The world of movies and entertainment are changing more rapidly than ever before. Beyond the deluge of films hitting local theaters on a weekly basis, video-on-demand services have started an unprecedented push to release films that would otherwise never be given anything more than the dreaded “straight-to-DVD” distinction. Premium television providers have jumped in on the action and have stepped outside of their “television only” bubble to begin producing full-length features and documentaries under their very familiar and widely-loved corporate logos. With daunting barriers to entry, the filmmaking industry seemed impenetrable from a distance. Yet relative newcomers like Netflix and Amazon have done the impossible and are beginning to dominate the video entertainment industry from every aspect of production/distribution. These streaming giants have changed the ways we watch and experience movies (for better or worse) and will likely continue to grow and change along with their ever-expanding subscribership.
This glut of opportunity has only weakened the passions of a growingly-indecisive group of viewers. Just as the move from a 13-channel, rabbit-eared television to the gleaming and endless possibilities of a cable box yielded little more than exercise for one’s channel-changing thumb, modern film viewers face much the same problem. With so much to choose from, everything stinks. An increase in outside competition for studios means a tighter stranglehold on the values they hold most sacred (money), and an unwillingness to take risks. Resulting in a seemingly endless stream of 90-minute dramas, comedies, horrors and romances, anything with a sensible budget ($5-$50 million) has become largely meaningless and tiresomely repetitive. While that’s not to say the “mid-budget” film is dead (although Jason Bailey has made a strong case for just that concept), there is undoubtedly room for improvement. What HBO and Showtime were able to do for the television show in the late 90’s, Netflix and its VOD compatriots are now able to do for the movie — make them longer, make them more detailed, and most importantly, make them more impactful.
As unpopular as the statement “movies should be longer” may currently be, I posit that most of what drives moviegoers to complain is the stream of overlong action films that have propagated theaters since the late 1990s. Extended car chases, overinflated fight scenes and drawn out, slow motion explosions have taken advantage of current effects/stunt technology and run rampant, turning would-be concise thrillers into 120-minute excursions into mayhem. A cinema of spectacle and visual immenseness has taken over studio budgets and box office marquees. This tendency to unconsciously kill time instead of consciously filling it has given the big screen epic a bad name. Awe inspiring achievements like Lawrence of Arabia (216 minutes) and Gone with the Wind (238 minutes) have been “replaced” by modern counterparts like The Hobbit (474 minutes all told) and the Transformers series (ranging from 144-165 minutes each). Intricately detailed characters and events have been discarded for prolonged bits of action and plotless extravagance, each meaningless minute driving yet another nail into the coffin of good taste (a bit overdramatic, but true nonetheless).
In September of this year, our cultural hesitation towards lengthy films arose yet again with the latest James Bond film, Spectre, at its core. Rumored to be 160 minutes, entertainment blogs and individual fans took to the net to voice their displeasure with the film and, in some cases, a kind of pleased astonishment. Even with a reported £24 million “exploding car” budget and the franchise’s massive worldwide contingency, the length was still a point of contention. While the world may not be ready to spend nearly three hours with 007, the universe of instant streaming may serve as the last bastion, as well as a new frontier for spacious cinematic epics.
Television was the first format to break free from these easily contrived modes of plot progression to usher in today’s “Golden Age” of programming. Series like The Wire and Deadwood proved that when used sparingly, along with serious devotion to character development and period-awareness, action is only a means to an end, and not the end itself. Fans flocked to these series week after week, analyzing every second because it all seemed to truly matter. The inception of Netflix ushered in a new way to watch these massive stories — the marathon. Forget waiting seven days to find out what Walter White is cooking up in his RV, fans who missed the series on television were able to plow through the series in a matter of days. Going beyond “syndication,” Netflix and Amazon’s creation of original programming meant that entire seasons were dumped on the Internet in a single moment, to be available in whatever order or schedule the fans’ demanded. Transparent, Arrested Development, House of Cards and the ever-increasing number of others were available for consumption immediately (and in their entirety); the “season” had, in effect, been transformed into a single episode stretching for hours at a time. Through these marathon stretches on their couches and computer chairs, fans demonstrated a perfect, even ravenous, willingness to sit and watch a single narrative pan out for upwards of ten hours (Breaking Bad‘s final season was nearly 12.5 hours long). Why then, should this not be possible for film?
Cinema on a truly massive scale can offer so much more than a brief counterpart. Subtle inclusions of detail, minutely-articulated characters and the endless opportunity for sub-plotting may create a vast sense of realism that can be frighteningly palpable for something supposedly artificial. Masterpieces like Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah use their gargantuan run times to contemplate massively complex subjects without plowing over the minutiae of the worlds in which they take place. Through vastly different experiences (and completely different styles), the films nonetheless leave viewers in a state of emotional shock, owing in large part to a total immersion in the subject. Upwards of ten hours, these films capture events — terrible, world-changing events — on a scale that makes comprehension of the heinous acts somehow attainable, albeit distantly. Conveying a sense of feeling that would otherwise be impossible with a shorter run time (and, as some would argue, with different directors), these films are emotional endurance tests, pushing audiences to the limits of empathetic response. Moving us beyond the point of tears to somewhere just past abject grief is something only a few films ever achieve, and yet the elaborate brilliance of these mammoth undertakings seem to push viewers even further.
Fantasy and adventure epics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Lord of The Rings trilogy make strong cases for the financial and critical potential of lengthy cinematic projects. Staggering creations of vision and purpose, T.E. Lawrence’s or Frodo Baggins’ journeys would be drastically undermined if shortened to suit an arbitrary attention span. Any of the streaming giants could take a sprawling story filled with action (perhaps one of THESE), and instead of making it a television series with diminishing artistic and critical returns (House of Cards), they could compose a singular piece of cinematic brilliance. The enduring significance of miniseries like Roots or Band of Brothers make an irrefutable case for expansive human stories that are told methodically and with the gravity they deserve.
As studios scramble to artificially recreate magic from previous monetary triumphs, and television lengthens hit series to squeeze out every last ratings point, subscriber-based networks (alongside directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abdellatif Kechiche, Lars von Trier and other visionaries) are positioned to be the epic’s last hope. In a culture so widely obsessed with immersion in our video games, online interactions and favorite shows, the need for wholly-enveloping cinema (beyond 3D/4D gimmickry) seems plainly evident. At its best, film allows viewers to see the world through another person’s eyes, and to live for a fleeting moment in somewhere unexpected and beautiful, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if the purity of that moment could last a just little bit longer?
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.