subtext, it is the main plot of the film.  The drastic time jump and tonal shift after they get their cattle to the port, which arrives smack dab in the middle of the movie, is a key indicator this film wanted to be in two parts. It’s as if Baz Luhrman wanted the film to be a classic, sprawling epic and should have slapped an intermission in the middle. Allowing each half proper elbow room could actually make it a stronger film. Certainly it has other flaws, but in terms of length I think Total Film offers advice that’s exactly opposite to what would make the story better.

13. The Pianist (2002)

Length: 150 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s a harrowing tale of Holocaust-era tragedy. Powerful it may be, but we can only take so much…

How We’d Fix It: Adrian Brody’s Szpilman spends so much time in a big almost-empty house hiding from the outside world that it starts to feel like… um… nothing much is happening.

Response: Here’s the real kicker to end this list.  Just look at the paragraph above and really let it sink in … this is a complaint that the audience felt constrained and frustrated that the film’s hero was constrained and frustrated by the holocaust. This is inane criticism. There are a lot of responses that could be made, but I’ll focus on the definition of “nothing much is happening.” While yes, the protagonist is confined to a tiny apartment, there is actually a LOT happening both within his own head and in the world outside his window. We see his intense, dramatic descent into near madness due to his confinement. This is when he deals with his guilt, his sense of self worth, the eternal question of “why me?” I saw The Pianist one time, over ten years ago, and despite the fact that “nothing much is happening” I remember this section in vivid detail, a key indicator it might very well be the most powerful section of the film.

Certainly, all of my responses to the above list are completely subjective and I welcome anyone to counter-argue in the comments below.

Headed for Destruction: A Review of Wake in Fright (Drafthouse Films #8)

Anthony Buckley found treasure in a dusty Pittsburgh warehouse.

His journey spanned two years and three countries as he searched storage areas in New York, London, and Dublin before finally tracking down Wake in Fright, a film that he’d edited forty years before.

GrantGunHe probably looked like this.

From a large box labeled “For Destruction” Buckley pulled out 200 reels of the almost-forgotten cinema masterpiece. As far as anyone knew, it was the only print in existence. It was scheduled to be incinerated one week later.

The film was shipped back to Australia, where Deluxe Lab in Sydney spent another two years repairing the damaged negative, frame by frame.  The fully restored movie was released in theaters in 2012.

Back in 1971, Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, then went on to play in France for five months.

But Australian audiences balked at the brutal portrayal of their country, leading to poor box office returns. According to actor Jack Thompson, during one screening an Australian man stood up and yelled at the screen, “that’s not us!” To which Thompson yelled back, “sit back down, mate. It is us!”

Distributors also felt the film was too intense for American audiences , so they released the movie stateside to a single art-house theater. It opened on a Sunday night in the middle of a blizzard, and then promptly disappeared from public knowledge.

Given the film’s history, the fact that it’s now available on blu-ray, DVD, and Netflix streaming is nothing short of a miracle. Luckily, the film lives up to its legend.

“I saw [Wake in Fright] when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time.” – Martin Scorsese

Starting off with a harsh, barren landscape shot that rivals the intense beauty of David Lean’s work, the film grabs its audience by the shirt collar and doesn’t let go until its final moments.

The story is largely plotless, following a burnt-out school teacher named John Grant as he travels from his one-room schoolhouse in the Outback to his girlfriend in Sydney for Christmas break.

On a layover in the haunted little town of Bundanyabba, he makes a drunken decision to stake all his savings on a game of Two-up (an Australian game of chance) and the result sends him spiraling into a lost weekend of cheap beer, hot sand, and existential delirium.

Wake in Fright is one of the most experiential films you’re likely to see. While it follows a linear storyline it also eschews normal dramatic narrative. It’s simply a series of seemingly unrelated events, building an ever-increasing sense of dread punctuated by bursts of bizarre violence and sexuality.

SpitWorst. Drinking game. Ever.

To describe the events of the story wouldn’t do it justice. Other than one notable and infamous scene involving a kangaroo hunt — a scene so brutal it elicited a special postscript explanation from the producers —  the film consists largely of sweaty men drinking beer and getting in fights.

It’s the style of Wake in Fright which makes it a masterpiece. The movie starts off staunchly in the land of Realism and slowly travels into a dreamlike world, culminating in Grant’s final epiphany by way of a literal nightmare.

Many times throughout the film I found myself squirming in my chair as if I was watching a tightly plotted thriller, yet in retrospect nothing much was happening.  The setting, dialog, sound, and imagery are all designed to unsettle the audience and make them feel as if they are in danger when really Grant is only in danger of himself.

It’s here that Wake in Fright really shines, by using the Outback’s brutality to reflect Grant’s own failings and insecurities. The fabulous script by Evan Jones contains no voice over and hardly any pointed character exposition, so director Ted Kotcheff brings subtext to the surface by using startling imagery, most famously a dream sequence involving two “exed out” pennies falling into the eyes of Donald Pleasence.

DonaldPennyEyesPenny for your nightmares?

The stunning visuals and permeating tone of dread are a testament to Kotcheff’s talent, especially since the most notable entries to his later resume are the first Rambo film, Weekend at Bernie’s, and multiple episodes of Law and Order, all things which have a certain value but fall short of the deft touch on display in Wake in Fright.

With a minimalist plot and atmospheric cinematography, it’s up to the actors to provide the emotional core of the picture. Gary Bond’s take on John Grant is subtle, subversive, and often overlooked amidst the balls-to-the-wall performances of the other actors. He’s a slow burn that at first might seem boring, but when you compare where he starts out to where he ends up, the change is staggering.

GrantBefore

Before / After

GrantAfter

Still, it’s Donald Pleasence as Doc Tydon that steals the show.  As a horror fan I’ve always had a soft spot for Pleasence as a Halloween alum, though never gave him much credit as a serious actor. But from his spine-tingling opening line to his frantic, homoerotic grappling match with Grant near the end of the film, it’s a phenomenal performance that swings for the fences while bringing a deep, emotional undertone of sadness and desperation. It’s easily one of the most underrated film performances I’ve seen.

DeathbyDonaldFoster’s: Australian for homoerotic.

Two other actors of note are Jack Thompson and Chips Rafferty, both staples of Australian cinema. Thompson plays an aggressive hunter who all but kidnaps Grant for a night of debauchery. His showstopping kangaroo hunting scene is a force to be reckoned with, a literal wild ride that seems to ooze sweat and gasoline, predating the Mad Max car chases that made Australian films famous by eight years.

ThompsonScreamFor the love of God, CUT!

Raffery’s turn as Jock Crawford gives the film a sort-of moral center. At first portrayed as another aggressive simpleton, Jock’s return at the end of the film reveals him as a kind-of father figure. Rafferty has a John Wayne quality about him, a “man’s man” with a dash of goofy charm. He commands the screen with sheer charisma and he’s a joy to watch. This was his last film (he died the year it was released) and the thought of his performance just one week away  from being destroyed by a fire is heart-wrenching.

From its production to final distribution, forty years later, Wake in Fright is a little miracle of cinema.

It’s apt that a film about one man’s journey through a bleak, existential valley of despair spent so many years inknown and on the brink of destruction. But like its finale, the film ultimately stands as a symbol of hope, that we humans will eventually get past our immediate trappings to see better days ahead.

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