January 9, 2013

You couldn’t pay me to see Lincoln. It’s not the subject matter—I’m an avowed abolitionist. It’s not the casting—I like Daniel Day-Lewis nearly as much as I dislike slavery. It’s not that I can’t handle period pieces—in fact, I find that they offer the best chance one has of seeing a heaving bosom. It’s the running time, plain and simple. I believe firmly, as a matter of public policy, that a movie studio should require a special dispensation from the president to make a film longer than two hours. And Lincoln, no matter how cozy Spielberg may be with his title character’s ghost, does not deserve a presidential thumbs up.

I’m not the first to observe that this year’s Oscar crop is especially long, but it’s possible that I’m the most irritated by it. The Hobbit is 2:46 minutes. Les Mis is 2:30. Zero Dark Thirty is 2:40. When did the average length of a motion picture jump from 90 minutes to 150? When did Hollywood decide that I have an attention span?

This sounds like the insane ranting of a man who has grown old before his time. And, well, fair enough. But I’m right about this one. There is no better length for a movie than 90 minutes. I don’t mind a three hour play or a five hour opera—they have intermissions. But this is about more than my impatience. As any first year screenwriting student can tell you, film depends on its structure more than any non-limerick art form. People obsessed with horror movies, film noir and westerns love their niche not just for its atmosphere, but for the way the best of the genre conform to—and yet, exceed—classic film structure. Halloween is 91 minutes. The Naked City? 96. High Noon? 85.

A disciplined filmmaker doesn’t need any more time than this to make his point. Give a talented screenwriter and director more time than he needs, and the work will turn flabby, bloated—Peter Jackson-esque. I blame that hefty hack for Hollywood’s current fear of editing. With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he subjected theatergoers to eleven hours of hokum, before selling them extended versions on DVD. Since the best picture Oscar was handed over to Return of the King—at 200 minutes, the sveltest member of the trilogy—the directors of prestige pictures have been as self-disciplined as a stoned hotel guest at a breakfast buffet. The longer these films get, well, the longer they will get—on and on until I am forced to bring smelly, noisy picnic dinners to the movie theater. Nobody wants that.

I watched Dr. Strangelove the other night—a film packed with classic scenes, memorable characters, and some of the most quotable dialogue of all time. How long did Kubrick need to film a nuclear war? Try 95 minutes. Every good movie needs a ticking clock. Once upon a time, directors understood that a clock ticking in slow motion is less compelling than one that ticks fast.

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