Though the casual viewer is easily scared off by a tremendously ambitious film, the experience can be worthwhile. When a director goes long and pulls it off, a movie becomes an event.
There are few activities less macho than watching a movie. Anything you can do while still using both hands to eat is obviously not very strenuous. Perhaps that’s why films attract a certain mystique when they last much longer than the 90-minute norm, thereby providing a challenge to moviegoers unused to having their powers of endurance tested.
Cinephiles love to boast about the long movies they conquered, or at least sat all the way through without snoring too loudly. While a three-hour running time may seem overgenerous to many viewers—or at least those more loyal to Hollywood than Bollywood, India’s film industry having a very different concept of what its audience wants—it’s nothing to others. These are the folks who regard a viewing of Hitler: A Film From Germany (442 minutes), Satantango (450 minutes) or Evolution of a Filipino Family (643 minutes) as the cinematic equivalent of climbing K2.
At a mere 272 minutes, Mysteries of Lisbon (which starts a run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week) seems like a lightweight next to those behemoths. Still, the prospect of seeing a four-and-a-half-hour movie will be too daunting for even some regular Lightbox patrons. And that’s unfortunate, not only because the movie moves with a swiftness and elegance that belies its girth but also because we’re more accustomed to the pleasures and virtues of long movies than we may realize.
After all, many millions have happily immersed themselves in the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises without regarding their makers as overindulgent. What’s more, the abundance of provocative, intricately plotted television series in the dozen years since The Sopranos’ debut means that viewers have no qualms about devoting whole weekends to True Blood or Deadwood.
To be fair, Mysteries of Lisbon—an adaptation of a 19th-century Portuguese novel that was directed by Raul Ruiz, a Chilean auteur who died in Paris in August—was cut down from its six-hour incarnation on European TV. Indeed, its double life as a TV miniseries calls attention to the different expectations we have for our small- and big-screen epics. As television productions that were embraced as works of cinema, Ruiz’s film and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos were preceded by Best of Youth and Berlin Alexanderplatz, both of which became unlikely arthouse hits in past years despite their TV origins and respective lengths of 383 and 931 minutes.
Conversely, movies that may have appeared as single parts during their original release in North American theatres now exist on DVD as marathon-length entities. Consider the recent Blu-ray set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which collects Jackson’s extended cuts to create what is essentially an 11-and-a-half-hour movie. Though split into two parts for theatrical release (as will be the Twilight finale Breaking Dawn, whose first installment arrives Nov. 18), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may be a better-paced and more satisfying film when viewed as a complete four-and-a-half-hour work.
Exactly why anyone would want to spend the best part of a day (or a week) immersed in a viewing endeavour may be hard to explain to some people. (It’s even harder to explain to theatre owners, who push for shorter cuts of movies since they allow for more screenings and more tickets sold.) But those of us with a boundless appetite for stories appreciate the breadth and richness that become possible when a filmmaker goes long and does it well. This sort of courage is especially treasured at a time when movies are otherwise becoming smaller in scope, whether that means the screens on which they’re seen or their lack of ambition. Going long turns a movie back into an event.
The chance to share that event can also create a spirit of camaraderie. I remember feeling that when I was among the few dozen stalwarts who devoted a weekend in 2007 to the Toronto premiere of one of the most elusive of all long movies: Out 1, a 773-minute whopper made in 1971 by French director Jacques Rivette. However, I admit that I didn’t experience the same hardships as my fellow travellers, since I brought an extra pillow. As a lover of long movies, I’d already learned the hard way that the mind will not embrace what the ass cannot endure.